[lit-ideas] Stuart Hampshire

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  • Date: Tue, 29 Jun 2004 14:04:10 EDT

From the London Times:
Sir Stuart Hampshire
Oxford philosopher whose interest in  psychology,
aesthetics and literature made for a rich brand  of

The philosopher Stuart Hampshire did not generate
a coherent doctrine  so much as formulate
disturbing questions and indicate the wide,
sometimes  unlimited, range of considerations that
arose from them. He was not one of  the dominant
philosophers of his age, and was often found
lacking in  incisiveness, rigour and clarity, but
he moved in a wider intellectual world  and was
aware of implications of systems of thought which
more dogmatic  thinkers of greater power tended to
He was fascinated by  metaphysical questions but
rejected tidy answers such as utilitarianism  or
positivism. Instead, his thinking was tentative,
literary. He valued "a  certain kind of confusion",
taking into account the tragedy, individualism  and
responsibilities of life. For much of his career
he put great faith in  socialism, as did most of
the elite coterie in which he spun, yet he  was
never a doctrinaire Marxist. In essence he was a
late-Enlightenment  humanist, whose belief in the
importance of a way of life established  over
generations could have come directly from Edmund

Perhaps he understood too much to have the
ruthlessness required for  parricide that marks
great pioneers in thought. Yet he was one of the
most  charming, gifted and civilised Englishmen of
his time, a natural member of  the intelligentsia,
and a central figure in the humanisation of
empiricism  which gave "Oxford philosophy" its
special quality.

He was a fresh, subtle, imaginative and
psychologically sensitive  thinker, and his best
work ranged from ethics and aesthetics to
psychology  and the philosophy of mind. His
articles on philosophical topics in  professional
journals were notable for a rich suggestiveness
which at  times stimulated readers more than better
formulated arguments by others. And  Hampshire,
with his many literary and artistic friends - from
W. H. Auden  to Anthony Blunt - had much the wider

The least parochial and insular of essayists, he
also wrote a good  deal on literature and other
topics for The Times Literary  Supplement
(anonymously at first) and elsewhere. He was an
excellent  critic - his review of Dr Zhivago, for
instance, was praised by Pasternak as  the best
account of his book in English - and his literary
articles in The  Listener, The Observer , the New
Statesman and The New York Review of Books  were
much admired, most notably those on Henry James,
Joyce, Wittgenstein,  Forster and Virginia Woolf.

He was also a contributor to Encounter, and after
the disclosure in  1967 that it had received funds
indirectly from the CIA, he was one of a  group of
friends, including Isaiah Berlin and Richard
Wollheim, who  discussed establishing a similar
monthly magazine. Although nothing came of  those
plans, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia
in 1968,  Hampshire joined another group -
including Stephen Spender, David Astor and  Lord
Gardiner - to form the trust which published Index
on Censorship.

Stuart Newton Hampshire was born in 1914 and
educated at Repton  School, where Geoffrey Fisher,
later Archbishop of Canterbury, was  headmaster.
Fisher began every morning, Hampshire recalled,
not in prayer  but studying his stocks and shares.

At school Hampshire was trained as a modern
historian, and in  particular the two books by
Namier on 18th-century politics in England made  a
profound and lifelong impression on him. He won a
history scholarship at  Balliol in 1933, but there
abandoned history for Greats, in which he  obtained
an outstandingly good first in 1936.

His mental gifts, personal distinction and
striking good looks marked  him out from the
beginning; he was one of the most admired  Oxford
undergraduates of the day, at once a leading
intellectual, and a  man of exceptional charm,
natural goodness, and a degree of moral  integrity
that gave him a good deal of natural authority
among his  contemporaries.

During his undergraduate years he displayed both
originality and  sensibility as a student of the
arts, particularly painting and literature,  which
influenced his thought in later life. His
intellectual development  probably owed less to his
tutors or to established academic figures than  to
highly gifted contemporaries, mainly at Balliol,
and contact with two  or three dons a few years
older than himself, such as A. J. Ayer and J.  L.
Austin. Introduced to Isaiah Berlin in 1935 to
talk about Kafka, he  continued the conversation -
as he recalled in his eulogy in 1998 - for  62

In 1936 Hampshire won a scholarship at All Souls
and decided on a  career of teaching and research
in philosophy. He began as a logical  positivist
and disciple of Ayer, but after a year or two he
began to move  in a different direction. While he
remained a convinced naturalist, and was  never
touched by religious or transcendental thought, he
became  dissatisfied with what appeared to him to
be the over-mechanical concepts and  formulae of
the British disciples of the then dominant Vienna
school - in  particular with the atomism of Russell
and his followers, who appeared to him  guilty of a
radical misunderstanding of the function of
philosophy. Part  of the duty of moral philosophy,
he came to believe, was to guide  practice.

His first philosophical essay appeared in 1939,
and gave evidence of  unusual insight. His writing
was not as precise or rigorous as that of  his
models, but at times it was a great deal more
suggestive and  responsive to a wide range of human
activity, especially art, literature  and

The outbreak of war found him at All Souls; he was
a passionate  socialist and a patriot, touched
neither by pacifism nor by scepticism about  the
justice of his country's cause. After training in
England he was given  a commission and sent to
Sierra Leone; later he was seconded to one of  the
intelligence units near London, working with
Oxford colleagues such as  Gilbert Ryle, Hugh
Trevor-Roper, and Charles Stuart.

In 1945-46 he worked in the Foreign Office and
then in the Ministry of  Food, before being
re-elected to his fellowship at All Souls. Within
a  year he was appointed a lecturer at University
College London, and in 1950 he  succeeded Berlin as
philosophy tutor at New College. It was while
there,  in 1951, that he published his study of
Spinoza, which remains one of the  most sympathetic
and illuminating philosophical studies in modern
times of  a classical thinker.

In 1955 Hampshire returned to All Souls as a
research fellow and  domestic bursar, an office he
discharged with unexpected efficiency.  Meanwhile
he was working on what was to be his most
important and  innovative book, Thought and Action
(1959), an extended essay on the  philosophy of
mind. At the heart of its argument lies an
"intentionalist"  theory about the shape and
content of human experience and expression.

Attempting to profit from the in-sights of Hegel
and Freud as well as  those of Wittgenstein, the
philosophers of intentionality and the  linguistic
analysts, it showed Hampshire's growing interest
in  psychoanalytic thought as well as his aesthetic
preoccupations. This was  widely recognised as an
innovative work, and although elusive in  places,
and often disdainful of logical links, it had a
wide influence on  both sides of the Atlantic.

Hampshire succeeded Ayer in 1960 at London
University as Grote  Professor of Philosophy, but
three years later he moved to Princeton,  soon
becoming known and respected among American
philosophers. He  remained, though, a thoroughly
established member of Britain's great and  good,
and in 1965-66 he spent several months reviewing
the  cost-effectiveness of GCHQ.

In 1970 he returned to Oxford as Warden of Wadham,
in succession to  his friend Sir Maurice Bowra.
Wadham had appointed college men to the post  since
the 17th century, and the election of an outsider
was strongly  contested but thoroughly beneficial.
A phalanx of college officers resigned  in
protest - enabling a spring clean as younger dons
took over with  Hampshire.

His experience of student unrest in the US was
useful as it spread to  Oxford, and Hampshire, who
was sensible and reliable as well as  clear
thinking, was soon being turned to for advice by
formerly rebellious  students and dons alike. He
was a strong advocate of the admission of  women,
not only at his own college but throughout the
university. Wadham  became mixed in 1974, one of
the first group to make the change.

Despite the demands of Oxford administration -
"half dining club and  half borough council", as he
once described it to John Sparrow - Hampshire  was
as busy as ever intellectually and socially. He
spent Christmas 1974,  for instance, with the
Annans, the Berlins and the Spenders in  Jerusalem,
and published and edited several books during his
time as  Warden. On retirement from Wadham in 1984
(when Sir Claus Moser took over),  he accepted a
chair at Stanford in California.

In 1989 he published Innocence and Experience, a
work on political  morality based to some extent on
personal experience - the nearest to  autobiography
that he ever came. His last book, Justice is
Conflict,  appeared in 1999.

Hampshire was elected to the British Academy in
1960, and was honoured  by several American learned
societies. For some years he was head of  the
literary panel of the Arts Council. He was
knighted in 1979.

Hampshire's first wife, Renée (who had previously
been married to A.  J. Ayer), died in 1980. Five
years later he married Nancy Cartwright,  a
distinguished philosopher of science. She survives
him, along with their  two daughters and the son
and daughter of his first marriage.

Professor Sir Stuart Hampshire, philosopher and
Warden of Wadham  College, Oxford, 1970-84, was
born on October 1, 1914. He died on June 13,  2004,
aged 89.

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