[lit-ideas] Stuart Hampshire 1914-2004

  • From: Robert.Paul@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx (Robert Paul)
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: 15 Jun 2004 10:21:12 PDT

Professor Sir Stuart Hampshire
(Filed: 15/06/2004) 

Sir Stuart Hampshire, the philosopher who died on Sunday aged 89, was one of the
anti-rationalist Oxford thinkers, others being Isaiah Berlin and Bernard
Williams, who gave a new direction to moral and political thought in the
post-war era.

Inspired by his study of the philosophy of Spinoza, Hampshire developed a
description of the conditions necessary for human action, suggesting that human
freedom can best be understood by examining the distinction between the
declaration of what one intends to do and a prediction of what one is likely to
do given one's genetic and social conditioning.

In his Ethics, Spinoza had argued that the individual could not be considered
"free" if he was motivated only by causes of which he remained unaware. Genuine
freedom, Spinoza suggested, comes only when we learn self-consciously to
recognise the influence of our baser passions over our natures. Only then can we
strive for the peace of mind that comes through an impartial attachment to

Developing Spinoza's ideas, Hampshire argued that concepts in moral philosophy
could not be separated logically from human capacity for self-conscious
introspective thought. Although he accepted the behaviourist position that a
person's inclinations are the result of experiences in early childhood, and are
thus partly historically and genetically conditioned, he argued that a degree of
control over those inclinations - and therefore freedom of action - could be
obtained through an understanding of that conditioning. Any theory of ethics, he
argued, must take account of the possibility of a self-conscious decision not to
follow the course ordained. Such ideas, implicitly rejecting Marxist
determinism, might have seemed odd coming from someone who described himself as
a socialist; and while he borrowed some of Spinoza's psychological insight, he
implicitly rejected his faith in the power of reason.

Hampshire had a horror of the moral certainties of Left and Right from his time
in British intelligence during the Second World War. He valued freedom over
equality and rejected the classical philosophical tradition that set up reason
as an absolute arbiter of disputes. Nor did he believe that liberal or socialist
values had any special moral or historical significance, regarding all claims to
moral universality as bogus.

His distrust of those who believe that they alone have a monopoly on truth led
him to examine, in his later years, how justice could be done and seen to be
done in a pluralist society. In Justice is Conflict (1999), Hampshire
acknowledged that it is inevitable that people should hold irreconcilable views
- on, say, the morality of warfare or abortion or even whether a motorway should
be built through a beautiful valley. The popular idea that politicians should
aim to find consensus on such issues, he suggested, was not only misguided but
wrong. Conflict presumes the right to question authority and is a fundamental
safeguard against tyranny.

Instead of consensus, Hampshire argued, a free society should aim to perfect the
intermediate institutions that arbitrate between contending parties so that all
sides feel, whatever the eventual outcome, that they have been given a fair

Stuart Newton Hampshire was born on October 1 1914 and was educated at Repton
and at Balliol College, Oxford, from which he graduated with a First in Greats
in 1936. Elected to a fellowship at All Soul's the same year, he became a
lecturer in Philosophy at Oxford before serving in Army Intelligence during the
Second World War.

In late 1942, working in the Radio Security Service which monitored the radio
links of Nazi spies, Hampshire was said to be one of the authors of a study
suggesting a growing rift between the German General Staff and the Nazi regime.
Its central premise was that the war in Europe could be ended if the British
government gave the German General Staff an incentive to launch a coup.

The report, endorsed by all the junior officials who read it, including Hugh
Trevor-Roper (the historian Lord Dacre), was submitted for security clearance to
Section-5 Deputy Chief Kim Philby who forbade its circulation, insisting that it
was "mere speculation". Trevor-Roper later recalled that he and his colleagues
were baffled by Philby's intransigence, though in retrospect he surmised that it
was not in the Russian interest for the Western Allies to support the German
opposition to Hitler while the Red Army was still too far away to gain a

Given his role in this affair, it was somewhat ironic that, during the 1980s,
Hampshire himself, who had experience of both MI 5 and MI 6, was revealed to
have been investigated as a possible Soviet agent, having been interviewed in
1965. He had been a friend of Guy Burgess, with whom he had worked in the
private office of Hector McNeil when McNeil was under-secretary at the Foreign
Office in 1945, and in the early 1960s was named as an alleged spy by Goronwy
Rees, a member of the Blunt-Burgess circle and himself under suspicion.
Embarrassingly for MI 5, when Rees made his allegation, Hampshire was busy
conducting an in-depth review of the GCHQ eavesdropping network at Cheltenham.
Although, in the end, he was cleared of all suspicion, there was embarrassment
when it later emerged that MI 5 had allowed him to complete his work at GCHQ
with a question mark still hanging over him.

Hampshire later recalled that in 1938 Burgess had made what seemed, with
hindsight, to be a half-hearted attempt to recruit him: "He might have said
something about working for peace," Hampshire said. "I thought it was just Guy
going on. It was only in retrospect that I thought it might have been something
more sinister."

Certainly Hampshire never showed any sympathy for Soviet Communism. In 1980 he
became the founder chairman of the Jan Hus Educational Trust, a charitable
foundation named after the Czech hero and martyr who in 1415 founded a movement
within the Roman Catholic Church against its corruption and tyranny. Set up to
"help the flow of information and the development of culture in Czechoslovakia",
the trust did much to keep the spirit of independent thought alive in that
country before the fall of Communism. After the war, Hampshire returned to his
studies as a tutor and lecturer in philosophy at Oxford, where he spent five
years as domestic bursar and research fellow at All Souls, and at University
College, London, where he became Grote Professor in 1959, succeeding A J Ayer.

In 1963 he went to Princeton University and in 1964 became chairman of the
philosophy department. In 1970 he was elected Warden of Wadham College, Oxford,
succeeding Sir Maurice Bowra, and from 1984 to 1990 was professor of philosophy
at Stanford University.

In 1951, Hampshire published his detailed study of Spinoza, whose influence is
apparent in his subsequent philosophical works Thought and Action (1959);
Freedom of the Individual (1965); and Freedom of Mind and Other Essays (1971).

His growing interest in the distinction between the public and private realms is
seen in Public and Private Morality, which he edited in 1978, and in which
philosophers discussed the question, posed most strikingly by Machiavelli, of
how far the same principles can be applied to public and private morality.

He returned to the theme in Morality and Conflict (1983); Innocence and
Experience (1989), in which he examined the possibility of a universal ethics
based on a minimal conception of justice; and Justice is Conflict (1999).

Stuart Hampshire was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1960 and
knighted in 1979.

He married, first in 1961, Renee Ayer, the former wife of the philosopher A J
Ayer. She died in 1980, and he married secondly, in 1985, Nancy Cartwright,
Professor of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the LSE, with whom he
had two daughters.
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