In an age marked by ‘dumbing down’ and ‘bigging up’, Sir Michael Dummett was a rare intellect
Between Christmas and New Year, Britain lost its greatest living philosopher. Sir Michael Dummett was 86 and he died at the home in Oxford which he had shared with his wife Ann for the last half century. His death was neither untimely, troubled, nor lonely; he had been ailing for some while and his family was gathered around him.
It was neither tragic nor traumatic, yet in contemplating his passing I am troubled by the thought that it marks a great loss to British philosophy and to our higher culture more generally. Dummett was an outstanding example of a type once familiar among teachers, academics, librarians, and writers, but which is increasingly rare: the highly educated, culturally rounded, morally serious, socially aware and publicly spirited intellectual.
The decline in prominence of such figures, even within their own professions, is due to several factors which suggest that it may mark an irreversible trend, but before explaining that, let me indicate just how exceptional Dummett was and why he led British philosophy for decades.
Dummett was the leading scholar at Winchester and won a history scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, but before proceeding to university he began military service. This would lead him into the Intelligence Corps, but it began in the Royal Artillery for which he was trained in Scotland. During this period he sought religious instruction from the Dominican Ivo Thomas, then chaplain to the Catholic Student Union at Edinburgh University. Thomas was himself a philosophically trained Catholic convert and Dummett followed him into the Church in 1944, much to the displeasure of his parents. The following year, Dummett was transferred to Military Intelligence and posted to Malaya, where he encountered the easy mixing of different ethnic groups but also the racism of the colonial administration.
Thus, even before his delayed arrival at Oxford at the age of 22, Dummett had acquired religious and political convictions rooted in experience and reflection. Thereafter he excelled in PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics), was elected a Prize Fellow of All Souls College, and began to develop his own highly distinctive, and initially seemingly eccentric philosophical theories about truth and reality. These involved the idea that truth must be knowable, at least in principle.
Arguing for this idea involved elaborate, often technical work in logic and mathematics, but it also led to a notion that he occasionally hinted at but left undeveloped. In 1996, however, having retired as Wykeham Professor of Logic from Oxford, he returned to Scotland to deliver the Gifford Lectures at St Andrews. Published a decade later as Thought and Reality, they argue that since the “world” or “reality” is ultimately what is knowable and known, it follows that there must be an ultimate Knower: God.
Dummett was immensely productive of logical, mathematical and philosophical writings that will continue to be studied a century hence, but from the mid-1960s he also devoted himself to the cause of social justice, particularly in relation to migrants and ethnic minorities. He would frequently drive to Heathrow, day or night, to plead on behalf of immigrants refused entry without examination of their case. This commitment led him to co-found the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants in 1967, and later to be invited to chair the National Council for Civil Liberties’ unofficial inquiry into the death in 1979 of Blair Peach, in an anti-racism protest. A death later acknowledged to be due to police violence.
From the early 1960s, Dummett had also begun to study the theory and practice of voting, exposing ways in which standard forms actually defeat democratic ends. His 1984 book Voting Procedures is widely regarded as a classic text, as are his several studies of the history and art of Tarot and other playing cards. Along the way, he also wrote expertly and passionately on the teaching of grammar, on the translation of Latin Catholic liturgies, and on the interpretation of the New Testament.
I said that Dummett was outstanding but also that he was an example of a type that was once familiar but has become rare, and may even be disappearing. This “type”, believe in knowledge and learning, in reading, writing and understanding; in excellence in art, in scholarship, and in science; in the importance of breadth and depth of achievement across more than one field of endeavour; in the value of experience under testing conditions; in holding oneself and others to high standards; in aiming for decency, integrity and justice in public life, and making a direct contribution to achieving these.
I have written of the “type”, but John Buchan who was another such – a brilliant scholar, gifted essayist, storyteller and biographer, colonial administrator, lawyer, MP, leading churchman, and Governor General of Canada – might have spoken, more imaginatively, now provocatively, of the “caste”. Today, such talk is liable to be rejected as “classist” and “elitist”, or “inegalitarian” and “undemocratic”, but that very rejection deserves to be challenged. It is evident that there is merit in excellence; obvious that relatively few have the aptitude and commitment to pursue it; and apparent that the current state of things is unsatisfactory.
Bankers, clergy, journalists, lawyers, politicians and teachers have all declined in public esteem – and other professional groups can hardly presume a higher reputation. Standards of attainment are in doubt, but triviality and mere celebrity are daily announced and applauded. In dealing with ideas or substantial facts, press and media generally work on the assumption of ignorance rather than knowledge.
Can one assume that the average person has read with attention or interest (or even read) any part of Austen or the Bible, or Dickens, or Conan Doyle, or Shakespeare? No. Can one assume, that the same person has seen an original art-work from Roman, Byzantine, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococco, Neo-classical, Romantic, Realist, or Impressionist periods? No. May one suppose that such a person can name the ten commandments, or a Jewish patriarch or prophet, or the members of the trinity, or the founders of the reformation, or the tenets of Islam? No. What about the central ideas of socialism, or the notion of the soul, or the tenets of Magna Carta or of the US Declaration of Independence? No.
If blame is to be assigned, most of it should be laid at the doors of the educators not of the uneducated. “Dumbing down” is certainly part of the problem, but so is “Bigging up” by which I mean making a lot of not very much. Michael Dummett was an outstanding intellectual. The response of fellow academics to such figures should be admiration, emulation where possible, and modesty where required – as it is for almost all of us.
Instead, however, we plough ever narrower, and often shallower, furrows. Elitism is not a bad thing, so long as it is conjoined with excellence. But excellence is an attribute of the few, and in contemplation of the genius of Michael Dummett, I would be ashamed to claim it for my own philosophical efforts. Academics no less than other professional groups might recall the wise words of one of Dummett’s Oxford near-contemporaries, Denis Healey: “The first law on holes - when you’re in one, stop digging!” We, too, need to step out of our shallow pits and make some real contribution to the society that sustains us.
• John Haldane is professor of philosophy at the University of St Andrews and chairman of the Royal Institute of Philosophy