Hannah Askari took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015. In this post she writes about ‘Individualism’ as a philosophical keyword.

Image from

Image from

Individualism (a)

‘The habit of being independent and self-reliant; behaviour characterized by the pursuit of one’s own goals without reference to others; free and independent individual action or thought.’[1]

I began my research with a simple Google of ‘individualism.’ It resulted, interestingly, with the discovery of a website titled Individualism. After a few more searches I found that this website has wholeheartedly embraced social media and also has a Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and a Facebook page. The website describes itself, rather paradoxically, as ‘a collective dedicated to celebrating men’s style.’ It’s a place where you (and the rest of the internet world) can find tips and tricks on how to express your individuality aesthetically. For myself, this online faction exemplifies what ‘individualism’ means today in the twenty-first century.

To be ‘individual’ can today often compliment a person with a unique fashion sense or eccentricity; something the website is adhering to. However, ‘individualism’ is still also a word with a range of connotations. It is a political philosophy that puts the individual’s moral worth at its centre. Left-wing commentator, columnist and author Owen Jones complains about the promotion of ‘dog-eat-dog individualism’[2] of contemporary Tories as a replacement for strong working-class values such as community and solidarity. In this sense, to be ‘individual’ is often associated with selfishness, egotism and greed; adjectives that most would agree is not particularly desirable.

Nonetheless, the political and aesthetic ideal of ‘individualism’ actually has a much longer history.

Oscar Wilde, is arguably one of the primary figures when thinking about aesthetic individualism. His flamboyant philosophy justified his colourful persona; which is articulated through fictional characters in his literature and essays. Wilde believed in the value that ‘aesthetics are higher than ethics’[3]; he believed the superior aim in life was to be able to ‘discern the beauty of a thing.’[4] His philosophy was an attack on the old-fashioned Victorian values of altruism. He, and other anti-altruists ‘wanted to create a new moral language and a new kind of ethics’[5]; one which focused on art and the individual. Although Wilde’s philosophy of aestheticism was not totally new or original, it did allow a real distancing from Victorian tradition. Wilde’s provocative interpretations are exemplified in De Profundis in which he writes of Christ that:

People have tried to make him out an ordinary philanthropist, or ranked him as an altruist with the unscientific and sentimental. But he was really neither one nor the other[6]

Ultimately, Wilde puts forward Christ as ‘the most supreme of individualists’[7] and proposes that one should be helpful and charitable to others, not for their benefit but for one’s own self-fulfilment.

Oscar Wilde flamboyancy in picture form. Image from

Oscar Wilde: flamboyancy in picture form. Image from

Degeneration theorist, Max Nordau, said that Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic individualism was only ‘a purely anti-socialistic, ego-maniacal recklessness and hysterical longing to make a sensation.’[8] Understandably for the conventional Victorian, Wilde was the incarnation of the signs of a troubling modern culture in the 1890s.

In the 1890s, English philosopher G.E. Moore was inspired by Oscar Wilde, and began to compare the importance of altruism and egoism as ethical moralities. He was asking himself questions such as ‘are we selfish?’ and ‘do we love ourselves best?’[9] His 1903 publication Principia Ethica, settles that:

Egoism is undoubtedly superior to altruism as a doctrine of means; in the immense majority of cases the best thing we can do is to aim at securing some good in which we are concerned, since for that very reason we are more likely to secure it.[10]

Principia Ethica is an innovative philosophical enquiry into what it is that constitutes ‘good’. For the forward thinking Bloomsbury Group it became a sort of Bible and laid the philosophical groundwork of their aesthetic principles. For both Moore and those of the Bloomsbury Group, the ethical ‘good’ was embodied by the importance of individual relationships and personal life. Moore furthered Wilde’s belief that detection of beauty ‘is the finest point to which we can arrive,’[11] defining beautiful as ‘that of which the admiring contemplation is good in itself.’[12] For G.E. Moore, it was in the goodness of art and beauty in which one found moral meanings, not in philanthropy and thinking of others.

Individualism (b)

‘The principle or theory that individuals should be allowed to act freely and independently in economic and social matters without collective or state interference.’[13]

Anarchist-feminist Dora Marsden worked for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU ) but became motivated to express her individualism. She was known for her involvement in serious political demonstrations; which eventually led to a formal break from the WSPU. She established her own magazine near the end of 1911: The Freewoman: A Weekly Feminist Review. She wished to advocate a feminism which dealt with more than just suffrage; a ‘third-wave way before her time.

Dora Marsden being arrested for her suffragette activism in Manchester 1909. Image from Greater Manchester Police Museum

Dora Marsden being arrested for her suffragette activism in Manchester 1909. Image from Greater Manchester Police Museum

It was Max Stirner’s The Ego and his Own, which offered a philosophy dedicated to individualism that influenced Marsden even further. Stirner argues self-mastery is only able to exist when the individual is free from all obligations, only then than the individual be sure that they are never used by others for their ends but only by the individual for the individual’s own ends. Stirner believed that a platform concerned with the welfare of groups would ruin those exceptional individuals.

It was this concept of the individual (and the lack of funding) for The Freewoman, which drove Dora Marsden to create The New Freewoman: An Individualist Review; It followed that:

The New Freewoman is not for the advancement of Woman, but for the empowering of individuals—men and women; it is not to set women free, but to demonstrate the fact that “freeing” is the individual’s affair and must be done first-hand[14]

The New Freewoman was a short-lived publication and by January 1914 it had morphed into The Egoist: An Individualist Review. The Egoist became one of the primary magazines of modernism, and was home to a number of influential literary artists, such as Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot. Moreover, James Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was printed as a serial in The Egoist.

Marsden’s transformation to Stirnian individualism can actually be seen as a natural development. It all began as a protest against the Pankhursts’ methods and rejected the idea that the women’s movement was dependent on the sacrifice of individualism. Her magazines are a satisfying evidence for her changing and evolving perspective; firstly as a supporter of democratic suffrage and then an advocate of anarchistic individualism.

The transformation of the journal under Marsden's editorship. Image from

The transformation of the journal under Marsden’s editorship. Image from

Nevertheless it was not Dora Marsden who Russell Brand called the ‘icon of individualism.’[15] That instead is Margaret Thatcher, of course! Thatcher is often criticised for having ‘implanted the gene of greed in the British soul’[16], epitomised by the onslaught of the ‘yuppie’ culture. Aspiration became the thirst for a bigger ‘thing’ like a car, or house.

Following Thatcher’s death in 2013 there was a surge of discussion around her infamous quote:

There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.[17]

Thatcher, like many before her, saw individualism as an important aspect of life. Unfortunately her premiership has, and still does, create fierce debate. When David Cameron won the Conservative Party leadership in 2005 he stated that ‘there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.’[18] He wanted to distance himself from the controversy which surrounds Thatcher who is still associated with a selfish and uncaring individualism.

Oscar Wilde once said that individualism ‘seeks to disturb the monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.’[19] We are closer today than ever before to turning man into a machine and individualism is under threat. How interesting would it be to ‘do’ an Oscar Wilde, a Dora Marsden, even a Margaret Thatcher, let the individual loose and disturb … absolutely everything?

Further reading:

Dixon, T The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain, (Oxford: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2008)

Clarke, B. Dora Marsden And Early Modernism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).

Wilde, O. et al., The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Brown, S. L. The Politics Of Individualism (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1993).

Meiksins Wood, E. Mind and Politics: An Approach to the Meaning of Liberal and Socialist Individualism. (University of California Press, 1972)


Clarke, B. Dora Marsden And Early Modernism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).

Dixon, T. The Invention Of Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Jones, O. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, (London: Verso, 2011)

Wilde, O. et al, The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)


BBC News

The Guardian

Margaret Thatcher Foundation

Oxford English Dictionary

Modernist Journals Project

The Spectator

The Spectator Archive, 1828-2008


[1] [1], ‘Individualism, N. : Oxford English Dictionary’, 2015,

[2] Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, (London: Verso, 2011) p. 71.

[3] Oscar Wilde et al, The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Vol. 4 p. 204. All sentiments are put forward by Gilbert in ‘The Critic as Artist’ first published in Intentions (1891)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomas Dixon, The Invention Of Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2008). p. 322

[6] Oscar Wilde et al. (2000) vol. 2, p. 176.

[7] Wilde et al. p. 176

[8] Max Nordau, Degeneration, (University of Nebraska Press 1993) p. 319. In Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, p. 333.

[9] Apostles papers given by Moore on 26 Feb. 1898 and 4 Feb. 1899. In Dixon 2008, p. 354

[10] G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, (Cambridge University Press, 1993) p. 216 in Ibid.

[11] Oscar Wilde et al. (2000) p. 204.

[12] G. E. Moore (1993) p. 249

[13], ‘Individualism, N.: Oxford English Dictionary’, 2015,

[14] ‘Views and Comments’, The New Freewoman: An Individualist Review, (July 1st 1913), vol.1 no. 2., p. 25

[15] Russell Brand, ‘Russell Brand On Margaret Thatcher’, The Guardian, 2013,

[16] Simon Kelner, ‘Mrs Thatcher implanted the gene of greed in Britain’, The Independent, 2013,

[17] Interview for Woman’s Own, 1987. [last accesses 06/03/2015]

[18] David Cameron, ‘BBC NEWS | UK | UK Politics | In Full: Cameron Victory Speech’, News.Bbc.Co.Uk, 2005,

[19] Oscar Wilde et al., p. 260


Sebastian Packham took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015. In this post he writes about ‘Nihilism’ as a philosophical keyword.

The dressOn February 27th, 2015, there began a worldwide debate about the colour of a dress. A picture of the dress in question had appeared on social networking sites the previous day, and divided opinion as to whether it was black and blue, or white and gold. ‘Dressgate’, as the phenomenon was dubbed, evoked distinct reactions from demographics across the globe, including among the more extreme, existential crises stemming from the apparent subjective nature of reality that the picture seemed to illustrate. If we cannot know for certain something as simple as the colour of a dress, then what can we really know about anything at all? Let alone abstract concepts such as morality, religion or the purpose of life. Of course, it would be foolish to assume that such philosophical sentiment was born from a viral picture in the same year that the once mythical hoverboard is set to become a reality, rather its roots date back over two millennia, and in the late eighteenth century formed the basis for the philosophical doctrine that would come to be termed nihilism.

From the Latin nihil, meaning nothing or ‘that which does not exist’, nihilism is the belief that all knowledge is baseless, and as such focuses on the rejection of values and constructs, including morality, religion and the inherent value of systems of government. A true nihilist would, according to Alan Pratt of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.’[1] It may come as no surprise then, that nihilism has presented a profound philosophical problem, acting as the source of plentiful debate since its inception, and that the concept is often associated with deep pessimism, used pejoratively and with negative connotations.

The thinking that underpins nihilist philosophy can be traced back to the skeptics of ancient Greece, the subjectivity with which they imbue the idea of knowledge being summed up by Demosthenes, who held that ‘what he wished to believe, that is what each man believes’.[2] Such thinking was labeled as nihilism at the end of the eighteenth century, and the word’s invention is often credited to either Jacob Obereit, F. Jenisch or Friedrich Schlegel.[3] Becoming popularized through the period’s literature, perhaps most significantly the novel Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev – one of its protagonists being a staunch nihilist, the ideology began to capture the minds of contemporaries, becoming a significant influence on the work and thought of European philosophers, writers, artists and intellectuals.

Nihilism’s focus on the rejection of the various constructs that were conducive to human culture at the time, was attractive to the European revolutionary movements that advocated rearrangement of social structures and the dismantling of existing forms of government. Such movements found a particularly strong voice in Russia as a response to the heavy handed ruling of Tsar Alexander II.[4] The nihilist ideology of the Russian revolutionary anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, is evident in his article for the Deutsche Jahrbücher in 1842, in which he wrote ‘Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life –the urge to destroy is also a creative urge’.[5]

Mikhail Bakunin: Russian revolutionary anarchist embodying nihilistic values

Mikhail Bakunin: Russian revolutionary anarchist embodying nihilistic values

As Isaiah Berlin observed, Bakunin is advocating a ‘positive nihilism’, out of which ‘there will arise naturally and spontaneously… a natural, harmonious, just order’.[6] Among supporters of the state, or upholders of the religious authority which the revolutionaries rejected, however, the understanding of nihilism was that it was a philosophy concerned purely with mindless destruction. As such, the state began to actively oppress the activity of nihilist revolutionaries,[7] and nihilism became a blanket term, carrying connotations of subversion and chaos, for anybody involved in underground political or terrorist activity.[8]  Here we can observe two distinct understandings of nihilism developing – nihilism as a radical philosophy with  revolutionary potential, and nihilism as a destructive philosophy geared towards reversing progress. Both perspectives were tackled by Friedrich Nietsche, who in his work Will to Power, described nihilism as ‘a catastrophe…that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong’.[9] Upon such a spread of nihilism, however, he remarked ‘whether [man] becomes a master of this crisis, is a question of his strength. It is possible…’[10] For Nietsche then, nihilism could pave the way either to chaos or to a new moral order, and it is uncertainty as to which path nihilism leads that keeps the topic so divisive and widely debated.

The same way that Russian nihilism had been a reaction to various social ills in the nineteenth century, expressions of nihilism across Britain throughout the last century can also, arguably, be correlated with periods of significant adversity or discontent. The wave of riots that swept the UK in 2011, which saw moral nihilism enacted through mass looting, arson, violence and clashes with police, are often attributed to a plethora of social ills including racism, classism and a feeling of hopelessness as a result of economic downturn and an ever growing divide between the rich and the poor.[11]

A shop front and flats burn after being set alight by rioters in Tottenham, London in 2011

A shop front and flats burn after being set alight by rioters in Tottenham, London in 2011

Let down by society, it is argued, the rioters turned to rejection of moral authority and instead turned to violence and destruction to establish their position. Similarly, it can be argued that the anti-austerity protests the previous year were triggered by those involved, feeling betrayed, rejecting the authority of government and instead seeking to impose their will through violence –[12], effectively adopting Bakunin’s model of revolutionary nihilism.

Rejection of authority: Protesters vandalise a police van at anti-austerity protests in 2010

Rejection of authority: Protesters vandalise a police van at anti-austerity protests in 2010

Similar preconditions, along with the very real prospect of nuclear war have been put forward as causes for the wave of nihilism that swept the UK in the form of the punk subculture. The hedonism, crass behavior and drug abuse of those such as John ‘Sid Vicious’ Beverly of the Sex Pistols[13] acted as a means of rejecting moral authority and implementing a new way of living. Beverly popularized the phrase ‘no future’ (the original title for the single God Save the Queen)[14] during this period, which articulates the nihilistic tendencies of those involved with the subculture.

John ‘Sid Vicious’ Beverly enjoying the hedonism through which nihilism was expressed

John ‘Sid Vicious’ Beverly enjoying the hedonism through which nihilism was expressed

Such theories as to why nihilism has been expressed the way it has across Britain in the last century are not universal however, and with each of the aforementioned movements or incidences there has been a school of thought that places them in the broader context of moral decline. The liberalization of society, such as the prohibition of corporal punishment, it is argued, has restricted the means with which people can be disciplined, leading to a lack of respect for authority. The moral decline argument is often coupled with decline in religious belief, owing largely to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Such an argument perhaps holds most weight with the moral nihilism advocated by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, in which he writes ‘do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward…?’[15] Here, Dawkins is rejecting the notion of absolute morality, and in doing so imbues morality with a new sense of meaning: if there are no moral absolutes and a subject is free to act abhorrently, the choice to act in a way they believe to be good means more than simple obedience to absolute authority.

The varying ways that nihilism has been understood and expressed can act as a means through which we can read the past and to understand the collective minds of the cultures that occupied it. An extreme philosophy, nihilism often picks up a pace in extreme times. Whether you believe it is a reaction to, or a precursor of discontent and social ills, its existence nevertheless demonstrates the extremity of emotion felt at the times it is rife. What relevance though, does the concept of nihilism hold in the present day? Can a philosophy centered around rejection really bring anything to human culture? Does nihilism represent a crisis for humanity, or can we use it as a way to remove absolutes and create our own meaning or ways of living? Is the inception and propagation of nihilism indicative of a desire for progress, or does it highlight moral decline in society? As a nihilist, I’d tell you there’s no way we can really know, but what we can be sure of is that a brief discussion of the concept’s history can help to prepare us for the next time an inanimate objects shakes the foundations of our reality.

Further Reading

Shane Weller, Modernism and Nihilism, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

Karl Löwith, Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism, (New York: Columbia University press, 1995)

Ofelia Schutte, Beyond Nihilism: Nietzsche Without Masks, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)

Keith Ansell-Pearson, An Introduction to Nietzsche as a Political Thinker: The Perfect Nihilist, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, (New York: Vintage Books, 1968)

Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State, (New York: Dover, 1970)

Peter C Pozefsky, The Nihilist Imagination: Dmitrii Pisarev and the cultural origins of Russian Radicalism (1860-1868), (New York: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2003)


Books and Articles

Karen Leslie Carr, The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth Century Responses to Meaninglessness, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992).

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (London: Bantam Press, 2006).

Michael Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzche, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Ronald Hingley, Nihilists: Russian Radicals and Revolutionaries in the Reign of Alexander II, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969).

Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists Library Editions: Political Science, Volume 60, (London: Routledge, 2009).

Databases and E-Resources

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011




[3] Karen Leslie Carr, The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth Century Responses to Meaninglessness, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), p.13.

[4] Ronald Hingley, Nihilists: Russian Radicals and Revolutionaries in the Reign of Alexander II, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969), p.15.

[5] Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists Library Editions: Political Science, Volume 60, (London: Routledge, 2009), p.289.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Michael Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzche, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p.163.


[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] [Accessed 28/2/2015].

[12],8599,2036392,00.html [Accessed 28/2/2015].

[13] Michael T. Thornhill, ‘Vicious, Sid (1957–1979)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 [, [accessed 1/3/2015].

[14] Ibid.

[15] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p.259.


In this post, Nicola Isaacs, who took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015, writes about ‘Idealism’ as a philosophical keyword.

There is no term so vague as Idealism. No satisfactory definition of the word has ever been made; because since Plato and Aristotle wrote, hundreds of writers on Metaphysics and Philosophy have handled the subject of Idealism in Life and Art and so enmeshed and obscured the matter, that it is of no practical use for the layman to wade through the oceans of speculative and transcendental writing on the subject.[1]

These are the words of Frederick Wellington Ruckstuhl from an article dating back to January 1917. We can infer that Idealism has always been exceedingly difficult to describe, thus, many academic texts on this topic have always confronted the study with a pessimistic attitude. I fear that any attempts to discern a definition, unavoidably begins on a negative footing.

In the above quotation Ruckstuhl alludes to Idealism’s philosophical roots in Platonic thought. It is frequently referred to in this domain as ‘an eternally existing pattern of which individual things in any class are imperfect copies.’[2] It is here which marks the beginning of a turbulent chronology in philosophical thought however its etymological base ‘idein’ literally translates as ‘to see’ – whilst this definition is somewhat useful provides a comprehensive view of what idealism is; it simultaneously encompasses a wide scope of sub-contexts and divisions which cannot be defined so simply.

Idealism has innumerable connotations and departs into many different avenues. Searches offer a broad spectrum of results amongst which include more of the popular idealisms, such as transcendental, pragmatic, Kant and Collingwood; but also listed are less familiar concepts, like crazy Idealism, Buddhist practices such as Yogācāra Idealism, or one article by journalist Alan W. Down, examining Muscular Idealism – the notion of promoting peace in Middle East by using military power – not a vigorous fitness regime. From this selection of search results, it is clear that defining the term by any means of precision proves to be problematic, however in spite of this some commendable attempts have been made. In an article written in 1933, Edgar Sheffield Brightman alludes to this predicament, writing:

Whatever be the reasons for hostility to the definition and use of terms descriptive of philosophical systems, it has had undesirable consequences. It has tended to aid and abet the fiction that we have reached a point where there are no fundamental differences among systems or “schools” of philosophy. It has encouraged each philosopher to entertain the delusion that the implicit (nameless) system which he holds is the only truth, or (worse still) is so original and so genuinely unique that it cannot be related by any conceptual definition to any other system. (That way lies madness.) It has fostered the disintegrating belief that no system is worthy of attention and that philosophy consists solely of specialized problems.[3]

This quote of Brightman’s summarises the ambiguities of Idealism well. There is a plethora of persuasive arguments from different individuals within different schools convincing us that their concept of the term is correct. However one of the most notable is German Idealism.

In a general sense, Immanuel Kant is recognised as the personification of German idealism. Nonetheless, there are factions within this school, Kant is principally associated with the branch of Transcendental idealism. Philosopher and theologian Keith Ward gives a lecture detailing Kantian ethics, he claims that, ‘Kant’s proposed solution of polarities is at the heart of his Critical philosophy. It is the doctrine of Transcendental Idealism.’[4] Transcendental Idealism is the postulation of a reality without any sensory experience. Robin G. Collingwood resents the notion of Idealism as intrinsically German, and divorces the two in his work, often justifying Idealism’s separate identity.

It is Collingwood who is most often associated British idealism and who denounces the realists most emphatically. However recent commentaries challenge this stereotype, James Connelly questions whether Collingwood should be labelled an Idealist; he makes the suggestion his persona mirrors the complications of the term, in that both Collingwood and Idealism both deny any certified definition. To elaborate, Connelly observes: ‘The key to Collingwood’s Autobiography lies in what he opposed. He opposed realists and said so.’[5] In fact, more often than not, it seems that idealism is defined by what it is not, rather than what it is. In this respect, it is realism which is its antithesis. Whilst featuring heavily in philosophical spheres; this juxtaposition – between Idealism and Realism – can, too, be identified in the literary realm.

In 1925, George Bernard Shaw won the Nobel Prize in Literature ‘for his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity. Its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty.’[6] In his 1891 essay The Quintessence of Ibsenism he argues that society constitutes of three discrete types of people: philistines, who have no capacity for creative thought; idealists, who believe in the tangibility of the impossible; and realists, who can see the world for what it is.[7] His 1905 play, Major Barbara is representative of his personal philosophy, conflicting religious idealism against pragmatic realism within a single family unit, the play demonstrates that neither extreme is viable, for idealists often do not accomplish anything, and realists are too concerned with the practical.

Major Barbara

Here is an image of Wendy Hiller from the 1941 film Major Barbara. Bernard Shaw helped write the screenplay. The link – see bibliography -shows a short clip of Barbara giving her most famous speech.

In his text The Sources of Idealism Shaw grapples with the idealism-realism dichotomy again. He writes:

[…] the two cannot agree. The idealist says, “Realism means egotism; and egotism means depravity.” The realist declares that when a man abnegates, the will to live and be free in a world of the living, and free, seeking only to conform to ideals for the sake of being, not himself, but “a good man,” then he is morally dead and rotten, and must be left unheeded to abide his resurrection, if that by good luck arrive before his bodily death. Unfortunately, this is the sort of speech that nobody but a realist understands. It will be more amusing as well as more convincing to take an actual example of an idealist criticising a realist.[8]

Following this argument, Keith Ward delivers another insightful lecture uncovering the meaning of this final sentence. An Idealist View of Reality explores the origins of Idealism, which Ward explains is typified by British idealist Bishop George Berkeley. In simple terms, Berkeley posits the idea that reality consists exclusively of minds and their ideas.[9] Ward expands upon this, commentating that ‘Idealists do not deny reality-in-itself – this is one prevalent misunderstanding of Berkeley- Idealists say that what we call the material or physical is a set of appearances that exist as we see them only in human minds. Whatever it is that appears, it is not identical with appearances. Therefore reality-in-itself is not physical. What we call the physical is in fact mind-dependent.’[10]

Realism was not Idealism’s only enemy. Stefan Collini in his article Idealism and ‘Cambridge Idealism’ surveys that, alike German Idealism, the British context of the nineteenth century witnessed tempestuous disputes between scholars. Collini records a certain spat between two Oxbridge academics. The quarrel saw accusatory insults denouncing each other’s theses as ‘dogmatic’, ‘vehemently propagandist’ and ‘superficial and sometimes even unintelligent.’[11]

ngram realism

A Google Ngram Viewer graph showing the divergence of frequency of use between ‘realism’ and ‘idealism’ since the 1940s.

In Britain, popular perceptions of Idealism reserve the term for dreamers, futurists and the impractical, whereas, it is generally argued that Realists are pragmatic, resourceful and sane. Figures show that the uses of the two terms have always shared similar trends, however, since 1945, Realism has ascended on the scale, whilst Idealism has declined.[12] Yet, it should be noted that data such as this, does not provide the context in which the terms are located. So, whether we are a nation of practicality, or a nation of dreamers, is a question that remains unanswered, and – perhaps thankfully – unknown.



Collini, S., ‘Idealism and “Cambridge Idealism”’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 18/ No. 1, (February, 2009) pp. 171-177

Wellington Ruckstuhl, F., ‘Idealism and Realism in Art’, The Art World, Vol. 1/ No. 4, (January, 1917) pp. 252-256

Sheffield Brightman, E., ‘The Definition of Idealism’, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 30/ No. 16, (August, 1933) pp. 429-435


Boucher, D. and Smith, T. (eds.), R.G. Collingwood: An Autobiography and Other Writings: With Essays on Collingwood’s Life and Work, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Websites and Online Databases

George Berkeley, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, [accessed 15/04/2015]

George Bernard Shaw, Sources of Idealism, [accessed online] available at, [accessed 11/04/2015]

“idea” – definition of idea in the OED,, [accessed 10/04/2015]

Idealism, Realism – Google Ngram Viewer,, [accessed 15/04/2015]

Major Barbara – The Irish Times,, [accessed 16/04/2015]

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1925,, [accessed 17/04/2015]


Gresham College, 2008: The Idealist View of Reality – Professor Keith Ward, available at, [accessed 15/04/2015]

Gresham College, 2008: The Triumph of Idealism – Professor Keith Ward, available at:, [accessed 15/04/2015]

Major Barbara Speaking (1941) available at:, [accessed 15/04/2015]

Further Reading

Berman, D., George Berkeley: Idealism and the Man, (London: Clarendon Press, 1996)

Bernard Shaw, G. The Quintessence of Ibsenism, (London: Kessinger Publishing, 2009)

Collingwood, R. G., An Autobiography and Other Writings, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Howell, R. C., Kant’s Transcendental Deduction, (Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publications, 1992)

Kant, I., The Metaphysics of Morals, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)


[1] Frederick Wellington Ruckstuhl, ‘Idealism and Realism in Art’, The Art World, Vol. 1/ No. 4, (January, 1917) pp. 252-256 (p. 252)

[2] Idea – definition of idea in the OED,, [accessed 10/04/2015]

[3] Edgar Sheffield Brightman, ‘The Definition of Idealism’, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 30/ No. 16, (August, 1933) pp. 429-435 (p. 431)

[4] Gresham College, 2008: The Triumph of Idealism – Professor Keith Ward, available at:, [accessed 15/04/2015]

[5] James Connelly, ‘Collingwood Controversies’ in David Boucher and Teresa Smith (eds.), R.G. Collingwood: An Autobiography and Other Writings: With Essays on Collingwood’s Life and Work, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) p. 424

[6] The Nobel Prize in Literature 1925,, [accessed 17/04/2015]

[7] Major Barbara – The Irish Times,, [accessed 16/04/2015]

[8] George Bernard Shaw, Sources of Idealism, [accessed online] available at, [accessed 11/04/2015]

[9] George Berkeley, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, [accessed 15/04/2015]

[10] Gresham College, 2008: The Idealist View of Reality – Professor Keith Ward, available at, [accessed 15/04/2015]

[11] Stefan Collini, ‘Idealism and “Cambridge Idealism”’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 18/ No. 1, (February, 2009) pp. 171-177 (p. 172)

[12] Idealism, Realism – Google Ngram Viewer,, [accessed 15/04/2015]


In this post, Shannon Gadd, who took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015, writes about ‘Surrealism’ as a philosophical keyword.

Stereotypical views of life tend to focus on the negative, adopting words such as dull, logical and ordinary. There does however seem to be an alternative to this routine monotony which is found in the philosophy of surrealism. Rejecting the rational, contradicting the conscious and negating the normal, surrealists adopt a view of life that seeks to liberate the imagination and study the unconscious and its dream like state. It is normally studied through the artistic movement that erupted in France in the 1920s.

Persistence of Memory

The Persistence of Memory, 1931, by the Spanish surrealist artist, Salvador Dalí

Surrealism is, however, more than just an artistic movement. It is more than an aesthetic. There is a strong political undertone to surrealism that seeks to reject the rational and moral obligations of ordinary life. As Michael Richardson succinctly puts, surrealism is not about conjuring up that which can be defined and magical and unusual. Rather, surrealism looks for the points of contact and conjunctions between different realms of existence.[1] It is also important to note that the surrealist is not incapable of rational thought just because he rejects it. The drawing upon irrational thought and the focus on the subconscious only allows the surrealist to promote himself as a revolutionary thinker. Simply, surrealism would condemn that which puts artistic accomplishment and aestheticism before revolutionary spirit and thought.[2]



Guillaume Apollinaire, 1880 – 1918. Poet, playwright and founder of the word ‘surrealism’.

1920s France was a hot bed for art and poetry. However ‘surrealism’, or surréalisme, entered the French over a decade earlier. The word was first used in the preface to Guillaume Apollinaire’s play Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1903) in which he claims to “forge the surreal adjective.”[3] Guillaume Apollinaire The word was meant to represent something beyond reality and something that could not be imagined. In Apollinaire’s own words, think of Surrealism as such: When man “wished to imitate his own walk, he created the wheel; he thus made super-realism without knowing he did.”[4]

Surrealism is said to have its roots in the earlier artistic movement, Dadaism. The Dadaist painter Francis Picabia claims that “Dada is the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for art and…laid the foundation for surrealism”.[5] Simply, Dadaism was the belief that rational thought and bourgeoisie values were the source of world conflict.  Surrealism began to grow as a force of its own through the aid of André Breton and Philippe Soupault who published what is now known as the first Surrealist work, The Magnetic Fields in 1920. It distinguished itself from other movements by rejecting the ordinary and relying on the liberation of the imagination, a focus on dreams and the unconscious and tending towards the peculiar. Sigmund Freud’s ideas were particularly influential here. The aim of this movement was hoped to be revolutionary, freeing people from the false rationality of life. In 1924, Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto which outlined the purpose of the movement as one to examine the real functioning of thought outside of reason and moral preoccupation.

British Surrealism

While surrealist activity is thought to be largely French, Surrealism entered the British philosophical and political sphere in 1936 with the formation of the British Surrealist Group and the opening of the International Surrealist Exhibition. However it has been claimed that British surrealism remained a localised movement in the 1930s and 1940s limited to London and Birmingham. The London movement quickly subsided in 1947 with the merging of London group with the French both physically and ideologically. Conroy Maddox and John Melville were the key figures of the The Birmingham Surrealists. The Birmingham Surrealists were somewhat independent of the London group, refusing their art to be shown at the Surrealist Exhibition and rejecting the London group’s anti-surrealist tendencies.

Strange Country

Conroy Maddox, The Strange Country (1940)

It seems that British Surrealism was rather confined to the academic sphere of life, but an area of surrealist thought that has often been overlooked is its link to film and theatre. What could be a greater form of escapism than film? Surrealist film sought to disorient the audience and break down the logical thinking in the mind.[6] Film was a medium for derealising the world, to nullify the norm.

Dali Hitchcock

Salvador Dalí’s dream sequence in the Alfred Hitchcock film Spellbound.

It is difficult to talk of surrealism as a modern movement, or even to relate it to the modern day as there does not seem to be any distinct surrealist ideologies in the present day. Historians have argued that the death of André Breton in 1966 marked the end of Surrealism as an organized movement whilst other historians have marked Salvador Dalí’s death in 1989 as the death of surrealism.[7] Surrealism as a political force in Britain subsided much earlier than the rest of Europe, with Poland seeing surrealist revolutionary tendencies all the way through the 1980s, with the anarchic group the Orange Alternative. It must be asked then whether surrealism as a movement, as an idea, was extremely localised.

Indeed, the political and revolutionary nature of surrealism seems to have declined more recently. Therefore it must be asked what legacy the early surrealist movement left. Is surrealism present in modern thought and culture? Modern political anarchism and revolutionary thought is certainly a descendent of the surrealist movement. I would argue that while Surrealism’s influence did indeed lessen after the 1960s, its legacy in political anarchism and surrealist humour have remained until the present day. There is an undeniable influence of surrealism in British comedy as early as the 1940s with the absurdist comedian Spike Milligan. However, surrealist humour found its form in Britain much later, as seen with the eruption of alternative comedy scene in the 1980s through the popular television show The Comedy Strip Presents, spawning comedians such as Rik Mayall, Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle.  Perhaps, then,  surrealism and satire became more closely intertwined as opposed to the idea of surrealism being its own strand of political and philosophical thought. The 1980s was dominated with absurdist comedy which saw television shows such as the completely absurdist Young Ones grow in popularity, as in the following extract which  demonstrates the politically anarchic nature of this kind of surrealism.

Surrealist humour has remained popular up to the present day with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer dominating the absurd comedy scene with Shooting Stars in the 1990s. More recently, comedians such as Eddie Izzard and Noel Fielding have adopted distinctly surreal ideologies in their career.  This is arguably the first time that Surrealism came into the popular and public life and arguably the first time surrealism had a real cultural impact on the masses. Previously surrealism had been confined to philosophers, academics and artists and was, somewhat, inaccessible. However the eruption of the British alternative comedy scene made surrealism accessible.

Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer in Shooting Stars.

Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer in Shooting Stars.

Noel Fielding

Noel Fielding in the Mighty Boosh

I feel like I should reject the view that Surrealism was a failed movement.[8] I also feel like I should defend surrealism and its legacy. While it did have its ‘golden age’ in the 1920s and 1930s and while it did not seem to be as strong in England as it did continentally, surrealism has indeed penetrated British public and cultural life whether consciously or unconsciously, intendedly or unintendedly. This cultural breakthrough, arguably, has spawned an era of political anarchism and perhaps renewed the interest in politics and encouraged the rejection of moral and cultural obligations. Historians have also argued that surrealism left a very great legacy in that of feminism. Due to surrealism’s inherent rejection of the conscious life and their appreciation of revolution, they battled against patriarchal institutions such as the church, the government which sought to regulate the woman. Surrealism, then, gave escape to this patriarchy and allowed for social and artistic resistance that liberated feminine imagination.

To finish, I would like to think that every time a person seeks to escape from the limitations of life or tries to relinquish the shackles of appropriateness and cultural obligation, this is a legacy created by surrealism. Every time a person rejects their physical surroundings and questions their government, they have surrealist ideas in mind.

Further Reading:

Caws, Mary Ann, Surrealism (London: Phaidon, 2010).

Harris, S., Surrealist art and thought in the 1930’s: art, politics, and the psyche (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Lomas, D., The haunted self: surrealism, psychoanalysis, subjectivity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

Matthews, J. H., Surrealism and Film (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1971).

Parkinson, G., Surrealism and Politics: Interpretation, Determinism and Art History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).


Alexandrian, Sarane, Surrealist Art (New York: Praeger, 1970).

Matthews, J. H., Surrealism and Film (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1971).

Picabia, Francis (ed.), I Am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose, and Provocation (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007).

Richardson, Michael, Surrealism and Cinema (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2006).

Rosemont, Penelope, ‘All My Names Know Your Leap: Surrealist Women and Their Challenge’, in Penelope Rosemont, Surrealist Women: An International Anthology: The surrealist revolution series (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).

Guillaume Apollinaire, Les Mamelles de Tirésias; Preface. 1917 [ONLINE] 

Modernist Journals Project. The Egoist, vol. 5, no. 4 (1918). [ONLINE]


[1] Michael Richardson, Surrealism and Cinema (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2006), p. 3.

[2] J. H. Matthews, Surrealism and Film (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1971), p. 34.

[3] Guillaume Apollinaire, Les Mamelles de Tirésias; Preface. 1917 [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 01 March 15].

[4] Modernist Journals Project. The Egoist, vol. 5, no. 4 (1918). [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 01 March 15].

[5] Francis Picabia (ed.), I Am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose, and Provocation (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007), p. 1.

[6] Matthews, Surrealism and film, p. 89.

[7] Sarane Alexandrian, Surrealist Art (New York: Praeger, 1970), p. 232.

[8] Rosemont, Penelope, “All My Names Know Yopur Leap: Surrealist Women & Their Challenge”, in Penelope Rosemont, Surrealist Women: An International Anthology: The surrealist revolution series (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).


In this post, Lauren Macmillan, who took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015, writes about ‘Feminism’ as a philosophical keyword.

The Rise of the F Word: Feminism

In the build up to the 2015 general election, I can’t tell you how many times I was reminded ‘Your Vote Matters.’ As a woman, there’s no escaping the often vicious reminder that our foremothers died for our right to vote, and that any woman who abstains from voting is a disgrace to her sex.  As a self-proclaimed feminist who chooses not to vote, this constant guilt tripping really bugs me.

Let’s clear something up: feminism is not simply about the right to vote – or at least, it’s not any more. Feminism has become a vast movement, advocating equality of the sexes by attempting to establish not only political, but economic and social rights of the female sex.  Taking a step back almost two hundred years ago, the first recorded use of the word ‘feminism’ in the English language was in 1841, used to represent the quality or character of being feminine[1] – not what one would expect in light of the modern meaning of the word. By 1875, the term had became adapted to medical terminology, describing the appearance of female secondary sexual characteristics in a male individual.[2]

It was not until 1837 that the term ‘feminism’ became associated with women’s rights, when the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier (1772-1837) coined the term féminisme.[3] Fourier had previously expressed his support for women’s rights in his The Theory of the Four Movements and of the General Destinies (1808), where he compared the treatment of women in the Western world to that of slaves, concluding that ‘the extension of women’s privileges is the general principle for all social progress.’[4] As Fourier’s ideas, including the issue of women’s rights, became prominent during the 1848 European revolutions, the advocacy of female equality soon caught on in America and England. It was not until 1895 that the new meaning of the term ‘feminism’ was first recorded in the English language in an issue of the literary magazine the Athenaeum, and from the 1890s onwards this concept rapidly replaced the two previous uses of the word which are now almost completely disused. Deriving from the Latin femina, meaning woman,[5] it is unsurprising that the term ‘feminism’ has been associated explicitly with womanhood and the female body throughout its uses.

It was not until the emergence of the suffragette movement in the late nineteenth century that feminism became a widely recognised movement in Britain. The term ‘suffragette’ was originally applied to the women who fought for political enfranchisement as a term of ridicule in an article in the Daily Mail in 1906, but was soon embraced and became synonymous with those who used militant tactics in their campaigning.[6] The suffragettes advocated feminism on a political level, following half a century of campaigning for change in legislation, including the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act. Yet the lack of serious recognition for universal suffrage caused there to be a rise in the militant tactics deployed by the suffragettes, encouraged by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), a leading figure in the suffragette movement, and the founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), who stated ‘the condition of our sex is so deplorable that it is our duty to break the law in order to call attention to the reasons why we do it.’[7]

Suffragettes Caxton Hall

Figure 1: A suffragette meeting in Caxton Hall, Manchester, England circa 1908. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Emmeline Pankhurst stand in the centre of the platform. Notice the emphasis on ‘Deeds Not Words,’ a motto which embodied the importance of the militant tactics the suffragettes advocated.

Through equating feminism with suffrage, the efforts of the suffragette campaigners secured the passing of the 1918 Equal Enfranchisement Act, which was extended in 1928. Although this was undeniably a huge milestone for women’s rights, an act of parliament could not simply eradicate the patriarchal structure of a nation that had supressed their right to vote in the first place. The suffragette movement had demonstrated that women wielded power extending far beyond political equality, which could only be achieved if feminism was adapted into everyday life.

As the century progressed, later feminists have identified the suffragette movement as the first of three waves of feminism.[8]  After the two world wars, the term ‘feminism’ became more widely used in expressing how cultural and political attitudes towards women were inextricably linked. The phrase ‘Women’s Liberation’ became commonly ascribed to feminism in the 1960s during the so called second wave, and was popularised by the existentialist Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), whose revolutionary work The Second Sex (1949) was first published in English in 1953. The idea that female suppression was a cultural phenomenon, and not political, caused de Beauvoir to argue that feminism had to overcome the idea that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’[9] Other prominent figures, such as Betty Friedan (1921-2006) and Gloria Steinem (1934- ), advocated feminism as a need to rethink social norms and double standards imposed by a patriarchal society, and encouraged women to take on male roles in academia and the world of work. Academic feminist writing became more prominent in this period, such as Kate Millett’s (1934- ) Sexual Politics (1968) and Germaine Greer’s (1939- )The Female Eunuch (1970), equating feminism with sexual liberation.

Gloria Steinem

Figure 2: Gloria Steinem and Pamela Hughes giving the black power salute, 1972.

The works of these women were extremely popular, and undeniably contributed to the Cultural Revolution in Britain now commonly referred to as the swinging sixties.

By the third wave of feminism in the 1990s, it had become impossible to use a universal definition of feminism due to the emergence of different underlying feminist issues. Many women, such as Audre Lorde (1934-1992), have heavily criticised earlier definitions of feminism for being solely concerned with the plight of the white cis middle class woman. There are a variety of organisations and movements, such as the Southall Black Sisters, and Queen Mary’s own QMEquality, which recognise the intersectional nature of feminism in relation to other oppressed sections of society, such as the LQBT+ community and black and ethnic minorities.

As well as the difficulties between feminists themselves in defining feminism for the modern woman, the term has experienced its fair share of criticism and ridicule in recent years as it has become a buzzword in popular culture. A wave of celebrities have come to define their image and work as feminist, including Emma Watson (1990- ) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (1981- ), with many of them donning the This Is What A Feminist Looks Like T-shirt endorsed by the Fawcett Society and Elle magazine. Beyoncé (1981- ) now reigns supreme as the pop icon for the feminist movement, although she herself has qualms about identifying explicitly as a feminist.[10]


Figure 4: Beyoncé Knowles posing as Rosie the Riveter, 2014.

Emma Watson

Figure 5: Emma Watson posing in the Fawcett Society’s ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’ T-shirt, 2014.

In the recent rise of online forums and websites devoted to both academic and general discussion, including the Everyday Sexism Project, feminists have often come under attack for their use of the term ‘feminism.’ Some have criticised the term for its seemingly female centric implications, calling for the word to be replaced by ‘humanitarianism’ or ‘egalitarianism,’ whilst others are outright insulting in calling for a recognition of ‘menism.’  Many confuse the term ‘feminism’ with misandry, assuming all self-identifying feminists are radical, and have resorted to calling those who are outspoken on their feminist beliefs as ‘feminazis,’ somehow convinced the fight for gender equality will have the same outcome as the holocaust. The term ‘feminism’ was even suggested in a list of words to be banned in 2015 through an online poll conducted by Time magazine.

In an age where women’s rights and liberation has come so far, and has been adopted by so many different women to advocate so many different underlying issues, it is easy for the essential definition of the word to be lost, either intentionally or unintentionally, by those who use it. The word itself has developed from a political concept to embody a full scale social and cultural exploration of the way women can be emancipated. The sheer scale of the debate surrounding the definition of feminism today serves to demonstrate just how far we still have to go before complete gender equality can be achieved.

Further Reading:

Bell Hooks, Feminism Is For Everybody, (2000).

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, (1963)

Caitlin Moran, How To Be A Woman, (2011)

Emily Shire, ‘You Don’t Hate Feminism. You just don’t understand it.’ on The Daily Beast, (24th July 2014)

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)

Natasha Walter, The New Feminism (1999)


Bartley, Paula, Emmeline Pankhurst, (London: Routledge, 2002)

Baumgardner, Jennifer, F’em!: Goo Goo Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls, (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2011)

De Beauvoir, Simone, The Second Sex, (New York: Vintage Books, 1973)

Online Resources

Hare, Breeanna, ‘Beyoncé opens up on feminism, fame and marriage,’ (2014), 

Fourier, Charles, ‘Degradation of Women in Civilization,’ in Théorie des Quatre Mouvements et des Destinées Générales, (originally published in 1808).

“feminism, n.” and “suffragette, n.” OED Online, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, March 2015),  [Individual or institutional login required]


[1] “feminism, n.”. OED Online, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, March 2015)

[2] “feminism, n.”. OED Online, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, March 2015)

[3] “feminism, n.”. OED Online, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, March 2015)

[4] Charles Fourier, ‘Degradation of Women in Civilization,’ in Théorie des Quatre Mouvements et des Destinées Générales, (originally published in 1808)

[5] “feminism, n.”. OED Online, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, March 2015)

[6] “suffragette, n.”. OED Online, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, March 2015)

[7] Cited in Paula Bartley, Emmeline Pankhurst, (London: Routledge, 2002), p.98.

[8] Jennifer Baumgardner, F’em!: Goo Goo Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls, (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2011), p. 243.

[9] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), p.301.

[10] Breeeanna Hare, ‘Beyoncé opens up on feminism, fame and marriage,’ (2014).

The love of a philosopher

Katherine Angel is a Leverhulme Research Fellow at the Centre of the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, where she works on the history of sexuality and psychiatry. She is the author of Unmastered: A Book On Desire, Most Difficult To Tell (Penguin, Farrar Straus & Giroux), and is currently writing a book on female sexual dysfunction and post-feminism.

In this post, written for both the History of Emotions and Cultural History of Philosophy blogs, Katherine reviews one of the most recent additions to Oxford University Press’s series of Very Short Introductions, this one on the subject of love, by the philosopher of emotions Ronald de Sousa.

Love VSI coverWhy do we love a person we love? Is this the kind of thing we can know? These are recurring questions in Ronald de Sousa’s Love: A Very Short Introduction. Perhaps more accurately, the question is whether we in fact love for reasons at all. We enlist reasons for our love – he’s so playful, so accomplished – but it’s the location of qualities in someone’s particular personhood, with all its embodied wholeness, that enables love for them. What’s more, de Sousa notes, ‘an outside observer may detect causes of love that will always remain obscure to the lover’ (p. 57). These causes might include early attachment experiences, or strategies unconsciously deployed to keep particular anxieties – of abandonment, of rejection – at bay. And Freud’s psychoanalysis developed significantly from the insight that we can be wrong not just about why we love a person, but also about the fact that it is them we love: transference is precisely the direction of intense feelings (whether of love or hate) onto another target. There is always the possibility that a ghostly, unrecognised object of love is hovering behind the one we are apparently fixated on.

Much of de Sousa’s book is in a tone of accessible, chatty musing on some of the main questions about love. Why are some forms of love taboo? Is it a problem that love is subjective? Is love blind? Does love free or bind one? What is the relationship between love and sex? It also, rather self-consciously, introduces several pieces of philosophical terminology (‘explaining the significance of these two facts is going to be a little intricate, and will require me to introduce some philosophical jargon….if you bear with me, we should be able to gain some clarity’, p. 58) in a bid to make useful distinctions and gain purchase on a potentially unwieldy subject. (The terminology includes ‘intentional states’, ‘propositional object’, ‘focal property’.)

What quickly becomes clear, in particular in the insistence on the question of reasons versus causes of love, is the extent to which the book is framed by the conventions of a broadly analytic Anglo-American philosophy. The concerns of the book feel primarily determined by prior debates internal to the practice of that discipline. The question of whether we love for reasons, while an interesting one, begins to feel, as the book progresses, like a case study the author is using in order to articulate a particular position on a conventionally invoked debate about the distinction between reasons and causes. As such, the book feels less like an introduction to Love, or to thought on love, than an introduction to analytic philosophy’s commitment to an ahistorical, free-floating, unmoored conceptual analysis unencumbered by complicating details such as particularities of time and place.  There’s nothing wrong with writing a book from within the conventions of one’s discipline. But here, the somewhat narrow and skewed take on the supposedly most universal concern of all turns this into a book curiously distorted by the techniques, language and methodology of a very particular and contingent way of conceiving of philosophy.

One of the problems with this way of doing philosophy is an unreflected-upon tendency to see the question of what philosophy might be as having already been resolved – and to reduce substantial questions about the discipline and its history to a vision of itself as a quasi-technical application of a method; a method which amounts more or less to a kind of sophisticated cleverness, an ability to see distinctions where others fail to, the application of intelligence and rigour. The roots of the much-discussed division between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy in differing responses to positivism, modernism and post-structuralism have been much written about. The point I want to make here is that the vision of inquiry that can emerge from a disciplinary commitment to philosophy as a thoughtful, common-sense, distinction-wielding clarity has substantial consequences.

In his chapter on desire, de Sousa digs into some interesting questions and dilemmas. What does the lover want? Can love be satisfied? Is love altruistic? Do we love for reasons? The question of whether love is altruistic naturally encounters problems – the ‘altruists’ dilemma’ – ‘if each wants only to do the other’s will, there is nothing either of them can do’; ‘even for sensibly imperfect altruists, the lover’s concern for the beloved can be hemmed in with small print’; provisos such as ‘I want your happiness above all things – providing only that I am the one to provide it’ (pp. 42-43).

Problems like the ‘altruists’ dilemma’ strike me as arising from a commitment to exploring a theme in a particular, disciplinary-bounded way; from trying to find a model that suits a phenomenon, rather than from starting with a fine-grained account of the phenomenon. (There are many models outlined in the book – those of the interlocutors in Plato’s Symposium; the puritan model; the Lawrentian model; the pansexual model). If you start by wondering if love is altruistic, you are going to encounter a lot of counter-evidence, and you are going to be left scratching your head, or adding provisos, qualifiers, and clauses to your model. But why the commitment in the first place to a model for love? Starting from a position which is rendered complicated by exceptions to a model is a prior intellectual and disciplinary decision that would usefully be let into the analysis.

Philosophy conceived of as a sort of chatty, insightful cleverness also inadvertently gives itself an additional burden: that of not sounding like a bore leaning against a pub bar. De Sousa avoids that, but his chattiness can become problematically gestural. Writing about jealousy, he claims that ‘someone who worked in a Scottish women’s prison related that when she heard inmates talking about love of their men, it transpired that the criterion appealed to was that a man loves you only if he beats you’ (p. 14) If you’re going to discuss something this thorny, then hovering vaguely in a non-committal space between citing research and reporting on a conversation had over a pint is intellectually and ethically lazy, to say the least.

Hoch Coquette

It’s also notable that while de Sousa has some insightful things to say about constricting gender roles, he cites overwhelmingly male sources for his edifying citations on love. His citations are rather well-worn, too – Shakespeare, as usual, carries much of the burden. Moreover, women figure in the book as, variously, prisoners embracing the violent jealousy of their partners; creatures more concerned with their breast size than their IQ; as those ‘known to win a rape conviction when the wrong twin took advantage of dim light’ (p. 63); the muse of poets (Cyrano by Rostand); as ‘some feminists’ who have, for example, ‘disparaged love as a cruel hoax’ (p. 69); or as the anorexic or suicidal object of love whose own desires a lover should perhaps not encourage. The figuring of men as the proponents of theories of love, and women as love’s problematic objects, is, I’m sure, unintentional and unconscious – but it’s striking, and it reveals a kind of inattention to the wider contextual and structural questions around not simply love, but about the writing of philosophy. What sources and voices do we turn to when writing about such a large theme, and why?

De Sousa’s chapter on science is intriguingly ambivalent. He starts out discussing controversies about turning to science to answer questions about love – the allegation that scientific understanding of love (amongst other things) will disenchant the world for us, and ‘show our most cherished values to be illusions’ (p. 77). De Sousa counters this ‘bogey of reductionism’ by suggesting that understanding a phenomenon doesn’t necessarily mean ’the magic is gone’ (ibid.). But he doesn’t question the assumption that what passes for scientific understanding or explanation of love amounts to knowledge, rather than risking being a mere redescription. Veering rather close here to an epistemological reductionism, he then notes that we might be wrong in thinking that ‘one approach can capture everything we think or want to know’ (p. 78), and invokes the need not only for knowledge of biological processes, but for understanding of why such mechanisms exist in the first place and what role they play: the disciplines of evolutionary theory, anthropology, psychology, sociology.

De Sousa states, with apparent modesty on behalf of the scientific approach, that ‘no good scientist would be rash enough to claim that we can fully explain every nuance of feeling and experience in terms of the underlying state of our brains. At least not yet.’ (p. 78) The possibility of a complete scientific understanding of love, through the revered brain, is postponed rather than denied by de Sousa, and he toys with the idea that knowing more about ‘how love is implemented in the brain might help us to manage our love lives’ (ibid.). (It’s not quite clear how.) De Sousa’s flirtation with a scientific approach to love, however, is set aside as he sets out to unmask various spurious claims on his subject made in the name of science. Of the idea that both male and female jealousy can be explained by evolutionary psychology (men fear for their paternity, while women fear loss of parental cooperation), de Sousa notes that even if it is true that men are more distressed by a woman’s sexual infidelity, ‘that could be an effect of the stereotype rather than its justification’. Self-reports ‘that seem to confirm the hypothesis of the evolutionary psychologists rest on the spurious theory that is wheeled in to explain them’ (p. 95).

Pygmalion 1939

De Sousa’s last chapter, ‘Utopia’, is his most successful to my mind. He is at his best when he frees himself from the constraints of analytic philosophy and lets his observations and his prose operate more elegantly. ‘Nature is indifferent to us and to our happiness’, he writes. But ‘from the point of view of an individual human being, of course, the manner in which it is attained is everything’ (p. 96). Discussing questions of fidelity, lust, and polyamory, his writing feels like it originates more organically in a curiosity about the subjects at hand, rather than structured by prior philosophical conventions and debates applied to that subject. On the subject of erotic nonconformists such as the Marquis de Sade and the Earl of Rochester, de Sousa notes, wisely I think, that ‘not all the rebels of sex and love are immoralists. On the contrary, modern champions of “free love”… can moralize as tediously as popes’ (p. 101). And his discussion of the concerns at the root of polyamory feel sensitively attuned to the genuine philosophical, ethical and political questions that inevitably arise in partnerships with others. How do we love while accepting and embracing the autonomy of the other? Is loving someone giving them their freedom? This last chapter also conveys a sensibility cognizant of the authoritarian impulses always hovering near questions of love, marriage and gender. Writing of the expansion of possibilities in regards to these could, he writes, ‘lead to a flowering of modes of sexuality, love and relation – providing they exist in a political framework friendly to a multiculturalism of love’ – but at worst ‘we might be led not to a paradise of diversity but to a nightmare “brave new world” in which everyone is suitably programmed for the subjective satisfaction of a restricted range of desires determined by some arbitrary conception of what might be politically expedient – in other words, pretty much a variant of the present system’ (p. 112).

Aspects of this book may be somewhat hemmed in by formulaic philosophical conventions, but it’s in de Sousa’s alertness to the contemporary political quandaries of love, and in his scepticism about the impulse to rigidity and fixity underlying even the most liberatory rhetoric, that his sensibility feels most refreshing. As he puts it, ‘a world that leaves nothing to be desired would be a grim one; even in a utopia there must be desire’ (p. 112).

Follow Katherine Angel on Twitter: @KayEngels

Follow the History of Emotions Blog on Twitter: @EmotionsHistory

Read Chapter 1 of Ronald de Sousa’s Love: A Very Short Introduction
(via the Oxford University Press website)

French existentialism and the fight against paternalism

Rosie GermainDr. Rosie Germain lectures in modern history at Cambridge University, the University of North Carolina, and Liverpool Hope University.  She gained her BA in history from Oxford University, her MA in history from King’s College London, and her PhD in history from Cambridge University.  Rosie is interested in how and why moral systems change.

In this blog post, Rosie argues that French existentialism had an impact in England and America that went beyond intellectual circles, and was used by various interest groups in the 1960s to publicly reject the paternalistic morality of the past.

In 1966, the American Civil Rights Movement fragmented.  Before this year, civil rights activists were united, in public at least, in their support of a policy of peaceful integration of white and black people.  One of the first black activists to publicly declare the death of integration was Stokely Carmichael.  Carmichael was the leader of a prominent civil rights organisation that had been ‘integrationist’ in the early 1960s: the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  But in 1966, Carmichael called for black activists in the SNCC to achieve freedom through separatism, and to withdraw from mixed-race institutions.  In doing so, he quoted from the famous French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre. Carmichael said that by becoming a black separatist, one was becoming what Sartre had called ‘an anti-racist racist’.[1]  Sartre had coined this term in 1948, and Carmichael believed that ‘anti-racist racism’ – or exclusion of whites from black organisations – would allow African-Americans to recover from the sense of inferiority created by white cultural and social dominance. [2]


Stokely Carmichael, the head of the largest Civil Rights organisation in 1966, the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee, (SNCC), lectures about black separatism.  Carmichael used Sartre’s term, ‘anti-racist racism’, to label a way of being which embraced black difference. Image:

For historians, Carmichael’s use of Sartre’s terminology is interesting.  It indicates the impact that public intellectuals, such as the French existentialists, can have on cultural and social change.  In this case, Sartre provided a new term and idea that changed a reference point in public debate.  Sartre reinforced black separatist aspiration by providing a language through which to express it.  In this blog post, I discuss some of the ways in which French existentialism was used by social groups to call for change in post-war Britain and America.  The examples demonstrate how French existentialism was used by activists to make a public rupture with the social relations of the past.  Before WWII, social relations were often paternalistic.  Paternalism was an ideology which aimed to reduce social anxiety by keeping different social groups segregated, allotting them distinct and separate roles. A range of groups were perceived to be free under paternalism because they were protected – women were protected by men, students by academics, and blacks by whites.  Paternalism had actually eroded in the inter war period – for instance all adult women got the vote in Britain in 1928, thereby challenging ideas they needed political ‘protection’ from men.  Nevertheless, paternalist thought patterns persisted into the post-war period, and were only pointedly attacked, with the help of French existentialism and the legacy of Nazism, in the 1960s.

But firstly, what was French existentialism, and how did these French ideas enter usage in America and Britain in the 1960s?  French existentialism rose to prominence in France, England and America in 1945, after France was liberated from German Occupation. Two of its adherents who I look at here, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, were part of the resistance to the Nazi Occupation.

Beauvoir and Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the leaders of French existentialism.  Photo taken in the early 1960s. Image credits: STF, AFP; The Guardian

At the core of Sartre and de Beauvoir’s writings was the idea that human consciousness was defined by an individual’s ability to create their own self.[3]  They argued that the most moral societies were those in which humans were free to create their own identities.  They noted that moral individuals were those who took the responsibility to choose their identities rather than unthinkingly fitting themselves into pre-conceived identities such as ‘mother’ or ‘waiter’.[4]   The existential challenge to pre-determined social roles was in tension with paternalism, although this connection would not seriously be made by readers until the 1950s.  In the 1940s, French existentialism was seen as a philosophy of individual freedom rather than totalitarian oppression.  This reason alone was enough for publishers and journalists from allied countries to celebrate the philosophy in 1945 as a symbol of the triumph of freedom over Nazi despotism.  Interest in France also stemmed from more long-standing reasons than the conditions of WWII.  In both England and America, France was historically associated with cultural sophistication. Important figures in literary circles who first discussed and published the existentialists, people such as Alfred Knopf (USA) and Cyril Connolly (UK), were keen Francophiles.

I.  French existentialism and black freedom

Existentialists applied their philosophy to criticise social relationships that frustrated individual freedom.  Sartre argued that in societies that were racially mixed but where white people alone held power, black cultural difference was repressed and black freedom denied.  Sartre’s ideas of black difference settled in cultural debate in America in the 1940s and 1950s and were used in celebrations of African culture that did not cross over into political debate.[5]  In these decades, black civil rights activists were integrationist – calling for black people to gain access to white dominated institutions. Sartre’s ideas of black difference did not fit into this political agenda geared to creating sameness between black and white people.  However, integration looked as though it had failed by the late 1960s.  This was partly because the slowness of the American government to make it happen made it transparent that white people were deciding when black people would become free. The value of integration was also questioned in America because African nations, such as Algeria, were pursuing an opposite policy: they were fighting for independence, and therefore separation, from their white colonizers. Leaders of civil rights organisations who had formerly supported integration used Sartre’s idea to redefine integration as a paternalist policy that made black people dependent on whites.  This is the context in which  Stokely Carmichael used Sartre’s idea when speaking to a crowd of 10,000 Berkeley students in 1966:

Now we maintain that we cannot have white people working in the black community, and we mean it on a psychological ground. The fact is that all black people often question whether or not they are equal to whites, because every time they start to do something, white people are around showing them how to do it.    Black people must be seen in positions of power, doing and articulating for themselves, for themselves … We must wage a psychological battle on the right for black people to define themselves as they see fit.

That is not to say that one is a reverse racist; it is to say that one is moving in a healthy ground; it is to say what the philosopher Sartre says: one is becoming an “anti-racist racist.”[6]

Carmichael justified black separatism through reference to Sartre.  Sartre didn’t invent separatism, but his high profile combined with the fact that he coined a term, ‘anti-racist racism’, that could be used to visualise an alternative to integration, meant that he became central to the black separatists’ rejection of old-style paternalist relations between black and white.

II. French existentialism and female freedom

In The Second Sex (first English transl. 1953), Simone de Beauvoir argued that modern societies that assumed women needed to be protected by men, and kept women in the home, upheld myths that men and women were fundamentally different because of their biology.[7]  She noted that this myth oppressed women because it prohibited them from entering education or work on equal terms with men.  Betty Friedan, a journalist for women’s magazines that promoted female domesticity, challenged the ideology of the magazines after reading de Beauvoir. Commissioned by the Ladies Home Journal in 1957 to write about whether universities were suitably preparing women for their role in the home, Friedan reversed the question and asked whether the role in the home was, in fact, suitable for women with a university education.[8]   In 1975, Betty Friedan attributed this conceptual leap from acceptance to rejection of the paternalist settlement to de Beauvoir.  She noted that

it was The Second Sex that introduced me to an existential approach to reality and political responsibility – that, in effect, freed me from the rubrics of authoritative ideology and led me to whatever original analysis of women’s existence I have been able to contribute to the Women’s Movement and to its unique politics.[9]

Friedan launched Second Wave Feminism with a work in which she challenged the naturalness of a woman’s domesticity in The Feminine Mystique in 1963.  Friedan also campaigned for an end to workplace discrimination against women through the National Organisation for Women (NOW), an organisation that she co-founded in 1966.


Betty Friedan speaks in New York’s Central Park in August 1971. Image credit: AP, The Telegraph

III.  French existentialism and student freedom

While French existentialism was grounded in the writings of two of the most highly trained academic philosophers in France, philosophy students in Britain weren’t even taught existential philosophy at university.  Instead, British philosophy students consumed a diet composed mainly of analytic philosophy – a tradition in which sentence construction was analysed.  The 1960s was a time of university reform in Britain, when the government turned its attention to the function of the university in society.  In this broader context of university reform, the contrast between the existential philosophy of freedom, and the analytic philosophy of sentences, prompted students to challenge the leadership of academics. They saw analytic philosophy as a way to perpetuate the status quo, and a way for academics to prevent their students from challenging the organisation of society.  In 1968, one student at Oxford, Jairus Banaji, argued that analytic philosophy was a:

degeneration, lacking the essential anthropological foundation, [it] is a sterile and vacuous mental gymnastics, abstract and useless except as a consolidation of existing modes of thought. In particular, linguistic philosophy intellectually justifies and corroborates the world of ordinary discourse or ‘common sense’ which Gramsci called the ‘practical wisdom’ of the ruling classes.[10]

Banaji argued that Sartre’s philosophy of human action should be taught instead of analytic philosophy as:

The Critique [Sartre’s work] stands out as an indictment of the … structure of bourgeois- ideological indoctrination … Sartre’s critics refuse to recognise his relevance, greater now than ever before, perhaps because they are not equipped for the task ideologically … they are afraid.[11]

For students who read existentialism, just as with women and African-Americans, the philosophy exposed current relationships between adults with power and those without as damaging to freedom and as inhibiting change.  They used existentialism to challenge paternalism and to visualise equality.

IV.  The legacy of Nazism

These individuals used existentialism to imagine a positive alternative to the paternalistic settlement.  The effectiveness of their use of existentialism to construct a new vision of the future was augmented by their deconstruction of the present by comparing it with Nazism.  In his 1966 Berkeley speech, Stokely Carmichael argued that, as a black American, he needed to point out American racism because for white Americans to identify it, they would have to negate themselves.  He referred to Nazis to illuminate his point, noting that most Nazis who accepted their crimes committed suicide, those who didn’t accept their responsibility for mass-murder could live with themselves.  In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan referred to suburban homes as ‘comfortable concentration camps’, and to women who entered housewifery as walking to their own deaths in the same ways as Jews who entered concentration camps.[12] In 1968, in the Oxford University student magazine, journalists expressed fear that centralised systems that give plenary control to one group resembled those ‘which allowed the rise of the Nazis in the early thirties’.[13]  Such reference to Nazism fitted alongside calls to Marxist revolution[14], and arguments like Banaji’s to motivate students to challenge the authoritarian structure of the British university.[15]

The sixties were special as this was when individuals used existentialism (as well as other philosophies) to make a public rupture with the paternalist consensus of the past. Activists of the 1960s who changed by reading existentialism, such as the African-Americans, women, and students considered here, argued that human happiness was connected with freedom to create oneself.  The legacy of Nazism had heightened the importance of this ideal of self-creation, and French existentialists had demonstrated how such ideas of freedom could not be realised through existing social relationships.   Existential philosophers therefore provided some of the energy for the public’s distancing from the mores of past, and the self-conscious embrace of new ideas of freedom and self-hood, which was so characteristic of the 1960s.


[1] Stokely Carmichael, ‘Berkeley speech (1966)’ in (ed.) Ethel Minor, Stokely Speaks (1971).

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Orphée Noir’ in (ed.) Léopold Sédar Senghor, Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue Française (1948).

[3] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and nothingness (first published in English in 1958, page references in this blog post are taken from the University Paperback edition, 1969); Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex (first published in English in 1953, page references in this blog post are taken from Vintage edition, 1997).

[4] Sartre, Being and nothingness, p. 59; de Beauvoir, The second sex, pp. 501 – 542.

[5] Mercer Cook, ‘Review of Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue Française : précédée  de Orphée Noir by L. Sédar Senghor’, The Journal of Negro History, 34 (1949), p. 239.

[6] Stokely Carmichael, ‘Berkeley speech (1966)’ in (ed.) Ethel Minor, Stokely Speaks (1971).

[7] de Beauvoir, The second sex, p. 734

[8] Betty Friedan, ‘Up from the kitchen floor’, New York Times (Nov. 4th, 1973).

[9] Betty Friedan, ‘No Gods, No Goddesses’, The Saturday Review (June 14th, 1975).

[10] Jairus Banaji, ‘Towards a critique of Oxford philosophy’, Oxford Left, II, 2 (1968).

[11] Jairus Banaji, ‘Sartre’, Oxford Left, II, 3 (1968).

[12] This has been argued in Kirsten Fermaglich, ‘The Significance of Nazi Imagery in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963)’ in American Jewish History 91.2 (2003) 205-232.

[13] The Isis, 29 May, 1968, p. 16.

[14] The Isis, 16 October, 1968, p. 15.

[15] The Isis, 29 May, 1968, p. 18.

Why philosophy needs cultural history

Thomas AkehurstDr Thomas Akehurst teaches history and politics at the University of Sussex and the Open University. He is the author of The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe

In this blog post, he makes the case for the value of approaching philosophy through cultural history.

One of the problems facing academic philosophy in the 20th century was that it became, well, more and more academic – specialised, cut off from the interests of the rest of humanity, and it seems not able, or not willing to address our concerns.

This disconnect between academic philosophy and human life, called the “existential gap” has been seen as a particular feature of analytic philosophy – the dominant tradition in British and American universities.[1] Philosophers’ attitudes to this gap have varied tremendously. In the 1950s, many of those practising the discipline in its then powerhouse, Oxford, seemed to revel in its abstruse irrelevance. The philosopher G. J. Warnock reflects back on the period:

I did not believe that it was likely to contribute to the solution of the problems of the post war world; I did not believe it would contribute, certainly or necessarily, to the solution of any philosophical problem. But it was enormously enjoyable; it was not easy, it exercised the wits; and those who think it can never be valuably instructive have simply never tried, or perhaps are no good at it.[2]

And perhaps many academic philosophers and aspiring academic philosophers continue to share something like this view. It’s enjoyable, it pays the bills. There are excellent opportunities to travel. However the 21st century has also seen the revival of attempts to reconnect analytic philosophy with the rest of us. Popular philosophy, applied philosophy, now practical philosophy and philosophy therapy have all become swelling areas of output. Texts in these genres now dominate the two shelves reserved for philosophy books in some larger branches of Waterstones. This desire to speak to a wider audience can only be a good thing if we believe that life, on balance, is worth thinking about.

Unfortunately, this desire for outward-looking communication on the part of philosophers, hasn’t yet been equalled by the willingness for inward looking disciplinary self-scrutiny. Philosophy arises from its culture and context. It carries the assumptions of its time and place and of its historical development. Sometimes this baggage is in plain sight, more commonly it’s hidden from philosopher and reader alike: contraband at the bottom of a suitcase the philosophers didn’t pack themselves.

Contemporary British analytic philosophy has shown very little interest in examining the cultural and political ideas and attitudes it has been moulded and formed by over the years. And this is why the cultural history of philosophy is such an important field. The history of philosophy is shaped by many factors. Philosophical arguments, for sure, have an impact on the direction of the discipline. But a much broader range of issues also help shape and form apparently abstract philosophical positions and developments. And it’s here that cultural-political histories, as well as institutional histories, become very important if we want to understand the philosophical thought that’s presented for our edification.

Cultural history of philosophy is not (yet) the thriving cottage industry it might be. Yet some work has been done. John McCumber has explored how McCarthyism in the US put powerful external pressure on philosophers to abandon certain fields of study, or tailor their conclusions in a safe political direction. Those who did not could expect stymied or terminated careers. George Reisch explores a similar dynamic in the philosophy of science. [3]

Cultural politics coverMy own work points to the way that British philosophers drew conclusions about the wars against Germany in the first half of the twentieth century – and how these conclusions fed through into their philosophical work.[4] They identified a tradition of German philosophy they believed resulted in German aggression, and ultimately in National Socialism. These attitudes and assumptions on the part of the British were poorly defended in their written work, but nevertheless contributed to a purging of the canon of philosophy after 1945. A swathe of European philosophy from Hegel onwards was subject to dismissal and mockery followed by an “active process of forgetting and exclusion”.[5] This exclusionary process marks a crucial moment in the creation of the rift between analytic and continental philosophy that continues to dominate European and American thought.[6]

In the mid-century, British philosophers emphasised the warts of the German/European tradition – Nietzsche was a megalomaniac, Hegel a deceptive state-serving nationalist, Rousseau a sort of evil seductive genius.[7] Even as they condemned German (and allied) thought for its fascist tendencies, the British philosophers held up their own tradition as one of congenital liberality – pointing to a virtuous canon of British thinkers going back to John Locke. These British philosophers were portrayed as liberal in politics, rigorous in philosophy and noble in character. They were carefully airbrushed to remove the stains of historical indiscretion: such as the sanction Locke gave to the expropriation of native American lands, or John Stuart Mill’s paternalist racism, much less the anti-Semitism of Bertrand Russell, the 20th-century hero of British analytic philosophy.[8]

Once philosophy is allied to a national cause, you get nationalist philosophies, with the virtues of “our boys” relentlessly juxtaposed to the vices of the enemy. The German philosophers of the 19th century were no more Nazis than the British philosophers of previous ages were saints. But philosophy mobilized for war resembles the nation-state mobilized for war. Nationalist philosophy is distorting, and homogenizing.

That, at times of existential threat, philosophers respond like many other people and get defensive and jingoistic is perhaps not very surprising and not especially condemnable. And there’s no doubt that for the philosophers I’ve studied, Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, R.M. Hare, amongst others, the Second World War was such a threat. Perhaps the realization that philosophers were ready to draw simple nationalist distinctions and assassinate the characters of fellow philosophers might give us reason to doubt some of the more grandiose claims about philosophy’s ability to cultivate calm rationality in its practitioners. But the Nazis were a terrifying threat – and there but for the grace of God go we all.

The problem is not that these men drew hasty conclusions. The trouble is that analytic philosophy has so solidly refused to countenance the possibility of any influence beyond the narrow scope of “strictly philosophical” questions that these hasty judgements and nationalist prejudices have been left unexplored and unchallenged by contemporary analytic philosophy. Not only have these attitudes gone underground and helped to to cement the foundations of the an unhelpful rift between analytic and continental philosophy, but at times they resurface in all their mid-century glory – in the analytic philosophers’ last words on Jacques Derrida, for example.[9]

Many analytic philosophers now want to be heard. But still very few seem to want to make a serious exploration of their past and its baggage. All the time this is the case, the discipline and what it offers to the public remain weighed down by unchecked cultural assumptions, political assumptions, and uncodified traditions. This short article has explored just some of these. Much remains to be explored. Analytic philosophy needs the cultural history of philosophy to sort through this historical accretion, assess it, and hopefully discard what is no longer needed. As a result, analytic philosophy may walk a little lighter and may find itself with new and surprising things to say to the public it wishes to cultivate.


[1]          Preston, Aaron Analytic Philosophy: The History of an Illusion (Continuum, 2007) 25

[2]            Warnock, G.J. Essays on J.L. Austin (Clarendon Press, 1973) 59.

[3]            McCumber, John Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the Mccarthy Era (Northwestern University Press, 2001). Reisch, George A. How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic. (CUP, 2005).

[4]            Akehurst, Thomas L. The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe  (Continuum 2010)

[5]            West, David  “The Contribution of Continental Philosophy,” in A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, ed. Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit, Blackwell Companions to Contemporary Political Philosophy (Blackwell, 1995), 39.

[6]                   Simons, Peter. “Whose Fault? The Origins and Evitability of the Analytic Continental Rift”. International Journal of Philosophical Studies 9, no. 3 (August 2001).

[7]            Berlin, Isaiah Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty. Edited by H. Hardy. (Chatto and Windus, 2002). 43.  Russell, Bertrand History of Western Philosophy (George Allen and Unwin, 1946). 794.

[8]            Bracken, Harry  “Essence, Accident and Race,” Hermathena, no. 116 (1973). Mill, John Stuart On Liberty, 1859, Moorhead, Caroline Bertrand Russell: a Life (1993 Sinclair-Stevenson Ltd.).

[9]            Blackburn, Simon “Derrida May Deserve Some Credit for Trying, but Less for Succeeding,” The Times Higher Education Supplement, no. 1666 (12 November 2004).

‘A Feminine Philosopher’: John Stuart Mill in Parliament

Hookway pic 2Dr Demelza Hookway is an Honorary University Fellow in the College of Humanities at the University of Exeter and is currently writing a book on the cultural history of John Stuart Mill, based on her PhD research at Exeter. In this guest post for the Cultural History of Philosophy Blog, published to coincide with the UK General Election in 2015, she looks back to John Stuart Mill’s career as an MP and detects parallels with recent responses to Ed Miliband…

As the UK’s parliamentary candidates have been scrutinised ahead of the 2015 General Election, journalistic attention has inevitably shifted from policy to character. Jeremy Paxman’s questioning of Ed Miliband during the ‘Battle for Number 10’ TV debate stands out as a memorable example of this character-focused approach. Towards the end of the interview, Paxman suggests that Miliband is too sensitive to be an effective leader (‘you know what people say about you because it’s hurtful, but you can’t be immune to it’, followed after the interview ended by an audible ‘are you OK, Ed?’), not manly enough to interact with other world leaders (a one-to-one encounter with Putin would leave Miliband ‘all over the floor in pieces’) and too intellectual to be popular with the electorate (‘they see you as a North London geek’). Miliband famously retorted with an assertion of his masculinity and resilience – ‘Hell yes, I’m tough enough’ – and you can watch the key section of the interview here.

The striking thing about Paxman’s accusations is how they evoke nineteenth-century debates about the qualities required to succeed in politics. The charges of sensitivity, effeminacy and intellectualism particularly recall the response to the renowned philosopher John Stuart Mill’s brief political career in the 1860s.

When Mill stood for Parliament in 1865 his liberal credentials were not in question. He was elected as MP for Westminster, and though he failed to win the seat again in 1868, he was often seen as originating, defining or exemplifying liberal principles. But doubts that the philosopher was tough enough for political life were expressed from the outset of his candidature. Like his political integrity, Mill’s intellectual stature was undeniable, but being a man of ideas was seen as a dubious qualification for a politician. As a result, his voice, his body and his emotions were all anatomised and often seen as lacking the strength expected of a man in such a prominent position. As a famous caricature of Mill in Vanity Fair in 1873 expressed it, this was ‘A Feminine Philosopher’.

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: John Stuart Mill (1806-73) British social reformer and philosopher (Utilitarianism). Cartoon by 'Spy' (Leslie Ward) from Vanity Fair, London, 1873 (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Cartoon by ‘Spy’ (Leslie Ward) from Vanity Fair, London, 1873 (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The perception that Mill was moving from the safe seclusion of the study to the dangerous exposure of the platform generated much commentary. Supporters worried about how successfully he would be able to convey his theoretical knowledge in person, while detractors claimed that he was doomed in any attempt to do so. In an 1865 article on ‘Philosophers and Politicians’ The Saturday Review stated that ‘the prime characteristic of the Englishman is activity and energy, and the conflicts of the political arena gratify a national instinct’. [1] This model of political manliness was one against which Mill was constantly judged. As he set out to challenge ideas about essential differences between the sexes and to extend the suffrage to women, many commentators questioned Mill’s own performance of masculinity in the combative environment of Parliament.

In 2014, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, commented on the problems politicians could face in making themselves heard over the noise in Parliament. This was clearly an issue for nineteenth-century parliamentarians, too, because a recurring subject of discussion was the suitability of Mill’s voice for public speaking. Those sympathetic to Mill worried that he had a weak voice and that this was compounded by a lack of oratorical skill. On first meeting Mill, Kate Amberley interpreted the quietness of his voice as evidence of his humility and likeability, recording in her journal, ‘he speaks in a very gentle voice, and is not in appearance like a great man’. Transposed to the House of Commons, however, the quietness took on a new, more disappointing aspect: ‘Mill’s speaking seems to bore the house, they say he has spoken too often – [too] much, and cannot be heard’. [2] The doorkeeper of the House of Commons, William White, thought that Mill ‘has not a powerful voice, but then it is highly pitched and very clear; and this class of voice goes much further than one of lower tone – as the ear-piercing fife is heard at a greater distance than the blatant trombone’. [3] For White at least, Mill’s quiet voice was a virtue rather than a cause for regret: a symbol of the different quality Mill introduced to parliamentary debate, and his far-reaching influence.

2_Detail_Gladiators preparing for the ArenaAnother target for attention was Mill’s thin frame. Though broadly supportive of Mill’s parliamentary career, Britain’s foremost comic journal Punch consistently portrayed Mill as lacking the same robustly male physique as the central figures in the ‘battlefield’ of public life. [4]

In February  1867, Punch ran a John Tenniel cartoon entitled ‘Gladiators Preparing for the Arena’, in which a diminutive Mill is positioned close to a bulky John Bright. The physical contrast is underscored by Bright squaring up to a punch bag marked ‘Aristocracy’ while a  feeble-looking Mill with downcast eyes lurks behind him clutching a cup marked ‘Logic’. The following month Punch reported on Mill’s inaugural lecture as rector of St Andrews University, noting that he had ‘fought a good fight about education’, but depicting him as a tiny figure,in the guise of a naughty schoolboy, squaring up to a giant, rotund, cane-wielding don.3_Detail_St_Andrews

In Judy, a conservative journal set up to rival Punch, Mill’s feminisation was the most blatant: in their cartoons, he frequently appeared dressed as a woman. The striking cartoon accompanying ‘Parliamentary’ in Judy on 24 July 1867 shows Mill wearing a bonnet, holding a parasol, and daintily lifting his skirts out of the mud. Here, the focus is on Mill’s support for women’s suffrage. The article concentrates on the way ‘the Lady’s Mill’ had disappointed women by failing to secure them the vote. When Mill failed to retain his seat in Parliament, Judy made enthusiastic use of their established mode of representing him in ‘Miss Mill Joins the Ladies’ on 25 November 1868. ‘Philosophy’ is written on the lampshade in the hallway and is clearly aligned with Mill’s retreat into the private sphere.

Judy pics

By the time the caricature of Mill as ‘A Feminine Philosopher; appeared in Vanity Fair’s ‘Men of the Day’ series in March 1873, Mill was already strongly associated with ideas of femininity. The accompanying text explained that he was ‘a man of vast intellect and tender feelings’. Leslie Ward described making the study for the Vanity Fair caricature as he listened to Mill give a lecture on women’s rights at Exeter Hall. He remembers that as Mill ‘recited passages from his notes in a weak voice, it was made extremely clear that his pen was mightier than his personal magnetism upon a platform’. [5]

These ideas about Mill were in circulation before his entry into politics, but intensified during this time. They also persisted long afterwards. In a letter written to The Times and published on 20th May 1906 – 33 years after Mill’s death, but marking the one hundredth anniversary of his birth – Thomas Hardy recounted the moment in 1865 when he witnessed something quite remarkable: the philosopher making a public appearance as a parliamentary candidate, addressing the crowds gathered at the hustings in Covent Garden. Hardy’s letter renders in beautifully compact form many of the debates which took place in the second half of the nineteenth century about Mill’s status as a philosopher, a politician, and an advocate of women’s rights. Hardy’s copy of Mill’s On Liberty, which is in the archive at Dorset County Museum, has the letter, ‘A Glimpse of John Stuart Mill’, pasted inside the front cover. On the right hand side, folded up, is an article which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement a couple of days earlier. It was written by the Liberal politician, writer and editor John Morley, and paid tribute, in the most glowing terms, to Mill’s philosophical achievements. Hardy’s letter, as well as recounting a personal memory about Mill, was a response to the way in which John Morley had chosen to depict Mill, in grand and reverential terms, in this centenary piece. [6]

6_Hardys Copy of On Liberty

Morley was a friend and a follower of John Stuart Mill and unsurprisingly strikes a reverential tone in his piece for the Times Literary Supplement. Morley did allude to difficulties – the time before Mill achieved renown, the hostile reaction provoked by some of his opinions, and the uncertainty with which he was viewed by some of his fellow parliamentarians when he became an MP – but in his retrospective overview he also conveyed a sense of inevitability about Mill’s central role in the struggle for social change. In his record of Mill for posterity, Morley sought to affirm Mill’s manliness by asserting that he was a protagonist in the battleground of public opinion. In calling Mill ‘a man out of place’ on the hustings Hardy brought the attention back to the debate about the philosopher’s suitability for public life, though in his awareness of Mill’s vulnerability – in his sense of Mill’s ‘perilous exposure’ – he strikes a far more sympathetic tone than many earlier commentators.

7_ILN_Nomination in Covent Garden

‘Westminster Election: The Nomination in Covent Garden’, Illustrated London News, 1865

Most importantly Hardy turned John Morley’s laudatory statement – that Mill’s ‘life was true to his professions’ – into a question: what does it mean to say that a person’s life is true to their professions? It is a question which resists easy categorisations and blithe insults. It shifts the focus from public performance to motivating principles and underlying philosophies. As such, it is an excellent question to bear in mind as we consider our prospective MPs and elect our next government.

Follow Demelza on Twitter: @demelzahookway


[1] ‘Philosophers and Politicians’. The Saturday Review 4 Mar. 1865 (pp. 253–4).

[2] Bertrand Russell and Patricia Russell, eds. The Amberley Papers: Bertrand Russell’s Family Background. 1937. 2 vols. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1966 (p. 297, p. 470).

[3] William White. The Inner Life of the House of Commons. 2 vols. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1897 (Vol 2, p. 33).

[4] A key source for cartoons of Mill is John M. Robson’s ‘Mill in Parliament: The View from the Comic Papers’. Utilitas 2 (1990) (pp. 102–43). The article contains many of the cartoons from the periodical press which feature Mill and considers these alongside puns and verse. Robson’s very specific aim in this article is to clarify a point of political history: to establish that it was not Mill’s ‘“crochets” or “whims”, especially women’s suffrage and proportional representation, that damaged his chances for re-election in 1868, but the hardening of party allegiances’ (p. 102).

[5] Sir Leslie Ward. Forty Years of “Spy”. London: Chatto and Windus, 1915 (p. 104).

[6] John Morley. ‘John Stuart Mill’. Times Literary Supplement 18 May 1906 (pp. 173–4).


This post by Thomas Dixon is the first in a series on Philosophical Keywords, exploring the changing historical uses, meanings and impacts of philosophical terms which have taken on broader cultural resonance. 

A couple of years ago, travelling on the Central Line to Mile End on the London underground, I started to notice a series of posters and images like the one below – using the familiar imagery of the London tube map to suggest connections being made between people – the red line was now not linking Liverpool Street to Bank but ‘self’ to ‘other’.

'Fellow Feeling' copyright © Michael Landy 2011

‘Fellow Feeling’ copyright © Michael Landy 2011

This struck me as an interesting expression of the philosophy of altruism – the idea that the essence of moral goodness is a devotion not to self (egoism) but to others (altruism). The term ‘altruism’ ultimately derives from the Latin word alter, meaning ‘other’. Intrigued by the artworks on the tube, I searched online to find out more about them. It turned out that they were part of a project called ‘Acts of Kindness’ by the artist Michael Landy who said about the project, ‘I want to find out what makes us human, and what connects us, beyond material things. For me the answer is compassion and kindness.’

There is now a kindness movement, with followers all over the world celebrating the value of what are sometimes referred to as ‘random acts of kindness’ towards others – often strangers. Such acts are also recommended by proponents of ‘positive psychology’ such as the UK organization Action for Happiness. The kindness and happiness movements are quite recent phenomena, and they tend to recommend altruism – doing good to others – on the apparently paradoxical basis that it is good for our own mental health. The ideal of altruism to which these movements appeal, however, has a longer, and quite surprising history.

‘Altruism’ entered the English language in 1852. Before then, there were all sorts of moral virtues, philosophical isms, charitable intentions, and perhaps even random acts of kindness too, but no ‘altruism’. The term had been coined just a year before in French – altruisme – by the pioneering philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte (1798–1857), in his System of Positive Polity (1851-1854). Altruisme was the name Comte gave to the other-regarding social instincts, and he located them physically towards the front of the human brain. ‘Altruism’ was a keyword not just in Comte’s speculative early brain science, but also in the atheistic religion that he founded, with himself as its High Priest – the Religion of Humanity – which was designed as a substitute for Catholicism, complete with its own calendar of secular saints and festivals, and humanistic hymns. The main aim of the Religion of Humanity, along with Comte’s envisaged re-organisation of society (things would be run mainly by bankers and scientists) was to see egoism subordinated to his new ideal of ‘altruism’ throughout the civilized world.

A gallery of some of the secular saints - including men of science and Madame Clotilde de Vaux - in the Comte's Chapel of Humanity in Paris. J.P. Dalbéra WikiCommons/ FlickR.

A gallery of some of the secular saints – including men of art, science and politics and a figure representing Comte’s belief in the moral superiority of women – in Comte’s Chapel of Humanity in Paris. Picture credit:  J.P. Dalbéra WikiCommons/ FlickR.

In the decades following its coinage, ‘altruism’ really took off. It became a fashionable term first among scientific atheists sympathetic to Comte’s ‘Religion of Humanity’. Later, British philanthropists and socialists of various kinds found it a convenient term to express their devotion to all classes of society and even to the whole human race.[1] The word was initially resisted by clergymen as an unnecessary scientific neologism – one pertinently asked whether it was really a ‘sweeter or better word than charity’ – but eventually it was even appropriated by Christians too, most notably the Scottish evangelical Henry Drummond in the 1890s, as nothing less than a synonym for Christian love.[2] Today ‘altruism’ is a modern philosophical keyword of quite wide appeal, and it still retains a flavour of its scientific and its humanistic origins: it is used both as a technical term in evolutionary biology and as an approving term within those systems of secular thought for which devotion to one’s fellow human beings, or to Humanity as a whole, is the foundation of ethics.

It is pretty surprising that Comte’s ‘altruism’ was such a successful neologism in the English-speaking world. The Religion of Humanity, although it had some followers in Britain, was widely mocked by leading British intellectuals, such as the evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) . Comte had been a respected historian and philosopher of the sciences, but as his career wore on, he became obsessed not only with his new religion, but also with the sacred memory of a married woman – Madame Clotilde de Vaux, to whom he had become spiritually and affectionately devoted before she died. In the British press Comte was ridiculed as eccentric, egotistical, tedious and humourless.

Several British visitors to Auguste Comte’s flat in Paris, including the philosophers Alexander Bain and Herbert Spencer, formed very unfavourable impressions of the man. Indeed, the British reputation of Comte in his later years in some ways foreshadows the very negative reception of ‘Continental’ philosophy in Britain during the twentieth century, as something both foreign and dangerous.[3] In his classic work, On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill described the social and religious system envisaged by Comte as ‘a despotism of society over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political ideal of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers’.[4]

The two figures who probably had the most impact in spreading the use of ‘altruism’ as a term of both science and ethics in Britain in the century and a half since Comte’s death were both popular writers devoted to the theory of evolution and hostile to religion: the philosopher Herbert Spencer (1825–1903), and the scientific atheist Richard Dawkins (born 1941).

Herbert Spencer depicted as 'Philosophy' in Vanity Fair magazine in 1879.

Herbert Spencer depicted as ‘Philosophy’ in Vanity Fair magazine in 1879.

Herbert Spencer was the most famous philosopher of his day. When he was caricatured for Vanity Fair in 1879, the illustration was captioned simply ‘Philosophy’. Spencer was the embodiment of the English philosopher in the mid-Victorian period. He was hugely critical of almost all aspects of Comte’s thought, but borrowed from him the terms ‘sociology’ and ‘altruism’, which he defended as useful coinages.[5] In his book, The Data of Ethics (1879), Spencer gave his own new definition to the term ‘altruism’, using it not to name a kind of moral intention or humanistic ideal, as Comte had done, but to refer to animal behaviour.

Spencer redefined ‘altruism’ to mean ‘all action which, in the normal course of things, benefits others instead of benefiting self.’ Such altruism, Spencer claimed, had been in evidence from the very dawn of life, in the lowest and simplest creatures, and especially in the evolution of the parental instincts which ultimately evolved into social sympathy. In Spencer’s broad defition, ‘acts of automatic altruism’ were to be included along with those with some conscious motivation. The splitting of the simplest single-celled organism, such as an infusorium or a protozoon in an act of reproduction, was also to qualify as an act of ‘physical altruism’.[6]

Cover of The Selfish Gene, (c) Oxford University Press, 1976.

Cover of The Selfish Gene, (c) Oxford University Press, 1976.

Almost exactly a hundred years later, Richard Dawkins shot to fame when his book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976. Whereas Spencer had taught that altruism was inherent in all animals throughout the evolutionary process, Dawkins wrote that those hoping to build a more cooperative society could expect ‘little help from biological nature’. Instead, Dawkins exhorted his readers: ‘Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.’ ‘We, alone on earth,’ Dawkins wrote, ‘can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators’.[7] The story does not end there, however, as Dawkins had second thoughts about altruism and, in his atheistic manifesto The God Delusion (2007), argued that altruism towards non-relatives was a ‘misfiring’ of a hardwired instinct that evolved through ‘kin selection’ to favour organisms who co-operated with close relatives. We used to live in groups mainly comprised of close relatives, the argument goes, and so our kindness and altruism would almost always be favouring our genetic kin. Nowadays we continue to feel pity and show generosity towards those around us, even though they are generally not our close relatives. This is a misfiring – a Darwinian mistake, but Dawkins adds, a ‘blessed’ and ‘precious’ mistake. [8] Now, it seems, Dawkins thinks we are born altruistic.

Dawkins may have changed his ideas about the naturalness of altruism, but in both cases his writings illustrate a general philosophical problem – namely the difficulty of getting by rational argument from an observation about nature to an ethical imperative – making the journey from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. This problem faces anyone trying to construct an ‘evolutionary ethics’. In the case of the quotation from The Selfish Gene, we might ask why not cultivate individualism rather than altruism? And readers of The God Delusion might reasonably wonder why Dawkins considers altruistic urges to constitute a ‘blessed’ and ‘precious’ misfiring rather than an inconvenient and undesirable malfunction. In both cases, Dawkins’s own ethical preference for altruism seems to have been imported without justification into a purportedly scientific discussion.

So, whether we are contemplating works of art on the tube, or reading popular science books, we might at any time find philosophical ideas and assumptions seeping through. Knowing a bit about the philosophical history of our everyday language can help to keep us alert.


[1] Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2008).

[2] Frederic W. Farrar, The Witness of Christ to History (London: Macmillan, 1871), pp. 144–146; see also Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, chapters 3 and 7.

[3] Thomas L. Akehurst, The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe (London: Continuum, 2010), especially chapter 1.

[4] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859), in Collected Works of John Start Mill, 33 vols, ed. John M. Robson et al. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963–1991), vol. 18, p. 227.

[5] Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, pp. 202–206.

[6] Herbert Spencer, The Data of Ethics (London: Williams and Norgate, 1879), pp. 201–202; see also Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, chapter 5.

[7] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 3, 200–201; original publication 1976.

[8] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p. 253.

Further Reading

Helena Cronin, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2008).

Fern Elsdon-Baker, The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy (London: Icon, 2009).

Jules Evans, ‘Set the controls for the heart of happiness’, Philosophy for Life Blog, 19 October 2012.

Martin A. Nowak and Sarah Coakley (eds), Evolution, Games, and God: The Principle of Cooperation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013),

Samir Okasha, ‘Biological Altruism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta.

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2009).