Soviet Philosophy and then some
David Bakhurst interviewed by Richard Marshall.
David Bakhurst goes all Virginia Plain about Russian political thinkers, Soviet philosophy, Illyenkov, Mikhailov, Vygotsky and his demons, Deborin’s Hegelian Marxists, the Mechanists, the formation of reason, John McDowell, second nature and naturalism, Jonathan Dancy and particularism, as well as the status of philosophy of education and whether Michael Oakeshott can be redeemed. It’s for your pleasure…
RM: What made you become a philosopher? Were you always a puzzler?
David Bakhurst: Although I have two sisters, they are much older than I am, so when I was growing up I was a little like an only child with plenty of opportunity for solitary pursuits. I suppose I am by disposition a worrier and, along with the usual anxieties that are the stuff of childhood, some of my worries took a more metaphysical form. When I was about ten my mother developed an interest in Christian Science and would often muse about the unreality of the physical world and the transcendence of the error and illusion, and this no doubt stimulated my interest in philosophical questions.
I went to a large comprehensive school in North London where intellectual reflection was largely focused almost on the fundamental existential choice—whether to support Tottenham Hotspur or Arsenal (I chose Spurs)—but during my sixth-form years the school hired an English teacher, Roger Gourd, who had a philosophy degree and worked philosophical discussions into his English classes (it helped that we were reading Stoppard). So when I went off to Keele University in 1978, ostensibly to read English and Music, I had an inkling of what studying philosophy might involve. At that time, Keele had a wonderful four-year degree that included a foundation year where you were forced to study things you’d not taken in school. So philosophy was one of the subjects I chose for that year.
In my first term I was extremely fortunate to have weekly tutorials with Jonathan Dancy, in a tiny attic room in Keele Hall. Under Jonathan’s guidance, two other students and I made our way through Wesley Salmon’s Logic and Ayer’s Problems of Knowledge. Jonathan was fantastic to work with, formidably brilliant and unforgiving of stupidity, but he made philosophy really exciting, and also fun. I was hooked. A bit later in the foundation year I did some work in the Russian department, on Mayakovsky I think, and before too long my plans to study English and Music were no more – it was Philosophy and Russian Studies from then on.
RM: What led you to develop a specific interest in Russian philosophy?
DB: Well, I was drawn to the philosophical intensity of Russian culture, which comes through so strikingly in its literature, poetry, and art, and in the impassioned writings of Russian political thinkers. Moreover, the Soviet Union was, in a sense, the living embodiment of a philosophical idea. At the same time, it was obvious that the Russian philosophical tradition was very unlike anything I was studying in philosophy at Keele. So I tried to find out more on the philosophical culture of the USSR, about which relatively little was known in the West. I was encouraged in this by the Professor of Russian at Keele, Eugene Lampert, who was a fascinating figure. He was an intellectual historian, who’d written a couple of marvelous books on 19th century Russian political thinkers, and he was highly literate in philosophy. He’d translated Berdyaev, for example.
Anyway, I soon found that the Western literature on Soviet Philosophy was for the most part dismal. The Russian literature, so far as I could understand it, was obviously subject to censorship, so it was difficult to know how to approach it from an outsider’s perspective. I concluded, therefore, that I should go to Russia and talk to philosophers. Keele gave me a small bursary to travel to Moscow in the summer of 1980. I signed up for a language course with the intention of using my spare time to investigate Russian philosophy. My efforts to meet philosophers through official channels proved unrewarding—unsurprisingly in those Cold War days. But just before I was due to leave Russia I had an amazing stroke of good fortune.
In the Progress Publishers bookstore I came across a copy of Felix Mikhailov’s The Riddle of the Self, newly translated into English. I was really impressed. It was quite unlike the doctrinaire tomes of dialectical and historical materialism I’d be trying to plough through. It was an intelligent, witty, and engagingly-written introduction to a range philosophical questions that were familiar to me—questions about the justification of knowledge, concept formation, self-consciousness, other minds, and so on. Then when I returned to my hotel, I bumped into someone who knew the person who’d translated Mikhailov’s book. So I was able to set up a meeting with the translator, Robert Daglish, who invited Mikhailov himself to join us. Also present was Genia Lampert, who was making a rare visit to Moscow at the time, and who acted as interpreter—at that time my Russian was pretty weak. Mikhailov and I saw eye-to-eye immediately, and he offered to help me if I could return to Moscow for a longer visit. So after Keele, I spent a year at Moscow University, and Mikhailov, then working at the Institute of General and Pedagogical Psychology, looked after me and introduced me to many people. Since the Russian philosophical tradition was to a large extent preserved in an oral culture, these discussions were invaluable.
RM: You wrote Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy which focused on the Soviet philosopher Evald Ilyenkov. Why Ilyenkov?
DB: Ilyenkov’s name came up time and again in discussions with Russian philosophers. He had died in 1979, the year before I first showed up in Moscow, and his loss was keenly felt among his friends, who included Mikhailov. So naturally Felix told me a lot about Ilyenkov, who had been a leading figure in the reawakening of Soviet philosophical culture after Stalin. As a young man, Ilyenkov was a soldier in the Second World War. At 21 he was part of the Soviet force that took Berlin. Like many young people at that time he came home from war hoping for a better future. He enrolled as a student at Moscow University (MGU), where he later did his graduate work, defending his Candidate’s dissertation in 1953. It was on Marx’s method.
You have to understand that, under Stalin, Soviet philosophy had been codified into a rigid dogma. Ilyenkov, in contrast, took a critical, scholarly approach to Marx’s ideas, mining them for philosophical insights. By focusing on Marx’s method, he was able to explore issues about explanation in science and social science; concept formation and development; the limits of positivism and empiricism, the nature of value; the social character of knowledge; and so on. After his graduate work, Ilyenkov joined the faculty at MGU. Naturally his courses stood out from the usual fare: one of his students later wrote that studying with Ilyenkov was like discovering a new world.
RM: What happened to Ilyenkov thereafter? Did he remain at MGU?
DB: No. He only lasted a couple of years there. He was sacked in the Spring of 1955 for the heresies of “Hegelianism” and “epistemologism”. Ilyenkov and a young colleague, Valentin Korovikov, had written a number of theses on philosophy, arguing principally that the primary subject matter of philosophy is thought. The theses provoked a huge controversy—they were argued to be in tension with the official doctrine that philosophy studies the general laws of being (of which thought is only part) and to contradict Lenin’s theory of reflection. So Ilyenkov and his friend were forced out. Korovikov quit philosophy altogether and became a journalist. Ilyenkov moved to Moscow’s Institute of Philosophy, where there were no undergraduates for him to corrupt. And there he remained.
The course of his career was not smooth. Although he was sometimes celebrated by the authorities as a leading Soviet philosopher (his 1974 book Dialectical Logic was translated into English by Progress Publishers in 1977, for example), he was regularly the target of ideological criticism. As Korovikov wrote in 1990, Ilyenkov’s work could be decorated by the Academy one moment and denounced as a distortion of Marxism the next. Things got particularly bad after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Soviet authorities blamed the Prague Spring on intellectuals, so after the Soviet intervention, intellectuals were especially targeted. For a while, Ilyenkov was protected by supportive directors of the Institute of Philosophy, but in the mid-1970s, B. S. Ukraintsev took over the Institute and the climate worsened significantly. A former KGB operative now working at the Institute, Elena Modrzhinskaya, went after Ilyenkov among others (I recently discovered that this was the same Elena Modrzhinskaya who was the KGB’s expert on the UK in the 1940s and author of a report on the activities of the Cambridge Spies). The situation gradually became intolerable for Ilyenkov, and in March 1979, he took his own life.
RM: That’s certainly a fascinating biography.
DB: So it is. However, the main reason I focused on Ilyenkov was the philosophical quality of his work. I was interested in the Russian tradition as a philosopher, not as an historian of ideas, let alone a sovietologist, so I wanted to work on someone philosophically exciting. At the same time, you can’t understand Ilyenkov’s contribution unless you place it in the context of the ideological clampdown under Stalin—out of which came the doctrines of “Marxism-Leninism”—and the debates in the 1920s that preceded Stalinism, especially the psychological theories of Lev Vygotsky (which are of course known in the West) and the bitter controversies between the school of Hegelian Marxists led by Abram Deborin and a group of positivistic Marxists, known as the mechanists. So you can’t really get Ilyenkov without knowing something about the whole history of philosophy in the Soviet Union. That’s why I felt he was a good person to organize the book around.
RM: Do Ilyenkov’s ideas have resonance for us today?
DB: I think so. In a recent article, Charles Taylor draws a grand distinction between, on the one hand, what he calls “mediational” conceptions of the relation between mind and world, according to which our minds are in touch with reality only via the mediation of mental representations (“ideas” in the classic Cartesian and empiricist versions), and, on the other hand, “contact theories” that hold that our minds are in immediate contact with reality. In the terms of Taylor’s dichotomy, Ilyenkov is a contact theorist, and much of my writing on Ilyenkov attempts to make sense of his distinctive view of the unity of mind and world, and to relate his work to Western thinkers on the same side of the dichotomy.
Ilyenkov’s primary influences are Spinoza, Hegel and Marx, but I have tried to bring his ideas into dialogue with Wittgenstein, Vygotsky, and McDowell, among others. In his work on “the problem of the ideal”, Ilyenkov argues that the ability of our minds to make contact with reality is enabled by the appropriation of social forms of thought embodied in culture. A human child is not simply born into a physical environment. She enters a world of meanings, norms, rules, traditions, practices, reasons, values, and so on—the ideal realm of thought, which is embodied not just in forms of social consciousness but in the very form that the humanised world takes on through our active engagement with it. And unlike the non-human animal, which is equipped to orientate itself in its natural environment by forms of life-activity encoded in its DNA, the human child is not by nature empowered to orientate herself in such a space of meanings. This facility she acquires only through initiation into culture, through upbringing and education. With this, the child attains a new form of existence or way of being: her mode of life is no longer confined by the demands of her immediate environment, but is open to and in touch with the world—to the universal, the infinite, the ideal. Or so Ilyenkov argues, at least as I read him. This is a very different picture from the “mediational” conception favoured by Descartes, the British empiricists, and Kant (at least on some readings of Kant).
Actually, I hope Taylor’s way of describing this dichotomy doesn’t catch on, because it’s wrong to imply that contact theorists like Ilyenkov hold that our relation to the world is unmediated. How could a Hegelian forswear mediation? It’s just that the “mediational means” (as Vygotskians like to say)—that is, concepts, social forms of thought and reasoning, tools of inquiry etc.—do not come between us and the world, but serve to put us in touch with reality. So I prefer a contrast between, on the one hand, what I have called “two worlds” theories, which work with an inner-outer distinction with thought and experience constituting a boundary between us and reality, and, on the other, monistic forms of realism that uphold the identity of thinking and being.
RM: Can you say more about Ilyenkov’s conception of the social? Didn’t you somewhere reject Ilyenkov’s social conception of personhood as empty?
DB: The article you are thinking of is a transcription of a seminar I gave way back in 1983 during my research year in Moscow. I was fascinated by Ilyenkov’s view of the significance of the social, but I was dissatisfied with a particular article of his, “What is a Person?”, which made claims about the social foundations of mind that struck me as either trivially true or just plain false. So I wrote a paper making that argument and presented it at a small seminar Mikhailov arranged for me. He invited some wonderful thinkers, including Vladimir Bibler, Vladislav Lektorsky, and the psychologist Vasili Davydov. All knew Ilyenkov very well (Lektorsky, for example, was his student and later became Ilyenkov’s head of department). Russians don’t tend to ask questions at seminars—rather, they stand up and reply to the paper. So I was lucky to have four brilliant responses to my argument. I recorded the session so that I could review it later. Later, I transcribed and translated the discussion from the Russian and it was published in Studies in East European Thought in 1995. I am very glad I did this, because it’s a record of the considerable oratorical skills of my interlocutors, and it really conveys the humanity of their philosophical interactions. It was also an important moment for me personally. That discussion, amplified by many one-on-one chats with Mikhailov, greatly influenced the way I came to see Ilyenkov.
RM: How common was it for Western philosophers to participate in such seminars in Russia?
DB: Very uncommon. Pretty much unprecedented, I think. The participants were brave to interact in this way with a Western researcher, even a very young and insignificant one. Such activities could be dangerous. The personhood seminar was held at the Institute of General and Pedagogical Psychology, where Mikhailov worked and Davydov was director. Later on, we tried to set up another meeting, with me speaking on the nature of mental phenomena, but by that time Davydov had been removed as director and the new leadership shut down our session when they learnt it was going on. We reconvened the next day at the Institute of Philosophy—Lektorsky set that up. Again, it was brave of him. This was, after all, only four years after Ilyenkov’s death and the climate had not changed all that much.
RM: You mentioned Vygotsky earlier as someone whose ideas you try to bring into dialogue with Ilyenkov’s. But weren’t their ideas in dialogue already?
DB: Yes and no. It’s not clear whether Ilyenkov had studied Vygotsky, whose works were suppressed during the Stalin period and only sporadically published thereafter. He was certainly influenced by (and influenced) one of Vygotsky’s students, Alexei Leontiev (who invited him to lecture to psychology students at MGU), and he worked closely with some younger psychologists and educationalists in the Vygotskian tradition, such as Davydov, and also Alexander Meshcheryakov, who was famous for his remarkable work on the education of deaf-blind individuals. The result is that there are some striking parallels, and some revealing differences, between Vygotsky’s and Ilyenkov’s perspectives, and so it’s a matter of arriving at a plausible reading of both that finds some synergy between their respective contributions.
RM: Tell us a bit more about Vygotsky and his significance.
DB: Vygotsky was born in 1896 into a secular Jewish family and brought up in the town of Gomel in Belarus. From 1913-17, he studied at Moscow University (at that time there was a quota on the number of Jews who could be admitted there—Vygotsky was successful in the lottery that determined who got in). In 1924, he made a huge impression when he gave a ground-breaking paper on the psychology of consciousness at a conference in Leningrad. Vygotsky sought to transcend both the introspectionist and the stimulus-response behaviourist approaches then dominant in psychology.
To this end he took a developmental perspective: if you want to understand the nature of mind, you have to comprehend how human psychological powers emerge and evolve in individual’s life. On the position he created, human beings are born with a range of elementary mental functions (involuntary memory, primitive speech and non-verbal thought, basic forms of attention, volition, desire, and emotion). These functions are essentially modular and they develop are part of the organism’s biological maturation. Each has its own path of development. In his masterpiece, Thought and Language (1934), Vygotsky argues that the crucial moment in psychological development is when the developmental trajectory of thought and speech collide. This is when the child starts deliberately to use sounds and gestures in problem-solving activity. At this point intellectual speech and linguistic thought become possible, a possibility made actual by the child’s acquisition of language. Now the child’s activity is mediated by meanings and this in turn makes possible the system of higher mental functions—propositional thinking and reasoning, voluntary memory and imagination, cognitive emotions, rational desire, and so on. Meaning makes possible the unity of this system, the unity of mind. Vygotsky is adamant that the transition from elementary to higher mental functions is facilitated by social factors. The child’s mental life takes shape as she internalizes the social forms of activity constitutive of the basic concepts and beliefs that form the background to our lives, and as she learns to manipulate the meanings that mediate her forms of thought. Here there are interesting parallels between Vygotsky and Wittgenstein, I think.
In addition to this basic picture of mind and its development, there is loads of other exciting material in Vygotsky. He died very young, in 1934, leaving behind material that fills six volumes of selected works, plus two further books (The Psychology of Art and Educational Psychology), and other writings. He has some fascinating things to say about concept development, about play, about apprenticeship models of learning, and about the state of psychology as a young, developing discipline, for example.
RM: Do you discuss Vygotsky in your 2011 book, The Formation of Reason?
DB: A little. But my more detailed treatments of Vygotsky’s ideas are in Consciousness and Revolution and “Vygotsky’s Demons”, a paper I wrote for the Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky. Many people write on Vygotsky, but few examine the philosophical substance of his ideas. I try to do that. He was a very philosophical thinker, and while his empirical research methods may have aged, some of his philosophical insights shine as brightly today as they did in Vygotsky’s time.
RM: Let’s go back to Ilyenkov and take up the issue of how his idea of the social self relates to discussions in Western philosophy?
DB: Well, a number of notable Western philosophers in the 20th century took the view that rational animals must be social beings. At the core of most such arguments is the idea that thinking, speaking, and acting intelligently are norm-governed activities. They are rational activities in the sense that they are governed by reasons. In a thought process, the movement from one thought to another is typically motivated by considerations about what it is appropriate to think in view of the evidence, in light of what the thinker already knows, and so on. And we understand, explain, and predict what people think in light of such rational considerations.
Thinking occurs in “the space of reasons”, to borrow the now-popular phrase, and the standards that govern it are essentially normative in character. Now, norms involve standards of correctness and, so it is argued, standards of correctness can’t just be—they must be instituted and administered. A person working alone could do no such thing, because that would involve her holding herself to standards she sets for herself and this would be like my right hand giving my left hand money, in Wittgenstein’s memorable analogy. But, so the argument goes, people working in consort can impose the necessary standards upon each other. So if there is to be thought and language, there must exist a community, and thus creatures with minds like ours must be members of communities.
An argument of this kind is found in Davidson (who attributes it to Wittgenstein) and Brandom (who traces it to Hegel). And you can read Ilyenkov’s work on the ideal as making a similar argument, taking the form of a social account of the sources of normativity. Indeed, read like this, one can see Ilyenkov as answering what Terry Pinkard calls “the Kantian paradox”—the issue of how our freedom can consist in our capacity to subordinate ourselves to norms that are in some sense our own creation.
I’m not so sure, however, it is right to see Ilyenkov as advancing an anthropocentric account of the sources of normativity. I prefer to explore the parallels between Ilyenkov’s work and the philosophy of John McDowell, who is sceptical of such anthropocentric accounts of how meaning and normativity are possible. McDowell holds that the distinctive character of human minds lies in our responsiveness to reasons; but responsiveness to reasons is something human beings acquire in the course of their upbringing and education (McDowell can’t find a suitable English word to express this, so he invokes the German Bildung, which has a similar etymology to the Russian obrazovanie). This is because responsiveness to reasons presupposes conceptual capacities that are acquired principally with the acquisition of language, which represents “initiation into the space of reasons”.
Ilyenkov is less focused on language than McDowell, although of course McDowell takes a more expansive view of language than many analytic philosophers, thinking of it as “an embodiment of mindedness”, “a repository of tradition”. On McDowell’s view, with the child’s entrance into language, she undergoes a radical transformation – she acquires a “second nature”. Here McDowell expresses his position in a way reminiscent of Ilyenkov: “It is not even clearly intelligible”, McDowell writes in Mind and World, “to suppose a creature might be born at home in the space of reasons. Human beings are not: they are born mere animals, and are transformed into thinkers and intentional agents in the course of coming to maturity”. McDowell goes so far as to describe this process as “the same thing as acquiring a mind, the capacity to think and act intentionally”. This really sounds like Ilyenkov.
RM: McDowell’s philosophy is the focus of The Formation of Reason. What drew you to his work?
DB: Well, I first read McDowell as an undergraduate at Keele. I studied some of his ethical writings. They really impressed me. Jonathan Dancy and I spent a lot of time discussing these works, sometimes with David McNaughton. Jonathan and David ran a joint seminar on metaethics. I resolved to work with McDowell after I finished my research in Moscow, so that’s what I did. I went to Oxford and he supervised me. Of course, he didn’t know much about Russian philosophy—he had to trust me on that—but he was a wonderful supervisor nonetheless. I found him amazingly insightful. He supervised me for two years, by which time the core ideas of my dissertation were in place. Then he left for Pittsburgh in, I guess, 1986. I love his work and very much admire his style of writing, although I know it’s not to everyone’s taste. He’s a really deep thinker who has made a tremendous impact on the discipline.
RM: So what are the principal themes of The Formation of Reason?
DB: Well, the book opens by exploring various accounts of the social character of mind, focusing on Davidson, Wittgenstein, and McDowell, and taking up the notion of Bildung. I then spend a chapter on some social constructionist accounts of mind and reality, of which I am not enamoured, so that chapter is about how not to do things. Thereafter, I draw on Strawson and Wiggins to develop an account of personhood that recognizes the intimate intermingling of the rational and the animal in our lives—here the idea of second nature gets some play. I then defend McDowell’s claim, which has its origins in Kant and Hegel, that rational necessitation is constitutive of freedom—i.e. that to be free is to be an inhabitant of the space of reasons. This leads to the view that autonomy is the power to determine for oneself what to think and do in light of what there is (most) reason to think and do, a view that, I argue, has consequences for philosophy of education, among other things.
The next chapter is devoted to a discussion of the idea of the space of reasons, contrasting McDowell and Brandom, and introducing Ilyenkov as a foil for McDowell. I suggest a kind of rapprochement between their respective approaches. I then consider whether the resulting picture is too rationalistic, which leads me to the McDowell-Dreyfus controversy, now a hot topic, and to a consideration of about various “border phenomena” such as mood and music. Finally, I suggest that McDowell’s work might profit from incorporating some Vygotskian themes and explore some further consequences for our understanding of education.
RM: McDowell’s philosophy rejects the view of many naturalistic philosophers that philosophy should be continuous with science, not just consistent with it. But your placing McDowell within Ilyenkov’s orbit suggests that you read McDowell as a naturalistic philosopher? Is this right?
DB: Well, McDowell is a naturalistic philosopher. He just refuses to make a gift of the concept of nature to thinkers who insist that a phenomenon is natural only if it can be exhaustively explained by natural-scientific methods. Our rational powers do not lend themselves to natural-scientific explanation, but that doesn’t make them non-natural. We just need to work with a broader conception of nature. That’s his point. Ilyenkov and Vygotsky would agree with him, at least in spirit, though they would prefer to say we should work with a broader conception of science than what typically passes for scientific understanding. But the point is basically the same.
RM: The book is published in a series on philosophy of education. How did that come about?
DB: Well I didn’t set out to write a book on philosophy of education. That happened because of the influence of a number of friends and colleagues, particularly Jan Derry at the Institute of Education in London. Jan invited me to speak at the Institute back in 2002 and I was struck by how vibrant the place seemed. Since then I have given many talks at the Institute—I have had an on-going visiting position there so I return whenever I can. I always profit from discussions at the Institute, where the audience is far less predictable than your standard philosophy crowd and I am forced to think outside the box, if I can put it like that. So educational themes started to creep into my work—hardly surprising since I was thinking about Bildung—and Paul Standish invited me to submit my manuscript to the book series of the Journal for Philosophy of Education, which I was delighted to do. But I hope it will be seen as a work of philosophy discussing educational themes among many other things, rather than as a work in a specialized sub-discipline, which it definitely is not. I don’t think of myself as a philosopher of education, but as a philosopher whose interests include the nature and significance of education.
It’s too bad that mainstream philosophical discussion is so disinterested in education, since our capacity to educate and be educated is a defining feature of the human condition. Ilyenkov saw this, and wrote some nice pieces on education. But Western philosophers typically pay the concept of education little mind. This is not helped by the standard institutional arrangement that places philosophers of education in separate faculties or schools of education, often set apart from the rest of the university. If my work helps people overcome some of these institutional barriers I would be pleased.
RM: What have you done since The Formation of Reason?
DB: Brad Hooker, Maggie Little, and I have just finished editing a collection on the work of Jonathan Dancy. It’s called Thinking About Reasons. We’re very pleased with it.
RM: You’ve written a number of articles on particularism over the years, haven’t you?
DB: That’s right. I think Dancy’s particularism is almost right, but I feel his view needs to be supplemented with a rather richer conception of moral life than particularists usually deliver. It won’t do just to say that the morally adept agent gets things right case by case. That’s too thin a picture. You need an account of the integrity of moral personality, of the nature of moral commitment, and so on. I first raised this complaint, and tried to respond to it, in an article in 2000, and I take up that kind of issue again in the new collection. In the meantime, I have written on particularism and various topics, including moral education, humour, and pragmatism.
RM: Do you see connections between your writings in moral philosophy and your other interests?
DB: Yes, definitely. Dancy’s particularism was inspired in part by those early essays of McDowell’s that we were reading all those years ago in Keele. And McDowell takes Aristotle’s view of the development of moral character as his model when he is discussing Bildung and the acquisition of second nature, from which we might infer that facility within certain normative domains involves forms of rational responsiveness that cannot be codified into rules and principles, but which rest fundamentally on shared sensibility. Hence, initiation into the domain involves, not the grasping of rules, but (at least in part) the development of sensitivity to what matters here in its particularlity. There. That pulls some of the threads together!
RM: Apart from McDowell and Dancy, who else would you consider a significant influence on your approach to philosophy?
DB: Well there’s Felix Mikhailov, of course. Felix died in 2006 and I miss him very much. We were great friends. He was always full of ideas, and he had a marvellous sense of humour—being with him was always tremendous fun. In many ways we were very different thinkers, but we shared certain core values about what’s important in philosophy, and in life in general. Another important influence is my wife, Christine Sypnowich. We met as graduate students at Oxford. Christine was writing her DPhil—which became her 1990 book, The Concept of Socialist Law—at the same time as I was working on my doctorate on Soviet philosophy, and we had many, many discussions of our respective projects. I credit Christine for teaching me how to write, and for helping me get my philosophical priorities straight—she helped me see the limits of technicality and formalism and the value making oneself understood to a wide audience. This has stood me in good stead, I think. She’s also great fun. The Formation of Reason is dedicated to her.
RM: Let’s return briefly to your work on philosophy of education and on Russian philosophy. What next for you in those areas?
DB: I just finished a paper on the place of Hegel in Ilyenkov’s philosophy—I wrote it for a conference on “Hegel in Russia” staged by the Jordan Center at NYU. As for philosophy of education, I have been reading Michael Oakeshott. The Formation of Reason makes a big deal of autonomy as the end of education, an idea that also finds expression (albeit a rather different expression) in the so-called London School of philosophy of education—e.g. R.S. Peters, Paul Hirst, Robert Dearden, writing in the 1960s and 1970s. They were much influenced by Oakeshott. So I thought I should read him carefully. Oakeshott’s famous metaphor of education as “initiation into the conversation of mankind” is still often cited, principally by people out to resist the culture of managerialism and instrumentalism in educational policy and theory. So I’ve been writing about that—the trick is to try to purge the metaphor of the elements of elitism and ethnocentrism that arguably infect its initial formulation, while affirming some of the core educational values that Oakeshott brings into view.
RM: How easy is it redeem Oakeshott’s views?
DB: Well, of course, if you start speaking of “the conversation of mankind”, it invites the questions, “What do you mean the conversation?…Whose conversation, exactly?”. And when Oakeshott identifies the conversation of mankind with culture or civilization, it’s easy to assume we must be talking about the history of Western civilisation as narrated by the dominant voices in the Western tradition of thought. Perhaps that’s Oakeshott’s view, but you don’t have to read him like that. The metaphor of conversation is, after all, a vision of diverse voices seeking to make themselves understood in dialogue with one another, a dialogue which respects conversational virtues—the importance of listening, tolerance, imagination, humour, and the pleasure of the free play of ideas. It’s importance to realise that the conversation of mankind is, at least in part, something constructed from the perspective of scholars and students trying to make sense of an intellectual culture, or the interplay of cultures. Oakeshott tells us to think of this as a matter of the interplay of contrasting voices—such as the voices of science, politics, poetry (i.e. literature and the arts), religion, history, and so on. It’s not that those who speak in their different voices are really in dialogue with one another—for the most part they don’t engage with one another. But the student of ideas has to see an intellectual culture as a unity and Oakeshott tells us to think of the principle of unification as conversation.
Oakeshott’s idea of the nature of liberal education also remains powerful, as does his vision of a university as a place removed, where students can engage in intellectual reflection unencumbered by the practical necessities and instrumental priorities of everyday life. I don’t see this as an elitist ideal—all students should have the benefit of such a time of reflection. Of course, it may be that when it comes to the ideals of liberal education, the ship has sailed. Well, maybe not sailed, but we are definitely marching up the gangplank to the call of “All aboard!”. So I think it’s vital to affirm the core values of a university education and to fight for them where it is still possible to do so.
RM: And finally, for the ed phiers here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend that will help us understand your philosophical world (other than your own of course which we’ll be dashing away to read straight after this)?
DB: I shall set aside the obvious—Dancy, Ilyenkov, McDowell, Vygotsky, Wittgenstein, etc.—and name the following: Felix Mikhailov, The Riddle of the Self; Richard Moran, Authority and Estrangement; Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal Learning; Sebastian Rödl, Self-Consciousness; and David Wiggins, Needs, Values, Truth. (That’s how it looks right now, but it’s a pretty mutable list, as I guess everyone’s must be. I’m presently reading Meredith Williams’s Blind Obedience with great pleasure—that might push out Oakeshott if it finishes as well as it’s begun!) And if I’m allowed an album too, then it’s For Your Pleasure: the Second Roxy Music Album.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 14th, 2013.