A philosopher remembers

Brief Encounters: Notes From A Philosopher’s Diary

Anthony Kenny

SPCK, hb, £20.00

Walter Lippmann famously remarked of Franklin Roosevelt that he may have a second class mind but he had a first class temperament.

Roy Jenkins (a subject in this book) was seen as condescending when he applied the same quotation to Tony Blair. Jenkins, of course, had a first class degree. I have only had brief encounters with Tony Kenny but on the evidence of what I have seen and of his achievements in life I would say he is blessed with both a first class temperament and a first class mind. The evidence of Kenny’s intellectual ability is not hard to find. He is a distinguished philosopher who has written over 40 books, including a magisterial history of philosophy. But the positions he has held during his adult life – Master of Balliol, Warden of Rhodes House, President of the British Academy and Chair of the Board of the British Library – suggest that he has the temperament of a leader.

This new book, which consists of short pieces on over 60 people Kenny has known in life, gives some insights into his character. He became Master of Balliol because people wanted someone who was a reconciler and held a more centrist position than the previous Master, the Marxist historian Christopher Hill. Kenny, a centrist, not an extremist, tells us that even if he voted with the left he drank with the right.

In all the character sketches he provides Kenny tries to see people’s achievement and good points. Only about Charles Haughey is he completely critical, saying in a brief passage describing their one encounter that no one has told him as many lies as Haughey.

Kenny studied at the English College in Rome and was ordained as a Catholic priest. He lost his faith, moved to Oxford where he has spent 50 years and married. He describes himself as an agnostic but as an occasional churchgoer. A number of Anglicans feature.

He wrote a dissertation in Rome on Austin Farrer who invited Kenny to Oxford to discuss what he had written. Kenny describes Farrer as ‘quite the intellectual equal of (Gilbert) Ryle, (JL) Austin, and (AJ) Ayer” but argues his work did not receive the attention it deserves ‘because of its idiosyncratic vocabulary and conceptual structure’.

Kenny also has kind words for Henry Chadwick and Richard Harries, saying that if he does have a deathbed conversion ‘there is no Christian priest I would rather have at my bedside than Richard Harries”.
There is a great deal about philosophers. As well as an entry for herself, Elizabeth Anscombe figures in a number of other entries. Despite her rudeness to Kenny when he married without a papal dispensation he writes of her in a friendly way without ignoring her eccentricities.

He describes her husband, Peter Geach, as one of the dozen best British philosophers of the 20th century. William Van Orman Quine of Harvard is described as the towering philosophical figure during Kenny’s career. Politicians appear in these pages including three Prime Ministers (Thatcher, Macmillan and Heath), two who didn’t quite make it (Jenkins and Healey) and one who still might make it (Boris Johnson).

Johnson failed to gain a first but he was given a viva and Kenny spent the best part of a day going over likely questions. Clearly the pastoral heart of a priest lives on in the academic. There is a touching story of Heath’s generosity. Every summer £200 mysteriously appeared in Kenny’s bank account.

It stopped appearing after Heath’s death and Kenny wonders how many people received a gift for their holiday expenses from the former Prime Minister. But it is a judge who gains the greatest respect from Kenny. He describes Tom Bingham, a former Lord Chief Justice, as of all the people he has known the one he most admires.

He describes him as a deeply serious man who tried to get at the truth on any issue and weigh arguments carefully. Balliol chose Bingham as the college visitor in succession to another judge, Jim Kilbrandon. Bill Clinton went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar before Kenny became Warden of Rhodes House and while he was Master of Balliol. Years later Kenny revealed to Clinton that he had been turned down by Balliol and passed on to University College.

Clinton said he didn’t mind at all. He had been very happy at University. The proof of that, which Kenny does not mention, is that Chelsea Clinton went to her father’s old college. Kenny mentions his role in chairing a debate at Oxford between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams.

He admits that he could not resist making several interventions to correct erroneous arguments from Dawkins. I reported on the debate for the Church of england newspaper (pictured above). As we entered the hall afterwards for refreshments I heard an angry Dawkins complain ‘I thought philosophers were meant to clarify not obfuscate’. Kenny has given us some wonderful, clear pen portraits of some of the significant people of his lifetime.

Paul Richardson