Professor Frank Cioffi

Article excerpt

Philosopher and authority on Freud

Frank Cioffi was a remarkable member of the early-1950s Oxford generation of philosophers. In his later career he was known for the fresh, original, combative precision of his essays and lectures, his half-century of critical engagement with Freud and his illuminating explorations of often neglected aspects of Wittgenstein's later works. The enormous range of his reading and conversation provided a wealth of accessible examples, often humorous or earthy, to anchor difficult philosophical points. His explorations of the character, scope and complexity of humane knowledge offer strength to those who seek to develop a philosophy of the humanities to supplement or rival the philosophy of science and expand our philosophical understanding of human knowledge.

Cioffi moved from an early fascination with Popper's falsifiability test for distinguishing science from pseudo-science to a view that criticisms of Freud as a defective scientist were misguided. He saw Freud as a flawed humanist whose insights were comparable to Nietzsche's and the great novelists of his time. Among psychologists he preferred the restlessly inquisitive William James to Freud, whose faults, he held, were grounded in failures of integrity as a humanistic investigator rather than in failures of scientific method.

As an undergraduate, Cioffi was struck that some Oxford philosophers, so careful in their analysis of philosophical doctrines, failed to extend their sceptical caution to the examination of Freudian views. He was especially impatient with those he considered to be apologists: he held that they failed to ask crucial questions.

Cioffi's commitment, drawn from Wittgenstein, to looking at cases rather than relying on received views can be shown by his famous intervention in an Oxford discussion of how to characterise our perception of a straight stick that looked bent when half-immersed in water. In what seemed to be tiresome pedantry he brought a stick in a bucket of water to a lecture and gained agreement that the stick was straight but appeared to be bent. He then pulled the stick from the water to reveal that this stick was in fact bent. In the same vein, Cioffi began preparation of many papers and lectures by assembling examples to explore the variety and complexity of the domain he was investigating.

He was impressed by Wittgenstein's anti-scientism but also argued that in some cases, but not all, scientific understanding does have a bearing on our humanistic philosophical concerns. He sought to distinguish between what we take comfort from in believing and what we are justified in believing. His concern for explanation was expressed in his frustration with what he saw as a lack of explanatory power in the sociologist Erving Goffman's riveting studies of the presentation of self in everyday life. …