THE THURSDAY BOOK: The Philosophy of Self-Justification ; Nature and Mortality: Recollections of a Philosopher in Public Life Mary Warnock Continuum, Pounds 18.99

By Vallely, Paul | The Independent (London, England), March 27, 2003 | Go to article overview
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THE THURSDAY BOOK: The Philosophy of Self-Justification ; Nature and Mortality: Recollections of a Philosopher in Public Life Mary Warnock Continuum, Pounds 18.99


Vallely, Paul, The Independent (London, England)


CAN YOU be too honest writing about yourself? Mary Warnock turned to her diaries to produce her new book and, early on, announces that that re-reading them bored even her. The difference between an autobiography and a memoir is that the former has to be "transmuted into something durably significant". The latter, it seems, is allowed to be transitory and trifling, even with a title as portentous as this.

Warnock is the Oxbridge philosopher best known for reports on everything from the education of what she unfashionably calls "handicapped children" to the administration of the arts - taking in human fertilisation and embryology and the welfare of laboratory animals.

What you might have expected was some kind of philosophical reflection that unites her approach to these disparate subjects. What you get is an odd mixture of self-justification, gossip and bald judgements on the people she encountered on her various committees. It is full of curiously uninteresting remarks about her secretaries' skirts and whether some civil servant was Jewish, and the occasionally intriguing aside, such as the woman who "walked as old-fashioned ladies did, with her toes turned out". For a philosopher who is a consequentialist there is something unnervingly inconsequential about it all.

But she does throw some light on the background to those reports. I don't mean the creaking of Warnock's hobby-horses: on the decline in excellence in the arts, the need for more elitism in education or her curious assertion that experimentation on two laboratory animals is no worse than on one.

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THE THURSDAY BOOK: The Philosophy of Self-Justification ; Nature and Mortality: Recollections of a Philosopher in Public Life Mary Warnock Continuum, Pounds 18.99
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