A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000

By Bruce Kuklick | Go to book overview

13 Harvard and Oxford, 1946-1975

The Institutional Nexus

In 1935 a young philosophy don in Oxford, England, Isaiah Berlin, was browsing in a local bookstore and ran across C. I. Lewis's Mind and the World-Order. Intrigued by the volume, Berlin arranged a seminar on it attended by a number of English philosophers, among them A. J. Ayer, Stuart Hampshire, and J. L. Austin, all of whom were impressed by this systematic treatise. Wilfrid Sellars, then a peripetetic graduate student, attended and later recalled the interchanges over the book as 'the highlight' of his year. During World War II Berlin served as an attaché to the British Foreign Office in Washington, DC, and made direct contact with Harvard pragmatism when he journeyed to Cambridge, Massachusetts. This was surely not the first connection between English philosophers and the United States. In the second decade of the century, as I have noted, Bertrand Russell, then at Cambridge University and at the height of his fame, visited Harvard, and in a celebrated case twenty-five years later was denied the right to teach at the City College of New York, because of his radical reputation. In the mid- 1920s Harvard, again, obtained the services of Alfred North Whitehead, who left the University of London. Berlin's trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, however, initiated a much more sustained tie between Oxford University and Harvard, and one in which the English pursued the Americans. Moreover, it endured to shape the dialogue of professional philosophy in the United States for twenty-five years.

Berlin's role in the creation of this tie was that of intellectual middleman, and on the American side of the water a similar middleman, Morton White, a Columbia Ph.D. who went on to a position at Harvard in 1948, assisted him. White struck up a friendship with Berlin when the Englishman returned to Harvard in 1949, and in the spring of 1951, White spent a term in Oxford meeting Berlin's philosopher friends, who were proponents of something called conceptual analysis.

Analysis was a strand of thought originally identified with Cambridge, England, and the views of its thinkers, G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, and Russell's student, Wittgenstein, who also taught there, though he

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