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from The Philosophical Society Review No.10 (1988)

The Beginnings of the Philosophical Society 1972-1982

by Dr A. S. Chadwick

When the Philosophical Society was established in 1972 it rested on foundations laid by the regular programme of tutorial classes offered by the University Department for External Studies. The staff tutor in Philosophy (A.S.C. in this period) planned about 10 courses each year, teaching half of them himself and arranging for the rest to be taught by part-time tutors. In nine or ten centres in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire, philosophy classes met for two hours per week for 24 weeks, sharing between them a total enrolment of 150 to 200 students. It was in these classes that many people had their first encounter with philosophy, presented in a language they understood.

Surprisingly, the novices were able to mingle happily with more experienced students. In discussion periods the more advanced stimulated the beginners who in turn demanded of the tutor plain answers to intelligible questions!

Whenever possible a three year course was offered and many classes continued much longer: at Oxford for 10 years; at Great Missenden for 8; and at Gerrards Cross the class is still going strong after sixteen years in which membership has seldom fallen below 18.

Keen and gifted students reached a high degree of competence and all who persisted found themselves in a universe of thought which illuminated problems even when they could not be resolved. "To think the thoughts of great men after them" was in itself a liberation from the dogmatism of "common sense" opinions. A number of students who wanted the challenge and achievement of a University degree have successfully achieved this ambition either at London University or more recently through the Open University.

It was through the work of the tutorial classes, where students were encouraged to read philosophical texts and to submit "written work", that a large body of keen students was built up, and it was they who came to form the nucleus of the Philosophical Society. The first step towards the formation of the Society was the institution of residential weekend courses at Rewley House, made possible by the extension of our accommodation through a generous grant from the Kellogg foundation. A Linked Weekend Course in Philosophy was established in 1965, meeting once a month from October to March and offering a tutorial class to students who did not have one in their locality. It also provided a brief taste of "collegiate" life, where the discussions of the classroom could be continued over meals and sometimes well into the night.

In May 1971 and again in June 1972 we ran a Philosophy weekend course, with visiting lecturers, and had a good response. In the June course Keith Gore of Worcester College lectured on the theme of "Alienation" in Sartre and Camus to an audience of 55 students: a group which strained the capacity of our largest lecture room, and entailed the boarding out of some of the participants.

The success of these courses encouraged us to suggest a regular programme of lecture courses of this kind at least on two or three weekends a year. The idea was discussed with some of our regular students, who gave it enthusiastic support. It was agreed that we should form a Philosophical Society in which students could take an active part. in planning the programme. All our existing classes were approached and a membership roll built up.

In the first membership list we made, in 1972, students were entered in groups according to the classes they attended — Oxford, Aylesbury, Wendover, Bletchley, Thame, High Wycombe, Gerrards Cross, Maidenhead, Slough, and Great Missenden. A few students came from further afield, some of them through the Annual Summer School in which seminars in philosophy were given. We had a mailing list of 112 students by the end of the Summer of 1972 and 66 had paid the membership fee of 25p. (We wanted no-one to be deprived of philosophy for financial reasons)!

The first lectures offered by the Philosophical Society were given by Anthony Quinton in a one day school on Saturday October 21st 1972, which was very successful. It was, however, the huge success of a series of University Extension Lectures given in the spring of 1973 which made us aware of the widespread interest in philosophy and gave us an impetus to satisfy it more adequately. There were six weekly lectures on contemporary philosophy given by distinguished philosophers in the Museum Lecture Hall. The series was widely advertised and attracted large audiences reaching a peak for Gilbert Ryle's evening when in a packed hall around 400 students heard a lecture which, he said, had first been given twenty years before! Many of our regular students attended these lectures and found the encounters of lively minds in a large University forum very exciting.

It was clear that the success of these lectures rested largely on the appeal of the distinguished lecturers. We were left wondering how we could best take advantage of our privileged position as part of a University with an international reputation in Philosophy.

There was no possibility of offering Extension Lectures frequently, and in any case a series of public lectures every two or three years was not likely to build up a stable group of philosophy students. Yet we could exploit our favoured position by arranging more frequent visits of distinguished lecturers to our own residential centre at Rewley House. Here we could have five or six lectures in a weekend with one or two outstanding lecturers and ample opportunity for discussion both in and out of the classroom.

Lecturers were booked in advance for weekends in March, June and October 1973. At the same time the Society was given a more formal structure. A set of "Guidelines" was approved; officers were appointed — a president, chairman and secretary/treasurer (the latter was scarcely a full—time job on a membership fee of 25p per year!). A student committee was elected and held its first meeting in November 1973.

It would take more space than is available to me to give an adequate account of the first ten years of the Society's activities (1972—1982). A brief assessment must suffice. Perhaps on another occasion we may record reminiscences of occasions when we found pleasure and intellectual stimulation discussing philosophical problems with a group we had come to know as familiar friends.

The Society has been remarkable for the diversity of its students. We have few professional philosophers but many well qualified in other related disciplines. There is a wide range in age and some of the older students bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the discussions. There is seldom a topic raised where we do not have expert opinion available.

We have sought a similar diversity in the subjects chosen for the lectures. We have rejected the narrow dogmatism of the recent past and have tended to favour the discussion of problems relevant to life. Our lecturers have represented many different philosophical positions, and have included a number from other universities including a Professor of Philosophy from Edinburgh.

We have benefited greatly from the generous support of many Oxford dons who have lectured for us and helped to make our work known to the University at large. These have included Gilbert Ryle, Richard Hare, Rom Harré, Anthony Kenny, W.H. Walsh, John Lucas, Mary Warnock and many more.

Two continuing features of the Society were established in this period: the offering of bursaries to students on a restricted income, and a lending library of our own. Small bursaries were offered from the start and became more generous largely because of an annual donation which arrived regularly from Australia. Joan Price after six years in a class at Bletchley had joined the Society foundation in 1972. Shortly afterwards she married an Australian and went "down under". She kept in touch and sent her donations because she had once received a Bursary from the Department and wanted to help others in need. She and her husband - Tom Oswald - gave to the Library the seven volumes of Copleston' s History of Philosophy. They both returned to England and became active members and Joan is now librarian.

This task she took over from Ruth Bunting who had organized the Library from its foundation in 1979. We had found ourselves unexpectedly owning a small collection of books bequeathed to us by Philip Bingham. Philip was busy working on a book on "The Provenance of Value" which he did not live to finish (a typed copy of his unfinished work is in the Library). The initial collection of books has been increased by gifts and purchases which have made the Library an important adjunct to our work.

I wish I had room for a "Roll of Honour" - to thank students who have worked hard for the success of the Society, but it would be too long . Among such a list Margaret Norman, our editor, who first attended Oxford classes in 1963, would have a place; and so would Denise Cavenagh our secretary treasurer for many years. To them and many more I am deeply indebted.

My final word is one of gratitude to the students who have taught me as I have tried to teach them - for I have always found teaching the pleasantest way to learn. The Philosophical Society is the culmination of many years of teaching, forging links between our varied programmes, tutorial classes, linked weekends, University Extension Lectures, Surnmer School seminars - and bringing together students from a wide geographical area. It is an association of students who enjoy being together and welcome all who are ready to seek through rational discussion "to see the world aright".

It has been a special joy in retirement on the south coast to direct students of the classes I now teach at Chichester and Worthing to join the Society and to have in my classes two students I first taught at Oxford. The Society is nation-wide in its outreach and its influence spreads far beyond the Oxford area. Perhaps we can plant a few "colonies" in the provinces.