Sunday, September 28, 2014

A question of fairness

On May 7 of this year I offered my paper on ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ (available on my website to the Master of Balliol. Having received no response, I brought the paper to the attention of every Balliol Fellow, asking them to support my request that I may be allowed to present it at the College, but received no reply. In a similar way I then addressed Fellows of other Oxford University Colleges, with no positive result. It appears that Oxford academics have no time to look at the paper and consider it on its merits. May I therefore appeal to their sense of fairness? I believe that Oxford University owes me an opportunity to present the paper to its students and academics.

To make the point, let me begin with a quotation from Nick Cohen’s ‘The Pub philosopher’ (published in The Independent Magazine, 18 November 1989): ‘When Julius Tomin, the then celebrated Czech dissident, fled to Oxford nearly 10 years ago, he was welcomed as a hero and an intellectual star. Now he is reduced to giving his philosophy lectures in a Swindon saloon bar. The judgments passed by Oxford dons seem outrageously brutal … Jonathan Barnes, Professor of Ancient Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford, impatiently brushed aside the suggestion that the Conservative’s reduction in funding for British philosophy since 1980 might explain why there was never an academic post for Tomin at Oxford. “That’s not the point at all,” he said. “He would not be accepted as a graduate here, let alone be given a teaching job.”

As if responding to the same suggestion, Barbara Day writes in The Velvet Philosophers (published in 1999 by The Claridge Press, p. 45): ‘The fact that some of his [i.e. Tomin’s] theories on Plato were dismissed by other academics was less important than the narrowness of his specialisation; his knowledge of certain parts of Plato’s work was more thorough than that of any philosopher in Oxford, but his limited acquaintance with the breadth of western philosophy would have been unacceptable in any of the posts for which he diligently applied.’ – In fact I did not apply for any posts; instead,  I regularly informed Oxford dons of the progress of my work, each time asking them to allow me to present my views to them and to Oxford students.

Let me quote from a letter in which I informed the Editor of The Oxford Times about my controversy with Oxford dons and asked him to inform his readers about my forthcoming lectures on Plato: ‘The Sub-faculty of Philosophy has finally agreed to allow me to present my lectures at the Philosophy Centre in Michaelmas Term, but refused to advertise them on the Lecture List or even in the University Gazette. May I therefore appeal to a broader public at Oxford, who may be interested in Plato as one of the most precious treasures of our common cultural heritage, to attend my lectures?’ The Editor wrote to me in his reply: ‘I have read everything you sent me, and I’ve read it twice. I keep being reminded of that World War Two story about a battleship off the coast of Scotland in a dense fog. Seeing a light appear dead ahead, the ship’s signalman was ordered to send his message: “You are on a collision course – alter your course to port immediately.” The light remained where it was. The order was repeated. The light continued to shine dimly through the fog in exactly the same place. So the signalman was given a fresh order to send: “Alter your course immediately – I am an admiral.” A signalling lamp blinked back: ‘I am a lighthouse keeper.” In Oxford University, I believe you have found your lighthouse. There are simply some things in life about which there is no point in arguing, leaving you little choice but to alter your course if you are to stay afloat.’

‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ shows that my ‘specialisation’ has been anything but narrow. Oxford dons inadvertently opened for me the possibility to devote myself fully to philosophy. There are two fields of enquiry to which I have devoted myself: Ancient Philosophy and the study of human nature. Had I been given an academic job, I could never have progressed in these two subjects as far as I did. The question is whether the students of classics and classical philosophy at Oxford University and at all the universities on which Oxford exercises its influence in this academic domain, especially students at Charles' University in Prague have not been seriously wronged by the refusal of Oxford dons to allow me to present to them my views on philosophy and defend them in an open public discussion. For I have opened a completely new approach to the subject.

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