Freedom of the Individual
Because Professor Stuart Hampshire of Princeton is a philosophical analyst who can write very well, who is learned without being pompous, and civilized without being an intellectual snob, he represents something extremely valuable in philosophy today. Hampshire has written on fiction, on politics, and on contrary-to-fact conditionals; he has expounded Spinoza brilliantly for Penguin Books; he has edited a Mentor paperback on the Age of Reason. And unlike so many of his contemporaries among British and American philosophers, Hampshire is neither a manqué mathematician nor a pedant, as his book Thought and Action clearly shows. He is, to his credit, a humanist who argues for his views, and he can do so effectively in a variety of situations—from All Souls to Princeton, and from the pages of the Oxford Mind, to those of London’s New Statesman. Hampshire is, I dare say, American philosophy’s most versatile English acquisition since Whitehead.
Having said this, however, I must add that this book is not in itself a sample of Hampshire’s versatility, nor, in spite of its title, an expression of his interest in politics. Furthermore, it is not so well-written as one might have expected, for it is quite obscure at many places. True, it is characterized by a good deal of the orderliness that one associates with analytic philosophy. There is much talk about what is meant by statements and what they entail; there are distinctions between what is normative and what is not; there are many confident assertions about what is and what is not a necessary truth. But over the whole tough, formidable framework there seems to hang a kind of elegant mist that often prevents us from understanding the author’s intentions. At times therefore one may feel frustrated while reading the book, but if one sympathetically recognizes how difficult Hampshire’s topic is, one will think twice and read it more than once. I approached the book in the second way and will report some of my findings and reactions, with the distinct fear that I may have misunderstood Hampshire and that I may be oversimplifying his views.
As a product of Oxford in the last generation Hampshire is of course a linguistic philosopher. By this I mean that he believes that the careful study of language can help us clarify, solve, or dissolve philosophical problems, both old and new. And like most Oxford philosophers of his generation Hampshire is deeply affected by the idea of Wittgenstein that language has many uses, only one of which is the scientific use of describing or stating facts. The idea is a banal one from one point of view, since every schoolboy knows—or used to know—that there are interrogative and imperative sentences as well as declarative sentences, and that we do not describe or state facts when we ask questions or issue commands. But banal as the idea is, it becomes very powerful when applied to certain sentences which might be supposed by a simple-minded …