My Intellectual Identity

I chose to read philosophy (called, quaintly, 'moral sciences' at Cambridge in those days) because that seemed to be a first step on my chosen career. My role model was Sartre, whose prose, passing easily (as it seemed to me then) from the abstract to the concrete and from the general to the particular, wound philosophy and poetry together in a seamless web, which was also a web of seeming.

Sartre aimed to show the world as it seems, with its felt intricacies exposed. From him I learned that the intellectual life is not an affair of the academy only, and indeed that its most important instances belong outside the academy, in the various activities around art, literature and music, through which the world strives to become conscious of itself. I stopped short of thinking, as Sartre did, that the end point of the intellectual life is political commitment. Strangely, however, my a-political stance became, in due course, a kind of politics, and within a few years of graduating from Cambridge I had become passionately political, though in the opposite direction from Sartre, whose antics in 1968 alienated me from him completely. (See my 'Confessions of a Sceptical Francophile', on this web-site.)

I admired the way philosophy was taught in Cambridge, as a hard and scientific discipline, and believed that it would be possible in some way to combine that discipline with the artistic way of life. But I did not know how to do it, and felt that I should go out into the world and try my hand as a writer, rather than become locked into the confined realm of scholarship. I was a year in France and some time in Italy, carrying around the draft of an unpublishable novel, and filling my notebooks with sketches that led to nothing. I guess this is a fairly normal experience at that age.

After two years I gave up, returning to Cambridge to study for a doctorate in aesthetics, hoping that I could supply what I lacked in literary talent with a long spell of hard intellectual work. Unsurprisingly, therefore, I found myself taking the first steps towards an academic career. Following the offer of a research fellowship at Peterhouse I pursued that career from 1969 until 1990, ending as professor of aesthetics in the department of philosophy at Birkbeck College London. I had chosen aesthetics as my field in the hope that it would somehow unite my many interests around a common discipline.

During my years as a professional philosopher I became active in journalism, with a weekly column in the London Times, and an unpaid and onerous position as editor of the Salisbury Review (onerous because the Review was subjected to constant unscrupulous attacks from the Left). My experiences renewed the desire to live as an independent intellectual, a condition that I achieved in 1994, after a brief spell teaching one semester a year in Boston University. By that time I had published some works of fiction and also written a one-act opera, The Minister, and some songs. I went on to work, with much greater ease than before, in the various genres that had become familiar to me: philosophical dialogues (Xanthippic Dialogues, which also tell a story), fiction (Perictione in Colophon, a sequel to Xanthippic Dialogues), autobiographical reflections (Gentle Regrets), aesthetics (The Aesthetics of Music), philosophical reflections on life and culture (On Hunting, I Drink Therefore I Am, etc.) and, more recently, reflections on religion and its place in our world today (The Face of God, Our Church). I returned to composing in 2004, with the two-act opera Violet, based on Jessica Douglas-Home's biography of her great aunt Violet Gordon Woodhouse.

My own view is that all these enterprises belong together. I have been trying to define, to the best of my ability, a response to the modern world that will make sense of it. By 'making sense' I mean roughly what Sartre would have meant: showing the meaning that is revealed in appearances, exploring the invitations to be, to act, to feel that come to us from the way the world seems. How things are is the province of science; how they seem is the province of art, culture and philosophy. Seeming is more important than being, since it shapes the human condition, and embodies within itself all the aspects of the world that make our lives worthwhile. But there are aspects of seeming – maybe the most important – that elude the uneducated mind, and which must be brought to our attention if we are to live to our best ability. Music, rightly understood, enables us to move with others and with their experience, and so to achieve the goal that Sartre believed to be impossible, of being at home in another's point of view. That is why music (which meant nothing to Sartre) has meant so much to me, and why I have tried from time to time to find a musical idiom that would convey what I want to say. 

My view of philosophy has been influenced by the concept of the Lebenswelt, a term introduced by Edmund Husserl to mean roughly what I mean by 'the world as it really seems', the world as understood through our reflective interaction with it. During the 1980s I experienced the destroyed Lebenswelt of communist Europe. I also became familiar with the attempts by dissident intellectuals (Husserl's pupil Jan Patočka among them) to repair the fabric. These experiences persuaded me that the first duty of the literary philosopher in our time is to rescue the ideas through which we perceive and adapt to the world that we share. My experience of Paris in 1968 had persuaded me that revolutionary politics leads inevitably to nihilism and to a world fragmented by suspicion and resentment. I had been deeply struck by the beautiful sentence with which De Gaulle begins his memoirs: Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France. The reminiscence of another famous opening sentence – Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure – brought home immediately certain fundamental truths about the Lebenswelt, that it is a home, that ideas of home and solace are integral to everything that makes life worthwhile and that the nation and its memory are among our most precious moral possessions, since they define the modes and prospects of belonging.

De Gaulle's idea of France was one that I shared, and its destruction at the hands of the leftist intellectuals (Sartre not the least of them) is a crime that I have never been able to forgive them. But it awoke me to the fact that, for a long time, I had made for myself a certain idea of England, and was beginning to understand the world in terms of it. During the 1970s I read for the Bar, and was deeply moved by the common law of England, understanding for the first time that our country has been shaped in a completely different way from the other places that I know. I set out then to understand the idea of England, as it shines through the culture into which I was born.

This preoccupation with the idea of England unites such otherwise disparate productions as England: an Elegy, the novella A Dove Descending (about England understood through the eyes of a Greek Cypriot girl), and the opera Violet. A Dove Descending was published in a collection of stories by Sinclair Stevenson, just before that firm went bankrupt, but it can be read on the website of the American journal Clarion Review, where the libretto, score and sound recording of Violet will also soon be available. All three of those works speak for themselves, and I shall say nothing more about them here, except to say that, while they are works of mourning, they are also serious attempts to capture and endorse what remains to us, the English.

Do I have an identity problem? I don't think so. I am a French intellectual, a born Englishman, a German romantic, a loyal Virginian and a Czech patriot; and, like Sylvia Plath, 'I may be a bit of a Jew' (see 'How I discovered my name' in Gentle Regrets.) I have found a way to be comfortable with all those aspects of myself, by striving to express them.

To contact Scrutopia, please email:


Subscribe to our mailing list.
* indicates required