DIARY 13 July 1971. A small degree of academic recognition

On 13 July 1971 I graduated from Leeds University. Despite my aversion to such formalities, I was pleased to attend my own graduation ceremony. My sister, Cynthia, came up from Birmingham to witness my academic triumph. I was ‘admitted to the Degree’ of Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy although I only just stumbled through my exams with a second-class Honours.

I could not afford the formal graduation photograph,
but this is what the day probably looked like.
Clothworkers Hall in the 1970s[1].

I studied philosophy at Leeds because I failed my first year at Chelsea College of Science and Technology.  It was not the science that caused me to falter but the compulsory mathematics course. And so it was that I frantically went through the University Clearing Scheme in the summer of 1968 to find somewhere and something else to study.

I had not lost my fascination with chemical and biochemical processes, or my practical skills in chemical analysis. However, in London I had discovered contemporary culture; literature, film, art, music opened my mind to new ideas. I no longer wanted merely a qualification for a job. There was a universe of knowledge to explore.

Courses in Philosophy required no specific ‘A’ levels, so I did not need to worry about a prior qualification. University courses were on offer in the Clearing Scheme, usually combined with another subject. My own knowledge of philosophy was minimal. At school, the headmaster was a classical scholar, adding lectures on Plato to the curriculum where I learned about caves and mirrors. I had also picked up the phrase ‘cogito ergo sum’. With this slight introduction, I did not understand that these ideas were fundamental to the history of western philosophy.

I also thought I knew something of the philosophy of the Existentialists. I had read Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir but only their literary work. A copy of Being and nothingness borrowed from Chelsea Library left me mystified. But it was enough. I was on a voyage of intellectual discovery, and I looked for another university to help me chart my course.

London School of Economics offered me a place to study Economics combined with Philosophy but with no ability in mathematics I could not have suffered it. Nor could I face a return to the loneliness of London. Leeds University offered me a place on a new course entitled The History of Scientific Thought, combined with Philosophy. They were pleased that someone who had a background in science would want to take up the course. I accepted and went to Leeds in October 1968.

My first year was an introduction to the usual list of figures in the history of Philosophy. I read Plato, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume as directed. Spinoza and Leibniz were mentioned but philosophy stopped suddenly at the English Channel at the end of the eighteenth century. The History of Scientific Thought was more interesting with the controversies surrounding Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin inter alia. I was also able to study the History of Art as a subsidiary course. With all this Philosophy, Science, History and Art, could I become a twentieth-century Renaissance man?

I was lulled into a false sense of intellectual security as I relished this knowledge. At the end of my first year, I was introduced to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writings. I should have realised that a man who entitles a book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was not going to be an easy read. Peter Geach, Professor of Logic at Leeds, was formerly a student of Wittgenstein at Cambridge. He was married to Professor Elizabeth Anscombe who was a friend of Wittgenstein and translated his Philosophical Investigations. Unknowingly, I had been enticed into a Wittgensteinian cabal presided over by someone for whom nothing existed except logical theory (and his Catholic God).

My second year at Leeds would be dominated by a study of Gottlob Frege. Frege is one of the founders of analytic philosophy and a precursor of Wittgenstein.  I was expected to study the former to better understand the latter. Frege is now considered one of the great logicians but fifty years ago he was rarely discussed, even in philosophical circles where his work was seen as mathematical. Geach, who had translated of some of Frege’s work, was also his devoted disciple. My second year turned into a peculiar type of hell with weekly incomprehensible lectures.

I was saved by my other course which taught me about the history of science. The course was new, administered by Jerry Ravetz, Reader in the History and Philosophy of Science, who was considered something of a radical[2]. His approach was to analyse the social and ethical aspects of scientific knowledge[3]. I was also taught by Maurice Crosland, a lecturer in the Philosophy Department, who was an authority on the development of scientific knowledge in France from the eighteenth century.

Their lectures were interesting enough to make me take a course in medieval Latin to understand sixteenth century scientific texts. I would spend hours in the library translating Napoleon’s letters about scientific education using my schoolboy French. I still have some of my essays from the time, written in long-hand on foolscap sheets.

I was no scholar when it came to Frege and Wittgenstein. I tried to formally abandon Frege and complete my degree solely with Ravetz, but it was not permissible.  I struggled through my final year and prepared as best I could for the examination in May. I challenged the examiners by answering one question with a short story about time travel to demonstrate the philosophical difficulties of such an endeavour. It must have been my interest in the History of Scientific Thought that pulled me through.

How I looked in 1971.
I am unsure how I managed to wear a mortar board.

Having passed the examination, I celebrated my Bachelor of Arts suitably attired in a rented gown and mortar board. And with my studying days over I had to consider what my next step in life would be…

[1] The building appeared to be of grey Yorkshire stone. Nowadays, having had its Victorian grime scrubbed off, it is resplendent in red brick and honey-coloured stone.

[2] Jerome Ravetz was an American mathematician who studied at Cambridge. In 1955 his US passport was cancelled during the McCarthyite purges. I recall his tweed suit with a pinkish tinge.

[3] Whilst he was teaching at Leeds, he wrote the seminal book Scientific knowledge and its social problems (published in 1971).

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