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Note: Professor Wolff has very kindly shared his memories of Cambridge University philosophy with this site. Such memories are not something that a reference book can take the place of, although it may supplement or correct them. The few additions I have made begin with the word 'Note', like this one. (July and October 2007)

Michael Wolff's Cambridge Recollections

I read Moral Sciences as an undergraduate at Cambridge in 1945-7, as a philosophically naive 18 or 19 year old.

I was one of those who fell under the spell of Wittgenstein and who somehow therefore couldn't take other philosophers seriously. Nevertheless, I learned a lot about classical logic from Braithwaite, about empirical psychology from Thouless, and, it almost goes without saying, about "life" from John Wisdom.

As for C.D. Broad, he must have been in that frame of mind when philosophy itself seemed to be not worth getting agitated about. What I particularly remember about his lectures, something you don't mention, was that he read every sentence twice, almost intoning them. I realize now that he had a lifetime job and that he was indifferent to his listeners' response of bemusement or ridicule. I certainly learned from him and his twice-told lectures allowed me to keep good notes which I was never able or never wished to do with the other lecturers.

I kept my copy of Five Types until I had to sell it (along with other precious volumes including the Tractatus) when I was very poor.

"Cured of philosophy"

I should add that Wittgenstein and Wisdom both had the effect they wanted on me and that was, as I now understand it, to "cure" me of philosophy. I read Part Two English and had a successful academic career as a specialist in Victorian Britain. I emigrated to the States in 1951 to go to graduate school.

Michael Wolff, Professor Emeritus,
University of Massachusetts Amherst

Outline of this page ...

Further Recollections of Cambridge University

I have written a piece about my undergraduate memories for possible contribution to a big volume about Cambridge's 800th anniversary. What shall I say about my Cambridge experience for possible inclusion in the big book?

Schooling before Cambridge, Application to Oxford

At school in North Oxford during World War II I did well enough on the Oxford and Cambridge Higher Certificate so that I was expected by my masters to go on to university. My parents had both left school when they were thirteen or fourteen to start work, so I was the first person in my immediate family to go to secondary school, let alone university. My first love was classics but I was told that would be greater competition for scholarships in classics than in history. Being already in Oxford and not knowing any difference between the two places, I sat first for the Oxford history scholarships. (I should say that my family circumstances were such that we were, by the then method of calculation, too well-off to apply for state scholarships and there was a family decision that if I didn't get a scholarship we would not be able to pay the fees and my upkeep away from home.) I didn't succeed in winning an Oxford scholarship, so the next step was to go to Cambridge.

Scholarship to St. John's College, Cambridge

My first visit to Cambridge and to St. John's (which had been chosen for me as my first choice college) was an eye-opener. It was May or early June and in broad daylight I saw young men in evening dress with a bottle of champagne in one hand and on the other arm a delightful young woman. The contrast with my rather hide-bound school could not have been greater and I could hardly believe that in a few months I could be one of those enviable young men.

As it was I did win a Minor Open Scholarship in History to John's and became not a drinking, partying undergraduate but rather (as I had been for many years) a serious student, reading books and attending lectures. In 1945 when I went up most of those in statu pupillari were demobilized prisoners-of-war who, of course, were not always willing to wear gowns or to be in college by 10 p.m. I gathered from subsequent talks with my tutor (Frank Thistlethwaite, historian of the US and later first Vice-Chancellor of Norwich University) that it was a difficult time for the University. I had no inkling of this situation and, feeling my release from the rigorous uniform of my school-days, let my hair grow, affected a wispy little beard, and stuck a huge green pocket-handkerchief in my jacket pocket. I must have been either eccentric or innocent because, when I was summoned to the Senior Combination Room soon after I arrived to be made part of the Foundation of the College with other new Scholars and Fellows (an elaborate ritual which included kneeling before the Master), I was late because I was determined to finish listening to a gramophone record of something by Beethoven!

Given all this oddity it's not surprising that I became a target and one evening when I was reading quietly in my rooms in John's New Court four or five of these older undergraduates burst into my room (I must not have sported the oak [Note: shut the outer door of the room]) and forcibly shaved me. I was terrified and hardly knew what to do -- it was, I knew, an outrage -- and the next day I went to my tutor who commiserated with me but did nothing. I didn't want revenge which was just as well because Thistlethwaite (and the higher authorities) had decided to tolerate wherever they could the ex-servicemen's excesses.

Professors of Philosophy and Lectures at Cambridge

Apart from that, my Cambridge experience was a subjective delight. I would get up early, leaving my room to be taken care of by a gyp who would even make my bed. [Note: 'gyp' is Cambridge University slang for 'domestic servant'.]

I wandered over to my lectures either in the Old Divinity School (A.C. Ewing on ethics) or in R.B. Braithwaite's rooms in King's (evening meetings of the Moral Science Club with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and others, often a visiting lecturer -- I remember Karl Popper from the London School of Economics and the infamous poker incident), or Wittgenstein's rooms in Whewell's Court, Trinity (active participants, Norman Malcolm, Casimir Lewy, Stephen Toulmin).

Sometimes I would find myself in one of the big lecture halls near the Senate House so as to hear some well-known visiting lecturer -- Russell again is one I recall though I didn't know then that he was Earl Russell and a descendant of Lord John Russell, the Victorian Prime Minister.

There was also C.D. Broad, the Knightbridge Professor, successor to G.E. Moore, who was near the end of a distinguished career, had, as I understand, become disillusioned about the significance of philosophical problems, and was by then only going through the motions repeating every sentence in a sort of sing-song monotone in order, I suppose, that we in turn could write them down for later study.

I also had Braithwaite on logic and R.H. Thouless on empirical psychology, and John Wisdom on philosophical psychology.

The five sections of the Moral Sciences degree were, I think, Metaphysics, Logic, Ethics, Empirical Psychology, and Philosophical Psychology.

Philosophical Psychology was the nominal topic of John Wisdom's lectures (after my time Wisdom succeeded von Wright who succeeded Wittgenstein to the "other" chair of philosophy) and I found him far and away the most accessible and human of all the Moral Science dons.

Professor John Wisdom

I ended up being supervised by Wisdom, there being no philosopher at John's. I was assigned first to A.C. Ewing, a Fellow of Trinity Hall, who was, so to speak, the anti-Wittgenstein. He was an Idealist and, to my carelessly adolescent eyes, a rather silly little man. He held supervisions in his home and I remember reading some Kant, some Hume, and some Locke, and in particular his illustrating some point (what could the point have been?) by saying to his assembled students "Suppose I cut you up in little pieces and posted the parcels to your parents?" I asked to be assigned to a different supervisor and was then sent to the strangely named John Wisdom whose lectures I had already enjoyed.

Wisdom had a wonderful sense of humor and was also, as the commentators say, Wittgenstein tempered by G.E. Moore, not that I knew that at the time. To me he was a refreshing and delightful lecturer and supervisor. He lectured, or rather talked, very informally in a small room with the door open. Once we found him already sitting at the table in the front. We sat down and waited for him to start the class . . . and went on waiting. Eventually one of us asked what was going on. His answer: if none of us had anything to say he didn't want to start anything that was going to trouble us, i.e., turn us into philosophers. I remember one characteristic example (like Wittgenstein's strange tribes) when he told the class, "There's a lion on the landing" and had us discuss in what sense it was true of false or nonsensical. He once asked me what I was going to do after university and he recommended that I go and work in a bicycle factory. In this, of course, he was following Wittgenstein's advice and practice: the best way to be a philosopher was to give up philosophy. Wisdom was also a fanatic about horse-racing. He had an upturned chair in his rooms with a saddle on top of it and once, when we went to his lecture, he had scrawled in chalk on the blackboard, "Gone to Newmarket", the famous race-course not very far from Cambridge.

On a more personal note I found out that he liked ballroom dancing and, later when in 1947 or 1948 I and a colleague organized some dances in London and from that an Intervarsity Vacation Club (which still exists as the Inter-Varsity Club), I asked him to be Honorary President of the club and he accepted and, if I remember correctly, came to one of our dances in the Chelsea Town Hall.

Return to English Literature

So much for Part 1. I can remember nothing of my exam papers, except that I wrote very little. I ended up with a 2.2 which I now think was better than I deserved (I knew I wouldn't get a First and expected a Third).

For Part 2, I decided I would go back to my original topic which was English Literature. I had, after all, read many of the essays of Arthur Quiller-Couch, the first Edward VII Professor of English Literature, who died in 1945. I had hoped to be taught by him. In any event, I had begun my first year reading English under (believe it or not) the illusion that I was there to add to literature not to study it. I had written poetry of sorts since I was at prep school and I rather fancied that I might be enrolled in the ranks of the English poets. My poems were, by 1940s standards, very old-fashioned. I had read very little "modern poetry", thought the discipline of imitation Tennyson better than so-called free verse. My most advanced poems were watery imitations of early T.S. Eliot. I must have read some at some English club meeting and I was torn apart, ridiculed (unsparingly it seemed) by some older serious poets like Wolf Mankovitz and Thomas Gunn. That was the end of my poetic pretensions and I vowed that I would henceforth stick to prose.

My year as a student of English Literature was, I'm now confident, full of rather indiscriminate and erratic reading mainly around not the formal lectures but my decision to collect Oxford University Press's little dark blue World's Classics. I read most of Shakespeare, including the Sonnets and other verse; much other renaissance drama, poetry, and prose (I read Thomas Nash and Roger Ascham because they went to John's and I was so enamored of Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici that I went to the University Library and wrote what would now be called an appreciation). My supervisor was a Johnian Hugh Sykes Davies who paid little attention to me and let me go my own way. (I later heard him described as the laziest supervisor in Cambridge, but he was, in his own way, a distinguished and interesting man -- much good poetry and six wives to his credit.)

The lecturers I remember most vividly are Basil Willey who talked about the backgrounds of literature and F.R. Leavis who did his own spontaneous dating and identification of bits and pieces of poetry and prose handed out on mimeographed sheets. I thought them both very powerful. Others were Muriel Bradbrook, who lectured on Ibsen, and some whose names I would recognize if I had a list before me.

In Sum

In sum, despite my formal career being mediocre, it was my years at Cambridge that turned me from a precocious schoolboy into a more or less competent intellectual. After two years of National Service in the Army, I went to the States for graduate work and, building on Cambridge's foundations, had nearly 60 years of academic success, founding scholarly journals and societies, and being honored with an annual Michael Wolff lecture. (And this is to say nothing of a happy life as husband, father, and grandfather.)


"Sporting the oak"

"Sporting the oak": In my day (I wonder whether it's still so) rooms in college had double doors with no locks, the outer one (presumably made of oak) more substantial than the inner one. If you didn't want to be disturbed, you closed the outer door and that meant that any visitor (there were, remember, no phones in the rooms and certainly no cell phones) was supposed to go away quietly. It was a great breach of decorum to open a sported oak.

[Note:] "You are aware, Mr. Holmes, that our college doors are double -- a green baize one within and a heavy oak one without." (The Adventure of the Three Students, 1904)

[Note:] But he had not only "sported his oak"** but had also put a notice on it saying he was engaged or just about to be engaged in university examinations and begging to be left in peace.

**sport the oak: Univ. colloq. to shut the outer door of one's room as a sign that one is engaged. (Frederick Copleston, Memoirs (1993; student St. John's College, Oxford, 1925-1929), iv, p. 38)

"The servant, or gyp"

[Note:] In a certain wing of what we will call Old College in Oxford there is a corner turret of an exceeding great age.... From the door a stone stair curves upward spirally, passing two landings, and terminating in a third one ... In the month of May, in the year 1884, three young men occupied the sets of rooms which opened on to the separate landings of the old stair. Each set consisted simply of a sitting-room and of a bedroom, while the two corresponding rooms upon the ground-floor were used, the one as a coal-cellar, and the other as the living-room of the servant, or gyp, Thomas Styles, whose duty it was to wait upon the three men above him. (Arthur Conan Doyle, "Lot No. 249", Harper's Monthly Magazine, Sept. 1892, p. 525-7. Another edition of this short story uses the word 'scout' rather than the word 'gyp'.)

"Empirical Psychology"

As I remember, "Empirical Psychology" must have been an unrevised holdover from the early days of the Moral Sciences tripos (itself of course an obsolete description for what we were doing). Empirical Psychology and Philosophical Psychology were the two fields: R.H. Thouless was a genuine psychologist (not at all a therapist) but rather one closer to the laboratory interest in the workings of the mind. Wisdom was a "real" philosopher, also interested in other minds but as a "worry", i.e., could we really know, despite all the common-sense evidence, what was going on in a mind other than our own? He writes rather poetically about that in his too-little-known books.

[Note:] "Empirical psychology" is nowadays called the science of psychology (in contrast to the philosophical subjects "Philosophy of Mind" and "Philosophy of Psychology"). R.H. Thouless, like C.D. Broad, was also interested in psychical research.

[Note:] Wittgenstein had been interested in empirical psychology as well. Before the First World War he "did some experimental work ... at the psychological laboratory [at Cambridge] concerning rhythm in music.... He had hoped that [his investigation] would throw light on some questions of aesthetics ..." (von Wright, "A Biographical Sketch" (Oxford, 1984), p. 7). During the 2nd World War Wittgenstein did research in the physiology of "shock" at Guy's Hospital in Newcastle (Recollections p. 146-147).

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