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History

Historical Perspective

Any account of Philosophy in Cambridge must emphasise the work of at least three philosophers — Bertrand Russell, G E Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. These three transformed the discipline of philosophy during the first half of the last century and made Cambridge the most important centre for philosophy in the English-speaking world.

See our page on Cambridge women philosophers for additional information about women who have studied, taught or were active in philosophy in Cambridge over the years.

 

Bertrand Russell (1872–1970)Bertrand Russell portrait

 Russell came to philosophy from mathematics and his early work led him to argue in Principia Mathematica (1910-1913) that mathematics is nothing but logic, although his famous paradox also shows that the connection between logic and mathematics cannot be at all straightforward. In the course of this work Russell developed a new logical theory, and he used this theory to recommend to philosophers a new method of 'logical analysis' whereby, he hoped, it would be possible to resolve many of the traditional problems of philosophy. His thought was that in a 'logically perfect language' ­ a language whose logical structure was transparent ­ it would be possible to transform the obscure tangles of traditional metaphysics into solvable scientific problems.

G.E. Moore (1873–1958)G E Moore Portrait

 In his famous book Principia Ethica (1903), Moore argued that because ethical disputes cannot be resolved by appeal to the natural and social sciences, we should acknowledge that ethical values constitute an irreducible dimension of reality. Moore further held that friendship and beauty are pre-eminent among these values, and thus that the best of lives is a life successfully dedicated to their enhancement. This message was taken to heart by Moore's friends among the Cambridge 'Apostles', such as Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, and John Maynard Keynes, and became characteristic of the 'Bloomsbury Group'. In later years Moore, who became Professor of Philosophy in 1925, turned his attention to the traditional issues of metaphysics and propounded a defence of 'common sense' against a variety of sceptical arguments.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951)Wittgenstein Portrait

 Wittgenstein came to Cambridge from Vienna in 1911 to study with Russell. In his first great work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), he developed Russell's account of the role of logic and presented an account of the limits of language which implies that problems of philosophy are either such that they can be solved by logical analysis or else such that nothing can be said about them. Having, as he thought, finished philosophy, Wittgenstein left Cambridge; but he returned in 1929 and throughout the 1930s conducted his famous classes. He brought together many of his reflections from these classes in his Philosophical Investigations, in which he pursued much further the questions about the limits of language that he had earlier raised, particularly in connection with questions concerning our understanding of ourselves.

The Cambridge School and the Past

Many Cambridge philosophers might prefer to look back to the author of the Novum Organon, Francis Bacon (who studied at Trinity College from 1573 until 1575), as the founder of their tradition. His empiricism, and defence of a clear and diligent pursuit of science, initiated a major strand of Cambridge thought.

In the seventeenth century, Christ's College was home to the 'Cambridge Platonists' Henry More and Ralph Cudworth, who revived Platonist doctrines of innate ideas in order to counter Hobbes' materialism and Descartes' dualism.

Henry Sidgwick dominated Cambridge philosophy in the late-Victorian era and was also famous for furthering women’s education, especially for his foundation of Newnham College. His masterpiece, The Methods of Ethics (1907), is now undergoing a welcome revival. Sidgwick was followed at the end of the nineteenth century by J.M.E. McTaggart, author of The Nature of Existence (1927), whose arguments against the reality of time still excite fierce debate.

Other major Cambridge philosophers in the 1920s and 1930s included C.D. Broad, John Maynard Keynes, and Frank Ramsey.

 After the Second World War, R.B. Braithwaite and John Wisdom carved their own distinctive niches and, following Wittgenstein’s death, another generation arose, starting with G.H. von Wright, Wittgenstein’s successor as Professor of Philosophy.

Among other distinguished philosophers who worked in Cambridge for extended periods during the second half of the last century were Jonathan Bennett, Ian Hacking, Elizabeth Anscombe, D.H. Mellor and Bernard Williams.

This Cambridge School of philosophy did not arise ex nihilo: Moore's ethical theory draws heavily on Henry Sidgwick's classic examination of utilitarianism, The Methods of Ethics (1874); and important contributions to logic had been made at the end of the nineteenth century by John Neville Keynes and John Venn (famous for his diagrams).

The great tradition of Cambridge philosophy continues with the present members of the Faculty. Besides their many major original publications, they have made indispensable contributions to the scholarship of the subject. They also contribute to public debate, for example the work of Onora O’Neill has had a wide impact on public discourse of trust in the context of politics, journalism and education.