Richard Robinson

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Richard Robinson (12 April 1902 - 6 May 1996)

Robinson, who was born in Watton, Norfolk, became a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, went to public school (Repton) and Oxford (Oriel College), studied philosophy at Oxford and Marburg, taught philosophy at Cornell University and Oriel College, and wrote books that made the case for atheism. In 1933 he married Elizabeth Pestereff.

Nicolas Walter wrote a definitive obituary:

Richard Robinson's life may have seemed that of a remote and ineffectual don, but his work was actually relevant and highly effective.
His career certainly looked conventional enough. He came from a middle- class family, and went to public school (Repton) and Oxford (Oriel College), where he took a double First in Classical Greats. He studied philosophy at Oxford and Marburg, taught philosophy at Cornell University for nearly 20 years and then back at Oriel College for more than 20 years, and lived quietly in retirement for nearly 30 years. He was happily married for more than 60 years.
Robinson was a successful teacher and administrator, at both Cornell and Oxford, and several generations of philosophy students on both sides of the Atlantic owed much to his clarity and commitment. He was also a successful author, writing and editing articles for philosophical journals, writing and translating and editing books on Greek philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle, and also producing his own books - The Province of Logic (1931) and Definition (1950) - which were respected by his peers.
However, Robinson had an influence far beyond the groves of academe through An Atheist's Values, which was published by the Oxford University Press in 1964 and reprinted in paperback by Blackwell in 1975. This is a work of philosophy indeed, but it was written in a popular style as a course of lectures and contains no technical language or abstract speculation.
It is an elegant and eloquent exposition of the aesthetic and ethical values held by a person of intelligence and integrity who stands at the end of 2,500 years of discussion of the subject and who rejects all the supernatural and superhuman means of support so often suggested for such principles. After putting the old question of what is good, it considers various goods (life, beauty, truth, reason, love, conscientiousness), politely but firmly rejects the alleged goods of religion, and ends with a discussion of political goods (state, equality, freedom, tolerance, peace and justice, democracy).
An Atheist's Values is one of the best short accounts of liberalism (a term Robinson accepted) and humanism (a term he ignored) produced during the present century, all the more powerful for its lucidity and moderation, its wit and wisdom. It may now seem old-fashioned, but during those confused alarms of struggle and fight between the ignorant armies of left and right, thousands of readers must have taken inspiration from Richard Robinson's rational defence of rationalism.
It is a pity that it is now out of print, when there is still so much nonsense and so little sense in the world.
Richard Robinson, philosopher: born Watton, Norfolk 12 April 1902; married 1933 Elizabeth Pestereff; died Oxford 6 May 1996.

Works

Definition (1950, 1962, 1967, Oxford University Press)

Robinson's `Definition' dates from 1954. That places it after Ayer's Language Truth and Logic and Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica, but before the published work of J L Austin and before the major works of the new school of moral philosophers, notably R M Hare author of The Language of Morals and Freedom and Reason, who saw the terms used in moral philosophy as expressing evaluations rather than as describing objects.
This was the heyday of the Oxford school of linguistic philosophers. It may be an unfashionable view, but I see their approach as valuable and important. Ayer had argued, for instance, that one does not actually see or hear things but only receives sense-data (Russell's `sensibilia') of them, and that pure logic should be rigorously independent of human psychology. This kind of thing could not go on, and Austin, author of Sense and Sensibilia, was the stylish leading advocate of a view that asserted that the ordinary terms of human speech were philosophically legitimate. Austin was also the author of How To Do Things With Words, and I don't deny that that much of the philosophical writing of the time was clever-clever rather than significant in playing games with verbal expressions, but its real value in stripping out solemn and unnecessary abstraction remains. Where Robinson is admirably level-headed is in ignoring the aspects of the fashion that were fashionably trivial, in refusing to toy with words and in subjecting his contemporaries to the same detached analysis that he brings to Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant and the rest of them. I had personal experience of both Ayer and Robinson, and in comparison with the frothy velocity of Ayer the slow and taciturn Robinson could seem a bit of an old cart-horse. In terms of lasting significance it all reads very differently to me now. Ayer said the truth at the end of a TV interview in which he was asked how his doctrines had stood the test of time. `Oh, they're wrong' he said.
Robinson explores definition along two axes. One is the simple distinction between informative and stipulative definition, a stipulative definition being one that legislates its own meaning, such as that i is to mean the square root of -1. However the main structure of the book is around the three issues of when we are defining words or other symbols, when definition consists of relating the symbols to the things symbolised, and when - if ever - a definition can be said to define things directly. Robinson is fully aware that language is an unstable and changing thing, and he is rather conservative in stigmatising certain uses of the word `definition' even 50 years ago as being bad and slipshod expression. He loosens his logical corsets a little at this point and some of his prejudices, e.g. against the word `psychoanalysis', have nothing to say to us now and are not central to his argument anyway. It seems to me that the word `definition' has got out of the corral these days. We talk about `defining features' in someone's life without implying that these features distinguish the person's life from everyone else's, and I see nothing wrong with that. In fact I would have liked Robinson to deal a bit more with the issue of when a definition may be partial rather than exhaustive. Robinson would probably have viewed it as wrong to `define' a lion as a feline, as this does not distinguish it from a tiger or a bobcat. On the other hand I'd say that putting a lion as opposed to a hyena into the category of felines can reasonably, as a matter of accepted usage, be called defining it as a feline. At worst his severity is a good fault, far better than the opposite tendency, but I feel it gets out of hand in his special use of `names' whereby someone's surname does not qualify for the term `name'. In general I have some difficulty with his view that it is impossible to define individuals, on the grounds that it is impossible to discover characteristics that any individual does not share with someone else. He concedes that a synthetic definition, e.g. `Julius Caesar is the author of the Gallic Wars', is possible, but not an analytic definition. To define Julius Caesar by his parentage and the dates, times and places of his birth and death would surely do the trick, even before DNA came to our aid, although it would not have helped anyone recognise Julius Caesar when he met him.
What is really impressive about this book is its author's refusal to be impressed. He is in no way polemical, but his concentration rarely or never lapses, and there are a couple of memorable sideswipes at Ayer and at Kant's notorious use of `7 + 5 = 12' as a specimen of a synthetic proposition, Robinson regarding it as a mere abbreviation. I think he describes the work somewhere near the start as being for the general reader. I won't actually quarrel with that, so lucid is the reasoning and its exposition, although he ought to have given a translation for the bit of medical Latin that he pillories at one point. This purports to be a definition of (I think) motor neurones, which it seeks to define by their colour, texture and proximity to one another. He was fully up to speed with the work of his contemporaries, and when he says that `good' describes next to nothing he was clearly on the wavelength of Hare and co before they published a word. One of his examples has always left me uneasy, namely Aristotle's supposed `definition' of what is translated as `happiness'. Robinson accepts the standard translation `happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue', but says briskly that this only purports to be a definition and is actually talking about the way to achieve happiness, not about happiness itself. I'm sure he's probably right, but I can never get it out of my head that the alleged `activity' (energeia) is a seeming coinage, and that `eudaimonia' usually means acceptability to the gods. There are perfectly good Greek words for `happiness' and `activity' if he had wanted to talk about those, and I sometimes wonder (although I wouldn't dare suggest to the learned) whether this passage is not about being true to our proper selves - something like `well-being is the spirit's life in action according to its proper talent'. This would make it a genuine definition, just not the usual one.
Obviously this is not a book for everyone. For those whom it's for it is a very fine and helpful piece of work indeed. David Bryson, Glossop, Derbyshire, England, 2005

An Atheist's Values (1964, Oxford University Press)

Philosophically-minded readers might still be interested in getting hold of this now out-of-the-way book. Its title would have been better as 'An Atheist's Prejudices', but not all the book's perspectives are specifically atheistical. As well as some semi-technical philosophical stuff, of what is (or used to be) known as the 'Oxford' school, there are some general reflections on 'What's it all about then?' taking in his political outlook, which he declares to be Liberal although it's very far from permissive, and a very individual take on what the better things of life were to an austere and shy but humane and probably deeply affectionate scholar and thinker who never strayed far from his home and his study in his beloved Oriel College.
Even when it was published in 1964 this book was rather old-fashioned. When RR died 7 or 8 years ago at the age of 93 I and others of his former pupils were astonished -- we thought he was 93 when he taught us decades previously. It is still surprisingly readable despite, or maybe even because of, the way it is set out in 'Dewey-decimal' numbering. Some of the issues he raises are unbelievably antique, like his indignation at passport legislation. But who knows - this very issue may be back with us in the foreseeable future. Throughout the book there are some memorable perceptions too, one that sticks with me being 'A lie can be true'. Indeed it can, as our everyday modern experiences of 'spin' and news-management confirm. David Bryson, Glossop, Derbyshire, England

Essays In Greek Philosophy (1969, Oxford University Press)

Plato's Earlier Dialectic (1985, Oxford University Press, 2nd Edition)

Travellers in Time: Seven Epic Stories of Early Exploration (1986, Queen Anne Press)

Holding Another's Hand: Facing the Transition Called Death (2005, Juniper Springs Press)

(An Atheist's Values is online. In it, Robinson writes about beauty, truth, reason, love, "There is no god or after-life," and other rational subjects.)