Sunday, January 22, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Ten

“Some Cambridge Dons of the Nineties,” pages 60-66

Some of them were quite mad, it seems. Others were vain and obsessed with royalty. Many of the oddest characters existed only in university folklore by the time that Russell arrived at Cambridge, alas.

Despite the tradition of eccentricity, “The great majority of Dons did their work competently without being either laughable or interesting [p. 62].” They were generally esteemed by Russell and the other students.

Henry Sidgwick’s faith became shaky; he ceded his Cambridge fellowship that required, at its initiation, that he sign the standard Anglican oath – even though he was sincere at the time of his signing. His resignation helped speed the demise of the religious requirement. “In philosophical ability he [Sidgwick] was not quite in the first rank, but his intellectual integrity was absolute and undeviating [p. 63].” Russell also expresses gratitude to, and high regard for, his main philosophy teacher, James Ward, despite academic disagreements.

Many of the Dons, including those in the main administrative posts, lived to ripe old ages. One ancient Senior Fellow was a leftover from the system where you received a lifetime post at an early age – a post whose only duty was to collect your pay. “This duty he performed punctiliously, but otherwise he was not known to have done any work whatever since the age of twenty-two [p. 66].” The tenure system had these sorts of flaws, but also allowed intellectual freedom, even for those whose intellects were questionable. (Recall how refreshing Russell found Cambridge to be following his repressed upbringing.) “In spite of some lunacy and some laziness, Cambridge was a good place, where independence of mind could exist undeterred [p. 66].”

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