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The Man Who Put Me in Awe of the Philosopher's Vocation
I celebrate the life—and mourn the death—of my former teacher, philosopher Michael Inwood
News came yesterday from overseas announcing the death of my former professor—the actual words they used in the email were ‘Tutor’ and ‘Fellow’, but that hardly captures the height and dignity of Michael Inwood’s role in the life and imagination of his students.
I was blessed to be one of them.
Michael Inwood left us on the final day of 2021, just a few weeks after his 77th birthday. And he was the first philosopher I encountered at Oxford—fitting the role so perfectly that he could have played the part in a Hollywood movie.
I would sometimes see him walking down Broad Street while reading a book. He must have possessed an uncanny sense of personal radar, allowing him to digest the written word—and I note that Professor Inwood only read difficult books—while avoiding collisions with motorists, bikers, and other pedestrians.
He always survived unscathed, and I envied this superhero level of absorption in the philosophical life—and the seeming immunity that accompanied it. Spiderman has his spidey sense, allowing him to avoid danger before it appears. Michael Inwood seemed to possess the same skill on his daily walks, perhaps derived from Kant or Plato. Who knows?
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But as striking as Michael Inwood was on the streets of Oxford, he was even more remarkable in his office. In fact, the office itself could hardly have been more imposing. In this large, square-shaped room, my tutor was swimming in books—that’s the only word that does justice to the setting.
There were books double stacked on the floor-to-ceiling shelves that covered every wall of Michael Inwood’s office. Books also sprawled across the entirety of his desk. In addition, there were piles of books everywhere on the floor. The seats of various chairs also served as temporary book storage units—but these soon turned into permanent locations, because there was nowhere else in the office to put them. If you wanted to sit in one of those book-occupied chairs, you needed to remove the volumes and place them on the floor—but good luck with that. There was no available space, given the tottering stacks that surrounded you in every direction.
I looked at this sprawl—which would definitely not bring Marie Kondo joy—and was overcome by envy. I had never dreamed that philosophers actually lived like this, but now it made perfect sense. The calamities of the world would never penetrate this office, and the apocalypse might take place in the college quad without Michael Inwood even noticing.
One student told me he had been in a tutorial with Michael Inwood when the phone started ringing. The preoccupied philosopher finally took notice on the second or third ring, and, after a moment’s consideration, decided to pick up the receiver—if only to chastise the brazen culprit who dared disturb him in his Platonic ideal of quietude.
But here’s the catch—Professor Inwood couldn’t find the phone. He started moving books around his desk in a vain search for the source of the ringing. Then it occurred to him that he had perhaps moved the phone from his desk to make room for books, so he now turned his attention to various spots on the floor where a phone might be hidden. But to no avail—everywhere he looked, all he could see were books.
Eventually the ringing stopped.
The caller had given up. The intruding external world had retreated in defeat. Michael Inwood—with a victorious smile on his face—sat back down and continued the tutorial.
Perhaps my friend had exaggerated this story. It almost seems too good to be true. But another story I heard seems even more unlikely—although I will share it. According to this account, provided by another gossipy student, Inwood wanted to refer to a book that was somewhere in his office, and started moving around the piles in search of the desired text—I had seen this happen myself on many occasions. But in this instance, a surprising thing happened. While moving around his books, Michael Inwood discovered his long-lost trombone, previously hidden by the sprawling tomes. He picked up the capacious horn, blew a few idle notes, put it back down—and returned to the subject of the tutorial, perhaps Kant’s categorical imperative or Locke’s theory of personal identity.
I had been reading a lot of Foucault when I first encountered Michael Inwood (although French thinkers of this sort were almost forbidden in Oxford philosophy circles, so I had to do it on the sly), and my new tutor bore a striking resemblance to the controversial French philosopher. In the midst of our tutorials, I would have hardly been surprised if he had embarked on a digression dealing with the panotpicon as a prison system, the ship of fools in treatment of mental illness, or the role of the confessional in the history of sexuality. But that was just my imagination running away with itself. My tutor preferred talking about syllogisms and propositions rather than sexuality and prisons. But his Foucaultian visage continued to enhance my awe at his disquisitions.
Like Foucault, Michael Inwood was a renegade, specializing in continental thinkers—a suspicious lot, according to the prevailing view among his peers. He even dared to write about Hegel and Heidegger.
Those were dangerous names to mention in Oxford philosophy circles. I lack the words to describe how tightly defined Oxford philosophy were back then. One of my classmates told me of her first few days at college, when she encountered the illustrious philosopher Lord Quinton.
Here’s the part I remember of their conversation.
Lord Quinton: So you’re here to study philosophy?
Student: Yes, I am.
Lord Quinton: And have you read many philosophers?
Student: I did a special research project on Hannah Arendt.
Lord Quinton: Yes, but have you read any philosophers?
After my arrival, I discovered that almost everyone of my favorite thinkers—Kierkegaard, Sartre, Arendt, Foucault, Heidegger, Sontag, Schopenhauer, etc.—was conspicuously missing from the philosophy curriculum. I did sit in on one English literature grad school course where structuralism was discussed, but I never once heard any Oxford philosopher mention the names of Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, Saussure, Deleuze, or Derrida. You didn’t dare ask about them either. I once got chastised simply for using the term phenomenology in a tutorial.
Michael Inwood violated this ultimate taboo. But he approached Hegel and Heidegger with an extraordinary analytical rigor—an approach that turned even the most esoteric viewpoints into logical propositions suitable for proof or refutation. It wouldn’t be going too far to say that he translated continental philosophy into the language of Anglo-American logic—a huge achievement in its own way.
Even so many years later, I look upon my tutorials with him as perhaps the most exemplary moments of clarity of thinking and expression I’ve enoyed in my life. In his book-encrusted enclave, the messiness of the real world gave way under the fierce attack of penetrating cogitation and ultra-precise language.
My first session with Michael Inwood took place a few days after my arrival at Trinity College, and he introduced me to the quirky and surprising world of the Oxford tutorial. Inwood’s office was just a few feet away from my room in the college, but entering into it was as unsettling as stumbling into Narnia or Middle Earth.
He began as soon as I arrived:
Yes, welcome. Sit down. Find a place and sit down. When I see you next I want you to have prepared a paper on the Naturalistic Fallacy. Of course, you will want to start your research by examining G.E. Moore’s statement of it in Principia Ethica. But take into consideration W.K. Frankenna’s response to Moore—that was published in Mind in 1939. Moore replied to his critics in 1942—so you won’t want to ignore that. You may want to consider Philippa Foot’s discussion of hypothetical imperatives in her Virtues and Vices book, but it’s also worthwhile to consider Ayer’s early work in this light, although Hare or Stevenson would probably have something to say about that. If you have time, you really ought to look into Mackie, and of course there’s C.D. Broad’s response. . .
By this time, my eyes had started to glaze over. I didn’t have the foggiest clue what a Naturalistic Fallacy was, and here I was, already six feet deep in it. Fortunately Professor Inwood soon sent me on my way, with more words of philosophical advice as I walked out the door.
A week later, I returned to the dragon’s lair. I found a place to sit, and—horrors!—instead of handing in my paper, I was forced to read it aloud, with Michael Inwood interrupting every few moments. Again and again, he asked a pointed question, or refuted my feeble student-sized argument.
At one point, he reached down from his chair, and grabbed the first thing that came to hand—which, it won’t surprise you, was a book. Then he launched into another assault on my paper.
You treat goodness as a simple and clear concept, but that’s hardly the case Mr. Gioia. If I take this book for example— and he began waving it around in the air—and I say it is a good book, what exactly does that mean?
I was absolutely silent, having no idea how to respond. He continued.
Ah, see? That doesn’t mean that this book is good when used as a weapon. [He now started making stabbing motions with the book, as if it were a sword in a pirate movie.] No, it would not be a good weapon. Nor would it be good for cooking or bricklaying or putting out a fire. [Other demonstrative gestures and motions with the book accompnied these examples.] Do you understand? When I say a book is good, I signify that the book possesses the particular capacity of goodness in which books achieve their intended function. [Now he puts the book back in its messy pile on the floor and stares me down.] Have you considered that?
I underwent this enhanced interrogation week after week over the course of the term, and each time got a little stronger, a little better, and—above all—far more precise in my sentences and stated positions. I learned that clarity is both the most elusive thing in this world, but also the most valuable. And my tutor was determined that I grab hold of as much of it as my abilities allowed.
I don’t think I ever got comfortable in Michael Inwood’s presence, but I did learn to think better, write more clearly, and stand up under the intense scrutiny of an Oxford fellow in full flight.
I doubt my tutor ever thought about me again after I left Oxford. I was now part of that messy world he preferred to ignore. And I certainly knew better than to call him on his office phone. But I’ve thought about him often and fondly over the years. I grieve his passing, and wish I had better words to describe his legacy—but even in that desire for a more articulate manner of description I owe much to him.