Philosopher Ted Honderich tells his story
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, April 10, 2001)

Of all the profound questions confronting philosophers who teach in universities, only one can be reduced to six words: "Should I sleep with the students?" Few academic departments evade this issue, and it's unavoidable in Philosopher: A Kind of Life (Routledge), the autobiography of Ted Honderich, a poor boy from rural Ontario who ascended the heights of British philosophy.

Now 68 years old, he's Grote Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London. He's also part of a famous Canadian family: his older brother Beland ran The Toronto Star for many years, and his nephew, John, is now publisher and editor.

Ted Honderich has made a highly readable book by embedding his intellectual development in a narrative of his private life. It portrays him as a complex man, egotistical and insecure, always ambitious, anxious to be truthful yet sometimes evasive.

He's a socialist who barely tolerates anyone who isn't and finds Margaret Thatcher "unspeakable." Yet he campaigned (unsuccessfully) to persuade Prime Minister Thatcher to install his friend A.J. Ayer in the House of Lords, which Ayer thought his eminence as a philosopher deserved. Even now Honderich doesn't see that this exercise, a socialist beseeching his enemy for patronage, was inconsistent to the point of nuttiness.

He's a self-declared prosecco socialist, as opposed to a champagne socialist -- the Italian variety being cheaper. Whatever his bubbly, he's well fixed. Aside from his handsome salary and excellent book royalties, he receives cheques from his multi-millionaire brother Beland and admits that all this clashes with his declared belief in equality. When he falls into a calamitous real-estate deal, money from Toronto keeps him solvent. He's George Orwell's idea of the socialist who gives socialism its bad name -- a Hampstead-dwelling, New Statesman-contributing bicyclist who consorts with vegetarians. He admits to being Boswell-like in the cultivation of the eminent. (He separately entertains A.S. Byatt and her fellow novelist and sister, Margaret Drabble, since they don't get on, or didn't.)

Honderich was born among fractious Mennonites in Baden, a village of 700 near Kitchener, Ont. His father and grandfather were excommunicated for visiting a church of the wrong denomination, after which their relatives forever declined to shake their hands. Ted was the last of six children, Beland being 15 years older. Their father failed in several enterprises, including weekly newspapers, beekeeping and the production of soap. Their mother got appointed village telephone operator, which entitled them to live in the house containing the phone exchange, with a privy and a hand pump for water in the kitchen.

Beland became both brother and father to Ted: "He was as severe a man as I have ever met, taking perfection by his lights to be the only tolerable option." In 1950, well on his way at the Star, Beland got Ted a summer job as a reporter. Thereafter, as Ted made his way through the University of Toronto, Beland encouraged his simultaneous progress in the paper toward feature writer and book-page editor. Briefly, my own life intersected with his. In the late 1950s, he published my book reviews and then, just before going off to England to study philosophy, suggested that I apply for his job. Getting it was important, and I've been grateful to him ever since.

Honderich calls David Hume the "patron saint of philosophers of my inclination" and brusquely dismisses those toward whom he isn't inclined, such as Kierkegaard ("gloomy sod") and Hegel ("unspeakable"). He compares Freud's ideas to astrology and tells with satisfaction how he kept his philosophy department from establishing a chair in psychoanalysis.

That was academic politics, a favourite subject of his. Once a colleague caused him "rage and grief" by telling a selection committee that the whole philosophy department opposed Honderich's elevation to a major job. At a crucial meeting, the head of his department called Honderich a swine. This was serious stuff, but (in the manner of academic politics) it was also serious when someone decided Honderich couldn't have departmental secretaries to address envelopes dealing with his editing of the Oxford Companion to Philosophy; he gritted his teeth and addressed the envelopes by himself. There are hardships in the life of the mind.

He speaks at one point of the sexual temptation presented by undergraduates, which he did not always resist. Sex with students, as he tells it, resembled gravity, something that happened to him rather than something he made happen. At one point he actually says, "I fell into two small affairs, one after another, with undergraduates." Considering that the author has written often on free will and determinism, the verb "fell" seems spectacularly inappropriate.

He calculates that he has had more women than Bertrand Russell but not so many as A.J. Ayer, an example of the competitive spirit that makes British philosophy what it is today. Honderich has seldom been overly prudent. In the 1970s, while part of an open marriage, he was involved with an undergraduate who was romantically connected to a lecturer elsewhere, with presumably the same freedom from bourgeois convention. She sometimes accompanied him to other cities where he would lecture and they would stay with a local professor. "Was it wise, when I had been pressing myself forward for promotion ... to be courting some degree of notoriety? It did not go well with taking the high moral ground." Apparently it didn't harm his career.

He has lived with six women, three of them his wives. Most, alas, are ciphers in his book; certain male philosophers come through vibrantly, but wives, lovers and occasional girlfriends often sound interchangeable. He insists that his relationships have been with persons, not bodies, but little in his account supports him.

Women pass in a blur. A reader who dozes for a moment could miss a couple of entanglements, five of which appear to be in progress simultaneously during one hectic period in the 1980s. A pattern emerges: Each attachment seems to end in tears -- the woman's and Honderich's. There's talk of moodiness, anger and excessive drinking. I'm not sure this philosopher was altogether wise to reject outright the insights of Freud and his followers.

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