Philosophy against Misosophy



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From Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 48, 1974-1975, 171-172.

Alfred Cyril Ewing


Brand Blanshard

Alfred Cyril Ewing died on May 14, 1973, in Manchester England.  He was of course a British not an American philosopher, but he had served as visiting professor in this country at Princeton, Northwestern, Southern California, Delaware, and San Francisco State College.  He was born in Leicester, England, in 1899, and was educated at University College, Oxford, where he distinguished himself in both classics and philosophy.  As a graduate student he won the Green Prize with his first book on philosophy, The Morality of Punishment.  For four years he taught at Swansea College, Wales.  In 1931 he was appointed University lecturer in moral science at Cambridge, where he continued to live and teach for thirty-five years.  He was a fellow of Jesus College, and for some years chairman of the Faculty Board of Moral Science.  At his death he was the senior philosophical member of the British Academy.

Ewing was a prolific writer; on ethics alone he wrote five substantial books.  His ethical position was an ingenious compromise between Moore and the deontologists; he defined the good as that which it was fitting to approve.  His major work was undoubtedly his Idealism of 1934, which is probably the best critical study of the subject in English.  His inclination in that book was to accept the coherence theory of truth, though in one of his last letters to me he reported that he could no longer accept it as supplying either the nature or test of truth.  He also said of his last book, Value and Reality (1973), which he was writing at the time, that he had “definitely adopted indeterminism on ethical grounds.”  His books are written in a kind of Aristotelian style, with no rhetorical embellishment, compressed in expression, and closely knit in argument, but generally clear, and persuasively charged with common sense.

Ewing found little to attract him in the new philosophies that emerged at Oxford and Cambridge in his time.  His articles on “Meaninglessness” and “The Linguistic Theory of A Priori Knowledge” were powerfully argued and must have contributed much to the disintegration of positivism.  It is worth noting that one of his last books was entitled simply Non-Linguistic Philosophy.  His resolute non-conformism to popular fashion no doubt prevented in some measure his gaining the recognition he deserved.

For many years Ewing was the treasurer of the International Federation of Philosophical Societies and so was a familiar figure at international congresses.  He loved travelling and did a great deal of it; he loved walking, and on visits to friends in Britain or America usually managed to have a knapsack along in case a ramble should prove possible up a mountain or across the countryside.

I had the prized satisfaction of knowing him well over many years, and can testify to his sweetness of temper, his rare modesty, and, in the face of many frustrations, his extraordinary freedom from malice or bitterness.  He was singularly impersonal and fair in controversy; his devotion to philosophy was complete; and he brought to its service one of the keenest minds of his generation.

Posted April 13, 2008

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