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Interview: Anthony Kenny, philosopher

14 December 2018

‘Experience of God is impossible’

My life has been interesting because of the people I’ve met, not because of anything I’ve done. Yes, I was frank about some of them in Brief Encounters, but Boris is a sport, and probably will forgive me.

I was a Catholic priest; and then became a Fellow in Philosophy and then Master of Balliol College, Oxford. Later, I was Warden of Rhodes House, president of the British Academy, and chaired the British Library [Board]. I’ve written about 50 books on philosophy, religion, history, and literature.

Being Master of Balliol was the job I enjoyed most. The Fellows of Balliol were a very congenial group of people, and we had a bright lot of students. As Warden of Rhodes House, I was much more on my own.

I was ordained priest in 1955. I had six years in the Liverpool diocesan seminary, which gave me a very good classical education. I was able to teach Greek philosophy at Balliol on the strength of what I learned there. Then I had seven years in the English College, in Rome. They were pleasant years, because the college was a good community; but the teaching at the Gregorian University was very poor — nothing but lectures in Latin given to hundreds of students.

It didn’t help me to cope with parish work in Liverpool very well — it was much more help to me as a philosopher, and I was able to publish my first book, Action, Emotion and Will, in 1963, which is still in print. I was very unhappy as a curate, increasingly doubtful about what I was supposed to teach and the advice I was supposed to give in the confessional, and I asked to be laicised in that same year.

Leaving the priesthood was the thing that took most courage in my life, but, when I left, people were extremely kind to me, and some remained lasting friends. Cardinal Heenan never made any attempt to bully me about it.

You can’t necessarily measure someone’s influence on your life in terms of the length of time you’ve spent with them. I met Graham Greene only a few times, but it was he who introduced me to Arthur Hugh Clough, and I spent several years working on Clough; so you could say he influenced my life a good deal.

The most influential philosopher was Elizabeth Anscombe. When I first went to Oxford, she was extraordinarily kind to me, and helped me to appreciate the genius of Wittgenstein. My philosophical views through 50 years of teaching and writing I drew, through her, from Wittgenstein, mainly. His understanding of the nature of the mind, and his insistence on language as being a communal, social activity is the most enlightening philosophy of mind on offer. Aristotle’s writings remain as influential as any moralist of later times.

In recent times, the person I was most impressed with was Tom Bingham, senior law lord and Visitor of Balliol College. It was his rare combination of intelligence and moral seriousness that impressed me most.

The books on Arthur Hugh Clough were those which gave me most pleasure to write. He was the most intellectual of the Victorian poets. Amours de Voyage is a novel in verse about an Oxford don who goes to Rome in 1849. At first, he’s very supercilious about Rome, but, by the end of poem, he’s in love with it, and in love with the girl. It’s a downbeat novel written in wonderful verse. The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich is about Oxford students on a reading party in Scotland. (For many years my wife and I took a reading party to the Alps.) I was interested to compare Clough and Manley Hopkins: both were brought up as Anglicans at Balliol, but Clough went one way, towards atheism, and Hopkins became a Jesuit.

I’ve always believed in the freedom of the will. We very often do things when we could do something quite different. At one time, determinism seemed very popular with philosophers and scientists. I wanted to argue that, even if this was true at an empirical level, human beings could still be free at the intellectual level.

Determinism’s gone completely out of fashion now. At lower levels, there are stochastic processes, but they get harnessed by higher-level activities in human beings as a rule, because there’s top-down causation — the upper levels of mind and will control randomness at lower levels. It’s been very well explained by physiologist Denis Noble, whose book Dance to the Tune of Love explains this beautifully in lucid terms.

Mainstream philosophy has become impossibly technical, but philosophical journals are just inbred, one outdoing another. Someone’s philosophy’s no good if it can’t be explained in simple terms. I’ve written a couple of histories of philosophy for the non-philosophical public. I tried to combine something of the wit and readability of Russell with Frederick Copleston, who was one of my really good teachers in Rome: accurate, but rather dull. I was trying to get the best of both.

Experience of God is impossible. From a philosophical point of view, if God is a transcendent spirit, he can’t be the object of experience in the way other things can be the objects of experience. We experience things by the activity of discriminating — colour changes, the table ends, a sound gets louder, and so on — but, in God, there’s nothing to discriminate: all is everlastingly the same.

That doesn’t mean that nothing can be said about God. People are saying things all the time — but not on the basis of experience. People who see visions are not really seeing God, in my view. A revelation by God is not the same as an experience of God. The Sermon on the Mount was a kind of revelation to the people who heard it, but they experienced Jesus, not the divine Spirit.

I’m agnostic about the existence of God. I don’t find the arguments of atheists like Dawkins convincing, nor the arguments of Aquinas. The sensible thing to say is that I don’t know. I’m not agnostic about future life. If there is a creator above my comprehension, I think I know what human beings are like — rational, mortal animals — and there’s no survival after death.

My childhood was sad, but my daily life is now delightful. I’ve just written my last book, and sent my copy off to SPCK. It’s book about Immanuel Kant in their “Short Introduction” series. Yes, it’s my last book. My memory’s getting too bad to write any more. I’m 87 now, and I want to put my affairs in order. I don’t want to leave a lot of trouble for my heirs; so, in the last few days, I’ve been making arrangements for the disposal of my papers and the sale of my books.

Having a family was the most wonderful thing that happened to me. I met and married Nancy in 1966, and we have two sons and four granddaughters. One is much more master of one’s own time being a Fellow of a college than in most professions, and I could arrange my own teaching time. I usually spent one night a week dining in college, but all the other nights I was at home, and usually able to put the children to bed, even if I was going back to dinner in college.

I live in Headington, which is a suburb of Oxford, because the centre’s too expensive for retired academics. My eldest son, a consultant in telecommunications, lives in north Oxford. Our other son lives in the United States, where he works for a think tank; so we see him much less often. But the whole family is assembling for Christmas in our house this year. The cousins get on extremely well, and we shall celebrate a traditional Christmas and watch them enjoying themselves.

When I’m not working, I like walking, listening to music, especially Bach, and reading poetry.

Brexit makes me angry.

I pray for enlightenment about the existence of God.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with David Hume. I don’t think he’s absolutely one of the top-rank philosophers, but he was one of the nicest people: an agnostic like myself, not an outright atheist, and he set an example of how an agnostic should meet death with dignity.

Sir Anthony Kenny was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Brief Encounters: Notes from a philosopher’s diary is published by SPCK (CT Bookshop £16.99) (Books for Christmas, 30 November).

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