Ian McFetridge

For some reason the late brilliant, though relatively unknown philosopher, Ian McFetridge popped into my consciousness (on reflection, the thought could have been triggered by my thinking about a school chum who had a McFetridge kind of intelligence and wit but sadly was never to even begin to reach his potential). Anyway, Ian conducted my Birkbeck interview and never used his superior intelligence or his knowledge to score points even though I was, philosophically, terribly naive. None other than Colin McGinn in his terrific autobiography speaks affectionately about Ian the man:

He was a short, springy man with a small moustache, fiery brown eyes, and an ebullient manner.  . . . I appreciated his quick, darting intellect and his fine philosophical judgment. He was the kind of philosopher who saw one’s point immediately and always had something to add to it, either critically or creatively. He could sometimes be a bit too animated, as if small explosions were being detonated in his head, but I liked his seriousness and his sound philosophical sense. He was humorous, generous, lively, compassionate, human. At the end of my teaching day I would often stroll over to Birkbeck to meet Ian, who taught mainly in the evening; if he wasn’t in his office he was already in the pub. I would order my usual half pint of larger while Ian went through pints of beer at an impressive pace. We would gossip and talk philosophy  . . . Then, after about five quick pints, he would hurriedly announce that he would have to go and give a lecture. This never ceased to amaze me: I would start to lose my philosophical head  . . . while Ian would be perfectly coherent after his fifth pint  . . .

But Ian had problems. He worried obsessively about his work  . . . He smoked and drank far too much . . . He also had difficulty reconciling himself to his homosexuality . . . All this was combined with a manic-depressive temperament  . . .

Colin McGinn, The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy

Here is the opening paragraph to Christopher Hookway’s review of the posthumously edited work in Philosophy, Vol. 67, No. 260 (Apr., 1992), pp. 264-266.

Logical Necessity and Other Essays By I. G. McFetridge, edited by John Haldane and Roger Scruton. The Aristotelian Society, ix+240 pp., £12.00

The editors of this volume, which collects Ian McFetridge’s published writings with a selection from his Nachlass, speak of sharp and vital philosophical presence. The addresses they delivered to his Memorial service provide a moving and accurate picture of the man and the philosopher: Roger Scruton’s description of his first encounter with McFetridge, from which he emerged chastened, philosophically enlightened yet with his philosophical self-confidence intact, describes an experience that many will share. The contents of the book provide testimony to McFetridge’s philosophical powers, a reminder of what he might have contributed to British philosophy. At the time of his death, McFetridge was working on a book on modality, an historical and analytical examination of philosophers’ attempts to explain the source of necessity and the grounds of our knowledge of it. Although far from completion, the project was well enough advanced that we can be grateful for the hundred pages or so of the present volume which are taken from work in progress-and saddened that there was not to be time for more work in the same vein. Logical Necessity also contains four published papers, contributions to scholarly debate which will be familiar to those working in the appropriate areas. These include an early piece on aspects of Davidson’s semantic programme, McFetridge’s Joint Session response to John McDowell’s ‘Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?’, and an interesting discussion of the philosophical significance of supervenience claims. A robustly sensible review of some books on Wittgenstein is included, together with interesting but lesser pieces on the morality of deterrence and on the nature of knowledge. Although those who knew McFetridge will be pleased to possess this record of his philosophical achievements, and his philosophical powers are evident throughout these works, the lasting value of this volume must lie in the previously unpublished material on modality, and it is to this that I shall now turn.