Helen Mary Wilson Warnock

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Helen Mary Wilson Warnock

British philosopher Baroness Helen Mary (Wilson) Warnock (born 1924) was one of the leading lights in the philosophical community of the 20th century.

Helen Mary Wilson (later Warnock) was born on April 14, 1924, in Winchester, England. She received her formal university education at Oxford and earned both the B.A. and D.Phil. degrees. She was the headmistress of the Oxford High School, 1966-1972, research fellow and tutor at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, 1972-1976, senior research fellow at St. Hugh's College, Oxford, 1976-1984, and mistress of Girton College, Cambridge, England, from 1985 to 1991.

Married to another British philosopher, Sir Geoffrey James Warnock, in 1949, they had three children. She was awarded a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) in 1984 and was created a baroness a year later.

Over a long career in academia Warnock demonstrated a keen understanding of many and disparate fields of philosophy. Her intellectual interests were broad and varied. But it was the discipline of ethics that dominated her interest, as demonstrated by her books on the history of Ethics Since 1900, Utilitarianism, and Existentialist Ethics. She was well versed in the distinctive analytical philosophical methodology of England, but she also introduced into the British philosophical discussion the continental existentialist tradition and wrote a definitive philosophical study of the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as surveys of Existentialism and Existentialist Ethics. Her books on Imagination (1976) and Memory (1987) are careful analyses of these complex subjects, much discussed by contemporary philosophers in England, the Continent, and the United States. She continued her publishing activity with substantial studies of educational and university issues.

She was especially active in British committees that examined the moral issues of governmental, political, and educational institutions; included are the Committee of Inquiry into Special Education, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the Advisory Committee on Animal Experiments, the United Kingdom's National Commission for UNESCO, the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilization, the Committee of Inquiry into Validation of Public Sector Higher Education, and the Committee on Teaching Quality.

A Study of Ethics

Warnock's book Ethics Since 1900 presents the broad sweep of moral philosophy from what is called metaphysical ethics (best represented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by F.H. Bradley) to the philosophy of existentialism in the 20th century. The chief characteristic of ethics since 1900 is the rejection of ethical naturalism (or utilitarianism) by the empiricist philosophers. G.E. Moore invented the phrase "The Naturalistic Fallacy" and set the agenda for later moral philosophers to argue in an antinaturalistic manner. Moore was interested to show that moral values are distinct from facts. "Goodness" had a unique kind of property that the philosopher was able to intuit. The antinaturalists were not concerned with the problem of moral choices. Rather, they were chiefly interested in judging things to be good or bad, right or wrong. The property of goodness is a property of things in the external world, "there to be discovered." The positivists (such as A.J. Ayer) followed Moore and the antinaturalists and further restricted the competency of moral judgments, arguing that the language of morality was basically "emotive" and non-propositional. At Oxford, then, after World War II, moral philosophy concerned itself with the logic of the words used in framing ethical propositions.

Warnock, on the other hand, argued that the analysis of ethical language leads inevitably to the trivialization of ethics. Warnock saw ethics not so much as the categories we use to describe the world, but rather "as our own impact upon the world, our relation to other people and our attitude to our situation and our life." Moral philosophy ought not to distinguish between those who theorize about the logic of moral discourse and the moralists who act as moral agents in the world. Ethics is all about "deliberating, wishing, hating, loving, choosing; these are things which characterize us as people and therefore as moral agents." Warnock believed, too, that the future of ethics (to save ethics from boredom, as she said) must be characterized by an appreciation of the philosophical significance of feelings, scruples, desires, intentions, and other psychological phenomena.

Warnock was appreciative of the efforts of several moral philosophers to reopen, as she said, the grounds of our moral convictions. She maintained, "For is it not a fact that some types of behaviour tend to do good, and others do harm? And how, in the end, if not on the basis of this fact, can we make sense of discriminating some actions as right in morals, and others as wrong?" She believed that an answer to this question leads us back to the point of the reappraisal of our moral convictions. She then argued that moral philosophers might begin to take seriously the phenomenologists and the existentialists.

Warnock was especially attracted to the philosophical perspectives of Jean-Paul Sartre, though never without maintaining the kind of critical distance that a British analytical philosopher would want always to maintain. She complained about the general vagueness of the language of the existentialists and about their lack of objectivity, so that there are no criteria for making moral judgments (which is, of course, precisely what the existentialists are affirming). Warnock argued that there is a substantial difference between moral formalism—that is, the view that there is just one right thing waiting to be done in each situation—and the existentialist's attempt to "interiorize" morals, to make them both individual and concrete. She believed that the latter attempt is both worthwhile and necessary, given the hypothetical and ultrarationalistic nature of the former. However, to assert that moral theory consists only of the assertion that there is no moral code is to assert something that is meaningless.

Warnock believed that what the existentialists ultimately did in their earnest endeavor to expurgate the worthless, the insincere, and the disingenuous from the moral discussion of the philosophers was to destroy morality altogether. Existentialism, however, had an impact upon the mood of the culture of the 20th century, but it was a mood, a way of thinking more suited to drama and novels than it was a serious way of thinking about moral issues.

Books on Sartre and Imagination

Warnock's book The Philosophy of Sartre (1965) provides the reader with a splendid introduction to the complex, at times unintelligible, thought of the French literary genius, the existentialist who later became a Marxist. Warnock confessed that as a reader of Sartre she at times could not understand what he was talking about. Sartre espoused a radical view of human freedom and argued that "They are free not only to do as they choose but to feel as they choose—in short, to be whatever they choose." Warnock called Sartre "a metaphysical moral theorist" who offered little or no prospect for individuals who attempt to answer the question "What ought we to do?" The world is a perverse place for Sartre, and there is little that individuals in their freedom can do about it. But then Sartre underwent what Warnock calls "the radical conversion" and offered to desperate individuals a new way out, that of becoming Marxists. Warnock did not believe that this was an attractive option, and proceeded to demonstrate the contradictory nature of the later Marxist Sartre over against the early existentialist one. She did find in her study of Sartre that he at times made interesting philosophical moves, but moves which finally lead away from a coherent philosophical system.

Warnock's book on Imagination (1976) is a philosophical tour de force. The philosophical analysis of the activity of the imagination is a complex, indeed a stupefying, task. She acknowledged that Hume's and Kant's analyses of imagination are seminal for all later philosophical discussions. Imagination for Hume is related to the perception of a series of images with which one builds up an intelligible world. For Kant, the imagination is the same image-making faculty that works in our minds to enable us to recognize objects in our world and to relate our concepts of them to our actual experience. But Warnock constructed a theory of imagination that is independent of Hume and Kant:

Imagination is a power in the human mind which is at work in our everyday perception of the world, and is also at work in our thoughts about what is absent; which enables us to see the world, whether present or absent as significant, and also to present this vision to others, for them to share or reject. And this power, though it gives us 'thought-imbued' perception (it 'keeps the thought alive in the perception'), is not only intellectual. Its impetus comes from the emotions as much as from the reason, from the heart as much as from the head. (Imagination)

Warnock's bold statement would not be accepted by many of her positivist colleagues in Great Britain and the United States. For the faculty of imagination is not only the intellectual perception of those similar images that make up our world, but also the emotional power that enables ideas to exist within us. Such a concept, of course, has broad consequences for education, a subject matter that concerned Warnock for almost all of her adult life.

Also from Imagination is this concept:

The fact is that if imagination is creative in all its uses, then children will be creating their own meanings and interpretations of things as much by looking at them as by making them….In so far as they begin to feel the significance of the forms they perceive, they will make their own attempts to interpret this significance. It is the emotional sense of the infinity or inexhaustibleness of things which will give point to their experience….

Lady Warnock's influence upon the direction of philosophy will be felt long into the 21st century.

Further Reading

Mary Warnock was a prolific author, both of books and of articles in scholarly and popular journals. The most significant of her philosophical texts are: Ethics Since 1900 (1960); J.P. Sartre (1963); Existentialist Ethics (1966); Existentialism (1970); Imagination (1976); Schools of Thought (1977); with T. Devlin, What Must We Teach? (1977); Education: A Way Forward (1979); A Question of Life (1985); Teacher Teach Thyself (1985); Memory (1987); A Common Policy for Education (1988); Universities: Knowing Our Minds (1989); The Uses of Philosophy (1992); and Imagination and TIme (1994).

Accounts of Warnock's life and work can be found in Ann Evory and Linda Metzger, eds., Contemporary Authors (1983) and the British Who's Who: An Annual Biographical Dictionary (1993). □