Professor Anthony Flew – An Obituary by Professor David Conway

Antony Flew 1923-2010

With the passing of Professor Antony Garrard Newton Flew, ‘Tony’ to his many friends and colleagues, the world of Anglophonic philosophy has lost one of the very last and most accomplished practitioners of that form of analytic philosophy which flourished in the English-speaking world during the first three quarters of the twentieth century, and especially at Oxford in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, where Flew underwent initiation into its techniques and idiom under the tutelage of Gilbert Ryle.

Flew had gone there as a post-graduate having played his part during the War in British intelligence interpreting Japanese military signals, having specially learned the language for the purpose at the London School of Oriental and African Studies.

Oxford however had already by then become his alma mater, Flew having graduated from there with a first in Greats before the War.       

A distinguished academic career followed, with Flew occupying chairs in philosophy at the universities of Keele and Reading, after first earning his stripes as a lecturer at Aberdeen and then, for a time, at York University in Toronto.

During his years as a professional philosopher, especially during the early part of them, Flew was remarkably prolific and influential as an exponent of the particular brand of ordinary language philosophy in which he so excelled. He produced a series of publications covering a wide area of the subject, from work on Hume to influential essays on personal identity. He also wrote a widely used history of philosophy, as well as editing an equally as widely used dictionary of the subject. Unusually among professional philosophers of that period, Flew retained a keen but decidedly sceptical interest in para-psychology, as well as in the claims of natural and revealed religion. 

Towards the end of his professional career, Flew’s interests increasingly turned towards political philosophy and politics more generally. He became ever more firmly and audibly opposed to the post-war social-democratic consensus that had grown up in the cloistered environment of universities on both sides of the Atlantic after the War.

Like Popper and Hayek, Flew had in his early adult years briefly gone through a socialist phase during which, characteristically, he had acquired a deep and wide knowledge of Marxist-Leninism. Later, he would put that knowledge to good effect in debunking Marxism, after his brief early enchantment with socialism had worn off.  

Flew was equally as opposed and no less unrelenting in his criticism of the welfare-state friendly and redistributionist form of liberalism of which John Rawls had by then become the leading champion in Anglophonic philosophical circles. A steady stream of publications followed, directed at exposing the flaws in Rawls’ account of what justice required that Flew considered as methodologically flawed as he considered it to be morally and politically misguided.

By this stage of his career, Flew had ceased to be the authority within the world of academic philosophy that he once had been. By then, however, he had assumed the mantle of the wise and respected philosophical elder in the world of classical liberal and libertarian think-tanks, such as Britain’s Institute of Economic Affairs and the Libertarian Alliance, and America’s Social Philosophy and Policy Centre, the Liberty Fund and the Mises Institute.

 Towards the very end of his active intellectual life, Flew did something few professional philosophers, or for that matter any other intellectuals of his stature, do. He changed his mind publicly over a very fundamental issue. After a lifetime spent in propounding atheism, Flew embraced theism, albeit of a very rationalistic and deistic sort that eschewed the encumbrances of all revelation, including the prospect of immortality.

 Flew’s change of mind, based upon his increasing disbelief in the ability of natural science to explain the origins of life, startled and dismayed the many secular humanists who had previously looked upon him as one of their own. When news of his ‘conversion’ to theism broke, they attributed it to incipient senility. While by then increasingly fragile both physically and mentally, Flew simply announced that he had undergone his late conversion to theism simply as a result of having followed the argument with open mind wherever it might lead. In so doing, he placed himself in the tradition of Plato whose thought he had first encountered as an undergraduate at Oxford.

 To those who knew him and whom he knew shared his political outlook, Flew could be a remarkably kind and helpful mentor and a keen interlocutor. But those privileged to have known him personally will also know that, until his very final years, Flew also retained a wonderfully open, almost child-like and status-indifferent interest in all around him. He could be as intellectually engaged and stimulated by striking up a conversation with a porter as with a professor. In that respect, as in many others, he was akin to that philosophical gad-fly, Socrates, a well-deserved comparison with whom Flew would have been both greatly amused and pleased.  

 With his passing, a chapter closes on British ideas and manners that leaves all who knew and remember him fondly that much the poorer for having lost so inspiring an exemplar of the philosophical life.    

 Flew is survived by a widow and two daughters.

David Conway

2 Comments

  • Nicholas Dykes says:

    I would be grateful if you would post this letter. It was sent to the Daily Telegraph, who declined to print it. It seems they prefer long-winded missives from California, or trivia.

    To the Editor:

    Dear Sir,
    Thank you for your balanced and fair obituary of Professor Antony Flew. However, there were a few things missing.
    First, was Antony’s quiet and unassuming generosity. He donated most of his valuable personal library to eastern European universities when they were emerging from communism; he contributed wholeheartedly to the charity Books for Belarus, even paying for a satellite dish to be installed on a library roof so that citizens of that dictatorship could obtain unbiased foreign news reports; and made a very large donation for the legal defense of a Serbian dissident who was being persecuted by the Milosevic regime. These are the things I know about, I’m sure there were many others.
    His charitable activities reveal the extent of Antony’s libertarianism, an intellectual position arrived at, not from reading Ayn Rand or Ludwig von Mises, but from his own thought and observation of life. Unlike the increasingly collectivistic and authoritarian politicians of today, Antony believed that a society of free individuals was the only society worth pursuing.
    As to Antony’s apostasy, his turn towards theism late in life, it needs to be stressed that this was a consequence of Altzheimer’s. It became clear to me several years ago that something was wrong, when, in letters or conversations, that once acutely logical mind would shoot off at inexplicable tangents. When I heard someone close to him remark, “I don’t know what on earth’s the matter with Antony, he’s started going to churches,” I immediately suspected what the matter might be and was greatly saddened when Alzheimer’s was later confirmed.
    So I salute him, a generous man and a brave thinker, whose books I will always cherish. The apostasy was not his fault.

    Nicholas Dykes, Ledbury, Herefordshire.

    PS: I add here what was missing from the above, that Antony was instrumental in helping Ibn Warraq find a position from which he could write and publish his great book ‘Why I am NOT a Muslim’ — which is required reading for every literate person. ND.

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