Gordon Park Baker




The Times: Edition 2W THU 18 JUL 2002, Page 37

Gordon Baker, philosopher, was born on April 20, 1938. He died at Woodstock in Oxfordshire, of the untreatable consequences of melanoma, on June 25, 2002, aged 64.

Oxford scholar who collaborated on a thoroughgoing explication of the philosophy of Wittgenstein.

GORDON BAKER will be best remembered as one of a distinguished band of scholars who made the exegesis of Ludwig Wittgenstein's writings a major part of their studies.

Gordon Park Baker was born in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1938. His father was a lawyer in the New York financial world, and his mother a biochemist at the Columbia University Medical School. Following the educational pattern of upper middle-class Easterners, he entered the Phillips Exeter Academy and then Harvard, where he majored in mathematics. A Marshall scholarship took him to Queen's College, Oxford, in 1960 to read philosophy, politics and economics. Dissatisfied with the course, he mastered enough Greek in a few months to transfer to Greats.

He began a doctorate in 1963 which he completed only in 1970,teaching meanwhile at the University of Kent and then as a fellow ofSt John's College, Oxford. It was there that he began the collaboration with P. M. S. Hacker made famous by their exegetical volumes on the work of Wittgenstein.

By the early 1950s, only two volumes of the writings of that enigmatic genius had appeared in print. These were the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus of 1922 and the immediately posthumous Philosophical Investigations of 1953. Each book had in its time created a considerable stir. Commentaries on Wittgenstein's thought proliferated then and continue to do so at an astonishing rate. At Oxford, Gilbert Ryle, David Pears, Elizabeth Anscombe, Brian McGuiness and many others taught and wrote about him. Wittgenstein's condensed and epigrammatical style contributed notonly to the fascination with which his philosophy was regarded but also to many interpretations as to what message it conveyed.

With Peter Hacker, Baker set about a massive scholarly project tounveil the philosophy of Wittgenstein in as clear and faithful a manner as possible. Wittgenstein revised and refined his reflections into thousands of paragraphs, and the product is so tightly woven that misunderstandings were rife. They began unpacking the condensed and subtle paragraphs into definitive readings. This involved not only exegesis but also a thorough exploration of the history of the stages by which Wittgenstein reached the versions that we know. "Baker and Hacker" is a collaboration of first-rate importance in the history of philosophy. Two massive volumes emerged from the project in the 1980s, as well as several volumes of essays.

Those who were privileged to attend the Baker and Hacker class on Friday evenings recall Baker's enthusiastic stammer, his Gallicgestures, the lights glinting on his bald pate and the broad grin with which he accompanied some particularly telling point. His philosophical studies of the sources of Wittgenstein's thought led him into adjacent territories. With Hacker he developed an interpretation of the work of Gottlob Frege, contrary in various ways to the received views expressed in the work of Michael Dummett.

An amiable but deep-thrusting controversy developed between Baker and Dummett, enlivening several of those Friday evenings. Friedrich Waismann, Wittgenstein's one-time amanuensis, also became a focus of scholarly interest. The revisions of later editions of Waismann's textbook-like presentation of Wittgenstein's later philosophy owed a great deal to Baker's scholarship.

In 1990 the Baker and Hacker partnership began to dissolve, largely over the question as to how far Wittgenstein's writings expressed definite philosophical theses. In recent years, Baker's studies reached not only into territories adjacent to the Vienna Circle and Wittgenstein exegesis but also into reflections on Wittgenstein's relations with Bertrand Russell. He also turned to the history of the philosophy of mind, with a book on Descartes' Dualism, written with Kathleen Morris.

The insights of great philosophers are of use to us in various ways but not when we have misunderstood them. Baker's aim in whatever study he was undertaking was to make exquisitely clear what he took the author to have been saying. His rigorous pursuit of this idealled him not only into controversies over the philosophy of Frege bu also into criticisms of what he believed to have been serious mistakes in the philosophy of language.

Baker's catalogue of scholarly achievement would have been remarkable if he had held a research chair in some well-endowed American university. But Oxford philosophers generally do their thinking and writing while also engaged in tutorial teaching, and he was a busy college fellow with whom generations of undergraduates were privileged to study. He was not much inclined to administration, however, although he did serve as a trustee of the Waismann Fund, setup with the royalties that accrued to Oxford from the posthumous publications of Waismann's writings.

In 1964 he married Ann Pimlott, with whom he had three sons. In Oxford his tall, gangly figure was often to be seen striding into the Real Tennis Court, racquet in hand, and from 1984 until last year he took part in the annual fathers and sons tournament. He was also an accomplished pianist and harpsichordist.

From 1978 to 1989 he and his family took part in the Oxford music festival, tackling such works as Bach's Fourth Brandenburg Concerto. Alongside his Oxford life he indulged a passion for France. He had a house in Perigord which he restored from semi-ruin. He put his knowledge of the language to good use on many visits to Paris by introducing French philosophers to Wittgenstein.

Gordon Baker left his wife in 1992 and was living with Katherine Morris. Both of them survive him, as do the three sons of his marriage.