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Antony G.N. Flew
2001 Schlarbaum Laureate

The 2001 Schlarbaum Laureate is Antony G. N. Flew, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Reading, England. [Read his prize address.] The prize, which is granted by the Ludwig von Mises Institute and carries a $10,000 cash award, recognizes Professor Flew's outstanding lifetime achievement in the cause of liberty. He has been a leading light in British philosophy for the past half-century. Throughout his long career, he has stressed conceptual clarity in philosophy and has resolutely defended human freedom against its detractors. 

Flew was born in 1923 and attended St. Faith's Preparatory School, Cambridge, from 1930 to 1936, and Kingswood School, Bath, from 1936 to 1941. His father was a clergyman, and Flew developed from an early age a strong interest in religion. Like many men of his generation, his progress toward an academic career was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. Flew served in Royal Air Force Intelligence and was later attached to the Air Ministry. 

Before his war service, Flew had studied Japanese; but when he resumed his studies after the war, he concentrated on philosophy. His academic achievements clearly showed him to be a great scholar. He was a scholarship student at St. John's College, Oxford, and graduated in 1947 with a coveted First in Greats (highest honors). 

At the time Flew was a student and during the early years of his teaching career, a new style of philosophy became influential in Britain. Ordinary language or linguistic philosophy rejected the view championed by Bertrand Russell that philosophical problems should be addressed in a formalized language akin to mathematics. Instead, the new school paid great attention to the way concepts were used in ordinary language. Much unnecessary puzzlement, it was held, had resulted from philosophers' failures to attend to the conceptual grammar of the terms they used. The two most famous proponents of the approach were the Oxford philosophers J.L.Austin and Gilbert Ryle. 

Flew enthusiastically embraced the new view and was soon considered one of its leading advocates. He edited an influential anthology that popularized the Oxford style of analysis: Logic and Language: First Series (1955).

An example, taken from Flew's work, will show linguistic philosophy in action. Suppose we are faced with the issue of free will. An ordinary language philosopher might begin by noting that we commonly speak of acts, rather than the will, as being free. He might then set forward the circumstances in which we say that an act has been done freely. If someone objects that showing how we use concepts does not show whether we really are free, the objector will be accused of a conceptual muddle. No context has been presented for the use of the notion of "real freedom." If we divorce the concept of freedom from its customary background, we shall get nowhere. The influence of the later Wittgenstein on this style of thought is at once apparent.

Flew applied the new technique to religious questions, and with Alasdair Macintyre edited the influential anthology New Essays in Philosophical Theology (1955). He stressed the importance of understanding the meaning of religious language. When the believer says, for example, that God loves us, under what conditions would he be prepared to admit that the claim is false?

In a now-famous phrase that underlined the need for clarity, Flew warned of the "death by a thousand qualifications." He also devoted great attention to where the burden of proof lies in issues like the existence of God. In his study of religion, Flew was greatly influenced by David Hume, on whose philosophy he became a leading authority. His Hume's Philosophy of Belief(1961) is the standard work on the Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding and earned the enthusiastic commendation of Ryle, a notoriously exacting judge.

In political philosophy, Flew vigorously defends classical liberalism against the fallacies of egalitarianism. He finds the influential A Theory of Justice, by the Harvard philosopher John Rawls, entirely lacking in the clarity he believed an essential philosophical virtue. Flew devotes his Politics of Procrustes: Contradictions of Enforced Equality (1981) to a detailed assault on Rawls's much lauded book. Flew rejects Rawls's claim that, since people do not acquire their natural talents through moral merit, these talents stand at the disposition of "society." Flew points out that moral desert is not needed to make us entitled to profit from our abilities. He further argues that egalitarianism is not a theoretically robust idea, but rather is invoked to mask the ambition to power.

In Thinking Straight (1977) he argues that the ideological conclusions of the left were more central to them than scientific integrity itself. He explains why even the non-Marxist left must eventually get around to belittling logic and reason as reactionary constructs. In Thinking about Social Thinking (1985), he drives home the point that the social sciences cannot be treated like the physical sciences because man acts and chooses and hence engages in behavior that cannot be predicted or predetermined. 

In "Human Choice and Historical Inevitability" (Journal of Libertarian Studies; Vol 5, Number 4; Fall 1981) he argues against the view that history is driven by laws akin to those of the physical sciences. He challenges social theorists to provide an example of at least one supposed historical inevitability that is not subject to falsification. Meanwhile, "Could There Be a Universal Natural Rights" (JLS, Vol 6, No. 3-4; Spring 1982) criticizes the view that no coherent theory of rights is possible.

In Sociology, Equality, and Education (1976), and other works, he assails the malign influence of the egalitarian ideology in the schools. In all this work, his overriding theme is that socialism and social democracy are based on a huge array of postulates about the world that are demonstrably false. To counter this, he has worked to restore honesty and truth-telling in science, while producing a large corpus in defense of classical-liberal ideals.

Flew has taught at universities all over the world, including England, Scotland, Australia, the United States, and Canada. He was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Keele from 1954 to 1974 and then at the University of Reading from 1973 to 1982. He is among the most prolific and wide ranging contemporary philosophers. Among the many subjects he has philosophically illuminated are psychoanalysis, psychical research, crime, and evolutionary ethics. 

The prize is named in honor of Gary G. Schlarbaum, lead partner in a Pennsylvania investment management firm and former professor of finance at Purdue University, whose generosity made it possible. The Schlarbaum award will be presented at a Mises Institute conference on philosophy with a focus on rights and justice, September 28-29, 2001. 

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The Vita of A.G.N. Flew 

Articles by Antony Flew online: 

"Could There Be Universal Natural Rights?" 

"Enforced Equality Or- Justice?" 

"Human Choice and Historical Inevitability" 

"Philosophy of Freedom" 

"Social Science: Making Visible the Invisible Hands" 

"Socialism and Social Justice" 

Books by Antony Flew available through Amazon.com: 

Introduction to Western Philosophy: Ideas and Argument from Plato to Popper 

How to Think Straight: An Introduction to Critical Reasoning 

A Dictionary of Philosophy 

Hume's Philosophy of Belief: A Study of His First Inquiry 

The Politics of Procrustes: Contradictions of Enforced Equality 

Thinking About Social Thinking 

Equality in Liberty and Justice (November 2000) 

 


2000 Schlarbaum Laureate: Ralph Raico (read his lecture)

1999 Schlarbaum Laureate: Otto von Habsburg