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Antony Flew, R.I.P.

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04/14/2010

I met Antony Flew at a Mises Institute conference in 2001. He did not share the admiration common among philosophers for John Rawls. For him, The Theory of Justice was a travesty: Rawls’s failure to define justice until late in the book especially upset him. His vehemence, combined as it was with great charm, made an unforgettable impression. After my own talk, also an attack on Rawls, I said to him, “You’ll probably say I was too easy on Rawls.” “Well, you were rather”, he replied.

Readers of this blog will probably know Flew best for his trenchant books and essays in defense of classical liberalism, such as Equality in Liberty and Justice; but political philosophy was only one of his many interests. He was one of the foremost ordinary language philosophers. Like his teacher Gilbert Ryle, he thought that philosophical problems often stemmed from “systematically misleading expressions.” He applied his great skill at clarification of concepts to a wide variety of topics, including personal identity, causation, free will, psychoanalysis, and ESP. He was also an outstanding philosophical scholar and one of the world’s foremost authorities on David Hume. He was probably most famous for his defense of atheism, a position he came to abandon in his last years. In part, his volte face was due to the influence of David Conway, whose The Rediscovery of Wisdom had much impressed him. His willingness to abandon a view held for decades because he thought that reason required this showed his great intellectual courage.

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