Brian O’Shaughnessy remembered.

by Harry on July 15, 2010

I see, with great sadness, that Brian O’Shaughnessy has died, aged 84. (obit here). Brian was my teacher at Bedford College and then at Kings College when our department merged with theirs. We had a brief correspondence a year or so ago, after I mentioned him in a CT thread and Swift send me an email saying that he grew up next door to him. In my first email to him I mentioned something that I’d assumed he had forgotten, and which I’ll tell now.

During my first year he offered a lecture course consisting of just 4 lectures on consciousness. The first lecture had 8 students, the second had 4, and the third had, well, just me. Not only did he continue to lecture, but after the 4th session he said “Well, we don’t really seem to have cracked this yet. I’ll come back next week, and if you’re here I’ll lecture to you, and otherwise I’ll just lecture to the empty room”. He did soften a bit after that. The best was in week 6. The philosophy lecture room overlooked the Regents Park Bandstand, and the first 30 minutes of lecture competed with the band playing outside. The band started up the Souza march which became the Monty Python signature tune. I started to giggle, because having an Australian philosopher lecturing to a single person about “an account of consciousness that covers both self-conscious consciousness — the kind of consciousness we have — and unself-conscious consciousness, like the consciousness of an ant” accompanied by that tune was too hard to resist. He looked up and said “I recognise that tune”. “Yes, it is the Monty Python signature tune”. “Oh yes. They played it on the boat the day I left Australia”. At that moment I thought, perhaps, there was a God after all, and one with a sense of humour.

I’ve told the story many times. I reminded him of it, presuming it and I were both long forgotten. But no. This is what he said:

I remember you very well indeed. I sometimes speak of the occasion–of lecturing for an entire term a (2nd or 3rd year) course to an audience of one–a first year student (partly to show what a thick skin one needed at times). And cap the story by saying how the student got a first, and went on to post-grad work at USC, a pretty good place as I remember. (Which is supposed to shows that the stuff I was dishing out wasnt all garbage)

It was a wonderful experience for me — just watching someone do philosophy in front of me, and just for me. I don’t always teach philosophy that way, but I always, always, ensure that in my lectures there is some space during which I am modelling the activity, as he did, so well and with such an impression, in those lectures.

I did get a first, which stunned me, having had no indication from any of my teachers that I was more than a competent and diligent student. When I saw Brian shortly afterwards, he casually expressed his complete lack of surprise, which was one of the things that gave me confidence to go on into the profession.

Laconic, but a man of great passion, it was clear to me that he saw the world as it was, and yet enjoyed life immensely. I know for sure there are other BOS stories to be told, so feel free to add to mine.



Christopher Phelps 07.15.10 at 8:25 pm

I have none to add except to say that I appreciated the story and the sentiment very much. I’m not sure I have the unself-consciousness or whatever the right word is to keep that level of commitment in the face of such low attendance, but maybe now I will.


eamonn 07.15.10 at 8:34 pm

Lovely story Harry. Larry Lessig tells a similar story of attending a lecture series at Cambridge with Elizabeth Anscombe which quickly dwindled to a single student (Larry) and Anscombe. One of my most memorable teachers once said that teaching at its best is allowing someone to eavesdrop as you think aloud about a beloved subject. A false but wise observation, I think.


Batocchio 07.15.10 at 8:57 pm

Condolences, and that’s a great story, both about teaching and the “Liberty Bell” march. Building on eamonn’s comment, I had a great history teacher who would occasionally preface some point with, “This may be a bit over your head, but…” and then discuss some historical thesis, study or obscure detail. In most cases, it was indeed slightly over our heads, but very intriguing, and it was exciting to be challenged. Stretching to try to follow him was educational, and similar to your story, I think his approach revealed he had a fundamental respect for his students.


ben w 07.15.10 at 10:50 pm

One thing the Guardian obit doesn’t mention is that in he had a very lively, engaging writing style, far more so than one would expect from the author of multiple volumes on such topics as occupied him. I would fear an imitation of it but The Will is positively enjoyable simply to read, beyond its philosophical pleasures.


harry b 07.16.10 at 12:29 am

That’s right. He was very witty, and it shines through in his writing, especially in The Will.
Our first week of college he assigned a paper on volitions. My friend Adrian said — “I understand that you’ve written a book on the topic”. “That’s right”. “What do you say?” “Its about the will”. “But what do you say about the will?” “Its a dual aspect theory”.
(The full name of the book is The Will: A Dual Aspect Theory).


M. E. Orellana Benado 07.19.10 at 4:52 pm

Brian was a much respected teacher of mine at Bedford (81-85), and I share the sense of loss. We were in touch again after well over 20 years, and he still remembered me (which, perhaps, isn’t that surprizing having been in all probability his only student from Chile), and I had made plans to visit him when next in London.

Here is an anecdote of his. A mature student with a slim body, coming abruptely out of the Refrectory, bumps into him by accident.
Says she: “O, I am SO sorry…”
Brian: “What for, Lady?”;
She: “I nearly knocked you over”;
Brian (grinning and looking at her above his glasses): “Don’t overestimate your powers, Lady”.

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