Letters: Mary Warnock and Jean-Paul Sartre

Bruce Ross-Smith writes: What Mary Warnock had to say on Sartre is still worth revisiting

The obituary of Mary Warnock makes passing reference to the earlier work done by Iris Murdoch in making the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre more widely accessible. In A Memoir: People and Places (2000), Warnock acknowledged that Murdoch’s Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953) had provided an indispensable guide. Having “not read a word of Sartre” when first asked to write on him, Warnock observed that “apart from the use I ruthlessly put it to, this first of Iris’s books is both an extremely good book, and illuminating in a far more general way, throwing light not only on existentialist thinking but on Iris herself, as I believe.” What both British writers had to say in this area is still worth revisiting today.
Bruce Ross-Smith

I was one of the lucky doctoral students working on Jean-Paul Sartre at Oxford in the early 1980s who was supervised by Mary Warnock. She was an excellent supervisor, letting out just enough rope for me to experiment and learn from my mistakes, but astute enough to haul me in when I was about to hang myself. She was unfailingly supportive after I graduated, and every student I knew with whom she worked would remark on her capacity to make time for us in the middle of a ferociously busy life.

Via Sartre she introduced me to the extraordinary dialectical idea that every life contains the whole of human history. Sartre cashed out this idea in his lives of Baudelaire, Genet and Flaubert – fantastically ambitious attempts to combine Marxist historical materialism with existentialist freedom in biographical form. Sartre’s view of the individual life may have been a dialectical exaggeration, but Warnock certainly packed more into hers than most.
Andrew Dobson


Bruce Ross-Smith and Andrew Dobson

The GuardianTramp

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