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Of Gardens and Philosophers

If I needed reminding about the attractions of returning to Oxford, despite all the great aspects of my previous life in New England, this has been a week of glorious reminder. The Somerville gardens are close to the peak of their spring beauty. Swathes of snowdrops and aconites, with early irises and crocus in clumps elsewhere, have given way to forests of daffodils and narcissi and a large hyacinth plantation. The winter-blooming viburnums have yielded to early clematis and cherry blossom, with tulips just beginning to bloom and leaf buds appearing all over the place. Now that the gardeners have removed their protective screens from the bulb plantings, the lawns in Somerville’s main quad are looking their best. Term is over, so the undergraduates who tell me how much they like being able to walk on the grass won’t be there for a few weeks, by which time a new cohort of blooms will have taken over. The Junior Common Room is planning a garden party for the end of second week of Trinity Term, before exam frenzy becomes overwhelming. I can’t wait to see the inflatable sumo wrestling not to mention other similarly recherché attractions; and let’s hope for a sunny day, like today, showing off the college gardens at their best.

Equally gratifying in a different way was the large and distinguished turn-out for the symposium on Moral Philosophy organized by Somerville’s Senior Fellow, philosopher Lesley Brown in honour of the late Professor Philippa Foot, and the memorial event that followed it. Somerville’s gardeners and a granddaughter of Professor Foot’s close friend, contemporary and fellow philosopher Sir Michael Dummett joined forces to create a beautiful display in the dining hall including her favourite amaryllises, tall and striking in each window of the Hall. On the lunch tables Esther Dummett placed arrangements that included some small black irises, beloved by Philippa Foot because they reminded her of her life-long friend from their undergraduate days in the College. As part of her legacy to Somerville, the college library now owns a set of first editions of Iris Murdoch’s novels, each one inscribed by the author to her dear friend.

Philosophy is on my mind – and in a very solid way, on my desk – this week in the shape of applications for our three-year post of career development fellow, shared with the University Philosophy Department. The three large folders that sit here demanding my attention contain one hundred and twelve applications from philosophers in the early stages of their career, in different parts of the world. It is a great opportunity for Somerville, and for Oxford, to bring here one of the best and brightest philosophers of the rising generation. Happily the task of sifting through all these applications is shared with people who really know the subject; but our responsibility is huge. The magnitude of the task is a comment of some kind, too, on the situation of academics in the humanities. At Somerville, where Philippa Foot and Elizabeth Anscombe once divided the subject between them, we take Philosophy seriously and have always taught it well. No wonder the job is attractive; but still, the volume of interest is sobering.

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