A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy and War at Oxford, 1900-1960 (Hardcover)

A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy and War at Oxford, 1900-1960 By Nikhil Krishnan Cover Image
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“Teeming with Oxford characters [and] lively storytelling . . . [recasts] the history of philosophy at Oxford in the mid-twentieth century by conveying not only what made it influential in its time but also what might make it vital in ours.”—The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)

“Ordinary Language can hardly convey how much I loved this book.”—Tom Stoppard, Times Literary Supplement (“Books of the Year 2023”)

What are the limits of language? How can philosophy be brought closer to everyday life? What is a good human being?

These were among the questions that philosophers wrestled with in mid-twentieth-century Britain, a period shadowed by war and the rise of fascism. In response to these events, thinkers such as Philippa Foot (originator of the famous trolley problem), Isaiah Berlin, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Gilbert Ryle, and J. L. Austin aspired to a new level of watchfulness and self-awareness about language as a way of keeping philosophy true to everyday experience.

A Terribly Serious Adventure traces the friendships and the rivalries, the shared preoccupations and the passionate disagreements of some of Oxford’s most innovative thinkers. Far from being stuck in their ivory towers, the Oxford philosophers lived. They were codebreakers, diplomats, and soldiers in both World Wars, and they often drew on their real-world experience in creating their greatest works, masterpieces of British modernism original in both thought and style. 

Steeped in the dramatic history of the twentieth century, A Terribly Serious Adventure is an eye-opening look inside the rooms that changed how we think about our world. Shedding light on the lives and intellectual achievements of a large and spirited cast of characters, Cambridge academic Nikhil Krishnan shows us how much we can still learn from the Oxford philosophers. In our fractious, post-truth world, their acute sense of responsibility for their words, their passionate desire to get the little things right, stands as an inspiring example.

About the Author


Nikhil Krishnan was born in Bangalore, India. He attended the University of Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and went on to complete a doctorate in philosophy. He now teaches at the University of Cambridge, where he is a fellow of Robinson College. His essays have appeared in several publications, including The New Yorker, The New Statesman, and n+1.

Praise For…


A Terribly Serious Adventure does something similarly subtle yet also, in a sneaky way, quite profound. . . . Only when we actually understand what others are saying can we begin to respond instead of simply react. As Krishnan puts it toward the end of the book: ‘Let no one join this conversation who is unwilling to be vulnerable.’”The New York Times Book Review

“An entertaining family biography of Oxford philosophy from 1900 to 1960 . . . [Krishnan] has traced the connections, legacies, and disagreements among the philosophers. . . . A short review cannot do justice to the wealth of interesting detail Krishnan has collected, resulting in an engaging peek into the lives of people known mainly through their books.”Australian Book Review

“An engrossing history of ideas. . . . delightfully bring[ing] to life the genteel atmosphere of the classic tutorial—the sweaters worn under coarse wool jackets, the spectacles, the fumbling preliminaries in elaborate British courtesy, a tray and two cups of tea, our tutor stirring tea in his cup while contemplating an undergraduate’s desperate attempt at respectability, a forgotten cigarette burning away in an ashtray, the pregnant pause, and then the interrogation.”City Journal

“With rigour, wit and depth, [Krishnan] appraises the Oxford school of philosophy. . . . [ Krishnan is] one of the finest writers we have, a historian and biographer as much as a philosopher (hence the coming together of all three disciplines in his book, a great synthesis).”The Hindu

“[A] terrific new book [that] tells the story of the heyday of linguistic philosophy.”—The Spectator

“Relying on memoirs and other sources, [Nikhil] Krishnan has succeeded in bringing these men and women and their complex and intense relations to life—which is a real achievement.”—Thomas Nagel, The New Statesman

“A valuable contribution [that] offer[s] a much richer understanding of Oxford philosophy.”Oxford Political Review

“[W]hat Krishnan has really given us . . . isn’t only a history. It is a love letter, written by someone who knows what it means to fall in love with philosophy.”The Critic

A Terribly Serious Adventure beautifully portrays—and exemplifies—the combined wit and profundity, exuberance and rigor, of Oxford analytic philosophy.”Times Literary Supplement

“This is Oxford philosophy in the round—the philosophical arguments (clearly explained), the personal lives, the colorful quotes, the elbow patches and buttered crumpets. . . . Brilliantly written.”—James Franklin, author of Corrupting the Youth: A History of Philosophy in Australia

“We are given first-row seats to the brilliance, obstinacy, jousting, and intellectual enthusiasms that marked that legendary academic circle.”—David I. Kertzer, New York Times bestselling author of The Pope at War

“A compelling storyteller, Krishnan brings human sympathy and acuity to his very readable book. Past debates spring vividly to life, with all their drama and comedy.”—Peter J. Conradi, author of Iris Murdoch: A Life
Product Details
ISBN: 9780525510604
ISBN-10: 0525510605
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: July 4th, 2023
Pages: 400
Language: English