Graham McFee, Vice-President of the BSA from 1999 to 2004, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Brighton University, author of a wide range of influential books and, above all, a Wittgenstein scholar of the first rank, died of cancer on October 10th 2023. His final years were spent in California where he was a Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Fullerton. Graham was lovingly tended by his family and devoted wife, Myrene, whom he might possibly have consoled with Wittgenstein’s thought that ‘death is not an event in life’. His many friends, past students, and colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic will sorely miss him and look back upon his idiosyncratic life with great affection. He was, for many, many years, a regular presence at BSA annual conferences – witty and self-deprecating, but also impressively authoritative when he felt the need. As teacher, Vice President of the Society, and in numerous books and articles on aesthetics, such as Artistic Judgment – A Framework for Philosophic Aesthetics (Springer 2011), Graham was a key part of the movement that thought aesthetics was best done with a range of core mainstream philosophic skills.
After studying Philosophy and English at Keele in the early 70s, he started as a Philosophy Lecturer at the Chelsea College of Physical Education in Eastbourne, later to become the University of Brighton. During this time he completed a doctorate in aesthetics with Richard Wollheim. This adventurous college encouraged him to launch innovative courses in the application of philosophic aesthetics to such areas as dance, sports and leisure studies. The rigorous books written during these years, such as Understanding Dance (Routledge, 1992) and Sport, Rules and Value (Routledge, 2004) did much to broaden the appeal of philosophical aesthetics, eventually becoming part of a world-wide movement, of which Graham was a leading figure. In 1995, he was inaugurated as the new University of Brighton’s first Professor of Philosophy.
Apart from his sporting interests, which included football and sub-aqua diving (‘It helps give depth to my thinking!’, I remember him once quipping), Graham was a cultivated, if eclectic, art-lover. He delighted in dance, literature (often quoting Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet) and avant-garde music. But what most struck a chord with Graham, his favourite reading of all, was just about anything by Wittgenstein – even a shopping list! To this end, he learned German and, throughout his life, spent many an hour in famous libraries, pouring over hand-written, or hand-corrected versions of the main texts and, in the case of Wittgenstein’s unpublished writings, the Nachlass (still only available on micro-film at that time). He could often be found standing in Sussex University Library deciphering grainy images on a small screen. He also enjoyed frequent and lengthy discussions in Oxford with one of the foremost Wittgenstein interpreters of the day, Gordon Baker.
Over the years, from his earliest publications on Aesthetics such as ‘Much of Jackson Pollock is vivid wallpaper: An Essay in the Epistemology of Aesthetic Judgment’ (University Press of America, 1978), Graham’s Wittgensteinian reflections developed in tandem with his aesthetic ones. The results were evident in books such as The Philosophical Aesthetics of Dance: Identity, Performance & Understanding (Hante: Dance Books, 2011) and On Aesthetics: Collected Essays (Pageantry Press, 2021). This latter was a synoptic summation of his considered views, including a provocative section on ‘Why Aesthetics is a Waste of Time’!
Graham also wrote on other philosophical issues. His Inaugural Lecture at Brighton, with the jokey title A Nasty Accident with one’s Flies, focussed on the way in which Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy as ‘showing the fly the way out of the bottle’, failed adequately to capture the range of ways in which different flies could work their way into a whole variety of flytraps – a theme he returned to in is final book on Wittgenstein. There was also the beguilingly titled The Surface Grammar of Dreaming (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1993), followed by Free-Will (Acumen, 2000), and Philosophy and the ‘Dazzling Ideal’ of Science (Palgrave, 2019). These important works show also the influence of such ‘ordinary language’ philosophers as Austin, Wisdom and Cavell, and later, the ‘contextualism’ of Charles Travis. I leave until last, How to do Philosophy: A Wittgensteinian Reading of Wittgenstein (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2015) an ambitious synoptic view of the various ‘Wittgensteins’. This returns to the theme of Graham’s Inaugural Lecture to focus on what Wittgenstein came to see, in his later years, as the ‘unsurveyable, seething totality of our language’, the unbounded facet of which proves so challenging to our understandable, human ‘craving for generality’ – a problem just as much for aesthetics as for science.
How to do Philosophy is much influenced by Gordon Baker’s controversial view that the key to understanding the later Wittgenstein lies in the ‘therapeutic’ approach to our philosophical worries. This requires the philosophy teacher to be person-centred, contextual, and always mindful of the students’ welfare as human beings – although in the end, each one of us must take responsibility for our own confusions, including our aesthetic ones. Here, Graham’s book is rich in pedagogical ideas, above all, in his exploration of Wittgenstein’s notion of the ‘redeeming word’ whereby, as Graham puts it: ‘one’s idea of the situation is transformed, although perhaps not in ways one could explain’. One thinks of Wittgenstein’s anecdote of ‘the beetle in the box’ to bring home the ‘private language argument’, or it could be just the kind of slight smile or raised eyebrow such as Austin used to employ.
Most impressive about Graham’s life was the idiosyncratic ways he lived and breathed philosophy while displaying not even so much as an ounce of personal ambition. He might well have been an Oxford don, but chose instead, to spend most of his life amidst the beauties of the South Downs and the ever reliable Harvey’s Ale, preferably consumed at the Eight Bells in Jevington. All who enjoyed his company there, like his old friend, the celebrated aesthetic philosopher, Terry Diffey, will testify to their good fortune.