Gordon Park Baker

The Times: Edition 2W THU 18 JUL 2002, Page 37

Gordon Baker, philosopher, was born on April 20, 1938. He died atWoodstock in Oxfordshire, of the untreatable consequences ofmelanoma, on June 25, 2002, aged 64.

Oxford scholar who collaborated on a thoroughgoing explication ofthe philosophy of Wittgenstein.

GORDON BAKER will be best remembered as one of a distinguished bandof scholars who made the exegesis of Ludwig Wittgenstein's writings amajor part of their studies.

Gordon Park Baker was born in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1938. Hisfather was a lawyer in the New York financial world, and his mother abiochemist at the Columbia University Medical School. Following theeducational pattern of upper middle-class Easterners, he entered thePhillips Exeter Academy and then Harvard, where he majored inmathematics. A Marshall scholarship took him to Queen's College,Oxford, in 1960 to read philosophy, politics and economics.Dissatisfied with the course, he mastered enough Greek in a fewmonths to transfer to Greats.

He began a doctorate in 1963 which he completed only in 1970,teaching meanwhile at the University of Kent and then as a fellow ofSt John's College, Oxford. It was there that he began thecollaboration with P. M. S. Hacker made famous by their exegeticalvolumes on the work of Wittgenstein.

By the early 1950s, only two volumes of the writings of thatenigmatic genius had appeared in print. These were the TractatusLogico-Philosophicus of 1922 and the immediately posthumousPhilosophical Investigations of 1953. Each book had in its timecreated a considerable stir. Commentaries on Wittgenstein's thoughtproliferated then and continue to do so at an astonishing rate. AtOxford, Gilbert Ryle, David Pears, Elizabeth Anscombe, BrianMcGuiness and many others taught and wrote about him.Wittgenstein's condensed and epigrammatical style contributed notonly to the fascination with which his philosophy was regarded butalso to many interpretations as to what message it conveyed.

With Peter Hacker, Baker set about a massive scholarly project tounveil the philosophy of Wittgenstein in as clear and faithful amanner as possible. Wittgenstein revised and refined his reflectionsinto thousands of paragraphs, and the product is so tightly woventhat misunderstandings were rife. They began unpacking the condensedand subtle paragraphs into definitive readings. This involved notonly exegesis but also a thorough exploration of the history of thestages by which Wittgenstein reached the versions that we know."Baker and Hacker" is a collaboration of first-rate importance inthe history of philosophy. Two massive volumes emer-ged from theproject in the 1980s, as well as several volumes of essays.

Those who were privileged to attend the Baker and Hacker class onFriday evenings recall Baker's enthusiastic stammer, his Gallicgestures, the lights glinting on his bald pate and the broad grinwith which he accompanied some particularly telling point.His philosophical studies of the sources of Wittgenstein's thoughtled him into adjacent territories. With Hacker he developed aninterpretation of the work of Gottlob Frege, contrary in various waysto the received views expressed in the work of Michael Dummett.

An amiable but deep-thrusting controversy developed between Baker and Dummett, enlivening several of those Friday evenings. FriedrichWaismann, Wittgenstein's one-time amanuensis, also became a focus ofscholarly interest. The revisions of later editions of Waismann'stextbook-like presentation of Wittgenstein's later philosophy owed agreat deal to Baker's scholarship.

In 1990 the Baker and Hacker partnership began to dissolve, largelyover the question as to how far Wittgenstein's writings expresseddefinite philosophical theses. In recent years, Baker's studiesreached not only into territories adjacent to the Vienna Circle andWittgenstein exegesis but also into reflections on Wittgenstein'srelations with Bertrand Russell. He also turned to the history of thephilosophy of mind, with a book on Descartes' Dualism, written withKathleen Morris.

The insights of great philosophers are of use to us in various waysbut not when we have misunderstood them. Baker's aim in whateverstudy he was undertaking was to make exquisitely clear what he tookthe author to have been saying. His rigorous pursuit of this idealled him not only into controversies over the philosophy of Frege butalso into criticisms of what he believed to have been seriousmistakes in the philosophy of language.

Baker's catalogue of scholarly achievement would have beenremarkable if he had held a research chair in some well-endowedAmerican university. But Oxford philosophers generally do theirthinking and writing while also engaged in tutorial teaching, and hewas a busy college fellow with whom generations of undergraduateswere privileged to study. He was not much inclined to administration,however, although he did serve as a trustee of the Waismann Fund, setup with the royalties that accrued to Oxford from the posthumouspublications of Waismann's writings.

In 1964 he married Ann Pimlott, with whom he had three sons. InOxford his tall, gangly figure was often to be seen striding into theReal Tennis Court, racquet in hand, and from 1984 until last year hetook part in the annual fathers and sons tournament. He was also anaccomplished pianist and harpsichordist.

From 1978 to 1989 he and his family took part in the Oxford musicfestival, tackling such works as Bach's Fourth Brandenburg Concerto.Alongside his Oxford life he indulged a passion for France. He had ahouse in Perigord which he restored from semi-ruin. He put hisknowledge of the language to good use on many visits to Paris byintroducing French philosophers to Wittgenstein.

Gordon Baker left his wife in 1992 and was living with KatherineMorris. Both of them survive him, as do the three sons of hismarriage.