In Memoriam - Geoffrey Hawthorn

‘The history of social theorising in western Europe and the United States since the eighteenth century’ has very largely been ‘a history of failure’. With these words, written in 1976, Geoffrey Hawthorn, who died of leukaemia on 31 December 2015, aged 74, announced the conviction that was to inform his wholly distinctive relation to the social sciences over the next four decades. One of his deepest beliefs, which grew in strength and purchase over time, was that the ambition to develop a ‘science of society’ was fundamentally flawed. His readable and provocative short history, Enlightenment and Despair: A History of Sociology (1976; in the second edition, 1987, the subtitle was changed to the more accurate A History of Social Theory) traced the fortunes of this ambition from its Enlightenment beginnings through to the establishment of the modern disciplines in the first part of the twentieth century. The book moved from Montesquieu to Marcuse with great brio, leading generations of students to treat it as a handy text-book. But, in an irony Hawthorn appreciated, this meant that in their search for a quick summary of the history of their discipline, students imbibed his subversive message: the ambition to discover the laws governing human behaviour misrepresented the character of ‘laws’ and misunderstood the kind of understanding available where human action is concerned. 

He reinforced this argument from a different angle in what was perhaps his most original work, Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences (1991). Here he argued that all explanations in human affairs implicitly involve the ‘what if?’ question: what would have happened if the posited cause had been absent and things had turned out otherwise? But there can be no way to decide in advance which alternative possibilities will be genuinely illuminating. Explanation, he argued, cannot be a question of applying some general law; it must always be a matter of judgement, and such judgements must be both provisional and contestable. A whole school of ‘counterfactual history’ has subsequently claimed to take inspiration from his book.

But Hawthorn himself shied away from schools and his intellectual trajectory was never predictable. To what possible pigeon-hole could we assign an author who began his career by publishing a study of the sociology of fertility and ended by writing a detailed discussion of the conception of politics informing Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War? This final book, Thucydides on Politics: Back to the Present (2014), is at once an extremely close reading of a single text, a meditation on the place of contingency in human affairs, and an argument about what it might mean to ‘understand’ political action. It was fitting that a career that had began during the heyday of the social sciences in British intellectual life in the 1960s and 70s should end by returning to an ancient Greek historian, a figure whose unblinking registration of the actual Hawthorn had come to greatly admire.

Although a versatile and resourceful critic of the misplaced confidence of social scientific theorising, Hawthorn wrote about these things so well because he was also deeply susceptible to the pull of general ideas. He was far from being any kind of descriptive empiricist or nominalist historian: his fertile mind sought intellectual order and loved the play of analysis even while resisting what he experienced as the more coercive forms of conceptual imperialism. Nor was his the familiar story of a believer turned heretic: viscerally antipathetic to system-building, he remained in his distinctive way something of a social theorist malgré lui.

Hawthorn was born in Slough in 1941 and grew up in straitened circumstances. He and his mother (he only discovered the identity of his father many years later) lived in a local authority prefab during the years of post-war austerity, she struggling to make ends meet as a typist. As for so many bright boys of his generation, the local grammar-school opened new horizons. In the sixth-form, his interest in the social world coalesced with his passion for the natural world (he was an ardent and lifelong bird-watcher) to make geography seem the obvious subject to read at university. He went up to Jesus College Oxford in 1959, but soon became dissatisfied with what he perceived as the low intellectual level of much work and teaching in the discipline at that date. After briefly studying sociology as a postgraduate at LSE, he was appointed to a lectureship in sociology at the then new university of Essex in 1964, before moving in 1970 to become one of the first appointments in sociology in the newly founded Social and Political Sciences (SPS) Tripos at Cambridge, taking a fellowship at Churchill College. He moved to a Fellowship at Clare Hall in 1982, becoming an active and much-liked figure in the college, chairing numerous committees, and eventually serving as Vice-President during the Presidency of Ekhard Salje.

SPS was a brave venture in inter-disciplinary synthesis, and Hawthorn’s intellectual range and energy soon made him a mainstay of the course. But he found the constant conflict between different professional groups wearying and dispiriting, and as his own interests moved ever further away from sociology, he came to favour establishing a separate department and degree in politics. Promoted to Professor of International Politics in 1998, he had the stamina and tactical nous to cope with the endless trench-warfare of the committee process, and it is thanks to him more than to any other individual that Cambridge now boasts a flourishing department of Politics and International Studies.

His evident engagement with his material, his gift for lucid exposition of the most complex ideas, together with his utterly unstuffy approachability and human warmth made him a hugely admired and sought-after teacher across an astonishing range of subjects. An hour on the economy of North Korea might be followed by one on the political thought of Machiavelli and then another on intervention in Kosovo. Running his hands over his always long, shaggy, prematurely white hair, waving his arms in intellectual animation, or else listening intently and then turning a student’s halting, confused comment into a model of clarity and insight – Hawthorn in full pedagogic flow was one of the glories of Cambridge’s small-group teaching methods. He cared deeply about teaching, believing in the fundamental educational calling of the university. Students recognised this and have left countless testimonies to how he changed their lives.

Geoff Hawthorn was in every way a singular figure. His opinions were never predictable: all that could be predicted was that they would be informed, reflective, and expressed with a winningly wry articulateness. He could be mercurial, occasionally impatient, and very counter-suggestible, yet all those who knew him well will recall his warmth, his exceptional thoughtfulness, and his loyalty. The quality of his attentiveness was one of the several gifts that made him particularly attractive to women, and he was unusual, yet again, in combining this with a raconteur’s take on the human comedy. Not to hear once more his deep, frame-wracking laugh or to enjoy his bottomlessly reflective, ranging, amusing conversation is a loss his close friends can barely register, let alone accept.

In 1969 he married Ruth Legg with whom he had two sons, Tom and Dan. That marriage ended in divorce, and in 1987 he married Gloria Carnevali, an art historian and gallery curator from Venezuela, with whom he had one son, Carlos. They, together with his step-son Eugenio, all survive him.

Stefan Collini

Emeritus Fellow