“Oh, Renford? He’s a genius!”: A post-War Cambridge story

“Oh, Renford? He’s a genius!” That is what the late Dharma Kumar (1928-2001) said to me in the summer of 1998 at her Delhi home in what would be our last meeting.

I was taken aback.  She and I had met after a long decade.  Discussing what I had been up to, I had mentioned my application of the work of Renford Bambrough to economic theory in my 1989 book Philosophy of Economics.

“Oh, Renford? He’s a genius!” —  Dharma repeated blandly, seeming surprised that I did not get it.

“Oh, Renford? He’s a genius!” — she said a third time more slowly, and then, seeing my uncomprehending stare,  explained to me that that was the common saying at Cambridge about the young Renford Bambrough back in the post-War years when she had herself arrived there as an undergraduate.

Now, finally, I got it.  “Oh, Renford? He’s a genius!”

In “Conflict and the Scope of Reason”, Renford Bambrough recounted that he had, around 1948, crossed the great Bertrand Russell himself at a meeting of the Labour Club.  Russell had made a proposal (which he apparently denied later ever having made) of preventive atomic war against the USSR.  Sooner or later there would be conflict between the USSR and the West, the argument went, on balance it would be worse  to live under pax Sovietica than pax Americana; therefore, Russell had argued, the West’s existing power should be used to ensure the Soviets never acquired the same.   At question-time, young Renford, aged 22, asked Russell why, from a purely philosophical point of view, it mattered  “if the human race did destroy itself rather than die of natural causes later”.  There was laughter among the audience, and then Russell said he had enormously liked the question, and wished he could “achieve the degree of detachment here displayed by one so young.  But I confess that I, for my part, have never been able to overcome my feelings of concern for the welfare of the species of which I am a member”.  Russell had misunderstood the question or deftly avoided it, but even so he had noticed in his young interlocutor the calm detachment that would mark all his later thought.

John Renford Bambrough was born on April 29 1926 and died on January 17th 1999.  I have written a little about him here and shall write more fully about him anon.

Subroto Roy

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