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Professor Geoffrey Hawthorn 1941-2015

last modified Feb 17, 2016 05:44 PM

Geoff Hawthorn, who died in the early hours of New Year’s Eve, was for more than a generation the animating spirit behind the study of politics and social science in Cambridge.  He was there at the beginning of the old SPS and he saw it through to the creation thirty years later of the Department of Politics, which merged with the Centre of International Studies to produce POLIS.  The fact that we ever got here owes an enormous amount to Geoff’s persistence, his good humour under some provocation, and his steady belief in what we could achieve.  These were not easy years and Geoff often bore the brunt of the difficulties of institution-building in an old and slow-moving University, full of conflicting interests and some large egos.  It was politics, in other words, and though Geoff’s appetite for it may sometimes have wavered his sharp eye for both its absurdities and its opportunities never did.  Geoff’s leadership and his vision made POLIS possible and we will always be in his debt.

Geoff’s own work spanned a remarkable range of subjects, from population studies to possible worlds and from East Asian politics to the history of Western political thought.  His history of the development of modern social theory under the complicated and contradictory influence ideas of rationality and progress – Enlightenment and Despair (1976, with a revised edition appearing in 1986) – remains one of the best ever guides to its subject, as well as being one of the best written.  Plausible Worlds (1991) is a founding text of the school of counterfactual history, though much subtler and richer than almost anything that came in its wake. His last book, Thucydides on Politics (2014), was the product of years of deep reflection on the meaning and significance of the founding father of realism in the study of politics.  Geoff’s Thucydides emerges as a much more complicated and more interesting figure than the dry ‘realist’ revered by contemporary IR scholars.  Thucydides was alive to politics in all its variety and all its contingency – a world of high ideals and base motives, endlessly subject to human ingenuity and creativity as well as to hypocrisy and stupidity.   This was realism that left room for imagination as well as calculation.  Above all, it meant being open to the capacity of politics to surprise us.  What was true of Thucydides was true of Geoff as well.

His Thucydides book came out of long conversations – often conducted on bird-watching holidays – with his close friend Jeremy Mynott, the former CEO of Cambridge University Press (where Geoff served as a Syndic for more than twenty-five years).  At the same time Geoff was working on his commentary, Jeremy was working on a new translation of Thucydides’ The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians.  The two books came out with CUP within a year of each other and they complement each other beautifully.  Hawthorn and Mynott on Thucydides represents an ideal of the kind of collaborative intellectual endeavour that Geoff valued more than anything: inventive, idiosyncratic, patient, fearless – the best of Cambridge.

Geoff wrote slowly, because he was interested in everything.  He belonged to no school but was willing and able to cast a quizzical, sympathetic, penetrating eye over all of them.  On the page he always came across as a subtle and elegant thinker, asking the most interesting questions even when the answers were hard to come by.  These qualities stood him in good stead over the many years he wrote wonderful essays on all manner of subjects for the London Review of Books: he could be as interested in, and as interesting on, Ayrton Senna as he could on Max Weber.  His wide-ranging sympathy and curiosity, laced with scepticism but illuminated by moments of real passion, came alive in the classroom.  Geoff was a legendary teacher throughout his time in Cambridge and he remained as committed to helping his students think for themselves at the end of a distinguished career as he had been at the beginning. 

When he retired a large book was filled with handwritten testimonials from his students over more than thirty years explaining how Geoff’s teaching had changed their outlooks and in plenty of cases their lives.  Geoff taught across a vast array of subjects – he would teach almost anything, except the nonsense that occasionally attaches itself to social science and for which he had no time.  For many years he taught Thucydides to second-year undergraduates as an entry point into a way of understanding the whole world of politics and its role in human affairs.  His book on Thucydides began here, as did many of his students’ education.  It is a course we have never been able to replace.

Geoff was above all else a lovely man – enormously generous with his time and his intelligence, endlessly kind and open.  His rich, deep laugh made many long meetings just that bit more bearable, and his occasional flashes of impatience brought them to a close just when it was clear they had gone on too long.  He looked out for his colleagues without ever stifling anyone – it would be hard to think of a more tolerant Head of Department, though he was always in control of what we were up to. He helped make POLIS what it is today and none of it will be the same without him.

David Runciman and Helen Thompson


David Lehmann's (Department of Sociology) tribute to Geoff can be found here.