Samuel Alexander (January 6, 1859 - September 13, 1938) was an Australian-born British philosopher and the first Jewish fellow of an Oxbridge college (Dictionary of National Biography). He was a pioneer of modern philosophy, incorporating contemporary developments in psychology, biology, evolutionary theory, and aesthetics into his thought. Alexander’s major work, Space, Time and Deity (1920), elaborated a metaphysical system based on a hierarchical order of existence, in which an ongoing evolutionary process resulted in the emergence of ever-higher levels of existence. At certain stages of organization appeared new “emergent qualities.” The Space-Time process had an internal drive (“nisus”) towards an as-yet unrealized emergent quality, called “deity.” The process by which Space-Time moved towards deity was “emergent evolution.”
Space, Time and Deity was one of the last attempts by a British philosopher to offer a comprehensive philosophical worldview, and for some time it made Alexander the most famous British philosopher of his day. Alexander campaigned for the admission of women to professorships in Britain and in support of residences for women at Manchester University, and contributed substantially to alleviating the plight of European Jews. Alexander was a contemporary of Alfred North Whitehead and mentored others who went on to become major figures in twentieth-century British philosophy. John Anderson and his school at the University of Sydney were influenced by Alexander's realism and naturalism.
Alexander was born at 436 George Street, Sydney, Australia, on January 6, 1859, the fourth child and third son of Jewish parents, Samuel Alexander, a prosperous saddler, and Eliza (née Sloman). His father died shortly before he was born, but left his wife in comfortable circumstances; in 1863 she moved the family to St. Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne, Victoria, and Alexander was placed at a private school kept by a Mr. Atkinson. In 1871, he was sent to Wesley College, then under the headmastership of Professor Irving. Long afterwards, Alexander said he had always been grateful for the efficiency and many-sidedness of his schooling. He entered on the arts course at the University of Melbourne in March of 1875, placed in the first class in both his first and second years, was awarded the classical and mathematical exhibitions in his first year, and in his second year won the exhibitions in Greek, Latin, and English, mathematics and natural philosophy; and natural science.
In 1877, he left for England, arriving at the end of August. He was in some doubt whether to go to Oxford or Cambridge, but chose the former. He sat for a scholarship at Balliol along with George Curzon and J. W. Mackail; his tutor did not think he would succeed, but he placed second to Mackail and was awarded a scholarship. At Oxford, Alexander obtained a first class in classical and mathematical moderations, a rare achievement, and a first class in greats, his final examination for the degree of B.A., in 1881. Two of his tutors were Green and Nettleship, who exercised a great influence on his early work. After taking his degree he was made a fellow of Lincoln, where he remained as philosophy tutor from 1882 to 1893. During this period he developed his interest in psychology, a subject which was then comparatively neglected.
In 1887, Alexander won the Green moral philosophy prize with an essay on the subject "In what direction does Moral Philosophy seem to you to admit or require advance?" This essay became the basis of Moral Order and Progress, which was published in 1889 and went into its third edition in 1899. By 1912, however, Alexander had altered his views to some extent and considered that the book had served its purpose, had become "dated," and should be allowed to die. During the period of his fellowship at Lincoln he had also contributed articles on philosophical subjects to Mind, the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, and the International Journal of Ethics. He traveled on the continent, and in the winter of 1890-1891 worked at the psychological laboratory of Professor Münsterberg in Freiburg, Germany. Among his colleagues at Lincoln was Walter Baldwin Spencer.
Alexander made three unsuccessful attempts to obtain a professorship before, in 1893, he was appointed to Manchester. He quickly became a leading figure in the university. Unconventional in his attire and his manner of conducting his classes, his charm and personality attracted both students and colleagues to him. Alexander was above medium height, somewhat heavily built, and wore a long beard. He had particular sympathy with children, young people, and women. Though frugal about his personal expenses, he was a generous donor. As a lecturer in his early years he often hesitated for the right word, and had some difficulty in controlling his voice, but these difficulties disappeared in time, and in later years he had a beautiful voice. He wrote little, and his growing deafness made it difficult for him to participate in philosophical discussions, though he could manage conversation. In 1902, his mother, an aunt, two elder brothers and his sister came from Australia to live with him. His sister became an efficient hostess and on Wednesday evenings fellow members of the staff, former pupils, a few advanced students and others, would drop in and spend the evening at his home.
Alexander was given the Hon. LL.D. of St. Andrews in 1905, and in later years he received Hon. Litt. D. degrees from Durham, Liverpool, Oxford, and Cambridge. In 1908, he published Locke, a short but excellent study, which was included in the Philosophies Ancient and Modern Series. From 1908 to 1911, he was president of the Aristotelian Society, and in 1913 was made a fellow of the British Academy. In the winters of 1917 and 1918 he delivered the Gifford lectures which developed into his great work, Space Time and Deity, published in two volumes in 1920, which his biographer has called the "boldest adventure in detailed speculative metaphysics attempted in so grand a manner by any English writer between 1655 and 1920." It was widely read and well-reviewed, and continued to influence philosophic thinkers for many years. In 1921, his Arthur Davis Memorial Lecture on Spinoza and Time was published, and in 1924 Alexander retired from his chair.
Alexander continued to do a certain amount of lecturing, giving short courses and single lectures, examining and reviewing students for higher degrees, and retaining until 1930 the office of presenter for honorary degrees. He served on many committees, and kept up his interest in the British Academy and the British Institute of Philosophy, as well as in Jewish communities in England and Palestine. In 1925 he was honored by the presentation of his bust by Epstein to the University of Manchester, where it was placed in the center of the hall of the arts building. He was Herbert Spencer lecturer at Oxford in 1927, and in 1930, amid congratulations from all over the country, the Order of Merit was conferred on him.
In 1933, Alexander published Beauty and other Forms of Value, an essay in aesthetics, which incorporated passages from his papers of the previous ten years. He devoted considerable effort and financial resources to alleviate the plight of European Jews. Alexander died unmarried on September 13, 1938. His ashes lie in Manchester Southern cemetery in the section reserved for the British Jewish Reform Congregation. His estate of some £16,000 was left mainly to the University of Manchester, with £1,000 going to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A theater at Monash University, Melbourne, is named after him; a cast of his bust by Epstein stands in its foyer.
Samuel Alexander was a pioneer of modern philosophy, incorporating contemporary developments in psychology, biology, evolutionary theory, and aesthetics into his thought. He published Moral Order and Progress (1889) while under the influence of idealist Oxford philosophy, but soon moved to a more scientific approach incorporating psychology and biology, and by 1912 he considered this first work outdated and no longer relevant. Other early publications included Locke (1908), articles in Mind, the International Journal of Ethics, and presidential addresses to the Aristotelian Society, mainly on theory of knowledge and on values, which he termed 'tertiary qualities'.
In 1916-1918, he gave the Gifford Lectures in the University of Glasgow, under the title Space, Time and Deity, published 'with some revisions' in 1920. He termed it, 'part of the widely-spread movement towards some form of realism in philosophy'. This major work made him for some time the most famous British philosopher of his day. It was also one of the last attempts by a British philosopher to offer a complete philosophical worldview.
In 1921, Alexander published Spinoza and Time. A Jew himself, Alexander felt an affinity with Spinoza, and accepted his view that mind was one with material substance, constantly manifesting itself in an evolutionary process of which the ultimate emergent would be God. Alexander’s later work was mostly in aesthetic theory; Art and the Material was published in 1925, followed in 1933 by Beauty and Other Forms of Value. Philosophical and Literary Pieces, published posthumously in 1939, was a collection of lighthearted addresses, including some on Dr. Johnson, Jane Austen, Molière, and Pascal.
An 1887 Reform of the legislation of the Test Act of 1870 had removed all religious restrictions in higher education and made it possible for Alexander, a Jew, to gain the Lincoln fellowship. The Reform did not extend to women, and during his years at Manchester, Alexander campaigned to rectify this. Alexander also supported the movement for providing university residences for women.
Alexander was a contemporary of Alfred North Whitehead and mentored others who went on to become major figures in twentieth-century British philosophy. John Anderson and his school at the University of Sydney were influenced by Alexander's realism and naturalism.
Alexander’s major work, Space, Time and Deity (1920), elaborated a metaphysical system based on a hierarchical order of existence, in which an ongoing evolutionary process resulted in the emergence of ever-higher levels of existence. Alexander started with Space and Time, which he saw as mutually equivalent, each inconceivable without the other. Out of this, pure Space-Time emerged, through processes Alexander described simply as 'motions', the stuff and matter that make up our material world:
From these motions, new 'emergent qualities' appeared at various levels of organization; matter, life and mind were the qualities so far realized. The Space-Time process had an internal drive (“nisus”) towards an as-yet unrealized emergent quality, called “deity.” The process by which Space-Time moved towards deity was 'emergent evolution'.
The “time” dimension of Space-Time accounted for the existence of things and the internal aspect of reality as going through a process; while the dimension of “space” set things in an external relationship called “compresence.”
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