History of the Institute

Origins

While waiting to go into prison for sponsoring an anti-war pamphlet in 1916, Bertrand Russell gave his ‘Lectures on Logical Atomism’ at Dr Williams’s Library, 14 Gordon Square, in the hall below the Institute’s present offices. He finished them just before he was incarcerated, during which time the Home Secretary, Lord Balfour, gave the extraordinary instruction that the prisoner should be allowed writing materials in his cell. While in prison he produced his ‘Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy’. Russell, together with Balfour, L. T. Hobhouse, Samuel Alexander, Harold Laski, and the first editor of Philosophy, Sydney Hooper, founded the Institute – then the British Institute of Philosophical Studies – in 1925. Meetings were initially held in King’s Way, WC2, but the Institute moved in 1930 to Dr Williams’s Library, with which it has been happily associated ever since.

Presidents

The first President of the Institute was Lord Balfour, succeeded in 1930 by Lord Samuel, in 1959 by Lord Halsbury, in 1991 by Lord Quinton, in 2006 by Sir Anthony Kenny, and in 2009 by The Lord Sutherland of Houndwood.

Balfour and Samuel both published philosophical work and were statesmen; Halsbury was a distinguished chemist who wrote philosophical papers and was an active legislator in the Upper House. Quinton was an Oxford philosopher and a working peer, justly as respected in philosophical circles as out of them. Sir Anthony has been, among other things, Master of Balliol College and is the author of many philosophical books and articles. The Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, the current President, is one of the UK’s most distinguished philosophers of religion and, at various times, he was the Principal of King’s College London and the University of Edinburgh, Vice-Chancellor of the University of London and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools. He is currently a working peer, frequently serving on committees advising government on policy.

Chairs

Sir David Ross was for many years Chair of Council, and Professor Hywel Lewis for many years after him. He was succeeded by the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, The Lord Sutherland of Houndwood. After almost 20 years of service to the Institute, Lord Sutherland was succeeded by Professor Ted Honderich, Emeritus Grote Professor of Mind and Logic at University College London. In 2011, John Haldane FRSE, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at St Andrews became Chair.

Directors and Editors

Professor H. B. Acton, Director of the Institute while Professor at Bedford College, London, was succeeded by Professor Godfrey Vesey, who was, appropriately to the aims of the Institute, the founding Professor of Philosophy of the Open University. On his retirement after 13 years as Director he was appointed Fellow of the Institute in 1979. On his retirement until 1994 the Director was Professor A. Philips Griffiths, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick.

Professor Anthony O’Hear of the University of Buckingham has been Director and Editor of Philosophy since 1994. During his time at the Institute, our activities have increased dramatically, including a new scheme of branches across the country; the introduction of a new periodical called Think; a series of Annual Lectures; a connection to the Jacobsen Trust, which very kindly sponsors philosophy courses for schools and funds postgraduate fellowships; the introduction of Royal Institute of Philosophy Bursaries, the digitization of Philosophy and Think; the Essay Prize; The Royal Institute of Philosophy/Royal Society of Edinburgh Joint Lecture; an Annual Debate and a number of other new initiatives.

The Royal Institute

The Institute’s title of ‘Royal’ was granted in 1947, it is said in recognition of its having, like the Wigmore Hall and the Windmill Theatre, kept going through the wartime blitz. Until then the Institute’s main activity was in providing elementary lecture courses: for example among the eight courses in 1926 was one given by Bertrand Russell based on his introductory book Problems of Philosophy. Since then public provision of such courses, for example by University Extra-Mural Departments and the Open University, has vastly increased, and the Institute has concentrated on its own distinctive contribution.

The Institute’s 1925 ‘Memorandum of Association’ states the objects of the Institute: ‘to organise and promote by teaching, discussion and research the advancement of Philosophical Studies’ and in particular ‘to provide for all classes and denominations, without any distinction whatsoever, opportunities and encouragement’. Throughout its history, the Institute has kept these objects in view. No doubt it will continue to do so.