A Nucleus of Savants
On November 10, 1924, at the London School of Economics, a small meeting was held to explore the possibility of establishing a “London school of philosophical studies”. Sydney E. Hooper was the driving force behind it. Earlier in that year he sent a proposal to a large number of people to gauge their interest. It began,
“Philosophy, with its various branches ... is concerned with those matters which constitute the deepest and most permanent interests of the human spirit. It is therefore felt that a movement towards making the best teaching on these subjects accessible to the thoughtful general public of London will meet with widespread approval.”
The response was remarkable. “Within six months,” he wrote, “most of the Senior philosophers at our British Universities had expressed their approval of the idea for the founding of an Institute of Philosophy. They agreed to serve on the Council if the effort was successful and funds were forthcoming.”
It wasn’t just philosophers. Philosophically-minded professors in a range of disciplines, from mathematics and biology to classics and literature as well as “professional men and captains of industry” agreed to take part. The Archbishop of Canterbury, and a number of statesmen, including the Prime Minister and four past Prime Ministers were also on board. “Thus, an influential Council of over a hundred members was formed.”
Funds were forthcoming too, likely thanks to Hooper’s associate Emile Garcke, a well-connected and successful industrialist and entrepreneur in the growing field of electrical engineering. In response to Hooper’s proposal, Garcke wrote, “I believe that if the study of philosophy were more generally pursued, much good would follow, and the idea of an organization with the object of inducing the plain man to think philosophically has often occurred to me.” (Metaphysical questions about the nature of electricity occurred to him too — was it a physical thing or an activity of some kind, he wondered.) Garcke reported that £500 had appeared from an anonymous donor — it was enough for a serious start.
As Viscount Samuel, a later President put it, “a nucleus of savants who expressed their sympathy with the proposal” gathered to review Hooper’s plans and take the first steps towards setting up an institute. The lawyer Sir Lynden Macassey took the Chair, along with the political theorist Harold Laski, the suffragette and businesswomen Margaret Haig Thomas, Second Viscountess Rhondda, the Tibetologist F. W. Thomas, the epistemologist and aesthetician Louis Arnaud Reid, the philosopher and sociologist Morris Ginsberg, as well as Garcke, Hooper, and Bertrand Russell. It was Russell who proposed the first motion, which was carried unanimously, constituting a school as laid out in Hooper’s plans. They agreed to call it “The British Institute of Philosophical Studies”.
The Institute was formally established as a company on 6 April 1925, and its first official meeting was held shortly after in the grand Parliament Chamber of the Middle Temple Hall. The Earl of Balfour agreed to be the Institute’s first President, the sociologist L. T. Hobhouse was Chair of the Council, and the Master of Balliol College, the moral philosopher A. D. Lindsay, was Deputy Chair.
The first Executive Committee was also appointed: Sir Lynden Macassey, again acting as Chair, was joined by the experimental psychologist Frederick Charles Bartlett, the wide-ranging philosopher C. D. Broad, the physician W. Brown, the first British woman named professor of psychology, Beatrice Edgell, the philosopher G. Dawes Hicks, L. T. Hobhouse, the evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley, the polymath Frank Jevons, A. D. Lindsay, the physician and psychiatrist Hugh Chricton-Miller, the British Idealist John Henry Muirhead, the neurophysiologist and Nobel laurate Sir Charles Sherrington, the barrister and Labour politician Sir Henry Slesser, the psychologist and statistician Charles Spearman, and the philosopher and later one of the founders of the journal Analysis, L. Susan Stebbing, as well as members of the original organising committee: Garcke, Ginsberg, Laski, Lady Rhondda, Russell and Thomas.
The Institute’s first officers were also appointed: Garcke was Treasurer, and Hooper was Director of Studies and Honorary Secretary to the Council.
The First Sessions
In what must have been a memorable eight months for those involved, 1,300 members were enrolled, courses of lectures were well underway, and monthly evening discussions on some particular philosophical theme or question were organised. In correspondence with Hooper, Russell said he would be “delighted” to give a series of lectures for the Institute, suggesting courses on “The Philosophy of Matter, or on Scientific Method or The Philosophy of Mathematics, or if a more popular course were desired I could lecture on … Some Problems of Philosophy.”
A more popular course was desired. The lectures for the 1925 – 26 session included:
- Problems of Philosophy, taken by Russell
- Present Tendencies in Political Theory, by Laski
- Psychology, by Tom Hatherley Pear, the first professor of psychology in England
- Science and Philosophy, by Leonard J. Russell, for a time President of the Aristotelian Society
- Life and the Mind, by James Johnstone, author of The Philosophy of Biology
- The Philosophy of Religion, by the Dean of St Pauls
- Topics in Aesthetics, by the poet and literary critic Lascelles Abercrombie
Two hundred students attended lectures in the first year. The standard fee was 10 shillings per course or 1 half crown per lecture — members were offered a half price discount. By the second year there were different courses on every weekday night in the first term, three underway in the second term, and a course on the philosophy of religion arranged for the summer — all with accompanying syllabi and lists of recommended books.
Many also attended monthly “Evening Meetings”, which took up such topics as:
- “The Idea of Responsibility, Legal and Medical”, Openers, Sir Travers Humphreys, a barrister and judge, and the experimental psychologist Dr. William Brown
- “Do We Need a Philosophy of Law in England?”, Opener, Sir Frederick Pollock, a jurist and historian of law
- “The Theory of Sovereignty and the League of Nations”, Opener, A. D. Lindsay
By early in its second year, the Institute had established “provincial centres” in Liverpool, Newcastle and Durham — at one point a temporary outpost appeared in Los Angeles — where public lectures on such topics as the Philosophy of Matter, Emergence and Creativity, and The Philosophy of Spinoza were arranged and well attended.
The Journal Philosophy
Having hit the ground running, the inexhaustible Hooper now had an idea for a journal. The first issue of the Journal of Philosophical Studies appeared startlingly quickly, in January 1926. In the editorial, Hooper, now taking on the role of Editor, wrote this:
“Some few months ago the British Institute of Philosophical Studies was formed with the object of promoting the advancement of philosophical studies by teaching, discussion and research. It was believed that there was an increasing number of thoughtful people in every walk of life turning wistfully to Philosophy for light on some of the problems with which modern civilisation is beset. During the past nine months this belief has received confirmation by the growth of a membership of the Institute which now numbers many hundreds.
“Men of affairs, members of the learned societies and of the professions, representatives of literature, art, and of the worlds of industry and commerce, have joined with a large proportion of the professed philosophers of the day and some of the more philosophically minded men of science to form an institution which recognizes the cultivation and advancement of philosophical studies to be a matter of importance to the nation. A large number of the members live in the provinces and abroad, and hence are unable to avail themselves of the various courses of lectures provided by the Institute. Nevertheless they naturally desire to be kept in touch with its activities. It is therefore necessary to provide a Journal which we hope will also be appreciated by many who are not actually members of the Institute.”
Hooper and the Executive Committee of the Institute agreed that “a guiding principle of the Journal would be to provide articles in every number which could be appreciated by all readers, as well as to include, from time to time, articles of special interest to the expert.”
The first year’s output is agreeably striking in its ambition. It features 30 articles and more than 30 book reviews, including R. G. Collingwood’s review Teggart’s Theory of History, C. E. M. Joad on “The Irrationality of the Good”, Susan Stebbing reviewing recent philosophical trends in the English language, Russell on “Perception”, and John Watson on “Behaviourism”. There are hundreds of pages of introductory surveys on such topics as philosophy in Russia and France; in-depth discussions of the many views advanced in entire issues of other philosophical journals such as Mind, Monistand Revue Philosophique; and abstracts of the lectures and discussions arranged by the Institute. The collected volume of first year’s four issues runs to 544 pages.
As Hooper concluded in his first editorial,
“Should the Journal of Philosophical Studies prove of service in fostering the growth of a more widely diffused philosophical temper, which to many of our best minds is regarded as the supreme desideratum of our age, it will have justified its appearance. Inspired by such purpose and sustained by hope, we are content to bide the judgment of time.”
The Institute’s journal, which changed its name to Philosophy in 1931, has been published without interruption ever since.
The Royal Institute of Philosophy
During the war years, copies of Philosophy became noticeably thinner — owing to restrictions on the supply of paper, the journal went from four to three issues per year. By 1940 Hooper found it impossible to arrange evening courses in London, but efforts were made to organise a series on “the deeper causes of the war” in the afternoons. (The Ministry of Information took an interest and “arranged for the publication of the papers abroad”.) Members were asked to retain copies of Philosophy in good condition to replace the stocks of libraries damaged during the war. By 1944 Hooper reported that income was down to unsustainable levels. The President, Viscount Samuel, appealed to members to “play the part of recruiting agents” and invite their friends to join.
But in 1946, though the number of members had fallen from 1,500 to 1,100, a full lecture programme was once again planned — at this time the Institute moved away from its pre-war practice of offering several philosophy courses a year to lectures on various topics given by different speakers, with only occasional courses arranged. A membership drive was also underway, spearheaded by a letter in The Times written by Viscount Samuel and W. D. Ross, the Chair of the Council. They outlined the Institute’s ambitions and called on those who shared them to join — 550 new members signed up.
In 1947, perhaps as part of its post-war recovery efforts, the Institute sent a letter to the Home Secretary, indicating that it “desires to submit for His Majesty’s consideration a humble petition that the distinction be conferred upon it of being permitted to use the title ‘Royal Institute of Philosophy’”. There were royal societies of the sciences, fine arts, music, history and other subjects of great significance — shouldn’t philosophy’s importance to the life of the nation also be recognized by the state? The response from the King’s Private Secretary to Lord Samuel soon appeared:
My dear Lord Samuel,
I have laid before The King the letter from the Royal Institute of Philosophy, which you, as President of the Institute, were good enough to send me with your letter of November 17th.
It was with much pleasure that His Majesty approved the grant of the title “Royal” to the Institute, knowing as he does the high standing that it has always enjoyed not only in this country, but throughout the world.
I am to convey to you and those associated with you the King’s best wishes for the future success of the Institute in its important work.
The Institute held a meeting at the Royal Society later that month to mark the occasion — several hundred attended. Congratulatory communications were read from the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, the French Ambassador, and Niels Bohr on behalf of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters.
To See Life Steadily
A number of distinguished philosophers have served on the Institute’s Council, but the line up in 1950 was particularly impressive. It included J. L. Austin, R. B. Braithwaite, W. D. Ross, Stuart Hampshire, Gilbert Ryle, Frederick Copleston, Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer, Stuart Hampshire, Karl Popper, and John Wisdom.
The 1950s also saw the departure of Hooper. After 30 years as Director and Editor of Philosophy, Hooper retired in the summer of 1956. He was invited to give an account of the Royal Institute’s founding.
He said his studies when a much younger man had left him with unanswered questions, and “rightly or wrongly” he turned to philosophy. He imagined others were in a similar predicament, perhaps without the opportunities he had for formal instruction, so he proposed a place of study that might “help men and women to see life steadily and to see it whole”.
Hooper, by then Sydney Hooper OBE, died in 1966 at the age of 86. His obituary reported his work with the Royal Institute, but it also revealed something unexpected: “few now know that he had been a fast bowler of county standard and had played for one of W. G. Grace’s elevens.”
A Small Hall in Bloomsbury
After more than 20 years as Chair, Sir David (W.D.) Ross stepped down in 1963, and the theologian and philosopher Hywel Lewis took on the role for the next twenty years. The political philosopher H. B. Acton became editor of Philosophy, and Leo C. Robertson, who among other things wrote about mysticism, followed Hooper as Director. When Robertson’s health forced his retirement in 1962, Acton became both Director and Editor.
Throughout this time, the Institute’s finances are a regular topic for discussion at meetings — the need for financial assistance is described as “pressing”, though not yet “desperate” — and at one stage members are called upon for suggestions “which might help establish the Institute’s financial position”. Acton for a time did not take a salary to help keep the Institute afloat.
By 1965 the Institute’s fortunes had begun to change, thanks to a combination of timely bequests, a tax windfall, and forensic attention to printing costs. Godfrey Vesey, Founding Professor of Philosophy at the Open University, was now Director, and with financial stability came new initiatives: a book prize was launched, weekend conferences were arranged, and the Hooper Memorial Lecture brought philosophers in from abroad.
It was also Vesey who began the Royal Institute’s current practice of organising a themed lecture series in London and collecting the papers together in a published volume. The first collection, which appeared in 1968, was called The Human Agent. In the foreword, Vesey writes,
"On Friday evenings in the winter months London members of the Royal Institute of Philosophy and their friends meet in a small hall in Bloomsbury -- 14 Gordon Square, London W.C. 1 -- to listen to, and discuss, lectures by foremost British, and visiting, philosophers .... In response to requests by members of the Institute living too far from London to attend the lectures (the Institute has a world-wide membership) arrangements have been made for a limited number of them to be recorded for broadcasting by the B.B.C., and for all of them to be published in a yearly volume."
Meetings continued to be held in that small hall for many years and volumes of London Lectures have have appeared annually ever since, taking up such topics as Idealism, knowledge and necessity, Wittgenstein, liberty, Empiricism, philosophy and literature, German Philosophy, conceptions of philosophy, minds and persons, agency and action, biology and life, the environment, sport, metaphysics, passions and the emotions, and modern moral philosophy. Sadly however the building is in need of repairs beyond the means of the Trust – Dr Williams’s Library – who own it. Pending the appearance of the building on the market, the Royal Institute’s last meeting in the ‘small hall’ – in fact rather a generously proportioned hall – took place in March 2023. London Lectures will continue as usual, in the autumn in a new venue to be announced shortly.
In 1973, Renford Bamborough, then Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, became Editor. In his first editorial Bamborough promised to continue to pursue the distinctive objects of Philosophy as a journal for the intelligent non-specialist, but he also intended to commission more articles than his predecessors, and expressed a new interest in bringing philosophy to bear on the problems of the day. Philosophy’s cover took on its distinctive yellow colour in that year too — in 2001 black was added, but the bright yellow remains. Bamborough also helped secure a connection to the Cambridge University Press, which has published the journal ever since.
A few years later, in 1979, A. Phillips Griffiths, Founding Professor at the University of Warwick, took on the role of Director. In the 1980s, when philosophy became an A-level subject, Phillips Griffiths and others, including Bernard Williams, Martin Warner, and A. J. Ayer, began a range of activities for philosophy teachers in schools and colleges of further education — including conferences and the production of educational videos. The Royal Institute of Philosophy’s conference funding was also now offered to departments annually, and the CUP began to publish the collected papers as “supplementary volumes” to the journal Philosophy.
The Royal Institute Today
After 30 years, the Earl of Halsbury retired as President, and Lord Quinton took on the role, having served on both the Council and the Executive Committee. Quinton was succeeded in 2006 by Sir Anthony Kenny. In 2009 The Lord Sutherland of Houndwood became President and served until his death in 2018.
Presidents 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 important philosophical books and articles. The Lord Sutherland of Houndwood was one of the UK’s most distinguished philosophers of religion and, at various times, 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 was also a working peer, frequently serving on committees advising government on policy.
The Institute’s President is now Baroness Onora O’Neill, a crossbench member of the House of Lords, formerly Principal of Newnham College Cambridge, Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, President of the British Academy, and winner of the recently established $1 million Berggruen Prize.
By 1990, Lewis had retired from the chair. He was succeeded by Lord Sutherland, who served as chair for fifteen years, until Ted Honderich, Grote Professor of Mind and Logic at University College London, took on the role. Honderich launched the Institute’s Annual Lectures, which bring philosophers of international standing to London, and established the Institute’s philosophical courses for students in schools and the Jacobsen Studentships for postgraduate study. When he stepped down, John Haldane FRSE, J. Newton Rayzor Sr Distinguished Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy at Baylor University, and Professor of Philosophy and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs in the Department of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, took on the role. Among much else, Professor Haldane established Annual Lectures in Cardiff, Dublin, and Edinburgh, guided the Royal Institute’s new debate series and introduced the Philosophy Essay Prize. He was succeeded as chair in 2020 by Lucy O’Brien, Richard Wollheim Professor of Philosophy at University College London, co-editor of Mind, the author of Self-Knowing Agents and co-editor, with Matthew Soteriou, of Mental Actions. She works on interpersonal, rather than personal, self-consciousness and the nature of the self-conscious emotions.
From time to time the Institute has also had a Vice-Chair. In recent years Professors Barry Smith, David Papineau, and Ted Honderich have taken on the role, which is now occupied by Sarah Sawyer, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sussex.
The Institute’s treasurers have included Emile Garcke, Lord Tweedsmuir, Baron Simon of Whythenshawe, and Brian Magee (not to be confused with the philosopher Bryan Magee), who was the Institute’s accountant for 40 years and literally wrote the book on accounting, called Accounting, with Stanley William Rowland. Richard Newton was treasurer from 1975 until 1998, when the current Finance Director, G. A. Philip FCA joined the Institute as its Finance Director. As he has announced his retirement, the Institute has recently advertised the role.
Honorary Secretaries to the Council have included Hooper, P. M. Rossdale, Leo C. Robertson, who was for a time Director, Janet Joyce, who joined the Executive Committee when she retired, and Ingrid Purkiss Honderich, who was instrumental in launching the Institute’s current work with schools.
Professor Anthony O’Hear of the University of Buckingham was Director and Editor of Philosophy from 1994 until 2019. During his time at the Institute, its activities have increased remarkably, including the expansion of the scheme of branches (now known as local partners) from 5 to more than 30 across the country, the introduction of a new periodical called Think, new school and postgraduate conferences, an expanded scheme for philosophy courses in up to 70 schools annually, grants for postgraduate study, the digitisation of Philosophy and Think, work in prisons, and the Annual Debates.
After nearly 25 years, Professor O’Hear stepped down as Director in 2019, and Julian Baggini, co-founder of The Philosophers’ Magazine and a prolific freelance philosopher, became Academic Director while Professors Maria Alvarez and Professor Bill Brewer, both of King’s College London, took up the editorship of Philosophy.
The current Academic Director, Professor Edward Harcourt of Keble College, Oxford, took over in 2022 and in the same year, Melanie Nightingale took over from James Garvey, who had been with the Institute since the 1990s.
As the Royal Institute looks forward to its centenary in 2025, a place with such a rich history might be forgiven for also sometimes glancing backwards. The Institute’s 1925 “Memorandum of Association” states the objects of the Institute: “To promote the advancement of philosophical study by teaching and research … To help those interested in and perplexed by the problems of modern life to ask the right questions and … To bring leading exponents of the various branches of Philosophy into direct contact with the general public.” Throughout its history, the Institute has kept these objects in view. No doubt it will continue to do so.
1925 - 1930 Earl of Balfour
1931 - 1958 Viscount Samuel
1959 - 1990 Earl of Halsbury
1991 2006 Lord Quinton
2006 - 2009 Sir Anthony Kenny
2009 - 2018 Lord Sutherland
From 2019 Baroness O’Neill
1925 - 1929 L. T. Hobhouse
1929 - 1940 J. H. Muirhead
1940 - 1963 Sir W. David Ross
1965 - 1988 Hywel Lewis
1989 - 2005 Lord Sutherland
2006 - 2009 Ted Honderich
2010 - 2021 John Haldane
From 2021 Lucy O'Brien
1925 - 1928 Emile Garcke
1932 - 1939 Lord Tweedsmuir
1946 Baron Simon of Wythenshawe
1931 - 1974 Brian Magee
1975 - 1998 Richard Newton
From 1999 G. A. Philip
1926 - 1956 Sydney E. Hooper
1956 - 1962 Leo C. Robertson
1962 - 1964 H. B. Acton
1965 - 1979 Godfrey Vesey
1979 - 1994 A. Philips Griffiths
1994 - 2019 Anthony O’Hear
2019 - 2022 Julian Baggini
From 2022 Edward Harcourt
2018-2022 James Garvey
From 2022 Melanie Nightingale
Editors of Philosophy
1927 - 1956 Sydney E. Hooper
1957 - 1972 H. B. Acton
1973- 1994 Renford Bamborough
1994 - 2019 Anthony O’Hear
From August 2019 - Maria Alvarez and Bill Brewer
Editors of Think
From 2002 Stephen Law