Search
Search type

Philosophy

Biography

Heritage hero

About Samuel Alexander

Samuel Alexander was born in Sydney, Australia on the 6 January 1859. After excelling as an undergraduate in Melbourne he went to Oxford to study under the British Idealist T H Green at Balliol College.

In 1882 he was elected a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford – the first Jew to be elected to a Fellowship at either Oxford or Cambridge.

In 1893 he became Professor of Philosophy at Owens College, one of the original institutions of The University of Manchester.

From 1906 onwards Alexander began to construct his mature philosophical theory within the context of the general movement away from Idealism to Realism.

Along with G E Moore, Bertrand Russell and The New Realists of America (such as Ralph Perry, Edwin Holt, and William Montague), Alexander defended Metaphysical Realism. His magnum opus is Space, Time and Deity, published in 1920.

International influence

During his lifetime Alexander became one of the leading figures in British philosophy, influencing C D Broad, Norman Kemp Smith, John Laird, C Lloyd Morgan, and J H Muirhead. In America he influenced Donald C Williams and in Australia John Anderson. He was regarded as the leading defender of neo-Realism in the UK and widely read across the English-speaking world. 

Women's suffrage

Alexander had a huge impact on Manchester and its University. He was a proponent of Women’s Suffrage. Upon his arrival in Manchester he began to facilitate in procuring better services and equality for girls and women. He worked with Miss C I Dodd – the Mistress of Method in the Women’s College 1892 – and helped found the elementary demonstration school for girls (it was later united with the boys’ demonstration school and called Fielden School).

Along with CP Scott (the editor of the Manchester Guardian, which is now The Guardian) and two others, Alexander set up a residence hall for Women that opened in 1900 at Ashburne House (up until then there were only residence halls for men). It is now Ashburne Hall, located on the Fallowfield Campus.

He also spoke at the Women’s Suffrage march that ended at Alexandra Park in 1908 to a packed crowd and enthusiastically campaigned for their cause. He was described as a ‘sort of godfather of the Women’s side’.

Championing the University

Alexander also played a huge role in the movement to convert Owens College into an independent University. He published various defences of his position in The Speaker, 1 March 1902 and the Manchester Guardian, 11 June 1902, titled ‘A Plea for an Independent University in Manchester’.

Owens College became the Victoria University of Manchester in 1904.

Teacher

He was described as a great teacher by many and interested in many subjects beyond Philosophy. He conducted research in experimental psychology, spending a year (1890-1891) in Germany under Hugo Munsterberg, and subsequently taught Psychology at The University of Manchester before it became an independent subject. He was a major proponent of making Psychology its own discipline that should focus on experimental issues as well as theoretical themes.

He was humble, kind and very generous. The bulk of his estate was bequeathed to the University with the added condition that it shouldn’t be commemorated in his name. The Arts building was named after him in 2007. He died in 1938, aged 79.