Professor Timothy Sprigge

Professor of logics and metaphysics at Edinburgh University

Born: 14 January, 1932, in London.

Died: 11 July, 2007, aged 75.

PROFESSOR Timothy Sprigge was respected by colleagues and generations of philosophy students at Edinburgh University, where he had a brilliant career and became internationally respected for his writings in academic books and magazines. A 1994 paper by a group of eminent colleagues entitled The Principle of Humanity and The Principle of Utility in honour of Sprigge was unreserved in its praise of him, saying: "Thomas Sprigge goes where his own logic leads him. I do not mean logic by his own lights. His own logic, rather, stands in some decent connection with the general logic of intelligence. He is in fact unique among English and Scottish philosophers now at work, probably about as unique when American and other philosophers are added in."

Timothy Lauro Squire Sprigge attended Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and took up his first appointment as a lecturer in philosophy at University College, London in 1961. In 1970, he was appointed reader in philosophy at the University of Sussex. For ten years from 1979

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Sprigge belonged to a tradition of leading thinkers who held the chair of logic and metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh. It included such well-know figures as William Hamilton, Andrew Seth, Norman Kemp Smith, and William Henry Walsh.

In The Vindication of Absolute Idealism, Sprigge celebrated the place in which he worked and flourished with the following words: "The very air of the university and city of Edinburgh are the breath of life of a metaphysician."

He was a unique presence in the contemporary philosophical scene, being the advocate of a way of thinking that comes down to us from the past. His philosophy combines, in an unprecedented manner, elements from Spinoza, Hegel, William James and Francis Herbert Bradley.

Sprigge was born in London in 1932, the son of a journalist who was a correspondent in Italy from 1943 to 1953 and who became acquainted with the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, some of whose writings he later translated. After graduating in English at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, Sprigge transferred to moral sciences for his PhD, which he completed under the supervision of Alfred Jules Ayer.

He held a research position at University College, London and was a lecturer at the University of Sussex before joining the department of philosophy of the University of Edinburgh in 1979. He was also a fellow of the Edinburgh Royal Society and a past president of the Aristotelian Society.

Sprigge died on 11 July after a brief period of illness, the day a volume of essays celebrating his philosophy was published, Consciousness, Reality and Value. He was still philosophically active and, after his retirement in 1989, he continued to pursue those deep questions about the ultimate nature of things that occupied him for most of his life. His latest book, The God of Metaphysics, was published by Clarendon Press, Oxford, in 2006.

Besides a large number of articles in the leading academic journals which established his reputation on the Anglo-American philosophical scene, Sprigge authored several books, including the popular Theories of Existence and the monumental James and Bradley. This latter work is of particular importance, being not solely an outstanding scholarly study, but a philosophical meditation in its own right.

With The Vindication of Absolute Idealism, Sprigge stepped forward as an original thinker who challenged academic orthodoxy by providing an articulated defence of his idealistic world-view. At the centre of Sprigge's philosophical vision stands the rejection of the materialist conception of the physical world, which he substituted with a view of nature as constituted by living centres of experience, each of which can be grasped on analogy with our own conscious experience.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Such centres are not conceived by Sprigge as independently real, but as modifications of one all-embracing reality, the "Absolute" in the fashion of Spinoza or F H Bradley.

Sprigge urged that the way we conceive of reality at large and of our place in it is likely to have significant repercussions upon the way we conduct our lives. In later years, he found a religious home among the Unitarians, while his respect for nature led him to defend animal rights not solely in his academic writings but also as a chairman of the Edinburgh animal welfare society Advocates for Animals in the 1980s and 1990s.

These ideas and attitudes are uncommon among contemporary philosophers, yet Sprigge was never much afraid of putting forward a thesis if he believed it was true. When, at an international conference, an eminent fellow philosopher confessed that academic pressures had forced him to renounce his genuine interests, Sprigge's reply was candid: "I never had," he said, "that sort of problem."

Those who had the good fortune of enjoying his conversation on philosophical topics - usually held during long walks in and around the city of Edinburgh or of Lewes, Sussex, where he and his wife, Giglia, had recently moved - remember not only the philosophical master, but also an affectionate and generous companion. Philosophy is often suspected of being an abstract discipline disconnected from issues of practical concern, yet Sprigge's talk was always filled with anecdotes and concrete examples that made a justification of philosophy's relevance to life entirely superfluous. Occasionally, one was reminded of Spinoza: "A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life."

Sprigge's philosophy emphasises the reality of the absolute, the larger unity that binds us together. He was his own man in all circumstances, however, and his life and works have been the best proof of the uniqueness of persons.