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This book is a revised version of Gifford Lectures delivered in the University of Aberdeen. The general subject was Action and Belief. This volume contains what I had to say on the first of these nouns. From various quarters I have received the criticism that the order of exposition ought to have been reversed. I could have replied that Belief and Action was the title of a well-known book by the late Lord Samuel, but I prefer to justify my choice by appealing to certain quotations: ‘If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine’; ‘Action will furnish belief’ (A. H. Clough); ‘Action will take you a step higher, and belief will thereby be strengthened’ (John Oman).

Perhaps I ought to have substituted ‘Faith’ for ‘Belief’, because it was religious belief which I had in mind. I have nothing to say about a belief, e.g. that it will rain tomorrow. This book ends with some questions about the connection between action, as the kernel of ethics, and religious belief. The further question of what faith can reasonably be accepted by a man who has heard the call of duty and who has been brought up in the western world and therefore in a Christian civilization is faced in the second course of lectures which is to be delivered in 1968 and which I hope to publish separately in due course.

A few years ago, when I was introducing a Gifford Lecturer to a St Andrews audience, I said that appointment to a Gifford Lectureship was one of the two highest honours which a scholar could receive. I was therefore astonished when, a few months later, I received an invitation to a Gifford Lectureship in the University of Aberdeen. For this invitation I am most profoundly grateful, and to those responsible for issuing it I tender my heartiest thanks. Recognition of the fact that while I was engaged in administrative duties I tried not to desert scholarship was something which touched me deeply and in which I still take great pride.

Nowadays a man called to a Gifford Lectureship must humble himself before his predecessors. He cannot have failed to read their lectures in published form or to compare the poverty of his achievement with the riches which they have showered on their listeners and their readers. I am aware that I cannot draw the bow of the many distinguished men who have lectured on this foundation in the four Scottish Universities. But I accepted appointment because I thought I could expound the convictions resulting from the reading and reflections of a lifetime and so comply with what Lord Gifford intended. His will prescribed first that the subject was to be Natural Theology, interpreted in the widest sense, and including, in particular, the study of ethics, secondly that the lectures were to be ‘popular’, and thirdly, that the subject was to be treated, as astronomy or chemistry are, without reliance on revelation.

I will say something about each of these prescriptions. First, my subject was not so much chosen as forced on me by my own interests and studies over the past forty-five years. For seventeen years I professed moral philosophy, and one of my major interests outside my professional work has been the ecclesiastical history and theology of the last 150 years. It was natural therefore that I should take advantage of Lord Gifford's specific mention of morals and begin there, and then proceed to religion within the bounds of reason alone; and it is part of my thesis that this second topic is by no means unconnected with the first.

Secondly, what Lord Gifford meant by saying that he wished the lectures on his foundation to be ‘popular’ is to be discovered from the public lectures which he himself gave on topics allied to Natural Theology. These privately printed lectures are ‘popular’ in the sense that they were prepared not for specialists but for the intelligent general reader with an interest in the great problems of human life, its nature and destiny. This example I have attempted to follow. I hope to interest those general readers who retain an interest in the traditional problems of philosophy and in the fundamentals of religious belief, but who are not satisfied either by the modern reduction of philosophy to linguistic analysis or by the confident assertions of orthodox dogmatics. Many of my own assertions will appear to be no less confident, and I accept this forthcoming criticism, but I think that the need of the hour is for the assertion of positive beliefs. To voice all the necessary qualifications and reservations would be incompatible with my desire to interest the non-specialists for whom my lectures were primarily prepared.

Thirdly, there is a ban on revelation. This, in the sense that Lord Gifford imposed it, I accept. In this I am at the opposite end of the spectrum from a former Gifford Lecturer in Aberdeen, Karl Barth. When Archimedes, seated in his bath, solved his problem and shouted εὕρηκα, he would have been equally well understood if he had said that the solution had been revealed to him. All discovery is a revelation, and this is no less true if the discovery is preceded by an effort to discover, just as after climbing a hill the view is revealed to our eyes. There is, however, another sense of revelation, as when, gazing at a sunset, we say with the Psalmist, ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’, or re-echo the words of the poet, ‘dull would he be of soul to pass by a sight so touching in its majesty’. (It passes my comprehension how this could be said of that sight by one who lived amongst the hills.) The colours of the sunset, and the musical instruments and the sounds issuing from them as we listen to great music, are natural in the sense that they are part of a material world. But they are not merely natural phenomena. As a young man, Hegel wrote a diary of his journey in the Bernese Oberland, in which he speaks of the mountains as unimpressive. They are just there, he says. They had no meaning for him and revealed nothing beyond themselves. Others think differently: the glory of the sunset, the sublimity of the symphony, the majesty of the everlasting hills are in the world, but not of it. They are, to those who discern it, a revelation of something beyond themselves. No merely scientific or naturalistic account of these phenomena can satisfy anyone who has had the experience of the glory, the sublimity, the majesty, and reflected on what that experience is and implies. Discovery is revelation: and the beauty of the sky and the hills, the beauty of art, reveals something beyond itself. So interpreted I can understand revelation. But the notion of a special revelation of religious truth I have no difficulty in renouncing. I am afraid that I am in sympathy with Francis Newman when he says that ‘it is assumed by believers in a special revelation that God speaks from without and that what we call reason and conscience are not his mode of commanding and revealing his will’.1 This assumption seems to me to be incompatible with a doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps I can claim support from another former Gifford Lecturer in Aberdeen, Dr Clement Webb, who writes: ‘Reason apprehends what is revealed, but what is revealed is what reason can apprehend.’2

My theme—a study of moral experience, its development and manifestations, and then of what is to many a contradiction in terms, a reasonable religion which I think it implies—had of course already been treated by former Gifford Lecturers, and indeed my scientific colleagues have sometimes suggested that all that can be said on these topics, and perhaps more than all, has been said already. In defence, I can but appeal to the French writer who said that: ‘It has all been said before. But no-one remembers. So it must be said all over again.’ Since I make no claim to originality, I must acknowledge at the start whence my views have been mainly derived.

The Gifford Lecturer who, so far as I know, came nearest my own topic, was W. G. de Burgh whose lectures in St Andrews on From Morality to Religion I heard and have always valued. But his approach to the subject was different from mine. He knew and believed more. While I would not wish to minimize my debt to him, not only for the lectures but for many friendly discussions, my debt, so far as this book is concerned, is far greater, first to Hegel, to whom I was first introduced by my father, a pupil of Edward Caird, and to whose works and their translation I have devoted so much of my energy in the last twenty-five years. Secondly there is my debt to John Oman, whose Natural and Supernatural is one of the very few philosophical masterpieces in English (or should I say Scottish?) philosophy in this century, and thirdly to my own tutor in Oxford, R. G. Collingwood, to whom indeed I owe more than I could ever express, even were I Chrysostom himself. My debt to him is owed for all he taught me as my tutor, for his lectures, for his publications, for our conversations, for his letters during the nearly twenty years of our friendship, and for his reliquiae which I was privileged to read but which his instructions forbade me to publish. Much of his teaching I have adopted; some of his phraseology has become second nature to me. Although these lectures may owe more to Hegel than to him, they could never have been written at all if it had not been for the stimulus of his teaching and the wealth of ideas to which he opened my mind.

These three mentors have taught me most of my philosophy; their influence is discernible on nearly every page that I have written. If my reflections on what I have learnt from them have led me to depart in certain respects from their teaching, I think that this is what they would have wished and indeed expected. I infer this, so far as Hegel is concerned, for no one taught more clearly than he did, despite what histories of philosophy say, that a philosophy is a child of its time, comprehending what spirit has achieved up to now, and that a new form of life and therefore a new philosophy must emerge later. My friend Collingwood always thanked me for criticism and held that a pupil was unfaithful to his master if he merely re-echoed him.

No one is more conscious than I am of the imperfections of what I have written. Often what has been dealt with in a paragraph ought to have taken pages. Many is the topic that should have been discussed, though it goes unmentioned. But I have decided to publish instead of spending time on a further revision which might go on indefinitely. To be a perfectionist is to fear criticism and to be reluctant to acknowledge error.

That what I have written is old-fashioned is incontestable. It belongs to the pre-Wittgenstein era, and indeed smacks of the nineteenth century. This is not surprising. Not only is my mind steeped in Hegel, but I read and re-read Scott and Trollope, Balzac and Stendhal, and cannot find my feet in modern novelists; and I never tire of Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, and Liszt, whereas the music of the twentieth century is above my head.

I am indebted to The Clarendon Press for permission to quote from N. Tinbergen's Study of Instinct and from R. Robinson's An Atheist's Values; and to Messrs G. Allen and Unwin for permission to quote from B. Blanshard: Reason and Goodness, J. Laird: An Enquiry into Moral Notions, W. G. Maclagan: Theological Frontier of Ethics, H. J. Paton: The Modern Predicament, and C. H. Waddington: Science and Ethics.

Finally I record my special gratitude, first to my wife, without whose encouragement and aid for more than half my lifetime my work could never have been done; secondly to many friends in Aberdeen, for their cordial hospitality; thirdly to Mrs G. R. McKie, who in three summers welcomed my wife and me to her charming house at Mellon Udrigill, where these chapters were first written and twice revised; and fourthly to our friend Miss J. S. M. Allan, who typed the lectures twice.


September 1967


A few days before the final proofs had to be returned, Professor H. J. Paton did me the great kindness of reading them, in spite of his difficult journey back from America. He saved me from many errors and would have saved me from more if he had read the book at an earlier stage. In recording my gratitude to him now, I would also record my gratitude for all the help which he has given to me for the last forty-five years.



  • 1. Phases of Faith, p. 93, 1874 edn.
  • 2. Problems in the Relations of God and Man (London, 1911), p. 27. Cf. also: ‘The language of … reason and conscience which speaks in God's creatures is the only universal language in which he can reveal himself to all men.’ H. S. Reimarus in Lessing's Werke (Berlin, 1956), vol. vii, p. 710.
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