Dixon’s two courses of Glasgow Gifford Lectures, delivered from 1935–1937, were printed immediately following their conclusion in 1937. In his magnum opus, The Human Situation, Dixon discusses the nature of the human soul with respect to humanity’s historical, cultural and philosophical situation. He argues that human experience—wisdom and folly, dreams and desires, creations and destructions—are integral to the process of cosmic becoming. For Dixon, our ‘spiritual’ or interior dimension is an important and ‘real’ part of the whole cosmos.
Dixon begins his first course of Gifford Lectures with characteristic humility, citing the unfortunate circumstances that led to his selection as Gifford lecturer during the academic years of 1935/36 and 1936/37. In Lecture I, ‘Introduction’, he points out that, unlike other Gifford lecturers, he does not intend to offer a survey of modern thought, nor a tangled metaphysical discussion, but an exploration of the importance of the poetic human soul, evidenced through the human situation.
With Lecture II, ‘The New Thought’, Dixon introduces the rationalistic sciences as the foil to his argument. As in other periods in history that have been accompanied by radical shifts in learning combined with a rapid increase in knowledge, in the current age there exists a corresponding decline in religious and spiritual thought. Although our present scientific knowledge has appeared to diminish the veracity of religious truth claims, Dixon argues that this need not nor ought not be the case. Scientific knowledge, he contends, may be able to explain certain facets of the material world, but it can never fully satisfy humanity’s deeply spiritual and existential needs. These needs, like all forms of knowledge, are made apparent to humans through the processes of thought and reason. In Lecture III, ‘The Instrument’, the means by which such knowledge is gained is identified with the mind. Dixon argues that the human mind (in particular, its capacity for metaphor and reason) is a reliable and suitable instrument by which humanity may engage with and know the world.
Having established the efficacy of mind and reason, in Lecture IV, ‘The Human Situation’, Dixon argues against the idea of a disembodied reason, and notes that philosophy can only proceed from an awareness of one’s specific context within the world. This ‘common sense’ approach to philosophy takes into account the shape of the ‘human situation’ from the perspective of the ‘everyday man’, whose existence is self-evident and needs no proof. This everyday man is a product of Western history, and an inheritor of the ongoing processes of human becoming.
The impact of Western history is explored in Lecture V, ‘The Historical Scene’, where concepts such as hero, nation and empire are cited as high points of human culture and inventiveness. In addition to the history of civilisation, Dixon’s everyday man is also an inheritor of biological evolution. In Lecture VI, ‘The Family Tree’, Dixon argues that evolution rightly unsettles the false certainty that humanity feels regarding its differentiation from the natural order. Unlike theologians who would rally against evolution, decrying the theory as anti-theistic, Dixon acknowledges the limitation of evolutionary theory and argues that evolution dispels the security offered by creation myths and requires humanity to rethink its relationship to the natural world. However, though evolution gives humanity a picture of origins, it is imprudent to assume that the discovery of this theory signals the conquest of nature. As Lecture VII, ‘The Ancestral Estate’, illustrates, it is hubris on the part of the sciences to assume that they can offer a new metaphysical foundation or even become infallible. Dixon reminds the reader that humanity is ever grounded in fallibility and finitude, ‘guarded’ by the limitations of ‘Time and Space’ (p. 152).
Dixon describes humanity’s relationship to the natural world as truly awe-inspiring. In Lecture VIII, ‘The Wide World’, he reflects upon the ability of the natural world—in its vastness and mystery—to inspire and terrify the human soul. With characteristic style, Dixon combines a scientific description of the cosmos with a poetic concern for human destiny. Having displaced a purely scientific understanding of self and world, in Lecture IX, ‘The One and the Many’, he seeks to restore the spiritual vitality of humanity by detailing the uniquely human capacity for creativity and inventiveness. Dixon concludes in Lecture X, ‘The Mighty Opposites’, by observing the apparent cosmic conflict between creation and destruction.
In Lecture XI, ‘The Will to Live’, Dixon asserts that all creation possesses an intrinsic desire to live and to thrive. Following Hegel, he reads all history as a synthesis of being and becoming, where humanity in particular is ever engaged in actualising its potential. Though evolution has brought humanity to its current state, Dixon would say that there is no reason to assume that developments will cease here. In Lecture XII, ‘To Be or Not to Be’, he interprets the aforementioned desire for life as a major contributor to the human need to believe in the afterlife.
Humanity’s strong desire for life and vitality also expresses itself in what Lecture XIII identifies as ‘The Great Divide’ between religion and ethics. What in religion fuels a belief in the sanctity of life is for ethics the cause of self-seeking behaviour. To resolve the conflict between ethics and religion, Dixon encourages his reader, in the words of Donne, to pursue a God who is worth imitating. Successful ethics are those grounded outside the sphere of human selfishness. Yet, as Lecture XIV, ‘The Laws of God, The Laws of Man’, illustrates, such an ethic is not strictly theological, but rather established on the foundations set by previous generations.
In Lecture XV, ‘Once Upon a Time’, Dixon again situates humanity within the vast breadth of the cosmos. The human situation must always contend with the plight of the human within the world. The only way that the world can become intelligible is through the application of human imagination. The power of the imagination can construe broad worlds and arrive at fantastical speculations and wonders, making the cosmos a bearable place. Though the cosmos is far broader than the human mind at the present, the more expansive the human imagination becomes, perhaps it arrives closer to the truth.
In Lecture XVI, ‘Here and Now’, Dixon argues that human history, the absolute and the cosmos are all essentially one. Order and disorder, negation and affirmation, the organic and inorganic all contribute to the dynamism of Dixon’s metaphysics. Though he accepts the positive findings of science, he rejects science when it attempts to limit the mystery or unity of existence by attempting to control the inherent creativity of the cosmos. From his tightly woven cosmology, Dixon develops what in Lecture XVII, ‘The Web of Life’, is a holistic description of the world process. Humanity exists within the cosmos and as a part of the cosmos, yet at present the cosmos is far too expansive for the human mind to grasp. It is the nature of human becoming for the human awareness of the cosmos to increase, as the window of the human soul is ever opened up to the world around it. Though a part of nature, nature cannot provide humanity with a steady foundation upon which to construct its knowledge of the soul. Indeed, in Lecture XVIII, ‘Ourselves’, Dixon summarily dismisses those rationalists and scientists who would reduce the soul to a product of nature. The human soul, he argues, is unique within nature and defies the limits of nature and rationalism.
As Dixon approaches the conclusion of his lectures, in Lecture XIX, ‘Retrospect’, he briefly summarises the main points that have arisen across the scope of his two courses of lectures and reiterates, in somewhat more direct terms, his belief in the unity of existence, the ambiguities of creation and destruction, and the eternal drive towards becoming. The synthesis that Dixon seeks are discussed in the penultimate and ultimate lectures, where his explicit theology comes to the surface. Having only found partial satisfaction in the scientific or rationalist explanations for the cosmos and the soul, in Lecture XX, ‘The Divine Arts’, Dixon turns his attention to the pinnacle of human creativity, the fine arts. In art and poetry, he argues, the soul is made most aware of itself, its history and the cosmos. It is in the just society, where art makes a way for the beautiful and the good, that human being can be unified with becoming. Finally, in Lecture XXI, ‘The Verdict’, Dixon describes his spiritualist reading of the natural world, the cosmos, the self, the soul and the divine. He confesses to the miraculous nature of existence, and calls his fellow humans to throw off the shackles of rigid rationalism and admit to a world that exceeds human sensorial capacities.