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Herbert James Paton

White's Professor Emeritus of Moral Philosophy, Oxford
1887 to 1969

Herbert James [Hamish] Paton philosopher was born in Abernethy Perthshire on 30 March 1887 with his twin to William Macalister Paton a Free Church minister and Jean Robertson Miller. Paton was educated at the University of Glasgow where he obtained a first-class honours degree in classics. At Glasgow he also learned philosophy in the idealist tradition taught by Sir Henry Jones. In 1908 he went to Balliol College Oxford as a Snell exhibitioner. His tutor was J. A. Smith who interested him in the idealism of Croce. After taking firsts in classical moderations in 1909 and literae humaniores in 1911 he was elected fellow and praelector in classics and philosophy at Queen’s College Oxford. In 1914 he joined the intelligence division of the Admiralty and became an expert on Polish affairs in which capacity he attended the Versailles conference in 1919. He ultimately returned to Queen’s and served as a dean from 1917 to 1922.

In 1927 Paton was appointed to the chair of logic and rhetoric at Glasgow. Later in 1937 he was appointed White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford and he became a fellow of Corpus Christi College. At Oxford as at Glasgow he lectured for some years on Kant and in 1947 he produced The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant’s Moral Philosophy. For his Gifford Lectures at St Andrews (1955) Paton took the opportunity to address what he perceived as the conflict between science and religion.

Throughout his life Paton’s Perthshire roots remained important to him and he kept a house near Bridge of Earn during the tenure of his Oxford chair. When he retired in 1952 he moved there and involved himself in Scottish affairs including serving as crown assessor for the University of St Andrews and contributing to the debate on Scottish autonomy.

As for his personal life he was married to (Mary) Shelia daughter of Henry Paul Todd-Naylor of the Indian Civil Service for twenty-three years from 1936 to her death in 1959. He married a second time to Sarah Irene daughter of William Macneile Dixon regius professor of English literature at Glasgow University. Unfortunately she died only two years after their marriage in 1964. Paton had no children of his own. He died at his Perthshire home Nether Pitcaithly Bridge of Earn on 2 August 1969.

Other works by Paton include: The Good Will: A Study in the Coherence Theory of Goodness (1927); Fashion & Philosophy an Inaugural Lecture Delivered before the University of Oxford on 30 November 1937 (1937); Can Reason Be Practical? (1943); The Moral Law: Groundwork of Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant (editor and translator; 1948 2006); The Defence of Reason (1951); Immortality (1956); Philosophy & History: Essays Presented to Ernst Cassirer (editor with Raymond Klibansky; 1963); The Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (1964); The Claim of Scotland (1968).

*From Stuart Brown Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press 2004)

  • Kelly Van Andel, University of Glasgow