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John Laird

Regius Professor Moral Philosophy, University of Aberdeen
1887 to 1946

The philosopher John Laird was born at Durris Kincardineshire on 17 May 1887. His father Rev. D. M. W. Laird was a third-generation Church of Scotland minister and his mother Margaret Laird (née Steward) was the daughter of the local schoolmaster John Steward. Of their several children John was the eldest.

Laird’s initial education was at the local village school in Durris, followed by two years at the grammar school of Aberdeen. When his family moved to Edinburgh, Laird attended university, graduating MA in 1908 with a first class in philosophy. Laird was regarded by his fellow students as possessing a keen intellect despite the fact that he was never very eager about his time at university, finding the lecturers in Edinburgh to be less than engaging.

Following his studies at Edinburgh Laird travelled to Cambridge where he was a senior scholar of Trinity College placing first class in both parts of the moral sciences tripos (1910–1911). After spending a year as an assistant in St. Andrews University and a brief spell as Professor of Philosophy at Dalhousie University Nova Scotia Laird came to Queen's University Belfast in 1913 to take on the post of Professor of Logic and Metaphysics. In 1919 while in Belfast he met and married Helen Ritchie daughter of a local linen manufacturer. The couple had one son who died in childhood.

Throughout his life, Laird wished to be a professor at an ancient Scottish university. In 1924 his wish was fulfilled by his appointment as Regius Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, a position he held until his death. Laird was a prolific writer and public speaker. In addition to giving the 1939 and 1940 Glasgow Gifford Lectures he also presented the Shaw Lectures at the University of Edinburgh (1914) the Herbert Spencer Lecture in Oxford (1944) and the Forwood Lectures in Liverpool (1945) among others. Though his chair was in moral philosophy throughout his career Laird published and presented works on topics relating to metaphysics the history of philosophy ethics and even English literature.

His first book Problems of the Self (1917) and the subsequent Study in Religion (1920) explored his epistemological and metaphysical groundwork which reflected his firmly realist philosophy. Laird’s earliest works were in stark contrast to those of his idealist contemporaries at Oxford F. H. Bradley and H. H. Joachim. Indeed Laird’s realism and appeal to sensibility were in many ways in keeping with the Scottish Common Sense tradition of philosophy initiated nearly two hundred years earlier by Thomas Reid (who interestingly enough was born in the adjacent parish to Laird in 1710).

Having established his metaphysics and epistemology Laird turned to the study of the history of philosophy publishing several biographical volumes during the early 1930s, including works on Hume, Hobbes, and other contemporary developments in philosophy. In 1935 his An Enquiry into Moral Notions signalled a brief return to the study of ethics. The work was heavily criticised. His 1939 and 1940 Glasgow Gifford Lectures allowed Laird to once again explore in great detail his system of metaphysics. The lectures provided the substance of his two most well-known books Theism and Cosmology (1940) and Mind and Deity (1941).

Laird’s contributions to the Academy did not go unnoticed. In 1933 he was elected as a Fellow of the British Academy (FBA) in 1935 he received an honorary degree of LL.D. from the University of Edinburgh and in 1945 he received a D.Litt. from Queens University Belfast.

In light of the war effort toward the end of his life Laird expressed a deep concern for the plight of his nation and her troops. In the preface to his 1941 Mind and Deity Laird writes of his audience, ‘If I helped some of them to forget the war for a brief space, I should permit myself to feel a certain tempered satisfaction’ (7). This sentiment was echoed in his 1944 The Device of Government: An Essay on Civil Polity which was originally written as an address to those serving the nation during the last days of the war. Having lived a full life in service of nation and his discipline on 5 August 1946 he died at his home Powis Lodge Old Aberdeen, survived by his wife.

Laird’s works include: Problems of the Self: An Essay Based on the Shaw Lectures Given in the University of Edinburgh (1917); A Study in Realism (1920); Our Minds and Their Bodies (1925); A Study in Moral Theory (1926) Modern Problems in Philosophy (1928); The Idea of Value (1929); Knowledge Belief and Opinion (1930); Hume’s Philosophy of Human Nature (1932); Hobbes (1934); An Inquiry Into Moral Notions (1935); Recent Philosophy (1936); Theism and Cosmology: Being the First Series of a Course of Gifford Lectures on the General Subject of Metaphysics and Theism (1940); Mind and Deity (1941); The Device of Government: An Essay on Civil Polity (1944); Philosophical Incursions Into English Literature (1946).

  • Michael W. DeLashmutt, University of Glasgow