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Richard Burdon Haldane

Member of Parliament
1856 to 1928

Amateur geologist, outdoor enthusiast, trained in law, scholar in philosophy, MP—if anyone could be termed a Renaissance man, it would be Richard Burdon Haldane, born in 1856 to a well-known family of Gleneagles. Haldane’s inquisitive nature expressed itself early on. At sixteen, he was already studying at Edinburgh University. Two years later, he spent a formative six months studying philosophy and geology in Göttingen, Germany.

Influenced by Berkeley and Fichte, he returned a convinced positivistic idealist, germinating in his entering politics within the Whig Party and becoming an MP at twenty-nine. Haldane’s liberal views can be seen in his support for improvements to welfare and housing, the enfranchisement of women, in acting as counsel for the trade unions, in helping to found the London School of Economics and in promoting the cause of higher educational expansion. His continued contacts with Germany (he visited the Technische Hochschule at Charlottenburg in 1901) led him to being one the far-sighted few who realized the need for the development of technical education.

As brilliant as he was inquisitive, Haldane won prizes and scholarships in philosophy at Edinburgh University. Later, he studied law and was called to the bar in 1879. Law and philosophy merged in his interest in jurisprudential cases. Already in 1882, he was appearing before the judicial committee of the Privy Council and before the House of Lords. Despite the demands of his legal caseload, Haldane found time to maintain his philosophical interests. In 1883, he published Essays in Philosophical Criticism, and in the same year, his translation of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea. By 1887, Haldane was helping Gladstone with Irish legislation.

Haldane’s career in public office is extensive and recognized; his success at the drastic reforms he effected in the War Office was extensive and profound; he was created a peer in 1911; he was made a member of the Order of Merit by George V. Less noticed were his academic successes. His popularity in Scotland was marked by his election in 1905 as Lord Rector of Edinburgh University, and he was chancellor of the University of St Andrews shortly before his death, as well as the first chancellor of the University of Bristol for many years. Haldane was a visionary who realized that education, especially higher education, played a vital role in national efficiency. On the other hand, he was also practical and able to work effectively with a vast range of people, academics, industrialists, politicians, administrators. And he was instrumental in diverting funds into education. He also pushed for a separation of religious influence in elementary and secondary education. His educational reforms are indisputable.

Other philosophical works include Pathway to Reality (1903), Reign of Relativity (1921), The Philosophy of Humanism (1922) and Selected Addresses and Essays (1928). (He also wrote an autobiography in 1929).

He died in 1928 and was buried at Gleneagles, where a large contingent of regular and Territorial Army units attended. A lament was played by the Black Watch pipe band.

  • David Kahan, University of Glasgow