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William Ritchie Sorley

Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy, Cambridge
1855 to 1935

William Ritchie Sorley was born on 4 November 1855 at Selkirk in Scotland, the son of Anna Ritchie and William Sorley, a Free Church of Scotland minister. He was schooled in Birkenhead and enrolled at the University of Edinburgh at the age of fifteen. After graduating, he continued at University for several years, studying theology at Edinburgh and also Berlin. His intention was to echo his father’s vocation, but this was not to be. Instead, at the age of twenty-four, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1882 he was awarded a first class in the moral science tripos.

After a few years spent lecturing here and there, Sorley received his first major appointment in 1888, to a professorship of Logic and Philosophy at University College, Cardiff. He remained there for only six years, accepting the position of Regius Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen in 1894. Again, his stay here was a relatively short six years. At the turn of the century, he took the Knightbridge Chair of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge, and was elected a fellow of Kings College there a year later. He finally settled in this position, and remained in it until his retirement in 1933.

Like many of his contemporaries, Sorley developed an interest in and favour for philosophical idealism. He edited works by fellow Gifford Lecturer and professed idealist James Ward, and wrote prolifically on ethics and idealism in the tradition of T. H. Green and F. H. Bradley. He soon left the idealist position behind, finding idealism incapable of providing a satisfactory account of evil or an explanation of its existence. Sorley took the moral argument against idealism to apply to any nontheistic theory, and held that theism, in the light of some Kantian considerations, was necessary to explain the moral reality.

Sorley remained an outsider throughout his philosophical career. When in his idealist phase his contemporaries were the likes of Russell and Moore, whose work and influence was more or less confining his sort of idealism to history. His views on evolutionary theory were also unfashionable, and remain so today. In The Ethics of Naturalism (1885) he wrote that evolutionary theory was ‘unable either to set up a comprehensive ideal for life, or to yield any principle for distinguishing between good and evil in conduct’ (309). Though similar philosophers have come since, his work in philosophy had little if any direct influence on subsequent scholars. He is instead remembered better for his History of English Philosophy (1920), which, being the sort of work it was, did not suffer from the same difficulties as his original philosophy did.

Sorley’s eldest son was Charles Hamilton Sorley, a First World War poet. Charles was killed in the battle of Loos in 1915, and his father published a collection of his verse in 1919.

Sorley himself died in Cambridge on 28 July 1935 after suffering from pneumonia. His wife Janetta survived him. They had married in 1889, and had had another son and two daughters in addition to Charles.

Works by Sorley include The Ethics of Naturalism (1885), Recent Tendencies in Ethics (1904), The Moral Life and Moral Worth (1911), Moral Values and the Idea of God (1918), and The History of English Philosophy (1920). He edited The Letters of Charles Sorley: with a chapter of biography (1919).

  • Sam Addison, University of Aberdeen