Professor William Wallace was born at Cupar, Fife, Scotland, on 11 May 1843. His parents, James Cooper Wallace (a successful master-builder) and Jean (née Kelloch), had a reputation for industriousness and eccentricity, choosing to put most of their energies into raising their five children, rather than mingling with their neighbours. As a boy, Wallace attended Madras Academy in Cupar, followed by four years at the University of St. Andrews. Unlike many of his colleagues at St. Andrews, Wallace showed no interest in golf or other forms of athletics; rather, he gained an intense interest in the beauty of nature, which he indulged in by taking long walks in the country. Indeed, throughout his life Wallace was a keen botanist and mountaineer.
Though his family had wished William, their eldest, to pursue theological studies, after spending four years in the Arts course at St. Andrews, Wallace came to realise that he was not well suited for a clerical vocation and instead pursued more intensively his study of the Classics. In 1864 Wallace gained an Exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford, and in 1867 became a fellow of Merton College. He graduated BA in 1868 and proceeded to an MA in 1871. In 1868 he was appointed a tutor of Merton, and in 1871 he became its librarian. In 1872 Wallace married a childhood friend, Janet Barclay, and a daughter and two sons were born to them. In 1882 Wallace succeeded Thomas Hill Greene as Whyte Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford. He held that office, along with the Merton tutorship, until his untimely death in 1897.
Although Wallace never pursued a clerical ministry, his concern for pedagogy and his profound influence upon many generations of students of philosophy at Oxford evidences his sense of pastoral concern. He never took any prominent part in university politics, despite the fact that he served on several university administrative committees. His lectures were aimed not so much at the detailed exposition of philosophical systems as oriented toward encouraging students to think critically. He seldom read from a manuscript, as he found that doing so constrained his style and deprived him of the freedom needed for effective lecturing. His humorous, elegant, and often extemporaneous lectures produced a unique impression of insight and sincerity upon his students. In both his lecturing and his writing, Wallace was particularly gifted at elucidating dense philosophical constructs from technical obscurity, choosing instead to represent philosophy in language which was as expert as it was impacting and imaginative.
Although initially Wallace’s study of philosophy centred on the Classics, his professional career was almost exclusively devoted to the exposition of German philosophy, particularly the philosophy of Hegel. In 1874 he published his own translation of Hegel as Prolegomena to the Study of Hegel's Philosophy, and Especially of His Logic. His translation was the first full English translation of Hegel’s work, and is known for both its free and creative style and its expansive critical notation. In 1880 he published Epicurean Philosophy, which traces the origins of that school of thought. More than anything, this work shows Wallace’s early desire to correlate the life of a thinker with the characteristics of the thinker’s philosophy.
Throughout his career, Wallace anchored philosophy in biography. For example, his brief 1882 publication on the life of Kant (which depicted Kant as engaged in a dialogue with Locke and Hume and added to the Kantian scholarship produced by J. H. Stirling, Edward Caird, John Watson and others) and his later Life of Schopenhauer (1890), which traced the alternating depth and shallowness of the philosopher’s repudiation of empiricism and materialism (complaining of his unconquerable vanity but praising his insight into the power of art and his belief that the best life is one predicated on the underlying unity of all experience) were both preceded by extended visits to the homes of these philosophers. Indeed, he read widely and travelled to various parts of Germany to acquaint himself with the geographical and cultural environment of his subject’s native lands.
In 1892, Wallace published a revised second edition of his translation of Hegel’s Logic, which was followed the following year by a second edition of his translation of the Prolegomena, so distinct from the original that it is considered by most to be a new volume. Finally, in 1894, he published a translation of the last part of Hegel’s Encyclopaedie, The Philosophy of Mind, with five essays in which he reviews the subject of the volume, dealing especially with questions relating to the method of psychology and its relationship to ethics and theology.
Wallace drew parallels between classical philosophy and contemporary German and British thinkers, connecting, for example, Hegel’s Idea and the Idea in Plato and Aristotle; he also highlighted the links between Hegelianism and Christianity, as is particularly clear in his Gifford Lectures. His knowledge of Kant, Fichte, Herder and Hegel was unparalleled and his contribution to the reception of German thought in Britain cannot be overemphasised.
Following a tragic bicycling accident, Wallace died at the Rock of Gibraltar Inn, Bletchington, near Oxford, on 19 February 1897. He was buried at Holywell Cemetery, Oxford, on 22 February.
Although not widely available, some of Wallace’s more well-known works are listed here: Kant (1882); Life of Schopenhauer (1890); The Logic of Hegel (Encyklopädie Der Philosophischen Wissenschaften Im Grundrisse. 1. Die Logik) (1892); Prolegomena to the Study of Hegel’s Philosophy, And Especially of His Logic (1894); Lectures and Essays on Natural Theology and Ethics (1898); and Epicureanism (1902).