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Lindsay, A. D.

Lindsay, A. D.



Alexander Dunlop Lindsay, Lord Lindsay of Birker (1879–1952), a political philosopher, was born in Scotland but spent most of his life in England as fellow and then as master of Balliol College, Oxford. After his retirement, he became the first principal of the University College of North Staffordshire (now the University of Keele). because of his services to the Trades Union Congress and the Labour party, he was elevated to the peerage in 1945 and took the title of Baron Lindsay of Birker. In many ways, Lindsay's life followed the pattern originated by such Oxford idealist philosophers as T. H. Green; in other ways, he followed the lead of Benjamin Jowett, perhaps the most famous of Lindsay's predecessors as master of Balliol. Like Green, he attempted to combine the teaching of philosophy with the obligations imposed by citizenship—participation in actual administration as well as aiding the poor and teaching the disadvantaged; like Jowett, he thought that the first purpose of a university is to train public servants by sharpening their intellects and developing their will to control events. Lindsay also continued Balliol's Victorian tradition in that he preached in the college chapel and derived his politics as much from religion as from philosophy.

In the face of the assaults upon idealism made by Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who redirected philosophical inquiry, Lindsay tacitly abandoned the traditional idealist attempt to base political ideas upon firm metaphysical grounds (for his specific criticism of modern British philosophy, see Lindsay 1951). Rather, he paraphrased idealist political ideas in terms derived from common sense, practical politics, and the language of classical political theory. The result was a persuasive statement of the “operative ideals” of modern constitutional democracies. Although Lindsay's work added little to what had already been said by Green and Bosanquet, he did prolong their influence by his restatement, which he based upon the points that had originally persuaded many people of the superiority of idealism over Victorian positivism and scientism, whether of the utilitarian or the social Darwinian varieties. As Talcott Parsons has indicated, idealism was an important source of modern sociology and political science. Idealist philosophers emphasized the importance of human groups, of collective representations, and the place of values in social action. No less important were idealist polemics against theories of human behavior that stress individual decisions taken on purely rational and self-interested grounds.

Lindsay's antipathy to doctrines stressing egotism was rooted in his family background. Both his parents were descended from Scottish families, aristocratic in origin but active in social work and in movements for the reform of religion and politics. His father was T. M. Lindsay, a distinguished church historian and principal of the United Free Church College at the University of Glasgow. Lindsay's first degree was from Glasgow University. Despite his failure to win a Snell exhibition at Balliol, he obtained a first class degree in greats and was elected president of the Oxford Union. Even as an undergraduate he was a member of the Fabian Society. After holding fellowships in philosophy at Glasgow and Edinburgh and assisting Samuel Alexander, professor of philosophy at Manchester, Lindsay was elected in 1906 to a fellowship at Balliol. In the period before World War I, he translated Plato's Republic (1907), wrote a number of prefaces to philosophical volumes in the Everyman's Library series, published short books on Henri Bergson (1911) and Kant (1913), and contributed to the influential volume,Property: Its Duties and Rights (1914), published by the Christian Social Union, an organization led by those of Green's students who combined high-church theology with distaste for economic inequality. Lindsay married in 1907 and had two sons and a daughter.

After his service in World War I, Lindsay returned to Balliol and took an important part in establishing the new undergraduate degree in philosophy, politics, and economics. In 1922 he was elected professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow but returned to Oxford when he was elected master of Balliol in 1924. Although increasingly drawn into administration and university politics (he served a term as vice-chancellor of Oxford), he taught philosophy and preached in the Balliol chapel. Lindsay was among the few heads of Oxford colleges who supported the Labour party (1949). Probably the cause he cared for most was the Workers' Educational Association. In 1939 he was the Labour party candidate for a seat in Parliament that was won by Quinton Hogg, who had defended the Munich settlement of the previous year. During World War II, Lindsay often spoke on the radio and finished the first and, as it turned out, the only volume of his Modern Democratic State (1943), a work that displayed him at his best and was certainly preferable to his long book on Kant (1934a). After retiring as master of Balliol in 1948, he did much as first principal at Keele to institute a curriculum that put its stress on general education rather than on the specialized studies that until then were characteristic of English universities.

Lindsay's conception of political theory depended upon a series of distinctions that was designed to maintain the autonomy and, indeed, the primacy of ideas and values in the analysis of political action. Retreating from the metaphysical arguments of idealism, he nevertheless denied that the study of politics should center exclusively upon actual institutions or behavior. For Lindsay claimed that his position was neither metaphysical nor historical. He rejected the distinction between the state as studied by political theorists (in the form it ideally should have) and the state as studied by political scientists (in its actual form). Lindsay argued that these two views of the state are analytically and empirically inseparable.

Every state, he thought, is a historically conditioned association whose members share certain purposes, although these purposes need not be consciously recognized or fully realized. The laws, institutions, and moral and political practices of a society record its “operative ideals,” that is, what it most values in its common life. Such preferences will be found to vary in the different historical types of states, such as the classical Greek democracies or medieval constitutional monarchies. What, in Lindsay's view, distinguishes the modern democratic state from all other types is the fact that in it the political organization that exercises a monopoly of organized force has as its function neither the creation of operative ideals nor their enforcement by coercion alone. The power of the state is properly used when, and only when, it corrects anomalies and harmonizes conflicts. The purpose of the state is to remove hindrances to the kinds of spontaneity and freedom that are compatible with the common purposes of society. It is significant that when Lindsay made this central argument in his two major works (1929; 1943) he did so by paraphrasing Bosanquet:

What Bosanquet seems to have done in his account of the general will is to have developed a hint of Rousseau's into a masterly account of the elaborate system of institutions and mutual relations which go to make up the life of society, to have insisted on its complexity and richness and vitality, its transcendence of what any one individual can conceive or express. This, he declares, in all its elaborateness and multifariousness is the community. It is less than that. That is the standard of legislation and what we ordinarily call state action. The business of politics is to take this elaborate complex of individuals and institutions for granted. .. and. .. [to] seek to remove the disharmonies which are threatening its life and checking its vitality. ([1943] p. 244 in 1947 edition)

The state, in the narrow political sense, is, according to Lindsay, the hinderer of hindrances. The aim of its compulsion and the criterion of the success of that compulsion is the setting free of the spontaneity which is inherent in the life of society. Political machinery, general elections, legislatures, judges, and executives are endeavoring or ought to be endeavoring to express the spirit of a common social life.

Thus, Lindsay accepted certain distinctions that Bosanquet also had considered essential: the distinction between state and society, with primacy given to society; and that between the state, as an organization to which all must belong, and voluntary societies. These voluntary societies, traced by Lindsay to Puritan congregations, have the great merit of permitting individuals to have, within a limited sphere, real initiative, spontaneity, and liberty. But in the nature of things all such associations have purposes limited to the interests of their members. Voluntary associations, if left to themselves, come into conflict. It is the purpose of the state to eliminate such conflicts and to reconcile disagreements by reference to the operative ideals of society.

Lindsay, then, followed earlier idealists in a number of ways: he attempted to rescue by para-phrase and dilution a position that was essentially religious; he favored reconciliation and synthesis of the interests of different groups, rather than the admission of persisting conflicts and harsh choices between such interests; he refused to distinguish fact from value and argued that the social arrangements and moral practices of a society provide a meaningful guide to future decisions, both by conscientious individuals seeking to determine their obligations and by the state seeking to determine the proper sphere of its action. From this mode of analysis, however, Lindsay drew socialist conclusions, thus distinguishing his position from those of Green and Bosanquet.

Melvin Richter

[For the historical context of Lindsay's work, seeDemocracy; Pluralism; State; and the biographies ofBosanquetandGreen.]


(1907) 1942 Introduction. In Plato,Republic of Plato. Translated by A. D. Lindsay. London: Dent; New York: Dutton.

1911 The Philosophy of Bergson. London: Dent.

(1913) 1914 The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant. London: Jack.

(1914) 1915 The Principle of Private Property. Pages 65-81 in Property: Its Duties and Rights, Historically, Philosophically and Religiously Regarded. 2d ed. London: Macmillan.

(1925) 1937 Karl Marx's Capital:An Introductory Essay. Oxford Univ. Press.

1927 The Nature of Religious Truth: Sermons Preached in Balliol College Chapel. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

1928 General Will and Common Mind. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

(1929) 1951 The Essentials of Democracy. 2d ed. Oxford Univ. Press.

1934a Kant. London: Benn.

1934 b The Churches and Democracy. London: Epworth.

1940 I Believe in Democracy: Addresses Broadcast in the
B.B.C. Empire Programme on Mondays From May 20th to June 24th 1940. Oxford Univ. Press.

(1943) 1959 The Modern Democratic State. Volume 1. Oxford Univ. Press.

1945 The Good and the Clever. Cambridge Univ. Press.

1949 The Philosophy of the British Labour Government.
Pages 250–268 in Filmer S. C. Northrop (editor), Ideological Differences and World Order: Studies in the Philosophy and Science of the World's Cultures. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

1951 Philosophy as Criticism of Standards.Philosophical Quarterly 1:97-108.


Gallie, W. B. 1960 A New University: A. D. Lindsay and the Keele Experiment. London: Chatto & Windus.

Richter, Melvin 1964 Politics and Conscience: T. H. Green and His Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → Provides a background for A. D. Lindsay's politics and philosophy.

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