ALEXANDER, Samuel (1859-1938)

ALEXANDER, Samuel (1859-1938)
was born at 436 George-street, Sydney, on 6 January 1859, of Jewish parents. His father, Samuel Alexander, was a prosperous saddler, his mother was originally Eliza Sloman. His father died just before the boy was born, and the mother moved to Victoria four or five years later. They went to live at St Kilda, and Alexander was placed at a private school kept by a Mr Atkinson. In 1871 he was sent to Wesley College, then under the headmastership of Professor Irving (q.v.). Long afterwards Alexander said he had always been grateful for the efficiency and many-sidedness of his schooling. He matriculated at the university of Melbourne on 22 March 1875, and entered on the arts course. He was, placed in the first class in both his first and second years, was awarded the classical and mathematical exhibitions in his first year, and in his second year won the exhibitions in Greek, Latin and English, mathematics and natural philosophy; and natural science. On 12 May 1877 he left for England where he arrived at the end of August. He was in some doubt whether to go to Oxford or Cambridge, but chose the former. He sat for a scholarship at Balliol and among the competitors were George Curzon and J. W. Mackail. His tutor thought little of his chances, but he was placed second to Mackail and was awarded a scholarship. At Oxford he obtained a first class in classical and mathematical moderations, a rare achievement, and a first class in greats, his final examination for the degree of B.A., in 1881. Two of his tutors were Green and Nettleship, who exercised a great influence on his early work. After taking his degree he was made a fellow of Lincoln, where he remained as philosophy tutor from 1882 to 1893. It was during this period that he developed his interest in psychology, then a neglected subject, comparatively speaking. In 1887 he won the Green moral philosophy prize with an essay on the subject "In what direction does Moral Philosophy seem to you to admit or require advance?" This was the basis of his volume on Moral Order and Progress, which was published in 1889 and went into its third edition in 1899. By 1912, however, Alexander had altered his views to some extent and considered that the book had served its purpose, had become "dated", and should be allowed to die. During the period of his fellowship at Lincoln he had also contributed articles on philosophical subjects to Mind, the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, and the International Journal of Ethics. He did some travelling on the continent, and in the winter of 1890-1 was in Germany working at the psychological laboratory of Professor Münsterberg at Freiburg. Among his colleagues at Lincoln was Walter Baldwin Spencer (q.v.).
For some time Alexander had wished to obtain a professorship. He made three unsuccessful attempts before, in 1893, he was appointed at Manchester. There he quickly became a leading figure in the university. Unconventional in his attire and his manner of conducting his classes, there was something in him that drew students and colleagues alike to him. He wrote little, and his growing deafness made it difficult for him to get much out of philosophical discussions, though he could manage conversation, An important change in his home life occurred in 1902 when the whole of his family, his mother, an aunt, two elder brothers and his sister came from Australia to live with him. This in some families would have been a dangerous experiment, but it worked well in Alexander's case. His sister became a most efficient hostess and on Wednesday evenings fellow members of the staff, former pupils, a few advanced students and others, would drop in and spend a memorable evening. He was given the Hon. LL.D. of St Andrews in 1905, and in later years he received Hon. Litt. D. degrees from Durham, Liverpool, Oxford and Cambridge. In 1908 appeared Locke, a short but excellent study, which was included in the Philosophies Ancient and Modern Series. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1908 to 1911 and in 1913 was made a fellow of the British Academy. He was appointed Gifford lecturer at Glasgow in 1915, and delivered his lectures in the winters of 1917 and 1918. These developed into his great work Space Time and Deity, published in two volumes in 1920, which his biographer has called the "boldest adventure in detailed speculative metaphysics attempted in so grand a manner by any English writer between 1655 and 1920". That its conclusions should be universally accepted was scarcely to be expected, but it was widely and well reviewed, and made a great impression on philosophic thinkers at the time and for many years after. His Arthur Davis Memorial Lecture on Spinoza and Time was published in 1921, and in 1924 Alexander retired from his chair.
Before he retired Alexander had longed for some leisure, but it is impossible for men of his temperament to be idle. He continued to do a certain amount of lecturing, giving short courses and single lectures in connexion with the extra-mural department, he examined for higher degrees and also did some reviewing, and he retained until 1930 the office the presenter for honorary degrees. His little orations when presenting were models of grace and skill. He remained on many committees, always ready to give them the benefit of his help and wisdom. He kept up his interest in the British Academy and the British Institute of Philosophy, as well as in Jewish communities in England and Palestine. In 1925 he was honoured by the presentation of his bust by Epstein to the university of Manchester, where it was placed in the centre of the hall of the arts building. He was Herbert Spencer lecturer at Oxford in 1927, and in 1930, amid congratulations from all over the country, the Order of Merit was conferred on him. It was unfortunate that as he grew older his deafness increased, but he still liked to see his friends, there were still good books to be read, and he never lost his love for beautiful things. In 1933 he published Beauty and other Forms of Value, mainly an essay in aesthetics, which incorporated passages from papers which had appeared in the previous 10 years. Some of the earlier parts of the book were deliberately meant to be provocative, and Alexander had hoped that artists of distinction in various mediums might be tempted to say how they worked. He had, however, not reckoned with the difficulty most artists find in explaining their methods of work and the response was comparatively meagre. He was greatly troubled by the sufferings of the Jews in Europe and gave much of his time and money in helping to alleviate them. Early in 1938 he realized that his end was approaching and he died on 13 September of that year. He was unmarried. His will was proved at about £16,000 of which £1,000 went to the university of Jerusalem and the bulk of the remainder to the university of Manchester. In 1939 his Philosophical and Literary Pieces was published with a memoir by his literary executor, Professor John Laird. This volume included charming papers on literary subjects, as well as philosophical lectures, several of which had been published separately. A list of his other writings is given at the end of this volume.
Alexander was above medium height, somewhat heavily built, and wore a long beard. The charm of his personality attracted men and women of all kinds to him and he never lost their affection. He had a quiet sense of humour, was completely unselfish, transparently honest, a guide, philosopher and friend to all. He suffered at times from low spirits, but in company cheerfulness persisted in breaking in. He had great sympathy with children, young people, and women; he loved his kind and it was only natural that he should become the "best-loved man in Manchester". He confessed to be avaricious because "if he were not he could not give to things". The truth was that, though frugal about his personal expenses, he was always a liberal giver. He was fond of bridge but could never become an expert player. As a lecturer in his early years he often hesitated for the right word, and had some difficulty in controlling his voice, but these difficulties disappeared in time, and in later years he had a beautiful voice. He could be both profound and simple without talking down to his audience. When lecturing he could be quite informal, at times dropping into a kind of conversation with his class, and not disdaining a side track if it looked promising. He did not always give the impression that he was much interested in teaching, yet he was a great teacher whose influence was widespread. He was one of the greatest speculative thinkers of his time, a great philosopher, a great man.
John Laird, Memoir, Philosophical and Literary Pieces; The Manchester Guardian, 14 September 1938; The Times, 14 and 15 September 1938; The Times Literary Supplement, 23 March 1940.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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