Obituary: Professor Alan Milne

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The Independent Culture
ALAN MILNE was a distinguished political philosopher whose achievement is all the more remarkable because he was totally blinded in military action during the Second World War before he had even begun university study.

Most university teachers of political theory are historians who expound the work of great thinkers of the past. Just a few are genuine philosophers who take a critical approach to the classical texts and add their own contribution to the subject. Alan Milne was one of that select band.

He was born at Marlow in 1922 and educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, and Uppingham. He enlisted in the Army immediately on leaving school in 1939 and served first in the Royal Artillery and then in the Commandos. It was when leading a bridgehead commando in Germany in the spring of 1945 that he was hit by a sniper's bullet which blinded him.

After receiving training for the blind at St Dunstan's, he became a student in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics. He was of course unable to read for himself and there were no audiobooks in those days, but a number of his fellow students took it in turn to read books and articles to him. He married one of those devoted readers, Anita Littlestone, while still a student. He completed the undergraduate course in 1949 and went on to research for a PhD, which he gained in 1952. He was then awarded a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship to continue his studies for two years in the United States.

After a brief period back at the LSE as an Assistant Lecturer, he was appointed in 1956 to a Lectureship in Social Philosophy at Queen's University, Belfast. Since the post was firmly in philosophy rather than social studies or politics, he felt it was incumbent upon him to become thoroughly proficient in philosophy, which he did off his own bat.

He found himself attracted to post-Hegelian Idealism, which was regarded by most of the Oxford philosophers as having been refuted by G.E. Moore and the disciples of J. Cook Wilson. A notable exception, however, was R.G. Collingwood, who continued the Idealist tradition in his own inimitable way and who came to have a considerable influence on Milne's development.

At Belfast Milne's success as a teacher and author led to his being promoted to a Readership and then to a personal Chair. He left in 1975 for Durham, where he held the Chair of Political Theory and Institutions until his retirement in 1987. His wife Anita died of cancer in 1985, having been for all those years his "indispensable helpmeet", to quote the words of her successor, Susan Elkan, who had likewise been one of Milne's readers in his student days, and whom he married in 1986. His tribute to her in his last book shows that she too was an indispensable companion.

Milne's first book, The Social Philosophy of English Idealism (1962), was something of a pathbreaker in inducing students of political thought to go back to F.H. Bradley, T.H. Green, and Bernard Bosanquet, and to attend also to the American Idealist Josiah Royce. In later years Milne came to see that the moral and political thought of the three English writers was flawed, altough he continued to feel a debt to Green.

The best-known of Milne's books is Freedom and Rights (1968), in which he goes against the stream of fashion which understands freedom as simply a negative concept (the absence of restraint). Milne, like the Idealists, wanted to add a positive idea, but where they talked of self-realisation he used the more intelligible notion of self- determination. His discussion of rights drew some valuable distinctions and was followed up by two further books, The Right to Dissent (1983) and Human Rights and Human Diversity (1986).

He continued to write after retirement and, a couple of months ago, published Ethical Frontiers of the State. Margaret Thatcher's claim of having "rolled back the frontiers of the state" prompted Milne to marshal his thoughts on the question of what should be the frontiers of the state. They are given within the framework of a systematic moral philosophy and range beyond ethical questions to include helpful analysis of many political concepts. He planned a sequel and had completed the greater part of it, which will be edited for publication.

Unlike his admired Green and Bosanquet, Milne expressed his thought in beautifully clear language, which made him an excellent teacher. He was universally liked for his friendly, sanguine temperament and his sympathetic care for his students.

Alan John Mitchell Milne, social and political philosopher: born Marlow, Buckinghamshire 30 April 1922; Lecturer, Queen's University, Belfast 1956- 65, Reader 1965-73, Professor of Social Philosophy 1973-75; Professor of Political Theory and Institutions, Durham University 1975-87; married first Pauline Wood (two sons, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1949), 1949 Anita Littlestone (died 1985; two sons, one daughter), 1986 Susan Elkan; died Oxford 24 May 1998.