Obituary: Professor W. B. Gallie
Saturday 05 September 1998
Although his book on the American 19th-century philosopher C.S. Peirce (Peirce and Pragmatism, 1952) is familiar to many, he is probably best known for one much cited paper, "Essentially Contested Concepts", which was published in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society in the mid- Fifties. This alone will ensure his name is remembered amongst philosophers. (Gallie believed it to be his best work too, along with a paper on the nature of science also from the Fifties.) In it he anticipated some of the developments in philosophy of the Sixties and Seventies, in particular the failure of a programme which purported to establish clearly the boundaries of concepts. The paper formed a central part of his book Philosophy and the Historical Understanding (1964).
However Bryce Gallie probably would have preferred his two books on war - Philosophers of Peace and War (1978) and Understanding War (1990) - to have had the same impact as "Essentially Contested Concepts". He had fought in the Second World War, from 1940 to 1945, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre; he ended with the rank of major. This time evidently made an great impression upon him. Though a very out-going man, he never spoke of his wartime experiences though he repeatedly returned to the philosophical aspects of war in conversation.
Gallie was born in 1912 in Lenzie near Glasgow, the son of an engineer. After taking a First in PPE at Balliol, Oxford, he started his academic career in 1935 as an assistant lecturer in philsophy at Swansea. Here he met his wife, the novelist Menna Gallie, who was a student at the university. Swansea in those days was a lively place and Gallie and Menna knew Dylan Thomas and the literary circle which centred around him. On retirement he became an honorary Professorial Fellow of the University of Wales.
After the war, he returned to Swansea but was never much in sympathy with the Wittgensteinian influence which was beginning to dominate there, and indeed, he disliked Wittgenstein the man. So he followed A.D. Lindsay, whose pupil he had been at Balliol, to Keele in 1950, where Lindsay became vice-Chancellor and Gallie Professor of Philosophy at the University College of North Staffordshire. Gallie was later to write a book on Lindsay and the Keele experiment, (A New University, 1960).
Gallie, though not a philosopher by default, once told me that he might just as well have worked in some other area. His interests were wide and philosophy was not for him the obsessional concern that it is with most professional teachers of philosophy. His first book was, in fact, An English School (1949), reflections on his schooldays as a Classics specialist at Sedburgh between the wars, and on education in general, and he both wrote and translated verse. He was keenly interested in English and German literature, with an especial affection for Words-worth, to which his days at Sedburgh no doubt contributed, and some of his translations of Goethe are beautiful.
Like his wife, Gallie was a lifelong democratic socialist, who, whilst at Belfast in the Fifties and Sixties was already aware that Ulster was a tinder-box and never felt entirely comfortable as a Fellow at Peterhouse. His later years were clouded by ill health and by the loss of Menna in 1990. He remained active as a scholar however until the last year when his sight began to fail and he was no longer able to read. He found some solace in the chamber music of Haydn and Beethoven.
Bryce was both passionate and affectionate, generous to younger colleagues, a man of wide reading and wide intellectual interests. Such humane concerns are now rarer than they once were and his death reminds us, poignantly, of what the best university teachers used to be like. He would broaden the context of a philosophical discussion in a way few could and he was an inspiring teacher. He felt himself lucky to have worked in universities when he did, for he certainly would not have been at home in a milieu dominated by appraisals, "quality" and research assessments. He was a lovable man.
Walter Boyce Gallie, philosopher: born Lenzie, Dunbartonshire 5 October 1912; Assistant Lecturer in Philosophy, University College of Swansea 1935-38, Lecturer 1938-48, Senior Lecturer 1948-50; Professor of Philosophy, University College of North Staffordshire 1950-54; Professor of Logic and Metaphysics, Queen's University, Belfast 1954-67; Professor of Political Science, Cambridge University 1967-78 (Emeritus), Fellow of Peterhouse 1967-78; married 1940 Menna Humphreys (died 1990; one son, one daughter); died Cardigan, Dyfed 31 August 1998.
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