D. O. Thomas

Editor of the philosopher Richard Price
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The Independent Online

David Oswald Thomas, philosopher: born Rhuthun, Denbighshire 4 March 1924; Tutor in Philosophy and Psychology, Coleg Harlech 1955-60; Lecturer in Philosophy, UCW Aberystwyth 1960-67, Senior Lecturer 1967-79, Reader 1979-83; married 1965 Dr Beryl Jones (one daughter); died Aberystwyth 28 May 2005.

D.O. Thomas made Richard Price, the 18th-century Welsh philosopher and polymath, his life's work. In 1977 he published the definitive study of Price, The Honest Mind, and this was followed by a three-volume edition of the complete correspondence, The Correspondence of Richard Price (1983-94), which he produced in collaboration with Bernard Peach of Duke University, and with the assistance of his wife, Beryl, who cracked the shorthand in the letters. In 1991 he published Price's Political Writings for the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, and he was the author of a new entry on Price for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

David Oswald Thomas, "DO" as he was known to most, was born and brought up in Rhuthun, Denbighshire, the son of the Clerk to the Department of Education for the county. He was a pupil at Denbigh Grammar School, then perhaps the finest grammar school in North Wales. At the age of 17 he was offered a job in the Midland Bank and, in view of the limited employment opportunities at the time, decided to accept it. In 1943, after two years in the bank, he joined the RAF. He served until 1946. Stationed for most of the time in the Middle East, he served one and a half years in Iraq.

At the end of his service he took advantage of a scheme for demobilising into university and studied philosophy at the University College of Wales, Bangor. His student days were marked by the onset of ankylosing spondylitis, a disabling condition from which he suffered for the rest of his life. After completing his degree, Thomas went on to study the British idealists for his MA, and then moved from Bangor to London where, for his PhD, he studied, under the supervision of H.B. Acton, the political philosophy of Richard Price. His choice of subject had been influenced by the publication in 1948 of D.D. Raphael's new edition of Price's A Review of the Principal Questions in Morals, first published 190 years earlier.

In 1955 he was appointed tutor in philosophy and psychology at Coleg Harlech. He was awarded his doctorate in the following year. Then in 1960 Thomas was appointed to a lectureship in philosophy at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. He spent the rest of his career there, becoming a Reader in Philosophy before taking early retirement in 1983.

It was a relatively unobtrusive career. Thomas never sought the limelight. Yet it included lecturing at the Sorbonne, and it was highly productive. A steady stream of papers flowed from his pen, and many incisive reviews.

In 1977, we began a newsletter, The Price-Priestley Newsletter; which, in 1982, became a journal, Enlightenment and Dissent. D.O. Thomas felt that thinkers like Price had received insufficient attention and wished to encourage studies in that area. In 1996 Thomas retired as an editor but remained on the editorial board. The issue of the journal for the millennium was a Festschrift in his honour. Of the 12 leading scholars who contributed, significantly eight were from abroad. The journal itself fulfilled his expectations, publishing major articles on 18th-century thought including special issues on Samuel Clarke and on "Enlightenment, Religion, Science and Popular Culture".

In order to study Price, who contributed notably to moral and political philosophy, and was an adviser to government on the national debt, a pioneer demographer and actuary, Thomas mastered a whole range of skills. In particular, he found his early training in the bank useful in understanding the complexities of Price's work on annuities and reversionary payments. However arcane the subject matter, his mastery of clear and subtle exposition is in evidence. He had a special ability to combine philosophical insight with historical understanding. Immune to fashionable trends in the history of philosophy and of ideas, he was critical of the concept of paradigms of thought associated with the work of J.G.A. Pocock. He preferred the notion of traditions, yet was also insistent that traditions of thought should not be viewed as mutually exclusive.

His own method enabled him to analyse philosophical problems as they appeared to 18th-century writers and at the same time to indicate how those problems might still pose difficulties for us today. His examination of the conflict between Price and Edmund Burke in The Honest Mind is a fine example of his approach. He identified the essential differences between the two thinkers while also demonstrating that Burke's attack on Price was founded, at least in part, on a misunderstanding of Price's political principles.

Overall, in his studies of Price he demonstrated that the leitmotif of his thought was the conscientious pursuit of truth, the candid exposition of one's views, and the honest endeavour to implement one's ideas.

D.O. Thomas was supremely generous with his advice, assistance and hospitality to other scholars, helping several with their future paths of study. He was an entertaining host with an impish wit. A brilliant teacher, he was much revered by his students. He played an active role in the Faculty of Arts and the Non-Professorial Staff at Aberystwyth. After retirement, he was closely involved in voluntary work with the Alzheimer's Society and Crossroads, and in local Conservative politics.

Despite increasing infirmities, he continued writing and researching and characteristically had a programme of future work mapped out.

Martin Fitzpatrick