Wolfgang von Leyden

Editor and interpreter of John Locke
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The Independent Online

Wolfgang von Leyden is best known for his research on the 17th- century philosopher John Locke.

Wolfgang Marius von Leyden, philosopher: born Berlin 28 December 1911; Lecturer in Philosophy, Durham University 1946-56, Senior Lecturer 1956-62, Reader 1962-77; married 1953 Iris Sharwood-Smith (one son, one daughter); died Durham 4 September 2004.

Wolfgang von Leyden is best known for his research on the 17th- century philosopher John Locke.

This began in 1942 at Oxford at a time when scholars such as R.I. Aaron were first gaining access to the Lovelace collection of Locke's unpublished manuscripts, including some 2,000 letters. Von Leyden meticulously transcribed Locke's shorthand and succeeded in identifying many correspondents who had previously been anonymous to the academic world. His work attracted the attention of the popular media and was reported in The Times, the Manchester Guardian and The Listener.

In 1954 he published John Locke, Essays on the Law of Nature: the Latin text with a translation, introduction and notes, together with transcripts of Locke's shorthand in his journal for 1676. This served to open up research on Locke, particularly on the concept of natural law. It also enabled von Leyden to generate substantive conclusions about Locke's philosophy. He argued, for instance, that analysis of the Lovelace collection reveals that Locke's theories of natural law and our knowledge of it have a common origin in Locke's early essays.

Wolfgang von Leyden was born in Berlin in 1911, one of five sons of Viktor and Luise von Leyden. Viktor, the son of the renowned physician Ernst von Leyden, was the head of the then Prussian equivalent of the Home Office. The family was well connected though of modest means after the inflation of the 1920s. In an impressionistic autobiography of his early years, Growing Up Under the Weimar Republic, 1918-1933 (1984), von Leyden describes a highly cultured upbringing rich in intellectual and artistic stimulation. He attended gymnasia in Potsdam, Berlin (Mommsen), and Dahlem (Arndt), receiving a broad humanistic education which later informed much of his academic writing.

After leaving school in 1931 he attended the universities of Berlin and Göttingen. However, faced with effectively no prospects of an academic future in Germany (owing to "non-Aryan", i.e. Jewish, lineage on his mother's side), and experiencing first-hand the brutal disruption of academic life by the Nazis in Berlin, he emigrated to Florence in 1933. His parents and siblings, likewise, were forced to scatter. (One brother, Rudi, subsequently became an art critic and cartoonist for The Times of India.)

In Florence, von Leyden obtained his PhD in Philosophy in 1936. His dissertation, "Montaigne and the Philosophy of Stoicism and Scepticism", was influenced by Professor Georg Misch's ideas on autobiography. Questions of autobiography, memory and personal identity always interested von Leyden (his autobiography was subtitled "Reflections on Personal Identity and the Past"), and in 1961 he published Remembering: a philosophical problem.

Von Leyden held a research position in Florence from 1936 until 1939, when the political climate again forced him to emigrate, this time to England. He worked briefly at University College London and the Warburg Institute; then A.D. Lindsay accepted him at Balliol College, Oxford, and at Magdalen in 1944 he completed "Time and History", a DPhil dissertation written under R.G. Collingwood's supervision. From there von Leyden moved to Durham University, where he was appointed Lecturer in 1946, and successively Senior Lecturer (1956), and Reader (1962). After retirement in 1977, he lectured at the London School of Economics.

Outside his work on Locke, von Leyden wrote on questions concerning the nature of law, freedom, rights, and the basis of political obligation. His studies into these questions include Hobbes and Locke: the politics of freedom and obligation (1981) and Aristotle on Equality and Justice: his political argument (1985). His Seventeenth-Century Metaphysics: an examination of some main concepts and theories (1968) focuses mainly on the metaphysical issues of, e.g., time and relativity in the period from Descartes to Kant.

Wolfgang von Leyden was a scholar of the first rank. A lifetime of engagement with the great minds of history instilled in him a profound respect for the world of ideas, and this perhaps was the source of his remarkable modesty.

David Scott