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George Davie

With the death of George Davie on March 20, two days after his 95th birthday, Scotland has lost one of its most influential thinkers.

MURDO MACDONALD, Professor of History of Scottish Art, University of Dundee With the death of George Davie on March 20, two days after his 95th birthday, Scotland has lost one of its most influential thinkers.

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He is most widely known for his seminal work, The Democratic Intellect, published in 1961. In that and in its sequel, The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect, published in 1986, he demonstrated with skill, humour and historical grasp the need to reassess and to value the generalist tradition of education in Scotland, a tradition in which philosophy played a key role.

George Elder Davie was born in Dundee in 1912. He was educated at the High School of Dundee and then in classics and philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.

After graduating he was appointed as assistant to the Edinburgh philosopher Norman Kemp Smith, who was to be a lifelong influence.

After war service from 1941-45 he was appointed to head the Department of Moral Philosophy at Queen's University, Belfast. In 1944 he married Elspeth Dryer, who, as Elspeth Davie became a respected writer, winning the Katherine Mansfield Prize in 1978.

Elspeth was as acute a questioner of the nature of reality in her medium as George was in his. She was also an accomplished artist, and contact with both artists and writers was a key feature of George's life. Their daughter, Anne, was born in 1946.

In 1959 he was appointed Reader at Queen's but, returning to his philosophical roots, in 1960 he accepted a lectureship in the Department of Philosophy at Edinburgh, where he stayed for the rest of his career.

In 1953 he had been awarded the degree of DLitt by Edinburgh for his thesis A Scotch Metaphysics - the Theory of Knowledge in the Scottish Universities 1730-1860. Asked by a potential publisher to write a historical introduction to the thesis, that "introduction" developed into his classic work, The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and her Universities in the Nineteenth Century.

It is one of the most influential accounts of Scottish ideas ever written. Published by Edinburgh University Press in 1961, it attracted wide attention, and the importance of its defence of a generalist view of education was noted by the Robbins committee on the future of the universities.

In 1973, returning to his native city, George Davie presented the Dow Lecture at the University of Dundee; entitled The Social Significance of the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense, this is one of many illuminating essays on Enlightenment topics.

In 1982 he retired from teaching at Edinburgh University and a festschrift, Philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, edited by his friend and colleague Vincent Hope, was published two years later.

In 1983 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, one of the first philosophers to be so honoured in recent times. His second major book, The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect: the Problem of Generalism and Specialisation in Twentieth-Century Scotland, was published in 1986. This owed much to a period of research he had carried out on the influence of Scottish philosophy in Australia and, like The Democratic Intellect, it linked diverse cultural perspectives.

The Glasgow Herald reviewer suggested that "Davie may yet transform our ideas of twentieth-century Scotland". The Times Higher claimed that "the chapter on MacDiarmid is the best account of the poet yet written". The Times Literary Supplement noted "the virtues of an education that encourages a free interplay between special knowledge and general understanding", while the London Review of Books called it "a substantial achievement in the chronically under-developed area of post-Enlightenment Scottish studies".

Having made his mark again at an age well over 70, he continued to produce and to influence. Introducing a collection of Davie's essays published in 1990, the novelist James Kelman wrote that they allowed "an insight into some of the more crucial issues of modern times".

Perhaps inspired by its treatment of David Hume in the eighteenth century, the University of Edinburgh never managed to appoint George Davie to a chair but he was made Reader Emeritus in 1987 and in the late 1990s was awarded a richly deserved honorary doctorate. This period also saw him honoured by the Saltire Society as recipient of the Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun award, an event which was accompanied by the presentation of a portrait by Alexander Moffat.

In 2001, with the help of his friend, the philosopher John Llewellyn, a version of his 1953 thesis, now entitled The Scotch Metaphysics, finally took its place on Routledge's list almost half a century after its original proposed publication date.

Despite increasing physical frailty, in 2003 he published an extended essay, in association with Edinburgh Review, on the philosopher James Frederick Ferrier. He was honorary editor of the Journal of Scottish Philosophy and as recently as this year he was appointed an honorary fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

In 1995 George lost his much-loved wife Elspeth, and his final years were spent in nursing homes, first in Edinburgh and then in Wiltshire, close to his daughter Anne, son-in-law Julian and granddaughters Harriet and Polly.

Until the last he remained his philosophically acute self, calling on Julian to read to him passages from Ferrier's Institutes of Metaphysic. George Davie leaves a mark on the intellectual culture of Scotland which is every bit as important as the contributions of his friends Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley MacLean.

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