J. O. Urmson

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J. O. Urmson (1952)

James Opie Urmson (4 March 1915 – 29 January 2012),[1] usually cited as J. O. Urmson, was a philosopher and classicist who spent most of his professional career at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He was a prolific author and expert on a number of topics including British analytic/linguistic philosophy, George Berkeley, ethics, and Greek philosophy (especially Aristotle).

Life and career[edit]

Monckton Cottage in Headington, Oxford.

J. O. Urmson was born in Hornsea. He was named after his father, the Rev. James Opie Urmson (1881–1954), a Methodist Minister. Urmson was educated at Kingswood School, Bath (1928–1934) and Corpus Christi College, Oxford (1934–38).

When World War II broke out, he joined the Army, where he served for 6 years. He was captured and spent three years in Germany as a prisoner of war, where he spent his time "playing bridge and doing mathematics".[2] After the war, he was awarded the Military Cross.

After the war he was a student (i.e. a Fellow[3]) of Christ Church, Oxford from 1945 to 1955. During this period he lived in Monckton Cottage in Headington, Oxford.

In 1955 he accepted an appointment as Professor of Philosophy at Queen's College Dundee, then part of the University of St Andrews in Scotland. In 1959 he returned to Oxford as a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford and a Tutor in Philosophy. Except for visiting appointments in the United States (e.g. Visiting Associate Professor of philosophy at Princeton University in 1950–51), he remained at Oxford until his retirement,[4] at which point he assumed the position of Henry Waldgrave Stuart Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, at Stanford University.


Urmson and his co-editor G. J. Warnock performed an invaluable service to the development of "analytic" or "linguistic" philosophy by preparing for publication the papers of the Oxford linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin.

After World War II, Urmson's book Philosophical Analysis (1956) – an overview of the development of analytic philosophy at Cambridge and Oxford universities between World War I and World War II – was influential in the post-war spread of analytic philosophy in Anglophone countries.

According to the article on supererogation in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "the history of supererogation in non-religious ethical theory is very recent, starting only in 1958 with J. O. Urmson's seminal article, "Saints and Heroes."[5] which "opened the contemporary discussion of supererogation (strikingly, without ever mentioning the term itself!) by challenging the traditional threefold classification of moral action: the obligatory, the permitted (or indifferent) and the prohibited."

Urmson translated or wrote notes for a number of volumes of Aristotle, and commentaries on Aristotle's Physics by Simplicius, for the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series published in the USA by Cornell University Press, in the UK initially by Duckworth, now by Bloomsbury, under the distinguished general editorship of Richard K.R. Sorabji. His book Aristotle's Ethics was praised by no less than J. L. Ackrill and Julius Moravcsik as an excellent introduction to Aristotle's Ethics.

In the entry devoted to Urmson in the third edition of Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers (2004), Jonathan Ree wrote of Urmson that "Although many of his writings focus on theories about the nature of philosophy, he holds that 'on the whole the best philosophy is little affected by theory; the philosopher sees what needs doing and does it'."


Edited volumes
  • J. L. Austin How to do Things with Words
  • J. L. Austin Philosophical Papers (joint editor with G. J. Warnock)
  • Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers with Jonathan Ree (first edition 1960, second edition 1989, third edition 2004)
  • The British Empiricists: Locke, Berkeley, Hume (with John Dunn and A. J. Ayer)
  • Aristotle The Nicomachean Ethics (translated David O. Ross, 1925; revised J. O. Urmson and J. L. Ackrill, 1980) Oxford University Press
  • Simplicius: Corollaries on Place and Time Cornell University Press (June 1992) translated by J.O. Urmson
  • On Aristotle's "Physics 3 by Simplicius, translated by J.O. Urmson & Peter Lautner, 2002, ISBN 978-0-8014-3903-2.
  • Philosophical Analysis: Its Development between the Two World Wars, Oxford University Press, 1956
  • The Emotive Theory of Ethics (1968)
  • The Greek Philosophical Vocabulary, Duckworth (1990)
  • Berkeley Oxford University Press, 1982
  • Aristotle's Ethics (1988) Blackwell Publishers
  • "On Grading", Mind (April 1950), 59(234):145–169, reprinted in Logic and Language (Second Series) (ed. Antony Flew, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1953)
  • "Parenthetical Verbs" Mind (October 1952), 61(244):480–496.
  • "The interpretation of the Moral Philosophy of J. S. Mill", The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 3 (1953 pp. 33–39. Reprinted in Theories of Ethics (ed. Philippa Foot) Oxford University Press, 1967
  • "Saints and Heroes", in Essays in Moral Philosophy, A. Melden (ed.), Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1958
  • "J. L. Austin" Journal of Philosophy 1965, reprinted in The Linguistic Turn ed. Richard Rorty 1967
  • "Austin, John Langshaw" in J.O. Urmson, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, p. 54. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1960.
  • "The History of Analysis" in The Linguistic Turn ed. Richard Rorty 1967
  • "Literature", from George Dickie and R. J. Sclafani, Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977.
  • "Aristotle on Excellence of Character", New Blackfriars Volume 71 Issue 834 Page 33–37, January 1990

Related Works

  • Human Agency: Language, Duty, and Value. Philosophical Essays in Honor of J. O. Urmson ed. Jonathan Dancy, J. M. E. Moravcsik, C. C. W. Taylor, Stanford University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-8047-1474-6. Contains a bibliography of Urmson's philosophical works


  1. ^ Urmson's death on 29 January 2012 was announced on 30 January by the President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. "Professor James Urmson". Telegraph. 4 April 2012. Retrieved 5 April 2012.
  2. ^ Video in 5 parts: Gilbert Ryle and J. O. Urmson discuss philosophy of mind in this episode of Logic Lane (1972) on YouTube
  3. ^ Christ Church is peculiar in that it calls its Fellows "Students" with a capital "S".
  4. ^ Bertrand Russell, Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell: Last Philosophical Testament 1947–1968, p.602, ed. John G. Slater & Peter Kollner ISBN 0-415-09409-7
  5. ^ Urmson, J., 1958, "Saints and Heroes", in Essays in Moral Philosophy, A. Melden (ed.), Seattle: University of Washington Press, ISBN 0-295-74049-3

External links[edit]