J. N. Findlay

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John Niemeyer Findlay
Born25 November 1903
Died27 September 1987 (1987-09-28) (aged 83)
NationalitySouth African
EducationTransvaal University College
Balliol College, Oxford
University of Graz (PhD, 1933)
SpouseAileen Hawthorn
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolAnalytic philosophy
InstitutionsUniversity of Pretoria
University of Otago
Rhodes University College
University of Natal
King's College, Newcastle
King's College London
University of Texas at Austin
Doctoral advisorErnst Mally
Notable studentsArthur Prior[1]
Main interests
Metaphysics, ethics
Notable ideas
Rational mysticism

John Niemeyer Findlay FBA (/ˈfɪndli/; 25 November 1903 – 27 September 1987), usually cited as J. N. Findlay, was a South African philosopher.

Education and career[edit]

Findlay read classics and philosophy first at Pretoria High School for Boys, then from 1919 as an undergraduate at Transvaal University College[3], where he became fascinated with the Theosophical Society’s blend of Oriental religious beliefs, a fascination which developed into a serious study of Hindu, Buddhist, and Neoplatonist writings. He taught himself enough Sanskrit to read the Bhagavad-Gita.[4]

Findlay earned a BA at Transvaal in 1922 and an MA in 1924.[5] On the award of a Rhodes Scholarship, from 1924 to 1926, he studied at Balliol College, Oxford.

At Oxford he gained a first in literae humaniores, familiarly known as "Greats", a combination of phiosophy and ancient history, in 1926.[6] He stayed on for a fragment of a third year before returning to South Africa in 1927 as lecturer in philosophy at Transvaal University College[7][8]. From 1927 to 1948 he held appointments not only at the University of Transvaal (1927-34) but also at the University of Otago in New Zealand (1934-45), then back in South Africa first at Rhodes University College at Grahamstown, then at the University of Natal at Pietermaritzburg (1945-48).[9]

During this time Findlay made a number of visits to Europe and North America - briefly to Berlin and Cambridge and more extensively to Graz in Austria and to Berkeley, Chicago, New York and Harvard.[10] At Graz he studied under Ernst Mally and received a doctorate on Meinong in 1933. He had taught himself German, a language in which he was fluent.[11]

Findlay's periods abroad enabled him to meet not only Carnap, Quine, and Heidegger, but also Wittgenstein. In Graz he became a member of a group which met with Wittgenstein each Tuesday. His responses to Meinong, to Meinong's teacher, Brentano, and to Wittgenstein 'each played a crucial part in enabling Findlay to develop his own distinctive point of view', acording to Alasdair MacIntyre.[12]

Findlay left South Africa for the United Kindom in 1948, where he was professor of philosophy at King's College, Newcastle upon Tyne (1948-51) and at King's College, London (1951-66).[13]

Following retirement from his chair at London (1966) and a year at the University of Texas at Austin, Findlay continued to teach full-time for more than twenty years, first as Clark Professor of Moral Philosophy and Metaphysics at Yale University (1967–1972), then as University Professor and Borden Parker Bowne Professor of Philosophy (succeeding Peter Bertocci) at Boston University (1972–1987).[14][15][16][17]

Findlay was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1955 to 1956 and president of the Metaphysical Society of America from 1974 to 1975, as well as a Fellow of both the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[18] He was also an Editorial Advisor of the journal Dionysius. A chair for visiting professors at Boston University carries his name, as does a biennial award given for the best book in metaphysics, as judged by the Metaphysical Society of America. Findlay betrayed a great commitment to the welfare and formation[19] of generations of students (Leroy S. Rouner was fond of introducing him as "Plotinus incarnate"),[citation needed] teaching philosophy in one college classroom after another for sixty-two consecutive academic years. On 10 September 2012 Findlay was voted the 8th "most underappreciated philosopher active in the U.S. from roughly 1900 through mid-century" in a poll conducted among readers of Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog, finishing behind George Santayana, Alfred North Whitehead, and Clarence Irving Lewis.[20]

Findlay's autobiographical essay "Confessions of Theory and Life" is printed in Transcendence and the Sacred (1981).[21] Findlay's "My Life” is found in Studies in the Philosophy of J. N. Findlay (1985).[22]


Rational mysticism[edit]

At a time when scientific materialism, positivism, linguistic analysis, and ordinary language philosophy were the core academic ideas in most of the English-speaking world, Findlay championed phenomenology, revived Hegelianism, and wrote works that were inspired by Theosophy,[23] Buddhism, Plotinus, and Idealism. In his books published in the 1960s, including two series of Gifford Lectures, Findlay developed rational mysticism. According to this mystical system, "the philosophical perplexities, e.g., concerning universals and particulars, mind and body, knowledge and its objects, the knowledge of other minds,".[24] as well as those of free will and determinism, causality and teleology, morality and justice, and the existence of temporal objects, are human experiences of deep antinomies and absurdities about the world. Findlay's conclusion is that these necessitate the postulation of higher spheres, or "latitudes", where objects' individuality, categorical distinctiveness and material constraints are diminishing, lesser in each latitude than in the one below it. On the highest spheres, existence is evaluative and meaningful more than anything else, and Findlay identifies it with the idea of The Absolute.[25]

Husserl and Hegel[edit]

Findlay translated into English Husserl's Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations), which he regarded as the author's best work, representing a developmental stage when the idea of phenomenological bracketing was not yet taken as the basis of a philosophical system, covering in fact for loose subjectivism. To Findlay, the work was also one of the peaks of philosophy generally, suggesting superior alternatives both for overly minimalistic or naturalistic efforts in ontology and for Ordinary Language treatments of consciousness and thought.[26][27] Findlay also contributed final editing and wrote addenda to translations of Hegel's Logic and Phenomenology of Spirit.


Findlay was first a follower, and then an outspoken critic of Ludwig Wittgenstein.[28] He denounced his three theories of meaning, arguing against the idea of Use, prominent in Wittgenstein's later period and in his followers, that it is insufficient for an analysis of meaning without such notions as connotation and denotation, implication, syntax and most originally, pre-existent meanings, in the mind or the external world, that determine linguistic ones, such as Husserl has evoked. Findlay credits Wittgenstein with great formal, aesthetic and literary appeal, and of directing well-deserved attention to Semantics and its difficulties.[29]



Articles/book chapters[edit]


  • Logical Investigations (Logische Untersuchungen), by Edmund Husserl, with an introduction by J.N. Findlay, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. (1970)


  1. ^ Gabbay, Dov M.; Woods, John (10 May 2006). Logic and the Modalities in the Twentieth Century. Elsevier. ISBN 978-0-08-046303-2.
  2. ^ John R. Shook (ed.), Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, Thoemmes, 2005, p. 779.
  3. ^ Kim, Bockja (2010), "Findlay, John Niemeyer", The Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, Continuum, doi:10.1093/acref/9780199754663.001.0001, ISBN 978-0-19-975466-3
  4. ^ Alastair MacIntyre, 'John Niermeyer Findlay', Proceedings of the British Academy, III, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, p.500
  5. ^ Brown, Stuart; Bredin, Hugh Terence (1 August 2005). Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Philosophers. A&C Black. p. 281. ISBN 978-1-84371-096-7.
  6. ^ Oxford University Calendar, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926, p. 229
  7. ^ (the forerunner of the University of Pretoria).
  8. ^ "Foundation Years: 1889 – 1929 | Article | University of Pretoria". www.up.ac.za. Retrieved 6 May 2022.
  9. ^ Alastair MacIntyre, 'John Niermeyer Findlay',Proceedings of the British Academy, III, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp.500.
  10. ^ Alastair MacIntyre, 'John Niermeyer Findlay',Proceedings of the British Academy, III, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp.501.
  11. ^ Alastair MacIntyre, 'John Niermeyer Findlay',Proceedings of the British Academy, III, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp.499.
  12. ^ Alastair MacIntyre, 'John Niermeyer Findlay',Proceedings of the British Academy, III, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp.501.
  13. ^ Alastair MacIntyre, 'John Niermeyer Findlay',Proceedings of the British Academy, III, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp.504.
  14. ^ Howard, Alana. "Biography". Gifford Lecture Series. Archived from the original on 20 April 2008. Retrieved 10 July 2008.
  15. ^ Harris, Errol (Spring 1988), "In Memoriam: John Niemeyer Findlay", Owl of Minerva, 19 (2): 252–253, doi:10.5840/owl198819245
  16. ^ "Awards – Department of Philosophy at Boston University". Archived from the original on 14 May 2008. Retrieved 10 July 2008.
  17. ^ Quinton, Anthony (1997). "Findlay, John Niemeyer". Biographical dictionary of twentieth-century philosophers. Stuart C. Brown, Diané Collinson, Robert Wilkinson. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-06043-5. OCLC 38862354.
  18. ^ "John Niemeyer Findlay". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Retrieved 12 May 2022. John Niemeyer Findlay (1903 – 1987) Boston University; Boston, MA Philosopher; Educator AREA Humanities and Arts SPECIALTY Philosophy and Religious Studies ELECTED 1975
  19. ^ '"I owe to [Findlay’s] teaching, directly or indirectly, all that I know of either Logic or Ethics" (A. N. Prior).
  20. ^ "Underappreciated philosophers active in the U.S. from roughly 1900 through mid-century?". Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog. Retrieved 7 August 2019.
  21. ^ Transcendence and the sacred. Notre Dame, Ind. : University of Notre Dame Press. 1981. ISBN 978-0-268-01841-2 – via Internet Archive.
  22. ^ Cohen, R. S. (Robert Sonné); Martin, R. M. (Richard Milton); Westphal, Merold (1985). Studies in the philosophy of J.N. Findlay. Albany : State University of New York Press. ISBN 978-0-87395-795-3 – via Internet Archive.
  23. ^ "[My Gifford Lectures] ... represent my attempt to cull an eternal, necessary theosophy from the defective theosophic teaching of my adolescence" (Studies in the Philosophy of J. N. Findlay, p. 45). Findlay's Gifford Lectures also may well constitute the most comprehensive defense of the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul (reincarnation) in 20th-century academic philosophy.
  24. ^ Findlay, J. N. (1966), "Preface", written at London, The Transcendence of the Cave, New York: Humanities Press (published 1967), archived from the original on 21 April 2014
  25. ^ Drob, Sanford L, Findlay's Rational Mysticism: An Introduction
  26. ^ Findlay, J. N. (1970), "Translator's Introduction (Abridged)", written at New Haven, Connecticut, in Moran, Dermot (ed.), Logical Investigations, vol. I, New York: Routledge (published 2001), ISBN 0-415-24189-8
  27. ^ Ryle, Gilbert; Findlay, J. N. (1961), "Symposium: Use, Usage and Meaning" (PDF), Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, vol. 35, p. 240, retrieved 14 June 2008
  28. ^ see Findlay's Wittgenstein: A Critique, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984
  29. ^ Ryle, Gilbert; Findlay, J. N. (1961), "Symposium: Use, Usage and Meaning" (PDF), Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, vol. 35, pp. 231–242, retrieved 14 June 2008
  30. ^ Findlay's findings herein are summarized in his "Plato's Unwritten Dialectic of the One and the Great and Small" (1983). The Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy Newsletter. 113. (available as an Open Access download).


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