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Davie, George Elder (1912–2007), philosopher and historian, was born on 18 March 1912 at 4 Baxter Park Terrace, Dundee, the only child of George Myles Davie, master pharmacist, and his wife, Isabella Calder, née Elder, schoolteacher. He was a pupil at Dundee high school and then, offered a place at both Edinburgh University and Oxford, chose the former, where he read classics and philosophy, graduating with first-class honours in 1935. For the following six years he was assistant to Norman Kemp Smith, professor of logic and metaphysics at Edinburgh, before serving, from 1941 to 1945, in the signals corps in north Africa and Italy. On 5 October 1944, at Bonnyrigg church, he married Elspeth Mary Dryer [see ], who was later to achieve high distinction as a novelist and short-story writer. Anne, their only child, was born in 1946.

In 1945 Davie joined the moral philosophy department at Queen's University, Belfast, and stayed there until 1960, when he took up a lectureship in the department of logic and metaphysics at Edinburgh University, where he remained (latterly as a reader) until his retirement in 1982. By 1960 he had already spent many years of intensive work on Scottish philosophy from the eighteenth century to the twentieth, one result of which had been a thesis, ‘A Scotch metaphysics: the theory of knowledge in the Scottish universities 1730–1860’, for which in 1953 he was made DLitt by Edinburgh. While preparing the thesis for publication Edinburgh University Press asked him to write an introductory chapter on the intellectual and social background of the Scottish philosophers. It was the series of insights he had while doing this that led to his writing instead a separate, rather long, book, The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and her Universities in the Nineteenth Century. This was published in 1961, quickly gained many admirers in the fields of educational philosophy and Scottish intellectual history, and was never out of print in Davie's lifetime.

Davie argued in The Democratic Intellect that the great strength of Scottish education through the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth was its generalist approach, the promotion of the idea that a broadly based education encompassing arts and sciences, as against one requiring early specialization, had distinct advantages in respect of the intellectual flexibility and depth that it instilled. He also noted as part of the Scottish educational scene a democracy not only in respect of the disciplines, in that all had a place in the sun, but also in respect of the recipients, in that education, and especially higher education, was available to the generality of the population and not just the privileged few. Within the Scottish way of education, philosophy held pride of place because it taught universal principles that gave strength to a person's thinking in any and all the academic disciplines. Davie's DLitt dissertation was eventually published in 2000, under the title The Scotch Metaphysics, nearly half a century after it was written.

Davie's retirement in 1982 was marked by a Festschrift in his honour, entitled Philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment. In 1983 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and three years later he published his second major book, The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect: the Problem of Generalism and Specialisation in Twentieth-Century Scotland. In this he criticized modern Scotland's failure to prevent the encroachment of the bad English habit of requiring early specialization in the educational field. Thereafter two volumes of his essays appeared, The Scottish Enlightenment and Other Essays (1991) and A Passion for Ideas: Essays on the Scottish Enlightenment (1994). In 2003 he published Ferrier and the Blackout of the Scottish Enlightenment, in which he claimed that James Ferrier's a priori thinking about human consciousness brought down the curtain on the Scottish Enlightenment, a claim later disputed but in such a way as to acknowledge the importance of Davie's argument. His writings were in the main far removed from the concerns of most professional philosophers in Scotland and beyond, but he was quite unconcerned by this fact.

Davie was a prominent member of the Edinburgh literati, on close terms with distinguished figures like Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley MacLean. In 1987, five years after his retirement, he was made reader emeritus by Edinburgh University. Among other awards conferred on him were honorary doctorates of the universities of Dundee and Edinburgh. His wife, Elspeth, died in 1995 and ten years later he moved from Edinburgh to Sutton Veny, Wiltshire, to be near his daughter, Anne, and her family. He died at Sutton Veny House nursing home on 20 March 2007 of cerebrovascular disease.

Alexander Broadie


The Herald [Glasgow] (23 March 2007) · The Independent (29 March 2007) · The Times (18 April 2007) · personal knowledge (2011) · private information (2011) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.


obituary photographs · photograph, repro. in www.sorleymaclean.org/english/literary_associates.htm