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Political Philosophy

2021-10-20 13:44:10


The Dudley Knowles lecture is an annual public event which brings a prominent contemporary political philosopher to Glasgow to deliver a talk which uses philosophical theory to address some topic of current concern. See the links opposite to access the lectures.

The lectures commemorate Professor Dudley Knowles (1947-2014). Knowles was a prominent political philosopher who worked at Glasgow from 1973 to 2011, including two stints as Head of Philosophy. As well as making seminal theoretical contributions to various topics (e.g. the philosophy of Hegel, the nature and justification of political obligation, and the value of liberty), Knowles was deeply committed to communicating the importance of political philosophy in a wider context, including through his long-standing membership of the Stevenson Committee. Following his early death from cancer in 2014, the Committee decided to commemorate him by instituting an annual event. The aim is threefold: to emphasise Philosophy’s prominent role in the Stevenson Trust from its foundation; to carry on the work of bringing political philosophy together with its peer disciplines of politics, economics and education; and to show how the best contemporary political philosophy can bring genuine insight to the understanding of citizenship in a troubled modern world.


Dudley Knowles, who has died of cancer aged 67, was an influential political philosopher and Hegel scholar. Among his publications, Political Philosophy (2001) remains a widely read textbook. His most important contribution was Hegel and the Philosophy of Right (2002), a study of Elements of the Philosophy of Right, the work in which Hegel sets out most fully his moral and political philosophy.

Dudley’s understanding of Hegel arose from a certain temperamental affinity with his underlying liberal-communitarian ethics. Politically, Dudley was a one-nation social democrat long before the idea of one-nation politics was taken up on the left. Emotionally, he was always an old-Labour northerner.

He was born in Penwortham, Lancashire, the son of Margaret (nee Southward) and Arthur Knowles. Dudley and his twin brother, David, spent their free time as schoolboys walking and climbing in the Pennines and the Lake District. At the age of 16, they became members of the newly formed Pennine rescue team.

From Kirkham grammar school, Dudley went in 1966 to St John’s College, Oxford, moving the following year to the then Bedford College in the University of London. He spent his vacations in Glencoe, working at the Clachaig Inn, where he met his wife, Anne. They married in 1968. David also studied at London University, and after they graduated the brothers went to live in Glencoe. Dudley became manager of the Clachaig Inn, and David worked as a professional mountaineer and guide. They both joined the Glencoe mountain rescue team. Several of its members were local shepherds with whom Dudley forged lifelong friendships.

In Glencoe he studied for an MLitt at Glasgow University. On completing it, he accepted the offer of a lectureship in the university’s philosophy department. He and Anne, with their daughter, Katy, moved to Glasgow shortly after the death of their infant son, Graham. Their second daughter, Helen, was born there in 1974. Later in the year, David died, aged 27, in an accident on the north face of the Eiger, while filming The Eiger Sanction.

As professor of political philosophy at Glasgow, Dudley demonstrated great kindness and decency, but also a shrewdness about people that stood him in good stead as head of department and as warden of the Queen Margaret hall of residence.

After 38 years at the university, he retired in 2011 with Anne to Hassocks, West Sussex, to be near their daughters, carrying out surveys for the British Trust for Ornithology and exploring the Sussex Downs.

He is survived by his wife, daughters and five grandchildren.


Young children, we understand, are born philosophers. They ask exasperated parents such deep questions as ‘Where is my mind?’ or ‘Is Granny living with all the other dead people in the churchyard?’. The spirit for philosophy which is born out of naïveté is soon extinguished, so the taste for philosophical reflection has to be rediscovered. I conjecture that it is an acquired taste, prompted by some strange contingency. Who knows the story behind your picking up this book? Still, some brands of philosophical enquiry are more likely to be promoted than others. An adolescent who found himself pondering the nature of numbers would be a splendid eccentric. By contrast, youthful rebellion can be relied upon to kindle low-level philosophical musings about the rules of behaviour. If parents say such and such is the right thing to do and the teenager insists that he does no wrong in not doing it, the conflict of views is likely to raise all sorts of philosophical questions: What is the nature and extent of parents’ authority? What sort of respect is required for their rules? They can enforce their demands and prudence may dictate compliance, but does that 1 make it right? If the question of who decides what behaviour is acceptable and what is not seems up for grabs, the question of how to decide will surely follow. Is it a matter of choice or preference or personal belief ? And so on. Such questions (and many more) comprise the subject of ethics, and I suspect that most people dip their toes into the water in the minimal sense of recognizing that there are questions to be answered, issues to be debated. Political life has the same character of putting philosophical questions up front. Authoritarian regimes prompt the same reflections as authoritarian parents. Democratic regimes conduct debates about competing policies in terms of the values such policies embody. Liberty may be opposed to justice. The public interest may require the sacrifice of persons’ rights. This is the diet of editorials in tabloids as well as the broadsheet newspapers. Questions of ethics and political philosophy are ubiquitous, in the very air we breathe. The surprise for many is that the problems are not novel, that there is a rich history of careful deliberation about them, that the questions which seem fresh in 2000 have often been recorded as debated for the last two and a half millenia. We are heirs to this rich tradition of philosophical dispute. Though philosophical problems seemingly spring up afresh each day like mushrooms, similar problems have been worrying folks for as long as intellectual problems have been recorded. When we take seriously the philosophical questions posed directly in political life, we encounter immediately a vast literature organized around the problems mankind has encountered, the philosophers who have contributed to their solution and the theories that have been recurrently proposed as the means of tackling them. The prospect can appear dismal. You ask: Do I have an obligation to obey the law? and one of nature’s teachers gives you a reading-list – as they say, from Plato to NATO. In truth, this should be a source of excitement, since the history of philosophy does not parade itself as a progressive discipline in the manner of the history of science. You can learn from the Ancient Greeks, not least because the present is a small parish inhibited by parochial concerns. Escape into past ways of thinking, in philosophy if not in physics, can be a liberation. What a marvel it is to read Plato’s report in the Republic of Socrates working out why might is not INTRODUCTION 2 right, or Hobbes at the time of the English Civil War describing anarchy and arguing for the necessity of an absolute or unrestricted sovereign power. These are people you will want to argue with and you will find, to your pleasure, that it can be hard to do so. Everyone who studies political philosophy has to know something about the history of the subject because that history is a priceless resource as much as it is an antiquarian interest. But this book will not address this history directly. Rather we shall concentrate on the central questions of political philosophy and the leading theories that have been employed to answer them. For the moment, I want to examine the methodology of political philosophy, to say a little more about the relationship of theory to judgement in the sphere of ethics – of which political philosophy is evidently a part.

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