The democratic intellectual: George Elder Davie

Christopher Harvie
10 April 2007


In Edinburgh University in the 1960s it was possible to study history without ever quitting Adam and Playfair's great quadrangle, with one exception. You had to troop down to the Fraser lecture theatre, an old church tucked behind the crumbling tenements of Bristo Place and listen, with a couple of hundred others, to lectures in philosophy. In the Scottish universities it was still the practice to begin any four-year honours course in the humanities with a choice of three philosophical subjects: political economy, moral philosophy, or logic and metaphysics.

I took the first two. They were hard going, and I didn't do particularly well, but over the last quarter-century the discipline then inculcated has enabled me to teach over a pretty wide syllabus in the University of Tübingen. The subject I left out was metaphysics, being unfitted for formal logic by weakness in mathematics. As a result, I did not meet George Davie (who died on 20 March 2007) until I was a postgraduate, significantly enough in 1966, which saw the rebirth of the political nationalist movement.

Davie was then in his mid-50s, already suffering from the effects of the glaucoma against which he continued to battle into his 90s. A shambling, abstracted but courteous figure, his interventions in research seminars convinced me of the importance of an alternative philosophical tradition to the empiricism that dominated the careers of the Victorian academic liberals - Henry Sidgwick, James Bryce, AV Dicey, Leslie Stephen - whom I was studying. I was not alone.

Davie was born in Dundee on 18 March 1912, educated at the High School, and then at Edinburgh University, from which he graduated with a first in classics in 1935. He came under the influence of Norman Kemp Smith (1872-1958) the greatest historian of philosophy of his time, and Christopher Murray Grieve, "Hugh MacDiarmid" (1892-1978), dynamic force of the Scots renaissance. If the poet Sorley MacLean (1911-96) linked MacDiarmid to the Gaelic, the classicist Davie was not just a protégé but a bridge to the Scots Latinity of George Buchanan. Neither let him down, although only after the 1960s would their own work reach a wide audience.

Christopher Harvie is a historian who was professor of British and Irish studies at Tübingen University, Germany. His homepage is here

Christopher Harvie is the Scottish National Party candidate for Kirkaldy in the elections to the Scottish parliament on 3 May 2007

Also by Christopher Harvie in openDemocracy:

"Journeys to the Rhine"
(January 2002)

"Looking into Wales: a nation displayed"
(March 2002)

"Remembering Robin Cook"
(August 2005)

"The German solution? "
(September 2005)

"A Scottish-Chinese dream: Maglev made easy"
(January 2006)

"Gordon Brown's Britain"
(January 2006)

"A German dream: some day my prince will come"
(June 2006)

"Red Clyde and Yellow press" (August 2006)

"Britain's tax nexus: able fraudsters, useful idiots"
(25 September 2006)

"Scottish independence? No fear!"
(30 November 2006) – with Alasdair Gray and Jimmy Reid

"Life on Airstrip One"
(5 February 2007)

Among Christopher Harvie's many books are A Short History of Scotland (OUP, 2002), Deep Fried Hillman Imp (Argyll, 2004) and Mending Scotland (Argyll, 2005).


Davie's most significant book, The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and her Universities in the Nineteenth Century, started life as a historical introduction to the Scottish metaphysicians, from David Hume to JF Ferrier, undertaken as assistant to Kemp Smith, and worked on at Queen's University Belfast, where Davie taught from 1946 to 1959. "Metaphysics" was an imprecise term; for Kemp Smith's contemporary Sir Herbert Grierson (1866-1960) in his edition of John Donne's poems (1912) applied it also to the philosophical poetry of the 17th century - Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan - and the unified sensibility which TS Eliot was to revere and regret. Davie's was the wider definition.

Edinburgh University Press in 1961 made The Democratic Intellect a publishing succès d'occasion: given a vivid mauve-and-grey dust-jacket/presentation box, based on the college facades, by the irreplaceable George Mackie, and illustrated by prints of the early Victorian Scottish intelligentsia drawn from the Hill-Adamson calotypes. It got an enthusiastic reception from CP Snow as rector of St Andrews, curiously reversing the devastating attack on "common sense" of an earlier rector, John Stuart Mill in his Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (1864). Sir Edward Appleton, principal of Edinburgh, was less friendly, seeing the book as a direct attack on the principle of educational modernisation and "relevance", then being driven enthusiastically along by another Scot, Lord Fulton. Davie never received a chair, although he commended Appleton's award of an honorary doctorate in the same year to his friend MacDiarmid.

The phrase "democratic intellectualism" stemmed from the Conservative politician, polymath and cultural nationalist Walter Elliot (1888-1958). It was not a straightforward political term denoting participation but meant the recruitment of a discursive élite from the widest social catchment area, through a widely-diffused and open intellectual system, combining methodological rigour with an openness of agenda.

The problem with The Democratic Intellect was that Davie approached intellectual history from a philosophical, rather than a social-history position. In an older style, his prose tended to elide citation and interpretation, the latter - as he told one student - an attempt to put in print such an account of the cultural history as he had heard from his teachers.

What emerged was a cogent, multidisciplinary argument for philosophy as the calibrator of an individual's full humanity. The Davieite view of Scottish education could be, and was, controverted, notably by Robert Anderson in Education and Opportunity in Victorian Scotland (1983), who stressed its practical function as a part of the country's socialising infrastructure; yet Davie's gestalt survived and in fact ramified, while Anglo-British incursions proved short-winded. Hugh Trevor-Roper's essay "The Scottish Enlightenment" (1967) was the work of a daring dilettante, eventually hoist by the petard of the Hitler diaries, while Noel Annan went no further than his promising Leslie Stephen (1951), which tended ultimately to act as a curtain-raiser to the follies of Bloomsbury.

What Davie established was the continuity of the Enlightenment tradition beyond the usual terminal-points: the death of Adam Smith in 1790 or the "great disruption" of the Scottish Kirk in 1843.


After the 1960s the destruction of the Scottish generalist tradition continued apace, symbolised by the demolition of the Fraser lecture-room in favour of a student centre. Davie retired from teaching in 1982, and came back into print with The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect (1986) and Essays on the Scottish Enlightenment (1991) both of which went back to Kemp Smith's concerns in the 1920s, and the later life of the "common-sense" philosophy. His thesis The Scotch Metaphysic was finally published in 2000, by which time his thought was being welcomed by a new generation of Scottish radicals, including James Kelman, Robert R Calder, Duncan Macmillan and Alasdair Gray. Kelman stressed the post-theological nature of Davie's philosophy; it might be more relevant to mark the utility of its common-sense core (a faculty of conscience or consciousness that mediated between the five senses) as something which could and did provide a practical nexus for the development of synthesising and pragmatic social engineering. Yet pragmatism - as represented by disciples of John Dewey - was something that Davie himself could never abide.

Davie was not an orthodox political nationalist, but his work did much to revive the case for country's intellectual autonomy which the more combustible MacDiarmid had devoted his life to. As husband to the novelist and short-story writer Elspeth Davie (1919-95), his outlook was informed by her social apercus, as Angus Calder wrote in a moving memoir:

"They shared a taste for the long view. Elspeth did not discuss her reading with George, and he found her almost aggressively indifferent to his obsession with the history of Scottish education. To a reader though, the overlapping of their philosophical concerns is amply apparent. Their outwardly quiet lives suggested mutual devotion."

This suggests a further, if surprising, relation. In 1950-55 Philip Larkin was at Queen's Belfast as a librarian and met frequently with the Davies (he maintained a lifelong, admiring interest in Elspeth's work) to discuss literature. Just after this period came Larkin's most personal and demotic poems - Church Going, Here, The Whitsun Weddings - seemingly pervaded both by a sense of community and a metaphysical quest for "what remains when disbelief has gone?" Larkin the Lad, in his tedious correspondence with Kingsley Amis and the other bravos, wrote that he loathed MacDiarmid, but there is in these great poems a sense that the integral nature of people and culture that the Davies represented had left a philosophical residue. Larkin's "a hunger in himself to be more serious" could almost be the epigraph to George Davie's career.

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