Believer with a faith in reason

February 24, 2006

John Haldane is the first known practising Roman Catholic to be a professor of philosophy in Scotland since the Reformation.

The St Andrews University academic explicitly describes himself as a Catholic philosopher - a fact not wasted on Pope Benedict XVI, who recently appointed him a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture.

The appointment would undoubtedly have appalled Professor Haldane's paternal grandfather, who was staunchly Presbyterian. "He was virulently anti-Catholic. I remember him telling me that the reason the Pope wore long dresses was to cover his cloven hooves."

Professor Haldane's father, who married a Catholic, never dared tell his own father when he subsequently converted, but Professor Haldane enjoyed his grandfather's companionship. He says he has always been comfortable with people of other denominations. He confounds prejudices and stereotypes. Although formidably well-educated, Professor Haldane is good-humoured and approachable. He is as likely to write a readable article for a newspaper as he is a scholarly essay because he believes it is important to share his research not only with fellow academics but also with the general public.

"I think that's a very Scottish thing, the idea of a public intellectual.

Your thinking isn't just for yourself. The intellectual environment depends on this two-way movement. People puzzle about ideas they don't understand, and they've got a right to ask people who are competent to think about these things what they think."

As director of St Andrews' Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs for almost two decades, Professor Haldane has been encouraging people in public affairs to think about the philosophical and ethical foundation of what they are doing, and encouraging academic philosophers to tackle issues of broad public interest.

As a boy, he attended St Aloysius College in Glasgow, where all the Jesuit teachers had degrees in theology and in philosophy. He went on to gain two outstanding first-class honours degrees before taking a PhD. The first of his degrees was from the Wimbledon School of Art, where he was caught up in the buzz of the new British conceptual art movement that spawned Gilbert and George. The flat he shared in the Fulham Road became a magnet for inventive young artists: one flatmate was future Turner prizewinner Tony Cragg.

Professor Haldane retains a keen interest in art. He is currently working on a limited edition book with the leading artist David Tremlett. And at first, it seemed he would follow a career in art education. At the age of 22, he was appointed head of the art department in a convent school near Woolwich, southeast London, where he was the only male teacher.

"Often people in universities have no experience of teaching, and they're really not very good at it. To hold the attention of 30 14-year-old girls for an hour is not a trivial matter. If you can do that, a body of (university) students isn't going to be a problem."

But he simultaneously embarked on a part-time degree in philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, having become intrigued by philosophy during his Jesuit schooldays. London at this time was a leading international centre, home to philosophy superstars such as David Wiggins, David Hamlyn, Dorothy Edgington and Roger Scruton.

"My education was straight-down-the-line analytical philosophy, which just wasn't interested in religion. I suppose if you had stirred it, it would have been hostile."

Professor Haldane's own interest was sparked when he decided to tackle intentionality, how it is possible to think about something. "If I think about the cat back home, how do I do that? I'm here, the cat's there.

Somebody said: 'Oh, the medievals had a lot to say about that'."

There were no relevant resources in the University of London, but he discovered a wealth of material in the Catholic central library. This led him to write his PhD on the nature of thought, inspired by the theories of the 13th-century Catholic philosopher St Thomas Aquinas.

His research won him a lectureship at St Andrews, and a title he thought up for a series of lectures is now the recognised term for an international philosophical movement. Trying to describe his approach, which synthesised analytical philosophy and the work of Aquinas, he came up with "analytical Thomism", which now has exponents across Europe and North America.

He is occasionally asked how, as a Catholic, he can be a philosopher. He responds that Catholicism is the most philosophical Christian denomination.

"Philosophy has been deployed in the formation of Catholic ideas from the first major councils of the Church. All the stuff of the formation of the creeds, three persons in one God, two natures in one person, all of that is philosophy," he says. "If you're a Catholic, some things are foreclosed intellectually. It seems to me it isn't open to me to work on the assumption that there might not be a God or that killing innocent people might be all right if it produces enough benefit somewhere else. But it's not a case of subordinating my reason to my faith. I think it's a very modern view that sees faith and reason standing in that opposition."

If he went around expounding what he believed as a Catholic, that would be not only eccentric but irrelevant, Professor Haldane said. "People want to know why it should be believed, not that you believe it." The Pontifical Council, which fosters the church's links with the cultural world as well as promoting research into religious indifference, may be about to promote a debate on people's underlying values and understanding of who they are, whether they are believers or not. There are widespread fears that growing secularism is throwing out the baby with the bath water, detaching Europe not only from its religious inheritance but also its foundations in Greek philosophy and Roman law. But while the Pope has been reported as seeking to "re-evangelise" Western civilisation, Professor Haldane firmly abjures the role of evangelist.

"I have quite enough to do trying to bring up four children. You won't see me in the street handing out religious pictures," he says.

"I'm nobody's spiritual counsellor, but I'm happy to be associated with a broad cultural effort to try to encourage people to re-engage with central defining notions: the universe is not a pointless place, there is a meaning to it all, and you exist for a purpose.

"But I wouldn't dream of going to any of my colleagues here and saying: 'Have you thought about your relationship with Jesus?' They would rightly think I had lost my marbles."


Wimbledon School of Art and the University of London


art master in a convent school


trying to understand, and helping others to do so


undeserved suffering and wasted opportunities


hope to see my children flourishing


A hospital patient carrying a drip feed enters a pub, goes to the bar, hesitates, then orders a bottle of vintage champagne.

Finishing the last drop, the patient says to the barman: "Given what I've got, I shouldn't have had that."

"Why, what have you got?" asks the worried barman.

"50p," says the patient.

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