Ronald Hepburn, 1927-2008

January 29, 2009

Ronald Hepburn, a pioneer in the field of philosophical aesthetics, has died.

He was born in Aberdeen on 16 March 19 and educated at Aberdeen Grammar School. After serving with the Royal Marines and the Gordon Highlanders in North Africa between 1944 and 1948, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant, he took advantage of a scheme allowing non-commissioned officers to take short courses at universities, choosing to study Classics at Worcester College, Oxford.

Professor Hepburn then returned to Aberdeen to start a degree in divinity, although he later switched to English and philosophy. After graduating in 1951, he was awarded a doctorate in 1955 before becoming an assistant and then lecturer in the department of moral philosophy. He spent a year as a visiting professor at New York University (1959-60) and then returned to the UK to take up chairs at Nottingham (1960-64) and Edinburgh (1964-75) in philosophy and then moral philosophy (1975-96), interrupted by a spell as Stanton lecturer in the philosophy of religion at the University of Cambridge (1965-68).

Although he produced important work in the philosophy of religion, including Christianity and Paradox (1958), and was renowned for the poetic precision of his writing style, it was in the field of aesthetics that Professor Hepburn was most famous and influential. His groundbreaking 1966 paper, "Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty", later reprinted in 'Wonder' and Other Essays (1984), founded a whole new area of inquiry for philosophers by challenging them to devote as much attention to nature as to art.

Even after retirement, Professor Hepburn continued to produce major work, notably his collection The Reach of the Aesthetic (2001). In honour of his 80th birthday, the British Society of Aesthetics held a special session at its 2007 conference about his work. Until shortly before his death, he was working on a paper, "Aesthetic Responses to the Sky and Space", which was due to be delivered at an international conference in Finland.

Emily Brady, senior lecturer in human geography at the University of Edinburgh, who will deliver the lecture on his behalf, describes him as "the father of environmental aesthetics, who set out most of the problems and issues people are now writing about. He was the first key figure and an enduring one." She remembers a man who was "unassuming, reflective and careful, but amiable. He took his professorial role very seriously, was great in terms of pastoral care and felt he had a responsibility (following a Scottish tradition) to teach a first-year introduction to philosophy."

Professor Hepburn died of bilateral pneumonia, after a short illness, on 23 December 2008. He is survived by his wife Agnes and children David, Antony and Catriona.

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