Stuart Newton Hampshire

From New World Encyclopedia

Sir Stuart Newton Hampshire (October 1, 1914 - June 13, 2004), an Oxford University philosopher, literary critic and university administrator, was one of the antirationalist Oxford thinkers who, along with Isaiah Berlin and Bernard Williams, gave a new direction to moral and political thought in the post-World War II era. He drew inspiration from wide interests in psychoanalysis, literary theory, and art criticism, and did not believe that logical reasoning could, or should, provide a complete explanation for everything.

Inspired by a careful study of Spinoza, Hampshire developed a detailed description of the conditions necessary for human action, suggesting that human freedom could best be understood by comparing a person’s declared intentions with how he was likely to behave based on his genetic and social conditioning. He argued that a person does not have true freedom of action until he consciously recognizes all the psychological forces underlying his motivations, and is able to exercise some rational control over them. Hampshire rejected the concept of a universal moral standard. His theories of politics and justice acknowledged that in a pluralistic society, conflict was inevitable, and that instead of trying to achieve consensus, political and legal institutions should strive to give everyone a fair hearing.


Stuart Newton Hampshire was born on October 1, 1914 in England. He was educated at Repton School where Geoffrey Fisher, later Archbishop of Canterbury, was headmaster. Hampshire trained as a modern historian, was particularly influenced by the two books by Namier on eighteenth-century politics in England. In 1933, he won a history scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford, but did not confine himself to history, switching to the study of literae humaniores (Greats) and immersing himself in the study of painting and literature. As was typical at Balliol, his intellectual development owed more to his gifted contemporaries than to academic tutors. After earning a first class degree, in 1936, he obtained a scholarship to All Souls College, Oxford, where he researched and taught philosophy. He participated in an informal discussion group with some of the leading philosophers of his day, including J. L. Austin and Isaiah Berlin. Initially as an adherent of logical positivism and a disciple of Ayer, but after a year or two he became dissatisfied with the mechanical concepts and formulas of the British disciples of the then dominant Vienna school. Hampshire was especially critical of the atomism of Russell and his followers and believed that they had misunderstood the function of philosophy; Hampshire believed that moral philosophy should be able to guide practice. He remained a convinced naturalist and never turned to religious or transcendental thought. Hampshire published his first philosophical essay in 1939, exhibiting keen insight and interest in a wide range of human activity, especially art, literature and psychology.

In 1940, at the outbreak of World War II he enlisted in the army and was given a commission and sent to Sierra Leone. Due to his lack of physical aptitude he was seconded to a position in military intelligence near London where he worked with Oxford colleagues such as Gilbert Ryle, Charles Stuart and Hugh Trevor-Roper. In late 1942, working in the Radio Security Service which monitored the radio links of Nazi spies, Hampshire was among the authors of a study which suggested that a growing rift between the German General Staff and the Nazi regime created the possibility that the war in Europe could be ended if the British government gave the German General Staff an incentive to launch a coup. The report was endorsed by all the junior officials who read it, but was suppressed by Section-5 Deputy Chief Kim Philby, who was later discovered to be a Russian spy. Hampshire himself was investigated as a possible Soviet agent, but was cleared of all suspicion.

After the war, Hampshire returned to his studies as a tutor and lecturer in philosophy at Oxford, where he spent five years as domestic bursar and research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, and at University College, London.

In 1960, Stuart Hampshire was elected a member of the British Academy and became Grote Professor of Philosophy at London University, succeeding A.J. Ayer. From 1963 to 1970, he chaired the department of philosophy at Princeton University. In 1970, he returned to Oxford as Warden of Wadham College, which became one of the first men-only Oxford colleges to admit women in 1974. Hampshire considered his wardenship to be one of his most significant achievements in reviving the fortunes of the college. He was knighted in 1979 and retired from Wadham in 1984, when he accepted a professorship at Stanford University.

In 1980, Hampshire became, together with Stephen Spender, David Astor and Lord Gardiner, a founder of the Jan Hus Educational Trust, a charitable foundation named after the Czech hero and martyr, who in 1415 founded a movement within the Roman Catholic Church against its corruption and tyranny. Set up to "help the flow of information and the development of culture in Czechoslovakia," the trust published Index on Censorship and worked to keep the spirit of independent thought alive in that country before the fall of Communism.

In 1961, Hampshire married Renée Ayer, the former wife of the philosopher A. J. Ayer. She died in 1980, and in 1985 he married Nancy Cartwright, Professor of Philosophy, Logic, and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics, with whom he had two daughters.

Thought and Works

In 1951, Hampshire published a detailed study of Spinoza, whose influence is apparent in his subsequent philosophical works, Thought and Action (1959); Freedom of the Individual (1965); and Freedom of Mind and Other Essays (1971). His writings on philosophical topics, though not as highly organized as those of some other thinkers, had a broad appeal because of his literary ability and rich suggestiveness.

Hampshire was one of the antirationalist Oxford thinkers who, along with Isaiah Berlin and Bernard Williams, gave a new direction to moral and political thought in the post-World War II era. His innovative book Thought and Action (1959) propounded an intentionalist theory of the philosophy of mind, taking account of developments in psychology. Although he considered most continental philosophy vulgar and fraudulent, Hampshire was much influenced by Martin Heidegger. He insisted that philosophy of mind "has been distorted by philosophers when they think of persons only as passive observers and not as self-willed agents." In his subsequent books, Hampshire sought to shift moral philosophy from its focus on the logical properties of moral statements to what he considered the crucial question of moral problems as they present themselves to us as practical agents.

In 1978, Hampshire edited Public and Private Morality, a collection of essays by different philosophers discussing the extent to which the same principles can be applied to public and private morality. He returned to this theme in Morality and Conflict (1983); Innocence and Experience (1989), in which he examined the possibility of a universal ethics based on a minimal conception of justice; and Justice is Conflict (1999).

Justice Is Conflict (1999) inaugurated the Princeton Monographs in Philosophy series. Denying that harmony is achievable in moral and social issues, Hampshire demoted the role of rationally determined outcomes and stressed the need for debate in deciding these matters; opposing sides could accept the outcome peacefully only by trusting the mechanisms of justice. Stuart Hampshire was also recognized as a literary critic and wrote extensively on literature and other topics for The Listener, The Observer , the New Statesman, the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books. He was head of the literary panel of the Arts Council for many years. In 1965-1966, he was selected by the British government to conduct a review of the effectiveness of Government Communications Headquarters.


Inspired by Spinoza, Hampshire set out to develop a description of the conditions necessary for human action, suggesting that human freedom could best be understood by comparing a person’s declared intentions with how he was likely to behave based on his genetic and social conditioning. In Ethics, Spinoza had argued that a person who is motivated by causes of which he is unaware is not “free;” genuine freedom includes a self-conscious awareness of the influence exerted by our baser passions over our natures. Hampshire argued that concepts of moral philosophy could not be logically separated from the human capacity for self-conscious, introspective thought. He accepted that a person’s inclinations are often a result of early childhood experiences and that they are partly conditioned by genetics, culture, and personal history. He believed, however, that by gaining an understanding of that conditioning, a person can achieve at least partial control over those inclinations and acquire some freedom of action.

Hampshire did not agree with Spinoza’s faith in the power of reasoning, but he argued that any theory of ethics must allow for the possibility to make a self-conscious decision not follow the path ordained by past history and genetics. He did not agree with Marxist determinism. Along with many of his contemporaries, Hampshire was a socialist, but he rejected the rigid moral positions of both the Left and the Right, and regarded all claims to a universal moral standard as false. His experiences working in British intelligence during World War II gave him first-hand knowledge of the dangers of totalitarianism. Hampshire did not believe that reason and logic could necessarily arrive at the correct answer for every dilemma. He rejected systems such as positivism and utilitarianism which proposed an ultimate and complete solution, favoring instead “a certain kind of confusion,” which took account of the tragedy, individualism, and responsibilities of life.

Hampshire valued freedom over equality. In Justice is Conflict (1999), Hampshire declared that it is inevitable that people should hold irreconcilable views on certain subjects, and that it was a mistake for politicians to aim for consensus. The right to question authority and is a fundamental safeguard against tyranny. Instead of trying to arrive at agreement on everything, he argued that a free society should create institutions to arbitrate disputes so that all sides would feel they had had a fair opportunity to present their views.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Hampshire, Stuart. Spinoza and Spinozism. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 9780199279548
  • Hampshire, Stuart. Spinoza. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
  • Hampshire, Stuart. Innocence and Experience. Harvard University Press, 1989. ISBN 9780674454484
  • Team, Gale Reference. Biography - Hampshire, Stuart (Newton) (1914-2004): An article from: Contemporary Authors. Thomson Gale, 2006.

External link

All links retrieved February 26, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


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