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Our History

A History of Philosophy at Royal Holloway and Bedford Colleges

The full name for Royal Holloway is ‘Royal Holloway and Bedford New College’. The present institution is the product of a merger in the 1980s of the original Royal Holloway College and Bedford College, both of which were founded for the education of women. Although philosophy was not one of the subjects taught in the early years of Royal Holloway, it had a significant presence at Bedford College where it was taught between 1849 and 1985.

While many figures contributed to the teaching of philosophy at Bedford College in its early years, the most noteworthy figure was without doubt Susan Stebbing (1885-1943). She became a full-time lecturer in philosophy at Bedford in 1920, rising to Reader in 1927 and Professor in 1933, in the process becoming the first woman in the UK to hold a chair in philosophy. She was president of the Mind Association and of the Aristotelian Society at points during the 1930s and in 1933 she founded the journal Analysis. She was also the first person to invite Rudolf Carnap to the UK (other notable figures to visit the department in this period included Ernst Cassirer). As well as writing books that contributed to the early history of analytic philosophy, she also reached a wider audience with her Penguin book Thinking to Some Purpose, published in 1939. Also noteworthy is her first book, based on her University of London MA thesis, entitled Pragmatism and French Voluntarism (1914), which discussed Bergson, James, and Bradley, foreshadowing a number of interests of the current staff at Royal Holloway. 

Another Bedford philosopher, Margaret MacDonald, helped Stebbing in setting up Analysis and was editor from 1948 until her death in 1956, aged just 48. MacDonald had been a student of Wittgenstein’s in Cambridge and took notes at his lectures; these were later published along with those of Alice Ambrose in 1979. She worked mainly on aesthetics and political philosophy. 

MacDonald was replaced by Ruby Meager (1916-1992) who was at Bedford from 1956 until 1967, when she moved to Birkbeck. Previously she studied at Oxford where she was supervised by J. L. Austin. Meager was a founding member of the British Society of Aesthetics and shortly after joining Bedford issued her first publication in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, ‘The Uniqueness of a Work of Art’.

Ruth Lydia Saw became a lecturer at Bedford in 1939, progressed to Reader and Professor, and was Head of Department from 1953 to 1964. Saw had wide interests in the history of philosophy, writing on William of Ockham in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1941) and producing books on both Spinoza and Leibniz. She also had interests in aesthetics, was alongside Meager a founding member of the British Society of Aesthetics, and later its president.

In 1958 Doreen Tulloch joined the department. Her PhD at St Andrews was entitled ‘An application of certain thomistic metaphysical and epistemological theories to the contemporary clash between naturalistic and non-naturalistic ethics’, and she had already at this point written about the newly popular philosophy of existentialism. She died in 1977, aged 58. 

The next Head of Department appointed was a man, and that man was Bernard Williams, who led the Bedford philosophers from 1964 to 1967. This was his first Professorship, which he attained while still only 34. He delivered his inaugural lecture at Bedford in 1966, ‘Morality and the Emotions’, and this was later reprinted in his book Problems of the Self. During this period the department welcomed Noam Chomsky and Alfred Tarski as visiting lecturers. Other philosophers in the department, many of whom later migrated to King’s, included Alan Lacey, David Lloyd Thomas, Anthony Saville, Brian O’Shaughnessy, Wilfred Hodges, and Mark Sainsbury. 

Williams was succeeded by David Wiggins, who was head from 1967 to 1980. This period of Wiggin’s career culminated the publication of his book Sameness and Substance (1980), written while head of department. 

In the mid 1980s it was decided to merge Bedford College with Royal Holloway, with the Bedford site in Regent’s Park closing and Bedford staff transferring to Royal Holloway. The then Bedford philosophers – Mark Sainsbury, Anthony Saville, Alan Lacey, Brian O’Shaughnessy, David Lloyd Thomas – did not want to leave central London for Egham and so a deal as negotiated whereby they could transfer to the philosophy department at King’s College London. This led to the effective closure of the philosophy department at Bedford College, but in order to acknowledge the history of philosophy at Bedford, the philosophy department at King’s created a chair named after Susan Stebbing.

Although there had been no philosophy programme at the original Royal Holloway, there were nevertheless people in other departments with interests in philosophy. This was especially the case in Classics. One notable figure was J. H. Sleeman (1880-1963), who joined Royal Holloway in 1918, became head of Classics in 1920, and professor in 1922; he retired in 1946. He had strong interests in late ancient philosophy and Neoplatonism. He worked on Plotinus long before it was common to do so, and during his retirement he devoted eight years to compiling a lexicon to Plotinus, which was published in 1980, well after his death. 

Sleeman’s chair was taken up by Hugh Tredennick, professor from 1946 to 1966, who is perhaps best remembered for his translations of Plato and Aristotle. He translated Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Prior Analytics for the Loeb Classical Library, and later translated Plato’s Apology and related dialogues for the then relatively new Penguin Classics series, under the title The Last Days of Socrates (1954).

This tradition of ancient philosophy in the Classics department was later continued by Anne Sheppard, another specialist in Neoplatonism who, like a number of the early Bedford philosophers, also had interests in aesthetics. 

Sheppard was one of a number of people at Royal Holloway with philosophical interests – alongside Andrew Bowie, Robert Eaglestone, and Nathan Widder – who were conscious of the lack of a philosophy programme at Royal Holloway. In the 2000s steps were taken to develop a minor, then joint honours, and ultimately single honours programme. In 2008 Neil Gascoigne was appointed to head this up. The rest, as they say, is history.


Selected References

Beaney, Michael and Chapman, Siobhan, ‘Susan Stebbing’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Bingham, Caroline, The History of Royal Holloway College 1886-1986 (London: Constable, 1987) 

Meager, Ruby, ‘The Uniqueness of a Work of Art’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 59 (1958), 49-70,

Moore, A. W. ‘Williams, Sir Bernard Arthur Owen (1929–2003)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007,

Sainsbury, Mark, ‘Philosophy’, in J. Mordaunt Crook, ed., Bedford College, University of London: Memories of 150 Years (Egham: Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, 2001), pp. 253-8

Saw, Ruth, ‘William of Ockham on Terms, Propositions, Meaning’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 42 (1941-42), 45-64,

Saw, Ruth, ‘Dr. Margaret Macdonald’, Analysis 16 (1956), 73-4,

Saw, Ruth, ‘What Is a “Work of Art”?’, Philosophy 36 (1961), 18-29,

Schaper, Eva, ‘Ruby Meager (1916–1992)’, The British Journal of Aesthetics 32 (1992), 293-4,

Tulloch, Doreen, ‘Sartrian Existentialism’, The Philosophical Quarterly 2 (1952), 31-52,

Warnock, Mary, ‘Stebbing, (Lizzie) Susan (1885–1943)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004,

Wisdom, John, ‘L. Susan Stebbing (1885-1943)’, Mind 53 (1944), 283-5,

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