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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


(1914 — 2004 )



Sir Stuart Hampshire was born in Lincolnshire and educated at Repton School and Balliol College, Oxford. He was elected to a Fellowship of All Souls in 1938. After the war he taught philosophy at University College, London and from 1950 at Oxford, where he was a Fellow of New College, before returning to University College, London as Professor of Mind and Logic. In 1960 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. From 1970-84 he was Warden of Wadham College, Oxford. He later taught at Stanford and Princeton Universities. He was knighted in 1979.



[1] Hampshire [Thought and Action] subscribes to the view that careful analysis of linguistic usage can lead to the resolution of philosophical problems. In particular he is concerned with identifying those features of our conceptual scheme which are required for language and thought. While such features may be in a sense basic, he allows for the possibility that our concepts may change. He does not give 'ordinary' language a special status [a]. More general surveys of our conceptual schemes may be required especially in relation to human choice and action. Hampshire's position can be seen clearly in his examination of the concept of a person [ibid.]. If we look at the way language functions we can see that for it to be used to pick out objects the concept of a person must be fundamental; an appeal to sensations alone would fail. What then is a person? Persons may be described by reference both to physical features and conscious states [b]. Hampshire goes on to distinguish between explanations of a person's behaviour as supplied both by someone else (and with reference to scientific accounts in terms of causes) and accounts given by the individual agent himself. He thus clearly distinguishes between self-determined human actions and externally predictable events. Psychoanalytic techniques can also be employed to reveal unconscious factors which may underlie dispositions. Human dispositions, open to general explanation, are contrasted with dispositional properties of material things (the solubility of salt in water, for example). These accounts presuppose the possibility of direct 'recessive' introspection of inner mental states, — feelings, intentions, and dispositions (as reasons) to behave in various ways, and not amenable to scientific investigation and causal analysis, and therefore the possibility of 'standing back' from our situation [c]. Herein lies the possibility of achieving greater self-knowledge of how we shall actually act in specific circumstances. And the greater our understanding of the ways our mental life operates the more control we have over our behaviour, and the more free we become [d]. However, Hampshire argues that such self- knowledge requires also to be considered in the context of a physical environment with the possibility of communication with other persons. And he stresses that while the concept of a self-conscious intentional agent is the fixed point for an understanding of ourselves, our idea of a human nature is conditioned by or relative to changing historical circumstances [e]. These factors clearly have ethical implications in that they force us to consider motives, decisions, ends, and responsibilities. Hampshire's arguments are developed and elaborated in Freedom of the Individual.



[2] In his later writings Hampshire examined the distinction between 'public' and 'private' morality and the kinds of conflicts that can arise between them, and attempted to develop a 'universal ethics' grounded in a 'minimalist' view of justice.

Central to his thesis [a clear statement is to be found in 'Justice is Strife'] are the concepts of reason, conflict, and justice. Rather than starting from the Platonic-Aristotelian view that reason is the highest 'faculty' of the divided soul he looks to the role played by rationality in human institutions where it finds application and is exercised [a]. Reason, he says, comprehends a multitude of activities, such as the study of mathematics and logic, the weighing of evidence in the natural sciences or in historical or criminal investigations. But it is also manifested in other activities (which since Vico and Kant have been attributed to the imagination), for example, story-telling, poetry, religious ritual, singing and playing music, in ceremonies celebrating the dead, marriage customs, and the description of ideal societies and ideal persons and ways of life. These activities vary greatly from society to society, and in different historical times. Such diversity, like that of natural languages, helps to establish the identity of populations and cultures. But inevitably they are also the source of conflict. How are conflicts to be resolved?

Hampshire rejects the idea of a 'substantial' justice, that is, a normative justice which evalutes political or legal decisions apart from the procedures that determine them and which refers to some specific moral theory or set of moral principles. There are as many different principles of substantial justice as there are distinct ideals and moral theories [b]. And concepts of substantial justice are divisive. In developing his own position he acknowledges the importance of the contribution made by Rawls's theory of justice, particularly with respect to the notion of fairness. But he argues that Rawls's restriction of principles of justice to those which are rationally chosen by those who live in a liberal and democratic society is insufficient [c] (1) because illiberal and antidemocratic citizens will have no good reason to accept some of them, for example, the principle of liberty (and people whose conception of good and evil is founded on a supernatural authority may regard tolerance of any contrary view as evil); and (2) because such limitation ignores the relation between traditional societies (in which a single conception of good is maintained — by priests, imams, and "other experts in the will of God") and liberal democratic societies which permit, or encourage, a plurality of conceptions of the good. So what is Hampshire's solution?

He starts from the premiss that not only is diversity of moral conviction natural to humanity but also that the habit of hearing evidence and argument from two or more sides before settling a conflict is equally natural. And this too is a rational procedure. Moral enemies are finally driven to come together to build political and legal institutions temporally acceptable to them all as arenas for fair negotiation, because they know that the substance of political and social majority can never in proinciple be reduced to a few self-evident principles. We cannot appeal to an ideal of justice to be enforced by 'philosopher-kings'. Political prudence, Hampshire argues, must expect a perpetual contest between hostile conceptions of justice; what is generally thought substantially just and fair today will not be thought so tomorrow. What matters is that both old and new claims can expect to be given a hearing. "The rock-bottom justice is in the contests themselves, in the tension of open opposition, always renewed." And political prudence must develop acceptable procedures for regulating them [d]. For the individual as well as for society compromise is "both the normal and the most desirable condition of the soul for a creaure whose desires and emotions are often ambivalent and always in conflict with each other." This proposal, he says, inverts the Protestant and Kantian moralities in that it puts the protection of just procedures in competition with the pursuit of substantial justice and balances them. It is wrong to take individual morality to override public commitments (as is the case in the 'liberal' tradition), given that moral conflicts are a permanent distinguishing feature of humanity and not a contingent and, in principle, alterable phenomenon [d].



While showing the influence of the analytical philosophy of both Wittgenstein and Austin, Hampshire's philosophical writings are characterized also by a more systematic approach, a refreshing openness to twentieth century 'continental' thought, and indeed by the account taken of other disciplines such as aesthetics and psychoanalysis.

The distinction he makes between scientific explanation and 'understanding' (akin to the Verstehen of hermeneutic philosophers) of the inner mental life of persons has not surprisingly been criticized by physicalist and functionalist philosophers of mind and by methodologists who argue in favour of extending covering-law models to the human sciences. Other views of Hampshire, concerning (1) persons as self-conscious intentional and autonomous agents — albeit 'conditioned' by history; (2) introspective access by the 'recessive 'I' to one's own inner life and decision-making; and (3) the relationship between self-knowledge and freedom, and control of one's dispositions, are also contentious and have been criticized by a variety of physicalist and extensionalist-orientated philosophers. But with such positions Hampshire has made a major contribution to theories of agency and in the wider field of philosophical anthopology.

His liberal and pluralist views on ethics and political philosophy (which have much in common with those of his friend, Sir Isaiah Berlin, and indeed of Ricoeur and Habermas) are meritorious for their emphasis on openness and the search for consensus and reconciliation — implicit in his appeal for the subordination of claims to moral supremacy to the demands of a common humanity and the need for co-existence, and in his (and Berlin's) recognition that there are no utopian solutions, and that conflicts belong as much to the essence of the human condition as does the search for rational procedures to minimise them. These claims may of course be contested both by many thinkers who subscribe to various kinds of normative ethics (Kantian, Thomistic), by Marxists, or by Enlightenment and positivist philosphers. Many people may also find them naïve. But, in the last analysis, it is difficult to discern any viable alternative — other than force.



Hampshire: Thought and Action (1959); Freedom of the Individual (1965); Freedom of Mind and Other Essays (1971); Morality and Conflict (1983); Innocence and Experience (1989); 'Justice is Strife' (1991) elaborated in Justice is Conflict (1999).

Studies: No comprehensive study of Hampshire's work seems to be available. However, some of the arguments present in Thought and Action and Freedom of the Individual are examined in D. F. Pears (ed.), The Freedom of the Will.



Note: Hampshire, Ricoeur, and Habermas — although there is no apparent influence on Hampshire's philosophy (and none should be expected), the parallels between some of his ideas on justice and conflict and the central themes of Ricoeur's moral and political philosophy (relating to conflict, justice, consensus) in his Oneself as Another are worth exploring, as are also the parallels with Habermas's 'communicative ethics' (which informs Ricoeur's arguments).






[1a] Analysis of language use to resolve problems; search for features of conceptual scheme required for language (concepts changeable)





[1a 3d 3c]



[1a 2a]


[1b] Concept of person fundamental for identifying objects in language; reference to physical features and conscious states (introspection)





[3a 4a c]



[1c] Explanation of behaviour: causes and inner mental states/ dispositions (reasons) through 'recessive' introspection; distinction between actions and events








[2a c]




[1d] Self-knowledge and freedom






[1e] Self-conscious intentional agent's knowledge of self requires environment, communication with others; and idea of human nature also conditioned by historical circumstances





[2c 2c]


[3a 4a 6d]

[3f 3g]


[2a] Rationality examined with respect to role in human institutions rather than as highest 'part' of 'divided soul'



[sec. 9]



[2b d] Rejection of 'substantial'/ normative idea of justice; political prudence should recognise perpetuality of moral conflicts and hostile conceptions of justice as features of humanity and should provide procedures for their resolution; individual moralities should not override public commitments











[12a sec. 14]



[8a 6f]


[3a b]

[10h i]



[2c] Limitations of view of justice as grounded in liberal, democratic societies, but notion of fairness central    Rawls [1b]