In Memoriam

Timothy L. S. Sprigge (1932-2007)

By Leemon McHenry

Timothy L. S. Sprigge was born in London on 14 January 1932 and died on 11 July 2007. He married Giglia Gordon on 4 April 1960. Timothy and Giglia have three children: twins Georgina and Lucy, and Samuel. Sprigge went up to Gonville and Caius College in the University of Cambridge where he gained his BA in English in 1955. He then transferred to philosophy for the MA and Ph.D. degrees finishing in 1961, first supervised by R.T. H. Redpath and then by A. J. Ayer under an arrangement in which he took his Ph.D. at Cambridge in absentia working under Ayer at University College, London. Upon completion of the Ph.D., he received a position as a researcher on Jeremy Bentham's manuscripts and as temporary lecturer at University College. In 1963, he was appointed Lecturer in philosophy at the University of Sussex and remained there until 1979 when he was appointed to the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh. In 1989, he retired to become Emeritus Professor and Endowment Fellow. He was president of the Aristotelian Society in 1991 and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1993. As a proponent for animal rights, he served as chairman of Advocates for Animals in the 1980s and 1990s.

Sprigge’s major works include: Facts, Words and Beliefs, Routledge, 1970; Santayana: An Examination of His Philosophy, Routledge, 1974; The Vindication of Absolute Idealism, Edinburgh University Press, 1983; The Rational Foundation of Ethics, Routledge, 1988; James and Bradley: American Truth and British Reality, Open Court, 1993; and The God of Metaphysics, Oxford, 2006. A Festschrift honouring his work had just appeared on the day he died, Consciousness, Reality and Value: Essays in Honour of T. L. S. Sprigge, edited by Pierfrancesco Basile and Leemon B. McHenry, Ontos Verlag, 2007.

While making important contributions to philosophical topics as diverse as consciousness, time, personal identity, punishment, censorship, and animal rights, Sprigge is also considered the doyen of British idealists at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries. His command of the history of philosophy and particularly the classic American philosophers gave him a basis for the construction of his own system of philosophical idealism--a system of metaphysics and ethics based on panpsychism, absolute idealism, determinationism and utilitarianism. This system shows strong influences from William James, George Santayana, Josiah Royce, Jeremy Bentham, F. H. Bradley, Alfred North Whitehead, Arthur Schopenhauer and Baruch Spinoza.

Against the current of the dominant analytical philosophy of the twentieth century, Sprigge produced a philosophy in the grand style of metaphysicians of the past. He was never a follower of current philosophical fashion; nonetheless, he was a major player in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. The very title of his magnum opus, The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (1983) was a challenge to those philosophers who believed that absolute idealism was abandoned with the critiques of Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore and Sprigge's own teacher, A. J. Ayer. But in opposition to the orthodox philosophy that he found to be arid and intensely scholastic, Sprigge shows that his unique form of idealism is a powerful means of addressing and attempting to solve contemporary problems.

The starting point of this system is the reality of consciousness investigated from within. This is the phenomenological or the introspective investigation of consciousness that he launched in his inaugural lecture at Edinburgh, "The Importance of Subjectivity." Sprigge argued that we grasp the most concrete reality in our own knowledge of ourselves as centres of consciousness and via empathy the reality of consciousness in other human beings and animals. Reality, for him, is composed of innumerable, mutually interacting momentary centres of experience related to form enduring centres of experience or consciousness such as we find in our selves. The momentary centres are pulses of experience that come together with other momentary centres in its stream to form the continuity of the enduring centres across time. These cumulate in one final Whole--the Absolute, which occurs as one grand epochal moment of the universe.

According to Sprigge's panpsychism, the whole universe is to be regarded as a living organism that is conscious or sentient. The greater part of what we call "inanimate nature" is constituted of low-grade centres of experience that merely feel the pulse of Being as parts of a greater totality. As we move up the animal kingdom, various degrees of high-grade centres of experience arise including the self-reflective consciousness of human experience. What we ordinarily understand as the physical world is really mutually interacting centres of experience that form the basis of the phenomenal appearances or abstract structures grasped in the sciences.

Since the Absolute occurs as one unified moment of consciousness, time is unreal. For Sprigge, all of the momentary centres form "space-time worms" that exist eternally within the Absolute. This means that our ordinary distinctions between past, present and future are illusory. Past and future are only relative to the moment experienced as present. In themselves all moments are intrinsically present. This ontological thesis about time is what Sprigge calls "determinationism" in contrast to the epistemological view commonly known as "determinism." The latter is largely a matter of predicting future events from the laws of nature whereas the former advances the notion that the past and the future are as real as the present.

Sprigge powerfully argued that our current emphasis on a physicalist or materialist world-view has done serious damage to our moral sense. Instead of treating objects in our phenomenal world as mere matter to be used to our ends, the panpsychist view requires that we treat the whole of nature as intrinsically valuable. The understanding of consciousness manifest throughout the universe involves a moral sensitivity beyond the imperatives of traditional anthropomorphic ethics. We have obligations not only to our fellow human beings but to animals and the environment as well. Sprigge embraced the utilitarian view insofar as he recognized the value of pain and pleasure in moral calculations, but he rejected the cost/benefit analysis by which certain intrinsically bad actions turn out to be morally permissible because they promote the interest of the greater number.

Unlike many who have regarded philosophy merely as an academic exercise or puzzle-solving activity, Sprigge constructed a philosophy that is theoretical, practical and personal. His metaphysics and ethics present principles by which one lives the moral and rational life. Sprigge lived by these principles and sought to change public policy on the practice of vivisection and other harmful and cruel treatment of animals. Like Spinoza, he found religion in the monistic view of the universe, but religion stripped of myth, superstition and intolerance.