George Elder Davie – The Democratic Intellect


by Brian Morton

You might say that contraception won out over metaphysics. Until the 1960s, philosophy was a rite of passage at the University of Edinburgh, understood as the magister vitae and the cornerstone of every humanities degree.

By the time I got to Edinburgh in 1972, the old Fraser lecture room in Bristo Place had been swept away and replaced by the new, brutish Student Centre, universally known as the ‘Pill Centre’ where one could take unusual infections during the day and listen to indifferently mixed rock bands at night. American music had won out over Scottish philosophy.  I heard bluesman Roy Buchanan long before I ever heard of the great George Buchanan, tutor to Mary, Queen of Scots and to James VI, historian, humanist scholar and arguably the last major thinker to write as if Latin were his native tongue.


The very first book I bought at Edinburgh was a shop-soiled copy of something called the Democratic Intellect, knocked down from 50/- in the old money to £1 in the new.  I bought it for the title, not thinking perhaps that the subtitle Scotland and her Universities in the 19th Century promised something drier and less ringing, and because it came in a handsome slipcase whose illustrator ‘GM’ I only identified much later as George Mackie.  The author was identified as a lecturer in logic and metaphysics.  My first year courses included ‘aesthetics and general philosophy’, a rapid sweep from the Phaedo through Hobbes, Locke and Hume, to R. G. Collingwood, who picked up the ‘aesthetics’ thread again at the end.  Logic and metaphysics were as remote as Ulan Bator and I never crossed paths with G. E. Davie until after I ‘dropped’ philosophy.

I did continue to read the Democratic Intellect, though, partly for its patient, unemphatic prose and partly in alarmed recognition that the Scottish education I had expected to receive had undergone some undeclared process of Anglicisation.  As had the ‘English’ curriculum, which in my four years rarely threw up a chance to read anything Scottish.  The confident generalism described by G. E. Davie as definitive of the old Scottish university tradition had all but disappeared, in favour of un-joined-up specialisms into which one was dropped without context.  The democratic intellectualism – I learned later that the phrase came from Unionist politician Walter Elliot, who was a near-contemporary and friend of my grandfather’s – set out within those lilac, black and white boards seemed to have gone away.

Like most of my generation, I found myself occupying an archipelago of spurious confidence set in a sea of blustery ignorance.  Politics and faith – I was beginning a long, slow transition from family Presbyterianism to elective Catholicism – seemed to follow suit.  Though the apparatus of the old Scots civil society was all around me – Old College, New College, the courts and banks – it signally failed to cohere and Davie’s vision of a national culture which had been surrendered by a divided church and devolved to the universities had quite obviously moved on since he wrote his book in 1961.

When I encounter two people with the same name, my working assumption is that they are not related.  There may be a psychological reason for this.  In 1973, I wrote politely to a novelist I greatly admired, Elspeth Davie, to ask if I might meet her.  I enclosed the only short story I had then published.  She wrote back to say the story had ‘good points’ and that while she was ‘not a great one for company’ she and George would be happy to see me one afternoon.  It took an hour for me to work out that the fellow who sat in the corner drinking prodigious amounts of tea and reading a journal tear-sheet that he held two inches from the tip of his nose was, in fact, George Elder Davie.  The Davies’ modest flat and Alexander Zyw’s studio, which was not far away, were the two places I always visited in Edinburgh after I left Scotland for the South, and George became a friend.

Ironically, I didn’t realise for years – not being either in or of the nationalist persuasion – that the Democratic Intellect had become an iconic text of the nationalist movement.  When I did I immediately wondered how many of the SNP hierarchy had ever managed to read past George’s ‘Introductory Essay’ or his first chapter on ‘The Presbyterian Inheritance’, and how many of them took seriously any of his argument apart from the perception that in education as in all else, the Southron had encroached on a still-vital medieval tradition which elevated rationality above rule-of-thumb and principle over precedent, the old ‘metaphysical Scotland’ Davie identified in his very first pages.

For me, as an ardent anti-nationalist so far as political arrangements are concerned, the nationalists seemed to accept the paradigms of the Anglo-Saxon (read: Anglo-American) modernisers as the basis of a new, autonomous, intellectually and cultural distinct Scotland.  Meanwhile, in London, I met a succession of well-meant people whose largely unexamined belief in the ‘superiority’ of Scottish education went hand in hand with the belief that old Scottish manses with eight bedrooms and well-maintained policies could be had for the price of a Kensington garage.  Not a few of these friends expressed a kind of tender amazement that I had survived a Glasgow and West of Scotland upbringing – No Mean City hadn’t quite given way to Dear Green Place or European City of Culture – and seemed to regard my translation across the country to Edinburgh as a fraught return to Ithaca.

I always think of George Davie when I read Thackeray – whose bi-centenary falls this years, as George’s centenary does next – and particularly when I come across the sharp, rubicund James Binnie in The Newcomes, the strong-stomached disciple of David Hume who has come home from India with his liver and his single status unscathed.  That’s how the Scots used to be seen in London, not just survivors of scar culture but as bright, shrewd and principled.  George recognised that the principles traditionally espoused in the old Scottish universities were once again only tradeable away from Scotland.  And recent British politics have seen an attempted monopoly of party leadership if not all high office by Scottish-educated men.

Fifty years after its first publication, the Democratic Intellect does read more like a period piece than it did in the 1970s and even in the run-up to Scotland’s restored Parliament.  Its academic premises – Scotland’s long resistance to Southern specialism, classical in Oxford, mathematical in Cambridge, assorted –ologies in London and Redbrick – are now quite remote.  In an era where one can go to university to study hospitality management, a grounding in metaphysics might seem like gilding the lily – does the pint exist before it is poured and after it is drunk? – and the unravelling George Davie described in his later the Crisis of the Democratic Intellect has almost completely come to prevail.  He was never honoured with a university chair, retaining the title of Reader until his retirement.  It sat well with him, I think and that first book is not only still worth reading, it has become ever more essential.{jcomments on}