Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Samuel Alexander (1859–1938)

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Samuel Alexander, photo by Wolfgang Sievers, bust by Sir Jacob Epstein

Samuel Alexander, photo by Wolfgang Sievers, bust by Sir Jacob Epstein

Monash University Archives, 5673

Samuel Alexander (1859-1938), philosopher, was born on 6 January 1859 in George Street Sydney, third son of Samuel Alexander, saddler, who had migrated from London in 1845, and his wife Eliza, née Sloman, from Cape Town. His father died a few weeks after Samuel was born, but left his wife fairly well-to-do. The family moved to St Kilda in Melbourne in 1863 or 1864. Alexander was educated at home by governesses and tutors and at private schools before entering Wesley College in 1871. He won the major scholarships at the school and in 1874 all three exhibitions at the matriculation examinations. A contemporary, Dr Felix Meyer, remembered him as being tall, unusually handsome, of charming personality, yet reserved and thoughtful. Late in life, Alexander recalled Wesley as being a very good school, especially for its efficiency and many-sidedness, and its headmaster M. H. Irving, who gave him personal tuition, as 'a remarkable man' whose sixth-form lessons were 'always a delight'.

He began an arts course at the University of Melbourne in 1875, and that year won exhibitions in classics and mathematics, in which he seemed equally talented. In 1876 he was awarded honours in nine arts and science subjects and exhibitions in Greek, Latin and English; mathematics and natural philosophy; and natural science. His mother was persuaded to support an attempt to win a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge, and in May 1877 Alexander sailed for England. He was awarded a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, being placed second to J. W. Mackail, and proceeded to an outstanding first class in literae humaniores in 1881. In 1882 Lincoln College elected him to a fellowship, the first held by a professing Jew at either Oxford or Cambridge. In 1893 he became professor of philosophy at the University of Manchester where he remained for the rest of his life.

In 1902 Alexander brought his mother, aunt, two brothers and sister from Melbourne to Manchester. He never returned to Australia, but he retained contact with Irving, and with his school and university friends Meyer and Dr J. W. Springthorpe, and was a member of the English committees of advice which recommended appointment of W. R. Boyce Gibson and of his son A. Boyce Gibson to the chair of philosophy in the University of Melbourne in 1911 and 1935.

When Alexander was a student, Oxford philosophy was predominantly idealist, and he was under this influence when he won the Green prize essay in moral philosophy, published as Moral Order and Progress in 1889; but he soon moved away to an approach related to biology and psychology. His other early publications included Locke (1908), as brilliant and influential as it was short, articles in Mind, and presidential addresses to the Aristotelian Society, mainly on theory of knowledge and on values, which he termed 'tertiary qualities'. In 1916-18 he gave the Gifford Lectures in the University of Glasgow, under the title Space, Time and Deity, published 'with some revisions' in 1920. It was, as he said, 'part of the widely-spread movement towards some form of realism in philosophy'. This major work made him for some time the most famous British philosopher of his day. It was remarked that 'no English writer has produced so grand a system of speculative metaphysics in so grand a manner' since Hobbes's De Corpore in 1650. It was also the last such work, for the creation of metaphysical systems went out of fashion. Outside the field of philosophy Alexander gave many light-hearted and beautifully written addresses, notably some on literary figures including Dr Johnson, Jane Austen, Molière and Pascal, posthumously collected as Philosophical and Literary Pieces. His later philosophical work was mainly on aesthetics. John Anderson and his school at the University of Sydney were strongly influenced by Alexander's realism and naturalism.

Alexander was a left-wing liberal in politics and a staunch supporter of feminism; he was an early advocate of Zionism and a friend of Chaim Weizmann, first president of Israel, whom he introduced to Lord Balfour. Alexander's 'magnificent head, his massive forehead, his patrician Roman-Jewish profile, his patriarchal beard', all contributed to his majestic presence. He was handicapped for much of his life, however, by deafness. He became a Manchester institution: 'his benevolent and distinguished figure in his comfortable academic old clothes, perched on the inseparable bicycle … became as familiar and as affectionately legendary as that of Kant taking his punctual walk through the streets of Konigsberg'. In 1913 he was elected a fellow of the British Academy, in 1930 he became the first Australian-born appointee to the Order of Merit, and he received many other honours.

Alexander died unmarried on 13 September 1938. His ashes lie in Manchester Southern cemetery in the section reserved for the British Jewish Reform Congregation. His estate of some £16,000 was left mainly to the University of Manchester. A theatre at Monash University, Melbourne, is named after him; a cast of his bust by Epstein stands in its foyer.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy (Lond, 1957)
  • G. Blainey et al, Wesley College. The First Hundred Years (Melb, 1967)
  • Prefatory memoir, S. Alexander, Philosophical and Literary Pieces, J. Laird ed (Lond, 1939), and for bibliography
  • A. B. Gibson, ‘Samuel Alexander: an appreciation’, Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy, 16 (1938)
  • H. Munz, ‘Professor Samuel Alexander’, Australian Jewish Historical Society, Journal, 1 (1941), pt 6, Manchester Guardian, 6 Jan 1959.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

'Alexander, Samuel (1859–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Samuel Alexander, photo by Wolfgang Sievers, bust by Sir Jacob Epstein

Samuel Alexander, photo by Wolfgang Sievers, bust by Sir Jacob Epstein

Monash University Archives, 5673

Life Summary [details]


6 January, 1859
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


13 September, 1938 (aged 79)

Cultural Heritage

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