Samuel Alexander’s conception of a university: locality and liberality

This post has been contributed by Anthony Fisher, a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Washington. Previously, he was a Research Fellow (2016-19) and a Newton International Fellow (2014-15) at the University of Manchester. He works on metaphysics and the history of philosophy. At Manchester, his first project was on the philosophy of Samuel Alexander. In June 2021, he edited a collection of essays that celebrates the centenary of Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity, published with Palgrave Macmillan.

Samuel Alexander (1859-1938) was the first Samuel Hall Professor of Philosophy at the University of Manchester, from 1913-1924. Born in Australia, he made his way to the University of Oxford first as a scholar and then a fellow during a phase in philosophy where British idealism was the dominant trend in reaction to the theory of evolution and its explanatory application beyond biology. He became an influential philosopher, defending a unique metaphysical system in the realist tradition. The Faculty of Arts building at the University of Manchester now bears his name and still contains his bust from 1925.

Alexander first arrived in Manchester as Professor of Logic, Mental and Moral Philosophy at Owens College in 1893, when Owens College was a constituent university college of the Victoria University. He was deeply involved in the campaign to make the Manchester constituent its own independent university. He presented his case to The Speaker on 1 March 1902 and again in the Manchester Guardian on 11 June 1902, which was published as a pamphlet titled A Plea for an Independent University in Manchester by Sherratt and Hughes later that month. The timing on his efforts mattered significantly. In June of the previous year, the University Court appointed a committee to investigate the case for dissolution. This committee sent its report, which proposed separation, to the University Court on 31 May 1902. The University Court at the 1902 Convocation on 23 June 1902 voted on whether to support the break-up of the constituent colleges (it did: 137 in favour, 87 not).[1] Owens College received its independence in 1903. For more on the history of the Victoria University, see John Taylor’s ‘1880-2020: A Forgotten Anniversary‘.

For many, Alexander’s pamphlet proved convincing. Owens College was just over 50 years old by 1902. It had had its ups and downs since 1880 within the federal system that was Victoria University. There were many costs and benefits of such an educational system. Liverpool was keen to free itself, whereas Leeds (Yorkshire College) was steadfast in keeping the union alive. Manchester was somewhat on the fence. Alexander’s position on the issue was shared by others such as T.F. Tout, but for him there were philosophical arguments that supported it, arguments that were imbued with his character and that informed his very conception of a university.[2]

Photograph of Samuel Alexander
Owens College Union Magazine no. 20, December 1895

In philosophy, Alexander defended realism but also believed in system and often theorised in systematic terms. Everything is somehow related to everything else and so the best comprehensive explanation is couched in terms of a system. In his metaphysics, spacetime is the fundamental matrix of reality, as he elaborates in Space, Time, and Deity.[3] At the social level, society and social institutions are organic social wholes (which emerge from spacetime, although this is irrelevant here). These social wholes undergo evolutionary progression, just like everything else. Such an idea dates back to Hegel, which Alexander recognised in his early work along with the realisation that Darwinian evolution and Hegelianism converge to some extent on this truth.[4]

From this perspective, the social institution – in this case, Owens College – is inexorably caught up in the organic growth of the city (Manchester) in which it is located and the city’s surroundings (now Greater Manchester). The social whole is the larger organism, namely the city, with the institution as one aspect or part of that social whole. The social whole is its own system. Alexander added that the people of Manchester felt this social reality too; there was growing and intense ‘sentiment of organic connection’, he writes.[5] We now have the makings of an argument, which can be formulated as follows.

The university is one integral aspect of a social organic whole, which is the city and its surroundings. If the university is a constituent of some other external system, then it cannot fill its role in its real place in its social whole. In other words, in order to fill its role the university should be independent of some other system that has parts external to the university and its city. Therefore, Owens College should be an independent university. A subsidiary point is that the federal system is not a true system exhibiting a unity that makes that thing unqualifiedly one. Rather, the federal system is an aggregate or sum of social entities. An aggregate or sum – like a sand dune – is a thing that derives its reality from its parts. It is something that is built from the bottom up. Hence it is not the sort of thing that can suitably govern the parts from above.

By freeing Owens College it would be able to continue its natural course of being caught up in the social life and economic growth of Manchester. People of Manchester would care more deeply for their institution if it was truly theirs. University and community are two sides of the same coin. Furthermore, deans, lecturers, staff, and others at the university would be able to let in new disciplines and faculties such as those of medicine and law, which is exactly what the University of Manchester did. Finally, the university would be able to tend to the specific needs of Manchester and its distinctive development and expansion in the Northwest. The vision of a local and regional university did not foster an inward parochialism, as it was feared by some. Instead the city with its university – as a unified social whole – would attract students from all over the world.

In presenting arguments for an independent university in Manchester Alexander never implemented a destructive endeavour. Talk of ‘freeing the university’ from the chains of the federal system and talk of ‘independence’ were often seen in a negative light, as if independence implied that the federal system was being dismantled, as if it is something that must be torn down. On Alexander’s view, society and social wholes (such as cities with their universities) progress along evolutionary tracks. In the nineteenth century, there were colleges, university colleges, and universities. Owens College began, as the name indicates, as a college in 1851, then it became a university college in the Victoria University, and its next evolutionary step was to become a university. So, for Alexander, Victoria University was not dissolving, it was evolving.[6]

It should be highlighted that when Manchester became independent its name was the ‘Victoria University of Manchester’. On paper Victoria University was evolving into the Victoria University of Manchester and in principle Manchester could become associated or conjoined with other colleges in the future. So the birth of what is now the University of Manchester occurred in 1880, not 1903. From Alexander’s perspective, Owens College was ready to evolve into something that would be better for all those involved. This evolutionary progression supports the optimism that is needed by the people of a city-with-university to make their institution a superior thing in the future. Manchester was ready to make a great university in the twentieth century, and so it did.

What becomes of the University of Manchester in this century remains to be seen. But lessons can be learnt from Alexander’s conception of a university. Besides the metaphysical underpinnings, he held a practical and what he called liberal conception of the university. His views on this are found in a piece he wrote for The Political Quarterly titled ‘The Purpose of a University’, which he wrote 30 years after Owens College had evolved into the University of Manchester.

According to Alexander, the university is an association of students and teachers. The purpose of a university is for students and teachers alike to pursue knowledge in preparation for a job or profession after graduation as well as in advancing research. Specialised research serves as one way to prepare for the professions because it is engaged in building knowledge of a discipline that grounds the professions that students are preparing for. Acquiring knowledge is the key here; hence, the teacher (lecturer) is meant to teach the student, and not simply examine the student. One flaw with the federal system was its focus on examinations removed from personal instruction. The latter model fuelled in the student an obsession with grades, transcripts and the certificate handed out upon graduation.

Alexander also thought that the university’s job of pursuing higher branches of knowledge grounds the professions of ordinary life. The job prospects of engineers would have been greatly diminished if universities did not acquire and extend knowledge in the sciences such that engineering as a special science could be created. A university, therefore, is essentially bound up with practical issues in life. It is not an institution that cultivates knowledge for its own sake or maintains this goal as its sole purpose.

However, acquiring and extending knowledge must be pursued in a liberal spirit, Alexander says. The word ‘liberal’ is not restricted to the liberal arts. It should be broadened because, he argues: ‘It sets us free from the routine which besets the practice of any craft, it saves knowledge from being merely an acquisition or merely useful, animates it with reason and gives it life and zest’.[7] It describes a spirit that we live when we study any kind of subject, from physics and philosophy to art history. This spirit is directed towards understanding what we know. It thus applies to all branches of knowledge, not just Literature, English, and Poetry. Alexander concludes:

A University thus trains its members to perform their craft with liberation from the mere doing of it, because it supplies them with the enlightening quest of reason. All our studies therefore are pursued, not without regard to their utility for life, but not for the sake of their utility. What the University seeks to provide is the command of a subject, afterwards to be applied, which will make the application worthy of a free man. Such education may justly be called liberal.[8]

In sum, the liberal spirit and the practical drive of the university are unified in the interlocking context of the city and local region of which the university is an intimate and central component. The spread of universities across the world vindicates Alexander’s case for letting Owens College evolve into the University of Manchester and his liberal conception of a university is an important reminder of the real nature of a university.[9]

[1] Fiddes, Edward. 1937. Chapters in the History of Owens College and Manchester University, 1851-1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 103.

[2] For an account of Tout’s role, see Jones, H.S. 2019. ‘T.F. Tout and the Idea of the University’ in Thomas Frederick Tout (1855-1929): Refashioning History for the Twentieth Century, ed. C.M. Barron and J.T. Rosenthal. London: University of London Press, pp. 71-85.

[3] Alexander, S. 1920. Space, Time, and Deity: The Gifford Lectures at Glasgow 1916-1918. London: Macmillan.

[4] See Alexander, S. 1889. Moral Order and Progress: An Analysis of Ethical Conceptions. London: Trubner and Co, p. viii.

[5] Alexander, S. 1902. A Plea for an Independent University in Manchester. Manchester: Sherratt and Hughes, p. 5.

[6] A Plea for an Independent University in Manchester, op. cit., p. 8.

[7] Alexander, S. 1931. ‘The Purpose of a University’, The Political Quarterly 2(3): 337-52, p. 343.

[8] ‘The Purpose of a University’, op. cit., p. 344.

[9] Images are courtesy of The University of Manchester.

Event Registration: Universities and their Contested Pasts

Registration is now open for the symposium ‘Universities and their Contested Pasts’ to be held in the Samuel Alexander Building, University of Manchester (U.K.) on September 11 and 12, 2019.

For many years, universities and their pasts were seen as a benign backwater. However, more recently, attention has been drawn to the uncomfortable pasts of some of these institutions.  This two-day event seeks to explore and understand universities’ difficult pasts (both distant and recent) and how we should deal with them. The panels will consider the themes of: studying slavery; universities and empire; institutions and legacies; exhibitions; universities and the state.

The keynote speakers are Professor Astrid Swenson (Bath Spa University) and Dr Chris Renwick (University of York).  The full provisional programme is outlined below.

Registration closes on 27 August 2019.

Please register here


The event will be held in the University of Manchester’s Samuel Alexander Building (no.67 on the campus map) Lecture Theatre.

Provisional Programme: Universities and their Contested Pasts

Wednesday 11 September, 2019

13:00 Registration, tea and coffee, Samuel Alexander Building Foyer

14:00 Welcome and introduction, followed by keynote speaker Prof Astrid Swenson (Bath Spa University), Samuel Alexander Building Lecture Theatre

15:00 Paper session 1: Studying Slavery

Natalie Zacek and Matthew Stallard (University of Manchester): “Scholarship Funded by Slavery – Tracing the Cotton and the Cash that Built the University of Manchester.”

Richard Stone (University of Bristol): “Tobacco and Chocolate, Slavery and Abolition: Tracing the University of Bristol’s Connections to Enslavement.”

Alexander Scott and Andy Bevan (University of Wales – Trinity St David): “The Early History of the University College at Lampeter: An Agenda for a Bicentenary.”

16:30 Panel Discussion

Panel: Neil Curtis (Head of University Museums and Archives, University of St Andrews); Stephen Mullen (University of Glasgow); Natalie Zacek (University of Manchester).

17:40 Drinks Reception, Christie Bistro

Thursday 12 September

08:30 Registration, tea and coffee, Samuel Alexander Building Foyer

09:00 Keynote – Dr Chris Renwick (University of York), Samuel Alexander Building Lecture Theatre

10:00 Paper Session 2: Universities and Empire

Ian Harper and Roger Jeffery (University of Edinburgh): “Late Victorian ‘scientific racism’ and the University of Edinburgh’s collection of skulls from India.”

Sandip Kana (King’s College London): “The failure of Indianisation: Situating Roorkee Civil Engineering College in the anti-colonial project.”

Dongkyung Shin (King’s College London):A Transnational University Issue from Rhodesia to London.”

11:30 Break

11:50 Paper Session 3: Exhibitions

Lola Sanchez-Jauregui (The Hunterian Museum): “Curating Discomfort in the Hunterian Museum.”

Sue Donnelly (London School of Economics): “LSE 1969: marking the 50th anniversary of the LSE ‘Troubles.'”

12:50 Lunch

13:50 Paper Session 4: Institutions and Legacies

Eric Lybeck (University of Manchester): “The Forgotten Origins of American Academia in Germany.”

Joe Cain (University College London): “Eugenics, Karl Pearson, and the Legacy of Anglo-Saxon Nativism at UCL.”

Kevin Grace (University of Cincinnati): “Positioning the Facts: The Archivist’s Duty and the University of Cincinnati’s Racial Heritage.”

15:20 Break

15:40 Paper Session 5: Universities and the State

Keith Vernon (University of Central Lancashire):Contesting Control? Universities, the state and the marketization of higher education in England.”

Tatjana Šarić (Croatian State Archives): “The University of Zagreb Under Surveillance of Supreme Power – League of Communists of Croatia 1959 – 1964.”

Josh Patel (University of Warwick): “The welfare state and liberal economic thought in the Robbins Committee (1961-63): an uncomfortable alliance?”

17:00 Closing Remarks

Women at the Console

This post is contributed by Dr Jonathan Swinton who has spent thirty years working in mathematical biology in academia and industry.  He is currently writing a textbook on mathematical phyllotaxis and has published several articles on Alan Turing’s pioneering work in this area.  In 2012, he designed the international citizen science project Turing’s Sunflowers with the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.  His book ‘Alan Turing’s Manchester’, a social history for a general audience, has recently been published by Infang Publishing.  

The roles played by women in the mid twentieth century history of computing are currently in the spotlight.  The Hollywood film Hidden Figures tells the story of the largely female and African-American staff who provided numerical answers to NASA’s engineering problems. A recent book by the historian of technology Marie Hicks, Programmed Inequality, questioned how the British state post 1945 used female expertise in information processing. Hicks’ firm answer is in her subtitle: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing and she makes good use of her sources, primarily in governmental computing, to support this. But much of the computing innovation was happening within universities, where gender roles in computing at the time have received relatively less attention. This blog post draws on my new book Alan Turing’s Manchester to highlight the careers of Bertha Swirles, Phyllis Lockett (Nicolson), Cicely Popplewell, Audrey Bates, and Mary Lee Woods and explore whether computing at the then Victoria University of Manchester did first create and then lose female expertise.

phyllis nicolson

Phyllis Nicolson (Courtesy of Don Nicolson).

Manchester University electronic computing had an early success in 1948, when the Mark 1 ran its, and arguably the world’s, first computer program. One of the reasons this happened where it did was that wartime Manchester was already a national centre for mechanical computing. This approach solved problems from science and engineering by breaking them down into a large number of repetitive steps which did not require elite skill. Designing these algorithms was still the province of the mathematician, first practised in Manchester by Douglas Hartree who was Professor from 1929. He re-appointed an old friend from his Cambridge days, Bertha Swirles, as an Assistant Lecturer.  It was not unusual for women to serve in junior teaching positions in mathematics, but she was also active in research and collaborated with Hartree to solve problems in the new quantum physics by phrasing them as repeated tasks for the operator of a desk calculator. This required the computer – as the operator of the calculator was called – to obediently but precisely obey the demands of the algorithm in thousands of repeated actions per day. Hartree and Swirles’ first computer was Hartree’s father, but clearly this could not scale. When this approach was independently adopted in the US, it evolved into a the large-scale use of semi-professional female labour seen in Hidden Figures. (Swirles herself returned to Cambridge in 1938, where Girton College probably offered her more job security and a higher status role, and she spent the rest of her career there. The couple had no children, and she continued to publish for many decades and to take on senior roles in the University. It was via her husband that she acquired the title Lady Jefferies.). Manchester went in a different direction.

Hartree continued to develop mechanical computing in Manchester by importing the idea of the ‘differential analyser’ from the United States, and raising local sponsorship to build a production machine housed in the basement of Patrick Blackett’s physics department (a room unusable by that stage for physics experiments because of the Rutherford-era radiation). In the decade before 1948 Hartree’s group was a national resource for numerical solutions to the problems of the science war, including the British atomic bomb project. Rather like the Tardis, the differential analyser required simultaneous skilled operators for the most efficient use, and Hartree recruited a team of four. Unlike Swirles’ theoretical role, this was in part manual labour, perceived by at least one of the recruits as a male job because of the lubricating oil and overalls involved. But the competition for male mathematically skilled war-workers was very high and opportunity opened to Phyllis Lockett, a recent Manchester graduate. Her most valued contribution was remembered within the team not at the controls of the analyser but on problems it could not solve. When the team had to act as ‘human CPUs’, reverting to the desk calculators, she was the fastest. But it was her theoretical contributions that have lasted the longest; she went on to co-develop the Crank-Nicolson algorithm which is still in use today by (electronic) computers. It was so-called because Lockett had married, becoming Phyllis Nicolson, in 1942 and she then moved to Leeds by the time of the birth of her first child in 1947. She was appointed to a lectureship in Leeds in 1952 after her husband, who had previously held the post, died in an accident, and with a young family to care for she taught for several years but does not then seem to have been active in research.

The prewar construction of Hartree’s differential analyser had been by engineers under the direction of mathematicians, and this was the postwar model adopted when Blackett and Hartree imported talent and funding to Manchester to create the electronic computing era. The mathematician Max Newman was to create a Calculating Machine Laboratory and Freddie Williams was recruited largely because he could build the Machine for him. Williams rapidly handed responsibility to his student Kilburn and for decades there were no women in Kilburn’s engineering team except at low levels. The large number of repeated logic circuits had to be tediously checked by a ‘wireman’ and a sole ‘wirewoman’, Ida Fitzgerald, is remembered because of her gender uniqueness.


18-year-old Cicely Popplewell in 1939 (Courtesy Girton College Cambridge, Copyright: Lafayette Archives).

Newman famously recruited Alan Turing as his first appointment, but he or Turing also appointed Cicely Popplewell as Turing’s assistant. Popplewell was from the same Girton mathematics mould as Swirles, but her contributions were both theoretical and managerial. Her memories of Turing were not warm – she told Turing’s biographer he had barely recognised her right to exist – but she found a place for decades within the emerging computer service. She wrote the first versions of subroutines for mathematical functions like cosine. She rewrote sections of Turing’s programming manual to make it comprehensible; she edited proceedings and travelled abroad to give courses. Popplewell left a few pages of memories of early computing in which she emphasised the physical labour: the manually switched instructions, the sweltering heat, and the stairs that had to be constantly traversed to co-ordinate with and, sometimes, placate, the engineers.  Despite the extensive celebratory accounts of Manchester computing, she is not emphasised in its own historical record.  She is glancingly remembered as a manager and as a mother-figure within the service. She married and moved to Buxton around 1970 in her late 40s, and at around the same time she left the department, and computer science, with no recorded fanfare despite her long service.

Popplewell shared her 1949 office with Audrey Bates. Bates was like Lockett a Manchester mathematics graduate and she became an MSc student with Turing as her supervisor. She was recruited as part of Max Newman’s initial vision for the Laboratory, to use machines to do symbolic mathematics – what might now be considered a branch of artificial intelligence – rather than to do calculations.  Her MSc thesis was the sole output of Newman’s vision, and neither she nor anyone else followed it up as the mathematical purpose of the Laboratory was lost. But Bates rapidly converted the skills she had gained in using the Manchester computer into what became a lifelong career as a programmer and systems analyst.  She soon moved to the emerging programming group at Ferranti who were commercialising the machine, and where gender relations were profoundly different to those of the University.


Audrey Bates, operating the world’s first remote computation session in 1955 (Copyright University of Toronto Archives).  Bates was Toronto’s expert on the Ferranti Mark I and her name is often found on the internet in association with this photograph, although sometimes incorrectly described as a ‘Canadian National telegraph operator’.

In the 1948 University, there was no in-principle barrier to female achievement: there was a (single) female Professor, there was no marriage ban as in the Civil Service, and there was no explicit pay discrimination. But in practice, no woman had access to creative engineering work, and women appeared in computing only from mathematical backgrounds and were as marginalised at least as much as the male mathematicians were. Swirles and Lockett both acquired academic positions elsewhere but neither as full Professors.  But Ferranti, the Manchester electrical firm contracted to commercialise the university Mark I, started from the ‘radio belt’ where working-class women, for whom Ferranti competed with the Lancashire mills, assembled components under the eye of technically qualified, better paid male supervisors. However, as Ferranti started to market the new machine, they needed software engineers to show users how they could exploit the technology. The managers at Ferranti inserted a pre-fab ‘tin hut’ into the Moston factory to house this emerging class of programmers. One of their early recruits was Bates. Within a couple of years Bates went to Toronto, where Ferranti had sold its second machine, and then on to a career as a systems analyst in the US that lasted into the 1970s. Another Ferranti recruit was Mary Lee Woods (later Berners-Lee). Woods discovered that she was being paid less than her male colleagues and scandalised Ferranti’s female manager of woman’s labour by successfully asking for equal pay. This would have been economically disastrous on the radio belt, and was institutionally impossible in a University which largely didn’t appoint women to the jobs at all. But in the tin hut, where computer programming was a brand-new activity, it was possible and indeed necessary.

How do these individual lives fit into Hicks’s thesis that women acquired expertise that Britain then lost? Women indeed had access to early Manchester computing through their roles, widely accepted as gender-suitable, as mathematicians. Those who preceded Kilburn’s era, Swirles and Lockett, remained within these roles and did not seek to become computing innovators, and were able to continue their careers, albeit in ways that were consistent with the contemporary choices between family and productivity. Popplewell moved into the mother-like role of the system administrator and contributed for decades, though her eventual departure hints at some unhappiness. Bates and Lee Woods both succeeded in becoming part of the first generation of computer programmers, but both did so away from Manchester University, and in Bates’ case, away from Britain altogether. Was Kilburn’s department a hostile environment for these skilled women? Accounting for these individual choices in terms of larger forces of gender, class and disciplinary boundaries will always be speculative, but the outcome was that Manchester University computing moved in a few years from a pioneer group of male and female (and indeed gay and straight) mathematicians and engineers, to one with much less visible diversity.

I particularly acknowledge Simon Lavington for his generous sharing of information (though he is no way responsible for my conclusions); his forthcoming book on the uses made of the Ferranti Mark I will be published by Springer in Autumn 2019. I am also indebted to other sources available on request and which can be found in my book Alan Turing’s Manchester, along with discussion of these and other women and men visible on the Manchester scene like Beatrice ‘Trixie’ Worsley and Dorothy Wrinch.