Prof Errol Eustace Harris (1925)
Prof Errol E Harris
Professor Errol E. Harris was a distinguished philosopher, a long-term opponent of apartheid and a leading advocate of world federalism. He was the author, editor or co-editor of 30 books, and his writings were published over a period of more than 70 years.
Errol Eustace Harris was born in Kimberley, South Africa, in 1908, the son of Samuel (always known as “Jack”) Harris, a gifted amateur gymnast and manufacturer of carbonated drinks, who had been involved in the defence of Kimberley during the Boer War (along with Cecil Rhodes).
Errol inherited many of his father’s practical capabilities, but also showed early academic promise. He was educated locally and at the Grey Institute in Port Elizabeth, before going up to study ancient philosophy, history and chemistry at Rhodes College (now University). He won two scholarships and proceeded to study an MA in philosophy, which led to his developing a lifetime’s affinity with the works of Spinoza and Hegel.
When his father died Harris obtained an appointment at Fort Hare College (then one of the very few interracial institutions) in order to support his mother and two elder sisters. While teaching there, he was awarded a Queen Victoria scholarship and from 1931 attended Magdalen College, Oxford, before taking an assortment of jobs and some teaching posts in British public schools. In between times he travelled in Germany and was able to witness first-hand the rise of the Nazi state, a particularly poignant experience for an individual of Jewish background.
In the late Thirties he returned to South Africa, where he was a schools inspector for Basutoland (now Lesotho), riding to appointments on horseback.
On the outbreak of the Second World War Harris was released for service in the South African Army and was sent to North Africa, where his secondment to the British Army Education Corps involved promotion to the rank of major. He became chief instructor of the Middle East Education College at Mt Carmel, Palestine (a post in which he was succeeded by the broadcaster Huw Wheldon). There he impressed colleagues (one of whom was Michael Stewart, later Foreign Secretary and subsequently Baron Stewart of Fulham) with his non-dictatorial manner and mastery of the labyrinthine timetable. He also impressed the only female instructor, junior commander Sylvia Mundahl. They married upon the cessation of hostilities.
Harris then went on to complete his D Litt at the University of Witwatersrand and was made professor there in 1953. The following year, he published his first important philosophical work: Nature, Mind and Modern Science. He also served on the executive of the South African Race Relations Board, alongside Chief Luthuli, the Zulu paramount chief, and Oliver Tambo, later to succeed Nelson Mandela as president of the ANC. In the end, apartheid proved intolerable for someone with deep convictions about racial equality and, in 1956, when Harris was invited to give the Terry Lectures at Yale, the growing Harris family decamped to the United States.
This move proved fruitful, as it resulted in a succession of posts at Yale and Connecticut College and, after a year as acting Professor of Logic at Edinburgh University (1959-60), appointments as Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kansas and John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy at Northwestern University.
It was during this period that many of his most influential texts were published, including The Foundations of Metaphysics in Science (1965), Hypothesis and Perception (1970) and Salvation from Despair, a Reappraisal of Spinoza’s Philosophy (1973).
He was a natural choice to chair the committee at the 1968 World Congress of Philosophy in Vienna that established the International Society of Metaphysics.
His academic specialities included metaphysics, logic, epistemology and the philosophy of science. His work focused on developing a systematic and coherent account of the logic, metaphysics and epistemology implicit in contemporary understanding of the world. He argued that, in conjunction with empirical science, the Western philosophical tradition, in its commitment to the ideal of reason, contains the resources necessary to accomplish this end.
Harris retired from full-time employment in 1976 but continued to lecture well into old age, to write and publish texts, including Apocalypse and Paradigm: Science and Everyday Thinking (2000), in which he sought to explain how outmoded habits of thinking derived from obsolete scientific views prevented an adequate response to current environmental threats such as global climate change. He published his last work when he was 99.
In later years, spurred by an innate distaste for conflict, he became vice-president of the World Constitution and Parliament Association and travelled and lectured extensively, advocating federal world government as an urgent necessity. He received official appreciation from the Provisional World Parliament held in March 2003 in Bangkok.
A modest and quiet gentleman, Harris impressed those around him with his kind demeanour and generosity of spirit, and he was always well presented and unfailingly courteous. He maintained contact with former students, many of them later the holders of prestigious academic chairs, and would be happy to receive them at his Lake District home at any notice.
Harris’s wife predeceased him in 1983, and he is survived by his four children.
Professor Errol Harris, philosopher, was born on February 19, 1908. He died on June 21, 2009, aged 101
From The Times
July 21, 2009