LINDSAY, Alexander Dunlop



14th May 1879 to 18th March 1952

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Biographical Text

Lindsay was a moral philosopher and scholar who became Master of Balliol College in 1924. He was involved in university reform between the two world wars, and was also a noted proponent of adult education. 

Lindsay was born in Glasgow on 14 May 1879, the son of a scholar and minister in the Free Church of Scotland. He was educated at the Glasgow Academy and then the University of Glasgow, where he received in MA in classics in 1899. Ironically, given his later association, he failed to gain a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, but instead attended University College, Oxford, where he took a double first in 1902.  

After considering a career in the church, Lindsay decided instead on an academic career. In 1903 he won the Shaw Fellowship in moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh (following in the footsteps of his father, the first recipient of the award), and from 1904-06 he lectured on philosophy at the Victoria University of Manchester. In 1906 he was elected a fellow of Balliol, and also married Erica Violet Storr, a student at Somerville College. 

Following the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Lindsay volunteered for army service. He served in France, where he was twice mentioned in dispatches, and finished the war with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He received the CBE in 1919. Following the war he returned to Oxford where he became active in university reform, and was one of the moving forces behind the decision to grant women full university degrees. From 1922-4 he was professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, and then in 1924 was appointed master of Balliol, which post he held until 1949. From 1935-8 he was also vice-chancellor of Oxford University, and oversaw the establishment of Nuffield College in 1937.  

In 1938 Lindsay stood for parliament as an independent candidate on a platform of opposition to the Munich agreement. He received considerable support from other leading opponents of Munich, including Winston Churchill, but was not successful. In 1945 Lindsay was elevated to the peerage as Baron Lindsay of Birker. 

As both master and vice-chancellor, Lindsay had pushed for the university to become more involved in adult education, believing it had a duty to reach out to a broader community and to provide education for all ages as a service to society. Following his retirement from Balliol in 1949 Lindsay became the founding principal of the University College of North Staffordshire (now the University of Keele), where he was able to put many of his educational principles into practice. He died suddenly at Keele on 18 March, 1952. 

Lindsay wrote a number of essays on philosophy, and introductions to several collections and translations, including one of Marx’s Capital. Most of his major works are on moral philosophy, especially Kant, whose ideas he had studied in depth, and reflect Lindsay’s own religious and moral thought. His most important work, The Modern Democratic State, is an unusual departure from these themes, and reflects the world he saw around him. In this book, Lindsay reflected on the fragility of democracy and the ease with which the state could quickly undermine democratic institutions and move towards totalitarian control. He also argued that bolshevism, fascism and other anti-democratic philosophies were conscious reactions against democracy, deliberate attempts to tear the house down. These views resonated with the wartime mood, and The Modern Democratic State was quite popular. 

Lindsay’s first lecture was the concluding lecture of the spring conference of 1925 held at Balliol College the year after he became master. His predecessor, A.L. Smith, had for several years given a concluding address at the end of each spring conference, and Lindsay may have felt moved to carry on this tradition; although it should be noted that he did not do so again, and after October 1925 gave no more papers at any of the conferences. This is likely to be due to other demands on his time rather than any lack of sympathy with the conferences and their aims. 

In this concluding address, Lindsay compares the spirit of the conferences, where cooperation was the norm and ideas were circulated in a collaborative way, with what he sees as the increasingly polarised world of politics. He speculates on the fragility of democracy, anticipating some of the later themes of The Modern Democratic State, but is convinced that democracy for all its weaknesses and faults is still the best form of government. His message to industry is that the old days of absolutist rule are over, and a more collaborative form of governance of industry is now needed. 

Lindsay’s second lecture, ‘Economic determinism’ was the opening lecture of the autumn conference that same year. He begins by defining economic determinism as ‘the view that all economic relations, all economic laws, all economic happenings are determined beforehand;  they cannot be improved; they cannot be made worse – they simply pursue their own inevitable way, and it follows that if we understand them well enough, we can tell what is going to happen.’ 

At the heart of society’s economic activity, says Lindsay, is a paradox. The more apparent freedom we have as economic actors, the more powerless we become. He describes a sense of helplessness in the face of the power of economic forces, but that power is unleashed by human actions. ‘As long as an economic system allows individuals to pursue their own private interests, make their own bargains or fulfil their own person ends, quite unrestrained by law or mutual control, the very freedom which each possesses is bound to create a situation before which each is powerless.’ 

The solution is collective action. By coming together and working together, and in particular by accepting limits on their own actions, people can win back control. Alone, we are indeed helpless in the face of economic forces, but by working together we can indeed alter those forces. Nothing in economics is inevitable, and in a concluding passage that foreshadows some behavioural economic theory, Lindsay reminds us that so-called economic laws were made by humans; therefore, by working together, humans can change them. 


Gallie, W.B.A New University: A.D. Lindsay and the Keele Experiment, London: Chatto & Windus, 1960. 

Goldman, L., Dons and Workers: Oxford and Adult Education Since 1960, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. 

Maddox, G. ‘The Christian Democracy of A.D. Lindsay’, Political Studies 34pp. 441-55, 1986. 

McCulloch, G., ‘Lindsay, Alexander Dunlop’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 

Scott, D.A.D. Lindsay: A BiographyOxfordBlackwell, 1971. 

Original Source


‘Concluding lecture’, 20 April 1925, Balliol College 

Economic determinism, 1 October 1925Balliol College 


“LINDSAY, Alexander Dunlop,” The Rowntree Business Lectures and the Interwar British Management Movement, accessed August 5, 2020,