On April 19th 1880 at 17 Bloomsbury Square a group of five men met to discuss the establishment of a new student organisation for the serious discussion of philosophy. Far from a gathering of professional academic philosophers, the group included a British Socialist activist, a Shakespeare scholar and importantly a young chemist – Dr. Alfred Senier – whose original idea it had been, along with some of his students, to set up a philosophical society. It was decided that the group would meet fortnightly on Monday evenings, and the minutes record the group’s aim of reaching a size of about 20 members, a number which was ‘to include ladies’.
The stated aim of The Society was ‘the systematic study of philosophy; 1st, as to its historical development; 2nd, as to its methods and problems’. As befits its beginnings, however, the activities of The Society have been marked from its earliest days by a distinctive tone of openness and inclusivity reaching beyond the limits of academic philosophy. As noted by our 11th president, H. Wildon Carr:
‘The ideal of the Aristotelian Society is the study of philosophy not as an academical subject but as the story of human thinking. Throughout our history we have never wavered from this ideal. […] Our one and only condition of membership is genuine interest in philosophy, and we have never asked of candidates any other qualification than evidence of understanding its problems.’
For the first four years The Society met at 20 John Street in an area of London then known as ‘Adelphi’, in the borough of Westminster. Relocation after that time to rented rooms in the Royal Asiatic Society on Albemarle Street was necessitated by a somewhat dramatic episode in The Society’s young life: an attempted coup by some of its members, prompted largely in reaction to the domineering style of The Society’s first president Shadworth Hodgson, which saw the loss of The Society’s original meeting place. The Society continued to meet at the Royal Asiatic Society until 1920, when it returned to Bloomsbury, taking rooms on Gower Street. It moved to its current location, in The Senate House, in 1995.
It was that first president, Shadworth Hodgson, who first oversaw the publication of The Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society in 1888, the 125th anniversary of which we are celebrating this year. The Proceedings began as a tentative publication of abstracts, and was intended as a complement to an arrangement with the journal Mind to publish in full a few of the best papers from each session. In 1900, however, Mind was transferred to The Mind Association and could no longer give its assurance to publish papers from The Society. The Society decided to undertake publication of the papers from its sessions itself in the version of The Proceedings that we are familiar with today. This decision almost crippled The Society financially. President Shadworth Hodgson, however, came to the rescue with a personal donation of £50 – today’s equivalent of about £5,000 – which was added to smaller donations by other members and committee members of The Society. Thanks to the generosity of those founders and early members of The Society, The Proceedings survived and continues today as one of the leading journals in contemporary philosophy.
The history of The Society is bursting with a wealth of notable presidents, including Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, A.N. Whitehead, C.D. Broad, Susan Stebbing, Gilbert Ryle, A.J. Ayer, J.L. Austin, Karl Popper and R.M. Hare among others. Since its foundation, The Society has provided, and continues to provide, a welcoming forum for philosophers and non-philosophers alike to listen to high quality talks and to engage in philosophical discussion. President H. Wildon Carr’s remark, however, made in 1911, rings as true of The Society today as it did then: the value of The Society lies not only in the interesting and thought-provoking talks, or in the prestigious publication of The Proceedings, but lies just as much in ‘the personal introductions, the exchange of ideas in conversation, and informal discussions in the corridors.’
The Aristotelian Society has recently adopted the British Philosophical Association/UK Society for Women in Philosophy (BPA/SWIP) Good Practice Scheme.