During his years in the Theosophical Movement Findlay worked towards his B.A. and M.A. degrees in Pretoria, where under W. A. Macfayden and others he studied classics and the history of philosophy. At the time, in an effort to find backing for his Theosophical commitments, he took a particular interest in Plato, Spinoza, Kant and Hegel. He relates that at the close of this period he embraced the Fichtean notion of an “all-positing, self-positing Ego,” a doctrine that he brought with him to England when he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship in 1923.
Findlay’s sojourn at Oxford, from 1924-27, provided him, for the first time, with intellectual friendships with a large group of peers, and he devoted himself there to the study of ancient history and a close reading of Plato and Aristotle in the original Greek. His estimate of the “Dons” at Oxford, however, was less than flattering, and he “found it rather a waste of time to listen to the last breathings of Oxford idealism, in the discourse of Joseph, Joachim, Paton and Collingwood, the last infected with the infinite emptiness of Croce” (My Life, p. 17). Already at Oxford Findlay was beginning to develop definite philosophical ideas and what was to become a lifelong penchant for stating his opinions (regarding both ideas and those who proffered them) in uncensored terms.
At Oxford, however, Findlay ultimately abandoned his version of Fichtean philosophy, as he began to doubt “whether anything in [him] could have posited the world as [he] found it,” and with this doubt he abandoned his zeal for epistemological idealism, a zeal that he never recovered, in spite of his great admiration for both Kant and Hegel—who on Findlay’s view were not epistemological idealists. Indeed, having been moved by certain aspects of Russell’s views in Our Knowledge of the External World, and the Analysis of Mind, Findlay went in a realist direction, albeit one that allowed for the metaphysical reality of ideas, values, and even realms that most realists regard as purely mental.
For a time, as a postgraduate student at Oxford, Findlay took up the aim of Buddhist Scholarship, but was discouraged from doing so by the Pali scholar, Mrs. Rhys Davids, who informed him that there would be little opportunity for an academic position in this field. Instead, Findlay studied Plotinus under Clement Webb, and began the project of reconstructing Plato's "unwritten doctrines," as they are described in Aristotle's Metaphysics , a project that was to culminate nearly 40 years later in Findlay's 1974 book, Plato: The Written and Unwritten Doctrines, a work which argued that Plato conceived of the "ideas" as a hierachical arrangement, mathematically generated from a single "One," which Plato identified with the idea of the Good, and which Findlay connected to the program of Russell and Whitehead in their Principia Mathematica