(The following autobiographical material is derived largely from Findlay's "My Life," which appeared in R. S. Cohen, R. M. Martin, and M. Westphal, Studies in the Philosophy of J. N. Findlay, Albany: SUNY Press, 1985.)
J. N. Findlay was born November 25, 1903 in Pretoria, South Africa, in the then Crown Colony of the Transvaal, the son of a lawyer, who for a time served as the Government attorney to Lord Milner.
Findlay recounts a rather idyllic childhood in a large bungalow on a suburban estate, attended to by nannies and surrounded by a large extended family and very hospitable neighbors.
He recalls how at age three he was told that bacon, of which he had been very fond, derived from slaughtered pigs and how he was horrified “at the discovery of this moral enormity underlying our whole way of life, this gorging of ourselves on our fellow animals” (My Life, p. 5); this leading him by age seven to adopt the stance of a moral vegetarianism, which with few exceptions he adhered to throughout the remainder of his life.
In his autobiography Findlay recalls “King Edward’s death in 1910, also the glorious apparition of Halley’s Comet, spread out golden in the early morning sky as in the Bayeux Tapestry.”
Findlay’s brother, George, seven years his elder provided him with a copy of the Wallace translation of Hegel’s Logic (for which Findlay was to later write an extensive introduction), and this, together with Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, were the first philosophical works he read seriously upon entering university in 1919. Of Hegel’s Logic, Findlay writes:
It has been my constant companion throughout my life, and Hegel, like the moon, has taken up his stance at the end of every vista, shedding light as readily on naturalism and realism as on idealism and mysticism, and being reflected in Wittgenstein or PrincipiaMathematica as much as in Neoplatonism or Scholastic Theology (My Life, p. 4).
As a youth, and even into adulthood, Findlay enjoyed acting, and for a time as an adolescent and young man he tried his hand as a poet, but by the end of the first World War his interests became fixed upon religion and mysticism, which he pursued as a student at the University of Pretoria.
During this period Findlay joined the Theosophical Society, which had been founded by Madame H. P. Blavatsky in 1875, and which Findlay later described as melding the philosophies of Hinduism, Buddhism and strains of Gnosticism, Orphism, Kabbalism, Sufism, with an interesting, if definite, charlatanism. Findlay notes that the society was later plagued by scandals and was ultimately repuidiated by J. Krishnamurti, the man the movement had heralded as the “World Teacher.”
Findlay’s early involvement in theosophy, while perhaps a source of embarrassment for an academic philosopher, nonetheless made its mark upon him, as it led him to embrace a perennial philosophy, which at various times has appeared under the guise of Platonism, Neoplatonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Kabbalah, a philosophy which entails that the world of appearances is simply the outermost layer of being that has its center in an undifferentiated and infinite ground, and for which Findlay himself much later sought to provide a rational foundation in his Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews in 1964-5 and 1965-6, subsequently published as The Discipline of the Cave and The Transcendence of the Cave.
Findlay spent five years in the Theosophical movement, during which time he engaged in the practice of Rajat Yoga, immersed himself in Hindu and Buddhist writings, and having an unusual affinity for languages (he had excelled in Dutch, German, French, Greek and Latin) even taught himself sufficient Sanskrit to read parts of the Bhagavad-Gita in the original.
Findlay attributed to the mental discipline of his early Yoga practice a refinement in his powers of introspection that he was later to use to advantage in countering what he regarded to be the amateur, pseudo-introspection of philosophers like Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle. While Findlay later rejected some of the more “mythical” aspects of his yogic/mystical experiences in favor of his own brand of “rational mysticism,” (and even had a period during which he believed he had constructed a valid disproof of the existence of God) he later wrote that “a general openness to what I shall call the Uncreated Light has never left me” (My Life, p. 12).
Findlay’s experiences with, and his ultimate rejection of the specificities of the theosophical movement (e.g. the godlike “elderly brethren” said to be in communication with the leaders of the movement from their abode high in Tibet) led him to reject all particular religious doctrines. He wrote, “I came to feel that there would be something essentially wrong and even irreligious in venerating anything, however exalted, that was...tainted with specificity and contingency” (My Life, p. 12).
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 hisTheosophical 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, azeal 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 bycertain 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