My parents were not amused. Appalled might be a better description. They were suddenly haunted by visions of me spending the next decade in my 8ft-by-8ft bedroom in Renfrew patiently explaining to sceptical interviewers why I'd committed career hara-kiri as a 19-year-old. My older sister was an industrial engineer, so they pleaded with me to do something respectable like accounting, or maybe even consider switching to law. Instead, I thumbed my snooty academic nose at them and explained that I would only be intellectually satisfied if I spent my last two years at Glasgow University thinking big thoughts about life, the universe and everything.
It wasn't all my fault. I'm not sure if it's still the case but in the 1980s a humanities degree at Glasgow required you to take a couple of philosophy courses during your first two years. The hope was that even limited exposure to the philosophical canon would provide breadth as well as depth in the tradition of a great classical education. It turned out that first-year philosophy was a mind-expanding gateway drug for me and, before I knew it, I was blethering on about Aristotle, Descartes and Hume to anyone unlucky enough to be sitting next to me in the bar.
My original plan (still suspect in the eyes of my parents) had been a joint degree in politics and economics. Instead, through a curricular sleight of hand, I ended up with a joint but asymmetric Honours degree in philosophy and economics, where three-quarters of my courses were in philosophy.
That is how I ended up getting to know Professor Robin Downie, who sadly died last week at the age of 89. Robin occupied the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University for 31 years before retiring to Emeritus status in 2000. His chair had been established in 1727 and the seat had been warmed by the likes of Frances Hutcheson, Thomas Reid and mostly famously Adam Smith. In the mid 1980s, Robin seemed old to me in the way that I now probably seem ancient to my teenage kids. In fact, he was only in his mid 50s (the same age I am now) and in the prime of an academic career that included helping to establish the field of 'medical humanities' to teach moral philosophy and ethics to medical, dental and nursing students.
Honours philosophy turned out to be a far more intense and fulfilling experience than I'd anticipated. Having ticked the box, the massed ranks of first- and second-year humanities students evaporated to pursue their own academic paths, forever equipped to respond 'I think, therefore I am' if anyone was foolish enough to question their existence.
This mass exodus left a small cadre of Honours students to pursue further philosophical studies. Yet the faculty ranks of the philosophy department were staffed to teach and evaluate the battalions of the reluctant in lecture theatres that sat hundreds. The result was a staff to student ratio for Honours students that was one of the best in the university. This in turn facilitated the rare privilege at Glasgow of weekly and often twice weekly 1-1 tutorials that mirrored the Oxbridge model of undergraduate teaching.
I soon discovered that this meant there was nowhere to hide. Some of my clearest memories of my undergraduate years are sitting with Robin in his office in the corner of the West Quadrangle of the Gilbert Scott building. In those memories it is always late afternoon with negligible natural light leaking through his 19th-century leaded glass windows. There are no institutional overhead neons, instead warm golden light spills from lamps and I sit in a comfortable wooden chair polished smooth by the fretting hands of generations of under-prepared students.
I was required to write a discussion paper each week and submit it in advance, typically handwritten on lined paper across the road in the circular reading room of the library with an array of books spread before me. But those papers were just a jumping off point for our discussions of the great questions of moral philosophy from the 'trolley problem' to the existence of objective good and evil.
These were topics that by this point in his career Robin would have discussed hundreds if not thousands of times with other students and academic colleagues. Yet, in each of our many Socratic-style tutorials, he made it seem like he was discovering and exploring my half-baked ideas for the first time. His probing was always gentle, and his questioning designed to help me unspool and develop my own ideas rather than imposing his own.
With the benefit of nearly 40 years of hindsight and in the current era of ChatGPT, I'm glad there was nowhere to hide in that office. At the time, there was nothing worse than the sweaty, squirmy pause when Robin would ask me a question and my flight or fight response would kick in as I groped for something vaguely intelligent to say. But it was my fear of those uncomfortable moments that forced me to read deeper, study harder and develop my own coherent, if rarely original, points of view.
Like all great teachers, Robin saw his role as extending beyond the classroom to develop a broader relationship with his students. I remember being invited to a lunch with a handful of other students at Robin's beautiful home in what for me was the undiscovered country that lay just north of Great Western Road. I can't remember what we ate but I do remember it being a classy, salon-type atmosphere with sophisticated food, music and conversation. I also remember the intellectual buzzing in my head as I walked back to Hillhead Underground station. Despite being just another philosophy student passing through the system, Robin had the gift of making you feel special, and that is what has always stayed with me.
Not only did Robin make me feel special, he also did his job very well. In 1988, I graduated top of the social sciences faculty and won the Adam Smith medal (another academic magic trick as I'd spent most of my time in the arts faculty). The medal was meant to recognise academic achievement in economics, but both Robin and I knew that I was a lot more interested in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments
, with its sophisticated psychology of sympathy, than I was in The Wealth of Nations
, with its pin factories and invisible hand. At graduation, I was arrogant enough to believe that as a true polymath, Smith wouldn't have liked an academic prize named in his honour to be so narrowly defined, so I secretly relished my philosophical bias.
After graduating Glasgow, my parents were mightily relieved that I ended up building a successful business career despite my academic handicap. I moved to London and filed my time studying with Robin in the 'treasured memories' section of my head. Although I've ended up living most of my adult life in the US, I've been a reader and contributor to the Scottish Review
for the last 15 years. It was therefore a great pleasure to also see Robin featured as a regular columnist writing about medical ethics, the history of Scottish philosophy and many other subjects with typical clarity, humanity and insight.
After a particularly interesting column last summer on the friendship between Adam Smith and David Hume, I dropped Robin an email, thanking him both for his contributions to the Scottish Review
but also for the impact he had on me as a student. His reply was perfectly consistent with how I remembered him from the 1980s; kind, wise and supportive, even although I suspected he had little memory of who I was.
I'm now sorry that on my frequent trips to Glasgow over the last few years I didn't make the effort to go say hello to Robin in person, particularly when I heard he was seriously ill. With his death last week, that's now just one more thing to file in the 'regrets' folder which sits adjacent to the 'treasured memories' folder, both of which are housed in a brain that Robin Downie did a great deal to shape and improve nearly 40 years ago.
Alan McIntyre is a Trustee and Patron of the Institute of Contemporary Scotland