Wolfe Mays (1912–2005)

Wolfe Mays was an eminent philosopher with a national and international reputation, warmly praised for his teaching by former students, but one whose interests could never be described as falling neatly within the orthodoxy of post-war British analytic philosophy. As a graduate research student at the University of Cambridge he attended lectures given by Ludwig Wittgenstein whom he regarded as a charismatic lecturer and someone he knew outside the lecture theatre in a personal capacity (he subsequently wrote an account of Wittgenstein’s 1908–1911 period in Manchester and was particularly proud of the fact that he had been able to locate the plans of the jet-engine which Wittgenstein had constructed). He received his PhD from King’s College Cambridge in 1944. The following year he took up an Assistant post teaching Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh for one year and in 1946 he moved to Manchester University where he remained until his retirement in 1979, having been made Reader in Philosophy in 1969.

Mays’ interests in philosophy were extraordinarily varied, a privilege which many young philosophers might envy. There is perhaps a link through all of them which reveals his theoretical, psychological and practical interest in the understanding of the very activity of thinking and learning. Very early on he was working on the question of how far mental activities might be simulated mechanically, work which he discussed with his Manchester colleagues Alan Turing and Michael Polanyi and which was clearly the precursor of what came subsequently to be known as artificial intelligence. Not only did he teach the Philosophy of Science—he had a particular interest in the historical development of scientific method in the work of Bacon and Galileo—there was clearly an intellectual leaning towards science even at the practical level, as can be seen in his early 1950s collaborative construction (with D. Prinz of Ferranti) of one of the first electrical relay logic machines in this country. He was even involved in an early attempt in 1955 to establish a Museum of Science and Technology in Manchester which he saw as the precursor of the present Museum of Science and Industry. His fascination with questions of the genesis of thinking and learning, how we actually move from a state of not knowing to one of understanding, led him to the work that the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was involved in. In 1953 Mays was invited by Jean Piaget to come to Geneva and write a report on the feasibility of establishing a centre devoted to research in genetic epistemology. Mays was one of the founding members of the resultant “Centre International d’épistémologie Génétique”. He subsequently co-authored two books with Piaget and translated four more of his books from the French.

Mays had a continuing interest in the mathematician/philosopher A.N. Whitehead, in particular his event theory of time and his attempts to apply logical concepts to physical systems. Two books on Whitehead and a number of articles were to follow.

Finally, Mays was one of the first to develop the study of continental philosophy in Britain when it was very much a Cinderella subject, not only teaching Husserlian phenomenology, but Sartre and Heidegger. He persuaded a number of continental philosophers to come to lecture in Manchester including the phenomenologists Maurice Merleau-Ponty from the College de France and Roman Ingarden from Cracow University. His proudest achievement academically was his founding of The Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology in 1970. From that time right up to his death he remained the editor of the journal and frequently noted that he had written the editorial for most issues.

Following his retirement from the University of Manchester he was offered a post-retirement position and office in what was at that time the Manchester Polytechnic and where he had a number of friends. He was attached to the Institute of Advanced Studies and there he held an Emeritus Leverhulme Fellowship, was Director of the Intellectual Skills project which ran from 1983–1985, was additionally responsible for establishing a Jean Piaget Centre, and generally involved himself in assisting the development of what was a fledgling Philosophy subject area, co-founding the Human Sciences Seminar (whose weekly meetings he attended almost unfailingly in its twenty five year existence) and the Northern Association for Philosophy, as well as continuing his editorship of the Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology. His directorship of the Intellectual Skills Project was not merely an academic activity for Mays; it pulled together many aspects of his interest in understanding how we learn and come to know which have been already referred to. The project was funded by the EEC in cooperation with the City of Manchester Education Committee and its aim was to look for ways of improving the intellectual skills of young persons in school and in continuing education. The project looked comparatively at the work of Piaget and Feuerstein and also the Socratic method of philosophy. Curriculum materials were developed and piloted in various educational centres in Manchester and, through Mays’s connections with Matthew Lipman’s Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children in the U.S.A., Manchester became one of the earliest education localities in Britain to pilot the teaching of Philosophy for Children in its schools. Mays recently commented that he thought that the questions the project dealt with were more than ever relevant to today’s educational scene. He reminded me that this project, established in 1982, followed on from work that he had been doing in schools in Moss Side in Manchester some 25 years earlier, in 1957, when he had attempted to accelerate the formation of concepts in disadvantaged children by teaching them simplified logic. Mays always thought the activity of teaching important, including his own teaching in the University, and he claimed that the lessons learnt from his own extra-mural experience in teaching large numbers of ex-service men led to him becoming interested in improving more generally the quality of the University in the teaching of its students. In 1996 he was made Honorary Visiting Professor in the, by now, Manchester Metropolitan University where he continued to work, albeit with progressive difficulties about actually getting in to work, until the time of his death. He thrived on his continued association with his philosopher colleagues both in Manchester and elsewhere.

Works Cited and Further Readings

W. Mays’s Works

1945. “Whitehead’s Account of Speculative Philosophy in Process and Reality”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 46, pp. 17-46.

1951. “Whitehead’s Theory of Abstraction”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, n. s. 3 (52), pp. 95-118.

1953. “The Multiple Location (or inherence) Theory of Perception”, in Actes du XIe Congrès International de Philosophie, Bruxelles, 20-26 août 1953, vol. II (épistémologie), Amsterdam/Louvain, North-Holland Publishing Co./Ed Nauwelaert.

1955. “Determinism and Free Will in Whitehead”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 523-534.

1959. The Philosophy of Whitehead, London/New York, George Allen and Unwin Ltd./The MacMillan Company (Reprint: Routledge 2003)

1961. “The Relevance of “On Mathematical Concepts of the Material World” to Whitehead’s Philosophy”, in Ivor Leclerc (ed.), The Relevance of Whitehead. Philosophical Essays in Commemoration of the Century of the Birth of A.N. Whitehead, London/New York, George Allen and Unwin Ltd/Humanities Press Inc., pp. 235-260.

1961. “Whitehead and the Idea of Equivalence”, Revue Internationale de Philosophie, vol. XV, no. 56-57, fasc. 3 – 4, pp. 167-184.

1965. “Whitehead”, in Chambers Encyclopaedia.

1970. “Whitehead and the Philosophy of Time”, Studium Generale, 23, pp. 509-524.

1977. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science and Metaphysics. An Introduction to His Thought, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff.

Collective Works and Translations

Beth, Evert W. ; Piaget, Jean ; Mays, Wolfe. 1966. Mathematical Epistemology and Psychology. Transl. from the French by W. Mays, Dordrecht, Reidel.

Beth, W. E.; Mays, Wolfe; Piaget, Jean. 1957. Épistémologie génétique et recherche psychologique, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France.

Curtis, Bernard and Mays, Wolfe (eds.). 1978. Phenomenology and Education. Self-Consciousness and its Development, London, Methuen.

Mays, Wolfe (ed.). 1972. Linguistic Analysis and Phenomenology. Philosophers into Europe Conference (University of Southampton, 1969), Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press.

Piaget, Jean and Mays, Wolfe. 1953. Logic and Psychology. With an introd. on Piaget’s logic by W. Mays, Manchester, Manchester university press.

Piaget, Jean and Mays, Wolfe. 1972. Insights and Illusions of philosophy. Transl. from the French by Wolfe Mays, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Piaget, Jean and Mays, Wolfe. 1972. The Principles of Genetic Epistemology. Transl. from the French by Wolfe Mays, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Author Information

Mike Garfield
Department of Politics and Philosophy
Manchester Metropolitan University

How to Cite this Article

Garfield, Mike, “Wolfe Mays (1912–2005)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <http://encyclopedia.whiteheadresearch.org/entries/bios/scholarly-legacy/wolfe-mays/>.