The Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Philosophers


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Warnock, Helen Mary, Baroness Warnock of Weeke (née Wilson: 1924–2019)

Warnock, Helen Mary, Baroness Warnock of Weeke (née Wilson: 1924–2019)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052437-0448

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    Thoemmes Continuum
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Mary Warnock was born Mary Wilson on 14 April 1924 in the City of Winchester. She was educated at St Swithin’s School, Winchester and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford and was married in 1949 to the philosopher Sir. Geoffrey Warnock , who died in 1995. She was a fellow and tutor in philosophy at St Hugh’s College, Oxford from 1949 to 1966, proceeding from there to occupy the post of Headmistress of Oxford High School (GPDST) from 1966 to 1972. From 1972 to 1976 she was Talbot Residential Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford (to which she was appointed honorary fellow in 1984), and from 1976 to 1984 was senior research fellow at St Hugh’s College, Oxford (to which she was appointed honorary fellow in 1985). She was also Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge from 1984 to 1991.

Although many distinguished twentieth-century British philosophers have made significant contributions to the wider worlds of public life and policy, surely few could match Mary Warnock’s achievements in this regard. Indeed, Warnock’s notable public reputation undoubtedly rests on her high-profile role as chair of or contributor to numerous official commissions of enquiry into a wide range of issues of pressing contemporary concern. These have included committees of enquiry on special education (1974–8, leading to the influential Warnock Report), environmental pollution (1979–84), animal experimentation (1979–85), human fertilization (from 1982–4), public sector higher education (1984), teaching quality (1990), bioethics (1992–4) and medical ethics (1992-present). She was made a life peer in 1985 and took the title Baroness Warnock of Weeke. She was Gifford Lecturer at Glasgow University in 1991 to 1992 and Reid Tuckwell Lecturer at the University of Bristol in 1992. She was also Leverhulme Fellow from 1992 to 1994, as well as fellow of numerous Royal Societies, and she holds honorary degrees from many British universities and colleges.

In addition to these achievements, however, Warnock has written over twenty books and published lectures, as well as many book chapters and journal articles, on an extraordinary range of philosophical and public policy issues. Although it is not easy to do full justice to the full range of interests evident in this prolific output, I shall for the purposes of this short profile consider Warnock’s published work under three or four broad, albeit overlapping, headings. The first heading covers those works expressive of her long-standing interest in the history of philosophical thought, and of an abiding educational concern to communicate the value and purposes of philosophy to a wider public. One major strand of her work in this field, from the publication of her first work Ethics since 1900 (1960) to her more recent Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics (1998) and Nature and Morality (2003), has been on the nature and purposes of moral enquiry – although her work The Uses of Philosophy (1992) and a more recent edited selection of readings under the title Women Philosophers (1996) bear witness to philosophical interests ranging well beyond the moral or ethical to questions of metaphysics and philosophical psychology. One might also mention here Warnock’s editing of and introduction to a still widely used edition of the key essays of J.S. Mill (Utilitarianism, 1970). However, another aspect of Warnock’s more general historical interests is apparent in a focus, somewhat unusual for an Oxford analytical philosopher of her time, on mainland European currents of philosophy – though she has since made it clear (see Pyle) that such interest was not entirely self-initiated. Although this focus is most apparent in such early works as The Philosophy of Sartre (1963), Existentialist Ethics (1966) and Existentialism (1970), Warnock has continued to be exercised by the philosophical problems and preoccupations of phenomenologists and existentialists in many later works – especially those concerned with the nature of imagination, memory and time.

It is arguably Baroness Warnock’s extensive exploration of these topics that represents her most significant mainstream philosophical legacy, and the next area of her work to be considered here. In her earliest excursion into this territory, Imagination (1976), Warnock precisely sets out to explore what had until then been and still continues to be relatively uncharted philosophical issues of the nature and developmental significance of imaginative capacities. Although her treatment of these issues starts from fairly conventional analytical explorations of the work of Kant and Hume, it proceeds to give more unusual attention (for that time) to the work of such phenomenologists and existentialists as Merleau-Ponty and Sartre (with substantial nods also in the directions of Ryle and Wittgenstein ). However, on the journey from Enlightenment to modern philosophy, Warnock also devotes even more uncommon attention (at any rate in the literature of analytical philosophy) to the work of such romantic poets as Coleridge and Wordsworth. Although it is nowadays less unusual to find philosophers, especially so-called ‘applied’ philosophers, drawing on a diversity of philosophical traditions, or even upon non-philosophical literary sources, such wide-ranging interests were less common at the time of Warnock’s early work on imagination, and seem already indicative of a bold and independent philosophical spirit. In her work Memory (1987), moreover, Warnock returns to issues and problems closely related to those of Imagination. Treating memory as essentially a species of imagination, this work explores the implications of both memory and imagination for our understanding of self and personal identity via exploration of such other neglected topics as autobiography. More recently still, in her Imagination and Time (1994), based mainly on her 1991/2 Gifford and 1992 Reed Tuckwell lectures, Warnock has attempted a further more integrated development of these key themes of imagination, memory, personal identity, autobiography and narrative. Warnock’s original and distinctive approach to these topics – not least her skilful interweaving of insights from diverse, literary as well as philosophical, traditions – has also retained much of its freshness, and these works may still be considered useful philosophical points of departure for contemporary work on the philosophical psychology of imagination and memory.

The third key area of Warnock’s work for present attention relates to her more public career as a professional educationalist, and as ethical consultant on a wide range of official committees convened to address issues of general public concern and policy. This field, which might nowadays be called that of applied ethics, covers two principal areas of concern. On the one hand, in A Question of Life (1985) and Making Babies (2002) as well as in her more recent Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics and Nature and Morality, Warnock has been significantly exercised by questions of how recent advances in modern medicine – such as in vitro fertilization and embryo research might be normatively addressed and evaluated with a view to the framing of (broadly liberal-democratic) public policy and legislation, and the appropriate regulation of medical practice. However, while A Question of Life (essentially a 1985 republication of the 1984 HMSO Report of the Committee of Enquiry into Human Fertilization and Embryology) mainly addresses the normative complexities and policy implications of such medical advances as artificial fertilization, surrogate motherhood and cloning, and the earlier parts of Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics cover these as well as related issues of the legitimacy or otherwise of abortion, Warnock’s more recent Making Babies extends the moral debate to the further question of the right to have children – or more specifically the right of those who cannot naturally reproduce to artificial assistance. On the other hand, in the light of a long-standing involvement with professional education including six years as a headmistress of an Oxford school – it is hardly surprising that an even larger proportion of Warnock’s applied ethics output has been devoted to the analysis of a range of issues of educational theory, policy and practice. In this connection she has over the years produced a string of notable works on issues of basic schooling, higher education and professional teacher education and training, namely: Schools of Thought (1977), (with T. Devlin) What Must we Teach? (1977), Education a Way Ahead (1979), Teacher Teach Thyself (a Dimbleby Lecture) (1985), A Common Policy for Education (1988) and Universities: Knowing our Minds (1989).

The distinctiveness and originality of Warnock’s thought on educational policy and practice also clearly owes much to her other philosophical work on ethics, aesthetics and imagination. Indeed, one of Warnock’s key concerns is that education and teaching should above all aim to stimulate and engage the imagination of learners. In this connection, she has been variably receptive to certain postwar trends towards common (albeit variably accessible) curricular provision in general schooling. Despite the impact on present-day British (English and Scottish) curriculum policy and planning of a widely influential postwar liberal educational view of education as broad rational initiation into a range of logically distinct forms of knowledge and understanding, Warnock has been sceptical of the alleged epistemic grounds of such a view – questioning the very coherence of generic ‘scientific’ or ‘artistic’ forms of reason – and has doubted whether any ‘one size fits all’ approach to educational provision is appropriate to the needs of every young person. Thus, in her paper ‘Towards a Definition of Quality in Education’ (1973), Warnock maintains that such broad initiation, at least at the later stages of compulsory education, may be achieved only at the expense of real depth of understanding, and so consequently fail to engage the imagination and commitment of young people – further arguing that it may be better for some to leave school with ‘one genuine enthusiasm’ rather than a shallow acquaintance with a wider range of subject content. However, this theme also clearly connects with other emphases in Warnock’s writings on the importance of developing the emotions through artistic and cultural initiation, and with her early advocacy of a broadly Aristotelian virtue-ethical approach to moral development. Although virtue-ethical approaches to moral education with their marked emphasis on the development of character and feeling have gained ground in recent years, Warnock was one of the first postwar educational philosophers to defend such an approach in opposition to the prevailing cognitive developmentism of liberal theories of moral education. Likewise, in further anticipation of more recently fashionable views, Warnock was also – though without reneging (in the manner of some latter-day utilitarians) on the general ideals of liberal education – an early advocate of the motivational as well as economic value and importance of a strong vocational element in common schooling. However, Warnock has written insightfully on a great many other educational issues – including higher education and professional teacher training – which are impossible to pursue in detail here.

In sum, Warnock’s place and reputation in twentieth-century British philosophy is a fairly singular one. While it is certainly possible to think of other contemporary philosophers who have sought to apply their ideas to wider problems of policy and practice, and whose reputations have consequently extended beyond the narrow confines of philosophical academia, it is hard to think of any who have in the manner of Warnock combined extraordinary academic fertility – in such a wide diversity of philosophical fields – with a no less extraordinary extra-academic public and professional profile. In the course of a long and distinguished career, Warnock has not only contributed significantly to philosophical progress on a variety of problems, but has also succeeded in raising the quality of non-academic debate on a range of issues of deep public and professional concern with an industry and a commitment which surely few others could achieve in a single lifetime.


‘The Justification of Emotions’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, suppl. vol. 31, (1957), pp. 43–58.

Ethics Since 1900 (Oxford, 1960; 3rd edn, 1978).

The Philosophy of Sartre (1963).

Existentialist Ethics (1966).

‘The Concrete Imagination’, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, vol. 1 (1970), pp. 6–12.

‘Imagination in Sartre’, British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 10 (1970), pp. 323–36.

Existentialism (Oxford, 1970).

(Ed.), John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1970).

‘Towards a Definition of Quality in Education’, in R.S. Peters (ed.), The Philosophy of Education (Oxford, 1973), pp. 112–22 .

‘The Neutral Teacher’, in M. Taylor (ed.), Progress and Problems in Moral Education (Slough, 1975), pp. 103–12 .

Imagination (1976).

Schools of Thought (1977).

(with T. Devlin), What Must we Teach? (1977).

The Concept of Educational Need [Charles Gittins Lecture] (Swansea, 1978).

Education a Way Ahead (Oxford, 1979).

A Question of Life (Oxford, 1985).

Teacher Teach Thyself [Dimbleby Lecture](1985).

‘The Education of the Emotions’, in D.E. Cooper (ed.), Education, Values and Mind: Essays for R.S. Peters (1986), pp. 172–87 .

Morality and the Law: Some Problems [Lord Morris Memorial Lecture] (Cardiff, 1986).

Memory (1987).

A Common Policy for Education (Oxford, 1988).

Universities: Knowing our Minds (1989).

The Uses of Philosophy (Oxford, 1992).

Imagination and Time (Oxford, 1994).

The Educational Obligations of the State , in J.J. Haldane (ed.). Education, Values and the State [Victor Cook Memorial Lectures] (St Andrews, 1994).

(Ed.), Women Philosophers (1996).

An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics (1998).

(Ed. with Mark Wallinger), Art for All: Their Policies and Our Culture (2000).

The Foundations of Morality [Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture](2002).

Making Babies (Oxford, 2002).

Nature and Morality: Recollections of a Philosopher in Public Life (2003).

Other Relevant Works

Mary Warnock: A Memoir (2000).

Further Reading

Brown, Andrew, ‘The Practical Philosopher’, The Guardian, 19 July 2003.

Pyle, Andrew, Conversations with Key Philosophers: The Cogito Interviews (1999), interview with Mary Warnock.