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Professor Humphrey Palmer


His former colleagues in the fields of  Religious Studies and of Philosophy regret to announce the death on 5th March 2021 of Professor Humphrey Palmer, a distinguished philosopher who joined the Philosophy Department of the then University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire in 1958and served for ten years till his retirement in 1994 as Head of the Department of Religious Studies.

Nathaniel Humphrey Palmer was born at Keighley, West Yorkshire in November1930. After attending various schools, as his father was a teacher who moved between various teaching posts, Humphrey won an exhibition and then a scholarship to Westminster School, subsequently matriculating at Christ Church, Oxford. Being a conscientious objector, he fulfilled his National Service working as an agricultural labourer while living in the Brewhouse there, before reading Literae Humaniores (‘Greats’). At Oxford he met a postgraduate student from India, Elizabeth Theophilus, who was studying at St. Anne’s College. Humphrey subsequently taught for a year or two at a missionary college in North India, and he and Elizabeth were married in Tambaram, near Madras, in December 1956. Shortly after their return to the UK,  Humphrey was appointed to the Philosophy Department in Cardiff to teach both Philosophy and Theology. His University of Wales doctorate came in  1966 with The Logic of Criticism: An Analysis of the Methods of Textual and Documentary  Critics with Special Reference to  Epistemological Problems in Biblical Historiography, subsequently published as a highly regarded book entitled The Logic of Gospel Criticism (1968).

Logic, language, and their employment in religious and theological studies were at the centre of Humphrey’s academic interests. The Logic of Gospel Criticism examined the logical status of arguments concerning the relationships between the different New Testament Gospels, and he returned to biblical studies in his retirement with a volume on How Parables Work (2008). Two other books were especially concerned with theological language: Analogy: A Study of Qualification and Argument in Theology (1973), and Religion, Language, and Theology (1977). Together with these he had a specialist interest in the philosophy of Kant, which found expression not only in his monograph on Presupposition and Transcendental Inference (1985) and in Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”: An Introductory Text (1983), but also in his Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”: An Abridged Translation (1993) and his translation of the neo-Kantian Leonard Nelson’s Progress and Regress in Philosophy (1970).

Humphrey was also greatly interested in helping students understand logic and rational argumentation. To this end he wrote Arguing for Beginners: A Fresh Approach to Reasoning (1979) and, with Donald Evans, Understanding Arguments (1983, 2nd edition 1986). Alongside these philosophical concerns, he maintained an interest in Indian thought. Resulting from his supervision of a graduate student in Cardiff, Śaiva Siddhānta : An Indian School of Mystical Thought Presented as a System and Documented from the Original Tamil Sources by H.W. Schomerus: Translated from the German by Mary Law and Edited by Humphrey Palmer was published in Delhi in 2000. An intriguing sidelight on some of his wide-ranging interests is cast by the publication of his earliest work, written together with Elizabeth: Palmers' Common Tamil Words : A Pocket Dictionary English to Tamil (published by the authors at Madras, 1964).

Humphrey arrived in Cardiff  to a university college in which the teaching of Theology  had been a convoluted and a peripatetic affair. At various times it had had a base in Cathedral Road, the Law Building, in houses in Park Place and later (with the teaching of Religion) more than once in the Humanities (John Percival) Building, where it eventually settled. A Department of Biblical Studies and Semitic languages had operated alongside a Faculty of Theology which incorporated local theological colleges. Post-merger, however, a 1980s consolidation of the Faculty of Theology with what was now a Department of Religious Studies saw Humphrey Palmer as both Head of Department in Religious Studies and Dean of the Faculty of Theology. His tenure brought the establishment of a much more coherent academic relationship between the two, and at the same time he was steering a small but research active department through turbulent times during which small departments were perceived in some quarters as financially unviable.  He oversaw the growth of Religious Studies with the appointment of new staff who provided additional expertise in language teaching and in the history of religion and Indian religions.  The further-expanded Department of Religious and Theological Studies which developed in the years after his retirement owed a huge debt to what he had set in place.

He is recalled for much more than these things, however, and with great affection, by those who worked with him: for his sometimes surprising hands-on and do-it-yourself practicality; for his cheerful co-operation with learners on many fronts, be it through the Extra Mural Studies department, in relating to schoolteachers’ ‘in-service’ days, or acting as a ‘witness’ for Law students practicing the technique of witness examination. With a quiet, measured, and unassuming manner, and a quizzical smile, Professor Humphrey Palmer was a person of kindness and great humanity as well as scholarship. Beyond the University he is also remembered with much affection in Penarth, where he and Elizabeth had lived since 1976 and where, with his enthusiasm for outdoor activities, he enjoyed sailing with the Penarth Yacht Club and walking with a South Wales mountain walking group. There also, during his retirement, both he and Elizabeth were popular and much-loved volunteers in the local Oxfam shop. He is survived by Elizabeth and Jeremy their son, to whom we extend our deepest sympathy.

Robin Attfield, Christine Trevett and John Watt