Obituary: David Braine, leading Catholic philosopher who battled disability

'Vigour and generosity in the face of great suffering': David Braine

The Catholic academic David Braine, who has died aged 76, exerted a major influence on philosophy and theology, and became a celebrated figure in Aberdeen for his courage in facing severe disability. His three major works – The Reality of Time and the Existence of God, The Human Person, and Language and Human Understanding – established him as a pioneer in the movement known today as Analytical Thomism.

David Dimond Conway Braine was born in 1940, the son of Edith Braine, a secondary school teacher, and Charles Dimond Conway Braine, a civil engineer. He had a conventional Anglican upbringing, attending a traditional public school. His conversion to Catholicism occurred in his early teens. Although he was eloquent on the invalidity of Anglican Orders, he liked to point out that in a technical sense he never converted. When he approached a Catholic priest to be received into the Church, he was (correctly) informed that a child who is validly baptised automatically becomes a Catholic, and so until the age of fourteen a child baptised by an irregular minister is presumed to be in good faith. All David thus needed to do was to make his first confession and first communion and be added to the register.

As an undergraduate Braine attended Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was profoundly affected by his encounters with Elizabeth Anscombe and the University’s Catholic chaplain. British academia in the early sixties was a more traditional and spontaneous place than today. David was studying for the BPhil when his tutor said, “I think they are looking for someone up in Aberdeen. Why don’t you go and see such-and-such…” So the young philosopher got on a train to Scotland, wandered into King’s College and explained, “Old man such-and-such said you were looking for someone.” They casually hired him on the spot, and that is where David spent the rest of his life.

When David Braine arrived, Aberdeen University, founded by Pope Alexander VI in 1495, was still a very traditional institution. The Scottish universities had until recently had their own MP in the House of Commons. The bursary examination for a sixteen-year old applicant to Aberdeen involved the unseen translation of an article from that day’s Times into Greek, in the style of a randomly selected ancient author (Democritus, Thucydides etc). The students still wore distinctive red gowns.

Braine enjoyed the robust atmosphere, jovially debating the great issues of metaphysics, epistemology, and moral and political philosophy with his friend EBF Midgley in the “Beasty” (the Red Lion Pub). Later David lived on the High Street of Old Aberdeen and became an institution in the life of the University and of the Catholic community.

His time in the North-East of Scotland might have been merely an extended episode in his life, had it not been for the devastating car accident which paralysed him from the chest down in 1977. He had wanted to become a Dominican priest but his terrible injuries made this impossible. With the funds he received in compensation for the accident, David bought a grand but dilapidated house, Greenlaw Court, next to the former town hall of Old Aberdeen. He populated the house with a diverse and often rather bohemian collection of students who could help him cope with his non-functioning bodily processes. Here he wrote his various vast tomes.

Braine himself did not always accept the title Thomist, but his three major works The Reality of Time, The Human Person and Language and Human Understanding take up traditional themes in natural theology and hylemorphic anthropology and come to traditional conclusions. The route by which those conclusions are reached is, however, less familiar and quite demanding upon the reader.

He lived in a certain amount of squalor, but this did not concern him in the least. He breathed (and so spoke) very oddly because of the accident. This allowed him to control a conversation, because he could pause in the middle of sentences for a very long time so you couldn’t interrupt him and he could hold you there with his voice for as long as he liked. He ate a Brussels sprout like Charles Laughton’s Henry VIII. People who came to know David later attributed many of his eccentricities to the accident, but those who had known him beforehand claimed that most of them pre-dated it.

Braine was a considerable character and a more important thinker than is always appreciated. The complexity of his prose could sometimes put readers off: an atheist Oxford don who ploughed through one of his major works is supposed to have remarked, “Having completed Mr David Braine’s work The Reality of Time and the Existence of God, while I remain unconvinced of the existence of God, the reality of time has been brought home to me with some force.” Braine’s great trilogy of works will perhaps now stand out with more brilliance as the monument to a great man and a profound thinker and receive the attention it deserves, just as his vigour and generosity in the face of great suffering will endure forever as a monument to God’s grace.

He passed away in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary on 17th February. After his funeral in Aberdeen Cathedral on the 9th March, David was laid to rest in the spiritual heart of Aberdeen Diocese, the restored medieval abbey of Pluscarden near Elgin. The abbey’s motto may serve as a final word on his life: In loco isto dabo pacem (Haggai 2:10: “In this place I will give peace, saith the Lord”).