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In this post, Shannon Gadd, who took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015, writes about ‘Surrealism’ as a philosophical keyword.

Stereotypical views of life tend to focus on the negative, adopting words such as dull, logical and ordinary. There does however seem to be an alternative to this routine monotony which is found in the philosophy of surrealism. Rejecting the rational, contradicting the conscious and negating the normal, surrealists adopt a view of life that seeks to liberate the imagination and study the unconscious and its dream like state. It is normally studied through the artistic movement that erupted in France in the 1920s.

Persistence of Memory

The Persistence of Memory, 1931, by the Spanish surrealist artist, Salvador Dalí

Surrealism is, however, more than just an artistic movement. It is more than an aesthetic. There is a strong political undertone to surrealism that seeks to reject the rational and moral obligations of ordinary life. As Michael Richardson succinctly puts, surrealism is not about conjuring up that which can be defined and magical and unusual. Rather, surrealism looks for the points of contact and conjunctions between different realms of existence.[1] It is also important to note that the surrealist is not incapable of rational thought just because he rejects it. The drawing upon irrational thought and the focus on the subconscious only allows the surrealist to promote himself as a revolutionary thinker. Simply, surrealism would condemn that which puts artistic accomplishment and aestheticism before revolutionary spirit and thought.[2]



Guillaume Apollinaire, 1880 – 1918. Poet, playwright and founder of the word ‘surrealism’.

1920s France was a hot bed for art and poetry. However ‘surrealism’, or surréalisme, entered the French over a decade earlier. The word was first used in the preface to Guillaume Apollinaire’s play Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1903) in which he claims to “forge the surreal adjective.”[3] Guillaume Apollinaire The word was meant to represent something beyond reality and something that could not be imagined. In Apollinaire’s own words, think of Surrealism as such: When man “wished to imitate his own walk, he created the wheel; he thus made super-realism without knowing he did.”[4]

Surrealism is said to have its roots in the earlier artistic movement, Dadaism. The Dadaist painter Francis Picabia claims that “Dada is the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for art and…laid the foundation for surrealism”.[5] Simply, Dadaism was the belief that rational thought and bourgeoisie values were the source of world conflict.  Surrealism began to grow as a force of its own through the aid of André Breton and Philippe Soupault who published what is now known as the first Surrealist work, The Magnetic Fields in 1920. It distinguished itself from other movements by rejecting the ordinary and relying on the liberation of the imagination, a focus on dreams and the unconscious and tending towards the peculiar. Sigmund Freud’s ideas were particularly influential here. The aim of this movement was hoped to be revolutionary, freeing people from the false rationality of life. In 1924, Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto which outlined the purpose of the movement as one to examine the real functioning of thought outside of reason and moral preoccupation.

British Surrealism

While surrealist activity is thought to be largely French, Surrealism entered the British philosophical and political sphere in 1936 with the formation of the British Surrealist Group and the opening of the International Surrealist Exhibition. However it has been claimed that British surrealism remained a localised movement in the 1930s and 1940s limited to London and Birmingham. The London movement quickly subsided in 1947 with the merging of London group with the French both physically and ideologically. Conroy Maddox and John Melville were the key figures of the The Birmingham Surrealists. The Birmingham Surrealists were somewhat independent of the London group, refusing their art to be shown at the Surrealist Exhibition and rejecting the London group’s anti-surrealist tendencies.

Strange Country

Conroy Maddox, The Strange Country (1940)

It seems that British Surrealism was rather confined to the academic sphere of life, but an area of surrealist thought that has often been overlooked is its link to film and theatre. What could be a greater form of escapism than film? Surrealist film sought to disorient the audience and break down the logical thinking in the mind.[6] Film was a medium for derealising the world, to nullify the norm.

Dali Hitchcock

Salvador Dalí’s dream sequence in the Alfred Hitchcock film Spellbound.

It is difficult to talk of surrealism as a modern movement, or even to relate it to the modern day as there does not seem to be any distinct surrealist ideologies in the present day. Historians have argued that the death of André Breton in 1966 marked the end of Surrealism as an organized movement whilst other historians have marked Salvador Dalí’s death in 1989 as the death of surrealism.[7] Surrealism as a political force in Britain subsided much earlier than the rest of Europe, with Poland seeing surrealist revolutionary tendencies all the way through the 1980s, with the anarchic group the Orange Alternative. It must be asked then whether surrealism as a movement, as an idea, was extremely localised.

Indeed, the political and revolutionary nature of surrealism seems to have declined more recently. Therefore it must be asked what legacy the early surrealist movement left. Is surrealism present in modern thought and culture? Modern political anarchism and revolutionary thought is certainly a descendent of the surrealist movement. I would argue that while Surrealism’s influence did indeed lessen after the 1960s, its legacy in political anarchism and surrealist humour have remained until the present day. There is an undeniable influence of surrealism in British comedy as early as the 1940s with the absurdist comedian Spike Milligan. However, surrealist humour found its form in Britain much later, as seen with the eruption of alternative comedy scene in the 1980s through the popular television show The Comedy Strip Presents, spawning comedians such as Rik Mayall, Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle.  Perhaps, then,  surrealism and satire became more closely intertwined as opposed to the idea of surrealism being its own strand of political and philosophical thought. The 1980s was dominated with absurdist comedy which saw television shows such as the completely absurdist Young Ones grow in popularity, as in the following extract which  demonstrates the politically anarchic nature of this kind of surrealism.

Surrealist humour has remained popular up to the present day with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer dominating the absurd comedy scene with Shooting Stars in the 1990s. More recently, comedians such as Eddie Izzard and Noel Fielding have adopted distinctly surreal ideologies in their career.  This is arguably the first time that Surrealism came into the popular and public life and arguably the first time surrealism had a real cultural impact on the masses. Previously surrealism had been confined to philosophers, academics and artists and was, somewhat, inaccessible. However the eruption of the British alternative comedy scene made surrealism accessible.

Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer in Shooting Stars.

Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer in Shooting Stars.

Noel Fielding

Noel Fielding in the Mighty Boosh

I feel like I should reject the view that Surrealism was a failed movement.[8] I also feel like I should defend surrealism and its legacy. While it did have its ‘golden age’ in the 1920s and 1930s and while it did not seem to be as strong in England as it did continentally, surrealism has indeed penetrated British public and cultural life whether consciously or unconsciously, intendedly or unintendedly. This cultural breakthrough, arguably, has spawned an era of political anarchism and perhaps renewed the interest in politics and encouraged the rejection of moral and cultural obligations. Historians have also argued that surrealism left a very great legacy in that of feminism. Due to surrealism’s inherent rejection of the conscious life and their appreciation of revolution, they battled against patriarchal institutions such as the church, the government which sought to regulate the woman. Surrealism, then, gave escape to this patriarchy and allowed for social and artistic resistance that liberated feminine imagination.

To finish, I would like to think that every time a person seeks to escape from the limitations of life or tries to relinquish the shackles of appropriateness and cultural obligation, this is a legacy created by surrealism. Every time a person rejects their physical surroundings and questions their government, they have surrealist ideas in mind.

Further Reading:

Caws, Mary Ann, Surrealism (London: Phaidon, 2010).

Harris, S., Surrealist art and thought in the 1930’s: art, politics, and the psyche (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Lomas, D., The haunted self: surrealism, psychoanalysis, subjectivity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

Matthews, J. H., Surrealism and Film (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1971).

Parkinson, G., Surrealism and Politics: Interpretation, Determinism and Art History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).


Alexandrian, Sarane, Surrealist Art (New York: Praeger, 1970).

Matthews, J. H., Surrealism and Film (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1971).

Picabia, Francis (ed.), I Am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose, and Provocation (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007).

Richardson, Michael, Surrealism and Cinema (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2006).

Rosemont, Penelope, ‘All My Names Know Your Leap: Surrealist Women and Their Challenge’, in Penelope Rosemont, Surrealist Women: An International Anthology: The surrealist revolution series (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).

Guillaume Apollinaire, Les Mamelles de Tirésias; Preface. 1917 [ONLINE] 

Modernist Journals Project. The Egoist, vol. 5, no. 4 (1918). [ONLINE]


[1] Michael Richardson, Surrealism and Cinema (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2006), p. 3.

[2] J. H. Matthews, Surrealism and Film (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1971), p. 34.

[3] Guillaume Apollinaire, Les Mamelles de Tirésias; Preface. 1917 [ONLINE] Available at: http://wikilivres.ca/wiki/Les_Mamelles_de_Tir%C3%A9sias/Pr%C3%A9face. [Accessed 01 March 15].

[4] Modernist Journals Project. The Egoist, vol. 5, no. 4 (1918). [ONLINE] Available at: http://modjourn.org/render.php?view=mjp_object&id=1308747513821877. [Accessed 01 March 15].

[5] Francis Picabia (ed.), I Am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose, and Provocation (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007), p. 1.

[6] Matthews, Surrealism and film, p. 89.

[7] Sarane Alexandrian, Surrealist Art (New York: Praeger, 1970), p. 232.

[8] Rosemont, Penelope, “All My Names Know Yopur Leap: Surrealist Women & Their Challenge”, in Penelope Rosemont, Surrealist Women: An International Anthology: The surrealist revolution series (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).


This post by Thomas Dixon is the first in a series on Philosophical Keywords, exploring the changing historical uses, meanings and impacts of philosophical terms which have taken on broader cultural resonance. 

A couple of years ago, travelling on the Central Line to Mile End on the London underground, I started to notice a series of posters and images like the one below – using the familiar imagery of the London tube map to suggest connections being made between people – the red line was now not linking Liverpool Street to Bank but ‘self’ to ‘other’.

'Fellow Feeling' copyright © Michael Landy 2011

‘Fellow Feeling’ copyright © Michael Landy 2011

This struck me as an interesting expression of the philosophy of altruism – the idea that the essence of moral goodness is a devotion not to self (egoism) but to others (altruism). The term ‘altruism’ ultimately derives from the Latin word alter, meaning ‘other’. Intrigued by the artworks on the tube, I searched online to find out more about them. It turned out that they were part of a project called ‘Acts of Kindness’ by the artist Michael Landy who said about the project, ‘I want to find out what makes us human, and what connects us, beyond material things. For me the answer is compassion and kindness.’

There is now a kindness movement, with followers all over the world celebrating the value of what are sometimes referred to as ‘random acts of kindness’ towards others – often strangers. Such acts are also recommended by proponents of ‘positive psychology’ such as the UK organization Action for Happiness. The kindness and happiness movements are quite recent phenomena, and they tend to recommend altruism – doing good to others – on the apparently paradoxical basis that it is good for our own mental health. The ideal of altruism to which these movements appeal, however, has a longer, and quite surprising history.

‘Altruism’ entered the English language in 1852. Before then, there were all sorts of moral virtues, philosophical isms, charitable intentions, and perhaps even random acts of kindness too, but no ‘altruism’. The term had been coined just a year before in French – altruisme – by the pioneering philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte (1798–1857), in his System of Positive Polity (1851-1854). Altruisme was the name Comte gave to the other-regarding social instincts, and he located them physically towards the front of the human brain. ‘Altruism’ was a keyword not just in Comte’s speculative early brain science, but also in the atheistic religion that he founded, with himself as its High Priest – the Religion of Humanity – which was designed as a substitute for Catholicism, complete with its own calendar of secular saints and festivals, and humanistic hymns. The main aim of the Religion of Humanity, along with Comte’s envisaged re-organisation of society (things would be run mainly by bankers and scientists) was to see egoism subordinated to his new ideal of ‘altruism’ throughout the civilized world.

A gallery of some of the secular saints - including men of science and Madame Clotilde de Vaux - in the Comte's Chapel of Humanity in Paris. J.P. Dalbéra WikiCommons/ FlickR.

A gallery of some of the secular saints – including men of art, science and politics and a figure representing Comte’s belief in the moral superiority of women – in Comte’s Chapel of Humanity in Paris. Picture credit:  J.P. Dalbéra WikiCommons/ FlickR.

In the decades following its coinage, ‘altruism’ really took off. It became a fashionable term first among scientific atheists sympathetic to Comte’s ‘Religion of Humanity’. Later, British philanthropists and socialists of various kinds found it a convenient term to express their devotion to all classes of society and even to the whole human race.[1] The word was initially resisted by clergymen as an unnecessary scientific neologism – one pertinently asked whether it was really a ‘sweeter or better word than charity’ – but eventually it was even appropriated by Christians too, most notably the Scottish evangelical Henry Drummond in the 1890s, as nothing less than a synonym for Christian love.[2] Today ‘altruism’ is a modern philosophical keyword of quite wide appeal, and it still retains a flavour of its scientific and its humanistic origins: it is used both as a technical term in evolutionary biology and as an approving term within those systems of secular thought for which devotion to one’s fellow human beings, or to Humanity as a whole, is the foundation of ethics.

It is pretty surprising that Comte’s ‘altruism’ was such a successful neologism in the English-speaking world. The Religion of Humanity, although it had some followers in Britain, was widely mocked by leading British intellectuals, such as the evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) . Comte had been a respected historian and philosopher of the sciences, but as his career wore on, he became obsessed not only with his new religion, but also with the sacred memory of a married woman – Madame Clotilde de Vaux, to whom he had become spiritually and affectionately devoted before she died. In the British press Comte was ridiculed as eccentric, egotistical, tedious and humourless.

Several British visitors to Auguste Comte’s flat in Paris, including the philosophers Alexander Bain and Herbert Spencer, formed very unfavourable impressions of the man. Indeed, the British reputation of Comte in his later years in some ways foreshadows the very negative reception of ‘Continental’ philosophy in Britain during the twentieth century, as something both foreign and dangerous.[3] In his classic work, On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill described the social and religious system envisaged by Comte as ‘a despotism of society over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political ideal of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers’.[4]

The two figures who probably had the most impact in spreading the use of ‘altruism’ as a term of both science and ethics in Britain in the century and a half since Comte’s death were both popular writers devoted to the theory of evolution and hostile to religion: the philosopher Herbert Spencer (1825–1903), and the scientific atheist Richard Dawkins (born 1941).

Herbert Spencer depicted as 'Philosophy' in Vanity Fair magazine in 1879.

Herbert Spencer depicted as ‘Philosophy’ in Vanity Fair magazine in 1879.

Herbert Spencer was the most famous philosopher of his day. When he was caricatured for Vanity Fair in 1879, the illustration was captioned simply ‘Philosophy’. Spencer was the embodiment of the English philosopher in the mid-Victorian period. He was hugely critical of almost all aspects of Comte’s thought, but borrowed from him the terms ‘sociology’ and ‘altruism’, which he defended as useful coinages.[5] In his book, The Data of Ethics (1879), Spencer gave his own new definition to the term ‘altruism’, using it not to name a kind of moral intention or humanistic ideal, as Comte had done, but to refer to animal behaviour.

Spencer redefined ‘altruism’ to mean ‘all action which, in the normal course of things, benefits others instead of benefiting self.’ Such altruism, Spencer claimed, had been in evidence from the very dawn of life, in the lowest and simplest creatures, and especially in the evolution of the parental instincts which ultimately evolved into social sympathy. In Spencer’s broad defition, ‘acts of automatic altruism’ were to be included along with those with some conscious motivation. The splitting of the simplest single-celled organism, such as an infusorium or a protozoon in an act of reproduction, was also to qualify as an act of ‘physical altruism’.[6]

Cover of The Selfish Gene, (c) Oxford University Press, 1976.

Cover of The Selfish Gene, (c) Oxford University Press, 1976.

Almost exactly a hundred years later, Richard Dawkins shot to fame when his book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976. Whereas Spencer had taught that altruism was inherent in all animals throughout the evolutionary process, Dawkins wrote that those hoping to build a more cooperative society could expect ‘little help from biological nature’. Instead, Dawkins exhorted his readers: ‘Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.’ ‘We, alone on earth,’ Dawkins wrote, ‘can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators’.[7] The story does not end there, however, as Dawkins had second thoughts about altruism and, in his atheistic manifesto The God Delusion (2007), argued that altruism towards non-relatives was a ‘misfiring’ of a hardwired instinct that evolved through ‘kin selection’ to favour organisms who co-operated with close relatives. We used to live in groups mainly comprised of close relatives, the argument goes, and so our kindness and altruism would almost always be favouring our genetic kin. Nowadays we continue to feel pity and show generosity towards those around us, even though they are generally not our close relatives. This is a misfiring – a Darwinian mistake, but Dawkins adds, a ‘blessed’ and ‘precious’ mistake. [8] Now, it seems, Dawkins thinks we are born altruistic.

Dawkins may have changed his ideas about the naturalness of altruism, but in both cases his writings illustrate a general philosophical problem – namely the difficulty of getting by rational argument from an observation about nature to an ethical imperative – making the journey from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. This problem faces anyone trying to construct an ‘evolutionary ethics’. In the case of the quotation from The Selfish Gene, we might ask why not cultivate individualism rather than altruism? And readers of The God Delusion might reasonably wonder why Dawkins considers altruistic urges to constitute a ‘blessed’ and ‘precious’ misfiring rather than an inconvenient and undesirable malfunction. In both cases, Dawkins’s own ethical preference for altruism seems to have been imported without justification into a purportedly scientific discussion.

So, whether we are contemplating works of art on the tube, or reading popular science books, we might at any time find philosophical ideas and assumptions seeping through. Knowing a bit about the philosophical history of our everyday language can help to keep us alert.


[1] Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2008).

[2] Frederic W. Farrar, The Witness of Christ to History (London: Macmillan, 1871), pp. 144–146; see also Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, chapters 3 and 7.

[3] Thomas L. Akehurst, The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe (London: Continuum, 2010), especially chapter 1.

[4] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859), in Collected Works of John Start Mill, 33 vols, ed. John M. Robson et al. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963–1991), vol. 18, p. 227.

[5] Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, pp. 202–206.

[6] Herbert Spencer, The Data of Ethics (London: Williams and Norgate, 1879), pp. 201–202; see also Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, chapter 5.

[7] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 3, 200–201; original publication 1976.

[8] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p. 253.

Further Reading

Helena Cronin, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2008).

Fern Elsdon-Baker, The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy (London: Icon, 2009).

Jules Evans, ‘Set the controls for the heart of happiness’, Philosophy for Life Blog, 19 October 2012.

Martin A. Nowak and Sarah Coakley (eds), Evolution, Games, and God: The Principle of Cooperation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013),

Samir Okasha, ‘Biological Altruism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta.

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2009).