Findlay was educated in Pretoria, received a Rhodes scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford for the years 1924-1926, and completed his doctorate in 1933 Graz, where he studied under Ernst Mally. He was professor of philosophy at the Transvaal University College in Pretoria, the University of Otago in New Zealand, Rhodes University College, Grahamstown, the University of Natal, Pietermartizburg, King’s College, Newcastle upon Tyne, King's College London, the University of Texas at Austin, Yale University, and Boston University. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1955 to 1956. A chair for visiting professors at Boston University carries his name, as well as a biennial award given for the best book in metaphysics, as judged by The Metaphysical Society of America.
At a time when scientific materialism, positivism, linguistic analysis, and ordinary language philosophy were the core academic ideas, Findlay championed phenomenology, revived Hegelianism, and wrote works that were inspired by Buddhism, Plotinus, and Idealism. In his books published in the 1960s, including two series of Gifford Lectures, Findlay developed Rational Mysticism. According to this mystical system, "the philosophical perplexities, e.g., concerning universals and particulars, mind and body, knowledge and its objects, the knowledge of other minds, as well as those of free will and determinism, causality and teleology, morality and justice, and the existence of temporal objects, are human experiences of deep antinomies and absurdities about the world. Findlay's conclusion is that these necessitate the postulation of higher spheres, or "latitudes", where objects' individuality, categorical distinctiveness and material constraints are diminishing, lesser in each latitude than in the one below it. On the highest spheres, existence is evaluative and meaningful more than anything else, and Findlay identifies it with the idea of The Absolute.
Findlay translated into English Husserl's Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations), which he regarded as the author's best work, as it represents a stage in his development when the idea of phenomenological bracketing was not yet taken as the basis of a philosophical system, covering in fact for loose subjectivism. The work is also, in his view, one of the peaks of philosophy in general, and it suggests superior alternatives both for overly minimalistic or naturalistic efforts in ontology and for Ordinary Language treatments of consciousness and thought. Findlay has also written addenda to the translations of Hegel's Logic and Phenomenology of Spirit.
Findlay was first a follower, and then an outspoken critic, of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He denounced his three theories of meaning, arguing against the idea of Use, prominent in Wittgenstein's later period and in his followers, that it is insufficient for an analysis of meaning without such notions as connotation and denotation, implication, syntax and most originally, pre-existent meanings, in the mind or the external world, that determine linguistic ones, such as Husserl has evoked. Findlay credits Wittgenstein with great formal, aesthetic and literary appeal, and diverting a well deserved attention to Semantics and its difficulties.