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John Anderson (philosopher)

John Anderson (philosopher)

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John Anderson was a Scottish
Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

-born Australia
Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

n philosopher who occupied the post of Challis Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University in the years 1927-1958. He founded the empirical brand of philosophy known as Australian realism. His promotion of 'free thought' in all subjects, including politics and morality, was controversial and brought him into constant conflict with the august senate of the university. However, he is credited with educating a generation of influential 'Andersonian' thinkers and activists—some of whom helped to place Sydney in the forefront of the worldwide 'sexual revolution'
Sexual revolution
The sexual revolution was a social movement that challenged traditional codes of behavior related to sexuality and interpersonal relationships throughout the Western world from the 1960s into the 1980s...

 of the 1950s and 1960s. To Anderson, an acceptable philosophy must have significant 'sweep' and be capable of challenging and moulding ideas in every aspect of intellect and society.

Early life


Anderson was born in Stonehouse
Stonehouse, South Lanarkshire
Stonehouse is a rural village in South Lanarkshire, Scotland. It is located on Avon Water in an area of natural beauty and historical interest, near to the Clyde Valley. It is also situated on the A71 trunk road between Edinburgh and Kilmarnock, close to the towns of Hamilton, Larkhall and...

, Lanarkshire, Scotland and educated at the former Hamilton Academy
Hamilton Academy
Hamilton Academy was a school situated in Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, Scotland.Described as "one of the finest schools in Scotland" in the Cambridge University Press County Biography of 1910, Hamilton Academy featured in the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association Magazine article series on...

 from which school he won a bursary to attend the University of Glasgow
University of Glasgow
The University of Glasgow is the fourth-oldest university in the English-speaking world and one of Scotland's four ancient universities. Located in Glasgow, the university was founded in 1451 and is presently one of seventeen British higher education institutions ranked amongst the top 100 of the...

 in the university's Bursary Competition of 1911. Anderson was listed among notable former pupils of Hamilton Academy in a 1950 magazine article on the school. His elder brother was William Anderson, Professor of Philosophy at Auckland University College
University of Auckland
The University of Auckland is a university located in Auckland, New Zealand. It is the largest university in the country and the highest ranked in the 2011 QS World University Rankings, having been ranked worldwide...

, 1921 to his death in 1955, and described as "the most dominant figure in New Zealand philosophy."

Anderson graduated MA from Glasgow University in 1917, with first-class honours in Philosophy (Logic and Moral Philosophy), and first-class honours In Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. After graduation, he was awarded the Ferguson Scholarship in Philosophy and the Shaw Philosophical Fellowship, the examinations for which were open to graduates of any of the four Scottish universities.

He served as Assistant in Philosophy at the University College, Cardiff (Cardiff) (1917–19), in Moral Philosophy and Logic in the University of Glasgow (1919–20) and lectured in Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh, founded in 1583, is a public research university located in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The university is deeply embedded in the fabric of the city, with many of the buildings in the historic Old Town belonging to the university...

 (1920–26).

Social theory


After arriving in Sydney
Sydney
Sydney is the most populous city in Australia and the state capital of New South Wales. Sydney is located on Australia's south-east coast of the Tasman Sea. As of June 2010, the greater metropolitan area had an approximate population of 4.6 million people...

 in 1927 he associated with the Communist Party of Australia
Communist Party of Australia
The Communist Party of Australia was founded in 1920 and dissolved in 1991; it was succeeded by the Socialist Party of Australia, which then renamed itself, becoming the current Communist Party of Australia. The CPA achieved its greatest political strength in the 1940s and faced an attempted...

 and contributed to their journals, sometimes under a nom de plume but, by about 1932 he began to realise that communism
Communism
Communism is a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, revolutionary and stateless socialist society structured upon common ownership of the means of production...

 under Stalin in the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 was a dictatorship with no room for workers' control or participation. He then became aligned with the Trotskyist
Trotskyism
Trotskyism is the theory of Marxism as advocated by Leon Trotsky. Trotsky considered himself an orthodox Marxist and Bolshevik-Leninist, arguing for the establishment of a vanguard party of the working-class...

 movement for a period of time. But "[h]e could not put up any longer with dialectical materialism or with the servile state which he saw was being imposed by the doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat".

Anderson later abandoned authoritarian forms of socialism
Socialism
Socialism is an economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy; or a political philosophy advocating such a system. "Social ownership" may refer to any one of, or a combination of, the following: cooperative enterprises,...

 and became what would today be called a libertarian
Libertarianism
Libertarianism, in the strictest sense, is the political philosophy that holds individual liberty as the basic moral principle of society. In the broadest sense, it is any political philosophy which approximates this view...

 and pluralist--an opponent of all forms of authoritarianism
Authoritarianism
Authoritarianism is a form of social organization characterized by submission to authority. It is usually opposed to individualism and democracy...

. Sometimes he described himself as an anarchist
Anarchism
Anarchism is generally defined as the political philosophy which holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, or alternatively as opposing authority in the conduct of human relations...

 but, after the 1930s, he gave up his earlier political utopia
Utopia
Utopia is an ideal community or society possessing a perfect socio-politico-legal system. The word was imported from Greek by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, describing a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean. The term has been used to describe both intentional communities that attempt...

nism.

Advocacy of academic freedom


As Sydney University's Challis Professor of Philosophy, Anderson was a formidable champion of the principle of academic freedom from authoritarian intervention. For example, he fought a successful battle to end the role of the British Medical Association
British Medical Association
The British Medical Association is the professional association and registered trade union for doctors in the United Kingdom. The association does not regulate or certify doctors, a responsibility which lies with the General Medical Council. The association’s headquarters are located in BMA House,...

 in setting course standards and student quotas in the medical school. He also railed against the presence on campus of a military unit—the Sydney University Regiment
Sydney University Regiment
Sydney University Regiment is an officer training regiment of the Australian Army Reserve. It can trace its lineage back to 1900 when the University Volunteer Rifle Corps was raised as a unit of the colonial New South Wales Defence Force. Over time this unit has undergone a number of name and role...

--and lived to see the day in 1960 when the regiment's campus HQ was destroyed by fire. (The regiment was subsequently rehoused at a new facility on university-owned land at Darlington
Darlington, New South Wales
Darlington is a small, inner-city suburb of Sydney, in the state of New South Wales, Australia. Darlington is located about 3 kilometres south of the Sydney central business district and is part of the local government area of the City of Sydney and is part of the region of the Inner...

.)

Anderson was censured by the Sydney University Senate in 1931 after criticising the role of war memorials in sanctifying war. In 1943 he was censured by the Parliament of New South Wales
New South Wales
New South Wales is a state of :Australia, located in the east of the country. It is bordered by Queensland, Victoria and South Australia to the north, south and west respectively. To the east, the state is bordered by the Tasman Sea, which forms part of the Pacific Ocean. New South Wales...

 after arguing that religion has no place in schools. He founded the Sydney University Freethought Society which ran from 1931 to 1951. He was president of the society throughout that period.

It is legendary that the university's Senate, accepting that it could not realise its desire to sack the controversial Challis Professor, sought to reduce Anderson's stature and influence by creating a new chair of "Moral and Political Philosophy" to which Alan Stout
Alan Stout
Alan Ker Stout was a moral philosopher working at the University of Sydney, who also wrote on cinema. His father was G. F. Stout, British philosopher.-Biography:...

 was appointed. This purpose was not achieved, as Anderson continued to lecture on ethics and politics. Stout (who had been urged by Anderson to apply for the position) was a steady admirer and supporter of the Challis Professor and declined to undercut his prestige in any way. The result was that Sydney gained a second prestigious and personable philosopher who "brought a quick intelligence, intellectual grasp, a flair for putting things simply and clearly, together with a genuine respect for the views of others and readiness to appreciate their point of view". On Anderson's retirement, the two departments were merged together under Stout as 'the Professor of Philosophy'.

Thought and influence


He is, arguably, the most important philosopher who has worked in Australia. Certainly he was the most important in both the breadth and depth of influence. Among the philosophers who got their original intellectual formation from Anderson are John Passmore
John Passmore
John Passmore AC was an Australian philosopher.Passmore was born in Manly, Sydney. He graduated from the University of Sydney with first-class honours in English literature and philosophy, and went on to study to become a secondary-school teacher...

, John Mackie
J. L. Mackie
John Leslie Mackie was an Australian philosopher, originally from Sydney. He made significant contributions to the philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language, and is perhaps best known for his views on meta-ethics, especially his defence of moral skepticism.He authored six...

, A.J. ('Jim') Baker, David Stove
David Stove
David Charles Stove , was an Australian philosopher of science.His work in philosophy of science included detailed criticisms of David Hume's inductive skepticism, as well as what he regarded as the irrationalism of his disciplinary contemporaries Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, and Paul...

 and myself
David Malet Armstrong
David Malet Armstrong , often D. M. Armstrong, is an Australian philosopher. He is well-known for his work on metaphysics and the philosophy of mind, and for his defence of a factualist ontology, a functionalist theory of the mind, an externalist epistemology, and a necessitarian conception of the...

. There are lots more. But for every student who became a philosopher there were far, far, more in the law, in medicine, in journalism, in other academic disciplines, that were profoundly influenced by him. I am inclined to think that, especially in the thirties and forties of the last century, Anderson was the person who set the agenda, and set the tone, for intellectual discussion in Sydney. - David Armstrong (2005)


As a committed empiricist, Anderson argued that there is only one realm of "being" and it can be best understood through science and naturalistic philosophy. He asserted that there is no supernatural god and that there are no non-natural realms along the lines of Platonic ideals. He rejected all notions that knowledge could be obtained by means other than descriptions of facts and any belief that revelation or mysticism could be sources for obtaining truth. He was arguing that traditional Christian concepts of good and evil were only meant for slaves and that, in actuality, the idea of morality was empty. For Anderson, the term "good" was valid when applied objectively to human activities which were free, critical and creative but the more common subjective applications were to be avoided or exposed as deceptive. Not surprisingly, Anderson's influence was both extensive and controversial as he constantly examined and fearlessly criticized hallowed beliefs and institutions.

Freethought and the Sydney Libertarians


Anderson's insistence on unceasing inquiry and criticism became central to the intellectual principles of the university's Libertarian Society which supplanted the Freethought Society in the early 1950s and provided a philosophic platform for the much broader subculture known as "the Push
Sydney Push
The Sydney Push was a predominantly left-wing intellectual sub-culture in Sydney from the late 1940s to the early '70s. Well known associates of the Push include Jim Baker, John Flaus, Harry Hooton, Margaret Fink, Sasha Soldatow, Lex Banning, Eva Cox, Richard Appleton, Paddy McGuinness, David...

" throughout the 1960s. He was a defender of free speech and was critical of the Australian government's bans on certain political publications (1928). He advocated religious and sexual freedoms and free discussion of issues in an era when mention of taboo
Taboo
A taboo is a strong social prohibition relating to any area of human activity or social custom that is sacred and or forbidden based on moral judgment, religious beliefs and or scientific consensus. Breaking the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent by society...

 subjects commonly resulted in angry public condemnation by prominent moralists.

After the Second World War, however, Anderson began exhibiting more conservative views. Jim Baker interprets this latter stage not so much as "a definite change in his overall thinking than ... an alteration of emphasis and interest". In other words, according to Baker, while Anderson's political positions changed over time his philosophy remained constant. To many, however, it seemed that Anderson was departing from his pluralism. During the 1949 coal miners' strike, for instance, he supported the government's action in using troops as strikebreakers. At a Freethought Society meeting in August 1950 he refused to oppose conscription for the war in Korea.In 1951 he refused to allow students to use the Freethought Society to canvass the 'No' case for Menzies
Robert Menzies
Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, , Australian politician, was the 12th and longest-serving Prime Minister of Australia....

' attempt to ban the Communist Party in the referendum
Referendum
A referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal. This may result in the adoption of a new constitution, a constitutional amendment, a law, the recall of an elected official or simply a specific government policy. It is a form of...

 of that year. This was the last straw for many Freethinkers; Anderson's apparent authoritarianism caused most to abandon the Freethought Society and to establish the Libertarian Society. (It must be pointed out that Anderson did not support the banning of the Communist Party - in fact he attacked the proposal.) The Freethought Society held its last meeting in 1951. The Libertarian Society functioned from 1952 to 1969.

Anderson broke off contact with the former disciples who formed the Libertarian Society and never associated with "Push"
Sydney Push
The Sydney Push was a predominantly left-wing intellectual sub-culture in Sydney from the late 1940s to the early '70s. Well known associates of the Push include Jim Baker, John Flaus, Harry Hooton, Margaret Fink, Sasha Soldatow, Lex Banning, Eva Cox, Richard Appleton, Paddy McGuinness, David...

 people who routinely sang his praises along with the bawdy songs he had imported to his new country. However, even after retirement in 1958 and to the brink of his death in 1962, he was seen daily in his study, continuing his work and reviewing earlier work. Among his last publications were Classicism (1960), Empiricism and Logic (1962) and Relational Arguments (1962)

Enduring legacy


At a time when Australia had few genuinely first-rate intellectuals, Anderson's influence in Sydney intellectual life was enormous. The failure of the Communist Party to build a significant influence at Sydney University during the 1930s and 1940s, compared with the Party's greater success at Melbourne University, is often attributed to the influence of "Andersonian individualism" among Sydney students. Anderson's influence spread through his personal impact on several generations of students, the "Andersonians". They included the philosophers John Passmore
John Passmore
John Passmore AC was an Australian philosopher.Passmore was born in Manly, Sydney. He graduated from the University of Sydney with first-class honours in English literature and philosophy, and went on to study to become a secondary-school teacher...

, David Armstrong
David Malet Armstrong
David Malet Armstrong , often D. M. Armstrong, is an Australian philosopher. He is well-known for his work on metaphysics and the philosophy of mind, and for his defence of a factualist ontology, a functionalist theory of the mind, an externalist epistemology, and a necessitarian conception of the...

, Jim Baker, Hedley Bull
Hedley Bull
Hedley Bull, FBA was Professor of International Relations at the Australian National University, the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford until his death from cancer in 1985...

, David Stove
David Stove
David Charles Stove , was an Australian philosopher of science.His work in philosophy of science included detailed criticisms of David Hume's inductive skepticism, as well as what he regarded as the irrationalism of his disciplinary contemporaries Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, and Paul...

, J. L. Mackie
J. L. Mackie
John Leslie Mackie was an Australian philosopher, originally from Sydney. He made significant contributions to the philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language, and is perhaps best known for his views on meta-ethics, especially his defence of moral skepticism.He authored six...

 and Eugene Kamenka
Eugene Kamenka
Eugene Kamenka was born in Cologne in 1928 and taken to Australia in 1937. Kamenka family is of Odessa descent. He was educated at the Sydney Technical High School, and went on to take first-class honours in philosophy at the University of Sydney under John Anderson...

, the World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 organiser Alf Conlon
Alfred Conlon
Colonel Alfred Austin Joseph Conlon the creative force behind, and head of the Australian World War II Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs ....

, many members of the Sydney Push
Sydney Push
The Sydney Push was a predominantly left-wing intellectual sub-culture in Sydney from the late 1940s to the early '70s. Well known associates of the Push include Jim Baker, John Flaus, Harry Hooton, Margaret Fink, Sasha Soldatow, Lex Banning, Eva Cox, Richard Appleton, Paddy McGuinness, David...

 and jurist John Kerr, later to be Australia's best-remembered governor-general.

Further reading

  • J. Anderson (Introduction by D. Armstrong), Space, Time and the Categories: Lectures on Metaphysics 1949-50 (Sydney University Press, 2007) http://purl.library.usyd.edu.au/sup/9781920898625 (ISBN 978-1-920898-62-5)
  • J. Anderson, Regular contributions to The Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy
  • J. Anderson, Studies in Empirical Philosophy (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1962) http://fmx01.ucc.usyd.edu.au/jspcart/jsp/cart/Product.jsp?nID=92&nCategoryID=18 (ISBN 1-920898-17-4)
  • J. Anderson, Religion in Education in "Religion in Education - Five Addresses Delivered Before the New Education Fellowship (N.S.W.)". The New Education Fellowship, Sydney, 1943.
  • Janet Anderson, Graham Cullum, Kimon Lycos (eds.), Art and Reality: John Anderson on Literature and Aesthetics (Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1982)
  • A.J. Baker, Anderson's Social Philosophy: The Social Thought and Political Life of Professor John Anderson (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1979)
  • A.J. Baker, Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson (Cambridge University Press, 1986)
  • A. Barcan, Radical Students: The Old Left at Sydney University (Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2002) review
  • J. Franklin, Corrupting the Youth: A History of Philosophy in Australia (Macleay Press, 2003), chs 1-2
  • B. Kennedy, A Passion to Oppose: John Anderson, Philosopher (Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1995)
  • Mark Weblin (ed.), A Perilous and Fighting Life: From Communist to Conservative: The Political Writings of Professor John Anderson (North Melbourne: Pluto Press, 2003)

External links