John Anderson remembered

8 July 2005

Text of a speech given to the fourth annual John Anderson Conference on 9 July, 2005, at the launch of Space-Time and the Proposition.


John Anderson, a Scotsman, was born in 1893. He studied at the University of Glasgow, became a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, and came out to the Challis Chair of Philosophy at Sydney University in 1927 and did not retire until 1958, dying in his home at Turramurra in 1962.

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 Mackie, A.J. (‘Jim’) Baker, David Stove and myself. 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.

Anderson had philosophical views on almost everything. He tried to carry through his realist and empiricist views through metaphysics (the general nature of what there is), logic, epistemology, morality, political philosophy, theory of culture, aesthetics: there hardly seemed any serious intellectual topic on which he did not have a ‘line’.

The line always involved a great deal of debunking, the critique of illusions was central to it. In this he resembled what have been called the ‘masters of suspicion’: Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. One interesting thing about his thought, though, was that, while arguing that these thinkers had important points to make, he argued that they were themselves to be suspected. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that there was only one thinker that he did not treat with much suspicion: himself. That was a weakness.

He found it hard to come to terms with what most philosophers learn to live with: that other philosophers do not wholly agree with them. In a subject where decision procedures are so difficult to find and agree upon, living with disagreement seems the only rational course.

But this critique of illusions, always based on the same realist and empiricist principles, applied over a very wide field, and, it has to said, by an extremely intelligent thinker, was very attractive to intelligent students (compare Socrates’ following among the youth of Athens.) Sydney was a provincial town then (perhaps still is?) and you could learn from him a critique that would carry you through a wide range of topics and give you an education of quite a wide sort. It was a wonderful way to be introduced to philosophy. It gave many, including myself, their intellectual formation.

As I’ve suggested, Anderson was a very ambitious thinker. He had, in outline at least, a complete system of thought as wide as Plato or Aristotle or Aquinas. That was admirable, I think. And it stood in sharp contrast with an age where the philosophers were deliberately restricting the scope of their enquiries with the idea that a piecemeal approach to the great problems might be more productive. In philosophy, in fact, problems are so entangled with each other that piecemeal work, which is possible in many scientific fields, is likely to be unproductive. I think, by the way, that there is now some moving back to a more traditional attitude in philosophy, something nearer to an Andersonian attitude.

But something was lacking in Anderson’s exposition of his views. It appears that he did intend to write a number of books setting out his position systematically, but except for a never-published logic text (where he cleaved to the old Aristotelian logic as opposed to the new Russellian logic that was supplanting it) they did not get written. A collection of his papers (almost all published in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy and Psychology) did appear in the year of his death, and they are useful, but philosophers who were not brought up by him tell one that they find them very difficult to understand.

This is where the importance of his lectures comes in. The lectures were actually dictated (and questions, still less discussion, were not much encouraged). Quite often earlier versions of lectures on the same topic were used, but I think re-working was always or usually done, so that improvements or changes of emphasis could be brought in over the years. (In my memory, we did not mind this utterly old-fashioned way of proceeding. We got a text of permanent value that we could read over and reflect on.)

Pretty much the whole of his thought was, over the years, represented in these dictated lectures. They are an invaluable source of his thought. (For instance, in lectures on Education which I attended, there was a portion of them devoted to Matthew Arnold’s book Culture and Anarchy, which gave me a life-long respect for that thinker.)

In relatively recent years there has been large endeavour of collecting texts of the lectures (often from students of Anderson), and then, as funds permitted, making them available electronically. (Creagh Cole, working in SETIS in the Fisher library has done devoted work here.)

What we are here to launch is a book of Anderson’s 1944 lectures in metaphysics, approached via a critique of Samuel Alexander’s Gifford Lectures given at Glasgow 1916-18, which became the book Space, Time and Deity (1920). Anderson attended these lectures, and was struck by a central idea of Alexander’s. Kant had argued that space, time and fundamental categories of being such as causality and substance were imposed on reality – the thing-in-itself – by the mind. Alexander’s idea, which Anderson embraced, was to see space, time and the categories not as forms of experience but as forms of being. It was a Realist account of these entities, and expounding how they hung together gave one a Realist metaphysics, a Realist ontology, a Realist theory of the general nature of being.

The Anderson lectures on Alexander that are being launched today are therefore of great interest. (I myself attended a re-run of the course in 1949-50 and I hope these lectures also will at least be rendered electronically available.)

It is not to be thought, of course, that Anderson followed Alexander in detail. In fact Alexander receives heavy criticism on a number of scores. Anderson rejected Alexander’s emergent Deity – he was an impassioned atheist – and comes up with a list of 13 categories (Kant had 12, I am not clear how many Alexander had), organized in three groups.

For the purpose of publication the lecture series has been named Space-Time and the Proposition. Anderson held the view that reality had what he thought of as a propositional nature. The idea is roughly the same as Bertrand Russell’s idea, adopted by Wittgenstein in his Tractatus, that the world is a world of facts rather than things, or my idea (which I think of as an Anderson-inspired idea) that the world is a world of states of affairs. (But Anderson would not have liked the term ‘world’.)

The proposition (the propositional nature of things) is very important in Anderson’s metaphysics and he thought that considering various features of the proposition could show one what categories we should accept. Interestingly, Kant had a similar idea and he called ‘the metaphysical deduction of the categories’. Nobody, I think, has been too impressed by Kant’s ‘deduction’ and I have my doubts about Anderson’s procedure also.

But I feel a great deal of gratitude to Anderson for these exciting lectures on Alexander. They opened my mind to the possibility of a systematic realist and empiricist metaphysics, an idea that has never left me, an idea that I would stand by today. I commend the volume to you, and thank Mark Weblin for making it possible.