John Anderson
John Anderson


David Armstrong


In Matters of the Mind: Poems, Essays and Interviews in Honour of Leonie Kramer, eds. Lee Jobling and Catherine Runcie. Sydney: University of Sydney, 2001: pp. 322-332.

This "Interview" contains replies to questions submitted to me by the editors, to which I wrote replies. Dame Leonie Kramer is a very distinguished Australian academic. She was the Professor of Australian Literature at Sydney University for many years, and more recently was Chancellor of the Uniiversity 1991-2002.

It is an honour and a pleasure to be asked to write for a book to be presented to Leonie Kramer. Besides the contributions she has made in her own subject, she has, in the University of Sydney, and in the wider sphere of education generally, striven to uphold high academic standards in a society in which these standards have come increasingly under attack. And as one who has for many years been associated with the magazine, Quadrant, I am profoundly grateful to her for the role she has played in recent years as Chairwoman of the magazine's board, years in which difficult and painful decisions had to be made.

Question: You were introduced at the University of Sydney early in your career to Professor John Anderson's iconoclastic philosophy, his so-called 'pluralistic empiricism'. Unlike others you were not a disciple. What in Anderson's thought did you not assent to?
Answer: To become a disciple, in any field I think, you have to have a rather special cast of character and mind. You have to identify with your teacher, your leader, in a quite special way. Philosophers who have disciples are actually rather rare. John Anderson, Karl Popper and perhaps Wittgenstein, in his later period, are the only examples I can think of in recent times. Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, Gilbert Ryle, J.L. Austin, none of these had disciples in philosophy, although as teachers they influenced their students profoundly. The reason for the lack of disciple-makers and disciples in philosophy is obvious enough. In philosophy you are supposed to think for yourself, and that conflicts with discipleship. Even the Andersonians were careful to cultivate some small field where they disagreed with the master.

You do seem to need teachers -- autodidacts are rather rare -- and characteristically students overestimate the abilities and achievements of these teachers. That is natural enough in any field, but is usually as far as it goes in philosophy. The Anderson-educated philosophers who subsequently made the greatest mark in the subject -- John Passmore, J.L. Mackie and David Stove, for instance -- were none of them disciples.

I was profoundly influenced by Anderson. To use a contemporary, but rather useful, phrase, to him I owe my intellectual formation. And if I try out the phrase 'pluralist empiricism', it still seems to fit me pretty well. In my early work, which was on the philosophy of perception, I set out to provide a full defence of Anderson's 'direct realist' theory of perception. This is the idea that in perception we have a direct awareness of the physical world, even if this awareness is limited and never free from the possibility of mistake. But even in working this out, I found myself in disagreement with Anderson on matters of relative detail, and points of disagreement on all sorts of matters have accumulated as time has passed. But that is only what is to be expected in a working philosopher.

Question: What of Anderson's thought has had a lasting influence on you?
Answer: Anderson was a 'big picture' philosopher. He wanted a general theory of reality and he wanted general theories of particular fields of reality, the field of mind, of society, and much else. He wanted general theories in logic, in epistemology, in ethics, in aesthetics. At the time that I was studying at Sydney (1947-50), philosophy in the English-speaking world, under the influence of logical positivism and the later Wittgenstein, had taken a very strange turn, one might say an unphilosophical turn. It had turned to small matters. In particular, it had turned towards language. You didn't talk about Xs, you talked about talk about Xs. The Oxford philosopher, R.M. Hare, for instance, wrote a (rather good) book called The Language of Morals. The 'linguistic turn', as it was later called, was particularly entrenched in Oxford where so many young philosophers, myself included, went at that time to do a postgraduate degree.

It would have been easy to have embraced the idea that philosophy could be advanced by a series of small-scale and independent enquiries, linguistic ones perhaps. A great deal of very useful science is small-scale. One can divide and conquer there. I am very thankful that Anderson persuaded me that, in philosophy, it is of the first importance to have 'a position' (I can still hear him saying this in his strong Glasgow accent), something large scale that can be carried through the maze of details involved in particular enquiries. The reason for this is that philosophical problems are characteristically entangled one with another, so that what you say about one thing depends crucially on what you say about another. Anderson understood this very well.

Anderson's view that all that exists is situations in space-time suited my inclinations very well also. That was something I could accept immediately. The pluralism, the continuous interaction of opposing things and tendencies throughout reality, I found illuminating. The social pluralism, the idea that in social life there is a continual clash and struggle of opposed interests and movements, with no possibility of this being transcended in some ideal future, was really educational. The unthought-out socialism of a twenty-one year old -- against dictatorship even of the left but with a belief in the possibility of large-scale planning by the state for the general good -- was gradually abandoned. Mental pluralism, also, the struggle of different desires and tendencies in the one mind, has remained permanently with me.

Question: Early in your career you read Freud's works in their entirety. Has Freud's profound study of human irrationality influenced you?
Answer: I read through Freud -- at a period when I had a good deal of leisure -- because Freud was so important to Anderson. (Freud is also easy to read. He is a great stylist even in translation, and I found what he had to say very interesting.) Anderson was interested in the three 'masters of suspicion' (as they have been called), Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, especially the first two. But as a master of suspicion himself, with a domineering intellect, he was not going to let them get away with too much. While their contributions were acknowledged, their failings were also pointed out. This sophisticated treatment was very educational.

I don't know how much of the detail of Freud's theories Anderson accepted, but I know that I was absurdly gullible about theories whose only evidential basis was what the analyst (and patient) came to accept as a result of hours on the couch. But there still seems to me to be something true and of the first importance in Freud's account of human nature. He saw the profound capacity that we have for irrationality, for fantasy and delusion. This is not to deny the existence of the 'reality principle', as Freud put it. Indeed, if we can recognize our irrationality, we are to that extent rational. But the reality principle has constantly to do battle with what Freud called the 'pleasure principle'.

Closely connected with this, from Freud's late essay, Civilization and its Discontents, I carried away a sense of what one might call 'the burden of civilization'. The amount of 'instinctual renunciation' that is required for civilized institutions and practices to be maintained is continually at risk from what Freud called 'the return of the repressed', although it seems that what is held in check does not necessarily have to be inaccessible to consciousness. Human civilization is a fragile affair, fragile because of human nature itself. This is a powerful argument for cautiousness and conservatism in social policies of all kinds. It would also explain what Freud calls somewhere 'modern nervousness'.

Question: Did you, during your Oxford period (1952-54), have a latent workable philosophy of language just waiting to be made explicit?
Answer: I did not, and I still have not got one, although I have written one rather technical paper on the nature of meaning. My unofficial slogan has been, 'Put semantics last'. Do not look at what we say about things, but look at the things themselves. The 'linguistic turn' in philosophy, though it did make some contributions, was probably a minor manifestation of 'modern nervousness'. This attitude to language, by the way, I think I got from Anderson.

Question: Was the argument between the Wittgensteinian behaviourist position on introspection and Cartesian infallibilism of introspection, a crisis for your thought?
Answer: It was indeed. I quite quickly rejected Anderson's rather difficult doctrine of 'mind as feeling'. My problem was what to put in its place. I wanted to have a theory that was compatible with materialism. The best thing around at the time, it seemed, was Gilbert Ryle's book, a book that has its weaknesses but is of permanent value: The Concept of Mind. Heavily influenced by Wittgenstein, it could be read (controversially) as a behaviourist theory, and behaviourism is compatible with materialism. So, at Oxford and for some years later, I accepted 'Rylean behaviourism'. So also did U.T. Place and Jack Smart, together for a few years in the University of Adelaide, and a little senior to me. Neither they nor I was very happy with the Rylean view. In particular, introspection seemed to be ruled out, yet each of us does seem to have a 'privileged access' to goings on in our own mind, which is flat incompatible with behaviourism. But what was the alternative?

Then Place suggested in an important article, that, contrary to received philosophical wisdom, it was possible to identify mental goings-on, in particular sensations and perceptions, with purely physical brain-processes. He converted Smart, who a bit later converted me- I was by then a lecturer in Melbourne - when he gave a paper there. I thought that his position had to be wrong on hearing the paper, but thought about it more for three weeks and decided it was right. Introspection could be brought back because, like the other mental processes, it was an inner process. So why should it not be a brain-process also? It could be a process where the brain scans itself. What came to be called 'Australian materialism' represented chiefly, although not exclusively, by the three of us, was in existence.

Then a hitch appeared. Kurt Baier, then an Australian philosopher, read a paper at a conference in Canberra arguing that one could not be mistaken in one's introspective awareness of being in pain at the exact time one was having the pain. This was philosophical orthodoxy, deriving from Descartes. But then came the sting. If introspection was a purely material process, it should be possible for it to go wrong and deliver the wrong result. Smart and I were present, and realized there was a problem here. I, for my part at least, had gone along unthinkingly with the Cartesian view that introspection could not be mistaken. (I should have known better after my original education. Anderson never countenanced any sort of indubitability for any faculty at all).

Fortunately, when I set to work, the Cartesian view proved fairly easy to assail. I published an article on the topic which seemed bold at the time but is itself conventional wisdom now. The moral is that true doctrine (what I hope is true doctrine) is often reached by a crooked path.

Question: In the light of the so-called 'post-modern' notions of indeterminacy and the impossibility of 'self', does your view that continuous self identity and its source in introspective consciousness still hold?
Answer: I am not sure what 'indeterminacy' means here. If it means that truth is in some way relative to persons, and so differs from person to person, then I utterly reject this. Truths are made true by reality, and reality is perfectly objective: 'this world order, the same for all,' as the early Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, wrote. We can, of course, fail to know the truth and we can hold mistaken beliefs. But ignorance and mistaken beliefs do nothing to make truths relative.

On the question of the self, I can go a bit of the way with the post-modernists, as the question reports them. I hold, and I believe that this is the theory that best fits the world-view that science is beginning to deliver to us, that just as stones and human beings have spatial parts with different parts being different things, so they have temporal parts with the different temporal parts being different things. In particular, I go along with a position taken by Bertrand Russell in his later philosophy that a continuing thing is a causal line, with its later temporal parts growing out of its earlier parts by a somewhat monotonous sort of causation. I see no reason to think that what we call (and quite rightly call) a single mind is anything more than a causal line of this sort. You and I are the same persons that we were yesterday, and there is just one, continuing, mind in each of our bodies, a mind which I identify with a continuing, working, brain. Yes, but I hold that, as a piece of metaphysics, this statement needs quite a complex analysis in terms of causal lines.

Furthermore, if we consider these minds at a particular time, still each has parts, parts which co-operate in a most wonderful and sophisticated manner that we are just beginning to know something about; but parts which to some degree fail to co-operate, and which can even interfere with each others natural workings. This is pluralism about the mind again. By introspection, we become aware of the unity of our mind. But it is a unity in difference.

I hope that this is not too much aid and comfort to the post-modernists.

Question: Do you still hold the view, in spite of the so-called post-modern philosophic attack on science, that science is a system of conjectures that does lead one to knowledge and truth?
Answer: Calling science a 'system of conjectures' inevitably makes one think of Karl Popper's philosophy of science. For me, however, Popper is much too much of a sceptic about science. Popper began by looking not at science but at David Hume's scepticism about induction. For Hume, it is not possible to move rationally from what we observe to what we do not observe. That argument, if good, finishes science as a rational enterprise. Hume is well aware that in practice we do trust that experience is a good guide to the unobserved. He trusts it himself in much of his philosophizing. But he cannot see any reason for thinking that this trust is rational.

Popper's extraordinary idea is to begin by accepting this situation. How, then, do we get beyond observation, beyond experience? Well, we just make conjectures. They really are just conjectures. Anything goes. Then we test them, we perform new observations to test these conjectures. If we are lucky, the conjectures may be found to be consistent with experience, and so get to be accepted provisionally. But mere consistency is far from truth. Science remains, at bottom, a system of conjectures. (One feels like keeping this news from the post-modernists.)

If instead we look at science before we start philosophizing about it, a sensible course in view of the successes of science and the slow progress of philosophy, then a different picture emerges. Science starts in conjecture, certainly. Thales, the first scientist-philosopher conjectured that the world was made of water and that the magnet had a soul. Wrong on both counts. By the time of Aristotle, there was a body of evidence, and some not implausible conjectures. After the collapse of the western Roman Empire, there is an unfortunate long intermission. But after Galileo and Newton, to name two names, a scientific revolution gathers pace and advance continues, indeed accelerates, to this day. All sorts of things that were not known before have become known, for instance, to take simple examples, the distance of the sun from the earth, and the constitution of water. All sorts of conjectures remain, of course, because science advances through conjectures, which then have to be tested rigorously, ultimately by observation. But these conjectures are not any old idea that may come into one's head. Current conjecture starts from the existing body of scientific knowledge and is controlled at all times by that knowledge. Existing knowledge is thus increased, refined, and in some particularly interesting and important cases, seen in a new light. You can and should be a Whig, a progressive, in science.

All this is pretty obvious, indeed boringly so. If post-modernists deny it, they show themselves fools, and reactionary fools at that.

Question: Do you trust that philosophy makes 'progress' in the same way that science does?
Answer: I am sorry that I have to begin this answer by quibbling about what might seem to be a matter of no importance. I refer to the inverted commas round the word progress. For the use of inverted commas to sabotage and sneer at notions such as knowledge, truth and progress, see David Stove's important book, originally published as Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists (Pergamon Press), now reprinted as Anything Goes (Macleay Press), chapters 1 and 2.

As I have said, I make no doubt that science makes progress. It is a far more uncertain matter whether philosophy makes any progress. The trouble about philosophy is that it lacks any clear decision procedures. The disciplines of mathematics and logic are very fortunate. They have a single, admirably clear, decision procedure. It is proof. After a mathematical proof, which starts from premises and then moves through clearly articulated steps to a conclusion, you can pretty much lay down your glasses, as the racing commentators say. The proof may be very hard to find. In the recent case of finding of a proof for Fermat's last theorem, it took centuries. Suggested proofs have to be examined by experts -- in terms of the racing metaphor, correct weight has to be notified -- but after that, it is all over. The proved theorem is added to our mathematical knowledge. The same holds in logic.

The natural sciences are not quite like that. There are decision procedures, in particular there is observation. The theory will regularly have observational consequences, and it can be checked whether these consequences hold. But the observational consequences will depend not only upon the theory to be tested but also on a multitude of other assumptions, some of which may be in error, making the test no real test at all. It often takes time, sometimes even a scientific generation, before the matter is settled. But given time and sufficient resources, the matter is usually settled in the long run.

Alas, the decision procedures that exist in mathematics and the natural sciences do not exist in philosophy. Attempted proofs of philosophical positions invariably fail to convince the opposition. Proof is from premises, and even if the proof is deductively sound (something that can be established quite definitely), there always seems to be room for dispute about the premises. (A joke by Sydney Smith about two angry ladies shouting at each other from high windows across a narrow Edinburgh street: "Tis plain they cannot agree, since they argue from different premises.") And there are very few observations that can be brought to bear on the abstractions of philosophy. The disputes go on and on. Philosophers are, on the whole, pretty bright. But, though various ideas have been tried, nobody has been able to work out a way to decide issues inside philosophy.

You might draw the moral that there is nothing there to be decided. Wittgenstein eventually did. But he could not get the rest of us to agree with him. The issues seem to be among the most important theoretical and practical questions that one can raise: 'Is the mind purely physical?', 'Are values objective or subjective?', and so on. Some of us are drawn, perhaps like moths to a flame, to discuss such matters in an argumentative fashion. It is one of the 'great games' of the human mind.

And though a short-term pessimist about philosophical advance, I am cautiously optimistic for the long haul. It has been a great century for philosophy, perhaps the greatest period since the 5th-4th centuries BC. Even comparing the situation when I came in, in the late 40s, with the situation today, I seem to see improvement. Many great issues seem to me now to be at least more thoroughly canvassed and understood than they were in the past. Important bridges have been built, to logic and mathematics on the one hand, and to the natural sciences, on the other, and even between moral philosophy and evolutionary theory. Perhaps, the next century will be another good one for philosophy. (Unfashionably, I incline to think that it will be a good century for the human race.)

Question: You have met and debated some of the most distinguished philosophers of the last forty years. Which of these philosophers has most influenced your work?
Answer: My intellectual debts are very great. Shakespeare's thief Autolycus, in The Winter's Tale, describes himself as a 'snapper-up of unconsidered trifles'. I think I am a snapper-up of considered trifles. As a matter of fact, this attitude seems to be becoming much more common in philosophy than it used to be. There is more co-operation in philosophy than there used to be, joint papers are becoming more frequent, and going back to the previous question, that may be a sign that philosophy is making some slow progress.

But, besides Anderson, I can point to two philosophers in particular who I admire greatly, and who have taught me much. One is David Lewis, Professor at Princeton University, who I think the majority of analytic philosophers would consider the most able philosopher of our generation. By good fortune, Lewis likes Australia, likes much Australian philosophy and its fairly forthright style, and for many years has come to the continent on an annual basis. He is an honorary member of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Though he travels around, he mostly bases himself in Melbourne, and he and his wife have become ardent fans of Australian rules football, barracking for Essendon.

Lewis and I have a lot of agreements, for instance, on the mind-body problem, and the much more abstract ontological topic of the status of properties and relations, and a lot of disagreements, for instance, about the nature of causation and the status of 'possible worlds'. The latter are philosopher's entities which he thinks have a real existence, while I think that they are no more than useful fictions. It is where one disagrees that one usually learns most from him. His power of mind is so great that one always has to work very hard in defence, but one gains intellectual benefit in the long run.

The other philosopher I would mention is Jack Smart, J.J.C. Smart. Coming from Britain at the beginning of the 50s to the Chair of Philosophy in Adelaide, and finishing his career in Canberra, he has been a continuous force for the good both intellectually and personally in Australian philosophy. He is a devoted materialist and utilitarian, and his prose style is a delight. It is beautifully clear, idiomatic and idiosyncratic, yet the intellectual difficulties and complications are never shirked. He and David Stove, in quite different ways, are the ones who have written with real style among the Australian philosophers. The rest of us are happy if, in the increasing complications and difficulties of the arguments, we can preserve a reasonable clarity.

Question: When did you become interested in politics and social issues?
Answer: I was always interested in public affairs, even as a school-child. But it would have been hard to pass through an undergraduate course under Anderson without having one's moral and political thought affected, and given an intellectual edge.

Question: Are there direct links between your philosophic views and your political views?
Answer: I don't think that there are very close links. I have never wanted to be a political or a moral philosopher. Epistemology, philosophy of perception and then mind generally, and in recent years empiricist metaphysics, have always been enough for me. (I wonder a bit if this is not a weakness.) But I have always been interested in, and held views on, politics. My emancipation from left-wing politics was due to Anderson. Later, in England, I became interested in the work of the English conservative philosopher, Michael Oakeshott. I'd describe myself now as a supporter of liberal democracy, but with a definite conservative bias. In more recent years, I have come to appreciate the great importance of free markets, though recognizing that they require a moral and social underpinning that is so woefully lacking in the new Russia.

Question: What, for you, is an ideal society? An ideal university? An ideal philosophy syllabus?
Answer: I have little sympathy with Utopian thinking, and so have little time for the notion of an 'ideal society', very little more time for an 'ideal university', and not even much time for 'an ideal philosophy syllabus'. We start from where we are, hope for improvements, but should remain all the time aware of the law of unintended consequences, sometimes very unwelcome consequences, that so constantly attends the self-conscious attempt to make things better through some plan.

In many ways, of course, the technological triumphs that have been both causes and effects of the theoretical triumphs of the scientific revolution have made Australia and other 'first world' countries better places than any societies that previously existed. And the rest of the world has quite reasonable hopes of following in the same track. It is orthodoxy among environmentalists, in particular, to dispute this last point, but this orthodoxy is almost certainly mistaken. (A book for those who do not mind the questioning of conventional wisdom, and are prepared to read a long book, is A Moment in Time, by Gregg Easterbrook, which appeared in 1995. It is not, incidentally, written from a conservative viewpoint, which makes it all the more interesting.)

We can consider what is good in where we are, and hope to extend it, or at least preserve it. We can consider what is bad, and how it might be ameliorated, or at least prevented from getting worse. But we start from where we are. In Utopian thinking about society, we start with where we would like to be, and then consider how we might get there. That way of thinking has regularly led to disaster.

Thinking about universities (and also about schools), I believe that at the present time the thing we should be most anxious to preserve and extend is diversity. Let a hundred flowers bloom (as Chairman Mao deceitfully said). We don't know very much about education, and have not been helped much by the educationists. Let different universities and different schools follow their own lights, and then we may be able, to some degree, to make an informed judgment of the strengths and weaknesses of various ways of proceeding. This, of course, suggests that the villain here is the state, with its centralizing tendencies and its desire for uniformity.

I can say a little about what I think a philosophy syllabus should contain. I think that there should be a considerable emphasis on the classical authors and texts (by which I do not mean merely the ancient philosophers). Philosophy has been a great running argument lasting for two and a half millennia. A philosophy student should get some acquaintance with a fair selection of the great voices that have been raised in the argument. I am not too worried about exact scholarship here. There is nothing wrong with introducing Plato or Hume or Bertrand Russell in the course of arguing with them. A further thing: bring back the core! Down with options! It is a wonderful thing for students to go forward together in a single course of study. The good students, in particular, have a chance to get to know each other and educate each other. I did not have a single option in my undergraduate philosophy course at Sydney. And, as old codgers always say, it did me no harm.

David Armstrong, Curriculum Vitae