Black Swans:
The formative influences in Australian philosophy

David Armstrong

In Rationality and Irrationality, (Proceedings of the 23rd International Wittgenstein Symposium, Kirchberg am Wechsel, Austria, 2000) ed. B. Brogaard & B. Smith, Wien: öbvahpt, 11-17.

I will start with an extract from the magazine Why?, edited, I think, by Anthony Kenny, published in Oxford in 1958. Mr L. Sturch there maintains that it is a fundamental error to think that:

... the question "Is there any reason for saying that in Australia the winter is in the summer?" has the same logic as "Is there any reason for saying that in France frogs are esteemed as a source of food?" It is a mistake to think that the name "Australia" has the same logical grammar as "France", "Switzerland", "Siberia", "Rutlandshire", or "North Dakota". It is no more like such names than "Utopia", "Erewhon", or "Ruritania" are. It is not sense to say "In Ruritania the population is increasing" unless you are playing a language-game in which it is stipulated that Ruritania is "a real place" (to use the material mode). Now it is clear that "Australia" is not a real place; or better, that the word "Australia" is not a name. The words "in Australia" are used simply to signify that the contradictory of what is stated to be the case "in Australia" is in fact the case. Thus we say "In Australia there are mammals that lay eggs" (meaning that there are none in reality); "In Australia there are black swans" (meaning that all real swans are some other colour); "In Australia people who stand upright have their heads pointing downwards" (meaning that this is self-contradictory).
Against the ingenious L. Sturch, with his theory that the phrase 'In Australia' is a negation-operator applied to sentences, I maintain that Australia really exists, and, perhaps a little suprisingly, that it contains quite a large number of philosophers. Indeed, these, like some other Australians, have been quite noisy.

There is a good book by Selwyn Grave A History of Philosophy in Australia which came out in 1984, and which takes the story up to 1980. It not only deals with the thought and teaching of the philosophers of Australia, which is its main concern, but also gives some account of the academic-cum-political struggles that enlivened the Australian philosophical scene. There is also in preparation a book by Jim Franklin to be called Corrupting the Youth, one chapter of which has already been published (Franklin 1999) which, going over much of the same ground, often in more polemical fashion, should be of great interest.

What I will do in this little talk, is to give you some feeling for what I take to be the three great formative events in Australian philosophy: John Anderson in Sydney, George Paul and later Wittgensteinians in Melbourne -- in particular Douglas Gasking -- and Ullin Place, Jack Smart, and Charlie Martin in Adelaide.

Although the continent of Australia (we prefer being the smallest continent to being the largest island) is very old, something that visitors of any sensitivity quickly realize, nevertheless politically and institutionally it is very young. The nation, indeed, only came into existence on the first day of 1901. Before that there were only Crown Colonies, the oldest, New South Wales, dating to 1788. We are, in every sense, a transported civilization. (An English joke. The Englishman arrives at Sydney airport. The immigration officer says to him: 'Have you a criminal record?' 'I didn't think that was still necessary.') So we long depended for our first university on those who came from the north, and in particular from Britain. Sydney University actually began in 1851, but adopted a latin motto that may be translated as 'The same mind under different skies'.

A Chair of Philosophy was established at Sydney in the 1880s, but things really stated to move with the arrival of John Anderson in 1927. He had been born in 1893, did his undergraduate work at Glasgow University, going on to become a lecturer at Edinburgh in Norman Kemp Smith's department. I have to declare an interest here, because I received my intellectual formation from Anderson, but I think that he was by far the most remarkable figure that Australian philosophy has seen.

His thinking was systematic, and extraordinarily wide ranging, especially given our contemporary philosophical perspective. He had worked-out views in metaphysics, in epistemology, in the philosophy of mind, in morals, politics and social theory, in aesthetics and literature, and pretty much anything that might engage the intellectuals of his time. Marx, Freud and James Joyce were of particular interest to him. In provincial Sydney of those days he could give you an education that was far wider than Western philosophy narrowly conceived.

William James distinguished between the tough and the tender-minded philosophers. There seemed to be no atom of tender-mindedness in Anderson's thinking. There was, he held, only a 'single level of being', a world of continuously interacting situations in space and time. Minds, knowledge, morality, education, society, were no more than empirical realities, spatiotemporal realities that the inquiring mind might investigate, seeking to strip away the illusions that hung about them. Social life was not some unified affair, but a continuous interaction of different social movements with different, often irreconcilable, ways of life. The life of inquiry, which he championed, was no more than a particular way of life.

When Anderson arrived in Australia he was an outspoken political radical, happy to support Leninism in the shape of the Australian Communist party (he even acted as an adviser to the Central Committee). It was a cause of scandal and concern in the university and the town. But he never subordinated his own political and philosophical judgement to communism. And remarkably early among intellectuals of the left all over the world, he became a critic of Stalinism. In the next few years he turned towards the Trotskyite position, but by the end of the thirties he had become a bitter critic of revolutionary socialism. That became for him one of the great illusions that the inquirer had to see through. He never became an orthodox conservative. Freedom in general, and academic freedom in particular, would always, he thought, lead 'a perilous and fighting life'. But it is 'no accident' as the Stalinists used to say, that among the very large number of intellectuals of Sydney that he taught and influenced, quite a substantial proportion turned to some variety of liberal-conservative political position.

One bad thing, as I think, about Anderson is that, although he preached critical inquiry, he was very intolerant of it when it was directed against his own views, especially in his own department and from his own students. (In this he resembled another outspoken upholder of critical inquiry: Karl Popper. I sometimes wonder whether there is a law of nature here.) What Anderson really wanted people to get, whether he admitted it to himself or not, was a good grip of, and acceptance of, his own position. The Andersonians, as those who bought the whole, or nearly the whole, package were called, were typical disciples. But if you had the strength of mind, or character, or just plain cussedness, to learn from Anderson without becoming subject to him, you could get a wonderful education from him. John Passmore, John Mackie, David Stove, Eugene Kamenka and me, though we went different ways, could all attest to this.

One good, indeed excellent, thing about Anderson was that he saw philosophy historically. I do not mean that he saw it in a scholarly way, he was no great scholar, but rather he saw it as a great argument that had been going on since Thales. I think that he thought that in the long procession of philosophers up to present times there were only two who had really achieved a true view of things: himself and, in a more intuitive way, Heraclitus. Fragment 20, in John Burnet's translation (1925), I suppose sums up in brief Heraclitus' metaphysics. It would do for Anderson as well:

This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living Fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out.

The measures may be read as Anderson's 'ways of working' of things, their immanent laws.

For many, it was Anderson's social views that were of the greatest interest. For me it was the metaphysics. The position that that there is nothing more to being than the spatiotemporal system is hardly an outlandish view. For an irreligous person , I suppose, it is no more than commonsense. Just brass tacks, as Ryle said in an article on Anderson (1950). Still and all, it's a great way to start. For, after all, Anderson being a philosopher, necessarily faced two ways: not only rejecting any sort of deity, but also the extraordinary entities postulated by so many philosophers, from the time of Plato onwards, at least, right up to the present day. Furthermore, being a traditional philosopher, Anderson was not going to leave spacetime just to the scientists. He wanted to put forward a particular view of its most abstract structure.

He argued that reality had a propositional structure. By this he meant nothing idealistic and nothing linguistic. Perhaps his idea is best understood today by saying that for him the world is a world of facts rather than a world of things. He was here aligning himself with the logical atomism of Russell and the Tractatus Wittgenstein. I have said 'align' but Anderson never really aligned himself intellectually with anybody. He rejected atomism in favour of a doctrine of the infinite complexity of things, and he never really came to grips with Wittgenstein, early or late, though he was scathing about the 'linguistic turn'. The resemblances between his ontological views and the doctrines of the Tractatus were pointed out by Douglas Gasking in a paper published in 1949. My own 'states of affairs' are directly descended from Anderson's propositional view of reality.

Anderson never accepted the new Russellian logic, either, and sought, implausibly, to exhibit all propositions as falling under the Aristotelian 'four forms' of subject-predicate propositions. This led to trouble with relations, whose reality Anderson was most keen to uphold, but they had to be smuggled into the four forms as relational properties. Anderson did go on to an interesting theory of categories, taking his lead from Samuel Alexander (who, by mere coincidence, was born in Australia although he spent his student and academic life in England). Alexander developed a realist treatment of space, time and the categories of being, putting an anti-subjectivist transformation on Kant. Anderson heard Alexander's Gifford lectures, published as Space, Time and Deity (1920). Anderson had no use for Alexander's emergent and non-transcendent deity, but he was taken by the idea of the categories. His own system included thirteen categories, which included Identity, Difference, Existence, Quality, Relation, Number, Quantity, Intensity and Causality, all linked to the form of the proposition. Anderson's dictated lectures on Alexander exist, but have never been published. They might gain more attention now that the idea of an empirical metaphysics has returned, in a modest way, to the philosophical agenda.

I could go on about Anderson for a long time, but let me now turn to Wittgensteinian Melbourne. The seminal figure here was the Englishman George Paul. Paul was at Melbourne University during the years of the second world war, returning to England after that. He brought the philosophy of Wittgenstein, whose pupil he had been, to Melbourne University. Though the period was relatively short his influence during that time was immense, and not merely within the philosophy department. I have never read or heard a detailed account of those years, but a friend of mine who became an anthropologist told me that it was as if the philosopher-king had arrived in Melbourne. His influence on the whole Faculty of Arts was, it appears, immense. To the historic rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, a rivalry in a great number of dimensions, a rivalry to which we owe the mid-point location and still artificial nature of our capital, Canberra, was added a new and not unimportant dimension: Andersonianism versus Wittgensteinianism.

Paul's influence in Melbourne lived on, for instance on A.C. 'Camo' Jackson, the father of Frank Jackson. But the Wittgenstein influence was further secured by the arrival in 1946 of another Englishman, and pupil of the master, Douglas Gasking, who spent the rest of his life in Melbourne. Gasking perhaps succumbed a little to what one of our national poets described as the Australian 'dream of ease'. But in all his lecturing and in his relatively small number of publications he sought, and achieved, total clarity. The most important of these have at last been collected in a book Language, Logic and Causation (1996). His thought did develop over the years. He became sympathetic to 'Australian materialism', and Quine and Davidson were also influences.

After the end of the war began an Age which still continues, the Age of the Conference. In Australian philosophy this meant, effectively, the annual coming together of, or rather the clashing of, two philosophically self-confident groups, one from Melbourne, one from Sydney, who did not find it easy to understand each other. There was a good deal of intransigence, particularly on the part of Sydney, I think. Anderson had evolved a style of giving papers that was (as far as I know) all his own. When the discussion began, he took careful notes, but did not speak in reply until everybody else had finished. Then he gave a speech in reply, in the course of which he took note of, and in general crtiticized, what had been said. It enabled him to re-emphasize his main themes, which as we all know can get lost in ordinary back-and-forth question and answer. But it didn't help much to get the detail of arguments straight, which is also very important for philosophers. Gasking, in particular, was much more eirenic, genuinely seeking to understand and even to find common ground. (I have already mentioned his paper comparing and contrasting Anderson's position and that of the Tractatus.) And some of us genuinely wanted to find out what was going on in Melbourne, and read with great interest a typescript of Wittgenstein's Blue Book, which circulated rather clandestinely in Sydney.

But even after all of this has been said, the intellectual temper of the two schools was very far apart. The idea that philosophy was a sort of muddle which needed clearing up -- the fly shown the way out of the fly-bottle -- and the linguistic turn that grew out of this, was deeply opposed to the traditional and classical conception of philosophy that, in an empiricist version, prevailed in Sydney. To a large extent it was a dialogue of the deaf. For the English-speaking philosophical world, the later Wittgenstein and linguistic philosophy were the fashion, Andersonianism could not have been less fashionable. Now that the fashion has passed, though it has left important marks, many Andersonian ideas can be put forward and discussed in a way that was hardly possible then.

In the early fifties, however, something new entered Australian philosophy. This was the arrival in 1950 of Jack Smart to the Chair of philosophy in Adelaide University, South Australia. Smart was very young, even younger than Anderson when the latter came out to Sydney. He had been a graduate student at Oxford, and was backed by Gilbert Ryle. Smart was a disciple of Ryle's and, in particular, accepted Ryle's philosophy of mind as set out in The Concept of Mind.

Smart's department was supposed to cover both philosophy and psychology, and he needed a psychologist. The person he appointed was Ullin Place, known in the anthologies as U.T. Place. He had also been at Oxford, taking the PPP course: Philosophy, Psychology and Physiology, a course taken by few, but those few rather select. He was recommended to Smart by Brian Farrell, the author of the rather remarkable paper 'Experience', remarkable, given its content, in being published in 1950. With its contention that experience is 'featureless', it anticipated Smart's doctrine of the topic neutrality of mental discourse, and, incidentally, introduced the question what it is like to be a bat. Place himself began experimental psychology at Adelaide, but the great contribution he made there was, of course, in the philosophy of mind.

Another appointment that Smart was able to make at that time was also very important. This was C.B. 'Charlie' Martin. An American, he had been a student of John Wisdom's at Cambridge. He rapidly became disillusioned with Wittgensteinian philosophy. He used to say that he wanted to know what there is, and his preoccupation with ontological issues was profoundly important in Adelaide and, later, in the wider Australian philosophical scene. It was Martin who introduced in Australia the concept of a truthmaker, that in the world, whatever it is, in virtue of which a true proposition is true. He first applied it to the counterfactuals about possible perceptions used by the Phenomenalists, and the dispositional truths about behaviour which were so important in a Rylean philosophy of mind.

In Adelaide, Place started things going. He began, like Smart, from Rylean behaviourism. But the existence of inner mental processes seemed to him to be undeniable. At the same time, the arguments for a physicalist account of the world, including the mental, seemed very strong on scientific grounds. So he came to the Identity theory -- the identification of mental processes with purely physical processes in the brain. It is important on the grounds of historical justice to realize something, something that Smart has constantly born witness to but the philosophical world has nevertheless often been confused about, that Place had to convert Smart from his Rylean view. A large part of the trouble arose, I think, because Place's 1956 paper was published in the British Journal of Psychology, which few philosophers read. Smart's famous paper did not appear until 1959, but it was in the Philosophical Review, and anybody who was anybody in analytic philosophy read it. Later both papers started appearing more or less side by side in anthologies, and perception of the direction of influence became a bit blurred.

Martin was never, I think, a Rylean, but he too sought to oppose Place's view, looking instead for some 'Double-Aspect' view. But the years in which these three powerful intelligences were arguing the matter back and forth in the Adelaide department, quite a brief time because Place went back to England in 1956 and was hardly ever in Australia again, constitute one of the heroic episodes in Australian philosophy, and I think one of the defining ones.

These, then, as I see it, are the three great formative influences on philosophy in Australia. Nowadays, of course, we are more like everybody else in the philosophical world. You can find all the fashionable approaches to the subject among Australian philosophers now, and all the fashionable topics, analytic and non-analytic. But perhaps a certain idiosyncratic intellectual temper remains, a certain flavour that still distinguishes us. If so, I think it springs from the influences of Anderson in Sydney; from George Paul, Douglas Gasking and the Wittgensteinian tradition in Melbourne; and from Place, Smart and Charlie Martin in Adelaide.


Alexander, Samuel, 1920. Space, Time and Deity (2 vols.). London: Macmillan.

Anderson, John, 1962. Studies in Empirical Philosophy. Sydney: Angus & Robertson. (There is a useful preface by John Passmore.)

Baker, A.J., 1979. Anderson's Social Philosophy: The Social Thought and Political Life of Professor John Anderson. Sydney: Angus & Robertson Publishers.

_____ 1986. Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burnet, John, 1945. Early Greek Philosophy, fourth edition. London: Adam & Charles Black.

Farrell, Brian, 1950. 'Experience'. Mind, 59, 170-198.

Franklin, James, 1999. 'The Sydney Philosophy Disturbances'. Quadrant, 43 (April), 16-21.

Gasking, D.A.T., 1949. 'Anderson and the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus'. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 27, 1-26.

Grave, S.A., 1984. A History of Philosophy in Australia. St. Lucia, Queensland (Australia): University of Queensland Press.

Oakley I.T, & O'Neill L.J. (eds.), 1996. Language, Logic and Causation: Philosophical Writings of Douglas Gasking. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Ryle, Gilbert, 1950. 'Logic and Professor Anderson'. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 28. Reprinted in Ryle's Collected Papers, Vol. 1, London: Hutchinson, 1971, 236-248.

David Armstrong, Curriculum Vitae