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Thinkers and theories

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Australian philosophy

Despite its reputation as remote and anti-intellectual, Australia has exercised a surprisingly deep influence on philosophy

Peter Godfrey-Smith

Illustration by Matt Murphy/Handsome Frank

Peter Godfrey-Smith

is professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (2016). He lives in Sydney.

4,600 words

Edited by Nigel Warburton

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In 1988 I travelled from Sydney to San Diego, California, to start a PhD in philosophy. That trip looks like a short hop now, but back then it seemed a long way. I had just finished an undergraduate philosophy degree at the University of Sydney. After I arrived, part of my training for the PhD was to work as a teaching assistant (or tutor) for a course in moral philosophy. The course syllabus, I was surprised to find, was full of Australians: Peter Singer, John Mackie, Jack Smart. 

At Sydney I had worked especially in the philosophy of mind, and learned early on that there was a family of views called ‘Australian materialism’. This suggested that Australia meant something in philosophy. I had also seen at Sydney a series of visitors from very good American universities, who had all said that the philosophical scene in Australia was unusually strong. But it was natural to wonder whether they were being gracious as guests. I knew also that I was joining a stream of Australian students who had gone to graduate school overseas. But I was still surprised to find, in an area of philosophy far from mine, all those Australians on the syllabus.

Australia has had an outsized influence on philosophy, especially in the middle and late-20th century. The field still shows a broad Australian footprint. For many years, Princeton University in New Jersey, perennially one of the highest-ranked philosophy departments, has had three or four Australians on its faculty (depending on when you look and on how you count Australians). Princeton has always been an especially clear case, but the influence is all over, an ongoing export of both people and ideas. Given the modest size of Australia (with a population of about 25 million now, but under 17 million until the end of the 1980s), and the popular image of the country’s intellectual life, this is a bit surprising. What is going on? How did this happen?

What you think about all this depends on what you think is valuable and worthwhile in philosophy, a topic subject to enormous disagreement. Many qualified people think that Martin Heidegger, for example, was the most breathtakingly original and important philosopher of the past century. Other qualified people think that he was an obscurantist Nazi windbag. Australia has not produced someone as polarising as Heidegger, but here, as elsewhere, there is a lot of disagreement about how philosophy should be done.

Some of this disagreement can be described with a distinction between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy, a terminology that is serviceable, though it misleads in some ways. The divergence dates from the early and mid-20th century. The analytic style is more associated with English-speaking work, and the continental style has been more influenced by German and French 20th-century developments.

The two approaches are perhaps now best seen as differing on the goals of doing philosophy. One philosophical goal is the investigation of difficult and abstract questions in a clear and argumentative way (analytic). The writing that results is often rather dry and unexciting. On the continental side, versions of traditional philosophical questions are usually still in view, as is a deep concern with the history of the field, but the activity of philosophy becomes an arena for political and aesthetic gesture, and for a highly personal working-through of topics such as death and alienation. Clear communication is willingly sacrificed to further novel and radical possibilities of thought. A problem on the analytic side of philosophy is a tendency to expend enormous energy on narrowly technical puzzle-solving that has lost touch with significant problems. Avoiding empty pretension is a problem on the continental side.

‘Continental’ is a misleading term in some ways, as the analytic style is very strong in some parts of Europe, especially in the Nordic countries and Spain, while the continental style has significant outposts in all English-speaking countries.

Most of the philosophers discussed here are on the analytic side of the divide. The story begins in the middle of the 20th century, and it is worth setting the scene internationally before turning to Australia. England and the USA were the main centres of the emerging analytic style in philosophy, with some differences between them. In the US, a group of émigrés from Europe, particularly Austria and Germany, fleeing Nazism, had strengthened a technical approach to philosophy and an orientation towards science and problem-solving. England, and especially Cambridge, had entered an unusual phase due to the extraordinary influence of one particular Viennese import, Ludwig Wittgenstein. He criticised the whole idea of giving theories in philosophy. In Wittgenstein-influenced circles, it is seen as regrettable, even crass, to try to solve, rather than deflate, the field’s traditional problems (of mind and matter, fact and value, freedom, experience and reality). Philosophy exists because we make mistakes about language. When the mistakes are fixed, philosophy will fade.

Across the globe in Australia, the two most important places intellectually in many respects were the universities at Sydney and Melbourne. Especially for readers born digital, it is worth emphasising the isolation of Australia from the main philosophical centres at this time, and through many of the decades in which the philosophical story unfolds. Mail was slow, and international phone calls extravagantly expensive. Travel was by ship and the UK-to-Sydney route took around a month. (It was actually possible to fly as a passenger from London to Sydney from the 1930s, but the trip took 12 days and cost the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars.)

Sydney and Melbourne both had philosophy departments that dated from the 19th century. Sydney was dominated for decades by a Scottish-born professor, John Anderson, who arrived in 1927 and exercised enormous local influence until his retirement in 1958. Anderson was a realist, materialist, and atheist – ‘realism’ here being a commitment to a largely mind-independent world that we are all part of. Initially, he was a communist sympathiser, but he came to reject the movement’s authoritarian manner (not so much towards Russian workers, but towards local supporters) and later moved towards the anti-communist Right.

Central to Anderson and his influence was an uncompromising defence of free thought: ‘The theorist cannot recognise any limitation of freedom of speech and academic freedom, and has the right to be as blasphemous, obscene and seditious as he likes, whatever offence may be sustained by vested interests.’ In 1943, the State Parliament condemned some of Anderson’s statements as ‘calculated to undermine the principles which constitute a Christian State’.

This circle was an early influence on Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes and Clive James

The preacher of free enquiry was inclined to strongly enforce his own line locally – in hiring, in developing the curriculum, and so on. He did not always practise what he preached. (Similar stories are told about Karl Popper, an uncompromising defender of free criticism and the ‘open society’, as long as not too much criticism was directed at himself.) The following quote – which is taken, along with most of my material about Anderson, from Jim Franklin’s well-titled book Corrupting the Youth (2003) – is rather shocking: ‘if you give students all sorts of views, you are not encouraging a real grasp of philosophy’.

Anderson’s writings had no influence whatsoever outside Australia, but he was able to exert a lot of personal influence over philosophers who eventually became much better-known. Around Sydney, a philosophical style took hold that valued clear argumentative writing and the attempt to give theories that answered questions – a problem-solving style that encouraged cumulative work. Anderson’s influence reached outside the academy; he inspired a group of tough-minded and hard-drinking bohemians that included journalists, lawyers and misfits known as the ‘Sydney Push’. This social circle was an important early influence on Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes and Clive James, among others, a story chronicled in another well-titled book, Anne Coombs’s Sex and Anarchy (1996).

Melbourne followed a different road. There, Wittgenstein’s influence took hold in the 1940s, with its disdain for theory-building in philosophy. So the Australian scene mid-century partially mirrored the differences between the US and the UK, with one side seeing philosophy as a collection of research projects, and another seeing philosophy as a problematic, largely regrettable, activity. Not everything in Melbourne was negative. Melbournians were more concerned with ethical questions than the Sydney scene was. Sydney thinkers were trying to be ruthlessly critical and hard-headed; Melbournians wanted to make things better.

The way I’ll approach the next stage – describing how Australian philosophy took off – is by looking at a trio who I think are clearly the most influential philosophers the Australian scene has produced. Their unusual influence can be acknowledged whether or not one thinks their ideas are any good. Though Melbourne and Sydney were the main centres of philosophy in Australia after the Second World War, the first figure I will talk about came out of neither. This is Jack Smart.

J J C Smart (always known either by those initials or by ‘Jack’) was born in Scotland and educated at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, but he became a central exemplar of Australian philosophy – perhaps the person most associated with an Australian style in the field. In 1950, he became professor at the University of Adelaide, which had no philosophy department at that time. Philosophy was mixed in with Psychology and Education, and in that unit Smart had just one philosophical colleague. He worked on many themes, but his collaboration with the psychologist U T Place on the mind-body problem made the biggest mark. Smart appointed Place to his small group, and then spun off Psychology as a separate department. The work of Smart and Place was the beginning of ‘Australian materialism’, which hypothesises a relation of identity – literal sameness – between mental processes such as experiences, and physical processes in the brain. This view had been seen as too crude to take seriously in philosophy, even though science seemed to be pushing towards it. Clearly there is some important relation between the two, but how could they be the same? Smart and Place argued that the relation between mind and brain is analogous to the relation between lightning and electrical discharges in the atmosphere – they are identical, though this is far from obvious.

Smart also argued for utilitarianism in ethics – good actions are those that have the best overall consequences in enabling pleasure and preventing pain – and for ‘scientific realism’, the idea that successful scientific theories can be treated as descriptions of the hidden workings of a mind-independent world. He did pioneering work on the nature of time, arguing against the view that time passes, and future events come into existence with that passage. Smart was also an enormously likeable and generous man. He was the centre of an extremely productive group at Adelaide for about 20 years, before moving on to a series of other Australian universities where he played a similarly inspirational role.

In a context of rising Left-wing activism, the Sydney philosophy department split into two

The next central figure in the development of Australian philosophy of mind, a figure not as universally liked, was David Armstrong. He was a product of the Sydney scene around Anderson, and was its most influential product within philosophy. Armstrong developed the materialist view of Smart and Place in a more detailed and ambitious form, sometimes in parallel and sometimes in interaction with David Lewis, an American philosopher who came to be such a regular visitor to Australia from the 1970s onwards that he is very much part of the history of Australian philosophy. Armstrong’s book A Materialist Theory of the Mind (1968) argued that our ordinary concepts of mental states (our concept of pain, memory, and so on) are associated with causal roles, with things that pains and memories do, especially in causing behaviour. Once the causal roles associated with each mental state have been described, science can (and does) tell us that particular states and processes in the brain are the things that actually play these roles. If that is true, it follows that pains and memories (etc) just are those states and processes in the brain.

Armstrong was politically active on the centre-Right. He and his politics, in a context of rising Left-wing activism around the Vietnam war, were central to an outlandish sequence of events in which the University of Sydney philosophy department split into two separate departments in the 1970s. The split was organised initially along political lines, with one broadly socialist and feminist department, and the other tending to the centre-Right; but later, through the transformation of the Left-wing department, it evolved into a form shaped more by the continental/analytic divide discussed above, with Armstrong on the analytic side.

During the 1970s Armstrong turned from philosophy of mind towards metaphysics, a subfield that debates the general nature of properties (such as shape and colour), laws of nature, how to think about the merely possible, and what sort of thing an ordinary physical object such as a chair might be. Metaphysics has for a while been the most controversial part of the analytic side of philosophy, as it is so hard to keep one’s feet on the ground, and it often appears that there can be nothing at stake in debates about whether the world contains ‘universals’ such as redness, as well as red things, for example. This is exactly the sort of debate that a Wittgenstein-influenced philosopher wants us to leave behind. But in the 1980s, metaphysics of this kind took off in the English-speaking world. Lewis, Armstrong’s American collaborator, was probably the single most important person in those debates until his death in 2001. Lewis’s work was both technically meticulous and often extravagant (for him, all possible worlds literally exist, as well as the actual world). But during these years of ascent in what is now called ‘analytic metaphysics’, Armstrong set quite a lot of the agenda.

The third member of my trio is Peter Singer. He is probably the most influential and controversial philosopher in the world today. Singer has surely had more effect on what people actually do than any other philosopher for many years.

Singer grew up in Melbourne and studied at the University of Melbourne, without being tempted by its Wittgensteinianism. He focused on moral philosophy. After further study at Oxford, he has spent most of his career around Melbourne, and also New York and Princeton in the US. While a graduate student at Oxford, Singer became a vegetarian on moral grounds, and in 1975 he published Animal Liberation, an extraordinarily powerful book that has changed the everyday behaviours of a large number of people and put considerable pressure on the use of animals in scientific experimentation.

Like Smart, Singer is a utilitarian. He has developed and applied that outlook in many other areas, most controversially to the infanticide of severely disabled children, which he thinks can be acceptable if they have no prospect of a happy life. Recently, he has been central to the ‘effective altruism’ movement, which tries in a rigorous way to work out how charity and everyday actions can do the most good.

If you look at these three, who have a special place with respect to sheer influence, there are some similarities in doctrine – at least two materialists and realists, two utilitarians, three atheists. Some of that pattern recedes once one broadens one’s view a little; Frank Jackson and David Chalmers, two Australian philosophers who have been very prominent over the past few decades, have argued against materialism. They have argued, against people like Armstrong, that the mental cannot be understood simply in terms of causal roles, and materialist views cannot explain the feel of mental processes. Jackson later recanted, but Chalmers is probably the most influential critic of materialism today. In addition to sharing some philosophical views, there is a distinctive stylistic feature that Smart, Armstrong and Singer have in common. They all have an unusually simple but forceful style.

This combination of simplicity and forcefulness is hard to achieve in professional philosophy

Nearly anyone can read Singer, and that is by design. But Smart’s most important book, Philosophy and Scientific Realism (1963), and many of Armstrong’s books are also notable for their simplicity of presentation. There is limited jargon, no self-absorbed convolution. Despite being accessible, they are argumentatively forceful, trying explicitly to persuade. There is rarely rhetorical excess, but no holding back.

This combination of simplicity and forcefulness is hard to achieve once you are in professional philosophy. For many of us, there are always too many options, angles and complications surrounding what one wants to say. If you want to be forceful, you have to cover a lot of bases, and simplicity is then lost.

One can cautiously make contrasts between some of the local traditions I’ve discussed here. The British tradition has often valued simplicity of presentation, but in a way that does not push too hard. Understatement is a valued trait in British philosophy, less so in the US. There, some of the most influential late-20th-century philosophers have written in a way heavily inflected by the formal, technical side of their topic. Even when writing ordinary prose, one can sense an intricate machine lurking just nearby. (Lewis, Armstrong’s close friend, wrote like this.) This gives those Americans’ work a lot of power in the debates as they unfold, but it does mean that their writing often dates as today’s technical enthusiasms are replaced by new ones. The work can seem rather tied to the methods and language of the time.

Smart and Armstrong’s writings have also dated, but not in this way. They are easier to read today, fresher, especially in Smart’s case, than most other philosophy from that period.

If we expand the picture past the trio above, to consider the next round of names, does the same pattern hold? To some extent, I think so (John Mackie and Frank Jackson are examples). As we further expand the circle, though, these tendencies becomes lost in diversity. My stylistic generalisations have many exceptions elsewhere, too. In England, Elizabeth Anscombe was a close associate of Wittgenstein, but also a formidable philosopher in her own right. She was far from the worldview of the Australians I’ve been discussing, being influenced by Wittgenstein but also a committed Roman Catholic who integrated this outlook into her work. Her writing had the combination I described above, with a force and directness that can be almost unnerving. The UK has plenty of technically infused philosophy, too. Its traditions of writing about language in a simpler vein were changed in the 1970s, in part due to the US philosopher Donald Davidson, a paradigm case of someone writing with technical machinery alongside. He achieved sudden influence in the UK in a process sometimes known as the ‘Davidsonic boom’.

Australian philosophy also has a strong tradition in formal logic and other technical fields, especially at the Australian National University in Canberra. On the US side, Saul Kripke is a special case. He is another of those philosophers writing against a high-powered technical background, but in some of his work, including what many regard as the most important piece of philosophy in the late-20th century, Naming and Necessity (1972), there is a radiant simplicity of style.

I do, however, think that there is a distinctive tradition of philosophical writing in Australia, and some habits of thinking associated with that writing. Marking out this difference does not do much to explain the influence of Australian philosophy, though I do think of it as a strength. If we look more broadly, people tell two kinds of story about the overall strength of the field. Some of these stories are mostly ‘external’ – they draw on general facts about habits of mind and a social context outside of philosophy, while others are more ‘internal’, emphasising the development of a philosophical culture and the role of crucial individuals.

On the external side, some have suggested that a general Australian tough-mindedness has played a role. Fiona Cowie came through Sydney in the 1980s when I did, and taught at Caltech in Pasadena until her very untimely death at 55 in 2018. In an interview in 2009, she said that a ‘no-bullshit ethos’ was characteristic of Australian culture, and has helped in philosophy: ‘Analytic philosophy is all about bullshit detection, and we [Australians] are very good at that.’

At least part of what Cowie had in mind was a distrust of obscurity and pretension, of grandiose jargon that might disguise the fact that a view has left the rails. When one is discussing very abstract questions, such a mindset can be invaluable. The philosophers I have focused on so far – Smart, Armstrong and Singer, along with others such as Jackson and Mackie – all exemplify this kind of thinking, and it is linked to their style of writing. But I am not so sure it is characteristic of Australian intellectual habits in general.

Philosophy and the other humanities in Australia have seen plenty of enthusiasm for convoluted, jargon-filled work. When the University of Sydney’s philosophy department split in the 1970s, Armstrong ended up in one of them, while the other – which had many more students – quickly became a centre of poststructuralism and related late-20th-century trends, featuring close study of Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, work of exactly the sort that Cowie’s bullshit-detector would filter out. When I meet students who studied the humanities in Australian universities around the very end of the previous century, I tend to find them more infused with the tangled language of that period (more over-steeped in Gilles Deleuze, in particular) than their US counterparts. Though it is true that Australia’s most famous philosophers have prized clarity and a no-nonsense style, I suspect this isn’t a reflection of the broader intellectual culture, much as I would like to think it is.

I incline towards explanations of the other, ‘internal’ form – explanations in terms of pivotal individuals and the local cultures they created. If these factors are what counted, then the outcome was probably very contingent, and would go quite differently in other possible worlds. What would have happened to Australian philosophy, for example, had the administrators at the University of Queensland, in the sunny subtropical north, accepted Karl Popper’s application for a job just before the Second World War, rather than opting for a known internal candidate? Popper, a giant of 20th-century philosophy of science, was another Austrian émigré (and someone who shared Anderson’s mixed attitude to criticism, as described above). He instead spent the war years at Canterbury in New Zealand, before moving on to the London School of Economics. Friedrich Waismann, a member of the Vienna Circle, who ended up at Oxford, also applied unsuccessfully for that Queensland job.

The story I have told so far has been almost entirely a story about men, with Cowie the first female Australian philosopher mentioned. As Franklin’s book Corrupting the Youth shows, in its photos as well as text, women did have some role in Australian philosophy from its early days. From the 1980s onwards, that role has amplified greatly, though I think the male-dominated story I have told about the most influential group is right, and Australian philosophy has not yet produced a Simone de Beauvoir, an Elizabeth Anscombe or a Ruth Millikan.

Australia had healthy, well-funded and well-organised universities in the crucial period

When I was a student at Sydney in Armstrong’s department, women students were certainly taken seriously – though it irked Fiona Cowie when Armstrong endlessly emphasised what a superb writer she was. Cowie was indeed an exceptional writer, but she took Armstrong’s comment to be, if not faint praise, rather inattentive to her goals as a philosopher. Rae Langton, now professor at the University of Cambridge, flourished as a student in that department around the same time.

All in all, it is not easy to give a definitive cause for the strength and influence of Australian philosophy in this period. Explanations in terms of strong local cultures and the guidance of key people are, I think, more plausible than explanations in terms of a large-scale cultural style. In addition, Australia had healthy, well-funded and well-organised universities in the crucial period. They are now under some assault from bureaucratic encroachment, and from a neglect of the humanities (even though employers seem to want nothing more than graduates who can think inventively and write clearly). In several universities, the philosophy department has been forced to join, partially or entirely, with others into acronymically named ‘schools’, entities loved only by higher administrators. At Princeton and at Harvard University, in contrast, the philosophy department is still just the philosophy department.

A number of the philosophers I’ve discussed chose to explore lines of thought that have panned out well as the years have passed – when explaining the success of Australian philosophy, this is something on both the cause and effect sides of the ledger. Materialism of the sort seen in Smart, Place and Armstrong was a view waiting to be developed, though it took courage to take the first steps. Something similar might be said about the tendency towards realism. ‘Realism’ in philosophy is not a single view, but a family of positions, seen in debates in many areas. Sometimes ‘realism’ about something – moral values, for example, or possible objects, or God – just means commitment to the existence of that particular kind of thing. Given this, no one is a realist across the board. Many standard statements of a realist outlook are also problematic, as they flatly assert the ‘independence’ of the physical world from our minds, even though much of the business of our minds is transforming what goes on in the world, and even though, if materialism is right, our minds are well and truly part of the physical world.

Realist views can be developed in different forms – Huw Price, another Australian professor at Cambridge, has a version quite different from Smart or Armstrong. But there is a general picture of humans and their place in things that realist philosophers tend to share, a picture that sees us as parts of a larger, common, structured environment, learning about it when things go well, and acting on it in constrained and partially efficacious ways. This is a view in which the idea that a person’s perspective determines their own world is rejected. My world is your world, too, even if our perspectives differ. Australian philosophers have often taken a realist side in this sense, and often also, while working on other matters, have tacitly assumed this outlook and not been caught up in doubts about it. This has stood Australians in good stead, because as the decades have passed, the reasons to doubt this picture, and try to say something else, have receded.

Is this tradition of strength likely to continue? Strength might well continue, but in a different form. A large-scale and ongoing transformation in recent years has been the attenuation of national and regional variation in philosophy, due to technology – due to the differences between the present day and the days of travel by ship and no email. This is not leading to an overall flattening-out of differences in philosophy. There is still enormous diversity. But the differences are becoming less geographical.

It would be interesting to do a fine-grained historical analysis, looking at the effects of different technologies on philosophy and other humanistic disciplines – the transitions wrought first by inexpensive photocopies and air travel, then email, and then the internet in full information-deluge form. The local intellectual traditions I have emphasised in my story can’t really exist if information flows completely freely. There is a need for some locality of influence. This still existed to some extent in the 1980s, but – as evidenced by the instantaneous worldwide publication of this essay – is greatly reduced now.

Peter Godfrey-Smith

is professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (2016). He lives in Sydney.

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