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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Anderson, John (1893–1962)

by W. M. O'Neil

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

John Anderson (1893-1962), philosopher, educator and controversialist, was born on 1 November 1893 at Stonehouse, Lanarkshire, Scotland, son of Alexander Anderson, schoolmaster, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Brown. His father reputedly had both socialist and anti-clerical convictions and exerted a great influence on his son. After attending Hamilton Academy, Anderson matriculated at the University of Glasgow. His first concern was with mathematics and physics and he turned primarily to philosophy only late in his undergraduate career. He won prizes in many subjects, including political science, Greek, logic and political economy. In 1917 Anderson graduated Master of Arts with first-class honours in philosophy and in mathematics and natural philosophy. That year he was awarded the Ferguson Scholarship in Philosophy and in 1919 the Shaw Philosophical Fellowship, both in open competition with graduates of all four Scottish universities. As holder of the Shaw Fellowship he was required to deliver four public lectures, which he did in February 1925 on 'The Nature of Mind'. Some of his early published papers were probably based on these lectures.

Immediately upon graduation Anderson began lecturing at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (Cardiff) (1917-19), the University of Glasgow (1919-20) and at the University of Edinburgh (1920-26). He taught over a wide range of philosophy at both elementary and advanced levels: logic, metaphysics, the history of ancient and of modern philosophy, ethics and the philosophy of mind. During this period he was preparing his Shaw lectures, working out his general philosophical position and drafting a textbook on logic which unfortunately was never published. On 30 June 1922 he married Janet Currie Baillie, a fellow-student at both Hamilton Academy and the University of Glasgow; their one son was born in Scotland.

Anderson occupied the Challis chair of philosophy in the University of Sydney from 1927 to 1958. Over the years he was probably the professor most often in the news as a result of controversial utterances not fully comprehended by those who took exception to them. He was probably the most original philosopher ever to have worked in Australia. Others, later, have been equally distinguished or have had greater international recognition. Though Anderson came under many influences, he was not strictly speaking a member of a wider movement. He found building-blocks here and there from which to construct his own philosophical edifice after supplying his own cement and after reshaping the stones. Unfortunately the edifice was never expounded in a comprehensive treatise, but its outlines were clear in his lectures and journal-articles.

He was greatly influenced by Greek philosophy, as interpreted by the Scottish scholar John Burnet, and by Hegel; for all that Anderson came to reject the Absolute Idealism in which he had been trained. Of twentieth-century philosophers, William James, G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, the American new 'realists' and, especially, the Australian-born Samuel Alexander, laid the foundations of his thinking. Outside philosophy in the narrower sense, Freud, Marx and the 'political pluralists' of Orage's journal New Age all left a permanent mark on him. But Anderson's interpretation of his predecessors and his contemporaries was often highly original, not to say idiosyncratic, and he followed none of them in detail. His general position was pluralistic. Everything, whether it be a physical object, a human mind, or a society is, he argued, a plurality of co-operating and competing activities, each of them in turn a complex plurality. There are no ultimates, whether in the form of total wholes of which everything is a part, elementary units of which it is made up, or a self-subsistent Being on which it depends. It follows that one can never know anything whatsoever through-and-through. In Heraclitus's phrase one has always to 'expect the unexpected'. There is no higher or better way of knowledge than experience, an experience, however, which is not of simple sensations but of complex situations. Even mathematics and logic are corrigible in the light of further experience.

In ethics and aesthetics, Anderson defended the view that our judgments are objective. His aesthetics was closely linked with the formalism of Roger Fry; his ethics had few forerunners. Good, he argued, is a characteristic of certain forms of mental activity, of love, courage, the contemplation and creation of beauty, the spirit of production, the spirit of inquiry. These are not to be thought of as 'ends'; they are acquired, if at all, by 'catching' them from others, rather than by deliberate pursuit. Other ethical notions, such as 'rights', he defined in purely sociological terms.

A central feature of Anderson's teaching was a call for a critical approach to everything. Nothing was to be deemed to be above criticism and nothing was to be allowed to play an obscurantist role in dampening or suppressing criticism. He saw censorship, patriotism, religion and some social conventions such as 'good taste' as having this effect, and consequently he attacked each of them, both within and outside the university. Despite his seriousness in these matters, he had a light-hearted wit or at any rate turn of phrase which endeared him to some but, because it could be so devastating, antagonized others.

Within the university he played three important roles: as a teacher, as a critic and controversialist, and as a conservationist or protagonist of the preservation of an intellectual emphasis and of scholarly standards. The same can be said of his extra-university activities.

Anderson never had much time for Hegelian dialectical materialism turned upside down by Marx as a philosophy, or with Marxist political theory, but he had originally a strong sympathy with some aspects of the Marxist political objectives. So after his arrival in Australia he associated with the communist movement. He wrote for their journals, sometimes under a nom-de-plume, but became disillusioned with the Stalinist party-line; he worked for a time with the Trotsky dissident group but became disenchanted with them also. He 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. He was deemed by some to have become after this a conservative in politics. He would be better described as a liberal, pluralist democrat. Liberal he always was, but conservative in the ordinary sense, in politics, ethics, aesthetics, epistemology and metaphysics, he never was. In logic he was conservative but with a liberal touch. When Bertrand Russell and others were reforming traditional logic on one unconventional line, Anderson was reforming it on a much less radical line and he had no sympathy for what they were doing. He was always in one sense conservative in education, adopting what he regarded as a classical position; he insisted that a high intellectual demand be made by any study, that it call for the exercise of criticism and that high standards always be required. In respect of procedures in education, he was conservative; he had no stomach for the new-fangled. He did not endear himself to many of his colleagues when he maintained that courses aimed at professional preparation had no place in a university. The study of the humanities, the sciences (physical and biological) and the social sciences was the prime task. The teaching and learning of professional skills and procedures should in his view be engaged in outside a university.

Through the obvious originality of his philosophical position, aided by his friendliness to and interest in his students but not by any oratorical skills (for he lacked them), Anderson had a tremendous impact on his students. Though he was insistent on high standards, he was not intemperate in blowing on his own shorn lambs. It was not easy to gain a first-class honours from him, but he had a generous judgment of what could be expected from the ordinary run of diligent pass students. There was a continuing central core of adherents, the Andersonians, who adopted his philosophical position in its various aspects with unqualified enthusiasm. They subjected what they encountered in their other courses and in discussion with their fellows to the critical scrutiny which Anderson urged, but it cannot be said that they always subjected his realist empiricism to the same critical scrutiny. When the best of them did adopt this critical attitude to Anderson's own views they became considerable philosophers, legal and other social theorists, literary scholars, historians and so on in their own right. The stamp of Anderson, nevertheless, remained on most of them.

Outside his formal class-room teaching he had a considerable influence on both his own and other students through his activities over many years in the university's Freethought and Literary societies. He helped to found the one and revamp the other. He introduced students to the study of James Joyce in the early 1930s, not an easy task as much of Joyce's work was banned. In the mid-1930s a copy of Ulysses circulated among his students, with 'A Book of Common Prayer' in gold letters on its spine.

Anderson was a keen and valuable member of the professorial board and of many of its committees, of the faculty of arts and of other bodies. He had an impeccable knowledge of by-laws, precedents and previous policy decisions. He never wanted anything to be agreed to without rigorous scrutiny, detailed discussion and working over the ground for and against the matter. He always did his 'homework' with the greatest of care. If on a selection committee considering applicants for a vacancy, whether in anthropology, economics, an ancient or modern language, history, law or psychology, he would not only read with care the referees' reports but he would go on to find out who the referees were, and would read samples of the short-listed candidates' published works. Being by office a member of the board of studies in divinity, he attended its meetings with unfailing regularity and took part in its debates — not because he supported religious studies in the university but because he wanted to do his best to ensure that, granted the university had them, they were conducted in the best possible academic manner.

Anderson opposed many proposals put before the professorial board. He usually lost, but he made their proponents put forward a more reasoned case than they had originally done. As a rule he lost because he could not summon the numbers, but he did not often lose the argument. He moved many motions, and if these were for the adoption of the recommendations of a committee on which he had served they were usually carried. If they were something he had initiated they were almost invariably lost. On one occasion not long before his retirement he moved a motion and argued for it at length, the chairman called for a seconder and someone responded; he called for discussion and after a moment of silence put the motion; there was a murmur of 'ayes' and no 'noes'. Later as the chairman walked out of the meeting he said to him, 'John, I'm pleased that your motion was carried', and he replied, 'But, Bill, the bastards didn't discuss it'.

The foregoing may suggest that Anderson was an austere, somewhat contrary, disembodied intellect. To his students and to some outsiders there was another side to his nature: he was the only arts professor in the university in the 1930s who was not aloof from students; he hob-nobbed with them in the quadrangle, ate lunch with them in the Union; he regularly had afternoon tea with a little coterie outside the university. He had students to his home at Turramurra in the week-end for afternoon tea and tennis; on these occasions his wife Jenny played the friendly but intellectual hostess. Anderson liked to sing Scottish and blues songs in his pleasant light tenor voice: he composed a few blues of his own and set the 'Ballad of joking Jesus' in Ulysses to music and added a few stanzas. He liked to jive, to swing or whatever was the appropriate action accompanying the popular musical mode of the day.

Anderson was often a controversial figure outside as well as within the university. In 1931 he gave a lunch-hour talk on patriotism to the Freethought Society. He attacked various patriotic shibboleths as obscurantist and touched on war memorials for good measure. The local press, except for the Labor Daily which gave him space for reply, erupted. Many State parliamentarians condemned him and the senate of the university censured him. He was, however, unrepentant and probably enjoyed the situation, as it exposed what he regarded as the forces of obscurantism and invited a wider audience critically to examine what he considered an important issue. In 1943 he addressed the New Education Fellowship in a series entitled 'Religion and Education'. In his contribution Anderson argued that religion and education were antipathetic and that religious influences should be bundled out of education. Again there was an outcry in parliament, with public demands that the senate do something about him. On this occasion, the senate replied by saying that its establishing Act provided that there be no religious tests in the university and refused, perhaps uncomfortably, to do anything. Possibly its failure twelve years earlier to restrain him made its members reluctant to try again. Whatever the reason, it was an important assertion of university autonomy. Shortly after his retirement, another public attack on him was initiated by a fanatical Catholic surgeon and supported by a Protestant judge and an evangelical Anglican archbishop, who laid about Anderson and some of his colleagues—who were scarcely Andersonians—for alleged anti-moral teachings. He was disappointed that some of his colleagues denied their involvement in the alleged teaching. The attack on him was unfair, but he used the opportunity to assert the right that nothing—even his own teaching—be treated as sacrosanct.

Survived by his wife and son, Anderson died of cerebro-vascular disease on 6 July 1962, and was cremated. That year a collection of most of his major papers, some forty in number, was published posthumously as Studies in Empirical Philosophy; important papers such as 'Some questions in aesthetics' and 'Religion in education' were omitted. The bibliography of 119 items included many book-reviews, generally much longer than usual, and some but not all of his more ephemeral writing. His portrait by William Dobell is held by the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Passmore, ‘Introductory essay’, J. Anderson, Studies in Empirical Philosophy (Syd, 1962), and ‘Philosophy’, The Pattern of Australian Culture, A. L. McLeod ed (Ithaca, 1963)
  • J. L. Mackie, ‘The philosophy of John Anderson’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 40 (1962)
  • J. Anderson papers (University of Sydney Archives).

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Citation details

W. M. O'Neil, 'Anderson, John (1893–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 9 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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