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Gibson, William Ralph Boyce (1869–1935)

by S. A. Grave

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

William Ralph Boyce Gibson (1869-1935), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

William Ralph Boyce Gibson (1869-1935), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1118

William Ralph Boyce Gibson (1869-1935), philosopher, was born on 15 March 1869 in Paris, son of William Gibson, Methodist minister there, and his wife Helen Wilhelmina, daughter of William Binnington Boyce. He was educated in England at Kingswood School, Bath. At the Queen's College, Oxford, (B.A., 1892; M.A., 1895; D.Sc., 1911) he studied mathematics which he subsequently taught at Clifton College, Bristol. Having become interested in philosophy, he went to Jena in 1893 where Rudolf Eucken was teaching. He later studied philosophy at Paris and Glasgow. From 1898 he lectured in logic, psychology and ethics at Hackney, Regent's Park and New colleges, and from 1900 at Westfield College, University of London. In 1909, on being elected external examiner in philosophy for the University of London, he resigned all teaching engagements, but in June next year he accepted a post as temporary lecturer in philosophy at the University of Liverpool. He was appointed to the chair of mental and moral philosophy at the University of Melbourne in 1911, arriving in Victoria in February 1912.

By then Boyce Gibson had written a great deal. Papers of his had appeared in the Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, Mind and the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, London. He contributed an essay to Personal Idealism (1902), a collection edited by Henry Sturt, which reflected and promoted an important tread in Idealist philosophy. Personal Idealism—in its day very popular with philosophers in Australia—engaged itself in the defence of the metaphysical autonomy of personality against opposite adversaries: against Naturalism which made personality merely an outcome of 'the mechanism of Nature', and against a form of Idealism which made it merely an 'adjective' of the Absolute. He had also written A philosophical introduction to ethics (1904) and, with the co-operation of Augusta Klein, The problem of logic (1908; reprinted as late as 1930). Two other books, published in 1906 and 1909, expounded Eucken's philosophy, a very inspirational form of Personal Idealism which held (in Gibson's words) that 'the measure and standard of our thought is fixed by the measure and standard of our life'.

Gibson's philosophical principles and his character alike would not allow him to impose in any way his strongly held metaphysical beliefs upon his students. He was 'completely open-minded', one of his last students said of him. He was remembered for his power to convey enthusiasm, and for the way he brought students to a resolution of their difficulties, enabling them to see what they were groping towards. He held up exacting standards to his classes.

Between 1910 and 1935 there was a strong awareness, especially in Melbourne, of contemporary Continental philosophy. Gibson shared with his colleagues a considerable interest in Henri Bergson. He was also interested in the relation between physics and philosophy and in 1928 had published a survey of the ideas of the Hungarian Melchior Palágyi whom he read in German. These two interests came together in his presidential address, 'Relativity and first principles' to Section J of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science conference in 1931.

Gibson's most important concern with Continental philosophy was his attention to the Phenomenological movement, and he is accorded some prominence by its historian, Herbert Spiegelberg (writing in the 1950s). Gibson's translation, published in 1931, of Husserl's Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie pioneered the rendering of Husserl's thought into English. He wrote a set of articles for the Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy (1933-35) on the ethical thought of Nicolai Hartmann, who was associated with the movement.

Gibson died at Surrey Hills on 2 April 1935 and was cremated. He had retired from the chair the year before. At Liverpool, England, on 8 September 1898 he had married Lucy Judge Peacock (1872-1953). They had met when she was sent to stay at the Methodist parsonage in Paris to improve her French. She studied classics and then oriental languages at Girton College, Cambridge, and Sanskrit at the Sorbonne and at Jena. She collaborated with her husband in translating two of Eucken's works and singly translated another one. In Melbourne she was celebrated for the liveliness of her mind. There were five children of the marriage: Alexander became third professor of philosophy at Melbourne; Keith was killed in a climbing accident; Ralph became a leading member and functionary in Victoria of the Australian Communist Party; Colin became a Unitarian minister; and Quentin became the first full-time teacher of philosophy in what was then Canberra University College.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Spiegelberg, The Phenomenological Movement (The Hague, 1969)
  • Australasian Journal of Philosophy, June 1935
  • Journal of the British Society of Phenomenology, 2 (1971).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

S. A. Grave, 'Gibson, William Ralph Boyce (1869–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gibson-william-ralph-boyce-6314/text10891, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 29 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

William Ralph Boyce Gibson (1869-1935), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

William Ralph Boyce Gibson (1869-1935), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1118