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Stove, David Charles (1927–1994)

by James Franklin

This article was published online in 2018

David Charles Stove (1927–1994), philosopher and conservative polemicist, was born on 15 September 1927 at Moree, New South Wales, fifth surviving child of New South Wales-born parents Robert James Stove, schoolteacher, and his wife Ida Maude, née Hill. After studying at Newcastle Boys’ High School, where he excelled in running and was captain of the school, David attended the University of Sydney (BA, 1950), graduating with first-class honours in moral and political philosophy. He was strongly influenced by the Challis professor of philosophy John Anderson, and though he later came to abhor many of Anderson’s libertarian views, he would never lose an emphasis on rigour in argument.

Appointed a teaching fellow at the University of Sydney in 1951, Stove became a lecturer in philosophy at the New South Wales University of Technology (later the University of New South Wales) in 1952. On 4 November 1959 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, he married Jessie Amelia Leahy, a biochemist. The next year he returned to the University of Sydney. Promoted to senior lecturer in 1963 and associate professor in 1974, he would teach there until his retirement in 1987.

In the early 1970s Stove was alarmed by the spread of radical left-wing ideas on campus, especially in his own department. With his colleague David Armstrong, the Challis professor of philosophy, he strongly resisted the introduction of courses in Marxism-Leninism and feminism. Although the subjects went ahead, the disputes resulted in a split in the department, with Stove and Armstrong joining a new department of traditional and modern philosophy (colloquially ‘T & M’). Stove headed the department in 1981 and 1982. While the other, left-wing, department was troubled by political schism, he felt that T & M was a perfect environment for serious work; he believed it to be ‘the best club in the world’ (Stove 2014, 43). He had been elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1975.

Stove’s technical work in philosophy mostly concerned the problem of induction. In Probability and Hume’s Inductive Scepticism (1973) and The Rationality of Induction (1986), he argued that inference from the observed to the unobserved was justified for purely logical reasons: there exists a non-deductive or probabilistic kind of logic which renders ‘The next swan is white’ probable, though not certain, on the evidence that all swans so far observed have been white. His more polemical philosophical work included Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists (1982), which accused leading philosophers of science, such as Sir Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, of undermining, rather than, as they claimed, defending science. Jokes as well as logic were essential to his style of argument. Popper had concluded, in his massive The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934), that science could never establish truth; Stove compared that to Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes, adding: ‘The parallel would be complete if the fox, having become convinced that neither he nor anyone else could ever succeed in tasting grapes, should nevertheless write many long books on the progress of viticulture’ (1982, 52). The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies (1991) widened the attack to include other philosophers, such as Nelson Goodman and Robert Nozick.

Angered again in the 1980s by the spread of postmodernist varieties of left-wing thought, in 1986 Stove published a scathing article entitled ‘A Farewell to Arts.’ It began:

The Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney is a disaster-area, and not of the merely passive kind, like a bombed building, or an area that has been flooded. It is the active kind, like a badly-leaking nuclear reactor, or an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle (8).

It attributed the ‘disaster’ to ‘Marxism, semiotics, and feminism’ (9).

Central to Stove’s intellectual life, and his views on women and race, was his opinion that the only path to the truth was through deduction and simple induction. Witty, irreverent, and principled, he was of pessimistic temperament, finding no consolation in religion or hopes for political progress. He found some comfort in classical music, old books, and nature, enjoying planting trees at his rural property at Mulgoa. He also liked cricket, which he had played at grade level, and rugby league. A heavy smoker, he contracted oesophageal cancer. After a period of depression following severe treatment for the disease, he committed suicide on 1 or 2 June 1994 at Mulgoa, and was cremated. His wife and their son and daughter survived him.

Several of his books were published posthumously. The first was a collection of his polemical essays, Cricket versus Republicanism and Other Essays (1995), which included his opinions that the intellectual capacity of women is on average lower than men and that races differ in traits. There followed Darwinian Fairytales (1995), an attack on the sociobiological strand of evolutionary theory. His views proved popular in some American conservative circles, leading to the publication of further books of his essays: Against the Idols of the Age (1999), On Enlightenment (2003), and What’s Wrong with Benevolence (2011). Their general theme is that well-meaning schemes designed to improve society by planning are doomed to fall victim to adverse unintended consequences.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Armstrong, David. ‘David Stove 1927-1994.’ Quadrant 38, nos. 7–8 (July–August 1994): 36–37
  • Franklin, James. Corrupting the Youth: A History of Philosophy in Australia. Sydney: Macleay Press, 2003
  • Franklin, James. ‘Polemicist Divided Friend and Foe.’ Australian, 21 June 1994, 13
  • Kimball, Roger. ‘Who Was David Stove?’ New Criterion 15, no. 7 (March 1997): 21–28
  • Stove, David. ‘A Farewell to Arts.’ Quadrant 30, no. 5 (May 1986): 8–11
  • Stove, David. Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists (Oxford and New York: Pergamon Press, 1982)
  • Stove, David. ‘A Tribute to David Armstrong.’ Quadrant 58, no. 3 (March 2014): 42–43
  • University of Sydney Archives. P212, David Stove Papers

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Citation details

James Franklin, 'Stove, David Charles (1927–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stove-david-charles-1547/text30960, published online 2018, accessed online 26 May 2019.

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