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Sylvan, Richard (1935–1996)

by Dominic Hyde

This article was published online in 2021

Richard Sylvan (1935–1996), philosopher and environmentalist, was born Francis Richard Routley on 13 December 1935 at Levin, New Zealand, elder son of English-born Frank Routley (d. 1939), farmer, and his native-born second wife Florence Myrtle, née Best. Richard was educated locally before completing his schooling as a boarder at New Plymouth Boys’ High School (1950–53). Proceeding to Victoria University College, University of New Zealand (Victoria University of Wellington), Wellington (BA, 1957; MA, 1959), he became interested in philosophy and mathematics. He won the Emily Lilias Johnston (1955) and University Senior (1956) scholarships, and prizes in English and mathematics.

After Routley’s graduation, his philosophy teacher George Hughes engaged him to build an electromechanical computer capable of basic logic calculations. In September 1959 he travelled to Princeton University, United States of America, on a Fulbright grant to undertake a doctorate. Disillusioned with the intellectual climate there, he left having attained his master of arts degree in 1961. Following a stint lecturing in philosophy at the University of Sydney, he moved to a senior lecturer’s position at the University of New England in 1963. He collaborated with Len Goddard, and together they founded the Australasian Association for Logic and Australia’s first master’s-level coursework program in the subject. In 1965 he was joined by Valerie Winifred Macrae (née Morrell, later Plumwood) whom he had met when she was a philosophy student at Sydney. They married on 20 January 1967 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney. Publishing together as ‘Routley and Routley,’ they began to develop and defend unorthodox theories in non-classical logic and metaphysics.

In 1967 Richard secured a senior research fellowship at Monash University, Melbourne. Four years later he moved to the position of senior fellow in the philosophy department at the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University (ANU), Canberra. His work there on radical new theories in logic attracted colleagues and students who made up what became known as the Canberra Logic Group. By 1986 its output amounted to 175 articles, 16 monographs, and 7 books—most notably the collaborative works Relevant Logics and Their Rivals (1982) and Paraconsistent Logic (1989).

Soon after arriving in Canberra, the Routleys became aware of a proposal to clear-fell five million acres (2.02 million ha) of native hardwood forests for pine plantations in south-eastern Australia. Entranced by the country’s native forests, valuing their richness and complexity, they set about analysing the proposal, culminating in a devastating book-length criticism The Fight for the Forests (1973). Senior forestry bureaucrats and some members of the university obstructed their research and unsuccessfully attempted to block publication. All three editions sold out and a significant scaling-back of the pine planting program followed. An environmentally minded forester (later productivity commissioner), Neil Byron, hailed it as ‘the most influential writing in Australian forest history’ (Penna 2003, 4).

The couple then began to analyse the philosophical foundations of attitudes to the environment. Arguing that prevailing ‘human-centred ethics’ lay at the heart of the problem, they rejected what they termed ‘human chauvinism’ and its pernicious consequences, defending the ‘intrinsic value’ of the non-human world. Richard’s 1973 paper ‘Is There a Need for a New, and Environmental Ethic?’ was an early landmark in the emerging discipline of environmental philosophy. He and Val were dominant intellectual forces in the field; his work encompassed three books and over thirty-five articles, culminating in the co-authored The Greening of Ethics (1994).

Routley also engaged with social and political theory, seeking what he considered a sound philosophical foundation for an alternative culture based on environmental and anarchist principles. He drew attention to overpopulation, excessive consumption, and ‘atmosphere heating,’ becoming one of the earliest philosophers to highlight climate change. Other positions he analysed and defended included: pacifism; anti-nuclear concerns; and an independent defence policy for Australia, rejecting our alliance with the United States. One of his papers that attracted most notoriety was ‘In Defence of Cannibalism’ (1982), in which he argued that using a donated kidney for protein was, in certain circumstances, no worse than using it for a transplant.

In 1981 Princeton awarded Routley a doctorate for his work on Meinongian metaphysics. His marriage to Val was dissolved in April 1983. During June the next year he married Mary (later Marie) Louise Merlin, a master’s student he had met in Canada. This union was formalised by a private contract and they changed their surname to Sylvan (of the forests). With Val and then Louise, he purchased large properties encompassing high-value conservation land. Two of them—Burrin Burrin and Nameless—were later bequeathed to Bush Heritage Australia for ongoing protection. Much of the last twenty years of his life was spent living simply. He was a keen swimmer all his life, having competed in national events when at school. Pursuing a do-it-yourself ethic, he constructed some of the houses in which he lived; he usually rose at first light, worked on philosophy until midday, and then laboured in the forest.

A shy man, Sylvan was thought taciturn by some, but he rarely took a backwards step in defending what he saw as well-reasoned opinion, however unpopular it was. He was iconoclastic, highly original, and a systematic thinker across diverse philosophical domains. In his twenty-five years at ANU he undertook several visiting professorships at universities abroad, but was repeatedly refused promotion at home. Often at odds with administrators and preferring to work off campus, he garnered few allies in the university hierarchy. On 16 June 1996 he died of a heart attack when visiting the Hindu temple Pura Besakih on Bali, Indonesia. Survived by Louise, he was buried on his property Nameless on the New South Wales Illawarra escarpment.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Goddard, Leonard. ‘A Personal View of the Development of Deductive Logic in Australia since 1956.’ In Essays on Philosophy in Australia, edited by Jan Srzednicki and David Wood, 169–85. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 1992
  • Hyde, Dominic. Eco-Logical Lives: The Philosophical Lives of Richard Routley/Sylvan and Val Routley/Plumwood. Cambridge: The White Horse Press, 2014
  • Hyde, Dominic, Filippo Casati, and Zach Weber. ‘Richard Sylvan [Routley].’ In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Winter 2019 ed. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2019/entries/sylvan-routley/. Copy on ADB file
  • Meyer, Bob. ‘Richard Sylvan.’ ANU Reporter, 17 July 1996, 11
  • Orton, David. ‘In Memory of Richard Sylvan.’ Trumpeter: Journal of Ecosophy 14, no. 1 (1997). http://trumpeter.athabascau.ca/index.php/trumpet/article/view/220/308. Copy on ADB file
  • Penna, Ian. ‘“The Fight for the Forests” as a Forest Portal.’ Paper presented at Win, Lose or Draw? The Fight for the Forests Symposium, National Institute for the Environment, Australian National University, Canberra, 14 October 2003. Copy on ADB file
  • Sylvan, Louise. Personal communication
  • Varner, Gary. ‘Sentientism.’ In A Companion to Environmental Philosophy, edited by Dale Jamieson, 192–203. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007

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Citation details

Dominic Hyde, 'Sylvan, Richard (1935–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sylvan-richard-1393/text39108, published online 2021, accessed online 24 January 2022.

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