Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Ilmar Tammelo (1917–1982)

by Anthony Blackshield

This article was published:

View Previous Version

Ilmar Tammelo (1917-1982), legal philosopher, was born on 25 February 1917 at Narva, Estonia, then part of the Russian Empire, younger son of Richard-Friedrich Eichelmann (d.1919) and his wife Johanna, née Treufeldt, both schoolteachers. In 1935 Ilmar and his mother took the Estonian name Tammelo as their surname. Ilmar liked to say that in his first year at the University of Tartu (Mag.Jur., 1943) he studied Estonian law; in his second year Soviet forces invaded and he studied Soviet law; in his third year the Germans invaded and he studied German law. After postgraduate studies in Germany at Freiburg and the Philipps-University Marburg (Dr.Jur., 1944), he accepted an appointment as privatdozent at the University of Heidelberg, where he published his first book, Untersuchungen zum Wesen der Rechtsnorm (1948). There he worked with the great legal philosopher Gustav Radbruch after the latter’s postwar reinstatement. Like many jurists in the German universities of the time, Tammelo served as a legal investigator (in the American sector) in the trial of minor offences.

In 1948 Tammelo migrated to Australia on an assisted passage that required of him two years labour. After two months at the Bonegilla migrant reception centre he worked at Mathoura and Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. Suffering from tuberculosis, he spent some months in hospital. He studied law and philosophy (MA, 1951) at the University of Melbourne with Wolfgang Friedmann, then professor of public law, and wrote an essay on legal philosophy that was republished in 2005 in the International Journal for the Semiotics of Law. The essay’s emphasis on communicative justice has been seen as foreshadowing the work of Jürgen Habermas.

In 1951 Tammelo joined Julius Stone in the department of jurisprudence and international law at the University of Sydney.  On 27 January 1951 Tammelo married Hilda Uibopuu, an Estonian-born nursery-school student teacher, at the registrar general’s office, Sydney. He was naturalised in 1954.

At first Tammelo worked primarily as a research assistant on Stone’s book Legal Controls of International Conflict (1954). Stone’s encyclopaedic scholarship was vastly enriched by what he acknowledged as Tammelo’s ‘wide interests and deep knowledge of continental juristic and philosophical thought’. Tammelo undertook additional study in some areas of Australian law, to qualify for a permanent law school appointment. In 1958 he was appointed senior lecturer and in 1965 reader, having gained a master’s degree from Sydney in 1964. He continued his collaboration with Stone through extensive contributions to Stone’s jurisprudential trilogy of the 1960s—most notably to Human Law and Human Justice (1965), where Tammelo’s input drew extensively on Greek mythology and pre-Socratic philosophy as well as on contemporary European and Latin American writing.

Tammelo’s independent scholarly output was prolific; he wrote thirteen books and a hundred articles. Peeter Järvelaid, in the introduction to Tammelo’s Varased Tööd, has summarised his work as having two distinct strands: ‘a strict analysis of reality based upon logic’, and ‘a cosmic view which is looking for completeness and unity (akin to Platonism and bordering at times on mysticism)’. His exploratory writing in this latter mode ranged from the complex phenomenology of ‘On the Space and Limits of Legal Experience’ (Journal of Legal Education, volume 11, 1958) to the intensely personal existentialism of ‘Justice and Doubt’ (Österreichische Zeitschrift für öffentliches Recht, volume 9, 1959)—’All day I have been troubled by a nameless anxiety’. In the former mode he sought to develop a reliable juristic logic, drawing on deontic logic, contemporary symbolic logic, and the search for the ‘well-formed formula’.

For law students at Sydney in their final year, in addition to the usual seminars on jurisprudence, Tammelo introduced seminars in symbolic logic built around the WFF ’N PROOF game developed by Layman Allen at Yale University. Tammelo’s characteristic air of gentleness, innocence and apparent serenity endeared him to students. In the teaching of jurisprudence his reflective philosophical musings and Stone’s pragmatic realism complemented each other superbly.

In 1961 Tammelo established the Australian Society of Legal Philosophy, with himself as founding president and Stone as patron. The society usually met in private homes, with extended group discussion of a written paper and a written response. Several of the papers were published in the Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie, which in 1963 devoted a supplement to the work of the ASLP. The society’s purpose was to encourage law students to maintain an interest in jurisprudence after graduation, and to bring together an eclectic group, including lawyers, historians, Catholic priests and ‘Ilmar’s lost sheep’.

Divorced in June 1965, Tammelo married his former student Lyndall Lorna Cureton, a solicitor, on 6 July at the registrar general’s office, Sydney. In 1972 Stone retired and the members of his department scattered. Tammelo returned to Europe to head his own department at the University of Salzburg, Austria. The twin strands of intellectual work that Tammelo had pursued in Sydney were explored further at Salzburg. His work on justice culminated in his Theorie der Gerechtigkeit (1977) and his work on juristic logic in Modern Logic in the Service of Law (1978), which included the fullest development of his ‘counter-formula method’ for identifying contradictions in the premises of legal arguments.

In 1979 Tammelo was elected a foreign member of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, and was awarded an honorary doctorate in political science by the University of Bologna and the Franz Böhm medal by the University of Siegen, Federal Republic of Germany. The Austrian government honoured him with the Ehrenzeichen für Wissenschaft und Kunst (erste klasse). Suffering from cancer, Tammelo returned to Australia. Survived by his wife (who died in 2008), he died on 8 February 1982, a week after his return, at Chatswood, Sydney, and was cremated. He had no children.

Tammelo spoke fifteen languages fluently, including Esperanto, of which he was a keen advocate. Although he wrote mainly in English and German, his writings were published in eight other languages. After Estonia achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, his work was celebrated by Estonian jurists seeking to re-establish a distinctive Estonian jurisprudence. In 1993 a selection of his initial output in Estonian, including his master’s thesis at Tartu, was published under the title Varased Tööd (‘Early Writings’). Later writings, translated into Estonian under the compendious title Õiglus ja Hool (‘Justice and Care’), were published in 2001 and reprinted in 2006.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Law Journal, vol 56, no 6, 1982, p 320
  • Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie, vol 68, 1982, p 1
  • Rechtstheorie, vol 13, 1982, p 1
  • Sydney Law Review, vol 10, no 1, Jan 1983, p 128.

Citation details

Anthony Blackshield, 'Tammelo, Ilmar (1917–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 February, 1917
Narva, Estonia


8 February, 1982 (aged 64)
Chatswood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.