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Australia, philosophy in

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N002-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

Article Summary

Australian academic philosophy has made an international impact disproportionate to the country’s small population, though its beginnings contain little that might have suggested such influence. The first Philosophy Chair was established at the University of Melbourne in 1886 and its occupant Henry Laurie was more notable for extravagant shyness than public impact or academic achievement. Until the 1920s, the dominant philosophical outlook was idealism. After the arrival from Glasgow of the charismatic John Anderson to the Chair in Sydney in 1927, this outlook was challenged by his vigorous, distinctive, highly metaphysical and somewhat dogmatic version of realism. Anderson had little international recognition during his working life, but he had a powerful effect upon Australian cultural life and upon students who themselves achieved a significant international presence. Thinkers like David Armstrong, John Mackie and John Passmore diverged in many ways from Andersonianism but the indelible mark of the Sydney baptism remained with them even when they had accommodated to the international profile.

For twenty-five years or so, there was a strong contrast and rivalry between the style of philosophy done in Sydney and that done in Melbourne. Idealist influences persisted longer in Melbourne due to the two Boyce Gibsons (father and son) who occupied the Melbourne Chair successively, but the significant contrasts really began when Melbourne came under the sway of Wittgenstein’s philosophy in the 1940s. This was due principally to the presence during the war years of G.A. Paul, one of Wittgenstein’s pupils, and later Paul’s friend Douglas Gasking, who had studied under Wittgenstein in Cambridge, and another pupil of Wittgenstein, A.C. (‘Camo’) Jackson. Where Anderson’s orientation was systematic, metaphysical and provincial, the Melbournians were piecemeal, anti-metaphysical and (relatively) cosmopolitan. As a direct force in academic philosophy, Anderson’s system died with him in 1962, as did the striking contrast in style between Melbourne and Sydney philosophy. With the expansion of universities and philosophy departments, the metaphysical emphasis of Sydney and the analytical professionalism of Melbourne merged in a technique that had no particular regional significance, even when some of its concerns were distinctive. Among these was the phenomenon known as Australian Materialism, associated principally with J.J.C. Smart and David Armstrong. This continued the metaphysical orientation of so much Australian philosophy, though deploying the analytical and argumentative skills by then common to English-speaking philosophy anywhere. Much of the passion surrounding the materialism debates of the 1960s and 1970s, involving the pros and cons of ‘the scientific world view’ and its reductionist enthusiasms, dissipated into broader metaphysical and psychological interests such as the discussion of universals and laws, realism versus antirealism, the ontology of space and time, and the status and pretensions of cognitive science.

There remains important work that is somewhat independent, even occasionally sceptical, of these metaphysical directions: work in epistemology, philosophical psychology, history of philosophy, and value theory. In pure value theory, there has been little home-grown work that is highly original though there have been many solid contributions by Australian philosophers to international debates, and Peter Singer is famous beyond philosophical circles for his theorizing of ‘animal liberation’ and opposition to ‘sanctity of human life’ outlooks in bioethics. The general tenor of Australian philosophy remains resolutely ‘analytical’ though there is a significant minority interest in ‘continental’ philosophy and some efforts to reach a modus vivendi between the two. Until late in the twentieth century, women played no prominent role, but women philosophers and feminist philosophy have become increasingly significant and, although many find the ‘continental’ mode congenial to their approach, there is strong representation of the more ‘analytic’ tradition. Another prominent emphasis has been environmental philosophy which incorporates the traditional interest in metaphysics but with a less reductive touch than has been characteristic of the mainstream.

Citing this article:
Coady, C.A.J.. Australia, philosophy in, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N002-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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