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John Anderson
Full name John Anderson
Born 1 November 1893(1893-11-01)
Died 6 July 1962 (aged 68)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Australian Realism
Main interests Political philosophy, Ethics

John Anderson (1 November 1893 – 6 July 1962) was a Scottish-born Australian philosopher who occupied the post of Challis Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University in the years 1927-1958. He founded the empirical brand of philosophy known as 'Sydney realism'. His promotion of 'free thought' in all subjects, including politics and morality, was controversial and brought him into constant conflict with the august senate of the university. However, he is credited with educating a generation of influential 'Andersonian' thinkers and activists—some of whom helped to place Sydney in the forefront of the worldwide 'sexual revolution' of the 1950s and 1960s. To Anderson, an acceptable philosophy must have significant 'sweep' and be capable of challenging and moulding ideas in every aspect of intellect and society.


Early life

Anderson was born in Stonehouse, Lanarkshire, Scotland and educated at Hamilton Academy and the University of Glasgow[1].

Having graduated MA in 1917, he lectured at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (Cardiff) (1917-19), the University of Glasgow (1919-20) and at the University of Edinburgh (1920-26).

Social theory

After arriving in Sydney in 1927 he associated with the Communist Party of Australia and contributed to their journals, sometimes under a nom-de-plume [1] but, by about 1932 he began to realise, perhaps before most of his contemporaries, that communism under Stalin in the Soviet Union was a dictatorship with no room for workers' control or participation. He then became aligned with the Trotskyist movement for a period of time[1].

Anderson later abandoned authoritarian forms of socialism and became what would today be called a libertarian and pluralist--an opponent of all forms of authoritarianism. Sometimes he described himself as an anarchist but, after the 1930s, he gave up his earlier political utopianism.

Advocacy of academic freedom

As Sydney University's Challis Professor of Philosophy, Anderson was a formidable champion of the principle of academic freedom from authoritarian intervention. For example, he fought a successful battle to end the role of the British Medical Association in setting course standards and student quotas in the medical school. He also railed against the presence on campus of a military unit—the Sydney University Regiment--and lived to see the day in 1960 when the regiment's campus HQ was destroyed by fire. (The regiment was subsequently rehoused at a new facility on university-owned land at Darlington.)[2].

Anderson was censured by the Sydney University Senate in 1931 after criticising the role of war memorials in sanctifying war. In 1943 he was censured by the Parliament of New South Wales after arguing that religion has no place in schools. He founded the Sydney University Freethought Society which ran from 1931 to 1951. He was president of the society throughout that period.

It is legendary that the university's Senate, accepting that it could not realise its desire to sack the controversial Challis Professor, sought to reduce Anderson's stature and influence by creating a new chair of "Moral and Political Philosophy" to which Alan K. Stout was appointed. This tactic misfired when Stout immediately recognised Anderson's genius, became one of his steadiest admirers and declined to undercut his prestige in any way. The result was that Sydney gained a second prestigious and personable philosopher.

Thought and influence

He is, arguably, the most important philosopher who has worked in Australia. Certainly he was the most important in both the breadth and depth of influence. Among the philosophers who got their original intellectual formation from Anderson are John Passmore, John Mackie, A.J. ('Jim') Baker, David Stove and myself. There are lots more. But for every student who became a philosopher there were far, far, more in the law, in medicine, in journalism, in other academic disciplines, that were profoundly influenced by him. I am inclined to think that, especially in the thirties and forties of the last century, Anderson was the person who set the agenda, and set the tone, for intellectual discussion in Sydney.[3] - David Armstrong (2005)

As a committed empiricist, Anderson argued that there is only one realm of "being" and it can be best understood through science and naturalistic philosophy. He asserted that there is no supernatural god and that there are no non-natural realms along the lines of Platonic ideals. He rejected all notions that knowledge could be obtained by means other than descriptions of facts and any belief that revelation or mysticism could be sources for obtaining truth. He was arguing that traditional Christian concepts of good and evil were only meant for slaves and that, in actuality, the idea of morality was empty. For Anderson, the term "good" was valid when applied objectively to human activities which were free, critical and creative but the more common subjective applications were to be avoided or exposed as deceptive. Not surprisingly, Anderson's influence was both extensive and controversial as he constantly examined and fearlessly criticized hallowed beliefs and institutions.

Freethought and the Sydney Libertarians

Anderson's insistence on unceasing inquiry and criticism became central to the intellectual principles of the university's Libertarian Society which supplanted the Freethought Society in the early 1950s and provided a philosophic platform for the much broader subculture known as "the Push" throughout the 1960s. He was a defender of free speech and was critical of the Australian government's bans on certain political publications (1928). He advocated religious and sexual freedoms and free discussion of issues in an era when mention of taboo subjects commonly resulted in angry public condemnation by prominent moralists.

In the latter years of his career, the 1950s, Anderson exhibited more conservative views, although Jim Baker generously interprets his 1950s stage not so much as "a definite change in his overall thinking than ... an alteration of emphasis and interest".[4]:p130 To many, though, it seemed that Anderson was departing from his pluralism. During the 1949 coal miners' strike, for instance, he supported the government's action in using troops as strikebreakers.[4] At a Freethought Society meeting in August 1950 he refused to oppose conscription for the war in Korea.[5]:p12In 1951 he refused to allow students to use the Freethought Society to canvass the 'No' case for Menzies' attempt to ban the Communist Party in the referendum of that year.[5]:p130 This was the last straw for many Freethinkers; Anderson's apparent authoritarianism caused most to abandon the Freethought Society and to establish the Libertarian Society. The Freethought Society held its last meeting in 1951,[4]:p130 while the Libertarian Society functioned from 1952 to 1969.[4]:p144

Anderson broke off contact with the former disciples who formed the Libertarian Society and never associated with "Push" people who routinely sang his praises along with the bawdy songs he had imported to his new country[6]. However, even after retirement in 1958 and to the brink of his death in 1962, he was seen daily in his study, continuing his work and reviewing earlier work. Among his last publications were Classicism (1960), Empiricism and Logic (1962) and Relational Arguments (1962)[7]

Enduring legacy

At a time when Australia had few genuinely first-rate intellectuals, Anderson's influence in Sydney intellectual life was enormous. The failure of the Communist Party to build a significant influence at Sydney University during the 1930s and 1940s, compared with the Party's greater success at Melbourne University, is often attributed to the influence of "Andersonian individualism" among Sydney students. Anderson's influence spread through his personal impact on several generations of students, the "Andersonians". They included the philosophers John Passmore, David Armstrong, Jim Baker, Hedley Bull, David Stove, J. L. Mackie and Eugene Kamenka, the World War II organiser Alf Conlon, many members of the Sydney Push and jurist John Kerr, later to be Australia's best-remembered governor-general.

Academic Genealogy
Notable teachers Notable students
Samuel Alexander David Armstrong

Jim Baker
Hedley Bull
Futa Helu
John Kerr
Eugene Kamenka
J. L. Mackie
John Passmore
Rush Rhees
David Stove


  1. ^ a b Online Dictionary of Australian Biography
  2. ^ History of Sydney University Regiment
  3. ^ Armstrong D Address on 9 July 2005 John Anderson Remembered
  4. ^ a b c d Baker, A J. Anderson's Social Philosophy: The Social Thought and Political Life of Professor John Anderson. Sydney: Angus & Robertson 1979.  
  5. ^ a b Coombs, Anne. Sex and Anarchy: The Life and Death of the Sydney Push. Ringwood, Victoria: Viking 1996.  
  6. ^ The outrageous Ballad of Professor John Glaister is one example, some of the words of which have been published in Snatches & Lays (Sun Books, Melbourne, 1975)
  7. ^ Anderson, J. Studies in Empirical Philosophy, Sydney University Press 2004

Further reading

  • J. Anderson (Introduction by D. Armstrong), Space, Time and the Categories: Lectures on Metaphysics 1949-50 (Sydney University Press, 2007) [2] (ISBN 9781920898625) [3]
  • J. Anderson, Regular contributions to The Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy
  • J. Anderson, Studies in Empirical Philosophy (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1962) [4] (ISBN 1920898174)
  • J. Anderson, Religion in Education in "Religion in Education - Five Addresses Delivered Before the New Education Fellowship (N.S.W.)". The New Education Fellowship, Sydney, 1943.
  • Janet Anderson, Graham Cullum, Kimon Lycos (eds.), Art and Reality: John Anderson on Literature and Aesthetics (Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1982)
  • A.J. Baker, Anderson's Social Philosophy: The Social Thought and Political Life of Professor John Anderson (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1979)
  • A.J. Baker, Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson (Cambridge University Press, 1986)
  • A. Barcan, Radical Students: The Old Left at Sydney University (Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2002) review
  • J. Franklin, Corrupting the Youth: A History of Philosophy in Australia (Macleay Press, 2003), chs 1-2
  • B. Kennedy, A Passion to Oppose: John Anderson, Philosopher (Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1995)
  • Mark Weblin (ed.), A Perilous and Fighting Life: From Communist to Conservative: The Political Writings of Professor John Anderson (North Melbourne: Pluto Press, 2003)

External links



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