John Passmore

  • Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson by A.J. Baker
    Cambridge, 150 pp, £20.00, April 1986, ISBN 0 521 32051 8

Opposite the title-page of Mr Baker’s skeletonised but substantially accurate account of John Anderson’s philosophy there stand two epigraphs. They are both from Heraclitus or, more precisely, from Burnet’s translation of that enigmatic philosopher. The first of them is ontological: ‘The world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living Fire, with measures kindling and measures going out.’ The second one might perhaps describe as methodological: ‘If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it: for it is hard to be sought out and difficult.’ For Baker to have begun thus is dead right: Heraclitus lies at the centre of Anderson’s thinking.

To be sure, Anderson rejected the view that there is any totality – ‘the world’ in an all-encompassing sense – and certainly did not believe that everything is a flame. But he did believe that in a flame, even more than in that Heraclitean river into which we can never step twice since fresh waters are always flowing into it, we have a central clue to what things are ontologically like. And he also believed that just in virtue of what they are like there is no question of our ever knowing all about them, of our ever finding ourselves in a situation which could not possibly surprise us.

Anderson had been educated in Glasgow, at first in mathematics and physics – one could see in his interpretation of Heraclitus the influence of Faraday-style field theories – and then in the Scottish type of British Hegelianism, very different, in the width of its cultural interests, from what passes as neo-Hegelianism in McTaggart or Bradley. He broke loose from Hegelianism with the help first of William James and then of Russell, Moore and Alexander. But unlike Russell, Anderson did not emerge from his Hegelianism determined to deny whatever Hegel had asserted and to assert whatever Hegel had denied.

He continued to respect Hegel – who was himself an enthusiast for Heraclitus – and to regard as decisive many of Hegel’s criticisms of the utilitarianism, atomistic liberalism and ‘British empiricism’ to which so many British philosophers substantially reverted when they rebelled against Hegel. Utilitarianism he detested as an attempt to reduce the diversity of human activities to one only, the pursuit of the general happiness, a concept which he took to be a promissory note for calculations there is no possible way of making. As for liberalism, although he shared the liberal hostility to censorship and to the exercise of arbitrary authority, he rejected its individualism. Society, in his eyes, was the interplay of social movements, under the pressure of social forces, not the clash of individual wills. Admiring Freud and a good deal influenced by him, he still wholly rejected Freud’s psychologistic, biological approach to society. Individuals were, in his view, bearers rather than initiators, although the traditions they bore could, of course, be traditions which emphasised initiative. (Baker has described Anderson’s social views in an earlier work of 1979, Anderson’s Social Philosophy.)

Finally, although he called himself an ‘empiricist’, Anderson totally rejected the classical empiricist doctrine that what we encounter in experience are isolated perceptions, whether they go under the name of ‘ideas’ or ‘sense-data’. We can experience, on Anderson’s view, nothing less, and nothing more, than facts, situations, states of affairs. His ‘empiricism’ consisted in his holding that there is no way of acquiring knowledge except through experiment and observation.

Heraclitus helped Anderson to see how he could retain what he took to be valuable in Hegel while at the same time freeing himself from the burden of Hegel’s transformed theology, his doctrines of Absolute Spirit, of final reconciliation and redemption. What he could retain was the concept of complex systems, each of them driven along by its internal diversities and external conflicts, each of them surviving only in so far as, like a fire, it can take out and give in, each with systems within it, each part of wider systems, so that there is neither an ultimate total system nor atomistic elements which are not themselves systems of conflicting – and co-operating – forces.

Undergraduates in the Sydney of the Thirties had no trouble in seeing what all this meant. Prosperity had suddenly collapsed into the Great Depression; in Germany, what had been a major civilisation was plunging into barbarism; the Soviet Union had progressed from revolution to reaction. We were accustomed, as well, to rivers and lakes that might either become quite dry or expand into immense floods; we shared that sense of precariousness which D.H. Lawrence noted in Kangaroo. Our economy was one which wholly depended for its survival on a flow of exports to bring fresh imports flowing into it.

It might, even so, be hard at first to think of a chair or a table as a complex system of activities. But we had all done five years’ science at school and, whether that was in biology, chemistry or physics, we did not on reflection find it so strange to think of our experience of a chair as an encounter between one complex system – in Anderson’s view, a complex of passions – and another complex system, in which things were happening in certain kinds of way in a particular region of Space-Time. (When, quite recently, I heard the Belgian scientist Prigogine describe the world as he now saw it, I was at once carried back to Anderson’s lectures on Heraclitus; earlier, when I encountered the environmentalist movement and sought to strip it of its mysticism and sentimentality, I found that I was left with something very similar.)

Baker has called his study of Anderson’s philosophical views ‘Australian Realism’. He grants that other descriptive phrases – positivism, materialism, empiricism – would do equally well, or equally badly, in so far as, given their historical connotations, they are bound to mislead. In some ways, ‘objectivism’ would be a better title. The critique of subjectivism is one of Anderson’s leading themes; disinterestedness and objectivity are central characteristics, to his mind, of the good forms of human activity. Certainly, however, Anderson was a realist, even if his realism is the starting-point rather than the culmination of his philosophising. He had no intention of devoting his entire philosophical career to what its Continental critics call ‘the English parlour game’ of painstakingly demonstrating that we have good reasons for believing our own transitory sensations not to be all that exists.

In his first publications Anderson no doubt examined in some detail, and set out to refute, those classical arguments which purport to show that since we sometimes suffer from illusions we cannot be sure that we are not all the time suffering from illusions. Baker gives a relatively lengthy account of Anderson’s counter-arguments. But they did not bulk at all large in his teachings. In that teaching, sense-data served as an example of a broader type of philosophical confusion rather than as being of any great interest in themselves. They were one variety of supposed ultimate, prior to and simpler than states of affairs; they were one instance of that curious kind of thing which is alleged to be wholly constituted by its relationship to something else – in this case an act of perception; they exemplified the kind of entity in the description of which there could, supposedly, be no risk of error. With unremitting zeal, Anderson sought out and denounced similar philosophical specimens over the whole area of human culture, whether in politics, in religion, in ethics, or in aesthetics – ultimate certainties, ultimate entities, entities whose whole existence was taken to be constituted by their relationship to something else. It was fascinating to hear the great trees topple.

One thing that makes a philosopher influential is that he introduces his pupils to a new mode of attack, a new form of criticism. The effect of such a teacher on his less intelligent pupils or on those who do not have strong independent interests can be quite dreadful: I need scarcely insist on that point to those who are familiar with the recent history of literary criticism. It can generate pupils who suppose themselves to be highly critical but who are in fact quite uncritical wielders of unexamined formulae.

Nevertheless, it can also energise, can offer a new approach in a wide variety of fields. If there were some appalling mechanical Andersonians, most of those Sydney undergraduates who took philosophy although their major interests lay elsewhere – in the relatively flexible Sydney system they might be historians, lawyers, psychologists, anthropologists, students of literature, with a few very able scientists and medical students – were prepared to testify that it had powerful, and favourable, effects on their work. Certainly, many of them have gone on to achieve distinction in their chosen fields and in ways never totally forgetful of Anderson.

In rejecting ultimates, Anderson was rejecting classical metaphysics, in so far as that went in search of the eternal, the unchanging. Those who had heard of his work only from a distance sometimes supposed him to be an off-shoot of logical positivism. In his eyes, however, the logical positivists still shared the errors of their predecessors. They still believed that there are analytic propositions about the truth of which there can be no doubt, they still went in search of ultimate epistemological starting-points, whether sensations or sense-data or protocol sentences. They still defended ‘inductive methods’. For Anderson there was no way of making discoveries that was not also a way of going wrong. Even more importantly, Anderson did not agree with the logical positivists that there was a single weapon – the principle of verifiability – which could be used to overthrow the fortresses of metaphysics. He took metaphysics seriously: he supposed metaphysicians to be making mistakes, not to be engaging in meaningless gabble.

For the most part, indeed, his lectures consisted in a meticulous criticism of his predecessors. That is one thing that has made life hard for Mr Baker. Rather than giving courses on, let us say, ‘epistemology’ or ‘metaphysics’, he lectured on the early Greek philosophers, on Plato – this although most of us were Greekless – and on the major modern philosophers, varying his particular topics from year to year so that what one learnt from Anderson could considerably depend on whom, at a given time, he chose to lecture upon. (I know nothing, for example, of the lectures on Samuel Alexander to which Mr Baker devotes considerable attention.) He was not, in a strict sense of the word, a scholar, but it is scarcely surprising that many of his pupils have written books of a scholarly kind. Although his criticisms were unsparing, he deeply respected his predecessors: influenced by Feuerbach and later by Vico, he looked in their metaphysics for what he called ‘empirical equivalents’, something they were saying that was important if one thought of it as an obscure way of referring to certain features of the world around us even though, taken literally, it was indefensible. Far from insisting on his originality, he sought predecessors for his views. Our first, quite bitter dispute turned on the question whether Plato had, in fact, as Anderson insisted, put forward Anderson’s own views on negation.

True enough, he was sometimes dismissive, as, for example, of post-war ‘ordinary language’ philosophy, even though, as Mr Baker suggests, that was often directed against what were also his own major enemies. He dismissed it, however, as shallow, superficial, lacking seriousness, not as nonsense. This failure to come to terms with his contemporaries was very disappointing to his later students, many of the best of them graduate students at Oxford. In his generous but critical introduction Lord Quinton suggests that although going to Australia in 1927 was at first a stimulus to Anderson, in later life he lacked the critics he needed. But that is not the whole story. In the post-war years, conditions at Sydney came to be intolerable, especially for such a conscientious and not very well organised teacher. The popularity of philosophy produced a demand for special classes from other departments, and numbers in the normal courses greatly expanded. At one point, five of us were responsible for more than two thousand students. I left. Anderson stayed, at great cost to his energies. But he was also preoccupied with his break from Marxism, which gradually led him, if with surprisingly little difference in his socio-political doctrines, from a close relation with the Communist Party through Trotskyism to a conservatism of his own special breed. He agonised over the stages in that change: as with many another of his contemporaries, that was to the detriment of his broader intellectual life. The effect, incidentally, was largely to kill Communism for many years in Sydney, whereas it flourished in Melbourne University, borne there by Cambridge graduates. One has to remember that ‘Australian Realism’ was very largely ‘Sydney Realism’.

If, as I said, Anderson was far from being a logical positivist – indeed, he knew very little about it and left the criticism of it to me – he was certainly a positivist, in so far as he wholly rejected the transcendental, whether in the form of the Absolute, God, things-in-themselves or transcendental norms. In part, that was a consequence of his Heracliteanism, for metaphysics has traditionally been a quest for certainty by way of the discovery of ultimates. The transcendental, Anderson also argued, cannot do the kind of work that is demanded of it without taking on the characteristics of the empirical.

In his lectures, Anderson seldom talked about God unless he was discussing the special views of, let us say, Hume or Kant, but by reference to God one can most easily illustrate his point. The metaphysician makes of God a Being which is supposed to be outside Space-Time and not subject to causal influences, a Being to which no ordinary empirical descriptions apply. Yet at the same time if this God is to function as a religious object it has to be regarded as responding in familiar ways to particular events – e.g. acts of disobedience – at particular places and times. Without assigning to God such particular characteristics one cannot make any use of the concept: it comes to be indistinguishable from nothing. To classical attempts to answer such objections by appeal to ‘analogies’ and ‘symbolic meanings’, Anderson would reply that if we remove from the symbol or the analogy all its empirical content, we are left with ‘descriptions’ which no longer describe. And if we do not, the transcendental entity is no longer transcendental.

This side of Anderson’s teaching was comprehensible to his critics; they could at least make a show of cramming it into a traditional mould – the unremitting attacks on him by scholastically-trained Roman Catholics did precisely that. What was more disconcerting was his strange mixture of what his critics saw as radicalism and what they saw as conservatism. Here was a man who had been intellectual adviser to the Communist Party, then a Trotskyist, and was a perpetual critic of God, King and Empire in his public utterances. (The pronouncements which led to attempts being made to remove him from his professorship were always in student societies or public forums; his lectures were austere.) What was he doing as a staunch defender of a Classical education and an admirer of Matthew Arnold?

But Anderson had been a Marxist out of his hatred of servility – which, following Nietzsche and Sorel, he took to be as characteristic of Christianity as of ‘the servile state’. His hope was that all would come to share in the life of productive enterprise which had so far been the monopoly of a few – Marshall, as well as Marx, meant a great deal to him. He was not hostile to popular culture: if he liked to sing the songs of Mozart and Moussorgsky he no less liked to tapdance and greatly admired Duke Ellington. Nevertheless, he looked forward to a time when his own fondness for Joyce, Dostoevsky, Peacock – to mention only three of the authors he introduced me to – would be as widely shared as the opportunity of participating in the administration of political, social and industrial life.

It was when he began to see in the Soviet Union the servile state and to blame Leninism rather than Stalin for that fact, when he saw socialism as degenerating into populism, the working class as thoroughly permeated by consumerism, that he turned to Arnold. Arnold’s belief in the importance of culture, and especially of the Classics, Arnold’s attack on Philistinism – these he used as weapons against a radicalism which had lost its way, which had taken over the bourgeois emphasis on consumption as opposed to that emphasis on production, whether artistic, scientific or industrial, which, like Sorel, he for a time saw embodied, if still as an aspiration, in the proletariat, with scientists and artists as its allies.

He was the son of a Scottish headmaster who had been a member of the ILP. Many of us, with simpler origins, on our way with scholarships to an anticipated future as secondary-school teachers, were never able to share Anderson’s hopes for the proletariat. Without having read Acton, we were more sceptical than he at first was about a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ which would some day freely surrender its dictatorial powers. But we could still be struck by his vision of productive forms of life which could catch people up, capture them not by preaching but as a by-product of their own vitality.

We might be sceptical, too, of his attempt to construct a ‘positive ethics’, more impressed by his criticisms of conventional ethics than by his attempt to empiricise G.E. Moore by arguing that good was a natural property of certain types of human activity. The forms of human activity he particularised as being good – courage, human affection, the spirit of production and of inquiry, aesthetic creation and appreciation – nevertheless seized our imagination as he explored and related them. We were told not to treat them in the traditional manner as goals. For they were not to be achieved by pursuing them: they were caught rather than sought. Nonetheless, they were what we came, many of us, particularly to value, to see as central constituents in a society which could genuinely claim to be civilised.

A colonial Bloomsbury? There were common influences, to be sure – Roger Fry, as well as Moore – and some shared values. But Anderson was a Scot, we were Australians. We did not have the Bloomsbury tendency to preciousness: that is the last adjective one would think of applying either to Anderson or to those who learnt from him. For us, industry and science, as well as art, were creative endeavours. Our attitudes were harder. The valuable forms of human life, as Anderson saw them, could be sustained only through constant struggle. They were flames which sometimes were lit in human beings, which could not be kept burning by cupping one’s hands around them but only by leaving them free to draw from and to give out to their environment, with their survival perpetually under threat, never guaranteed, certainly not guaranteeable by any state. For a state would seek rather to convert them into something else, something more useful to its purposes, even when pretending to be supporting them.

Anderson’s formal logic is at first sight even more surprising in its conservatism than his emphasis on the Classical tradition – which he identified with the tradition of objectivity – in his political and educational theory. He had been greatly influenced by the earlier writings of Bertrand Russell. Like Russell, he sought to remove all psychological elements from logic. Terms, propositions, implications, not concepts, judgments, inferences, were the central elements in his logical vocabulary. Yet he continued to defend a revised version of traditional logic. With an honours degree in mathematics he could not have been frightened off by Russell’s mathematical approach. When I read for the first time Russell’s Principles of Mathematical Philosophy, he by no means deprecated my enthusiasm for it. But he dismissed out of hand Russell’s concept of material implication and found unsupportable the paradoxes it generated. He wanted a logic which stood close to everyday reasoning and he thought that the traditional logic, purged of the class interpretations that had grown up around it, could do the trick, with only a limited degree of supplementation to cope with non-syllogistic forms of reasoning. That often meant treating as a conjunction of propositions what in the new logic could more neatly be expressed as a single proposition, but he did not regard that as too high a price to pay.

What mattered to most of Anderson’s pupils was not the details but the approach. Taking the statements and arguments of everyday life, they were called upon to ‘put them into logical form’. The questions they had to answer were these: ‘What exactly is here being said? What is the least that I would have to establish in order to show the premises of this argument to be false or its reasoning fallacious?’ It is not surprising that Anderson’s best pupils often went on to success in such areas as law and diplomacy, or that, whether poets or philosophers, they were generally immunised against the more crippling disorders of contemporary thought. His was, of course, that adversarial conception of philosophy about which feminist critics are now complaining. He would be unrepentant, perhaps citing Heraclitus once more: ‘Homer was wrong in saying: “Would that strife might perish from among gods and men.” He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe: for if his prayers were heard, all things would pass away.’