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.

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