July 2005

Arts & Letters

Renegade at the Lecturn

By Clive James
Australia’s national philosopher: John Anderson

There is a tone of voice you can hear in the way a sentence is balanced, even if you are not equipped to understand its content. “What the idealist has, in fact, to show is that there is no real distinction, and the answer is that in that case there can be no real relation.” Thus wrote John Anderson in Studies in Empirical Philosophy (Angus & Robertson, 389pp; 1962), and as soon as I read that sentence I was home. Actually I was leaving home. I read it on the ship to England. At Sydney University I had managed to avoid Anderson’s lectures, as I had avoided the lectures of everyone else, but his spirit was all around the place. Everyone you met was either an Andersonian or a non-Andersonian. Now, as the Indian Ocean ran slowly past, I was an Andersonian too. Or perhaps a non-Andersonian. Either way, his name was in there somewhere. His name was all over Australia’s intellectual world. For good or ill, he was the national philosopher.

If Nietzsche had lived long enough, he would have been horrified at the consequences of becoming the national philosopher of Germany. But to be regarded as a national philosopher is not necessarily a bad thing. For 200 years Britain’s national philosopher was David Hume, and to a great extent he still holds the job, because in the 20th century none of the attempts to replace him quite worked out. G.E. Moore, closely identified with Bloomsbury, was thought too comfortable by those reluctant to accept Bloomsbury as the epitome of civilised Britain. Bertrand Russell was thought incorrigibly silly by anyone who found him less the embodiment of human reason than he did. A.J. Ayer was never thought silly, but he did seem to be having too good a time. For a while, among those serious about literature, Dr Leavis was drafted into the role, but the appointment looked less judicious when he showed signs that he believed it. Uniting all the candidates was a debt to Hume’s empiricism, which was still there when all their separate visions frayed. The first embodiment of the national way of thinking remained the best.In Italy, Benedetto Croce achieved the same position. He started much later, but then so did a united Italy. It seems to be one of the characteristics of any nation united by more than power that it will boast one man universally agreed upon as exemplifying its tone of thought. In Britain, the tone of voice is exemplified by Shakespeare and all the poets, but the tone of thought is exemplified by Hume the Scot. If Australia has such a thing as a tone of thought – and I think it has – then the man who brought it into being was another Scot: John Anderson.

In his lectures at Sydney University from the late 1920s onwards – he was still there when I was a student in the late fifties – Anderson carried the torch for realism. The pluralism that he claimed for himself was underpinned by the realism that he claimed for all the philosophers who ever mattered. He influenced whole generations of students who in turn, because of Sydney University’s central place in the tertiary education system, influenced the teachers’ colleges, the schools, the broadcasting networks, the emergent media elite and eventually the entire culture. Plenty of people were against Anderson, especially if they were religious. Catholic archbishops pronounced anathema upon him. My own Presbyterian minister, when he saw that I was going to the devil, blamed the influence of “that man Anderson”. In the absence of a ship back to Scotland, his enemies recommended a slow boat to China. Nor were all his enemies on the clerical right. There were plenty on the atheistic left who thought his realistic stance a reactionary denial of the legitimate aspirations of suffering mankind. He was always being attacked from one wing or the other, often on the supposition that he had glossed over a difficulty in his line of reasoning.

He seldom had, but he was easy to misrepresent. Until his last years he was practically in samizdat. His lectures were his main writings, and they circulated exclusively in note form until he collected them in the only book to bear his name while he still breathed: Studies in Empirical Philosophy – he was compiling the index when he died of a heart attack in July 1962. Typically I failed to enrol myself in the philosophy school while he was still active: it might have been too useful, too engrossing, too apt to distract me from the essential fields of student journalism, amateur drama and bad poetry written late at night. But I was surrounded by Andersonians and picked up enough of their acerbic parlance to conceive a thirst for the whole picture. When I went to England the book was part of my luggage. Everything else in my bags might have been ill chosen (as I related in Falling Towards England, I was the only Australian ever to arrive in an English winter without a sweater) but I had brought the right book.

Looking back on it, my belated immersion in Anderson’s lectures was the first step in a long process of coming to terms with the country I had left behind – meaning, of course, that I hadn’t left it behind at all, but had embarked on a roundabout way of discovering it for the first time. Anderson would probably not have approved. Although he knew how to let his hair down in old age – I knew one famous beauty who had to take to the stairs to outrun him at a party thrown by the Downtown Push – he was no bohemian. He expected his students to buckle down, pass their regular tests in logic and keep abreast of the background reading. My future wife won the Philosophy Prize for two successive years but she took endless pages of detailed notes while doing so; his powers of compression were a match even for her powers of application. Anderson wasn’t for dabblers. He would not have been pleased by the idea of someone reading his work unsystematically as literature. But for those of us condemned by our nature to read him in no other way, there is a lot to go on. Scattered among his dense pages of symbols are plain statements fit to resonate for a lifetime.

For Anderson, realism was the bedrock and idealism the aberration. But since so many kinds of idealism had been so prevalent for so long, the first task of the realist was to combat idealism in all its forms, starting with the pious notion that idealism could annul contention between social forces. This perpetual struggle squared well with his convictions about the necessity of conflict. Later on, reading Croce, I recognised in the principles that Croce had inherited and developed from Vico and Hegel the same emphasis that Anderson had been handing down from his lectern, like a renegade Presbyterian minister preaching the inevitability of an unjust world.

“We can’t make the world safe for goodness,” said Anderson. “It exists and develops in struggle with evil.” For Anderson there could be no “higher” reality: there was only reality, in which the facts were good enough. Realism “presupposes as the formal solution of any problem the interaction of complex things”. The complex things would not simplify themselves in obedience to a wish, least of all if the wish were a plan.

Anderson’s withering contempt for social planning had far-reaching consequences for his political vision. It was not just that he had, like Pareto, a well-developed instinct for the law of unintended consequences. He didn’t even much like the intended consequences. The welfare mentality he thought essentially servile. (His view of the welfare state as a control mechanism was his point of contact with the Sydney Libertarians, from whom he otherwise differed in most respects, beginning with his capacity to own a watch, pay his bills, turn up for work on time and fulfil his duties.) Planning, Anderson thought, applied only to commerce, and therefore never to culture, of which he had an entirely non-utilitarian view. If learning wasn’t pursued for its own sake then it could not be learning. “It is true, of course, that social equality is merely a mirage, but devotion to it has still done much to contribute to the destruction of culture.” The “of course” was a typically back-handed placing of the banderillas. Finally he made the idea part of his definition of culture. He said culture had to do with the opposition to levelling.

In retrospect, Anderson might look like part of a wartime politico-philosophical movement that included Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper. In fact, however, he was out on his own, networking mainly with Plato. Perhaps the necessary reaction to progressive social engineering got into the air along with the idea itself. It was no wonder that Anderson was hated on the far left. The wonder was that he wasn’t equally despised in the centre, since he held out very little hope even to the mildest ameliorative impulse.

Very little became too little when he expressed his contempt for planning. Planning had, after all, helped to win the war against enemies who, had they prevailed, would certainly have included empirical philosophy on their list of activities to be proscribed. With victory in sight, Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell planned Australia’s postwar immigration policy. Many of the consequences were, naturally enough, strictly incalculable: the law of unintended consequences did not cease to apply. But the calculable consequences worked out quite well, and not just in the field of commerce. Australia was transformed, incomparably for the better. Had Anderson lived long enough, he would have been required by his innate honesty to deal with the patent fact that his country – to which he himself had come as a migrant – had planned its future and succeeded in almost all departments, including that of culture. He would have been in the uncomfortable position of a philosopher counting himself lucky that his best pupils hadn’t listened.

But they had listened; and being his best pupils they had listened critically, because critical listening was the best thing he taught. Dedicated always to his war against the ideal, he was reluctant to sum up his philosophical teachings: a summary might have smacked of the transcendental unification that his pluralism existed to stave off. But he once let slip that if forced to the point he might say that goods do not conflict. (It is interesting that Isaiah Berlin, himself tentative on the subject, decided that they probably do.) The best evidence that Anderson might have been right on the point could be seen among his pupils. Those with soft hearts for their fellow man were encouraged to develop hard heads. Anderson’s toughness of intellect was thus socially beneficial while he was alive. As always happens, there were prematurely middle-aged reactionaries in three-piece suits who were glad to have their prejudices endorsed from the pulpit, but the typical young Andersonians had a thirst for the common good and were grateful to the magnificent old man for warning them so convincingly against regarding their mission as a picnic.

Beyond that, there was his chastening example to writers of any kind, even if critical inquiry was not their field. In his ability to analyse and punish loose language, Anderson was up there with Karl Kraus. Any writer of expository prose who imagined Anderson looking over his shoulder would soon check his flying pen. Perhaps just as importantly, for the next generation he left a heritage of scepticism that helped set limits to the influence of international gauchiste theorising, so that the characteristic tone of the Australian realistic voice survived and flourished in the backwaters and bunyip-pools of the media even as the mainstream became a muddy flood. Eventually Gresham’s Law took over, but never completely. Anderson’s tart remarks set a tone for the bright, and Studies in Empirical Philosophy is one of those books that will always attract the sort of reader who thirsts for the acerbic.

Clive James

Clive James was an author, critic, broadcaster and poet. He wrote more than 20 books, including his memoir, The Blaze of Obscurity, and a collection of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum.

Cover: July 2005

July 2005

From the front page

Surveillance grates

The government’s response to the Richardson review needs close scrutiny

Image of Stephen Bram’s work, Untitled, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 210 x 390 cm.

Currents of joy: Stephen Bram and John Nixon

Overlapping exhibitions by the two abstract artists convey their shared radical modernism

In light of recent events

Shamelessly derivative summer puzzle!
Image of Earth from the Moon

Pale blue dot

The myth of the ‘overview effect’, and how it serves space industry entrepreneurs

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.


Fragments of a swooping mind. Raw tissue, ragged editing

Jonathan Caouette’s ‘Tarnation’
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Street talk

Twist & whisper

Perth shyboy Richard Nicoll has come a long way from green polyester flares

More in Arts & Letters

Image of Dhambit Munuŋgurr's Bees at Gäṉgän, 2019

Blue is the colour

The idiosyncratic work of Yolngu artist Dhambit Mununggurr

Image of ‘Empire and the Making of Native Title’

Dividing the Tasman: ‘Empire and the Making of Native Title’

Historian Bain Attwood examines the different approaches to sovereignty in the New Zealand and Australian settlements

Image of Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzard’s wider world

The celebrated Australian author’s ‘Collected Stories’ sets private desperation in the cosmopolitan Europe she revered

Image from ‘Mank’

Citizen plain: ‘Mank’

David Fincher’s biopic of Orson Welles’s collaborating writer favours technique over heart

More in Books

Image of Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzard’s wider world

The celebrated Australian author’s ‘Collected Stories’ sets private desperation in the cosmopolitan Europe she revered

Image of ‘Empire and the Making of Native Title’

Dividing the Tasman: ‘Empire and the Making of Native Title’

Historian Bain Attwood examines the different approaches to sovereignty in the New Zealand and Australian settlements

Image of American Boy Scouts, 1950.

Me versus we: ‘The Upswing’

Rebuilding a more egalitarian, altruistic and communitarian society without sacrificing individual liberties

In our nature: ‘Vesper Flights’

Helen Macdonald explores how the study of animals reveals unknown aspects of ourselves

Read on

Image of Stephen Bram’s work, Untitled, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 210 x 390 cm.

Currents of joy: Stephen Bram and John Nixon

Overlapping exhibitions by the two abstract artists convey their shared radical modernism

What elitism looks like

Flagrant conflicts of interest abound at the top

Image of Anne Ferran, Scenes on the Death of Nature I, 1986

‘Know My Name’ at the National Gallery of Australia

An exhilarating exhibition considers a persistent gender bias in the visual arts

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Morrison’s climate flip

Australia has a lot of catching up to do on emissions reduction