Anderson, John (1893–1962)

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John Anderson, the Scottish-born Australian philosopher, was the son of a politically radical headmaster. Born at Stonehouse, Lanarkshire, and educated at Hamilton Academy and at the University of Glasgow, which he entered in 1911, he was at first principally interested in mathematics and physics; he turned to philosophy partly under the influence of his brother William, then a lecturer at Glasgow and later professor of philosophy at Auckland University College, New Zealand. Anderson graduated with an M.A. in 1917, with first-class honors both in the school of philosophy and in the school of mathematics and natural philosophy (physics). He lectured at Cardiff (19181919), Glasgow (19191920), and Edinburgh (19201927) before accepting an appointment in 1927 as professor of philosophy at the University of Sydney, Australia. He remained there, except for a visit to Scotland and the United States in 1938, until his retirement in 1958. He had almost no personal contact with philosophers in England, a country he regarded with the suspicion characteristic of a Scottish radical.

Anderson's career as a professor was an unusually stormy one. He attacked whatever he took to encourage an attitude of servilityand this included such diversified enemies as Christianity, social welfare work, professional patriotism, censorship, educational reform of a utilitarian sort, and communism. For a time he was closely associated with the Communist Party, seeing in it the party of independence and enterprise, but he broke with it in the early 1930s. His passionate concern for independence and his rejection of any theory of "natural subordination" were characteristic of his whole outlookpolitical, logical, metaphysical, ethical, and scientific. Attempts were made to silence him and even to remove him from his professorship; he was subjected to legislative censure and clerical condemnation. In the debates that these attacks provoked, he spoke out forcibly and fearlessly in defense of free speech and university autonomy.

Metaphysics and Epistemology

Anderson was trained at Glasgow as an Absolute Idealist. However, he soon abandoned Idealism, influenced by William James, whom he studied very closely, G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, the American "new realists," and, most significantly, Samuel Alexander, whose Gifford Lectures on Space, Time and Deity he attended in Glasgow in 19161918. James and Alexander taught him that it was possible to reject absolute idealism without, like Russell, reverting to a modified version of traditional British empiricism. Anderson set out to show that continuity, stressed by absolute idealists, and distinction, stressed by empiricists, are equally real and equally involved in every experience. In experience, he argued, we encounter neither an undifferentiated continuum nor isolated sense data; our experience is of complex states of affairs, or "propositions," understood not as sentences, but as what true utterances assert to be the case. These propositions do not mediate between ourselves and reality; to take that view, Anderson argued, is to leave us in a state of invincible ignorance about this supposed "reality." To be real simply is to be "propositional," that is, to be a thing of a certain description, or, in Anderson's view, a complex of activities in a spatiotemporal region.

Unlike many of his British contemporaries, Anderson was by no means opposed to the use of philosophical labels; he was prepared to describe himself as an empiricist, a realist, a pluralist, a determinist, a materialist, or a positivistbut always in a somewhat individual sense. For example, although he insisted that he was an empiricist, he rejected what is usually taken to be the most characteristic doctrine of empiricismthat our experience is of "impressions" or "sense data." For Anderson, empiricism consisted in the rejection of the view that there is anything "higher" or "lower" than complex states of affairs as we encounter them in everyday experience; he rejected ultimates of every sort, whether in the form of ultimate wholes, like Francis Herbert Bradley's Absolute, or ultimate units, such as "sense data" or "atomic propositions."

Similarly, although he agreed with positivists in their opposition to metaphysics, when it is understood as the revelation of realities "beyond facts," he shared neither the positivist hostility to traditional philosophy as such, nor its conception of experience as consisting in "having sensations," nor its interpretation of logic and mathematics as calculi. He was a realist, insofar as he argued that what we perceive exists independently of our perceiving it; but he forcibly criticized the phenomenalism characteristic of so many twentieth-century realists. He described himself as a pluralist, but whereas classical pluralism had defended the thesis that there is a plurality of ultimate simples, everything, for Anderson, is complex. No state of affairs is analyzable into just so many ingredientswhether in the form of sense data or of abstract qualities. Pluralities, in his view, consist of pluralities, not of simples. For the same reason he was not a determinist in the classical sense, because for him no description of a situation was ever complete; his determinism consisted only in his holding that there are sufficient and necessary conditions for the occurrence of any state of affairs. Finally, his materialism did not incorporate the classical conception of matter; what is essential to his view is the idea that every state of affairs is describable in terms of physical lawswhich does not exclude its also being describable in terms of biological, psychological, or sociological laws.

The arguments by which Anderson attempted to establish his philosophical conclusions were manifold and diverse. What was perhaps his fundamental argument can be put thus: As soon as we try to describe "ultimate" entities or offer any account of their relation to those "contingent" entities whose existence and behavior they are supposed to explain, we find ourselves obliged, by the very nature of the case, to treat the alleged "ultimates" as possessing such-and-such properties as a "mere matter-of-fact." The metaphysician either sees his ultimate entities vanish into emptinesslike John Locke's "substance"or else he is forced to admit that they exhibit precisely the logical characteristics which were supposed to indicate that a thing is not ultimate.

The emptiness of ultimates, Anderson thought, is often disguised by the fact that they are defined in wholly relational termsas when, for example, substance is defined as "that which underlies qualities," or a sense datum as "that which is an object of immediate perception." Anderson attacked this procedure as "relativism," that is, as the attempt to think of an entity or a quality as being wholly constituted by its relation to something else. To be related, Anderson argued, an entity must be qualitatively describable; relational definitions, it follows, cannot be used to avoid the conclusion that the "ultimate," if it exists at all, must itself be a thing of a certain description. According to Anderson, every state of affairs is "ultimate," in the sense that it is something we have to take account of; but it is contingent, too, in the sense that there are circumstances in which it might not have come about. There is nothing whose nature is such that it must exist, but there is nothing, either, whose nature is exhausted by its relation to other states of affairs.

Particularly in Anderson's lectures, through which his influence has been mainly exerted, such general considerations were supported by detailed analyses of specific philosophical theories. Although he was not, in a professional sense, a scholar, it was his habit both to develop his own views by way of a criticism of his predecessors and also to ascribe to those predecessorsespecially perhaps to Heraclitus and to the Plato of the later dialoguesthe views that he took to be correct.

Logic and Mathematics

Anderson's approach to philosophy was in some respects formal. He agreed with the Russell of Our Knowledge of the External World that logic is the essence of philosophyif by this is meant that philosophical problems are to be settled by an analysis of propositions. But despite strong mathematical interests, he was only to a very limited degree influenced by Russell's mathematical logic. He worked out, and defended against Russell's criticisms, a reformulated version of the traditional formal logic, which he tried to show had a much greater range and power than its critics would allow to it. He related logic very closely to discussion: the conception of an "issue," of what is before a group for consideration, bulks very large in his logic. The issue, he thought, is always whether some kind of thing is of a certain description, and discussion consists in drawing attention to connections between such descriptions. Unless these connections actually hold, discussion falsifies unless it is actually the case, for example, that what one person brings forward as an objection is logically inconsistent with what another person has said. To point to logical relations, Anderson concluded, is to assert that something is the case, just as much as to draw attention to any other sort of relation.

He took a similar stand concerning mathematics, which, he argued, can be applied to the world only in virtue of the fact that it describes that world. "Application," in Anderson's view, consists in drawing conclusions from what is being applied. If mathematics offered no description of the world, no application of it could describe the world.

He did not, however, agree with John Stuart Mill that mathematical propositions are "inductions from experience." He was a vigorous critic of induction. If, as traditional empiricists had assumed, all our experience is of "pure particulars," then, according to Anderson we would not have the slightest ground for believing inwe could not even conceive the possibility ofgeneral connections. But, in fact, the least we can be acquainted with is not a bare particular but a particular state of affairs; from the very beginning, generality is an ingredient of our experience. We can recognize directly that, say, fire burns, although we can be mistaken in this as in any other of our beliefs; for to "recognize" is nothing more or less than to hold a belief.

Aesthetics, Ethics, and Political Philosophy

Although even in his aesthetic, ethical, and political writings, Anderson was constantly concerned to make formal pointsas, for example, that the definition of good as "that whose nature it is to be an end" exhibits the vice of "relativism"yet he was also a good deal influenced by, and deeply concerned with, the issues raised by economists like Alfred Marshall, social theorists like Karl Marx and Georges Sorel, critics like Matthew Arnold, psychologists like Sigmund Freud, and novelists like James Joyce and Fëdor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. His aesthetic, ethical, and political writings conjoin the logical and the concrete; in virtue of this fact he has influenced many Australian intellectuals who would not accept his formal analyses.

In his aesthetics, Anderson argued that the beauty of works of art is independent of the observer; and similarly in ethics, that acts are good or bad in themselves. He was influenced by Moore's Principia Ethica but critical of Moore's attempt to treat "good" as being a simple and indefinable quality and at the same time to define it as "that which ought to be," and thus a quality. Anderson took "good" to be a predicate of certain forms of mental activitythe spirit of inquiry, love, courage, artistic creation, and appreciationand tried to work out a theory of the connection and distinction between these different forms of activity.

In his political theory, Anderson attacked, on the one hand, the view that human society has a single "good" to which all activity ought to be subordinated, and, on the other hand, the doctrine that it is a set of contractual relations between individuals. Society, as he saw it, is a complex of complex institutions, of which the state is only one. A community flourishes when this fact is fully realized, when no attempt is made to enforce uniformity upon these diverse competing and cooperating types of institutions. The attempt to achieve absolute security by social planning, Anderson held, is doomed to failure and is stultifying in its effects in society.


Anderson's ideas were presented in a series of articles, mainly in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, and in his influential lectures at the University of Sydney, where he founded what has been described as "the only indigenous school of philosophy in Australia." Among those philosophers who have, in varying degrees, felt his influence, the best known are D. M. Armstrong, A. J. Baker, Eugene Kamenka, J. L. Mackie, P. H. Partridge, and J. A. Passmore.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Alexander, Samuel; Armstrong, David M.; Bradley, Francis Herbert; Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich; Freud, Sigmund; Heraclitus of Ephesus; Idealism; James, William; Locke, John; Mackie, John Leslie; Marx, Karl; Mill, John Stuart; Moore, George Edward; Plato; Positivism; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Sorel, Georges.


Anderson's principal contributions to periodicals, together with two previously unpublished papers, have been brought together as Studies in Empirical Philosophy (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1962), with an introduction by J. A. Passmore, which contains a full bibliography. For further information, see Gilbert Ryle, "Logic and Professor Anderson," in Australian Journal of Philosophy 28 (3) (1950): 137153; J. L. Mackie, "The Philosophy of John Anderson," in Australian Journal of Philosophy 40 (3) (1962): 264281; J. A. Passmore, "Philosophy in Australia," in Australian Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1963).

John Passmore (1967)

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Anderson, John (1893–1962)

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