Smart, John Jamieson Carswell (1920–)

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John Jamieson Carswell Smart was born into an academic Scottish family on September 16, 1920. His father, W. M. Smart, was an astronomer in Cambridge until 1937 when the family moved to Glasgow. J. J. C. Smart entered the University of Glasgow in 1938.

War service interrupted Smart's education from 1940 to 1945, after which he rapidly completed his degrees at Glasgow, then proceeded to the University of Oxford, where he read for the newly established BPhil degree and came under the influence of Gilbert Ryle. After a short period at Corpus Christi College, he accepted, at the age of twenty-nine, the Hughes Professorship of Philosophy at the University of Adelaide.

Smart spent twenty-two years at the University of Adelaide, moving to La Trobe University in Melbourne in 1972. In 1976 he was appointed to a Chair in the Research School of Social Sciences of the Australian National University, which he held until his retirement in 1985. Since then he has continued to be active in philosophy at the Australian National University and in Melbourne.

Soon after his arrival in Australia Smart's thought moved away from its linguistic, Oxford orientation and began to take on its characteristic science-based form. Showing the influence of both eighteenth-century Scot David Hume and twentieth-century American W. V. Quine, Smart's mature philosophy has been consistently empiricist, taking human experience as the wellspring and touchstone of knowledge, giving primacy to statements of actual fact and treating modal claims regarding necessity or mere possibility as human artifacts, and embracing nominalism concerning universals. In the philosophy of science, he has upheld regularity views of causation and natural law. Unlike many empiricists, howeverwho regard imperceptible entities as human constructsSmart has always been staunchly realist in his account of some theoretical entities, claiming that electrons, for example, are straightforwardly real components of the world.

Smart's ethics has been similarly consistent: He has defended a rather pure act-utilitarian consequentialism throughout. His major contributions to philosophy have involved three themes: in cosmology, four-dimensional physical realism; in the philosophy of mind, materialism; and in ethics, utilitarianism.

For forty years, culminating with Our Place in the Universe (1989), Smart has argued that the four-dimensional conception of space-time introduced by Minkowski for the interpretation of the theory of special relativity is superior to all others. This conception implies the equal reality of past, present, and future and rejects as unreal the flow of time that seems to underpin the human experience of time passing.

Smart's second major theme is materialism, the claim that there are no spiritual realities, and that in particular human minds are not spiritual. The mindthe organ with which one thinksproves to be the brain. All the various states of mind are states, processes, or functions of the brain and its associated nervous system. This central state materialism emerged in its contemporary form from two landmark papers: Smart's colleague U. T. Place published his "Is Consciousness a Brain Process?" in the British Journal of Psychology in 1956; Smart's "Sensations and Brain Processes," which appeared in The Philosophical Review in 1959 (reprinted in Essays, Metaphysical and Moral [1987]), gave the view wide notoriety. The importance of Smart's paper consisted in his exposing the inadequacy of the reasons then prevalent for holding that the mental and the physical belong to essentially incompatible categories. Smart expanded and defended materialism in subsequent discussions both of the general issue and of its implications for the secondary qualities, particularly color.

From An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics (1961) onward, Smart has presented a utilitarian theory of moral judgment and action: What matters is not people's intentions, or character, nor any fixed set of moral rules, but the actual consequences of behavior. The consequences to be considered concern the happiness of all sentient beings, as judged from a natural, secular point of view. To adhere to a social or traditional rule of conduct, even in those cases where doing so would result in increased misery, Smart deprecates as "rule worship." He recognizes the notorious difficulties that questions of justice generate for any rigorously utilitarian theory; in Ethics, Persuasion and Truth (1984) discussing the enormity of accepting the idyllic happiness of many at the cost of the continuing torture of one lost soul. There is no definitive resolution in his ethical thought of this conflict between the claims of happiness and of justice.

Philosophy and Scientific Realism (1963) marked the first appearance of a line of thinking that continues through Our Place in the Universe (1989) and subsequent pieces: what is now known as the Argument to the Best Explanation. The issue is realism over theoretical entities such as electrons and quarks, which must forever be beyond any direct observational validation. Smart's position is that the complex, interlocking set of experimental results that have been obtained and validated about electrons, for instance, would constitute an incredible set of interlocking coincidences for which there could be no intelligible accounting, unless electron theory were (close to being) literally referentially correct.

In Ethics, Persuasion, and Truth (1984) Smart argues for a sophisticated subjectivist theory in metaethics. As an empiricist, Smart rejects the idea that moral judgments state some special kind of "moral fact," and develops a preference semantics and pragmatics for them. Our Place in the Universe (1989) presents a coherent naturalistic vision of the physical world and life on earth, suffused with a kind of natural piety or philosophic awe.

Since 1990, Smart has continued to write on all the major themes of his philosophy. In 1996 he joined with J. J. Haldane in a debate on the issue of atheism. In all his work, Smart argues for firmly held views with the calm, well-informed courtesy and candor that have made him one of the best loved, as well as most respected, of contemporary philosophers.

See also Colors; Consequentialism; Empiricism; Inference to the Best Explanation; Philosophy of Mind; Utilitarianism.


books by smart

An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press on behalf of the University of Adelaide, 1961.

Philosophy and Scientific Realism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.

Between Science and Philosophy: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. New York: Random House, 1968.

Utilitarianism: For and Against, with Bernard Williams. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Ethics and Science. Hobart, Australia: University of Tasmania, 1981.

Ethics, Persuasion, and Truth. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.

Essays, Metaphysical and Moral: Selected Philosophical Papers. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1987.

Our Place in the Universe: A Metaphysical Discussion. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

Atheism and Theism. With J. J. Haldane. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

books edited by smart

Problems of Space and Time: Readings. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

books about smart

Petit, Philip, Richard Sylvan, and Jean Norman, eds. Metaphysics and Morality: Essays in Honour of J. J. C. Smart. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1987.

Keith Campbell (1996, 2005)