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JOHN ANDERSON: PHILOSOPHER AND CONTROVERSIALIST EXTRAORDINAIRE
JOHN ANDERSON: PHILOSOPHER AND CONTROVERSIALIST EXTRAORDINAIRE
JOHN ANDERSON: PHILOSOPHER AND CONTROVERSIALIST EXTRAORDINAIRE
JOHN ANDERSON: PHILOSOPHER AND CONTROVERSIALIST EXTRAORDINAIRE
JOHN ANDERSON: PHILOSOPHER AND CONTROVERSIALIST EXTRAORDINAIRE
JOHN ANDERSON: PHILOSOPHER AND CONTROVERSIALIST EXTRAORDINAIRE
JOHN ANDERSON: PHILOSOPHER AND CONTROVERSIALIST EXTRAORDINAIRE
JOHN ANDERSON: PHILOSOPHER AND CONTROVERSIALIST EXTRAORDINAIRE
JOHN ANDERSON: PHILOSOPHER AND CONTROVERSIALIST EXTRAORDINAIRE
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JOHN ANDERSON: PHILOSOPHER AND CONTROVERSIALIST EXTRAORDINAIRE

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Copyright Ian Ellis-Jones 2012. All Rights Reserved. See also my related papers 'Andersonian Realism and Buddhist Empiricism' and ‘Self as Illusion and Mind as Feeling’ (also available on SlideShare).

Copyright Ian Ellis-Jones 2012. All Rights Reserved. See also my related papers 'Andersonian Realism and Buddhist Empiricism' and ‘Self as Illusion and Mind as Feeling’ (also available on SlideShare).

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  • 1. JOHN ANDERSON PHILOSOPHER AND CONTROVERSIALIST EXTRAORDINAIRE By Dr Ian Ellis-Jones Lecturer, New South Wales Institute of Psychiatry Tutor, Workers Educational Association, Sydney Former Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Technology, Sydney There are only facts, i.e., occurrences in space and time. - John Anderson, Empiricism, Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy, December 1927, p 14.‘Let us now praise famous men … .’Today---July 6, 2012---marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the Scottish-born 1
  • 2. philosopher and controversialist John Anderson (pictured above), who was ChallisProfessor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney from 1927 to 1958 (and thereafterEmeritus Professor of Philosophy until his death in Sydney’s Royal North ShoreHospital in 1962). Anderson, regarded by many as the ‘patron saint’ of the SydneyPush, founded the school or branch of empirical philosophy known as ‘Sydney Realism’(and also known as ‘Andersonian Realism’).John Anderson was an intellectual giant of a man the likes of which we may never seeagain. On 3 July I was very pleased to be able to attend a symposium held in Sydney inAnderson’s honour and memory. Speakers at the mini-conference---convened by the‘Sydney Realists’ group---included the esteemed philosopher Emeritus Professor DavidArmstrong (unarguably Australias greatest living philosopher---perhaps our greatest all-time), the talented and dedicated Dr Mark Weblin (former John Anderson ResearchFellow at the University of Sydney), and the equally gifted and scholarly Andersonianpsychologist Dr Terry McMullen.Sadly, I never met Professor John Anderson. I knew his son Alexander (Sandy), butonly slightly. Sandy was also a philosopher---Andersonian, of course. He and his latefather lived in my street in Turramurra. Anyway, for most of my ‘thinking’ life I have beenan Andersonian. Although in recent times I have moved away from a number of differentaspects of his systematic philosophy I still adhere to the central thrust of thatphilosophy, and when I teach law and other disciplines at tertiary institutions I use hisideas on the nature of reality---and the importance of critical thinking---to explain tostudents the nature of ‘facts’ ... for, as Anderson taught, nothing, absolutely nothing, issuperior to facts!The central thrust of Professor Anderson’s otherwise complex realist philosophy is quitesimple ... there is only one way of being, and one order or level of reality, that ofoccurrence ... that is, ordinary things occurring in space and time (or ‘spacetime’, assome would say today) ... that is, facts. Having said that, Anderson nevertheless saw allthings as being irreducibly complex, that is, he asserted that there is no a priori limit to 2
  • 3. the number of true things that one might---and can---say about any given state ofaffairs, and the relationships between that state of affairs and any one or more otherstates of affairs. Be that as it may, any notion of there being different---for example, so-called ‘higher’ and ‘lower’---orders or levels of reality or truth was, Anderson pointedout, ‘contrary to the very nature and possibility of discourse.’ Such thinking (if that be theright word for it) was, according to Anderson, ‘unspeakable’---indeed, meaningless.Anderson referred to this as the ‘problem of commensurability.’ If, for example, therewere different orders or levels of reality, how could there ever be ‘connections’ betweenthem, or any way---let alone a single or uniform way---of speaking about them?You see, according to Anderson reality (life) is ‘propositional,’ that is, it is only inpropositions that we know---and can know---things at all. Things are not prior topropositions. The proposition---so central to traditional Aristotelian logic---is the way inwhich things actually occur. All objects of experience---indeed, all things---take thepropositional form. In other words, there is, says Anderson, a direct, logical,coterminous relationship between the proposition and the way things actually are.One way of being. One order or level of reality. When, many years ago, I grasped thesignificance of that truth all notions of and belief in the possibility of ‘supernaturalism’ aswell as traditional theism totally vanished for me. A damn good thing, too. My whole lifechanged for the better. I do not miss my former belief in the so-called ‘supernatural’ and‘miraculous.’ Indeed, I am much happier for being able to rejoice in the extraordinary inthe ordinary. Reality just is. (And, as Krishnamurti used to say, ‘In the acknowledgementof what is, there is the cessation of all conflict.’ There, you have all you need to know.)Anderson taught that a single logic applies to all things and how they are related, andthat there are three – yes, three – separate ‘entities’ to any relation such as seeing,having, knowing, etc---namely, the -er, the -ed, and the -ing. First, there is the personwho sees, has or knows. Secondly, there is the thing seen, had or known. Thirdly, andmost importantly, there is the act of seeing, having or knowing. Anderson taught thatnone of these three things---each of which is a fact---is constituted by its relations to any 3
  • 4. of the others nor dependent on any of the others. So, things do in fact existindependently of their being perceived, held or known. One more thing---all relations(even so-called ‘internal’ ones) are external to the objects or parts whose relations theyare. That’s hard to understand, but I think Anderson is right about that.Anderson had much to say about ‘facts.’ So, what is a fact? A fact is an occurrence inspace and time---a ‘thing-in-itself’. There are only facts ... facts! And facts are knowable.Anderson pointed out that logic is not so much a body of rules, principles and methodsfor evaluating and constructing arguments as a description of how things---note that,things---are related to each other. In other words, logic is about things, not thought. (Iwish I could get that point across to others---including many logicians and philosopherswho generally regard Andersons view of logic as being somewhat quaint and eveneccentric.)Thus, logical thinking means relating (that is, putting together or distinguishing) differentpieces of information about facts or alleged facts. In that sense, logic is a description ofreality. Logic helps us to find facts and see the connections between one set of factsand another. It teaches us that, in order for there to be any theory, a fact can beexplained only as following logically from other facts occurring on the same level ofobservability. Hence, Anderson denied that any proposition is ‘transparently’ (or‘necessarily’) true. That means that a statement that something is the case can bejustified only by a statement that something else is the case. So, every proposition---note that, every proposition---is contingently true or false. Having said that, there are nodegrees, kinds or levels of truth. Every question---other than reality itself (which isneither true nor false, but just is)---is an issue of truth or falsity, although I must point outthat Anderson rejected, among other things, any so-called totalistic view of truth (whichwould see truth in the fullest sense of the word as being nothing less than the truth ofthe Whole, that is, the Whole Truth).Now, listen to this. Even opinions and ideas can be said to be true or false whenattention is directed, not to the opinion or idea itself, but to the thing that the opinion or 4
  • 5. idea or value is of. The test of a true opinion or idea is to see whether or not somethingis the case. No, it is simply not the case that one person or culture’s ideas are as goodas those of any other. It may be politically correct to say or believe that, but it is not thecase.Here’s something else that I came to understand from a study of Anderson’s systematicphilosophy. There is no such thing as the ‘universe.’ That’s right! The ‘universe’ issimply a word referring to the sum total of all there is, with the totality of all things beingwhat is known as a closed system. Each thing is a cause of at least one otherthing as well as being the effect of some other thing, so everything is explainable byreference to everything else. End of story. Hence, all theological talk of the supposedneed for some first cause is ... well, nonsense and humbug! As Professor Andersonpointed out, there can be no contrivance of a "universe" or totality of things, becausethe contriver would have to be included in the totality of things. In any event, the entirenotion of a supposed Being---the contriver---whose essential attributes (egomnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience) are non-empirical is unintelligible.Further, why would a supposedly supernatural contriver bother to create a naturaluniverse---assuming for the moment it was created? (I have no problems whatsoeverwith the idea that the so-called universe was either self-created or uncreated.) In anyevent, empirical observation can find nothing ‘metaphysical’, ‘occult’ or ‘beyondexperience’.Further, both science and philosophy afford us no evidence or support for the idea thatthere are any entities beyond space and time which yet work out their supposedpurposes within space and time. Both science and logic compel us to refuse to affirmthat which is unobservable. Indeed, we are compelled to reject the unobservable (divineor otherwise) as the cause or explanation of the observable. Anderson relied solely onthe observable. It should thus come as no surprise to hear that John Anderson was amilitant atheist who was totally opposed to the teaching of religion in schools---exceptas mythology. (For Anderson, even the ethical teachings of Jesus were, for the most 5
  • 6. part, ‘trite,’ ‘trivial’ and ‘superficial.’ In short, he rejected all forms of moralism andmeliorism.)Anderson made it unambiguously clear that the task of the philosopher---indeed, thetask of any true academic---is to inquire … freely. Established facts, not dogma, is thefield of inquiry. Academicism is forfeited if one takes anything to be superior to facts (egbeliefs, dogmas). Nothing---absolutely nothing---can be accepted on faith or on thebasis of supposed ‘revelation,’ whatever that is. Everything must forever be open tochallenge and disproof.Anderson wrote of the facts of complexity and interaction, and the influence of theother things with which [things] come in contact. Buddhists see that as evidence of theinterconnectedness of all things---Thich Nhat Hanh calls it InterBeing---and they asserta doctrine of dependent origination (or dependent arising). Anderson would rejectsuch monism, but at least the Buddhist teaching makes more sense than certainalternative (especially Christian) worldviews. I think so, anyway.Anderson also wrote that there is no such thing as ‘consciousness.’ That’s right! Thereis no ‘consciousness’ whose nature it is to know, just as there are no ‘ideas’ whosenature it is to be known---and also no so-called ‘ultimates.’ I repeat---nothing, absolutelynothing, is constituted by, nor can it be defined or explained by reference to, therelations it has to other things. One can be ‘conscious’ (or aware) of something, and onemay speak of the ‘act of being conscious’ (or aware) of something, but there is no suchthing as ‘consciousness’ per se. Yes, ‘relativism’ must be eliminated if one is toacknowledge the all-important distinction between qualities and relations. (Interestingly,Anderson himself doesn’t entirely avoid the pitfall of relativism. For example, he speaksof intellectual pursuits as being ‘operations of the love of truth (the inquiring spirit)’[emphasis added]---just one of a number of instances where Anderson purports todefine or explain something by reference to its object (despite his repeated injunction toeschew such relativist practices). 6
  • 7. Another thing. Anderson saw the uselessness and folly of beliefs---beliefs of all kinds,not just religious ones. He and other Andersonians would say, ‘The sky is blue. The skydoes not become any bluer because you believe it to be blue. Further, the proposition---the sky is blue---does not become any truer because you believe it to be true.’ There isnothing to believe. And there is no need to belief anything. Just look … observe …understand … and know. You see, truth is not relative to persons. Truth is what is.Ignorance and mistaken beliefs do nothing to make truth relative. When anyproposition is taken to its logical conclusion, a question of fact---truth or falsity---isalways reached. One always can get back to the objective distinction betweensomething being the case and not being the case. So, if I say, quite subjectively, Thesky is for me blue, you may think quite differently. However, once I ask, Is the sky bluefor you?, an objective issue is immediately raised. The question is whether it is truethat the sky is blue for you, not whether it is true for you that the sky is blue for you.Forget it. Im sorry I started on that one!Anderson was an empiricist, not a rationalist. The great pitfall with rationalism is that itstarts with the mind, whereas empiricism starts with our direct, immediate and non-representational experience with facts. Yes, we are in direct, unmediated contact withfacts---not ‘sense data’ (the latter being the supposed ‘content’ of our experience). AsAnderson saw it, rationalism was just another form of idealism---something to beshunned. Anderson was a realist---that is, one who holds with George Berkeleys Hylasthat to exist is one thing, to be perceived another.Anderson was an intellectual. He stood for a non-utilitarian, traditional, classical, liberalarts (i.e. Scottish) education—as well as for academic freedom (which, sadly, is gonetoday). If Anderson were alive today, he would be totally appalled at today’s educationalsystem. One of the greatest books ever written is Charles Sykes’ book, Dumbing DownOur Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can’t Read, Writeor Add. If you havent read that book, please do so. As a university lecturer based inSydney, Australia, I taught law---which is all about the power of the written and spokenword---at a major university in Sydney for almost 20 years, and I was simply appalled at 7
  • 8. how few of my law students over the years could write a simple, decent Englishsentence.The problem got worse as the years progressed. It wasnt really the fault of thestudents. It was the fault of a number of silly people in high places in government andeducational bureaucracy over the previous 2 or 3 decades who preached that literacy ofthe supposed old-fashioned kind was unimportant. What was supposedly importantwas ensuring that every precious (and supposedly equally ‘gifted’) student---whoseopinion was said to be as good as that of any other student---had a healthy ego andwas not stigmatized or ‘shamed’ in any way. ‘Let the children express themselves inany way they wish’---that sort of nonsense. So, the task of the teacher or lecturer was tojolly them [the students] along. The result? Wholesale mediocrity, normopathicconformity (yes!) and narcissism of an almost clinical kind.The freethinking John Anderson was a bit eccentric and idiosyncratic, but I am of theview that all truly clever people are eccentric and idiosyncratic. However, in today’sworld---especially in academia---eccentricity and idiosyncrasy are increasingly labelledan ‘unacceptable pattern of behaviour,’ and are seen at best as signs of a personalitydisorder, to be punished in various ways. There is no place for John Andersons intoday’s not-so-hallowed halls of learning. The cranky, caustic commentator---the gadflywho says ‘the Emperor has no clothes’---is relegated to the back pages of the tabloids… if they’re allowed to be heard at all.Now, there are, as I and others see it, some not insignificant problems with manyaspects of Anderson’s determinist, empiricist philosophical position (for example, hisview of ‘mind as feeling,’ which fails to account for ‘feelings’ themselves, and hissomewhat implausible objectivist view of ethics), but that’s for another day. Also, itseems to me that the often irascible and anti-clerical Anderson must have been just asmuch of a dogmatist when it came to his system of philosophy as the Sydney Anglicans(for whom he had utter contempt) were---and still are---with respect to their narrow,twisted, perverted version of Christianity. Be that as it may, Anderson was, as I have 8
  • 9. already said, an intellectual giant of a man.Reality is propositional; propositions are identical to the states of affairs described(subject, perhaps, to what are known as false propositions). A single logic applies to allthings. There is only one way of being, and one order or level of reality---a spacetimeworld full of interacting material things (facts). Nothing is superior to facts. There areonly facts. There is no such thing as the ‘universe.’ We must always reject theunobservable as the cause or explanation of the observable. There is no God of thetraditional kind---and absolutely no need for, or possibility of, one. Indeed, there are no‘ultimates’ at all, which means, among other things, that there are no higher truths thatone can appeal to in order to explicate what are invariably complex matters of fact.Academic inquiry and endeavours must always be free and unencumbered. And so it is.Aye, the distinctive ideas and teachings of John Anderson are needed now more thanever before. Author’s Note. This article first appeared on my blog Dr Ian Ellis-Jones … Living Mindfully Now http://ianellis-jones.blogspot.com.au/ on July 6, 2012. -oo0oo- 9

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