Australian Realism

In general terms, philosophical realism is comprised of three fundamental principles. Its first and central claim ‘maintains the independence of the known from the knowing of it’.[28] That is, it is an ontological position that claims that objects exist even if no one is conscious of them or experiences them. Secondly, philosophical realism maintains that what we know is known to us through observation. This ultimately means it is fundamentally opposed to rationalism and, in particular, knowledge derived through the process of deduction. Finally, and following from its epistemological standpoint, philosophical realism also claims that the only appropriate method according to which such knowledge is to be attained is that of empiricism.

In both its political and philosophical forms, realism emerged in response to the dominant mode of thought in both fields in the early twentieth century, idealism. As John Passmore writes, during the time when Anderson studied there, the University of Glasgow ‘was still an outpost of Absolute Idealism’.[29] ‘Absolute’ Hegelian idealism had been established as the dominant mode of philosophical thought at Glasgow by Edward Caird whose influence stretched to the philosophy schools of Australia.[30] Its central claim was that ‘ordinary things or “outside objects” (apart from other minds) depend for their existence on being known’. That is, idealists claim that ‘reality is experience’.[31] Thus objects, such as ‘tables, buildings, mountains and so on’ do not exist if no one is conscious of them or experiences them.[32] This, of course, is in direct opposition to the realist claim that whatever exists does so regardless of whether or not anyone is conscious of it.

Although he was not the first philosopher to oppose idealism in Australia—Bernard Muscio, the Challis Professor immediately prior to Anderson was a formidable critic of the approach[33]—it was Anderson who finally turned the tide, at the University of Sydney at least. Indeed, as we will see shortly, Anderson’s realism cut directly to the heart of idealist thought, challenging its fundamental premise at the outset. Foremost among Anderson’s primary influences in this endeavour were the ‘modern realists’, G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, and the American ‘new realists’, W.T. Marvin, R.B. Perry and Samuel Alexander. In particular, Anthony Quinton writes that ‘a powerful influence was exerted on him by the Gifford Lectures delivered … by Samuel Alexander, later published as Time, Space and Deity’.[34] Significantly, in the preface to The Anarchical Society, Bull wrote: ‘When still an undergraduate I was very impressed (I now think too impressed) by the dictum of Samuel Alexander, the author of Time, Space and Deity … that “thinking is also research”’.[35] As we will see shortly, Anderson’s understanding of philosophical realism was fundamentally based on Alexander’s doctrine of spatio-temporality.[36] However, as we will also see in the following section, where Anderson made his own contribution to realist philosophical thought was in the manner in which he developed its empirical approach into ‘a logical and propositional account of reality as a theory of discourse about events’.[37]

Empiricism, Pluralism and Positivism

As Anderson wrote in ‘Realism and Some of its Critics’, although ‘we cannot define Realism by what any particular realist says’, it is possible to identify three principles, or sets of ideas that are constitutive of his particular brand of the approach.[38] In accordance with the general definition provided above, for Anderson, realism was an empiricist doctrine that maintained, at its heart, that existence is ‘the single way of being’.[39] More specifically, Anderson maintained that ‘everything that there is exists in time and space’, a contention derived directly from Alexander’s doctrine of spatio-temporality.[40] Realism, for Anderson, was consequently concerned with ‘being real’ and by extension he argued that ‘being real’ ‘should be unambiguous’ so as to avoid all notions pertaining to ‘orders’ of reality.[41] That is, he argued that ‘whatever exists … is real, that is to say it is a spatio and temporal situation or occurrence that is on the same level of reality as anything else that exists’.[42] This position, often referred to as Anderson’s ‘ontological egalitarianism’, stands in direct opposition to both idealism and rationalism and, in doing so, takes the general ontological claim made by philosophical realism to its logical extreme. Indeed, despite arguing with Hume and Mill that ‘experience is the only guide to what is the case’, in the final analysis Anderson rejected their positions as being ultimately ‘rationalistic’.[43] Thus, Anderson went so far as to promulgate the extreme empiricist position that ‘a realist can only be an empiricist’.[44] In doing so, he thus fused the ontological claim that everything that exists does so regardless of whether anyone is conscious of it, with the epistemological claim that what we know is known to us through observation, and discussed them under the broad banner of empiricism.

The two remaining principles of ‘Australian realism’ follow from Anderson’s extreme empiricist position. The first is the claim that realism is a pluralistic doctrine. This, as Jim Baker writes, was to be defended in Anderson’s view ‘as a matter of fact’.[45] As Passmore explains, for Anderson, ‘every fact (which includes every “object”) is a complex situation: there are no simples, no atomic facts, no objects which cannot be, as it were, expanded into facts’.[46] That is, Anderson ‘affirm[ed] “the infinite complexity of things” and denie[d] that there is anything absolutely simple, anything less than a complex situation’.[47] As we will see shortly, this notion of complexity that was central to Anderson’s understanding of pluralism was derived, at least in part, from his fascination with Heraclitus and also informed his social thought.

Finally, and also following from his extreme empiricism, Anderson maintained that realism is a ‘positivist doctrine’.[48] However, by positivism he did not mean ‘logical positivism’ for this was, in his view, ‘thoroughly rationalistic’ in nature.[49] Rather, Anderson understood positivism as a methodological approach centred around the empirical observation of objects and events. This, somewhat curiously, also included ethical inquiry.

Ethics

In accordance with his empiricist and positivist understanding of realism, for Anderson, ethics must necessarily be concerned with ‘facts’. As such, he maintained that ‘there are no “values” above facts’.[50] Rather, ethics must be treated in the same manner as any other social phenomena; that is to say, positively. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the more common understanding of ethics as being concerned not simply with the principles of human conduct but with how human beings ought to act; that is, with the normative element of ethical inquiry. However, Anderson went so far as to suggest that ‘there is no such thing as a “normative” science’.[51] According to Anderson, ‘the most obstinate confusion obstructing the growth of ethical knowledge lies in the assumption that ethics teaches us how to live or what to live for, that it instructs us in our duty or in the approach to the moral end’.[52]

This view accords directly with Anderson’s understanding of what it is to be a ‘freethinker’.[53] As he wrote in ‘The Nature of Freethought’,[54] the ‘freethinker’ is a ‘disinterested theorist’, not in the sense of being opposed to the interested theorist, but in the sense of maintaining ‘that theory has nothing to do with betterment’. This, of course, rests on a fundamental distinction between ‘positive science’, one of the hallmarks of Anderson’s Freethought Society, and normative inquiry. However, Anderson also argued that the very distinction between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ that marks the positivist/normative divide is fundamentally illogical. Its illogicality, he argued, stems from ‘its conception of the different sorts of reality which attach to norms and to the things which come under these norms’.[55] That is, it stems from the ‘attempt to distinguish facts from values’. In accordance with Anderson’s empiricist and positivist understanding of realism however, ‘if the statement that something “ought to be” has any meaning, it can only be that the thing is, positively obligatory; that this is a matter of fact’.[56] This, of course, is because Anderson did not believe that different levels of reality can be identified; rather, everything that exists is as real as everything else that exists. For Anderson then, ‘good is a matter of discoverable natural fact’ and does not have anything whatsoever to do with how an individual ought to behave or think or what ought to happen in a given situation.

It is possible to identify two immediate implications of this view. The first, which I will return to in the following discussion of Anderson’s views about religion, is that he was outwardly hostile towards ‘moralism’. ‘Moralism’ was, in Anderson’s view, a ‘fraud’ because it brought with it a false sense of obligation.[57] The second implication of Anderson’s positivist view of ethics is the claim that not only is there ‘no such thing as the common good’ and no need to pursue moral or social progress, but that there is ‘perhaps no possibility of it’ occurring at all.[58] This has specific implications for Anderson’s understanding of both society and religion.

Religion

Anderson’s hostility towards religion is almost legendary in Australian society and scholarship. Although he initially rejected religion on Comtean grounds, Anderson’s later criticisms of it were made on ‘both ethical and logical grounds’. In agreement with Nietzsche and in accordance ‘with his positive theory of ethics he regard[ed] Christianity … as essentially servile and philanthropic in its outlook and preoccupations … and so as quite opposed to what is intrinsically good’.[59] Focusing his criticisms on Christianity in particular, he argued that ‘the Christian ethic, as an ethic of renunciation and consolation, as holding out to the lowly on earth in expectation of “elevation” in some unearthly sense, stands low in the scale of moralities’.[60] In particular, Christianity brings with it, he argued, an implicit and unsubstantiated claim to a higher form of morality.[61] Christianity is thus ‘a feudal attitude which is characterised by social helplessness’ and presents a ‘mere veneer of solidarity in its emphasis on acquiescence to oppression and its doctrine of personal salvation’.[62] On logical grounds, Anderson also argued that ‘theology (is) not only an ambiguous doctrine of reality, (it) is also an ambiguous position itself’. It cannot be, he maintained, treated as an aspect of science or even philosophy but can only be reduced to an aspect of social science, one of many facets of human history.[63]

However, Anderson’s complaint with religion was not simply a general one but was specifically directed towards the role of religion in education, the subject of one of the public controversies in which he found himself. Indeed, Anderson famously argued in his 1943 speech ‘Religion in Education’, ‘as with the subject of snakes in Ireland there is no religion in education’. ‘Education’, he argued, ‘may be described as the development of inquiry, the setting up of habits of investigation’. Religion, he continued, is thus ‘opposed to education’ because that which is ‘sacred’ is, by definition, immune to inquiry, examination and criticism. ‘To call anything sacred’, he argued, ‘is to say, “Here inquiry must stop; this is not to be examined”’.[64]

Society

Like his views on religion and ethics more generally, Anderson’s social critique was fundamentally based on the empiricist and pluralist elements of his philosophical realism. In general terms, this meant that Anderson rejected what ‘he regarded as fundamental misconceptions in social science’; specifically the ‘confused doctrines of voluntarism, individualism or social atomism, and solidarism’.[65] Indeed, the logical corollary of Anderson’s argument against moralism discussed above was his rejection of solidarism, the view that society is a ‘solid or harmonious thing, or a single whole’ in which all ‘members have a common set of interests’.[66] This, Anderson argued, is an illusion that is based on false notions of the common good and ‘neglects the fact of social variety and social conflict, that is, the fact of social pluralism’.[67] However, this did not mean that Anderson disregarded all notions of ‘co-operation and social cohesion’ in his understanding of society, but rather maintained that ‘these are not the dominant social facts as conflict and struggle are permanent important features of society and history’.[68] Indeed, conflict was central to Anderson’s understanding of society and this was derived, at least in part, from his interest in the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Heraclitus.

As I.F. Helu argues, ‘Anderson saw in Heraclitus’s doctrine three basic ideas: process, tension, and complexity’.[69] In particular, it was Heraclitus’ specific notion of the ‘complexity and permanence of conflict and change in any situation, natural or social’ that most interested Anderson.[70] Indeed, as Heraclitus wrote, emphasising the place of conflict in society: ‘We must recognise that war is common and strife is justice, and all things happen according to strife and necessity.’[71] Anderson’s sympathetic view of Heraclitus is made evident in his 1960 paper ‘Classicism’:

Heraclitus, who was unremitting in his attack on subjectivist illusions, on the operation of desire or the imagining of things as we should like them to be, as opposed to the operation or understanding of the finding of things (including our own activities) as they positively are—his criticism was directed especially against the school of the Pythagoreans—against their distortion of their material from a desire for simplicity, for the tidy and complete solution.[72]

Thus, Anderson saw in Heraclitus a call to realism, positivism and complexity and a critique of normative aspirations.

However, Anderson’s understanding of the inherently conflictual nature of society was also a function of his Marxism. In particular, along with following Marx’s ‘atheism, secularism and determinism’, he also accepted ‘his view of class struggle’ and of the existence of ‘irreconcilable antagonisms in society’.[73] At the same time however, Anderson repudiated Marxism’s ‘monism, its teleological view of history and its utopianism’.[74] Indeed, despite the passion with which he adhered to Marx’s ideas about society early in his career, by the 1940s Anderson had begun to argue that society is comprised not simply of class divisions but ‘a diversity of movements such as Church, State and trade unions, which cannot be reduced to a class theory of society’.[75] In accordance with his pluralist outlook then, what underpinned Anderson’s interest in such diverse social movements was the observation, not simply that a community of interests—such as that implied by the class theory of society—did not exist, but that it was not possible.

Despite his emphasis on divergent interests and conflict however, Anderson did leave some room for cooperation in his understanding of society. In particular, he argued that institutions ultimately mitigate the effects of pluralism. As John Passmore notes, Anderson believed that the question to be asked of any social institution was not ‘What end or purpose does it serve?’ but ‘Of what conflicts is it the scene?’[76] For Anderson then, institutions were conceived as ‘forms of activity’ that represent ‘specific interests’ and are bound together through the ‘communication’ of their participants, this allowing them to find ‘common ways of working’ or common ‘forms of activity’. As such, social movements and institutions are ultimately ‘communication centres’ in Anderson’s view.[77] Despite the existence of these ‘common ways of working’ however, Anderson maintained that neither the identification of a broader community of interests nor the recognition of universal values is possible. As we will see in the following section, this argument against universalism is also replicated in the work of Hedley Bull.




[28] Grave, The History of Philosophy in Australia, p. 31.

[29] Passmore, ‘John Anderson and twentieth century philosophy’, 2001, p. x, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008, p. ix.

[30] Grave, The History of Philosophy in Australia, p. 24. The first person to hold that Challis Chair, Francis Anderson, had been Caird’s assistant in Glasgow and, although not as fervent an exponent of idealist philosophy as Caird, was an idealist nonetheless.

[31] Baker, Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson, pp. 3–4.

[32] Baker, Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson, p. 4.

[33] Grave, The History of Philosophy in Australia, p. 37.

[34] Quinton, ‘Introduction’, in Jim Baker (ed.), Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson, p. x, 1986.

[35] Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, p. xiii.

[36] John Anderson, ‘Realism’, Writings of John Anderson: Miscellaneous Philosophical Writings 1927–1958, 1958, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008.

[37] M. Weblin, ‘Introduction’ to John Anderson, Space-time and the Proposition: The 1944 Lectures on Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time and Diety, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 2005, p. 84

[38] Anderson, ‘Realism and Some of its Critics’, in Studies in Empirical Philosophy, 1930, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008, p. 4.

[39] John Anderson, ‘Empiricism’, in John Anderson: Studies in Empirical Philosophy, 1927, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008, p. 1.

[40] Quinton, ‘Introduction’, in Jim Baker (ed.) Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson, pp. xii–xiii.

[41] Anderson, ‘Realism and Some of its Critics’, in Studies in Empirical Philosophy, 1930, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008, p. 24.

[42] Baker, Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson, p. 1.

[43] Passmore, ‘John Anderson and twentieth century philosophy’, 2001, p. x, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008.

[44] Anderson, ‘Empiricism’, in John Anderson: Studies in Empirical Philosophy, 1927, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008, p. 1.

[45] Baker, Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson, p. 34.

[46] Passmore, ‘John Anderson and twentieth century philosophy’, 2001, p. xi, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008.

[47] Baker, Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson, p. 34.

[48] Anderson, ‘Realism and Some of its Critics’, in Studies in Empirical Philosophy, 1930, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008, p. 39.

[49] Baker, Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson, p. 121.

[50] Passmore, ‘John Anderson and twentieth century philosophy’, 2001, p. xix, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008.

[51] John Anderson, ‘The Nature of Ethics’, in Studies in Empirical Philosophy, 1943, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008, p. 1.

[52] John Anderson, ‘Realism vs Relativism in Ethics’, in Studies in Empirical Philosophy, 1933, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008, p. 4.

[53] As the founder of the Freethought Society at the University of Sydney, the notion of freethought was central to Anderson’s approach.

[54] John Anderson, ‘The Nature of Freethought’ (1950), Writings of John Anderson: The Bronze Age 1946–1951, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008.

[55] John Anderson, ‘Determinism and Ethics’, in Studies in Empirical Philosophy, 1928, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008, p. 2.

[56] Anderson, ‘Determinism and Ethics’, in Studies in Empirical Philosophy, 1928, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008, p. 3.

[57] Anderson, ‘Determinism and Ethics’, in Studies in Empirical Philosophy, 1928, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008, p. 29.

[58] Quinton, ‘Introduction’, in Jim Baker (ed.), Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson, pp. xvi.

[59] Baker, Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson, p. 116.

[60] John Anderson, ‘Religion in Education’ (1943), Writings of John Anderson: The Silver Age 1938–1945, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008.

[61] John Anderson, ‘Ethics and Religion’, 1955, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008.

[62] Weblin, ‘Background Notes’, to University of Sydney, Australian Studies Resources, Professor John Anderson 1893–1962, John Anderson Lecture Notes and Other Writings, <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008.

[63] John Anderson, ‘Philosophy and Religion’, Lecture I, 003/031/1954, University of Sydney Archives, 1954, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/oztexts/lectures.html>, accessed 10 September 2005, p. I.

[64] Anderson, ‘Religion in Education’ (1943), Writings of John Anderson: The Silver Age 1938–1945, available at <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008.

[65] Pam Stavropoulos, ‘Conservative Radical: the Conservatism of John Anderson’, Australian Journal of Anthropology, vol. 3, nos. 1 & 2, 1992, pp. 67–79 (73).

[66] Baker, Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson, p. 127.

[67] Baker, Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson, p. 127.

[68] Baker, Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson, p. 127.

[69] I.F. Helu, ‘Anderson, Heraclitus and Social Science’, Australian Journal of Anthropology, vol. 3, nos. 1 & 2, 1992, pp. 22–31 (24).

[70] Helu, ‘Anderson, Heraclitus and Social Science’, Australian Journal of Anthropology, pp. 22–31 (23-24).

[71] Heraclitus (DK22B80), quoted in Helu, ‘Anderson. Heraclitus and Social Science’, p. 24.

[72] Anderson, ‘Classicalism’, in Studies in Empirical Philosophy, p. 194.

[73] Brian Kennedy, ‘John Anderson and Marxism’, Australian Journal of Anthropology, vol. 3, nos. 1 & 2, 1992, pp. 55–66 (61).

[74] Kennedy, ‘John Anderson and Marxism’, Australian Journal of Anthropology, pp. 55–66 (64)

[75] Weblin, ‘Background Notes’, to University of Sydney, Australian Studies Resources, Professor John Anderson 1893–1962, John Anderson Lecture Notes and Other Writings, <http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/anderson/>, accessed 25 June 2008.

[76] John Arthur Passmore, Philosophical Reasoning, Scribner, New York, 1962, p. xxii.

[77] Helu, ‘Anderson, Heraclitus and Social Science’, Australian Journal of Anthropology, pp. 22–31 (25).