John Anderson--Philosopher and Controversialist Extraordinaire

'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 …’, in this case the Scottish-born Australian philosopher and controversialist John Anderson, who was Challis Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney from 1927 to 1958 (and thereafter Emeritus Professor of Philosophy until his death in Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital in 1962). Anderson, regarded by many as the ‘patron saint’ of the Sydney Push, founded the school or branch of empirical philosophy known as ‘Sydney realism’ (and also known as ‘Andersonian realism’ as well as 'situational realism'). It is a school of philosophy that has had a huge impact on my own life and thinking.

John Anderson was an intellectual giant of a man the likes of which we may never see again. On July 3, 2012 I was very pleased to be able to attend a symposium held in Sydney in Anderson’s honour and memory. Speakers at the mini-conference---convened by the ‘Sydney Realists’ group---included the esteemed philosopher Emeritus Professor David Armstrong (who, in my view, was Australia's greatest philosopher), the talented and dedicated Dr Mark Weblin (former John Anderson Research Fellow at the University of Sydney), and the equally gifted and scholarly 'Andersonian' psychologist Dr Terry McMullen. Since then I have presented a couple of papers of my own on Andersonianism at the Sydney Realists group.

Sadly, I never met Professor John Anderson. I knew his son Alexander (Sandy), but only slightly. Sandy was also a philosopher---Andersonian, of course. He and his late father lived in my street in Turramurra on Sydney’s North Shore. Anyway, for most of my ‘thinking’ life I have been an Andersonian. Although in recent times I have moved away from a number of different aspects of his systematic philosophy I still adhere to the central thrust of that philosophy, and when I teach law and other disciplines at tertiary institutions I use Anderson’s ideas on the nature of reality---and the importance of critical thinking---to explain to students the nature of ‘facts’ ... for, as Anderson taught, nothing, absolutely nothing, is superior to facts!

The central thrust of Professor Anderson’s otherwise complex realist philosophy is quite simple ... there is only one way of being, and one order or level of reality, that of occurrence ... that is, ordinary things occurring in space and time (or ‘spacetime’, as some would say today) ... that is, facts. Having said that, Anderson nevertheless saw all things as being 'irreducibly complex,' that is, he asserted that there is no a priori limit to the number of true things that one might---and can---say about any given state of affairs, and the relationships between that state of affairs and any one or more other states 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 pointed out, ‘contrary to the very nature and possibility of discourse.’ Such thinking (if that be the right word for it) was, according to Anderson, ‘unspeakable’---indeed, meaningless. Anderson referred to this as the ‘problem of commensurability.’ If, for example, there were different orders or levels of reality, how could there ever be ‘connections’ between them, or any way---let alone a single or uniform way---of speaking about them?

You see, according to Anderson things themselves are ‘propositional,’ that is, it is only in propositions that we know---indeed can know---things at all. Things are not prior to propositions. The proposition---so central to traditional Aristotelian logic---is the way in which things actually occur. All objects of experience---indeed, all things---take the propositional 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 the significance of that truth all notions of and belief in the possibility of ‘supernaturalism’ as well as traditional theism totally vanished for me. A damn good thing, too. My whole life changed 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 in the ordinary. Reality just is. (And, as Krishnamurti used to say, ‘In the acknowledgement of 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, and that 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 person who sees, has or knows. Secondly, there is the thing seen, had or known. Thirdly, and most importantly, there is the act of seeing, having or knowing. Anderson taught that none of these three things---each of which is a fact---is constituted by its relations to any of the others nor dependent on any of the others. So, things do in fact exist independently of their being perceived, held or known—at least that was the view of Anderson and his followers. (I’m not so sure about that today.) One more thing---according to Anderson all relations (even so-called ‘internal’ ones) are external to the objects or parts whose relations they are. That’s quite hard to understand.

Irrespective of whether the threefold distinction is philosophically valid, it nevertheless has many practical applications. Here’s one. I teach administrative law which is a body of legal rules and principles governing the lawful and ethical making of administrative decisions. I explain to students that any decision-making process involves three entities: first, there is the person who makes the decision (that is, the administrator or decision-maker); secondly, there is the decision made; and thirdly, there is the act and process of deciding the matter (that is, the making of the decision). Some of the legal rules and principles apply to and regulate the decision-maker (eg he or she must not be biased), others apply to and regulate the decision itself (eg the decision must be supported by logically probative material), and finally, other rules apply to and regulate the act or process of making the decision (eg the decision-maker must act fairly and not take into account extraneous considerations when considering and deciding the particular matter). Some rules and principles apply to two or more of those three entities (eg the bias rule).

Anderson had much to say about ‘facts.’ So, what is a fact? A fact is an occurrence in space 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 methods for 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. (I wish I could get that point across to others---including many logicians and philosophers who generally regard Anderson's view of logic as being somewhat quaint and even eccentric.)

Thus, logical thinking means relating (that is, putting together or distinguishing) different pieces of information about facts or alleged facts. In that sense, logic is a description of reality. Logic helps us to find facts and see the connections between one set of facts and another. It teaches us that, in order for there to be any theory, a fact can be explained only as following logically from other facts occurring on the same level of observability. Hence, Anderson denied that any proposition is ‘transparently’ (or ‘necessarily’) true. That means that a statement that something is the case can be justified 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 no degrees, kinds or levels of truth. Every question---other than reality itself (which is neither true nor false, but just is)---is an issue of truth or falsity, although I must point out that Anderson rejected, among other things, any so-called 'totalistic' view of truth (which would see truth in the fullest sense of the word as being nothing less than the truth of the Whole, that is, 'the Whole Truth').

Now, listen to this. Even opinions and ideas can be said to be true or false when attention is directed, not to the opinion or idea itself, but to the thing that the opinion or idea or value is of. The test of a true opinion or idea is to see whether or not something is the case. No, it is simply not the case that one person or culture’s ideas are as good as those of any other. It may be politically correct to say or believe that, but it is not the case.

Here’s something else that I came to understand from a study of Anderson’s systematic philosophy. There is no such thing as the ‘universe.’ That’s right! The ‘universe’ is simply a word referring to the sum 'total' of all there is, with the totality of all things being what is known as a 'closed system.' Each 'thing' is a cause of at least one other 'thing' as well as being the effect of some other 'thing,' so everything is explainable by reference to everything else. End of story. Hence, all theological talk of the supposed need for some 'first cause' is ... well, nonsense and humbug! As Professor Anderson pointed out, 'there can be no contrivance of a "universe" or totality of things, because the contriver would have to be included in the totality of things.' In any event, the entire notion of a supposed 'Being'---the 'contriver'---whose essential attributes (eg omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience) are non-empirical is unintelligible. Further, why would a supposedly supernatural 'contriver' bother to 'create' a natural universe---assuming for the moment it was created? (I have no problems whatsoever with the idea that the so-called universe was either self-created or uncreated.) In any event, empirical observation can find nothing ‘metaphysical’, ‘occult’ or ‘beyond experience’.

Further, both science and philosophy afford us no evidence or support for the idea that there are any entities beyond space and time which yet work out their supposed purposes within space and time. Both science and logic compel us to refuse to affirm that which is unobservable. Indeed, we are compelled to reject the unobservable (divine or otherwise) as the cause or explanation of the observable. Anderson relied solely on the observable. It should thus come as no surprise to hear that John Anderson was a militant atheist who was totally opposed to the teaching of religion in schools---except as mythology. (For Anderson, even the ethical teachings of Jesus were, for the most part, ‘trite,’ ‘trivial’ and ‘superficial.’ In short, he rejected all forms of moralism and meliorism.)

Anderson made it unambiguously clear that the task of the philosopher---indeed, the task of any true academic---is to inquire … freely. Established facts, not dogma, is the field of inquiry. Academicism is forfeited if one takes anything to be superior to facts (eg beliefs, dogmas). Nothing---absolutely nothing---can be accepted on faith or on the basis of supposed ‘revelation,’ whatever that is. Everything must forever be open to challenge and disproof.

Anderson wrote of the 'facts of complexity and interaction,' and the 'influence of the other things with which [things] come in contact.' Buddhists see that as evidence of the interconnectedness of all things---Thich Nhat Hanh calls it 'Interbeing'---and they assert a doctrine of 'dependent origination' (or 'dependent arising'). Anderson would reject such monism, but at least the Buddhist teaching makes more sense than certain alternative (especially Christian) worldviews. I think so, anyway.

Anderson also wrote that there is no such thing as ‘consciousness.’ That’s right! There is no ‘consciousness’ whose nature it is to know, just as there are no ‘ideas’ whose nature it is to be known---and also no so-called ‘ultimates.’ I repeat---nothing, absolutely nothing, is constituted by, nor can it be defined or explained by reference to, the relations it has to other things. One can be ‘conscious’ (or aware) of something, and one may speak of the ‘act of being conscious’ (or aware) of something, but there is no such thing as ‘consciousness’ per se. Yes, ‘relativism’ must be eliminated if one is to acknowledge the all-important distinction between qualities and relations. (Interestingly, Anderson himself doesn’t entirely avoid the pitfall of relativism. For example, he speaks of 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 to define or explain something by reference to its object (despite his repeated injunction to eschew such relativist practices).

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 sky does 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 is nothing 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 any proposition is taken to its logical conclusion, a question of fact---truth or falsity---is always reached. One always can get back to the objective distinction between something being the case and not being the case. So, if I say, quite subjectively, 'The sky is for me blue', you may think quite differently. However, once I ask, 'Is the sky blue for you?', an objective issue is immediately raised. The question is whether it is true that the sky is blue for you, not whether it is true for you that the sky is blue for you. Forget it. I'm sorry I started on that one!

Anderson was an empiricist, not a rationalist. The great pitfall with rationalism is that it starts with the mind, whereas empiricism starts with our direct, immediate and non-representational experience with facts. Yes, we are in direct, unmediated contact with facts---not ‘sense data’ (the latter being the supposed ‘content’ of our experience). As Anderson saw it, rationalism was just another form of idealism---something to be shunned. Anderson was a realist---that is, one who holds with George Berkeley's Hylas that 'to exist is one thing, to be perceived another.'

Anderson was an intellectual. He stood for a non-utilitarian, traditional, classical, liberal arts (i.e. 'Scottish') education—as well as for academic freedom (which, sadly, is gone today). If Anderson were alive today, he would be totally appalled at today’s educational system. One of the greatest books ever written is Charles Sykes’ book, Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can’t Read, Write or Add. If you haven't read that book, please do so. As a university lecturer based in Sydney, Australia, I taught law---which is all about the power of the written and spoken word---at a major university in Sydney for almost 20 years, and I was simply appalled at how few of my law students over the years could write a simple, decent English sentence.

The problem got worse as the years progressed. It wasn't really the fault of the students. It was the fault of a number of silly people in high places in government and educational bureaucracy over the previous 2 or 3 decades who preached that literacy of the supposed 'old-fashioned kind' was unimportant. What was supposedly important was ensuring that every 'precious' (and supposedly equally ‘gifted’) student---whose opinion was said to be as good as that of any other student---had a 'healthy ego' and was not 'stigmatized' or ‘shamed’ in any way. For far too long, the educational philosophy in our schools has been, ‘Let the students express themselves in any way they wish’---that sort of nonsense. So, the task of the teacher or lecturer was to 'jolly them [the students] along.' The result? Wholesale mediocrity, normopathic conformity (yes!) and narcissism of an almost clinical kind. Anderson would turn in his grave … if he hadn’t been cremated.

The freethinking John Anderson was a bit eccentric and idiosyncratic, but I am of the view that all truly clever people are eccentric and idiosyncratic. However, in today’s world---especially in academia---eccentricity and idiosyncrasy are increasingly labelled an ‘unacceptable pattern of behaviour,’ and are seen at best as signs of a personality disorder, to be punished in various ways. There is no place for John Andersons in today’s not-so-hallowed halls of learning. The cranky, caustic commentator---the gadfly who 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 many aspects of Anderson’s determinist, empiricist philosophical position (for example, his view of ‘mind as feeling,’ which fails to account for ‘feelings’ themselves, and his somewhat implausible objectivist view of ethics), but that’s for another day. Also, it seems to me that the often irascible and anti-clerical Anderson must have been just as much 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 already said, an intellectual giant of a man.

Things are propositional; propositions are identical to the states of affairs described (subject, perhaps, to what are known as 'false propositions'). A single logic applies to all things. There is only one way of being, and one order or level of reality---a spacetime world full of interacting material things ('facts'). Nothing is superior to facts. There are only facts. There is no such thing as the ‘universe.’ We must always reject the unobservable as the cause or explanation of the observable. There is no God of the traditional 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 that one 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 than ever before.

Note. The substance of this article first appeared on the author’s own blog on July 6, 2012.