Explaining the “Outsized Influence” of Australian Philosophers


Local intellectual traditions, the guidance of key people, a strong institutional infrastructure, a straightforward style of writing, and the fruitfulness of a of philosophical outlook, all under the protection of geographical distance and the technological limitations of the time, are part of the complicated story of how Australian philosophers came to have an “outsized influence” in philosophy in the middle and late 20th century, according to Peter Godfrey-Smith (University of Sydney).

In an article at Aeon, Godfrey-Smith tells the stories of a number of influential Australian philosophers. The story begins with John Anderson, “a realist, materialist, and atheist” who came to the University of Sydney in 1927, “had no influence whatsoever outside Australia,” but nonetheless “exercised enormous local influence until his retirement in 1958.” It continues to discuss J.J.C. Smart and the beginnings of Australian materialism, David Armstrong and his influence in metaphysics, and Peter Singer and his influential work spreading utilitarian ideas.

Godfrey-Smith writes, “If you look at these three, who have a special place with respect to sheer influence, there are some similarities in doctrine—at least two materialists and realists, two utilitarians, three atheists,” though he notes that once we consider more figures, this pattern diminishes. He also notes that the three philosophers “have an unusually simple but forceful style” which he explains is “hard to achieve once you are in professional philosophy.”

Godfrey-Smith discusses a number of other philosophers and elements that contributed to the Australian influence, ending with some reflections on the end of Australia’s relative isolation. At the beginning of the 20th Century, “mail was slow, and international phone calls extravagantly expensive. Travel was by ship and the UK-to-Sydney route took around a month.” But now, technology has led to an “attenuation of national and regional variation in philosophy.” He writes:

It would be interesting to do a fine-grained historical analysis, looking at the effects of different technologies on philosophy and other humanistic disciplines—the transitions wrought first by inexpensive photocopies and air travel, then email, and then the internet in full information-deluge form. The local intellectual traditions I have emphasised in my story can’t really exist if information flows completely freely. There is a need for some locality of influence.

Read the whole thing here.

Sam Fullbrook, “Sundown Near Warrawagine”

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