D.C. Stove, “The Force of Intellect,” Quadrant, July 1977, pp. 45-46.
To bring some one vividly before the minds of others who never knew him, is next to impossible to do in words. I am no Boswell, and will not even attempt it. But a film of Anderson walking and talking, even if it were only a half-hour one, would have done far more to bring the man to life than anyone’s words can now do, especially for those who did not know him. I have wished over and over again that such a film had been made, but it was not.
The portrait by Dobell is positively misleading. You might learn from it that there was a certain sweetness in Anderson’s nature, as (intellectual matters apart) there was; and also that he could be very funny, as he could. But it also makes him look tolerant, even benign, and therefore misses the most salient features of Anderson’s mind. A portrait of John Knox, or of some other ruthless prophet of the Scottish Reformation, would give people a better idea of the temper of mind that we are talking about.
Respect for one’s opponents has always been more of an English than a Scottish virtue. Nor was it a virtue to which Anderson’s situation in Australia was conducive; quite the reverse. But whatever were the reasons for the fact, the fact was that Anderson’s powers of dismissal were simply boundless. Russell, or Wittgenstein, or almost any other contemporary philosopher, were simply — in Anderson’s favourite word of dismissal — “confused”. Einstein scored just one two-line reference in print from Anderson: it said that his theory was “utterly illogical”. And these epithets were all, or almost all, that we disciples needed to know about these people.
Over most of Western philosophy an undogmatic atmosphere has been diffused in this century; largely owing to the influence of another Scot and the greatest of all modern philosophers, David Hume. This atmosphere Anderson had somehow escaped. What Freud called “modern nervousness” had, at least in matters of the intellect, simply passed him by. He knew, he thought; and he had amazing success bringing those close to him into the same opinion. Almost any other philosopher has friends who disagree with him in philosophy, and still more friends who do not know or care what his philosophy is. Not so Anderson: his only friends were Andersonians. At least, I cannot recall any exception to this: and for some years I was in a good position to know of an exception to it, if there had been any.
The influence Anderson exercised was purely, or as purely as a human influence can be felt, intellectual. I never felt anything like the force of his intellect. Disagreeing with Anderson was (to compare it with something most people have experienced), like playing chess with someone altogether above your own class. Your strongest pieces are, you cannot tell how, drained of all their powers, while on his side even a pawn can do unheard-of things; and as though by invisible giant fingers, you are quickly crushed. The comparison is very inadequate, but I and many others found it something like that.
I still consider Anderson easily the most intelligent person I have known, but the impression I have just spoken of, of the impossibility of sustaining dissent from him, wore off after some years in my case, and in most other people’s cases. Not in all cases. Some of the philosophers closest to Anderson never did get out of the stage of disciple-ship to him, and consequently, though possessing marked abilities, did little or nothing in philosophy themselves.
Anderson appeared, like an atomic explosion, to create around himself a desert in which nothing could grow, except his own opinions. This looked bad, and was.
Anderson’s influence was bad in some other ways too, I now think. The accusations against him of “corrupting the youth” were an unfailing cause for derision from him and from us when we were the youth concerned. I now think that these accusations were true in some cases. To give an example: as undergraduates and even later, some of my circle, who would not have done so but for the influence of Anderson’s philosophy of morals, took up shoplifting, or the obtaining of money on false pretences. This was not very terrible; but it was not very trivial either. Anderson knew nothing of these goings-on, and I think he would have been horrified if he had known. Nor do I suppose that he would have admitted for one moment that he was in any degree responsible for them. But as to that, the people I am speaking of were in a far better position to judge than he was.
It may be advisable, in order to prevent misunderstanding, for me to say that I believe that any philosophy of morals whatever is more or less likely to have some bad effects on the behaviour of those who accept it; especially if they are young. As Samuel Butler said in his Notebooks, the foundations of morality are like any other foundations: if you dig around them, you are likely to bring the building down. But it is perfectly obvious that Anderson’s philosophy of morals was far more likely than most others to have bad effects on the conduct of those who accepted it. If you convince the intelligent young that the very notions of “wrong” and “right” are “confused” and “illogical” — well, what would you expect?
Equally unintentionally, though in this case with far more excuses for not foreseeing the consequences of his own actions, Anderson also contributed something important to the process of “South-Americanisation” which has been going on in Sydney University for the last ten years: I mean, the process of destroying the university’s intellectual functions, and converting it into a Marxist theological seminary, sanctuary, and arsenal. Anderson terrified the Senate of the university, and the government of this State, into a role of total passivity in relation to university affairs. And it may well be doubted whether, if he had not done so, what is called the Department of General Philosophy, for example, would now exist.
Again, his “criticism of the categories” of the seditious and the obscene, which I greedily embraced as an undergraduate in the late ‘forties, strikes me very differently now. For, a very few years after Anderson’s death, we suddenly got, and in dead earnest, a great deal more sedition and obscenity than he or any of us had bargained for, or had ever imagined possible. And though this phenomenon was common to the entire free world, Anderson’s criticism must surely have had at least some small part in securing for this country its share of the blessings of sedition and obscenity. The results have been, to say the least, not such as he would have liked.
What of Anderson’s influence in philosophy? This can be answered shortly: his influence was never great, and is now almost non-existent. The knowing eye can detect some traces of Anderson’s philosophy in the writings of Professor Passmore of Canberra and J.L. Mackie of Oxford, both former students of his; but that is about as far as it goes, and even there it is between the lines. The pure milk of the doctrine is as dead as a doornail; and it is not even one significant factor among others in the mixture of contemporary philosophy, even in Australia. This is how things stand in fact. And if it were said that this neglect of Anderson’s philosophy is undeserved, I could not, for my own part, agree even with that.
If Anderson’s influence on individuals, on this university, and on this country, was in some respects for worse, while the influence of his philosophy is deservedly slight, why then do I willingly join in honouring him? In general terms the answer is, of course, that I think that these considerations are outweighed by opposite ones.
Hazlitt, in “My First Acquaintance with Poets”, was also describing his first acquaintance with philosophers, and he says: “… that my understanding did not remain dumb and brutish, … I owe to Coleridge.” I owe a debt like that to Anderson. And so do many others. He was in love with philosophy himself, and he communicated the love of it so effectively that many still have it while they live. This is the greatest service he did.
Yet for every person whom he made a philosopher he left ten people, I should say, with a respect for philosophy, and a recollection of what it is like to wrestle in earnest with desperately difficult intellectual questions. This may not sound much, but I think it is much. Whoever can remember what serious thinking is like, is to some extent armed against all the enemies of education. He is armed against the acknowledged leaders of the war against education, the educationists. He is armed against educational levellers of every kind. And he is armed against systems, such as Marxism, which pretend to answer every question out of a little holy catechism, and which just for that reason often act like a revelation on unfurnished minds.
In this way, Anderson leavened the lump of middle-class life in Australia; for, because of him, there is a teacher or a doctor here, a librarian or lawyer there, who can remember what serious thinking is like. This is the second and lesser, but more widely-diffused, service that Anderson did.
He should be living at this hour, to disembowel to idols of this age. When educationists are busy trying to stamp out the word “subject”, and when the word “standards” is soon to be outlawed by the NSW government’s Anti-Discrimination Bill, it would be splendid to hear him maintain, as he would, that it is the subject, and standards in the subject, that alone matter, not the student. The word “elitist” he would of course take to himself as a badge of honour; as in educational matters it is. He was sudden death on pretentious feeblemindedness, so “the women’s movement” would have been made to order for him; and it would be worth going miles to hear him talk on Professor Manning Clark, if you don’t mind blood sports.
He was especially good on what he called “salvationism”; the belief that there is some way out for human beings, some key, such as the Revolution, or sex, or Jesus, which will, if only we can light on it, usher in a new heaven and a new earth. He used to point out that, on the one hand, salvationists belittle all the concrete achievements of the past and present, by relegating them all to the merely preparatory phase of human history — to its “fallen” phase, if they are Christians, to its “class” phase if they are Marxists. And on the other hand, salvationism promises a way out: but there is no way out. The Marxist or Christian promises of felicity, where they are not simply unintelligible, or logically inconsistent, are not only groundless, but directly against all the evidence. Human life, I remember him saying, is and always would be “something of an ordeal” even at its best. Both of these lines of criticism seem to me to be just. They are also, I think, even more important now than when Anderson was making them; because salvationism is even stronger and more widespread now than it was then.