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What do the Sydney Push, John Passmore and countless Sydney University alumni have in common? Apart from a love of books and ideas, they were all influenced by the outspoken and controversial Australian philosopher John Anderson (1893-1962). SUP is delighted to complete its series of Anderson’s lectures with the release of Art & Reality, the seventh and final volume collecting his unique approach to philosophy.

john anderson 1926 National archive.jpgJohn Anderson at the University of Sydney, c. 1926. National Library of Australia.

Anderson was Challis Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney for over 30 years (1927–58). He was the founder of the ‘Australian realism’ school of philosophy, and pursued his assault on idealism throughout his career. He was not afraid of controversy and supported freedom of thought throughout his life. He was outspoken against the glorification of war at a time when Australia was still reeling from battle; he was in favour of sexual freedom when the mere mention of it was taboo. And he was responsible for introducing students to James Joyce when Joyce’s works were banned and unavailable in Australia: in the 1930s, Anderson’s copy of Ulysses was known to circulate among students under the guise of The Book of Common Prayer.

An influential and original thinker, Anderson remains to this day one of Australia’s most intriguing philosophers. ‘To many, he is the most influential and controversial philosopher ever to have worked in Australia,’ writes Creagh Cole. Clive James (who devotes a whole section of his website to Anderson) recalls that in the 1950s,

‘Everyone you met was either an Andersonian or a non-Andersonian … His name was all over Australia's intellectual world. For good or ill, he was the national philosopher … My own Presbyterian minister, when he saw that I was going to the Devil, blamed the influence of “that man Anderson.”'

In Anderson’s view, true appreciation of what is ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘beautiful’ requires a philosophical understanding of aesthetic principles. In Art & Reality, Anderson applies his realist approach to the study of aesthetics, with a particular focus on literature. He pushes the boundaries of how we view, read and understand art, arguing that this is not simply a matter of ‘personal taste’. In examining specific works, he is unrelenting in his critique of some of the world’s best-known authors, including James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Herman Melville, Rudyard Kipling and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Many do not escape lightly; he is deeply scathing of Shaw, suggests that H.G. Wells was occasionally ‘slap-dash’, and is not above pointing out weaknesses in the works of those he admired, including Joyce and Dostoevsky.

His strict approach to aesthetic principles may surprise contemporary readers, as will his analysis of detective stories, of which he seems rather fond. In the words of a philosopher he admired, with Anderson you can ‘expect the unexpected’ (Heraclitus). Many of his writings were unpublished during his lifetime; they were compiled from his and his students' lecture notes and published posthumously by his wife, Janet Anderson.

Art & Reality collects Anderson's essays, lectures and notes on literature and aesthetics.

For more information about Anderson:

* Browse his books in the SUP store

* Visit the University of Sydney’s online John Anderson Archive

* Track down his biography, A Passion to Oppose, by historian Brian Kennedy (Melbourne University Press, 1995).


* Visit him in the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library! His impressive portrait by legendary Australian artist William Dobell hangs on level 4. (You can read John Passmore's reflections on the meeting of Anderson and Dobell, their lives 'about as different as any two lives could be', over here.)

We'll give the last word to Anderson himself, on ...


'Censorship … appears as a political expedient whereby a governing class secures the elimination from the circuses provided for the lower order of anything which would make them reflect on their condition.'

'Joyce demonstrates that the protected, bourgeois life itself is hell … and that salvation in any non-phantastic sense, emancipation of the human spirit from bourgeois values, lies in uncensored art.'

The timeless appeal of the detective story:

'By and large, the human race must have spent a great deal of its time thinking about murder.'

Nationalism and literature:

'There is no more an Australian literature than an Australian philosophy or mathematics. There is a world literature to which Australians contribute. We should not take up the attitude that we must praise even the best of Australian writer more than foreign writers simply because they are Australian.'

And the relationship of the artist to state and society:

'An artist is not a person who can be put into a uniform ... The greatest poetry is always heretical.'

By Sylvia Balog, SUP intern

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