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Book review: an entertaining read but too narrow for an Australian history

By Tony Coady - posted Wednesday, 25 February 2004

At a party just before Christmas, I was introduced to someone who exclaimed loudly: "Tony Coady! You taught me philosophy. You ruined my life!"

Fortunately, this proved mostly comic hyperbole. Yet it says something about philosophy as a subject since its teachers can expect to influence people's lives beyond what is likely in the study of most subjects. Jim Franklin's title for his very lively account of Australian philosophy, Corrupting the Youth, rather darkly echoes that expectation and harks back to the Athenian allegation against Socrates at his trial.

Franklin's long book is no restrained academic adjudication, despite its numerous footnotes. He is excited by the idea that philosophy can have profound effects upon the young and upon society, and this sense of excitement gives the book a good deal of its racy charm. He has read widely and in depth, he writes well, and has an eye for the colourful phrase. His concentration upon the points where academic philosophy and public affairs connect dramatically, even sensationally, is both a strength and a weakness of his story. A strength because there really are such connections (such as the infamous Orr case) and they enliven his narrative; a weakness, because he tends to stretch the connections and even proclaim ones that dubiously exist.


Franklin's account is also highly polemical, descending sometimes to the merely abusive, and very Sydney-centric - as he engagingly admits by asserting: "undoubtedly the present book is Sydney-centric. If anyone can write a book on Why Melbourne Philosophy is Interesting After All, I am all for it." His opinion of the dullness of philosophy in other regions is not explicitly offered, but may be inferred.

The structure of the book is geared to the excitement scenario. It begins with the arrival of the remarkable Scot, John Anderson as Challis Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney in 1927 and plunges into the controversies that Anderson became embroiled in, before moving on to wider themes, many of them still dominated by Sydney fixations.

Some concentration upon Anderson and his influence is understandable. Anderson was an original philosopher with a systematic philosophy of empiricist realism that had the intoxicating capacity to give students a key to the universe and a critical apparatus for demolishing received certainties. The fact that the key was virtually incomprehensible to any but the initiated, merely increased the level of intoxication. Anderson's early radicalism (he began as a communist sympathiser and ended as a Cold Warrior), his critique of religion and advocacy of free love, gave him a certain public notoriety and saw him censured in the NSW parliament in 1943 for attacking religious education.

Anderson was prone to disciples and despite his declared view that everything was open to criticism, was himself immune to it and discouraged deviation from Andersonian orthodoxy. He had virtually no direct international impact but exerted widespread influence upon generations of Sydney students.

The book explores much interesting cultural history, some of which has, at best, only a strained relation to the history of Australian philosophy. This relation is at its most implausible in his writing on the Sydney "Push".

The "push" was a group of bohemians, writers and artists who fed off the ideas of the university's Libertarian Society. This had adapted Anderson's philosophy (or distorted it, as he thought) to promote a lifestyle centred on sex, drink, drugs and gambling. The push provided some stimulation during the aridities of the Menzies years to young intellectuals like Germaine Greer and Richard Neville. On this basis, Franklin makes ambitious claims about the push's wider philosophical influence. The most extraordinary is his taking seriously the idea that this "fraternity of middle-class desperates, journalists, drop-out academics, gamblers and poets manques, and their doxies" (as Melbourne's Barry Humphries called it) had some major part in bringing about "the Sixties". Their attitudes certainly matched some that became widespread in the counter-cultural Sixties, but the idea that their hand-me-down Andersonianism had some causal role in that world-wide phenomenon is beyond the far-fetched.


Franklin devotes a lot of space to "Catholic philosophy", including the opaque neo-Thomism embodied in Sydney's Aquinas Academy. He suggests that there was some prejudice in the under-representation of Thomist thought in universities. But the Church's declaring Thomism its "official" philosophy tended to produce intellectual rigidity in local manifestations of Thomism, and also made it certain that serious concern for the diverse heritage of scholastic philosophy would have difficulty being taken seriously in university philosophy departments. In addition, the Thomists he highlights mostly chose academic isolation as a vantage point from which they could launch ignorant denunciations. One Thomist who didn't was Melbourne University's Vernon Rice but his efforts merit only an off-hand footnote - he was in "optimistic, pompous Melbourne" after all. And it was here that the serious teaching of medieval philosophy was introduced by Max Charlesworth, a fact that receives only passing mention.

Also unconvincing is Franklin's idea that "Catholic philosophy" via natural law theory had a big influence on the Mabo decision, since resort to morality to justify legal decisions has other foundations than natural law, as is clear in the work of the Oxford philosopher Ronald Dworkin and in much of the human rights movement.

Franklin's chapter on idealism and empire contains some good discussion of the technical philosophy of idealism and its faults, but his efforts to uncover for this philosophy some profound role in imperial ideology requires an interpretation of idealism that moves it far from its philosophical base. Just because many imperialists and philosophical idealists shared an optimistic belief in progress, we cannot conclude that the imperial ideology was idealist at core. Indeed, James and John Stuart Mill were enthusiastic about the British Empire, yet no one (except possibly John Anderson) could really treat them as idealists.

Like many philosophers, Franklin is rather addicted to "-isms" and exclusive oppositions between them. As the combative, right-wing Sydney philosopher David Stove is the primary personal hero of the story, so the philosophy of realism is the principal theoretical good guy. Against its yardstick, Franco-feminism, post-structuralism, and various other "idealisms" flourishing in the humanities, are found wanting. Often, Franklin has legitimate targets in view and succeeds in wittily demolishing them. It is hilarious to read some of the simple-minded philosophical verdicts that various inhabitants of "the new humanities" (including one current Vice-Chancellor) so confidently utter. But genuine philosophical debates between realists and their critics are a lot deeper, subtler and more interesting than Franklin's polemical stance would suggest, just as the landscape of philosophical options is more varied and differently contoured than his picture indicates.

A great weakness in the book is its almost complete neglect of social and political philosophy for which Franklin apologises in a bibliographical section notable for its chaotic organisation. This neglect is particularly surprising given the book's strong emphasis upon social and political issues. But in spite of these defects, Franklin's book is immensely readable and wears its considerable erudition lightly.

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This article was first published in The Age on 18 February 2004.

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About the Author

Professor Tony Coady is Professorial Fellow in Applied Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. He has published extensively on definitional and ethical issues to do with terrorism. His book, Morality and Political Violence will be published by Cambridge University Press later this year.

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