Skip navigation
The Australian National University

John Passmore lecture

John Arthur Passmore

In 1990 the Philosophy Program at RSSS decided to fund an annual lecture in honour of a former Professor and Head, John Passmore. The Inaugural Lecture was given on Friday 14 December 2000 by Quentin Skinner, Regis Professor of History at Cambridge University. Before the Lecture began Philip Pettit, Professor of Social and Political Theory in the Program, said the following about John Passmore by way of introduction:

John Arthur Passmore was born in Manly in 1914. He attended the University of Sydney, coming under the influence of the philosopher, John Anderson, and he later held a lectureship there. He was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Otago before coming to the Research School of Social Sciences in 1954.  He retired from his position as Professor of Philosophy in 1979 but has held Visiting Fellowships in the School—and has remained active in research—ever since.

Together with Perce Partridge, John was an important force in turning the Philosophy Program in the Research School—or Department, as it then was—into a world centre. He was active in recruiting outstanding figures like Stanley Benn and Robert Brown, Richard Routley and Robert Meyer and indeed the person who succeeded him as Head of Program, J.J.C. Smart. He also appointed the late John Harsanyi, whose work in social choice theory was recognised by the award of a Nobel Prize in Economics.

Apart from his powerful impact on the shaping of the Philosophy Program, John Passmore made a magnificent contribution in his own academic work, being responsible for an oeuvre of great volume and deep originality.  The shape and range of that contribution are what led the Social and Political Theory Program to want to name a lecture series in his honour.

John is primarily known for his work in the history of thought, though this—as we shall see—is only one of three areas in which he has had a deep impact on the development of his subject. Before coming to Canberra, he had already written two important monographs, one on Ralph Cudworth, the other on David Hume. The second of these works, Hume's Intentions, is still widely read and is an essential point of reference in Hume scholarship. The first Passmore lecturer, Professor Skinner, has said that the book had an important influence on his own thinking at the time when he was evolving the main elements in what has come to be know as the Cambridge contextualist school of historical methodology.

The historical work that has brought John most attention, and it must be familiar to almost anyone who has studied philosophy in the past three or four decades, is A Hundred Years of Philosophy, first published  in 1957.  This book made it possible for philosophers in the tradition of Frege and Moore and Russell—the analytical tradition, so-called—to see themselves for the first time in proper historical perspective. It forced them to look away from their individual pursuits and recognise the connections and the contrasts whereby their enterprise was defined. The book brought its author immediate recognition, both within the philosophical world and outside.

John was always a philosopher in his own right, never just—dare I say 'just'?—a historian of ideas. This is apparent in all of his historical studies, but especially in The Perfectibility of Man, published in 1970. This book—he confesses in his 1997 autobiography that it might better have been called Human Imperfectibility—was a trenchant critique of the many historical schools of thought in which ethics and politics are shaped by the belief that human beings are essentially and extensively malleable.

I said that there are two others areas in which John Passmore worked, apart from the history of thought. The second might be described as that of critical thought. And here his most important contribution is surely his 1974 study on Man's Responsibility for Nature.  This was of the first importance internationally in opening up philosophical discussion of the relation that human beings ought to have to their environment. While it was path-breaking and radical in the way it put ecological questions on the philosophical agenda, it remains one of the most balanced treatments of the topic. It is a classic in the currently burgeoning field of environmental philosophy.

His work in critical thinking led him to develop some very influential views on education; these received their canonical formulation in The Philosophy of Teaching, published in 1981.  And it can also be taken to include his contribution to the philosophy of art: the philosophy of Serious Art, as he described it in his book of 1991. The interest in critical thinking led him inevitably into debates that had a particular relevance in Australian public life. His principal contribution here were the Boyer lectures in 1981 on The Limits of Government, in which he argued for the non-romantic attitude to government that goes naturally with his views on human imperfectibility.

The third and last area of John Passmore's work that has to be mentioned even in a cursory overview of his extensive output can be described as methodology. I have already made reference to the influence he had on the methodology of the history of ideas, arguing as he did for the importance of going back to the intentions visible in David Hume's total work. But I should also add a reference to his first-rate study, published in 1961, of Philosophical Reasoning.

With the perspective available from his historical work, John was able to achieve two important goals in this book. First, to set some currently influential models—including the model of brain and mind that was described at the time as Australian materialism—in a wider context, thereby providing those models with extra, unexpected support. And second,to debunk many of the fashionable claims about the limits of meaningful discourse. He did as much as anyone to distance philosophy from the illusion, prevalent in the mid-century, that substantive philosophical problems could be dissolved in the acid of linguistic analysis.

The blurb to Hume's Intentions tells us that in reading Hume Passmore seeks 'to discover, if possible, the unity (as they were the cogitations of one person) of his contribution'. What is the unity of John Passmore's contribution, which is almost as voluminous and varied as Hume's own? I see the key in two features. First, a boldness of spirit a downright disregard of fashion—in opening up new projects; and second, a brilliance of sense in identifying the extremes to be avoided, and the middle, moderated way. He is a model for any serious scholar and a name with which we should all be proud to be associated."

Past John Passmore lectures

Elizabeth Anderson
Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan
Changing Visions of an Egalitarian Society

Sharon Street
Professor of Philosophy, New York University
Constructivism in Ethics and the Problem of Attachment and Loss

Jeff McMahan
White's Professor of Moral Philosophy, University of Oxford
Liability, Proportionality and the Number of Aggressors

David Estlund
Brown University
Beyond Second Best: Unfolding a Fallacy of Approximation

Michael Otsuka
University College London
Self and Other, Now and Later: An Extended Critique of the Priority View

Samuel Scheffler
Philosophy, New York University
The Afterlife

David Runciman
Politics, Cambridge University
Democratic Confidence and Overconfidence

Geoff Sayre-McCord
Philosophy, University of North Carolina
Sentiments and Spectators:  Adam Smith's Moral Psychology

Larry Temkin
Philosophy, Rutgers University
Illuminating Egalitarianism

Edna Ullmann-Margalit
Philosophy, Hebrew University)
Considerateness:  The Underlying Norm of Ethics & Morality

Jane Mansbridge
Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Kicking the Bastards Out?

Sheila Jasanoff
Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Categorical Imperatives:  Biotechnology and the Democratic Politics of Novelty

Anne Phillips
Government and Gender Institute, LSE
Multiculturalism, Autonomy & Gender

Jeremy Waldron
Law, Columbia University
The Primacy of Justice

James Buchanan
Economics, George Mason University; winner of 1986 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences
Classical Liberalism and the Perfectability of Man

Alan Gibbard
Philosophy, University of Michigan
Knowing What to Do:  Can There be a Knowledge of Oughts?

Quentin Skinner
History, Cambridge University
Why Does Laughter Matter to Philosophy?


Updated: 24 November 2017/ Responsible Officer:  Head of School / Page Contact:  Web Publisher