Philosophy, University of Otago  

Philosophical History: The Otago Department

Philosophy at Otago has had a long and distinguished history.

Research Performance and the PBRF

In 2003 the research performance of New Zealand's Tertiary Education Institutions was assessed for the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF), the New Zealand equivalent of the British RAE. According to the resulting report, Philosophy the highest scoring research discipline in New Zealand, and the highest scoring department was the Department of Philosophy at the University of Otago. Thus the Otago Department of Philosophy was not only the top-ranking department of philosophy and the top-ranking department at Otago, but the highest-scoring research department of any kind in the country. In 2007 we improved upon this result raising our collective score from 6.6 to 7.5 making us for the second time the top-scoring department at Otago, the top-scoring philosophy department and the top-scoring research department of any kind in New Zealand.


Presbyterians and Professors

Philosophy has been taught at Otago since its foundation in 1871, when the chair of Mental and Moral Philosophy (one of the four foundation professorships) went to an outspoken, 27-year-old Scot, named Duncan McGregor, a graduate of the University of Aberdeen. Tall, imposing and athletic, with a particular penchant for tramping and Caledonian sports, he was an electrifying lecturer with a well-developed ‘will to truth’ and pungent opinions on a variety of topics. He despised womanly submissiveness and the ‘tawdry accomplishments’ of a traditional ladylike education, which fitted girls for nothing better than to be the ‘ivy drapery’ of some man. When it came to social policy, he thought that the 'hopelessly lazy, the diseased, and [the] vicious' should be incarcerated for life as a humane alternative to the process to Darwinian selection which would otherwise have weeded them out. McGregor resigned in 1886, in the wake of a dispute with the Presbyterian Church, brought on by his ‘materialist’ and Darwinian proclivities, and, fortified by his fifteen years as a philosopher, went on to become the Inspector–General of Lunatic Asylums. Hoping, perhaps, for a more orthodox successor, the Presbyterians backed another Scot for the Mental and Moral Philosophy chair, the then Professor of Theology, a former minister, named William Salmond. In appearance, at least, he was the reverse of his predecessor, being small and sickly-looking (though, since he held the chair until well into his seventies, he cannot have been as sickly as all that). But the best laid plans of mice and Presbyterians gang aft agley. The supposedly orthodox Salmond soon published a vigorous polemic, The Reign of Grace, criticising the ‘intellectual terrorism’ of classical Calvinism whose inhumane and arbitrary deity kept people in existence 'for no reason but to inflict tortures on them through endless ages’. Salmond was tried as a heretic but survived as professor, though his research output was thereafter somewhat diminished.

Salmond was succeeded in 1913 by the 39 year-old Francis Dunlop. Dunlop had been born in Scotland but his family had migrated to Dunedin when he was 12, making him the first, and so far the only, professor of philosophy to earn an Otago degree. His appointment must have pleased the Presbyterians since he was not only a minister himself but the son of John Dunlop, formerly Professor of Theology and Moderator of the Presbyterian church in New Zealand.  

Francis Dunlop, who walked with a limp because of a childhood injury, had studied for a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Jena in Germany where the winters were sometimes so cold that icicles used to form on his Edwardian moustache when he walked to work in the mornings. His teacher was not Frege, but the then very famous Rudolf Eucken, an enormous influence on Australasian philosophy, and the proponent of a form of idealism known as Lebensphilosophie. According to Eucken, there is 'a supreme, all-enveloping action, the action of a spiritual life that is at once the life of a person and the life of the world.' Eucken admitted that this 'cannot be proved in the ordinary sense' but the necessity for postulating it is 'more cogent and more vital than any mere logical ground could ever be.' 

Dunlop enjoyed his time in Germany and developed a life-long passion for German culture, which led him to protest against the idiotic practice of patriotically smashing German pianos during the Great War. As a clergyman he had been somewhat embarrassed by the unpunctuality of his wife, who found it very difficult to get to the church on time, a problem which was somewhat alleviated once he became a professor since she was not obliged to attend his classes. Dunlop had had a passion for books since his childhood injury and eventually amassed a collection weighing five tons. But in later life his pride and joy was his steam-driven motor-car, the only one in New Zealand, which he insisted on taking on excursions to the acute embarrassment of his children. In 1931 he suffered a heart-attack and was forced to take a year's leave of absence, only to die of another heart-attack whilst he was trying to recuperate in Tauranga in the North Island.

^ Top of page

J.N. Findlay: Prior’s Teacher, Popper’s Friend and Wittgenstein’s ‘Stooge’

Dunlop was succeeded as Professor of Philosophy and Psychology by the 29-year-old J.N. Findlay, the first professor of philosophy at Otago to win international renown. Findlay was a South African who had studied at Graz and Oxford. A once and future Hegelian, he had been 'de-idealised' at Oxford, under the influence of Russell’s Our Knowledge of the External World. Whilst at Otago, he published one book (Meinong's Theory of Objects), worked on another (eventually published as Values and Intentions) and devoted himself, as a teacher, to ‘introducing mathematical logic to the Antipodes’. In this endeavor he was remarkably successful, since his most brilliant pupil was the great logician A.N. Prior (1914-1969), the founder of tense logic. In his little book Logic and the Basis of Ethics (1949), which is largely devoted to the 18th century British Moralists, Prior is profuse in his acknowledgements: 'I owe to [Findlay’s] teaching, directly or indirectly, all that I know of either Logic or Ethics'. Prior’s debt to Findlay did not end there. It was Findlay who got him his first job as a philosopher, as an Assistant Lecturer at Otago, and it was Findlay’s recommendation that got him his second job at Canterbury in 1946.

In the thirties and forties, before the advent of the jet-airplane, Otago was much more remote than it is now, and Findlay had to work quite hard to keep up to date. He cultivated a friendship with the notoriously difficult Karl Popper during the latter’s period as a lecturer at Canterbury, and devoted a Sabbatical to sitting at the feet of Wittgenstein in Cambridge and acting as his official ‘stooge’. (His job was to feed Wittgenstein tough questions when the notoriously long silences became too excruciating.) But before he could take up his position as stooge he had to own up to his philosophical sins. Sitting in a Cambridge milk-bar, Findlay had to confess to the frightful crime of having visited Carnap in Chicago. Wittgenstein was magnanimous. ‘[He] said that he did not mind except that he would lose his milk-shake if Carnap [were] mentioned again’.

^ Top of page

D.D. Raphael and the British Moralists

In 1945 Findlay left to take up a chair at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and was replaced at Otago by D.D Raphael. Raphael, who was notable for the clarity of his lectures, shared Findlay’s enthusiasm for the British Moralists. His book, The Moral Sense (1947), was published during his time at Otago and he went on to edit a highly successful anthology of their writings, entitled, appropriately enough, The British Moralists (1969). But he did not stay long and there was an interregnum between his departure in 1947 and the accession of John Passmore in 1950.

^ Top of page

The Interregnum: Plato, Lipstick and Laughter

However, philosophy at Otago did not grind to a halt The flamboyant Dennis Grey delivered spell-binding lectures on Plato, though his habit of wearing lipstick to his classes came as something of a shock in dour, post-war Dunedin. Hector Monro, who was also lecturer in those days, published his book, The Argument of Laughter, in 1951. The young Annette Baier (then Annette Stoop), who reviewed it for the student newspaper Critic, complained, rather cheekily, that for a book on laughter, there weren’t that many laughs in it. Since Monro’s subsequent books, (some written while he was a Professor at Monash) are often quite amusing, the lack of laughs was possibly due to the fact that he wrote it, in part, to keep up his spirits whilst doing time as a conscientious objector during the War. Before leaving Dunedin in 1954, he also published Godwin’s Moral Philosophy, which, if Google is anything to go by, is still much admired by other Godwin specialists.

^ Top of page

John A. Passmore: Semi-Detached Australian

John Passmore, Professor from 1950 to 1955 describes himself in his memoirs as a ‘Semi-Detached Australian’. Perhaps he acquired some of is semi-detachment at Otago. He had been a student of John Anderson of Sydney, at that time the dominant force in Australian philosophy. Prior, who saw Anderson in action, thought that in person, if not in opinions, he resembled ‘the leader of a small dissenting Scottish sect’, an impression enhanced by a strong Scottish accent and a rather buttoned-up appearance. Anderson’s doctrines, however, were anything but other-worldly and were summed up by Gilbert Ryle as the view that ‘there are only brass tacks’, an opinion common among Australian philosophers down to the present day. (as another student put it, Anderson had an answer to every question, and that answer was no.)

Anderson’s protégé, Passmore, had yet to acquire the gigantic reputation that he went on to win. Passmore published two books whilst at Otago, Ralph Cudworth (1952) [another book about a British Moralist] and Hume’s Intentions (1953), and worked on his magnum opus, A Hundred Years of Philosophy, a work of truly stupendous erudition which did not come out until 1957. (Passmore’s Otago colleague Bob Durrant, is one of the five people thanked by name in the Preface). Passmore’s teaching techniques could be somewhat intimidating. Annette Baier recalls that as the sole MA student, she would be invited round to his house. While his wife, Doris, served tea, Passmore would read out passages from Hume’s Intentions (at that time a work in progress) and invite Baier to comment. In this polite but forbidding atmosphere, she often found it difficult to think of anything to say. Given this early ordeal, it is, perhaps, a little surprising that she went on to become a famous Hume scholar herself, acknowledging the influence of no less than three Otago professors – Raphael, Passmore and Mackie – in the Preface to her a book A Progress of Sentiments (though Mackie did not exert his influence during his period as professor at Otago).

^ Top of page

J.L Mackie: Tasmanian Reject

In 1955, Passmore left for a post at the ANU, to be succeeded by another critical Andersonian, J.L. Mackie. Mackie (a graduate of Sydney and Oxford) had missed out on the Chair at Tasmania partly because of his first article ‘A Refutation of Morals’ (1946), in which he advocated the view for which he subsequently became famous, that moral judgments are cognitive (true-or-false) but false. (This is now known as the ‘error theory’.) Sir Frederick Eggleston, who had some influence with the Tasmanian Vice-Chancellor, was appalled: ‘Have you read Mackie’s paper on the refutation of morality? It is a typical example of the superficial way in which present-day students dispose of questions of such importance.’ The Chair at Tasmania went to Sydney Sparkes Orr, whose views on meta-ethics were perhaps less ‘superficial’ but who proved to be somewhat unreliable when it came to personal morals. (He had lied about his qualifications and was later dismissed for gross moral turpitude, touching off an academic cause celebre) Mackie, by contrast despite the ‘superficiality’ of his meta-ethics was remembered by an Oxford colleague as ‘uncommonly duteous’ in his personal conduct, the reverse of what one might have expected from a ‘moral sceptic’. He was also a brilliant philosopher. Thus Tasmania’s loss was Otago’s gain. Always prolific, Mackie published one of his most reprinted articles, ‘Evil and Omnipotence’ (1955), during his time at Otago, But the books for which he is remembered – Ethics, Problems from Locke, Hume’s Moral Theory etc – were published during the latter part of his life as a Fellow of University College Oxford. ‘Published’ yes, but not necessarily written. Bob Durrant remembered Mackie’s books of the seventies as often echoing typescripts that they had discussed together at Otago during the fifties. Mackie returned to Australia to take up the chair at Sydney in 1959.

^ Top of page

‘Taylor the [Naïve] Realist’

Having had two representatives of Andersonian Sydney, Otago next picked a representative of Wittgensteinian Melbourne. Dan Taylor had been known in his youth as ‘Taylor the realist’ and had been noted for his left-wing opinions. By the time he got to Otago (having done a stint at the University of Ghana) he was more of a Wittgensteinian and perhaps a bit less of a leftie. As Professor, Dan set about dissolving the by now archaic link between philosophy and psychology allowing both departments to flourish separately. Taylor presided for ten years, and was replaced Professor Alan Musgrave in 1970, who retired as Head of Department in 2005.

^ Top of page

Two Stalwarts

Bob Durrant taught at Otago from the fifties through to the eighties. Like his friend Hector Monro, he had been imprisoned during the War as a conscientious objector and, again like Hector Monro, he had a strong interest in the British Moralists. He was more notable as a teacher than a researcher except for one important paper: his admirably concise 'The Identity of Properties and the Definition of Good' (1970). Bob, it seems, was the first to point out in print a now notorious flaw in Moore's Open Question Argument. Moore argued, in Principia Ethica (1903), that goodness cannot be identical with any other property such as pleasantness since the word 'good' is not synonymous with any other word such as   'pleasant'. For we can always sensibly ask whether what is pleasant is good which we could not do if 'good' and 'pleasant' meant the same thing. So matters stood for 67 years. But as Bob argued, just because 'good' is not synonymous with any other word it does not follow that goodness is not identical with any other property. The word 'water' is not synonymous with the formula 'H 2 O' but water is H 2 O just the same. Hence Moore's metaphysical conclusion does not follow from his meaning-theoretic premises.

Gwennyth Taylor (the wife of Dan) taught at Otago in the sixties and seventies. She had been a star student of philosophy at Melbourne in the late thirties but was recruited into war work as a very young woman by the famous Dr H.C 'Nugget' Coombs, at that time Director of Rationing for Australia. A relatively young man himself, Coombs placed a heavy burden of responsibility on his even younger - and mostly female - staff. Within days of her appointment, Gwen found herself settling strikes, negotiating with trade-union leaders and captains of industry and making major decisions about planning and production. When hob-nobbing with big-wigs, she developed the habit of asking for whiskey if offered a drink, not because she was particularly fond of the stuff, but because she feared that if she asked for a more lady-like drink, chauvinistic male panjandrums would cease to take her seriously. She carried a strong streak of feminism into the quieter life of a teacher of philosophy, particularly in her pastoral work. Male students with problems could be assured of a sympathetic reception, but rumor had it that she took a much tougher line with women. Weeping, whingeing and wimping out led men to take women less seriously than they should, thus delaying the advent of full equality. So the girl in question had better buck up, dry her eyes and get that essay in on time!

^ Top of page

Musgrave the Mad-Dog Realist

At 29 years old, Alan Musgrave was not the youngest philosophy professor Otago had ever had (he was the same age as Findlay had been on his appointment, and two years older than McGregor) but he has so far had the longest reign. A student of Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos at the LSE, he had already compiled the index to Conjectures and Refutations and co-edited the academic best-seller, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. His chief interests are in epistemology and the Philosophy of Science, each represented by a book, Common Sense, Science and Scepticism (1993) [which maintains the departmental tradition of a strong interest in Hume] and Essays on Realism and Rationalism (1999). He glories in a rough-hewn sign ‘Beware of the mad-Dog Realist!’ which he keeps in his office. At a conference in Florence Musgrave read a typically forceful paper ‘Conceptual Idealism and Stove’s Gem’ which concluded with the ringing words: ‘Conceptual Idealism is a ludicrous and anti-scientific view of the world. … We should take science seriously, reject the Gem for the invalid argument that it is, and abandon the idealism to which it leads.’ There was a burst of applause followed by dead silence. The chairman, to get things going, asked if there any conceptual idealists present who would like to comment on Professor Musgrave’s paper. ‘Not any more’, came a voice from the back.

^ Top of page

Scylla and Charybdis or Navigating the Staff Seminar

From the first, it was Musgrave’s aim to reinforce the research culture at Otago by beefing up the weekly Staff Seminar. A steady stream of international visitors is particularly important for a small department, which, though a lot less remote than it once was, is still quite a long way from almost everywhere else. Staff attendance is mandatory and debate is vigorous even by the boisterous standards of professional philosophy. Speakers have to steer a careful course between Scylla and Charybdis. If you deliver a carefully crafted and nuanced paper, designed to provoke a sage nodding of heads, some obstreperous person (such as Moore, Musgrave or Pigden) is likely to demand exactly what the problem is and how exactly the argument is supposed to work. If you deliver a polemical paper with a clear argument to novel and interesting conclusions, either the premises or the conclusions are likely to be denounced as false, sometimes obviously so. You might decide to play it safe by arguing for an uncontroversial conclusion, but even this is not an entirely risk-free strategy, since it is hard to find uncontroversial theses in philosophy, and anyway, such a conclusion is likely to be dismissed as uninteresting. It should be said in our defense that we are just as tough on each other as we are on our distinguished visitors and that we often argue hardest against those we admire most (such as Cheryl Misak of Toronto who had a particularly tough time). Perhaps the last person to win general agreement to a truly surprising conclusion was Thomas Pogge (now of Harvard) in 2001.

^ Top of page

Pavel Tichy: Logic and Truth-Likeness

As a very young lecturer at the LSE, Musgrave had been deputised to pick up Quine from the airport for a conference. Meeting the great man he had apologized for the smallness of his car. 'Is there going to be any modal logic at this conference?' demanded Quine. 'No' replied Musgrave. 'Then the car’s fine', said Quine. Musgrave was inclined to share Quine’s anti-modal prejudices, but he knew that Otago needed a logician of some sort and, before he left England for New Zealand, he had hired the Czech Pavel Tichy, a refugee from the suppression of the Prague Spring (and in consequence of its suppression, a virulent anti-Communist). Tichy rapidly proved his worth both as a logician and a philosopher and in 1981 he was appointed to a Personal Chair in Logic. He was a tough, even a ferocious debater, and since he was also supremely clever, it was very difficult to get him to back down about anything. But the slightest suggestion that some view of his might lend some support to paraconsistent logic would cause him to recoil like a vampire threatened with a crucifix. A high point of his career was in 1972 when Sir Karl Popper visited the Department as a William Evans Fellow. Popper had recently proposed a definition of closeness to truth, which was intended to explicate the intuitive idea that one false theory can be closer to the truth than another. Tichy demolished this definition with a proof that on Popper’s account all false theories are equally far from the truth, finishing in a typically downright manner: 'I conclude that Popper’s definition is worthless.' There was a pause as everyone awaited the response of the notoriously temperamental Popper. When it came it was remarkably gracious: 'I disagree with only one word of this paper – its last word. No definition can be worthless, when it provokes such a devastating criticism. I hope that Dr Tichy will join me in this project, and produce a better definition than mine.' This Tichy proceeded to do with the aid of his student Graham Oddie.

After the Velvet Revolution, Tichy was invited to return to his alma mater, Charles University in Prague as Professor of the Department of Logic at the Faculty of Philosophy and Arts. He was honoured by the invitation and accepted, albeit with some misgivings. But his plans were cut short by his tragic death by drowning in 1994. A volume of his Collected Papers edited by Svoboda, Jespersen and Cheyne was published in 2004 by Otago University Press in conjunction with the Institute of Philosophy in the Czech Republic. Tichy's most important and lasting contribution to philosophy by far is his theory of higher-order intensional logic - a brilliant system which yields elegant solutions to most of the problems in the philosophy of language and logic.

^ Top of page

Just Passing Through: Greg Currie and Paul Griffiths

Another recruit who rose to a personal chair at Otago was Greg Currie. Like Musgrave, a graduate of the LSE, he had co-edited Lakatos’s Collected Papers (2 vols.) He started out as a Frege scholar publishing Frege. An Introduction to his Philosophy in 1982. But his interests gradually shifted to aesthetics and the philosophy of mind and his recent book Recreative Minds (co-authored with Ian Ravenscroft) deals with the imagination. He left for a Chair at Flinders University in South Australia and is now Professor at the University of Nottingham. Paul Griffiths (who did his doctorate at the ANU where he was supervised by Kim Sterelny) did not stay quite long enough to become a professor (a defect since remedied by Pittsburgh). But his book What Emotions Really Are (1997), billed by Owen Flanagan as ‘the best book on the emotions that exists’, was largely written at Otago, as those who had to listen to his amazingly articulate extempore expositions can testify. He is now the Federation Fellowship Professor and Director of the Biohumanities Centre at the University of Queensland.

^ Top of page

Gone On To Greatness

Otago's line of distinguished graduates did not end with Prior and Baier. Since 1970 several others went on to do great things of a philosophical or semi-philosophical nature. Jeremy Waldron completed his BA in philosophy in 1974 and remembers his Otago teachers with praise for having made him read Rawls' A Theory of Justice ALL THE WAY THROUGH, rather than serving up philosophical tidbits on trendy topics of the day. From 1975-79 he worked as an Assistant Lecturer in the Philosophy Department whilst completing his LLB., before going on to Oxford to do a star doctorate on private property. His books include The Right to Private Property (1988), Nonsense Upon Stilts: Bentham, Burke and Marx on the Rights of Man (1988); Liberal Rights: Collected Papers 1981-91 (1993); and God, Locke and Equality (2002). He now rejoices in the titles of Maurice and Hilda Friedman Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Law and Philosophy at Columbia University and is now University Professor at New York University School of Law.

Jeremy Waldron was introduced to jurisprudence by fellow Otago graduate, Stephen Guest (BA in Philosophy in 1971 and LLB in 1973; then later, BLitt from Oxford). Stephen became a Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at University College London in 1975, obtained a PhD in legal philosophy there in 1991, and is now Professor of Legal Philosophy. He co-chairs with Ronald Dworkin the annual Colloquium in Legal and Social Philosophy. His best known book is Ronald Dworkin (Edinburgh UP, 2nd edn 1997).

Pamela Tate also took first-class honours in Philosophy in 1979 before going on to Oxford where she topped the BPhil class. But unlike Jeremy Waldron and Stephen Guest who have managed to remain both lawyers and philosophers, she subsequently changed course, abandoning Philosophy for Law and is now the Solicitor-General for the State of Victoria, the youngest person and the first woman to occupy that role.

Graham Oddie went on from Otago to the LSE, gaining his PhD in 1979. He returned to Otago as a Lecturer, rising to Senior Lecturer before he left to take up the Chair of Philosophy at Massey University in 1988. Since 1994 he has been Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He has always been a wide-ranging philosopher, but his principal work whilst at Otago was his book, Likeness to Truth (1986), which follows on from the work of Pavel Tichy. In 1992 he co-edited a collection Justice, Ethics and New Zealand Society, which includes a piece co-written with Jindra Tichy (Pavel’s wife) arguing with perverse brilliance for the thesis that the Treaty of Waitangi is a Hobbesian social contract. Recently his interests have turned increasingly towards ethics. One book co-authored with David Boonin, What's Wrong? Applied Ethicists and Their Critics, is coming out in 2004 and another Value, Reality and Desire is due out from Oxford in 2005.

Like Jeremy Waldron, the alarmingly intelligent Tim Mulgan went on from a BA (Hons) at Otago to a D.Phil at Oxford, pausing to do a brief stint at Treasury on the way. (I [CRP] was always slightly surprised when he took notes in my lectures since it seemed to me that he was quite clever enough to work out anything I had to say for himself.) He returned to Otago to teach but left for Auckland after a few years in order to solve a Two-Body Problem. His (2001) book The Demands of Consequentialism deals with the problem of the unreasonable demands that consequentialism makes on moral agents. It has met with great acclaim, suggesting a new entry for the Philosopher's Lexicon: mulganise, v. to soften up excessively demanding moral theories. 'I foolishly bought a brand of consequentialism from a wandering petersinger, and it looked as though it would force me to sell all I had to give to the poor. But now I've had it mulganised it allows me to eat out at expensive restaurants and to make frequent trips to the opera.' His most recent book Future People ('timely and important ... of incredibly impressive scope and interest') discusses our obligations to future generations. Tim is now Professor of Moral & Political Philosophy at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

^ Top of page

Back to the Present

Otago philosophers have much to be proud of, and we hope to do as well or better in the years to come.