John Anderson was born in Stonehouse Lanarkshire on 01 November 1893, and educated at the former Hamilton Academy from which school he won a bursary to attend the University of Glasgow in the university’s Bursary Competition of 1911. Anderson was listed among notable former pupils of Hamilton Academy in a 1950 magazine article on the school. His elder brother was William Anderson, Professor of Philosophy at Auckland University College, 1921 to his death in 1955, and described as “the most dominant figure in New Zealand philosophy.”
Anderson graduated MA from Glasgow University in 1917, with first-class honours in Philosophy (Logic and Moral Philosophy), and first-class honours in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. After graduation, he was awarded the Ferguson Scholarship in Philosophy and the Shaw Philosophical Fellowship, the examinations for which were open to graduates of any of the four Scottish universities.
John was classed as a Scottish-Australian philosopher who occupied the post of Challis Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University from 1927 to 1958. He founded the empirical brand of philosophy known as Australian realism (see Scottish realism).
Anderson’s promotion of ‘free thought‘ in all subjects, including politics and morality, was controversial and brought him into constant conflict with the august senate of the university. However, he is credited with educating a generation of influential ‘Andersonian’ thinkers and activists—some of whom helped to place Sydney in the forefront of the ‘sexual revolution‘ of the 1950s and 1960s.
He served as Assistant in Philosophy at the University College, Cardiff (Cardiff) (1917–19), in Moral Philosophy and Logic in the University of Glasgow (1919–20) and lectured in Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh (1920–26).
After arriving in Sydney in 1927 he associated with the Communist Party of Australia and contributed to their journals, sometimes under a nom de plume but, by about 1932 he began to believe that communism under Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union was a dictatorship with no room for workers’ control or participation. He then became aligned with the Trotskyist movement for a period of time. But he could not put up any longer with dialectical materialism or with the servile state which he saw was being imposed by the doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat”.
Anderson later abandoned authoritarian forms of socialism and became what would today be called a libertarian and pluralist—an opponent of all forms of authoritarianism. Sometimes he described himself as an anarchist but, after the 1930s, he gave up his earlier political utopianism.
Advocacy of academic freedom
As Sydney University’s Challis Professor of Philosophy, Anderson was a formidable champion of the principle of academic freedom from authoritarian intervention. For example, he fought a successful battle to end the role of the British Medical Association in setting course standards and student quotas in the medical school. He also railed against the presence on campus of a military unit—the Sydney University Regiment—and lived to see the day in 1960 when the regiment’s campus HQ was destroyed by fire. (The regiment was subsequently rehoused at a new facility on university-owned land at Darlington.)
Anderson was censured by the Sydney University Senate in 1931 after criticising the role of war memorials in sanctifying war. In 1943 he was censured by the Parliament of New South Wales after arguing that religion has no place in schools. He founded the Sydney University Free Thought Society which ran from 1931 to 1951. He was president of the society throughout that period.
It is legendary that the university’s Senate, accepting that it could not realise its desire to sack the controversial Challis Professor, sought to reduce Anderson’s stature and influence by creating a new chair of “Moral and Political Philosophy” to which Alan Stout was appointed. This purpose was not achieved, as Anderson continued to lecture on ethics and politics. Stout (who had been urged by Anderson to apply for the position) was a steady admirer and supporter of the Challis Professor and declined to undercut his prestige in any way. The result was that Sydney gained a second prestigious and personable philosopher who “brought a quick intelligence, intellectual grasp, a flair for putting things simply and clearly, together with a genuine respect for the views of others and readiness to appreciate their point of view”. On Anderson’s retirement, the two departments were merged under Stout as ‘the Professor of Philosophy’.