Getting the Wrong Anderson? A Short and Opinionated History of New Zealand Philosophy

In Graham Robert Oppy & Nick Trakakis (eds.), The Antipodean philosopher. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books. pp. 169-195 (2011)
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Is the history of philosophy primarily a contribution to PHILOSOPHY or primarily a contribution to HISTORY? This paper is primarily contribution to history (specifically the history of New Zealand) but although the history of philosophy has been big in New Zealand, most NZ philosophers with a historical bent are primarily interested in the history of philosophy as a contribution to philosophy. My essay focuses on two questions: 1) How did New Zealand philosophy get to be so good? And why, given that is so good (a point I am at pains to establish), has it apparently had so slight a cultural impact within New Zealand itself? Did we get the wrong Anderson – the uninspiring William, who was Professor at Auckland, rather than his talented younger brother John, who had such a huge cultural influence as Professor of Philosophy at Sydney? Perhaps but that can only be part of the story since we managed to attract even bigger stars, (notably Karl Popper) as well as breeding bigger talents of our own (Prior, Baier, Bennett, Mulgan, Hursthouse, Waldron and many more). Do we export our best talent? Sometimes – but the stars that stay and the stars who arrive don’t seem to have much impact in New Zealand itself however brightly they shine in the international philosophical firmament. Is it too esoteric? Perhaps, but esoteric philosophy can still have a cultural impact, witness, Moore, Popper and the younger Anderson. Is it, like many of New Zealand’s cultural products (from romance novels to movies), primarily intended for an international audience? That’s a large part of the answer but only a part. Another part of the answer is that philosophy HAS had a cultural impact but that impact is not readily apparent. For NZ philosophers have been less keen to push their ideological barrows and more keen to produce critical thinkers, and critical thinkers don’t all think alike. The logician George Hughes was apparently a life-changing teacher not because he had a nostrum but because he taught people to think. As one of his students said ‘the only ism you believe in is the syllogism’. On the whole the history of New Zealand Philosphy is a ‘From Log Cabin to White House’ tale, ‘From colonial obscurity through struggle and adversity to philosophical excellence’. But there are shadows in the picture. Some departments have nearly come to grief through bureaucratic and political misadventures, and it is hard to resist the suspicion that there is often an element of hostility to philosophers on the part of both university bureaucrats and fellow-academics. I speculate as to why this is the case (we are too argumentative and don’t confine our argumentative tendencies to the cloister) but conclude with some upbeat reflections. on the future of New Zealand Philosophy.

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Charles R. Pigden
University of Otago


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