I Thought of Archimedes


Peter Coleman

From The Last Intellectuals: Essays on Writers and Politics, Quadrant Books, 2010

LET ME START irrelevantly.  One of my dim but insistent undergraduate memories of John Anderson’s lectures on the categories of existence has period flavour, a dash, an irrelevant dash, of 1949 and the Cold War. This was the year of Mao’s occupation of Peking and of Stalin’s blockade of Berlin. Some thought the Soviet Union would soon sovietise the world. It was all a long way from Samuel Alexander, Space, Time and Deity -  and the categories.

But the national Coal Strike (communist-directed) came closer to home or the University. It cut off coal supplies and so drastically reduced the electricity available for daily life that the state government banned everything from trams to electric jugs. Some students enjoyed the disruption of boring routines. It disrupted University life, at least by making evening lectures in Trinity term very difficult. Not impossible, but difficult.

Although I was a day student, I sometimes attended evening lectures to catch up. They repeated the day lectures. Like several of my friends, I used to take an occasional day job -  as scullery man, cleaner, gardener or whatever -  to make ends meet. It was all great fun.

John Anderson -  himself an ex-communist -  was not going to let the Communist Party stop him professing philosophy. Candles were distributed and by their light we took our notes on Plato, Kant and Alexander in a shadowy philosophy room. There was a hint of Plato’s Cave about it.

Nor would Anderson, always the pluralist, with an occasional touch of the lunch-time firebrand, let that moment pass without noting the Stalinists’ encroachments on independent institutions such as the University, and independent ways of life such as the pursuit of philosophy - before returning to the categories.

I thought of Archimedes in the Punic Wars -  and his refusal to let the Roman conquerors of Syracuse interfere with his mathematical speculations. (He paid with his life.) Well, I was twenty and this Archimedean moment has stayed with me. The politics were entirely subsidiary. The basic idea was anti-political: the spirit of enquiry, philosophy, science, poetry, the life of the mind, will never be, can never be, subordinate to the demands of politics. It was a lesson in Andersonianism the creed, if not in Anderson’s metaphysics. To which I must now turn.

The lectures themselves belong to a different mode of experience. They examined space and time and the categories - logical, mathematical and physical. They were tough lectures, plainly not for beginners, but for senior students already grounded in Realism, with some familiarity with G.E. Moore, the early Bertrand Russell and the American Realists, not to mention Plato’s Theaetetus or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Everyone had read Anderson’s papers “The Knower and the Known”, “Realism and Some of its Critics”, or “Mind as Feeling”.

For those who were already committed philosophers, these lectures were a high point of their undergraduate years. David Armstrong was one. In his introduction to this new book - an important essay in itself - he tells us that the lectures “inspired me with a passionate interest in the great questions of metaphysics”. A couple of years ago, he said the lectures opened his mind to the possibility of a systematic realist and empiricist metaphysics, an idea that never left him and which he stands by today.
There was another type of student taking the course in 1949 and 1950. They were not philosophers by inescapable vocation. They were simply fascinated by the ease with which Anderson conversed with Parmenides, Anaximander, Plato, Kant or Hegel. These philosophers were his colleagues, his contemporaries. To listen to his lectures was itself an initiation into Western or Greco-Roman civilisation. Most of these students never accepted, or did not stick with, Anderson’s philosophic teaching. But they had taken a seat with him at Plato’s Banquet and would not forget it.

There was also a third group of students taking copious notes. They were not true philosophers. Their approach was too literary or quasi-religious. They lived in a sort of nihilist no-man’s-land. Anderson’s corrosive deconstruction of convention and conventional idealism had left them lost souls. They came to each lecture hoping that its advanced ontology might help them find their bearings in what Samuel Alexander called “the whirlpool of space and time”. They never found what they were seeking. In time, some turned back to the faith of their fathers, Some espoused a dogmatic anarchism. Others pursued careers, usually in the professions. You cannot live your whole life in no-man’s-land, although a few tried to.

Being literary, they’ve had plenty to say. One or two dabbled in satiric verse. One of the better ones, John Rybak, delivered this parody of the Christian - and per-haps the Andersonian - credo:

I believe: in the Proposition
Wholly and indivisible trinity
Three in one, one in Three
Subject, predicate, and copula!
Especially the copula.
Union is strength
Strength thru’ joy
A thing of beauty is a joy forever
Porphyry, Aristotle, Socrates!

The subtext is, I think, pretty serious criticism. It seems to find in Anderson’s metaphysics a toxic blend of obscurantism, authoritarianism, libertinism and aestheticism.

BUT TO RETURN to the categories, this book is basically the lectures as taken down by David Armstrong and Eric Dowling. Creagh Cole has edited their notes or transcripts and added useful appendices including a marvellous letter Anderson wrote to the London New Age in 1920 defending Alexander against what was in part an anti-Semitic attack.

This is as good as we are going to get of the 1949-50 lectures. There are no recordings of these or any of Anderson’s lectures. The only recording of his voice is of his singing his own composition, “Sydney Blues”, about homesick Oxford students wishing they were back in Sydney with Anderson! It is a pleasant folk-singer’s or balladist’s voice, a touch country-and-western. No Scottish burr. It is all we have of his voice.

A couple of reservations may be noted. The lectures are not polished. But they are far more polished than the 1944 lectures as published in the 2005 book Space-Time and the Proposition. In some of those earlier lectures there is a certain pre-Socratic scrappiness. Sentences begin, “I haven’t thought the matter out” or “I don’t profess to have given” or “I might remark here”. Mark Weblin, adapting Anderson’s comment on Alexander, generously called them “a mighty fragment”. The 1949-50 lectures, as now published, may still be considered “mighty” but they are far less fragmentary - although they are not yet finished chapters of what was intended to be a book.

A second reservation is that, however verbatim and reliable the transcripts are, they do not capture the atmosphere of their delivery. Anderson sometimes spoke from notes but this never stopped him thinking on his feet. The printed text of the lectures cannot convey that engrossing sense of listening to an important thinker refining his thought as you listened.

John Passmore summed up the impact, the excitement, of these lectures: “Alexander profoundly stirred Anderson’s philosophical imagination; those who heard his lectures on Alexander felt that they were being led into the very heart of Anderson’s philosophy.” I was one who heard them. I know that Passmore captured that mood perfectly.

I BEGAN with an irrelevancy. Perhaps I may end with another. This book is philosophy, not biography. But as readers of Brian Kennedy’s fine biography, A Passion to Oppose, will be aware, Anderson delivered these lectures at a time of personal turmoil. His relations with his wife and his son were at a low point. His companion, the philosopher Ruth Walker, was suffering a nervous collapse and would submit to shock therapy.

One of his friends and lecturers, the late Tom Rose, recalled that at this very time a dispirited Anderson seemed no longer interested in contemporary philosophy and even wondered whether philosophy was a genuine subject at all.

Were these lectures his working through the problems that had preoccupied him throughout his life since he met Samuel Alexander in Glasgow over thirty years earlier - a citadel in which to recover himself, a philosopher’s refuge in a turbulent time? This is a matter for biographers, and I gladly leave it to them. But it seems to me, now, to raise interesting psychological questions - far more interesting than that juvenile Archimedean moment I mentioned earlier.

What we do know, and can say, is that these famous lectures are the summa of Anderson’s metaphysics or ontology. They will endure far longer than his better known and sometimes “exhibitionistic” polemics (exhibitionistic was his word) on the passing controversies of the day. They are Anderson’s worldview, his Heraclitean vision of reality.

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