T and M Philosophy: The End

James Franklin

(Quadrant 41 (5) May 2000, p. 51)

The Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy at Sydney University has fallen to a coup and has been merged with the Department of General Philosophy.

Long-suffering Quadrant readers will recall the articles (April, July/Aug, 1999, with subsequent correspondence) that described the origins of the split into two departments in 1973. T and M pursued traditional "analytic" philosophy based on argument, while many, though not all, members of General Philosophy adopted newer postmodernist, poststructuralist and postfeminist "strategies". The two departments have maintained separate appointments processes, with the heads of each department rotating as a nominal head of school to deal with matters needing cooperation. Conditions in General Philosophy in earlier times resulted in the defection to T and M of two waves of "boat people". Among the second of these was Stephen Gaukroger, who has for some time been head of school, in virtue of being head of T and M. During summer, he announced a forced merger, over the objections of a majority of the members of T and M. On requesting a departmental meeting, the members were informed by Gaukroger that this was impossible, as their department no longer existed. Only a combined vote of the two departments would be accepted - a procedure, as one T and M member said, like asking the combined voters of Germany and Belgium to decide on their unification. Moral arguments about Gaukroger's responsibility to his own department also cut no ice. After an important defection, the remaining members, though still a majority, found their position unsustainable, and reluctantly accepted the fait accompli. There are assurances of a certain autonomy for "groups" within the department, but they are presumably worth less than previous assurances of independence for the departments.

Gaukroger is not a postmodernist, or any other kind of irrationalist. He is a historian of science and philosophy who has written respectable books on Descartes' intellectual biography and similar subjects. He has written very little philosophy, and has shown no understanding of those who have. He has issued a public statement of his reasons, the operative sentence of which is: "By the standard University and government criteria -- publications, success in ARC applications, and numbers of graduate students -- other areas, most notably history of philosophy and social and political philosophy have come to the fore at Sydney, while analytic philosophy has reached new strengths elsewhere." Well, yes, by government criteria, biassed as they are towards the avoirdupois, it's easy to be "productive" in those areas, for the same reason as in education studies. They're easy. Logic, the strength of the remaining members of T and M, is a little harder. (Not that analytic philosophy was falling behind in fulfilling its production quota for paper.) Gaukroger further refers to the recalcitrant members of T and M -- as well as some on the other side -- as "extremists", and represents his actions as a takeover by moderates. He is right. In a modern Arts faculty, a clique of logicians who want to be left alone to get on with it is a gang of dangerous extremists, well out of contact with received values.

I offered to give in this article the address of any web site where Gaukroger had posted his statement. He replies "I have no interest in entering into a dispute with the loony right on this or any other matter." I will email a copy of it to anyone who contacts me (j.franklin@unsw.edu.au). The Vice-Chancellor declined to comment.

It is time to recall past glories. David Stove said in 1991, "the first twenty years of the new Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy have been fertile in good philosophy, to a degree unparalleled in any similar period in this or any other Australian university. As I have often said, it is the best club in the world, and to be or have been a member of it is a pleasure as well as a privilege." The results included David Armstrong's pathbreaking books on laws of nature and universals, as well as such powerful individual books as John Bacon's on a similar topic, Jean Curthoys' Feminist Amnesia, and Adrian Heathcote's recently completed book on the philosophy of logic. In the days early in 2000 when the coup was establishing itself, Stove's newly reprinted books of philosophical polemic were receiving rave reviews in the (U.K.) Spectator and the Washington Times. The author of the Spectator review raises the question of how Stove got away with his criticism of his colleagues. He writes "The answer is in two parts: a) he retired from Sydney early and b) he is now dead." The ex-members of the T and M will need to consider these career moves, now that everyone from their head of school up to the Vice-Chancellor has no idea what they're doing, and simultaneously doesn't like it. The Challis Chair of philosophy has been vacant for two years -- and how the University has allowed this to happen with its most famous endowed chair remains unexplained. If the chair is filled by a real philosopher, everyone will be very much surprised.