The Sydney Philosophy Disturbances

James Franklin


Quadrant 43 (4) (Apr, 1999): 16-21.

(A revised version with footnotes appears in Corrupting the Youth: A History of Philosophy in Australia.)


After Robert Menzies retired, he and B.A. Santamaria got to know each other well. In a memorable interview for the TV series, `The Liberals', Santamaria recalled Menzies asking him ``Well, young Bob -- and I was nearly sixty years of age -- tell me the three biggest mistakes I ever made.'' Young Bob demurred politely, claiming he had never given the question a moment's thought, but when Old Bob insisted, he had three suggestions ready. The first was the consolidation of Canberra as the national capital (``you've created in Australia an oligarchy that we can never get rid of''). The third was the founding of the Liberal Party. Those choices might not be universally acclaimed, but there would be many to agree. The second was a more idiosyncratic suggestion, Menzies' decision in the early 1960s to expand the universities, making each one much larger and increasing the number of them from about seven to seventeen. ``I said it should have been obvious that there weren't enough good academics in Australia to run seven, let alone seventeen -- and this was at the period of course of all the Vietnam troubles.''

It was the universities, as everyone knew, that were at the centre of the disturbances of the Sixties. One factor was the conscription ballot, which concentrated the minds of many students who would never have bothered to analyse society otherwise. Another was that the growth of the universities, apart from admitting to academic positions certain individuals with little talent or interest in matters intellectual, created problems by not increasing much the number of professors. ``Junior'' staff who would once have been professors of minuscule departments at 30 seethed. Contrary to the laws obeyed by gases, in which expansion leads to a lowering of pressure and temperature, the expansion of universities in the Sixties led to an atmosphere of a pressure cooker. But even in universities, there was little sign of disturbance in many areas -- in engineering faculties, for example. For obvious reasons, connected both with the content of the disciplines and the sort of students they attracted, arts and social science departments were the centres of activism. To its central position among those disciplines, philosophy added a tradition of intransigence on matters of principle. Principles, after all, are what philosophy is about. Practical consequences are not.

Among philosophy departments, that at Sydney University enjoyed a status unique in several ways. Situated behind the jacaranda tree in the Gothic quadrangle of Australia's oldest university, it had been the home of Andersonianism, the country's only home-grown philosophical school. In 1965, it saw a bruising public left-right brawl over the failed attempt to appoint Dr Frank Knopfelmacher to a position in political philosophy. Where many philosophy departments either capitulated or accommodated to the coming wave of leftist politicisation, Sydney's had two leading members, David Armstrong and David Stove, who were associated with Quadrant and the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, and were not prepared to compromise with the Left. The battle lines of the era, normally dividing parties who had never met each other, were drawn across a department of a dozen people sharing a common room. It is for these reasons that the inside story of that department and its split is of special interest. Those baffled by the developments in universities in the last thirty years have been offered many in-principle analyses, but only a detailed look at events in a single department at the centre of intellectual life will reveal what really happened.

In academic philosophy, people began to wonder if too much attention to the meaning of words had rendered the profession ``irrelevant''. Wal Suchting, the Marxist philosophy lecturer who became the main leader of agitation in the Sydney department, wrote later, ``To the basic questions which the times thus posed -- questions about the dis-ease of bourgeois culture, the forms of possible alternatives, the strategies and tactics of the path from one to the other -- there came no answers from the thin voice of analytic philosophy quavering on heedlessly in university mausoleums.'' Surely something was called for from the supposed experts in ethics, when commitment was spreading abroad? Tweed coats were put away and afros grown. Pipes were replaced by microphones. Minds were expanded by the works of Marx and Mao, and by mind-expanding substances of a more physical kind. The Sydney University Philosophy IV students of 1970 included a dope-smoking group and a heroin-shooting group.

The early leader in the ``red shift'', however, was not Sydney University but Flinders. The Professor of Philosophy there, Brian Medlin, was one of the leaders in Adelaide of the Vietnam protests, which he continually pushed in a more radical direction. Four of the five members of the Flinders philosophy department converted to revolutionary socialism, and the department's courses became mostly Maoist. The high point of philosophical ``action'' came at the Australasian philosophy conference of 1970, when Medlin draped a red flag over the lectern before giving a talk on politics. The conference passed a resolution condemning the war in Vietnam.

There was a danger -- or opportunity, depending on your point of view -- of philosophy being swallowed by politics. David Stove, seeing Sydney University as on a pre-Flinders stage on a slippery slope, wrote:

For the essence of totalitarianism is contained in the great helmsman's injunction to `put politics in command'. This is not just Communist-Chinese baby-talk. What it means is this: that you are to take over every institution, whatever it may be, and empty out everything which distinguishes it from other institutions, and turn it into yet another loudspeaker for repeating `the general line'. Destroy the specific institutional fabric of -- a University, a trade-union, a sporting body, a church -- and give them all the same institutional content, viz. a political one.

By contrast, the other side argued that there was no standpoint outside the political. According to John Burnheim, among the least radical of those who came to form the leftist Department of General Philosophy, this was supported by the nineteenth century European tradition of thought, which emphasised the historical situatedness of all beliefs. ``The philosopher, like it or not, must take a position that rests not on ultimate truths, but on a reading of our specific historical situation. Inevitably it will be a partisan reading.''

In June 1971, David Armstrong chaired a lunchtime talk by the First Secretary of the South Vietnamese Embassy. A student took the microphone at the end of the talk and began abusing the speaker. Armstrong seized the microphone back, and a scuffle ensued while he was restrained. The incident is remembered for a spectacular photograph taken of an enraged Armstrong trying to grab the microphone. People had the picture blown up, and took to referring to Armstrong as ``the Beast''.

By this time, the challenge feared by Armstrong and Stove had arrived in their own department. Wal Suchting and Michael Devitt proposed for 1972 and 1973 courses in Marxism-Leninism. The outline of the courses included mention of the ideas of Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Mao and Che Guevara, though these were to take up only a small proportion of the courses. Armstrong was willing to agree to a certain amount of teaching on Marx but jibbed at the other names. ``These men have no place in the history of thought They were engaged exclusively in political activity.'' He also objected to the total weight that would be given to Marxism, and doubted the objectivity of the lecturers, who made no secret of their left-wing commitments. Suchting and Devitt claimed their course would be ``objective'' but of course not ``neutral''. ``Neutrality means not espousing a position ... [it] is neither desirable in theory nor realisable in practice.'' Matters came to a head at a departmental meeting on 7th June, 1971. Suchting, Devitt and Armstrong reiterated their positions. Stove suggested that the reference to ``theory and practice'' in the course outline ought to be interpreted in the Leninist sense, that is, that the course was the first step on the road to complete politicisation. The proposers agreed to remove the word ``Leninism'' from the title, and voting was then 10 to 3 in favour of the proposed courses. Armstrong as head of department vetoed them. The meeting carried 8 to 4 a motion of censure against Armstrong for his veto. The issues of Marxism, democratisation of departments and ``academic freedom'' were thus rolled into one, and the fight was on. A moderate, Keith Campbell, urged a conciliatory style, given that victors and vanquished would have to go on living and working together. It was not going to happen. Armstrong and Suchting, in particular, belonged to the crash-through-or-crash school of politics.

After negotiations in higher university bodies and press comment, a compromise was patched up, with one course going ahead under the name `Marxism'. It was obvious that the next conflict could not be far off.

In 1972, Professor Graham Nerlich had the unenviable job of Head of Department. Democratisation proceeded apace. A meeting that included postgraduate and undergraduate representatives recommended the appointment as a tutor of a Marxist whom Armstrong did not regard as the best candidate. He complained to the administration about such a wide suffrage being allowed in matters of appointments, and tensions exceeded their previous maximum. Devitt wrote an enraged private note to Nerlich, suggesting tactics for dealing with the situation. He added a postscript: ``It is now clear that the Beast will not leave any of us in peace. It seems necessary therefore that he be discredited and driven from the University. I shall henceforth support any tactic (within certain limits) that seems likely to help the achievement of this end.'' Nerlich proposed to take no notice of it, but the note somehow fell into Armstrong's hands. Here, it seemed, was Marxist-Leninist praxis, red in tooth and claw, not only on the doorstep but inside it. Armstrong felt it necessary to publish the note ``in self-defence''. Peter Coleman read the offending sections of Devitt's letter in State Parliament. Santamaria urged Armstrong to demand Devitt's dismissal, but it was felt more advantageous to take the rare opportunity for the Right to enjoy underdog status. Devitt denied there had been any actual plot; earlier and later evidence makes it clear that that was true, but some recalled the earlier Orr and Knopfelmacher cases as warnings that threats to destroy academic careers were not to be taken lightly. The Vice Chancellor rejected Armstrong's appeal, and the tutor chosen by the departmental meeting was appointed.

As expected, 1973 was not a year of peace and harmony. In late 1972, a departmental meeting widened suffrage to all philosophy students, including those in first year. Control was thus delivered to those radical enough to keep turning up. Philosophy was the only department to go as far as that. A subsequent meeting allowed the teacher of any option to decide how students were to be passed and graded, meaning that exams and assignments could be dispensed with.

By this time, feminism had appeared as an organised force, and was demanding a place in university courses. In early 1973, two graduate students, Jean Curthoys and Liz Jacka, proposed a course on `The politics of sexual oppression', to run as an option in the second half of the year. Apart from the content, the proposal was unusual in being proposed six months later than normal, and in being offered by graduate students. The department voted overwhelmingly for the course, although the minority voting against included the four most senior members. The Faculty of Arts also approved it, though only on the casting vote of the chairman. The Professorial Board rejected the proposed course, and a strike of staff and students began, spreading to several arts and social science departments and disrupting lectures in them for weeks. Students attending the lectures of Armstrong and other non-striking philosophers faced pickets outside and inside the lectures. Tents were pitched on the quadrangle lawn. Jack Mundey appeared on campus, promising a Builders Labourers Federation ban on work at the University.

After various negotiations and inquiries, the administration agreed to the course, under a milder title, and with a more or less nominal supervision by John Burnheim. In effect, it was a total victory for the strikers. Frank Moorhouse describes a visit to the victory party:

They were singing sentimental Irish songs under the banner `Philosophers hitherto have only interpreted the world -- the point now is to change it.'
They had two four-gallon casks of wine -- which is counter-culturally acceptable alcohol; spirits and beer are frowned upon, spirits because of their upper-income connotations and beer because it is associated with the worst kinds of Australian male behaviour.
We talked briefly with George Molnar, a lecturer in philosophy who had been centrally active in the strike. He was making the `goodies' in the kitchen (not savouries).
`Tomorrow the world', he said.

From the other side, things did not look so good. Armstrong says: ``In the immediate aftermath of the strike, things seemed very bleak. The radicals had effective control of the department, and there seemed to be no future in it for the rest of us. Some older members of staff planned to retire early, others started to look for jobs elsewhere. It did not seem that it would be possible for philosophy as we understood it to go on being practised and taught at Sydney University.'' Nerlich did leave, taking a chair in Adelaide. But salvation, of a kind, was at hand. Keith Campbell, who had seen enough of radicalism at close range, got together a proposal for splitting the department. Faced with the probable loss of the philosophers of repute, the Vice-Chancellor agreed to it. Armstrong and six others formed the Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy. It became ``the pleasantest environment for teaching philosophy that I have ever experienced'', Armstrong says, while 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. The department has also enjoyed a rare freedom from internal disharmony. 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 atmosphere was not so tranquil in the other department, which was allowed to get away with the name `General Philosophy'. Animosity had already run high in the strike itself between feminists and the unreconstructed Marxist males who regarded the women's course merely as a pretext for another fight about democratisation and self-management. The Department was fully democratic, with all staff and students having the right to speak and vote on matters of course content, assessment and appointments. Meetings of up to 500 were known, though student apathy kept most down to some 20. Formal exams were eliminated, and in some subjects students assessed themselves. Enrolments were much larger than for the Trad and Mod Department - in 1978, GP had about 750 to T & M's 200. But the apparent success was not all it seemed. For one thing, the Administration played hard ball. Though they never had the stomach to ``clean up'' GP, they did fail to provide extra resources to cope with the extra students, and periodically threatened to forcibly amalgamate the two departments. But the more important source of trouble was a series of internal disputes, splits and scandals. They mostly arose from the domination of departmental meetings by a group led by Wal Suchting and calling itself the ``Marxist caucus''. It was regarded by others as ruling by vigorous meeting attendance, humiliation and ridicule. Wal was in his element, according to outsiders then and insiders since.

Devitt, who wanted to get on with mainstream philosophy, found himself increasingly isolated. A tutor was appointed in logic who thought logic played a reactionary role in maintaining bourgeois philosophical ideology. Devitt failed in an attempt to have a permanent position vacated by someone in logic and language filled in the same area. Bryan Neilson, a tutor not in the ruling group, who had been persuaded to come from the U.S. by Burnheim with a written offer of a job for three years, found himself out of a job after two, courtesy of a departmental meeting. Some bravely urged that promises created a moral obligation. Devitt recalls that the Caucus were not impressed by this piece of bourgeois morality. ``I attended a Caucus meeting (although not a member) where the whole matter was discussed. Someone asked what Burnheim's position was. I vividly remember Wal's reply: he chuckled cynically and simply went through the motions of washing his hands.'' Jean Curthoys openly defended the political nature of the decision at the meeting: ``It is important to be clear on two things: (1) That all appointments are political appointments and (2) that part of the case against Bryan and for Julie and Dick is quite frankly political.'' Since the whole point of the department is ``a critique of all the practices of other departments in the University, as well as of society at large'', ``the reason that Bryan cannot assist the particular school of philosophy we think it is important to develop is that his whole philosophical approach is the orthodox one it is our object to criticise.'' If those were the chances of a candidate actually present, the prospects of anyone absent were even less. Over many years, the determination of GP to appoint only its own candidates to positions became an ever better known scandal.

Marks as well as appointments were handed out for political rather than intellectual performance. Even Suchting, who certainly took scholarship seriously, regarded the department's inflated marks for poor work as indefensible, ``It is well known,'' he wrote a few years later, ``if perhaps seldom (very seldom) noted and discussed, that a student can pass a course in GP by attending next to no classes in that course, so long as s/he puts in an essay of a very minimum standard of merit on some subject more or less connected with the course, at some time or other ... I personally find it very demoralising to give a reasonable course to such and such a number of more or less regularly attending students (classes tend to be treated like lengthy TV movies that one watches off and on during the evening, with breaks for a drink and a snack, a game of chess, etc.) and then find submitted at the end a number of scripts far more numerous than that, most of which I am more or less obliged to pass, though they bear no impress of the course at all ... This sort of assessment very largely ... accounts for the size of our enrolment.'' At one point, it was discovered that the department was giving a course without approval -- on anarchism, appropriately enough -- and allowing self-assessment in it.

Devitt and two others had had enough, and began negotiating secretly with the Vice-Chancellor with a view to re-amalgamation. ``The VC puffed smoke,'', Devitt recalls, ``made encouraging noises, and did nothing. (It was often hard to tell if he was breathing.)'' When it became clear nothing was going to happen, the three quit General Philosophy, again denouncing the intimidation, insults, ostracizing and hectoring there. They joined the Traditional and Modern Department, becoming known as the first wave of ``boat people''. The remaining members were rocked. The radicals wanted to keep up the fight, but Burnheim, as usual, and Suchting, unusually, and others in receipt of salaries advised caution. The ``period of easy offensives is over'', Wal announced.

It is customary for philosophical scholars of a continental bent to declare themselves for one or other European author, commentary on whose works provides the mass of the scholars' own output. In General Philosophy, first choice of guru was Louis Althusser, author of For Marx Reading Capital Lenin and Philosophy etc. Embarrassingly, a Sydney student visited Paris, secured an interview with Althusser, and brought back bad news for his Australian disciples. He had never heard of them, and when their interpretation of his work was explained, he denounced it as a travesty. The movement of his thought, he said, was away from ideology, and he had this message: ``Go and tell the comrades down there, on my behalf, not to confuse philosophy with ideology nor to reduce philosophy to political agitation.'' In any case, a few years later, Althusser murdered his wife. It was time to move on. There were plenty more gurus where Althusser came from. A faction appeared in GP that leaned towards French authors who combined Marxism, feminism and psychoanalysis -- Foucault, Irigaray, Lacan, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Deleuze and so on. Within a few years, they had the numbers to roll the Marxist caucus. They and their students are still in charge.

In the face of student disillusionment with Marxism, and to the loss of the numbers by the Marxist ruling staff faction, the acting head of the department in 1979, Alan Chalmers, suspended the democratic constitution and assumed the traditional powers of a head of department. As Stove put it, ``General Chalmers has overthrown the government of General Philosophy. He has promised that free elections will be held after order has been restored The promised restoration of democracy is still awaited.

A new Vice-Chancellor found himself deluged by complaints about the doings of General Philosophy, but his efforts to amalgamate the two departments came to nothing. The result was that GP retained effective control of its appointments. They proceeded to use it, in securing the appointments of two internal feminist candidates, Denise Russell and Elizabeth Grosz, over obviously superior outsiders. The first case was somewhat less scandalous, in that Russell was recognised as a good teacher of first year students, so that at least someone benefited from her appointment. The Grosz case created a starker contrast between practice in General Philosophy, and the standards applying in the rest of the Australian philosophical community. When Dr Grosz's appointment as lecturer was under consideration, eleven of the seventeen permanent members of the School of Philosophy conveyed to the selection committee their view that her appointment would be ``unacceptable in any circumstances.'' It was leaked that a moderate outside feminist was likely to be appointed, whereupon 60 members of the Faculty of Arts signed a petition in Grosz's favour, and further references were allowed, for Grosz but not for the other candidates. Reasons were thought up to eliminate the strongest of the 55 external candidates. Charges against Grosz's teaching and assessment were ignored. Grosz was appointed. There was another wave of three ``boat people'' who left GP for T & M. They included Jean Curthoys.

In 1984-5 David Stove protested publicly that the Faculty of Arts was favouring women in appointments. It appeared that the figures the administration had supplied him with were not accurate, which was a cause of embarrassment, including an attack by Susan Ryan in the Senate, but he relied also on information about individual cases such as those of Russell and Grosz. Playboy invited him to write, and `Willesee' and `Nationwide' suggested he appear, but he declined his opportunity for fifteen minutes as performing seal. When he wrote to the Vice-Chancellor threatening to name those responsible if Denise Russell were to be appointed to the lectureship in General Philosophy over stronger candidates, the University of Sydney was finally moved to action. The Registrar threatened Stove with disciplinary action. No more came of it, but the threat of disciplinary action for such an ``offence'' is a rare one.

Stove's last word on the question, before he took early retirement, was his 1986 Quadrant article, `A Farewell to Arts'. ``The Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney'', he writes, ``is a disaster-area, and not of the merely passive kind, like a bombed building, or an area that has been flooded. It is the active kind, like a badly-leaking nuclear reactor, or an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle.'' As evidence he quoted several passages from work in the Faculty, the most offensive one from a paper `What is feminist theory?', by Elizabeth Grosz:

Feminist theory cannot be accurately regarded as a competing or rival account, diverging from patriarchal texts over what counts as true. It is not a true discourse, nor a more objective or scientific account. It could be appropriately seen, therefore, as a strategy a local, specific intervention with definite political, even if provisional, aims and goals. In the 1980s, feminist theory no longer seems to seek the status of unchangeable, trans-historical and trans-geographic truth in its hypotheses and propositions. Rather, it seeks effective forms of intervention into systems of power in order to subvert them and replace them with others more preferable.
Stove comments that the value of the passage ``lies in proving that nowadays the Faculty of Arts has philosophy lecturers who frankly avow that their `philosophy' has nothing to do with an interest in truth and everything to do with an interest in power.'' The only solution, Stove suggested, was the imposition of fees, at least for Arts students, and the diversion of resources from Arts to the scientific faculties.

Michael Devitt and Jean Curthoys in large part repented of their earlier radicalism, Devitt becoming well known as a professor at the University of Maryland and philosopher of language, and Curthoys writing Feminist Amnesia an attack on radical feminist ``theory''. Professor Elizabeth Grosz's subsequent career has been crowned with various successes, including a NSW Premier's Literary Award. Wal Suchting remained an unreformed old-style Marxist until his death in 1997. David Armstrong, by then the University's longest-serving professor, retired in 1991; his 1997 book, A World of States of Affairs sums up over twenty years of work on universals and laws of nature. He was succeeded as Challis Professor by Keith Campbell. David Stove died in 1994. He is best known for his two books of philosophical polemics, Popper and After (recently reprinted by Macleay Press under the title Anything Goes and The Plato Cult a demolition of the persistent idealist currents in philosophy. A book of his essays, Cricket Versus Republicanism includes `A farewell to Arts' and `The intellectual capacity of women'.

It is sometimes presumed that in the last decade the department of General Philosophy has settled down and become a respectable enough outfit, at least by the standards of Arts faculties. But the scandals have not ceased. The latest one is the Buckle case, still under way. Stephen Buckle has been a member of the Department of General Philosophy for over five years; he has published an Oxford University Press book on early modern philosophy and various articles. These writings are in more traditional areas of philosophy than those of the General Philosophy majority. In 1995, he published in Philosopher magazine a vigorous attack on the misuse of statistics by a number of academic feminists: he wrote, ``significant parts of our key information sources -- whether academic, journalistic, or governmental -- are now uncritically wedded to a crude gynocentrism which systematically misrepresents social reality''; ``the feminist social studies regularly reported in our newspapers are rarely worth the paper they're printed on''; feminist illusions, ``fed by an inappropriate and melodramatic vocabulary, and embedded in an interpretation of history which verges on paranoia, are the main cause of feminism's present impasse'', and so on. Unfortunately for him, he had neglected to obtain tenure before committing these observations to print. People started discussing his prospects of survival, mostly pessimistically, especially when it became known that there was much internal wrangling over rewritings of the job description. When his contract came up for renewal early this year, no-one was surprised to hear that his job had gone to a Canadian political theorist, whose writings on Mabo and sovereignty are more or less identical in content to the writings on Mabo and sovereignty of two GP insiders. They were even less surprised when it turned out that the Dean of Arts, whose work on feminist statistics had been attacked years before in Quadrant (Jan/Feb, 1984) in terms similar to those of Buckle's article, had chaired Buckle's selection committee. Sydney University's corruption committee ruled the case outside its competence, and the Vice-Chancellor maintained the finest traditions of inaction of his predecessors. Buckle is busily applying for jobs elsewhere.

What happened next