John Passmore lecture

John Passmore lecture

John Arthur Passmore

In 1990 the Philosophy Program at RSSS decided to fund an annual lecture in honour of a former Professor and Head, John Passmore. The Inaugural Lecture was given on Friday 14 December 2000 by Quentin Skinner, Regis Professor of History at Cambridge University. Before the Lecture began Philip Pettit, Professor of Social and Political Theory in the Program, said the following about John Passmore by way of introduction:

John Arthur Passmore was born in Manly in 1914. He attended the University of Sydney, coming under the influence of the philosopher, John Anderson, and he later held a lectureship there. He was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Otago before coming to the Research School of Social Sciences in 1954.  He retired from his position as Professor of Philosophy in 1979 but has held Visiting Fellowships in the School—and has remained active in research—ever since.

Together with Perce Partridge, John was an important force in turning the Philosophy Program in the Research School—or Department, as it then was—into a world centre. He was active in recruiting outstanding figures like Stanley Benn and Robert Brown, Richard Routley and Robert Meyer and indeed the person who succeeded him as Head of Program, J.J.C. Smart. He also appointed the late John Harsanyi, whose work in social choice theory was recognised by the award of a Nobel Prize in Economics.

Apart from his powerful impact on the shaping of the Philosophy Program, John Passmore made a magnificent contribution in his own academic work, being responsible for an oeuvre of great volume and deep originality.  The shape and range of that contribution are what led the Social and Political Theory Program to want to name a lecture series in his honour.

John is primarily known for his work in the history of thought, though this—as we shall see—is only one of three areas in which he has had a deep impact on the development of his subject. Before coming to Canberra, he had already written two important monographs, one on Ralph Cudworth, the other on David Hume. The second of these works, Hume's Intentions, is still widely read and is an essential point of reference in Hume scholarship. The first Passmore lecturer, Professor Skinner, has said that the book had an important influence on his own thinking at the time when he was evolving the main elements in what has come to be know as the Cambridge contextualist school of historical methodology.

The historical work that has brought John most attention, and it must be familiar to almost anyone who has studied philosophy in the past three or four decades, is A Hundred Years of Philosophy, first published  in 1957.  This book made it possible for philosophers in the tradition of Frege and Moore and Russell—the analytical tradition, so-called—to see themselves for the first time in proper historical perspective. It forced them to look away from their individual pursuits and recognise the connections and the contrasts whereby their enterprise was defined. The book brought its author immediate recognition, both within the philosophical world and outside.

John was always a philosopher in his own right, never just—dare I say 'just'?—a historian of ideas. This is apparent in all of his historical studies, but especially in The Perfectibility of Man, published in 1970. This book—he confesses in his 1997 autobiography that it might better have been called Human Imperfectibility—was a trenchant critique of the many historical schools of thought in which ethics and politics are shaped by the belief that human beings are essentially and extensively malleable.

I said that there are two others areas in which John Passmore worked, apart from the history of thought. The second might be described as that of critical thought. And here his most important contribution is surely his 1974 study on Man's Responsibility for Nature.  This was of the first importance internationally in opening up philosophical discussion of the relation that human beings ought to have to their environment. While it was path-breaking and radical in the way it put ecological questions on the philosophical agenda, it remains one of the most balanced treatments of the topic. It is a classic in the currently burgeoning field of environmental philosophy.

His work in critical thinking led him to develop some very influential views on education; these received their canonical formulation in The Philosophy of Teaching, published in 1981.  And it can also be taken to include his contribution to the philosophy of art: the philosophy of Serious Art, as he described it in his book of 1991. The interest in critical thinking led him inevitably into debates that had a particular relevance in Australian public life. His principal contribution here were the Boyer lectures in 1981 on The Limits of Government, in which he argued for the non-romantic attitude to government that goes naturally with his views on human imperfectibility.

The third and last area of John Passmore's work that has to be mentioned even in a cursory overview of his extensive output can be described as methodology. I have already made reference to the influence he had on the methodology of the history of ideas, arguing as he did for the importance of going back to the intentions visible in David Hume's total work. But I should also add a reference to his first-rate study, published in 1961, of Philosophical Reasoning.

With the perspective available from his historical work, John was able to achieve two important goals in this book. First, to set some currently influential models—including the model of brain and mind that was described at the time as Australian materialism—in a wider context, thereby providing those models with extra, unexpected support. And second,to debunk many of the fashionable claims about the limits of meaningful discourse. He did as much as anyone to distance philosophy from the illusion, prevalent in the mid-century, that substantive philosophical problems could be dissolved in the acid of linguistic analysis.

The blurb to Hume's Intentions tells us that in reading Hume Passmore seeks 'to discover, if possible, the unity (as they were the cogitations of one person) of his contribution'. What is the unity of John Passmore's contribution, which is almost as voluminous and varied as Hume's own? I see the key in two features. First, a boldness of spirit a downright disregard of fashion—in opening up new projects; and second, a brilliance of sense in identifying the extremes to be avoided, and the middle, moderated way. He is a model for any serious scholar and a name with which we should all be proud to be associated."

Past John Passmore lectures

Mark Schroeder
University of Southern California
Relationship Pathologies

Miranda Fricker
New York University
Ambivalence about forgiveness

Marc Fleurbaey
Princeton University
Can we be Rational and Fair Under Risk and Uncertainty?

Arthur F. Thurnau
New York University
Changing Visions of an Egalitarian Society

Sharon Street
New York University
Constructivism in Ethics and the Problem of Attachment and Loss

Jeff McMahan
University of Oxford
Liability, Proportionality, and the Number of Aggressors

David Estlund
Brown University
Beyond Second Best: Unfolding a Fallacy of Approximation

Samuel Scheffler
New York University
The Afterlife

David Runciman
Politics, Cambridge University
Democratic Confidence and Overconfidence

Geoff Sayre-McCord
Philosophy, University of North Carolina
Sentiments and Spectators:  Adam Smith's Moral Psychology

Larry Temkin
Philosophy, Rutgers University
Illuminating Egalitarianism

Edna Ullmann-Margalit
Philosophy, Hebrew University)
Considerateness:  The Underlying Norm of Ethics & Morality

Jane Mansbridge
Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Kicking the Bastards Out?

Sheila Jasanoff
Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Categorical Imperatives:  Biotechnology and the Democratic Politics of Novelty

Anne Phillips
Government and Gender Institute, LSE
Multiculturalism, Autonomy & Gender

Jeremy Waldron
Law, Columbia University
The Primacy of Justice

James Buchanan
Economics, George Mason University; winner of 1986 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences
Classical Liberalism and the Perfectability of Man

Alan Gibbard
Philosophy, University of Michigan
Knowing What to Do:  Can There be a Knowledge of Oughts?

Quentin Skinner
History, Cambridge University
Why Does Laughter Matter to Philosophy?


Past events

2019 Passmore Lecture - Mark Schroeder: Relationship Pathologies

5 Aug 2019

This talk will be about how people – even well-meaning people – can fail to understand one another in ways that are systematically difficult to escape. The...

» read more

Passmore Lecture

6 Aug 2018

2018 Passmore Lecture “Ambivalence about forgiveness" Professor Miranda Fricker Presidential Professor of Philosophy, Graduate Centre, City University of...

» read more

Can we be Rational and Fair Under Risk and Uncertainty? - 2017 Passmore Lecture

1 Aug 2017

The Centre for Moral, Social and Political Theory and the School of Philosophy at ANU present the 2017 Passmore Lecture with Speaker Marc Fleurbaey (Princeton).

» read more

John Passmore Lecture: Changing Visions of an Egalitarian Society

2 Aug 2016

Speaker: Professor Elizabeth Anderson Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the...

» read more

2015 John Passmore Lecture: Constructivism in Ethics and the Problem of Attachment and Loss

21 Jul 2015

This paper explores two questions in moral philosophy that might at first seem unrelated.   The first question is practical.  While it’s not a truth we like to...

» read more

John Passmore Lecture 2014

23 Jul 2014

2014 John Passmore Lecture:  Liability, Proportionality, and the Number of Aggressors If a fully culpable attacker would otherwise kill an innocent victim, he...

» read more

Beyond Second Best: Unfolding a Fallacy of Approximation

13 Aug 2013

There is a famous argument, drawn from a proof in economics, to the following effect: If it is infeasible to produce all of the elements that would together...

» read more


Updated:  5 February 2024/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications