Friday, March 10, 2017

THE DEATH OF THE AUSTRALIAN PHILOSOPHER JIM BAKER

'There are only facts, i.e., occurrences in space and time.'
- John Anderson, 'Empiricism,' Australasian Journal of Psychology
and Philosophy
, December 1927, p 14.

On March 3, 2017, which just happened to be my 62nd birthday, an Australian philosopher and university lecturer of some renown passed away at the age of 94. Sadly, his death appears to have gone completely unnoticed in the mainstream media, apart from a death notice placed in The Sydney Morning Herald by his family. Of course, that was to be expected because the mass media caters for the tastes and interests of the hoi polloi, so the media takes the view that talking about philosophy and academics is a complete waste of time except perhaps when some eccentric university lecturer says or do something grossly politically incorrect or otherwise sensationalistic.

The man of whom I speak is Jim Baker, pictured. Allan James Baker was his full name. He was born on July 22, 1922 and he studied philosophy under the Scottish-born Australian philosopher John Anderson who was arguably Australia’s most original thinker and whose philosophy has had a very important influence in my own life.

Jim obtained a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree with double firsts in Philosophy and History from the University of Sydney and, awarded the Wentworth Travelling Fellowship, which is designed to assist graduates of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney to undertake research work in Europe, Jim went on to obtain the intellectually demanding two-year taught graduate degree Bachelor of Philosophy (BPhil) in Philosophy degree at the University of Oxford

In the 1950s he lectured in philosophy, and was a colleague of Professor Anderson’s, at the University of Sydney. He also taught at Macquarie University in metropolitan Sydney as well as in Scotland, New Zealand and the United States of America. For many years he was a prominent member of the University of Sydney’s Libertarian Society (the 'Sydney Libertarians') and the Sydney Push. In fact, Jim was a founding Libertarian. The Libertarians were the philosophic core of what became known as the Sydney Push. While a student at the University of Sydney, he had been an active member of two famous Andersonian societies of the era, namely, the Sydney University Freethought Society and the Sydney University Literary Society.

Jim is perhaps most famous – and rightly so – for having written two scholarly books on the realist philosophy of John Anderson, namely, Anderson’s Social Philosophy (Angus & Robertson, 1979) and Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson (Cambridge University Press, 1986). In his lifetime John Anderson never actually fully systematized his philosophy in book form. At the time of his death he was working on the index for a collection of his philosophical essays, the posthumously published Studies in Empirical Philosophy (Angus and Robertson, 1962). It was Jim Baker who subsequently systematized Anderson’s philosophy and he deserves enormous credit for that achievement. 

Jim acknowledged that there were 'difficulties' with certain aspects of Anderson's philosophy and he openly admitted to having 'criticisms here and there' with Anderson's presentation of realism. I do, too. I now think there are some fundamental weaknesses with Anderson's philosophy that prevent it from being fully coherent and internally consistent as a systematic realism (eg a certain undisclosed idealism, problems with Anderson's treatment of negative propositions, the essential unspeakability of the categories, etc). However, that is not important for present purposes. Jim always ackowledged the greatness of Anderson, and the depth of his thinking, without ever treating him as if he were a God ('the Master') and his teaching some sort of sacred doctrine. In short, Jim was very much his own man and not a sycophantic follower of his former teacher.

In his two books on Anderson’s philosophy, especially Australian Realism, Jim sought to demonstrate that the Australian (or Sydney) realism of Professor Anderson is a systematic and coherent philosophical position. Jim also penned the article on Anderson in the Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed E Craig (Routledge, 1999), vol 1. He was also the author of Social Pluralism: A Realistic Analysis (A J Baker/Fast Books, 1997) as well as many articles on philosophy and social theory appearing in journals such as the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Mind, Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, Philosophical Magazine, Dialogue, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Australian Quarterly, Arna, Heraclitus (being his own private circulation journal and newsletter) and Broadsheet.

I met Jim several times at the Sydney Realist Group where he would occasionally speak, as have I once or twice. Jim also penned articles for the group’s journal The Sydney Realist, as have I. I remember once asking Jim if he would autograph my copy of his book Australian Realism. He looked at the book for some time, then looked at me rather oddly, before finally saying, ‘Where do you want me to sign it?’ (I think he must have been accustomed to more difficult problems.) I said, ‘Anywhere.’ He thought for a moment, and then signed the book at the very top of the inside front cover. So much for literalism and realism. No, Jim was a giant of a man and a deep thinker and he deserved to be much better remembered than he was when he left us a week ago. His funeral was held at Sydney’s Northern Suburbs Crematorium on March 9, 2017.

Opposite the title-page of Jim’s book Australian Realism there stand two epigraphs. Both are from the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus or, more precisely, from the Scottish classicist John Burnet’s translation of Heraclitus’s Fragments in his book Early Greek Philosophy. The first of the epigraphs is this:

‘The world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living Fire, with measures kindling and measures going out.’ 

John Anderson loved and often quoted those words. Jim Baker must have liked them, too. So do I.

Thank you, Jim.


Note. Since writing this post, a well-written obituary for Jim Baker, penned by the Australian businessman and former trade union official Dr Michael Easson AM, who is also a member of the Sydney Realists, has appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald. IEJ. March 25, 2017.



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