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J.J.C. Smart (1920-2012)

Graham Nerlich remembers an amiable and versatile Australian philosopher.

Professor J.J.C. (Jack) Smart, AC, (Companion of the Order of Australia), died on October 6th 2012, aged 92. He was a Scot whose father was an eminent astronomer. He went to Oxford as a student, where he was influenced by Gilbert Ryle and his behaviourist approach in philosophy of mind. He became Professor of Philosophy at the University of Adelaide in 1950, split off Psychology from the Department of Philosophy and appointed Ullin Place to head the new outfit. It was a splendid appointment.

Jack and Ullin argued intensely about their dissatisfaction with behaviourism and looked for a story about the mind as somehow being inner without being spooky – the mind is not behaviour, it’s the brain. Behaviour tells us all we know about other people, so it seemed to Ryle and others that it might be the way we know about ourselves as well. Despite Ryle’s brilliant defence, that is hard to swallow. Our minds simply don’t seem subjectively to be either our behaviour or our brains.

Why not the brain? You know directly all about your mind, e.g. whether you are feeling chirpy or sad, what sensations you are having and so on. You are seldom wrong. But you know nothing directly about your brain, not even that you’ve got one. I think I’ve got one, but only because books tell me that every opened human skull has had a brain inside it. No one ever saw what’s in my skull, so I just take it on trust that I’m like everyone else – that there’s a brain in there, not porridge or sawdust. It’s hearsay not direct knowledge. So how can my mind be my brain, however commonsensical it first seems to say that?

However, the same thing can have apparently inconsistent properties. The Morning Star is also the Evening Star (Venus); a mild mannered reporter can also be Superman. We need a way to think about sensations that is also a way of thinking about brain processes. Then you see how they can be one and the same. You can say “What is going on inside me is like what is going on when I see a tomato.” That describes both. They can be, and they are, the very same thing. Place published something for psychologists, Smart something for philosophers, his famous 1959 article ‘Sensations and Brain Processes’.

That’s the core idea in identity theories of mind and all the philosophies of mind since 1959 have begun from that point, whether to agree or to challenge it. It was a revolutionary idea and remains at the core of the metaphysics of mind. It came to be known, affectionately, as the Australian heresy.

Smart always acknowledged Place as its originator. The history is not very clear. I was a senior student in Jack’s department at the time. I was not privy to the discussions, but I believe that Ullin got out a first version. It was intensively refined in discussions mainly with Smart but also with Charlie Martin, another fine philosopher in the Adelaide department.

Smart also defended scientific realism against conventionalism, operationalism and the like. You can get a rough picture of his opponents by thinking back to Berkeley and phenomenalism. After Descartes, philosophers all thought they inevitably knew about their minds, but how did they know about the external world? Berkeley argued that there is no world beyond your perceptions of it, so the problem of knowing what’s external does not arise. The world you know is all inside. This ‘solved’ the external world problem by redefining the target so that it is easily reached. Leibniz and Kant also tried bringing the target inside the mind in more sophisticated ways and the later positivists, including conventionalists had similar strategies for keeping the target within reach. The worry about all this is that it impoverishes the content of what we think we know.

Smart argued, as others did, that scientific theories should not be rewritten so that they turn out to be more about ourselves than about the independent world. First, sending rockets to the Moon successfully would be miraculous unless our theories, as we formulate them, were near the truth. Second, we surely know a great deal about the familiar world in just the terms we ordinarily use. So we should not try to solve the knowledge problem by emptying out its content. True, we don’t fully understand how our evidence is as good as it, is but our proper job is to explore that, not weaken our theories.

Smart was an atheist and an act utilitarian (i.e., he thought we should not follow moral rules justified by maximising utility but consider the moral utility of each act as best we can. He also defended what’s called a ‘B-theory’ of time.

Jack’s personality was somehow related to his style as a thinker. He was utterly without self-consciousness to an extent sometimes comical. He seemed always to be clear and direct in what he said even when he was puzzled. He was not at all ego-involved with his opinions and often gave them up with surprising readiness. This led to his ‘definition’ in the humorous Philosophical Lexicon: to outsmart an opponent is to embrace the paradoxical conclusion that s/he thinks will embarrass you. This went along with a surprising naivety in some areas of life. Together with his great amiability, it made him a lovable and widely admired character.

© Prof. Graham Nerlich 2013

Graham Nerlich is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Adelaide. He was among Jack Smart’s first students at Adelaide and knew him well from 1952 on.

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