Obituary: John Smart; gifted Scottish philosopher who became a leading light in Australia

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Born: 16 September, 1920, in Cambridge. Died: 6 October, 2012, in Melbourne, Australia, aged 92.

John Jamieson Carswell, universally known as “JJC” or “Jack”, Smart, was a leading figure in Australian philosophy from his arrival in the country in 1950 when he was appointed to the Chair at the University of Adelaide, long into the period of his retirement from the Australian National University in 1985. He was a philosopher of wide range with distinctive contributions to the study of ethics, philosophy of mind, metaphysics and philosophy of religion.

Born into a Scottish family and educated first at the university of Glasgow, he was like John Anderson, another graduate of that institution who also pursued his career in Australia, a committed empiricist believing that reality is wholly natural: no God, no soul, no life-forces, no mysterious “values”, only what is studied by the sciences and reflected upon by philosophy.

However, whereas some advance the atheist-materialist world-view aggressively with resentment at the extent to which it is not shared by others, Jack was always friendly, good humoured and courteous.

He once practiced as a Christian but came to feel that this could not be squared with what he believed as a philosopher, writing that “my pro-religious emotions were at war with my intellect and I tried to reconcile the two in what I came to see as an evasive manner”.

At the same time he retained a respect for the charitable aspects of Christian practice and took seriously intellectual defences of religion, noting that “philosophical disputes are not easily 
settled, even between intelligent and intellectually honest 

Jack was the eldest of three sons of William Marshall Smart and his wife Isabel Carswell. Smart senior was a distinguished astronomer who had studied at Glasgow University then Trinity College, Cambridge, where he embarked on an academic career which brought him back to Glasgow in 1937 as Regius Professor of Astronomy. All three sons followed their father into academic life, becoming professors and achieving high standing in their fields: Jack as a philosopher, Alastair (1922-1992) as an art historian, and Ninian (1927-2001) as a pioneer in religious studies.

Though schooled in England Jack followed his father into Glasgow University and following that studied at Oxford, where he also held a Junior Research Fellowship at Corpus Christi College for two years before emigrating to Australia.

He was a prolific and clear writer and always pursued what he regarded as the realistic position on any issue, holding fast to it in the face of what he regarded as often sentimental and woolly thinking.

Thus he argued that ethics is about promoting happiness and accepted the supposed counter-example that if this were the case then it might be justifiable, even obligatory, to put an innocent person to death to placate a violent crowd.

This occasioned the coining, by the American philosopher Daniel Dennett, of the term “to outSmart” one’s opponent, ie take the force out of their “objection” by accepting it while pointing to the reasonableness of what was being complained of. In similarly robust fashion he argued that consciousness is a state of the brain, and that time is an illusion.

He enjoyed philosophical debates in person and in print. One such was his famous exchange with Bernard Williams in Utilitarianism For and Against (1973), another with JJ Haldane in Atheism and Theism (1996).

Smart’s universe was like that studied by his father: a distribution of matter across space. All else, life, consciousness, value and so on were consequences of the aggregation and complexification of matter.

Far from this spare metaphysical view occasioning melancholy Jack Smart enjoyed life greatly, especially bush-trekking and talking philosophy.

A smile was always on or near to his lips and in his cheery curiosity, enthusiasm and benign outlook there was about him something of enduring boyhood.

Through the course of his career he held visiting professorships at Princeton, Harvard and Yale but his enduring and deepest association and affection was for the Australian philosophical community.

His contribution to Australian philosophy was deeply appreciated by several generations of those taught by him or who were his colleagues and he was honoured by the Australian National University which established the Jack Smart Lecture in 1998.

Other forms of recognition include Companionship of the Order of Australia, honorary fellowships at two 
Oxford colleges and honorary degrees from St Andrews, La Trobe and Glasgow universities.

He leaves his widow Elizabeth, son and daughter Robert and Helen, and grandchildren Hilary, Mercedes, Tasman and Tom.