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Vale J. J. C. Smart


10 October 2012

Emeritus Professor Jack Smart, who passed away last week.
Emeritus Professor Jack Smart. Image courtesy of Steven Morton.

It is with sadness that the Monash community has learned of the passing of John Jamieson Carswell 'Jack' Smart AC, an Australian philosopher and academic who was a Professor of Philosophy at Monash.

Since he first arrived in Australia in 1950, his work in metaphysics and ethics, the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of mind and a number of other areas of philosophy, has made significant contribution to academic and philosophical discourse.

He is credited with having changed the direction of philosophy, both in Australia and worldwide, offering new perspectives on utilitarianism, among other areas.

Professor Smart joined the University in 1999, where he became an honorary research fellow in the School of Philosophy and Bioethics. 

In a long and rich career, Professor Smart continued to serve a variety of professorial roles, including Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Yale, Harvard and Princeton Universities in the US and Visiting Professor of Humanities at Stanford University, US.

A tribute to ‘Jack’ by Emeritus Professor John Bigelow

J.J.C. Smart was one of the most influential professional philosophers in the English-speaking world in the second half of the twentieth century.

In the first place, he was extremely influential as an advocate of a theory in 'metaphysics’ concerning the nature of the soul or mind and its relationship to the human body. This theory, which Smart began defending in the early 1960s, was at first widely dismissed as “the Australian fallacy” (the English philosophers said that the poor fellow, having become Professor at Adelaide, had obviously had his brain addled by the Australian sun). But largely through Smart’s influence various species of Smart’s theory became extremely widely accepted among professional philosophers by the end of the century. The theory Smart launched was the theory that conscious experiences are identical with (and not just correlated with) brain processes.  

Smart was also hugely influential as an advocate of a philosophical theory about the nature of time, closely related to Einstein’s theory of relativity. According to this theory time is a “fourth dimension” that is very much more similar than we normally realise to the familiar three dimensions of space. We normally think of things that are distant in space that they exist, even though they are not near to us; but we think of things that are distant in time as if they do not exist. Smart argued that science teaches us that this commonsense attitude to time is a mistake. He argued that although the past is distant from us it does still exist in exactly the same sense that things exist that are distant from us in space.   

Smart was also hugely influential as an advocate of grounding ethics in an attitude of universal benevolence. And he was influential as an advocate of atheism. Yet he was an atheist who never wavered in his sense of awe and wonder at the incredible beauty of the cosmos that science has discovered our world to be, governed as it is by astoundingly beautiful mathematical laws of nature. On top of that, he was a top bloke. His theoretical support of universal benevolence was accompanied by a genuine, heart-felt benevolence towards his family, friends, and colleagues. He was much loved and will be sorely missed.

Even if he is right in his theory that his whole life does exist, though at a spatiotemporal distance from us, nevertheless the present and future parts of those who knew him, those parts that exist in the years after his death, will be pained by their temporal distance from him.

- Professor Graham Oppy

I first met Jack at the Australian National University in the early 1990s, when I took up a postdoctoral fellowship in the Philosophy Program in the Research School of Social Sciences.

Jack had already officially 'retired' from his academic post, but he was a regular presence in his office, at morning and afternoon teas, staff seminars, and so forth. We talked quite a bit about the material that made it into the book that he co-wrote with John Haldane (Theism and Atheism, Blackwell, 1996); we talked even more about cricket (and hockey, and Sir William Mitchell, and other things besides).

Back then, Jack cycled to and from the University every day, and went bushwalking with anyone who was up for it. He had long since developed the happy knack of sleeping through staff seminars, and then asking acute questions in the subsequent Q&A. His very distinctive laugh was often heard echoing down the corridors of the Coombs Buidling.

It wasn’t until years later that I came fully to understand the role that Jack played in the history of Australian philosophy. Following his arrival in Adelaide—off the boat from Scotland—just after the Second World War, he developed a world-class department whose heritage extended across the globe.

Jack’s own work—defending mind/brain identity, metaphysical realism, utilitarianism, realism about colours, atheism, and much else besides—had an enormous influence, both locally and internationally. He was a fierce champion of “commonsense”, even though his opinions often turned out to be more than a little controversial! Jack came to Monash a few years after I did, and was immediately appointed as an Honorary Research Fellow.

He shared an office with junior philosophers who were proud to be in the same room with him, and he went on producing publications, sleeping through staff seminars (then asking acute questions in the Q&A), and hanging out in the Staff Club with friends from all parts of the University (but especially from the sciences).

As I wrote in my entry on Jack in A Companion to Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand (Monash University Publishing, 2008), he was “clearly one of the very greatest figures in the history of Australian philosophy.

Jack had a great innings, and he played it with style.

A memorial service will be held to remember the life of 'Jack' Smart at a date to be advised. It will be held at the Religious Centre at the Clayton campus.