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Gibson, Quentin Boyce (1913–2001)

by Richard Campbell

With the death of the philosopher Quentin Gibson on Saturday, 24 November, The Australian National University lost a connection to the earliest years of tertiary education in Canberra. Quentin first lectured (part-time) in the Canberra University College (CUC) in 1934. He returned to a lectureship in the College in 1945, the first full-time appointment in Philosophy.

Quentin came from a distinguished family of Australian philosophers. His father W. R. Boyce Gibson, was Professor of Philosophy in the University of Melbourne when Quentin was an undergraduate (his final honours examination papers in Philosophy had to be marked in Adelaide). At the age of 15, Quentin spent a year at school in Freiburg in Germany, while his parents worked on translating the famous book Ideas, by Edmund Husserl. After his father's death in 1935, his elder brother Alexander (Sandy) succeeded to the Philosophy chair in Melbourne.

In recommending his appointment in 1934, a senior philosopher in Melbourne wrote: "his essay work throughout his course has been definitely first class ... Though quiet and modest, he is very conscientious, thorough and methodical." That remained true throughout his life.

CUC had no need of a Philosophy lecturer in 1935, so Quentin Gibson went to Oxford, to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics, in two rather than the usual three years. In 1937 he took up a Lectureship at the University of Western Australia, before returning to Canberra in 1945.

In 1948 he took leave from CUC to accept a two-year appointment by the newly established Australian National University as a Research Fellow. He took up that Fellowship at Oxford University. Upon his return to the CUC in 1950, his position was reclassified as a Senior Lectureship, and in 1959 he was promoted to Associate Professor. In 1960, following the decision to "associate" the CUC with the ANU, his position was transferred with it.

A year's study leave he undertook in 1959 typified Quentin Gibson's broad vision of philosophy. He began with three months in India observing the impact of Western philosophical procedures on traditional Indian thought, before going on to London. The tour finished with a period in Germany, to become conversant with recent developments in philosophical ideas there. He undertook the latter, because it "might help towards what I feel is very necessary at the present time —bridging the gap between the methods of conducting philosophical enquiries in the Anglo-Saxon world and the very different kind of philosophical activity which is dominant on the Continent of Europe". This encapsulates the character that Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts has striven to maintain to this day.

When he retired in 1978, the staff and a number of his students considered how best to honour him and his foundational role. They endowed the Quentin Gibson Prize, to be awarded each year to the top student with first-class honours in Philosophy.

Following his retirement, he continued to be active, with no discernible diminution of his intellectual powers. Right up until three days before he died he continued to attend philosophy seminars and to ask questions in his own inimitable style: self-effacing, never a hint of belligerence, but with penetrating simplicity that consistently went to the heart of the issue.

As a philosopher, Quentin Gibson belonged in a most literal sense to a tradition of enlightenment — with a distinct aversion to obscurantism and obfuscation. This was visible also in his remarkably elegant and lucid style of writing. Many students were indebted to his clear and careful teaching. This was exemplified in his first book, an introduction for students, Facing Philosophical Problems (1948).

Characteristic of his philosophy was his rejection of any forms of relativism as regards truth. Similarly, there cannot be degrees of truth, or different kinds of existence, a position for which he argued in his most recent book, The Existence Principle, which was published in 1998, his 85th year.

His especial interest was to draw upon the logical empiricist tradition to clarify issues basic to the social sciences. Years of work in that area resulted in his book The Logic of Social Enquiry (1960), arguing there is no fundamental distinction in method between the social and natural sciences.

Throughout his life, he consistently represented a style of philosophising that always managed to weather the latest fashions, on account of its fidelity to some of the basic philosophic instincts — commonsense, rational critique and truth.

In 1938, Quentin Gibson married Joyce Manton, who had been a fellow undergraduate at the University of Melbourne. He was her treasured husband for nearly 64 years. They had two sons, David (deceased) and Trevor, five grandchildren, Mark, Paul, Tom, Helen and Robbie, and two great-grandchildren, Robin and Mae.

Original publication

Citation details

Richard Campbell, 'Gibson, Quentin Boyce (1913–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 September 2017.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2017

Life Summary [details]


31 August 1913


24 November 2001