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Stove, David (1927–1994)

by James Franklin

David Stove's skill in philosophical polemic made him a figure the Left loved to hate, and an object of apprehension even among his own camp.

The list of what he attacked was a long one and included, but was certainly not limited to, arts faculties, Darwinism, Enlightenment, feminism, Freud, the idea of progress, leftish views of all kinds, Marxism, metaphysics, modern architecture and art, philosophical idealism, Popper, religion, semiotics, Stravinsky and Sweden — also, anything beginning with "soc" (even Socrates got a serve or two).

But anyone can be against things; the Stove trick was to be against things for reasons one would not have thought of oneself. He attacked even scepticism as a general principle, regarding it as a failure to proportion belief to evidence, and criticised many of his targets for their levity and, as he called it, enfant-terriblisme.

As a student, Stove attended Sydney University where he was strongly influenced by John Anderson, the professor of philosophy. Though he later came to abhor many of Anderson's views, he never lost an Andersonian concern for rigour in argument. He retired from the Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy in 1987, having been there since 1961, after a stint at the University of NSW.

During that period, in a discipline not noted for accessible prose, he commanded a very readable, forceful and funny style reminiscent of such Australian authors as Clive James and Robert Hughes. The vitriol was best distilled in his two books of philosophical polemic, Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalitists (1982) and The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies (1991).

The first of these, an attack on modern philosophy of science, is notable for a devastating first chapter on the misuse of quotation marks to undermine meanings. All jokes made a point. Popper's massive opus, Logic of Scientific Discovery, which maintains that there is no logic of scientific discovery, was, Stove claimed, a gross overreaction to the fact that scientists sometimes make mistakes. That is, it is Aesop's fable of the fox and the grapes over again.

'The parallel would be complete if the fox, having become convinced that neither he nor anyone else could ever succeed in tasting grapes, should nevertheless write many long books on the progress of viticulture.'

Or on the subject of 'fortunate heirs' who prefer not to examine the source of their inheritance: 'A proprietor of a pornographic bookshop may be dimly conscious of a debt to the author of Areopagitica, but Milton is the last person he wants to see in his shop.'

The Plato Cult, his most successful book internationally, handed out the same treatment to several other philosophical traditions, whose existence he attributed to eddies of words that had cut loose from their meanings. Reviews said the book was 'written with passion and clarity, and will certainly succeed in its admirable aim of causing offence to all and sundry'. A recently completed book, Darwinian Fairytales, addresses Darwinism and sociobiology (he is against them).

There were also many polemical articles, one of which, published in Quadrant, was probably the only one printed with a special note from the editors distancing them from the content. The high point of outrage was his article 'A Farewell to Arts' in 1986, in which he described the faculty of which he was still a member as a disaster area ('of the active kind, like a badly leaking nuclear reactor'), and attacked the professional competence of several named colleagues. The reaction — 'the old boy's gone too far this time' - was not uncommon among his friends as well as enemies.

His description of himself as a 'purely negative thinker' — was not wholly true. His books Probability and Hume's Inductive Scepticism (1973) and Rationality of Induction (1986) defended a theory of probability as a matter of pure logic, arguing that there is an exact science of weighing the reasons for and against any opinion. Though very much a minority view on philosophy, it has found more favour in artificial intelligence (a discipline which Stove characteristically found too modern to be of interest).

As a teacher, he again drew mixed reactions. If average students found him unexciting, the better ones delighted in him. His students were, on the whole, less concerned than his colleagues by the extremity of some of his opinions. He showed that the range of what could reasonably be thought was wider than one had imagined; at his best, logical consequence could seem putty in his hands.

He gave permission, so to speak, to think outside the mainstream — if reasons for doing so could be found. Through his encouragement a generation of students found their own voices. His tolerance of views other than his own (if well argued) was more genuine than that of many thinkers who proclaimed tolerance as a principle.

Of all modern enthusiasms, perhaps the only one he had sympathy with was conservation. He greatly admired those who had preserved stretches of the NSW coastal bush from development. At his Mulgoa property, he planted trees and enjoyed the calming pleasure of cricket, baroque music, old books and especially his family. He died there, after suffering the effects of cancer treatment for some months.

David Stove is survived by his wife Jess, son Robert and daughter Judith.

Original publication

  • Australian, 21 June 1994

Citation details

James Franklin, 'Stove, David (1927–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/stove-david-1547/text1595, accessed 2 October 2014.

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