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Sylvan, Richard (1935–1996)

by Bob Meyer

When I arrived at ANU in 1974, I wanted to become the RSSS philosopher Richard Sylvan. It was (and is) too large an ambition. And anyway it must be withdrawn, after Sylvan's sudden death on 16 June 1996 of a massive heart attack. Sylvan, 60, was visiting the island of Bali, Indonesia, with his wife Louise, the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Consumers Association. She is Richard's sole survivor.

More accurately, hundreds and thousands of us, around Australasia and around the world, are Richard's survivors. For as his former PhD student Professor E. P. Martin put it in memorial remarks, Sylvan was precisely the sort of person whom our ANU Institute of Advanced Studies should most support. Sadly he did not always receive that much support, for reasons that reflect badly both on him and on us. Sylvan was a difficult man; not only did he fail to suffer fools gladly, but he often disdained suffering them at all. In response, his colleagues had some difficulty in suffering him, often on grounds that shame our pretensions to be one of the world's great universities.

Nonetheless, Sylvan's academic record was outstanding. He bore individual or joint responsibility for some 27 books; moreover he wrote hundreds of highly innovative professional articles, many of them still awaiting publication. In philosophy Richard "covered the waterfront", tackling topics in logic, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and environmental philosophy, among others. For his contributions he was elected to the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1977; but in 1980 he became the first (and I think the only) scholar to resign from that body, on what he claimed was a "matter of principle". (But he later admitted forgetting what the principle was.)

Richard Routley (subsequently Sylvan) was born in New Zealand in December 1935. He received his bachelor's degree from Victoria University in Wellington, going on to graduate study in philosophy at Princeton in 1959-61. Again not untypically (for Richard) he left Princeton without an advanced degree, since he had been offered and accepted a job in philosophy at the University of Sydney. (But given his creative output, it became more embarrassing to Princeton than to Sylvan that he had no degree, whence he was awarded the PhD later for his metaphysical treatise on "noneism", Exploring Meinong's Jungle.) From Sydney he went on to the University of New England, where in company with Professor Len Goddard and others he helped to build a strong philosophy department and to found the Australasian Association for Logic. In 1968-71 he held a research position at Monash University; ever since (except for brief periods as a Visiting Professor in various universities in North and South America), he had been at ANU, where he was recruited by Professor John Passmore as a Senior Fellow of the Philosophy Department of the Research School of Social Sciences. (Passmore recalls that, despite his having appointed Routley, he was soon attacked by him as a "human chauvinist".)

My own work with Sylvan dates from 1971 (though I did not actually meet him until 1974, when we had about 10 joint articles). It happened thus. Richard circulated a draft containing his ideas about "the semantics of entailment". It was an incredible document, written in his inimitable hand. (Roughly, Richard's handwriting looked like the oscilloscope for a patient in intensive care; deciphering it was for his collaborator Jean Norman, not for the timid.) The document contained a wild mixture of wonderfully incisive ideas and absolutely false claims. Nonetheless, we were able to shape and mould those ideas into a coherent whole, introducing a 3-place accessibility relation to explicate the Æ of entailment, just as on the familiar modal story due to Kripke a 2-place relation explicates the ● of necessity and the ◊ of possibility. This Routley-Meyer semantics for relevant logics builds on the earlier Routley-Routley (afterwards Sylvan-Plumwood) semantical ideas about "and", "or", and (especially) "not".

Another item important in the Routley-Routley collaboration was their joint work in developing environmental philosophy and in supporting environmental causes. At one point Sylvan was declared persona non grata at the ANU forestry library, on account of his attacks with Plumwood on introduced pine plantations. (This declaration did not last.) Sylvan's environmental interests survived the breakup of his marriage to Plumwood, since in later years he found other collaborators (e.g. David Bennett) for his work in "deep ecology". Indeed, Sylvan found many collaborators — not only students but also long established professional colleagues — over the years. Among them were Professor Nicholas Griffin (now of McMaster University in Canada), who has agreed to be Sylvan's literary executor; Professor Graham Priest, who has worked often with Sylvan on paraconsistent logics; Professor Paul Gochet, of the University of Liege; Professor Michael McRobbie, presently head of our Cooperative Research Centre in Advanced Computational Systems; and Professor Newton da Costa, founder of the Brazilian school of paraconsistency. In all his alliances, Sylvan almost never chose the easy or popular course. His enthusiasms, intellectual as well as political, were for the alternative. To get the counter-suggestible Sylvan to defend some view, one needed first to remark that the view was now utterly discredited.

Many have commented on how Sylvan loved the bush. Goddard suggests that it was Sylvan's religion to devote himself to the mechanics of Nature. And Professor Jack Smart recalls how he first met Sylvan as a young bushwalker, over to visit Australian universities (including Adelaide); Smart claims some input into Sylvan's decision to go to Princeton. Also Sylvan loved building things, especially with his own hands; he sought a balance between physical building and intellectual building; the latter, he said, was harder. Even at Wellington he built a computer, out of whatever relays and stuff were lying around. In later life he rose in time to wake the birds; his habit was to read, write, and think very early in the day. Afternoons it was time to build — sometimes with (though more often without) the help of his graduate students. Richard purchased several properties in New South Wales, spending time near Clyde Mountain, in the vicinity of Lake George, and on the South Coast. And he was a great traveller — to Poland, Brazil, Africa and other places off the beaten track.

So — Richard Sylvan is gone. It's hard to believe; it would be in character for him to be fooling us, spreading the rumour of his death for some deep Sylvanesque purpose. Would that it were so! But the evidence is now overwhelming (despite his previous state of apparent perfect health). God, who takes us when he will - not when we are ready to go — has elected to deprive us of Sylvan. This is fair; as Sylvan hated so many of us at ANU, we no longer deserved him. But as Louise Sylvan put it (near enough), we might have spared him as easily 30 years down the track. 'Twas not, alas, to be!

(I am indebted to Louise Sylvan, Plumwood, Goddard, Bennett, Martin, Passmore, McRobbie and Smart in the preparation of these remarks. But all opinions expressed are my own, whether shared or not.)

Original publication

Citation details

Bob Meyer, 'Sylvan, Richard (1935–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 September 2017.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2017

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Routley, Richard

December 1935
New Zealand


16 June 1996
Bali, Indonesia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage