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Herbst, Peter (1919–2007)

by Thomas Mautner and Thomas Campbell

Peter Herbst, 1991

Peter Herbst, 1991

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-543

Cultural and intellectual life in Canberra, and far beyond, benefited greatly when Peter Herbst arrived in 1962 to occupy the Chair of Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts at The Australian National University. He and his wife Valerie, a highly talented pianist, made their home a welcoming meeting-place for lovers of music and the visual arts, and for local and visiting academic colleagues.

Peter Herbst was born on 5 August 1919 in Heidelberg, in today’s Baden- Württemberg. His father, Richard Herbst, was the owner of a substantial mechanical engineering enterprise, and invented and designed many of its products. His mother, Eva (née Salomon), a woman of high bourgeois culture, developed a strong interest in art and archaeology. Both were non-religious Jews. After Nazi thugs early in 1933 broke into his home and threatened his father with internment in a concentration camp, his parents sent their son to Hailebury, a public school in England. By 1938, remittances from his family ceased and Herbst had next to no means of support. He sought to enlist in war service, without success, not being a British subject. Instead, like many other German nationals in England, he was rounded up as an ‘enemy alien’ and shipped out aboard the Dunera to Australia in 1940, where he was interned for about two years, first at Hay, later at Tatura (100 miles north of Melbourne). In mid-1942 he was invited to join the Army and served in an ‘employment unit’. He was soon able to combine this with studies in philosophy at the University of Melbourne.

In 1946 he was discharged from the Army. People in Herbst’s position, who had been welcomed into the Army to join the war effort, would now be subject to legislation that would re-classify them as ‘enemy aliens’, if powerful elements in the Returned and Services League and the Country Party were to prevail. This would have prevented him from finishing his degree. The nefarious scheme was foiled, thanks to much help and advice provided by Brian Fitzpatrick, Secretary of the Council for Civil Liberties. Herbst always felt immensely grateful to him. He could continue his studies and was awarded the degree with first-class honours in 1946. During the years that followed he was a tutor in the Melbourne Philosophy Department and gained an MA with first-class honours in 1948.

In that period, Herbst was also engaged in a wide range of other activities. He was among those in the Labor Club who tried to thwart communist infiltration. But being on the left nevertheless made him a victim of right-wing anti-communists who influenced Arthur Calwell, the Minister for Immigration, to refuse his application for Australian citizenship. When Herbst was offered and accepted a Lectureship at Victoria University in Wellington in 1948 he could not take up the position, being unable to travel without a passport. In 1949 the government changed, Geoffrey Sawer interceded with Harold Holt, the new Minister for Immigration, and naturalisation followed swiftly.

Herbst was also at that time a partner in a pottery workshop at Murrumbeena, then a village southeast of Melbourne, now a suburb, together with Arthur Boyd and John Perceval. He came to form close bonds of friendship with the Boyd family. In 1990, he was the co-author with Patricia Dobrez of The Art of the Boyds: A Generation of Artistic Achievement. He also participated in the rich cultural life around the University, and it was in this environment that he met his future wife, Valerie Petschack, who at the time was obtaining a BSc and was subsequently appointed to a demonstratorship. They married in 1949.

The years 1950–55 were spent in Oxford, chiefly at Christ Church. From 1956 to 1961 he taught at the University College of the Gold Coast (later Ghana), which was sponsored by the University of London. There he gained rapid promotion to become Professor in its Department of Philosophy. He resigned from the chair in 1961 because of the corruption of academic standards and governance brought about by Nkrumah’s government under the influence of advisers from communist countries in Eastern Europe. After a short stay living in London, and doing some teaching at Magdalen College, Oxford, he held the chair in Canberra from 1962 until his retirement at the end of 1984. For a few years in the 1970s he was periodically on leave, holding a half-time professorship at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

Herbst’s approach to philosophy was initially influenced partly by Wittgenstein, whose ideas greatly impressed a select circle of devotees in Cambridge and were then more widely communicated, in Melbourne in the 1940s by George Paul, and partly by other strands in the analytical-linguistic philosophy that began to dominate in Oxford at that time. For Herbst, as for so many of his generation, it was felt to be imaginative, creative, powerful and new. The attitude to competing philosophical tendencies was dismissive. For those inspired by Wittgenstein, there was, moreover, a distinctive manner of conducting philosophical inquiry. Progress was to be made in the course of dialogue, rather than by solitary additions to the flood of academic publications. The wide corridors in the new Haydon-Allen building, erected about the time of Herbst’s arrival, proved well suited for peripatetic philosophical discussions. Of course, his arguments and views reached a greater audience over the years through lectures, talks, seminars, conferences and a number of published papers.

As a teacher, Herbst made a strong impression. Fascinated by watching him pacing to and fro on the lecture hall podium, speaking without notes, simply thinking out loud, many students changed their proposed course plans to include a major in philosophy, and sometimes honours.

Herbst did not abandon his great respect for Wittgenstein as a philosopher, but over time his own view of philosophy changed. One sign of this was that very early, in the mid-1960s, options began to be available to students to acquaint themselves with ‘continental’ currents of thought (Marx, Husserl, Freud, Merleau-Ponty, the Frankfurt School, feminist philosophy, etc.). He also came to oppose the narrow ‘scientism’ into which, in his opinion, much analytical philosophy was declining. What he resisted was the attempt to reduce all forms of thought and discourse to those employed in the natural sciences. His aim was not to create a niche for some religious or quasi-religious world-view, but to defend the cultural, artistic and personal values without which, he believed, human life in the modern world becomes seriously impoverished. Nor could these values, in his view, be accommodated by the materialism and utilitarianism advocated by a number of Australian philosophers who, from the late 1950s and onward, were to gain great international prominence. For the same reason he also opposed the fashionable egalitarianism of the levelling-down kind, also called anti-‘elitism’, cultivated by parts of the democratic left with which Herbst in other respects sympathised.

The adverse attitude to the writing of books in philosophy was not confined to Wittgenstein’s followers. Gilbert Ryle, a leading Oxford philosopher, was firmly of the opinion that, generally, PhD degrees, which involve the writing of a major thesis, were not for people of talent. Herbst was influenced by these views, but later came to regret it. He realised that cultural and intellectual life requires continuity and for this the written word is indispensable. Dialogue is too ephemeral.

The affirmation of values other than those associated with mere pleasures or profits also came to expression in commitments outside academia. In the 1970s, Herbst played an important part in the Association for Modern Education, whose AME School in Canberra was to provide alternative schooling in a progressive educational spirit, without, however, radically deviating from standard curricula.

He was also passionate about the preservation of the natural environment and was in his retirement increasingly active in a number of campaigns to protect sensitive areas from the destructive schemes of developers and conniving public authorities. He joined the poet Judith Wright in founding, in 1986, the Friends of the Mongarlowe River, near Braidwood, and was instrumental in the creation in 2001 of the Monga National Park, where he loved to go bushwalking.

Herbst became increasingly dismayed at the increasing bureaucratisation of the universities. If he did not come out against their commercialisation, it was because it only began in earnest when he was well into retirement. He was profoundly repulsed by the ethos of modern commercial consumer society, and—like the late John Passmore—he was one of the few philosophers who see part of their task as being that of a public critic of contemporary cultural, intellectual and political life.

Peter Herbst died on 30 May 2007. His only sibling, his much-loved half-sister Elsbeth, 10 years older than he, predeceased him. He is survived by his wife and their two children.

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Citation details

Thomas Mautner and Thomas Campbell, 'Herbst, Peter (1919–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/herbst-peter-32618/text40481, accessed 30 November 2022.

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