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9 September 1914|
|Died||25 July 2004|
|History of philosophy, history of ideas|
Passmore was born in Manly, Sydney, where he grew up. He was educated at Sydney Boys High School and subsequently graduated from the University of Sydney with first-class honours in English literature and philosophy, and continued his studies to become a secondary-school teacher. In 1934 he accepted the position of assistant lecturer in philosophy at the University of Sydney, continuing teaching there until 1949. In 1948 he went to study at the University of London.
From 1950 to 1955 he was professor of philosophy at the University of Otago in New Zealand. In 1955 he spent a year at the University of Oxford on a Carnegie grant. Upon his return to Australia he took up a post at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Australian National University, where he was professor of Philosophy in the Research School of Social Sciences from 1958 to 1979.
He died in 2004 and was survived by his wife Doris and two daughters.
Passmore was as much an historian of ideas as a philosopher, and his scholarship always paid careful attention to the complex historical context of philosophical problems. He published about twenty books, many of which have been translated. Passmore will be remembered as a thinker who helped to shape public debate and to open up domains of applied philosophy and the history of ideas to the wider world.
In his book Man's Responsibility for Nature (1974) Passmore argued that there is urgent need to change our attitude to the environment, and that humans cannot continue unconstrained exploitation of the biosphere. However, he rejected the view that we need to abandon the Western tradition of scientific rationalism, and was unsympathetic towards attempts to articulate environmental concern through radical revisions of our ethical framework, as advocated by deep ecologists, which he conceived as misguided mysticism or irrationalism. Passmore's unequivocal anthropocentrism made him a reference point in the discourse of environmental ethics and many treatises in the field begin with (or include) a criticism of his views. Passmore's skepticism about attempts to attribute intrinsic value to nature, and his preferred position of valuing nature in terms of what it contributes to the flourishing of sentient creatures (including humans), is perhaps not as unfashionable now as it was in the years following the publication of Man's Responsibility for Nature. Passmore described himself as a "pessimistic humanist" who regarded neither human beings nor human societies as perfectible.
Passmore took a keen interest in film and in performing arts and was a director of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust.
- Reading and Remembering (1942, 1943, 1963)
- Talking Things Over (1945)
- Ralph Cudworth (1951)
- Hume's Intentions (1952)
- Philosophical Reasoning (1961)
- Joseph Priestley (1965)
- A Hundred Years of Philosophy (1956, 1968)
- The Perfectibility of Man (1970)
- Man's Responsibility for Nature (1974, 1980)
- Science and Its Critics (1978)
- The Philosophy of Teaching (1980)
- The Limits of Government (1981) (the 1981 Boyer Lectures)
- Recent Philosophers (1985)
- Serious Art: A Study of the Concept in All the Major Arts (1991)
- Memoirs of a Semi-detached Australian (1997)
- Primary sources
- John Passmore. One Hundred Years of Philosophy. Baltimore, MA: Penguin Books, 1968.
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