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Gibson, Alexander Boyce (Sandy) (1900–1972)

by Max Charlesworth

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Alexander Boyce (Sandy) Gibson (1900-1972), philosopher, was born on 10 March 1900 at Hampstead, London, eldest son of William Ralph Boyce Gibson, lecturer in philosophy, and his wife Lucy Judge, née Peacock. 'Sandy' was educated (1913-16) at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and graduated with first-class honours in classics from the University of Melbourne (B.A. Hons, 1920). He then went to Balliol College, Oxford (B.A., 1923; M.A., 1926), where he read philosophy; his tutor A. D. (Baron) Lindsay had a lifelong influence on him.

In 1923 Boyce Gibson (as he was commonly known) was appointed an assistant-lecturer in philosophy at the University of Glasgow; two years later he became a tutor for the Workers' Educational Association in Staffordshire, England. At St Columba's Church, Chelsea, London, on 2 April 1925 he married Kathleen Grace Derham with the forms of the Church of Scotland. In 1927-35 he lectured in philosophy at the University of Birmingham; his much praised book, The Philosophy of Descartes (London), appeared in 1932.

Succeeding his father as professor of philosophy at the University of Melbourne in 1935, Gibson found that the department was small in numbers and generally an intellectual backwater. During his thirty-one year tenure it attained an international reputation for philosophical originality and liveliness. In the 1940s and 1950s he made a number of appointments of young philosophers from Cambridge and Oxford who were enthusiastically committed to the new kind of philosophical inquiry, sometimes called 'linguistic analysis', which derived from the teaching and work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, then at Cambridge. Gibson himself had little intellectual sympathy with this philosophical movement, but he was nonetheless responsible (partly by design, partly by accident) for creating one of the major centres of the movement outside Cambridge and Oxford. In 1948 he was awarded an honorary D.Litt. from the University of Cambridge.

Gibson was, however, very much a pluralist in philosophy and tried to balance the strong analytical tendencies in the department by appointing young scholars of other philosophical persuasions. In 1949 he wrote: 'At present there are two main approaches to philosophy: the metaphysical and the positivist. My own view is that philosophy has everything to gain from their interfructification and I have built a department out of their differences of opinion'. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s there was a certain amount of tension between Gibson's pluralist department and John Anderson's monistic department at the University of Sydney, although Gibson, in an ecumenical spirit, also appointed one well-known Andersonian to his staff.

No doubt because of his father's Continental background, Gibson always took a lively interest in contemporary European philosophy, and encouraged some of the younger members of his staff to take phenomenology and other French and German philosophical movements seriously. He did this at a time when most English-speaking philosophers tended to dismiss Continental philosophy as so much 'bad poetry'. His own philosophical interests were broad. Attentive to the philosophy of education, to the philosophy of art and to the work of the classical philosophers, he introduced generations of his first-year students to the mysteries of Plato's Republic, lecturing passionately on the Form of the Good and the allegory of the cave.

Gibson's enduring interest was in the philosophy of religion. He was a Christian (his paternal grandfather had been a Wesleyan Methodist minister) but he always thought of himself as a 'doubting Thomas': he held that doubt and belief were elements of any religious position, and had to be maintained in (a favourite phrase) 'fruitful tension'. As he put it in his last—and best—work, The Religion of Dostoevski (London, 1973): 'It was the novels of Dostoevski which, by excluding the ''natural" and ''rational" religion in which I was reared, started me off as a Christian-in-process . . . They have shown me that religious faith and philosophical doubt in a sense belong together'.

In a book completed after his retirement in 1966, Theism and Empiricism (London, 1970), Gibson argued against the philosophical prejudice that 'it is impossible to be empirically acquainted with the non-empirical'. If we take a sufficiently broad view of 'experience' there is no a priori reason, he argued, why the grounds of theism cannot be disclosed in human experience. He was suspicious of the classical rational 'proofs' (and 'disproofs') of the existence of God, and held that religious belief must derive from lived experience. It was Plato, he claimed, who invented the split between reason and experience, a split that had been widened and formalized as a dogma by the seventeenth-century philosophical rationalists and empiricists.

Although a very shy man, Boyce Gibson showed great personal warmth and loyalty to those who knew him well. He also had a nice sense of humour. Again, despite his reserve, he loved academic life, and, as dean (1939-41) of the faculty of arts and chairman (1949-52) of the professorial board, he enjoyed the devious twists and turns of university politics. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died on 2 October 1972 at Surrey Hills and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • S. A. Grave, A History of Philosophy in Australia (Brisb, 1984)
  • J. T. Srzednicki and F. D. Wood (eds), Essays on Philosophy in Australia (Boston, US, 1992)
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, Mar 1966
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 Dec 1934
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 20 Nov 1937, 18 June 1948.

Citation details

Max Charlesworth, 'Gibson, Alexander Boyce (Sandy) (1900–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/gibson-alexander-boyce-sandy-10295/text18215, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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