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Mackie, John Leslie (1917–1981)

by Peter Menzies

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

John Leslie Mackie (1917-1981), philosopher, was born on 25 August 1917 at Killara, Sydney, younger child of Scottish-born Alexander Mackie, principal of Teachers’ College, Sydney, and his wife Annie Burnett, née Duncan, a Sydney-born schoolteacher.  John was educated at Knox Grammar School and the University of Sydney (BA, 1938), graduating with first-class honours in Greek and Latin and the G. S. Caird scholarship in philosophy.  Having won the (William Charles) Wentworth travelling fellowship, he went to England to read literae humaniores at Oriel College, Oxford (BA, 1940; MA, 1944) and graduated with first-class honours.  He began a doctorate but abandoned it for war work.  In January 1942 he was commissioned in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (later Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers).  After serving in the Middle East (1942-43) and Italy (1943-45), he was mentioned in despatches and demobilised as a temporary captain in 1946.

That year Mackie returned to Sydney to become a lecturer in moral and political philosophy at the university.  On 7 November 1947 at the district registrar’s office, North Sydney, he married Joan Armiger Meredith, a civil servant.  He was appointed to the chair of philosophy and psychology at the University of Otago, New Zealand, in 1955, but went back to Sydney in 1959 to succeed his former teacher John Anderson as Challis professor of philosophy.  During his tenure he did much to acquaint Sydney with current debates and discussions in the wider world of English-speaking philosophy.  In 1963 he left for England to become the inaugural professor of philosophy at the University of York.  In 1967 he was elected a fellow and tutor in philosophy at University College, Oxford, and in 1978 the university promoted him to a personal readership.  He was a Radcliffe philosophy fellow in 1971-73 and a fellow of the British Academy from 1974.

The influence that Mackie exerted on British, American and Australian philosophy was largely through the books he wrote late in his career.  His first, Truth, Probability and Paradox was published in 1973.  The Cement of the Universe (1974), Problems from Locke (1976), Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977), Hume’s Moral Theory (1980) and The Miracle of Theism (1982) followed quickly.  Some of his articles were published posthumously in 1985 in two volumes, Logic and Knowledge and Persons and Values.

Mackie’s works continued to be read and discussed.  His fundamental theoretical position was empirical realism;  his method was close analysis of argument, relying on the inherent rationality of common sense and eschewing unnecessary logical technicalities.  The influence of Anderson was apparent, but Mackie was far from an uncritical disciple, distancing himself from the more polemical and purely programmatic aspects of Andersonianism.

Though a shy and reserved man, Mackie was an avid participant in philosophical discussions.  His lucid writing style was a model of analytic elegance.  Courteous, genial, modest and unpretentious, he was a patient, dedicated teacher and a wise, conscientious administrator.  Survived by his wife and their two sons and three daughters, he died of cancer on 12 December 1981 at Oxford and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • S. A. Grave, A History of Philosophy in Australia, 1984
  • J. Franklin, Corrupting the Youth, 2003
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004
  • Procs of the British Academy, vol 76, 1990, p 487

Citation details

Peter Menzies, 'Mackie, John Leslie (1917–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/mackie-john-leslie-14214/text25228, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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