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Stout, Alan Ker (1900–1983)

by Philip Gissing

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

Alan Ker Stout (1900-1983), professor of philosophy, was born on 9 May 1900 at Oxford, England, only child of George Frederick Stout, philosopher, and his wife Isabella, née Ker. He moved with his parents to Scotland in 1903, when his father was appointed to the chair of logic and metaphysics at the University of St Andrews. Alan was educated at Fettes College, Edinburgh (1914-18) and Oriel College, Oxford (BA, 1922; MA, 1926), where he gained first-class honours in classical moderations. Becoming an assistant-lecturer in philosophy at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, he was promoted to lecturer in 1930. On 27 August 1927 at the register office, Axminster, England, he married Evelyn Roberts, an honours student in French. Stout later recalled that he produced plays for the students at Bangor, and first saw his wife ‘when she played Lydia Languish in Sheridan’s The Rivals . . . That was after she had skipped my lectures’.

In 1934 Stout returned to Scotland upon his appointment to lectureships in moral philosophy and social ethics at the University of Edinburgh. He had published some papers on Descartes in the journal Mind (1929, 1932) and a paper entitled ‘The Morality of Punishment’ in Welsh Outlook (November 1932), an early example of his lifelong interest in penal reform and the role of punishment. His work on Descartes culminated in an invitation to deliver a paper and chair a session of the 1937 International Congress of Philosophy (Congrès Descartes), held at the Sorbonne, Paris.

At the suggestion of John Anderson, Stout applied successfully for the new chair of political and moral philosophy at the University of Sydney; with his family he arrived in Australia in 1939. A widely reported story had it that Stout’s chair was created to provide a counterweight to Anderson’s supposed corrupting influence on impressionable young students. Anderson’s philosophy was based on a more pluralist and rigidly determinist approach, whereas Stout acknowledged the importance of the individual. Despite their philosophical differences they happily shared the teaching load, and even Stout sometimes had to contend with denunciations from the pulpit and accusations of being a harmful influence on youth.

Beyond the campus Stout played a significant role as a public intellectual. He was a member of the prime minister’s committee on national morale during World War II, founding president (1963-67) of the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties and a member (1963-78) of the council of the Australian Consumers’ Association. A regular contributor to periodicals such as Australian Quarterly and the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, he discussed such questions as self-interest, the common good and free will, and their bearings on public policy. Embracing other media as well, in 1954 he joined the panel of the ‘brains trust’ program Any Questions? on Australian Broadcasting Commission radio. Stout later recalled that the ABC chairman (Sir) Charles Moses ‘once told me that I was an ABC star!’  Stout claimed that it was due to this public profile that graduates continued to elect him a fellow (1954-69) of the senate of the University of Sydney.

Stout was heavily involved in the controversy that ensued after the University of Tasmania dismissed Sydney Sparkes Orr in 1956. He stressed the need for Orr to have a fair hearing as a matter of natural justice. The Australasian Association of Philosophy, of which Stout was president, placed a ban on filling the vacant chair until Orr’s grievances were properly addressed. A settlement was finally reached in 1966.

Retiring from the university in 1965, Stout was a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin the next year, and in 1967 moved to Tasmania, where his daughter was active in Hobart’s theatrical life. He was a foundation member of the Australian Humanities Research Council (fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities) and of the social science research committee of the Australian National Research Council (fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia). In 1979 he was made an honorary life member of the Australasian Association of Philosophy to honour his work as editor (1950-67) of its journal. His interest in drama and film over four decades in Australia was reflected in his roles as chairman of the Documentary Films Committee (Film Council) of New South Wales, foundation member of the Australian National Film Board, president of the Australian Council of Film Societies and of the Sydney Film Festival, chairman and governor of the Australian Film Institute and member of Tasmanian theatre boards. In 1968 a Sydney Morning Herald journalist had described him as ‘small, outwardly unassuming’, a man who ‘still speaks quickly and precisely, with considerable passion’. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, Stout died on 20 July 1983 in Hobart and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Oct 1968, p 6
  • Proc of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, vol 12, 1982-83, p 106
  • A’asian Journal of Philosophy, vol 61, no 3, 1983, p 337
  • Times (London), 23 July 1983, p 10
  • Stout papers (University Sydney archives)
  • Stout papers (National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra).

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Citation details

Philip Gissing, 'Stout, Alan Ker (1900–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/stout-alan-ker-15921/text27122, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 September 2017.

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

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