JJC Smart, 1920-2012


Jane O'Grady in The Guardian:

Jack Smart, who has died aged 92, changed the course of philosophy of mind. He was a pioneer of physicalism – the set of theories that hold that consciousness, sensation and thought do not, as they seem to, float free of physicality, but can – or will eventually – be located in a scientific material worldview. His article Sensations and Brain Processes (1959) put forward his Type Identity theory of mind – that consciousness and sensations are nothing over and above brain processes. Invariably included in any collection of mind-body problem papers, it is now part of the canon, for, along with UT Place and David Armstrong, Smart converted what was once “the Australian heresy” into orthodoxy.

While all three were based principally at Australian universities, Place was born in Yorkshire and Smart to Scottish parents in Cambridge, where his father was professor of astronomy. Jack went to the Leys School in the city, studied maths, physics and philosophy at Glasgow University, and during the second world war served mainly in India and Burma. He gained a BPhil at Queen's College, Oxford, in 1948, under the behaviourist Gilbert Ryle, and in 1950 became professor at Adelaide, where he stayed until 1972.

Away from the language-centred philosophy of Britain, Smart was freer to draw the implications that science had for philosophy. He began to ask why consciousness alone should remain exempt from physico-chemical explanation. The behaviourist view he had espoused at Oxford got round this question by denying that mental states, like anger, pain or believing, can even qualify as things or events, whether physical or non-physical. Rather, to talk about mental states is, for behaviourism, simply to talk about collections of actual or potential behaviour. But Smart objected that in this case seeing an after-image due to strong light can amount to nothing more than saying “I have a yellowish-orange after-image”. Such an utterance is surely superfluous to the sensation on which the utterer, who has just experienced it, would be “reporting”.

Smart agreed with old-fashioned mind-body dualism – against behaviourism – that many mental states are indeed episodic, inner and potentially private; what he disputed was that this made their essential nature non-physical. “Why should not sensations just be brain processes of a certain sort?” he demanded. If regarded as neuro-physiological processes, they too would be potentially explicable by scientific laws.