John Passmore

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John Passmore (9 September 1914 – 25 July 2004) was an Australian philosopher.


  • The Spanish Inquisition sought to avoid direct responsibility for the burning of heretics by handing them over to the secular arm; to burn them itself, it piously explained, would be wholly inconsistent with its Christian principles. Few of us would allow the Inquisition thus easily to wipe its hands clean of bloodshed; it knew quite well what would happen. Equally, where the technological application of scientific discoveries is clear and obvious — as when a scientist works on nerve gases — he cannot properly claim that such applications are "none of his business," merely on the ground that it is the military forces, not scientists, who use the gases to disable or kill. This is even more obvious when the scientist deliberately offers help to governments, in exchange for funds.
    If a scientist, or a philosopher, accepts funds from some such body as an office of naval research, then he is cheating if he knows his work will be useless to them and must take some responsibility for the outcome if he knows that it will be useful. He is subject, properly subject, to praise or blame in relation to any innovations which flow from his work.
    • As quoted in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995) by Carl Sagan.

The Perfectibility of Man (1971)

  • In the interests of the ideal of maximum output, [our society] judges men by their fitness for jobs, not jobs by their fitness for men.
    • p. 280.
  • The innovator, however, must in the first place be discontented, he must doubt the value of what he is doing or question the accepted ways of doing it. And secondly, he must be prepared to take fresh paths, to venture into fields where he is by no means expert. This is true, at least, of major forms of innovation; they make it possible for other men to be expert, but are not themselves forms of expertise. Freud was not an expert psycho-analyst; before Freud wrote there was no such thing; he created the standards by which psycho-analysts are judged expert. Neither was Marx an expert in interpreting history in economic terms nor Darwin an expert in evolutionary biology. If a man is trained, purely and simply, to be expert and contented in a particular task he will not innovate; Freud would have remained an anatomist, Marx a philosopher, Darwin a field-naturalist.
    • p. 282.
  • That is why classical Utopias, and the modern dystopias which ironically incorporate their ideals, are static. … The technically expert citizen is expert only in his allotted task; for him to think about the value of that task is for him to pass completely beyond the limits of what is permissible.
    • p. 282.
  • If “humility” means nothing more than the capacity to learn from criticism, then it has an undoubted value; but if “humility” means a willingness to submit to authority—to abandon or to modify what one is doing merely because it does not accord with the teachings of the Bible or the thoughts of Chairman Mao—then it is death to the spirit: the proper name for it, indeed, is “servility.”
    • p. 289.
  • Pride in one’s work carries with it a determination to accept the demands imposed by that work: in the case of philosophy to follow the argument where it leads, in the case of history to discover what actually happened, in the case of literature to explore to its depths a particular theme. In consequence, this sort of pride demands freedom: it has to be laid low in any authoritarian State. The historian, in such a system, has to conform to official interpretations of the past, the philosopher to dogmas, the writer to stereotypes of human action, the craftsman to “production-schedules.” More subtly, attempts are made to lay pride low in a consumer’s society: the film-director, the novelist, the craftsman are called upon to produce “what will sell” at whatever cost to their pride in workmanship.
    • p. 290.
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