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Portrait of David Hume (detail) by Allan Ramsey (1754)

John Passmore (1914–2004)

Otago University
about 1953

John Arthur Passmore was born on September 9, 1914 in Manly, Sydney, Australia. He died in Canberra, on July 25, 2004. He was educated at Sydney Boys High School and at the University of Sydney where, in 1934, he accepted the position of assistant lecturer in philosophy. In 1948 he went to study at the University of London, and was subsequently professor of philosophy at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, from 1950 to 1955.

Annette Baier recalls that as the sole MA student at Otago, she would be invited round to Passmore’s house. While his wife, Doris, served tea, he would read out passages from Hume’s Intentions (at that time a work in progress) and invite Baier to comment. In this polite but forbidding atmosphere, she often found it difficult to think of anything to say. Given this early ordeal, it is, perhaps, a little surprising that she went on to become a famous Hume scholar herself.

In 1955 Passmore spent a year at the University of Oxford on a Carnegie grant. Upon his return to Australia he took up a post at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Australian National University, where he was professor of Philosophy in the Research School of Social Sciences from 1958 to 1979. In 1960 he was Ziskind visiting professor at Brandeis University in the United States. He subsequently lectured in England, the United States, Mexico, Japan, and in various European countries.

As much an historian of ideas as a philosopher, in his scholarship Passmore always paid careful attention to the complex historical context of philosophical problems. His fusion of the history of ideas with philosophy was not always welcome, however. Invited in 1960 to lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, he aroused an exceptional degree of hostility by arguing that the nature of philosophical problems could only be understood by looking historically at the intellectual circumstances in which they had arisen. He was not invited back.

Passmore published about twenty books, many of which have been translated. He will be remembered as a thinker who helped to shape public debate and to open up domains of applied philosophy and the history of ideas to the wider world.

Selected and adapted from Wikipedia, and from The Telegraph Obituary, and other online sources.


In Hume’s Intentions, originally published in 1952, and reissued in 1968 and 2013, Passmore’s intention was to disentangle certain main themes in Hume’s philosophy and to show how they relate to Hume’s main philosophic purpose. Rather than offering a commentary, the text provides an account based on specificity and critical scholarship, seeking to complement the other more comprehensive works on Hume’s philosophy that had become available around the same time.  (Cambridge University Press)


A short book on Hume was needed, and we are fortunate to have one from so able a hand. It is neither an introduction for beginners nor a study of a narrow theme, but a general survey, at a very good level, of Book I of the Treatise and of the first Enquiry. It is both expository and critical. Despite its fairly broad sweep it is rich in detail, brevity being secured by a welcome economy of statement, which leaves the reader time to think. The language is clear.

I have found the book both illuminating and provocative, and, in its good manners and its packed yet lucid style, a delight to read. It ought to become one of our accepted companions to the Treatise. At the end it salutes Hume as one “who suggests to us an endless variety of philosophical explorations.”

–T.E. Jessop, Philosophy, (October 1954)

The most important of Hume’s subordinate intentions was, Professor Passmore seems to hold, to develop a logic of empirical reasoning which would provide a secure foundation, a clear understanding of the empirical method, for the social and natural sciences alike (pp. 7-8). Professor Passmore’s recurrent theme is that with respect to this auxiliary intention, Hume failed to supply the logic for a method by which a science of any sort whatever might be created (pp. 150-1); and the reader concludes that, in Professor Passmore’s eyes, Hume’s “single overriding intention” remains in his work unfulfilled.

–Kingsley Price, The Philosophical Review (January 1954)

The John Passmore Lecture,
Australian National University

“John Passmore and Hume’s Moral Philosophy”
Keith Campbell, Hume Studies (November, 1985)


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