Douglas Gasking joined the Melbourne University Philosophy Department (as it was then named) in 1946, and headed the Department from 1966 until his retirement in 1976. He was recognised and admired internationally, as well as being held in very high regard in the Australian philosophical community.
Douglas Aidan Trist Gasking was born in Bangor, Canada, while his parents were temporarily resident in Canada. His family returned to the United Kingdom while Douglas was still very young. His first university degree was taken at Liverpool in 1935. There he met Elizabeth (Betty) Marshall, who he married, and with whom he had two children. After Betty’s untimely death in 1971, Douglas married Lyn Brown.
Seeking to study under Wittgenstein, Gasking spent four years at Cambridge, completing the Tripos in 1938. This was followed by another year of work and attendance at Wittgenstein's classes. From 1939 he taught for five years at the University of Queensland and elsewhere, before taking a post at the University of Melbourne in 1946 where he taught more or less continuously until his retirement in 1976. He was Visiting Professor for a semester at Cornell University in 1961. In 1966 he succeeded Professor A. B. Gibson in the Boyce Gibson Chair of Philosophy, and in this position headed the department until his retirement. He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1971. He spent his first year of retirement as part-time visiting professor in the Philosophy Department of La Trobe University.
Gasking’s research interests.
While best known internationally for his work on conventionalism in mathematics and his development of the manipulability theory of causation, Gasking had a wide range of interests, encompassing philosophy of logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, probability theory and the general theory of argument and reasoning. His Liverpool thesis was on John Locke’s theory of meaning.
Though he was drawn to Cambridge by his interest in Wittgenstein, the two theses he wrote there were concerned with necessary truths and a priori knowledge. However, his work with Wittgenstein resulted in a lifelong commitment to the lucid extraction of, and argument about, themes in Wittgenstein’s work. In the 1960s and 1970s, he worked with a particular focus on the work of Quine, but also maintained a great interest in the thought of Sellars, Chisholm, Davidson, Lewis, Putnam, and Kripke. He also engaged with the work of other Australian philosophers, notably Jack Smart and David Armstrong. Throughout his retirement, he continued to read and discuss philosophy enthusiastically, with a particular concentration on one of his favourite philosophers, Charles Peirce.
Gasking was appreciated and much admired in the Australasian philosophical community. J.J.C. Smart wrote of his “lucidity and grace”, and his being “a model for philosophers”. Brian Ellis wrote of his “very high quality philosophy”, and of Gasking’s anticipation of more famous subsequent expositions of various ideas. Frank Jackson wrote of “the directness, penetration, and transparent intellectual honesty of his lectures, writings, and contributions to discussion”.
The virtues noted by these philosophers were evident to the many students taught by Gasking over his long teaching career, and to those who attended his numerous conference and seminar presentations. Students at Melbourne University who completed units taught by Gasking frequently returned in subsequent years to audit his lectures, knowing that every year, there would be the presentation of fresh, accessible, illuminating material. Students learned good philosophy not only from the rich content of his lecture, but from the example he set in combining enthusiastic pursuit of philosophical problems with a calm, patient, objective and friendly demeanour. There was a general regret that Gasking did not publish more.
In December 2011, a centenary celebration of Douglas Gasking’s birth was held at Melbourne University. It was attended by a large number of former students, colleagues and acquaintances, with many warm expressions of admiration for Gasking, and appreciation of what had been learned from him.
Other sources on Gasking’s work, and appreciations of his contribution to philosophy
The Introduction to Language Logic and Causation (see bibliography below)
Smart, J.J.C. 'Douglas Aidan Trist Gasking', Proceedings of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, vol. 19, (1994), pp 57-9.
The Dictionary of 20th Century British Philosophers (Thoemmes/Continuum, 2005), entry on Gasking by I.T. Oakley and L.J. O’Neill
Grey, William, ‘Gasking’s Proof’, Analysis 60:4, (October 2000) pp 368-70.
(This paper discusses a form of “reverse ontological argument” purporting to prove the non-existence of God. The argument is generally attributed to Gasking, who is thought to have produced it orally. Gasking never attempted to publish on the topic, and Grey suggests that he did not intend it to be taken seriously, though he suggests that it indirectly highlights the flaw in the original ontological argument. An internet search will reveal that it has drawn a certain amount of criticism – and some outrage.)
Gasking’s philosophical publications
'Mathematics and the World', Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 18, no. 1, (May 1940) pp. 1-36. (Included in Language Logic and Causation, below.)
'Anderson and the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus', Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 27, no. 1, (May 1949) pp. 1-26.
'Wittgenstein as a Teacher', (with A.C. Jackson) Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 29, no. 2, (May 1951) pp. 1-26.
‘I could if I chose', Analysis, vol. 12 no. 6, June 1952 pp 129-30.
'The Philosophy of John Wisdom', Parts I and II. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 32, nos. 2 and 3, (August and December 1954) pp. 136-56 and 185-212.
'Causation and Recipes', Mind, vol. 64, no. 4 (October, 1955) pp.479-87. (Included in Language Logic and Causation, below.)
'Clusters', Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 38, no. 1, (May 1960) pp. 1-36. (Included in Language Logic and Causation, below.)
'The Analytic-Synthetic Controversy', Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 50, no. 2, (August 1972) pp. 107-23.