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by Kerryn Pollock

New Zealand philosophers, like their colleagues around the world, grapple with questions such as these: Can we trust knowledge? Is art useful? What is right or wrong? How do we know what is real?

Philosophy in New Zealand

Philosophers explore questions about logic and reasoning, ethics and morality, existence, reality, alternative worlds and human nature.


In New Zealand, professional philosophy predominantly exists within universities. While philosophy graduates have worked in a wide range of fields, universities are the main places where philosophers can make a career out of philosophical research.

Philosophy majors are offered at six of New Zealand’s eight universities. Papers only are offered at Lincoln University, and there is no philosophy programme at Auckland University of Technology, although philosophy is taught in education and law papers. Te Wānanga o Raukawa offers a degree in Māori laws and philosophy.

Philosophy classes are held to a limited extent at some primary and secondary schools.

Independent philosopher

Austrian immigrant Peter Jacoby was one who managed to publish philosophical research outside of an academic institution. Jacoby gained a doctorate in law in Austria and was a research assistant to Austrian sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. He immigrated to New Zealand in 1938. After he retired from his position as senior research officer at the Ministry of Education in 1969, Jacoby published extensively on Tönnies’ social philosophy and on Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century English philosopher.

An international discipline

Because of its university setting, philosophy as practised in New Zealand is strongly international. Many New Zealand-based philosophers are migrants and a number of New Zealand-born philosophers studied overseas before returning to their home country to teach and research.

There is also a long-standing tradition of New Zealand philosophers taking up positions in universities overseas. New Zealand is recognised for producing more than its fair share of internationally renowned philosophers.

New Zealand philosophers

Logician Arthur Prior, who died in 1969, is arguably New Zealand’s most distinguished home-grown philosopher. Other New Zealanders who have gained international recognition for their philosophical work include:

  • Annette Baier (ethics and David Hume’s philosophy)
  • Jonathan Bennett (early modern philosophy)
  • Max Cresswell (logic)
  • Horace Romano (Rom) Harré (philosophy of science)
  • Rosalind Hursthouse (ethics)
  • Tim Mulgan (ethics)
  • Jeremy Waldron (philosophy of law).

Is there a New Zealand philosophy?

Philosophy as practised in New Zealand, or by New Zealanders abroad, has been noteworthy in the fields of ethics, logic, and history of philosophy, particularly early modern philosophy (1600–1800). However, New Zealand as a place has little or no relevance to the fields of logic and the history of philosophy, and the related work of New Zealand philosophers cannot be said to have a distinctive flavour based on geographical location.

Ethics, sometimes called moral philosophy, asks questions about what is right or wrong, and how humans should behave in the world. It has been applied to issues of particular relevance to New Zealand, including race relations, colonisation, sovereignty, the Treaty of Waitangi, justice and the natural environment.

Māori knowledge systems (mātauranga Māori) are considered a uniquely New Zealand philosophy, and can be applied to New Zealand society, past and present. Pākehā John Patterson is unique among professional New Zealand philosophers in applying western philosophical methods of enquiry to Māori values and concepts.

Philosophers in New Zealand, 1870s to 2000s


The first university philosophy department was founded at the University of Otago in 1871, the year teaching began there. Otago’s first three philosophy professors devoted their time to teaching rather than research.

The fourth professor, South African John Findlay, who arrived at Otago in 1932, was the first to gain international recognition for his research when he published Meinong’s theory of objects, an exploration of Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong’s work on objects and different states of existence. He was also noted for his teaching of mathematical logic.

Philosophy was more tentatively established at the other three foundation university colleges, Canterbury, Auckland and Victoria (in Wellington). None established philosophy departments for some time and if philosophy was taught, it was by a single lecturer or professor who also had teaching responsibilities in other areas.


Otago’s first professor of mental and moral philosophy, Scotsman Duncan Macgregor, was a fiery character who was more interested in debate than textbook learning. A former pupil, Attorney-General John Findlay, described his approach: ‘The atmosphere of his classroom was unlike that of any classroom I was ever in. It was charged with an electricity that emanated from the man himself … when, with flushed face and flashing eye, he raised his voice to its full pitch in denouncing the shame of the world … in exhorting the pursuit of truth at all costs, his class used to sit as if transfixed.’1

Karl Popper

In 1937 Austrian philosopher Karl Popper took up a philosophy lectureship at Canterbury University College. He raised the profile of philosophy in New Zealand during his eight years in the country.

Popper had made his mark in the philosophical world with the 1934 publication of Logik der Forschung (translated into English as The logic of scientific discovery). He wrote his best-known philosophical work, The open society and its enemies (1945), while at Canterbury. Students filled his lecture theatres, attracted by the quality of his teaching, and he also gave lectures for the Workers’ Educational Association. He left Canterbury for the London School of Economics in 1945.

Plato and lipstick

Dennis Grey, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Otago after the Second World War, was known for his mesmerising lectures on ancient Greek philosopher Plato, but also for wearing lipstick in class – which had some shock value in post-war Dunedin.

Arthur Prior

New Zealander Arthur Prior replaced Karl Popper as philosophy lecturer at Canterbury University College in 1946. He became the first professor of philosophy at Canterbury in 1953 and left New Zealand permanently in 1958.

Prior was interested in formal logic, and in particular modal logic, which is concerned with applying qualifiers to logical propositions (‘it is necessary that…’ or ‘it is possible that…’). He developed the idea that time references are qualifiers and that the truth of propositions can change as time passes. Prior called this ‘tense logic’ and his invention made him an internationally renowned philosopher.

Tense (also known as temporal) logic has been applied to computer science and artificial intelligence because it can be used to create rules for handling time-dependent data.

Other university developments

During his time at Canterbury, Arthur Prior modernised the department’s philosophy programme by separating psychology from philosophy. This was a worldwide movement. Psychology – previously called ‘mental philosophy’ – had evolved into a separate discipline, and it was no longer appropriate to teach the two from the same department.

At Victoria University College philosophy became a stand-alone department in 1952, and the logician George Hughes was appointed professor. Under Hughes, Victoria’s philosophy department became well known for research in logic. New Zealander Max Cresswell joined the department in 1963 and became its foremost logician. Australian Kim Sterelny taught at Victoria between 1988 and 2008 and gained recognition as a philosopher of biology.

Philosophy at Auckland was revitalised after 1955, when lecturer Richard Anschutz became professor and employed more lecturing staff. In the mid-1960s the department’s focus shifted to issues in contemporary philosophy, and research output significantly increased in the 1980s.

Otago retained the vitality and research output established by John Findlay in the 1930s. Noted Australian philosopher John Passmore was head of department from 1950 until 1955, when he was succeeded by fellow Australian and brilliant ethical philosopher J. L. Mackie. Englishman Alan Musgrave, a leader in epistemology (theory of knowledge) and philosophy of science, was head of department from 1970 to 2005.

Philosophy was first offered at the University of Waikato (which opened in 1964) in 1966, and at Massey University in 1969. Philosophy was taught at Lincoln University from 1994. Lincoln did not have a separate philosophy department – philosophy papers were taught as part of a social science degree.

Research ratings

University philosophy departments have scored well under the government’s Performance-Based Research Fund evaluation process, which ties research performance to tertiary education funding. In the first two evaluations, philosophy was the highest-ranked out of 41 (in 2003) and 42 (2006) subjects.

In 2012 it slipped to fourth highest out of 42 subjects. However, philosophy’s quality score – the standard measure of research quality used to rank subjects – rose between 2003 and 2012, meaning that the quality of philosophical research improved over this period.

    • Quoted in W. P. Morrell, The University of Otago: a centennial history. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1969, p. 41. Back

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'Philosophy', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Kerryn Pollock, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014