, Volume 51, Issue 4, pp 561–569 | Cite as

Max Charlesworth: A Philosopher in the World



Philosophy of religion Social studies of science European philosophy Existentialism Aboriginal religion the Catholic Church Bioethics 

Born in 1925, Max Charlesworth has spent seven decades in philosophy and religion in which he has spanned a wide variety of interests in both breadth and depth. He has had longstanding involvement with philosophy of religion, bioethics, social studies in science, European philosophy, aboriginal religions, the role of the Church and the liberal democratic state, and the structure of the Catholic Church. Max has not seen philosophy so much as a technical pursuit as a way of being and a way to understand and communicate with the wider society about the ‘big questions’ in an admirably clear and distinct fashion. Education has been a primary focus both in extending the role of the university and going beyond it in reaching out not only to other disciplines but also to the general population. For Max philosophy is an activity and is at its best when applied in the world. The pluralist ‘broad Church’ approach to philosophy, religion and how we can best live together in a liberal democratic society represent some of his abiding concerns. His publications span a very wide spectrum. To select, almost at random: St. Anselm's Proslogion, Religious Business: Essays on Australian Spirituality, Bioethics in a Liberal Society, Philosophy for Beginners, A Democratic Church, The Existentialists and Jean-Paul-Sartre, Life among the Scientists.

Max has always appreciated and implemented criticism in the context of the value of respect for different views. Max saw it as part of the job of a philosopher to be out in the world using critique and reflection, understanding and welcoming a genuine diversity of points of view while at the same time evaluating and critiquing them in a sympathetic yet rigorous way. He has a special capacity to understand the main thrusts of ideas empathically to ‘cut to the chase’. Max’s approach is demonstrated not just in publications but also in action through contributions to higher education, especially the open campus program at Deakin University together with significant public roles over the decades. I have had the pleasure of being a student, colleague and friend of Max’s since my undergraduate studies in philosophy at the University of Melbourne in the 1960s. I tutored in Contemporary European Philosophy in the 1970s and in 1976 was appointed to Deakin University, where I have remained. This article traces some significant aspects of Max’s trajectory, approach and foci with the help of a document Max generously wrote for this article, and which I liberally quote from, ‘Some of my life and times’ (Charlesworth 2012).

University of Melbourne and Louvain

Max is just as he described his professor in the Melbourne University Philosophy Department, Professor Alexander Boyce Gibson. Boyce Gibson was, according to Max, ‘very much a pluralist in philosophy’ and was interested in what Boyce Gibson termed the ‘interfructification’ of the two schools of positivism and metaphysics. In the now long gone age of the God-professor, Boyce Gibson could declare in 1949 that he had ‘built the department’ out of the ‘difference of opinion’ between these two schools. Gibson was fond of the ‘fruit’ metaphor, often describing the aim of philosophy as producing ‘fruitful confusion’ and his attitude to religion as involving a ‘fruitful tension’ between doubt and belief. At the time, Boyce Gibson was contrasting pluralism with the monistic Andersonian Philosophy Department at Sydney University. Boyce Gibson, a Christian who was interested in existentialism, phenomenology and religion, retired in 1966 (see Charlesworth 1996). (As a first year student in 1965, I was fortunate to audit his erudite, engaging and thought-provoking year-long lectures on Plato’s The Republic). However, with the exception of some individuals, by the 1970s Oxford philosophy monistically swept away virtually everything else in Philosophy Departments throughout Australia and New Zealand. European philosophy was often seen as ‘bad poetry’, guilty of Rudolf Carnap’s criticism of Heidegger as making meaningless pseudo claims, such as ‘the nothing noths’, which a sound training in Fregean logic would surely have sorted out. Max recalled his own eventful early days in the Philosophy Department at the University of Melbourne where he obtained his B.A (Hon.) in philosophy in 1946 and his M.A. in 1949.

When I began philosophy at Melbourne the Department had just been converted to Wittgensteinian ‘linguistic analysis’. ‘Converted’ is an apposite word because the change from the earlier direction of the Department was so radical. Camo Jackson and Douglas Gasking had just returned from Cambridge where they had studied with Wittgenstein and later George Paul visited from Oxford. The Head of the Department was Sandy (Alexander) Boyce Gibson who was the son of W.R. Boyce Gibson, formerly professor of philosophy at Aix en Provence in France who was a close friend of Edmund Husserl, the founder of Phenomenology in Germany. Sandy Boyce Gibson was not himself attracted by the new Wittgensteinian approach, which he thought neglected ethics and political philosophy, but he certainly aided and abetted it by appointing a number of people – Camo Jackson, Douglas Gasking, Kurt Baier, Peter Herbst, Don Gunner – who were Wittgensteinians of different complexions. (Charlesworth 2012)

Boyce Gibson was clearly a significant mentor for Max (as Max has been for many, including myself) in his open-minded pluralism, interest in the philosophy of religion and Continental philosophy, as well as his kind of proactive leadership in building the Department. Max made a very significant decision when in 1949 he was awarded the Mannix scholarship for post-graduate study overseas. It was customary for philosophers to go to Oxford or Cambridge in that period and for decades later; it was almost unheard of to go anywhere else. In the late 1970s some Australian philosophers went to study in Paris and the US but were far from assured of employment at universities in Australia upon their return, as were graduates of Oxford. By the 1970s there was a new widening in higher education in Australia with the creation of new universities, which provided the opportunities for different kinds of philosophy. From his appointment in 1967 as Foundation Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University, Max Deutscher together with his colleagues led the way in phenomenology and the new university of Deakin in 1976 provided a major opportunity for European philosophy under Max Charlesworth. But while it may not have seemed a good career move for Australians in the 1970s to study European philosophy in Europe, it must have seemed sheer madness in Max’s days of doctoral studies. True, Louvain was a Catholic university, which fitted religious interests. But beyond that Max had become interested in French philosophy:

I decided to go to the University of Louvain in Belgium, which was a centre for Husserlian phenomenology. During the Second World War Husserl was targeted by the Nazis because he was a Jew and after his death his formidable wife managed to move his huge personal library as well as his own unpublished works to the university in Louvain. This Husserl Archive attracted German and French philosophers (for example, Merleau Ponty and Gabriel Marcel) and I thought that Louvain would be a good place to do my doctorate.

I was, however, persuaded by my supervisor Georges Van Riet to do my thesis on linguistic analysis since most Europeans knew very little of the Wittgensteinian movement. The thesis was successful and was awarded ‘avec la plus grande distinction’. It was later published as (Charlesworth 1959) Philosophy and Linguistic Analysis. (Charlesworth 2012)

After completing his doctorate, Max obtained a lectureship in philosophy at the University of Auckland in 1956 and in 1959 was appointed as Lecturer in Philosophy back at the University of Melbourne, Senor Lecturer in 1962 and Reader in 1968. It was a tribute to Boyce Gibson’s continuing pluralism that Max was appointed as a lecturer in philosophy. At the University of Melbourne, Max recounts, ‘Among other things I set up a course in medieval philosophy and I translated for my students the celebrated work of the 11th century St. Anselm of Bec, The Proslogion’ (Charlesworth 1965).

Philosophy of Religion

While at the University of Melbourne he also published St Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica, vol. 15 (1970), Philosophy of Religion: The Historic Approaches (1972), Church, State and Conscience (1973) and The Problem of Religious Language (1974). Max’s interest in a critical approach to religion and understanding the social, historical and cultural contexts and applications of religion are evidenced by his founding co-editorship of The Catholic Worker in the early 1960s, which presented a critical counterpoint to the B. A. Santamaria and the ‘Movement’. Max participated in the conference on Belief and Non-belief in Rome in October 1970. Max recalls, ‘Being a Christian I have always been interested in the relation between philosophy and the Christian religion in its various forms. In 1966 I was appointed by Pope Paul V1 to be a consultant to the newly formed body The Secretariat for Non Believers, an international body of theological and philosophical scholars’. This was under the presidency of Cardinal Koenig and Max recalls an abiding memory of the meetings held in Rome at the Vatican in 1970 was being served black caviar at morning tea!

Max’s time as a visiting professor at the Notre Dame University in Indiana, an independent, national research Catholic University with a critical approach to religion, in 1968-69 at the height of the Vietnam War had a profound effect. It further galvanized Max’s open and critical approach to Catholicism and its social place and role in society at large as well as democracy within the Church. In tandem with this he also spent 1972 as a Visiting Professor at the University of Louvain.

There is a clear and abiding line of focus on the philosophy of religion. Max was the Founder and Co-editor of this journal (1962-90). The first issue in 1962, published by the University of Melbourne, featured an article by Peter Geach, ‘Causality and Creation’, an article by Boyce Gibson, ‘Credal Affirmations and Metaphysics’ together with articles by Dom Illtyd Trothowan, Graham de Graaf and Ninian Smart. Max Charlesworth contributed an article, ‘St Anselm’s Argument’ to the second issue (1, 2, 25-36). In a 2007 editorial, Max reflected on the origins and context of the journal:

As a co-founder of the journal, I must say that I am immensely proud that my brain-child has been so successful. When I joined the Department of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, it was largely dominated by colleagues who had been influenced by Oxford/Cambridge linguistic analysis of a partly Wittgensteinian and partly logical positivist kind. In this context, there was very little interest in the philosophy of religion, as religion was deemed to be in the sphere of ‘that whereof one cannot speak’. There was also some old-fashioned feeling within the University of Melbourne that, as it was a ‘secular’ body without any kind of religious affiliation, it was in some way prohibited from providing courses in religion! Those days are happily gone forever. (2007, p. 109)

Understandably in this context, the first few years of Sophia focused on the Anglo-American philosophical tradition. However, Max wanted to move the journal beyond this limited view of religion to encompass other philosophical approaches. As he stated, ‘I had done some work on Australian Aboriginal religions (possibly the oldest forms of religion we know of), and I saw how irrelevant the standard analytical approaches were in this context’ (p. 109). As ever, Max was following his own path as a critical pluralist and pioneering new ways of seeing and doing.

Max’s longstanding interest in the philosophy of religion is reflected in his later work too, for example, Philosophy and Religion: From Plato to Postmodernism (2002), Religious Inventions: Four Essays (1997), and Religious Business: Essays on Australian Spirituality (1998). In addition, with Howard Morphy and Francoise Dussart he co-edited Aboriginal Religions in Australia: An Anthology of Recent Writings (2005). Involved with this theme was Max’s long 2008 essay, A Democratic Church: Reforming the Values and Institutions of the Catholic Church, (John Garratt Publishing, 2008). Max comments, ‘In that essay I ask “what are the characteristics of a new view of the Church which would allow it to speak to the peoples of the developed world who live in democratic societies and who subscribe to the values of liberal society”’. He adds,

Recently I have been interested in the question of the interpretation of religious texts and I have just published an essay on this difficult subject (See ‘Translating Religious Texts’, this issue). It is often said by theologians that religious faith is a God-given ‘grace’ quite independent of rational (philosophical) assent. But this cannot be true because a believer must have some idea that what is being proposed is possible and not self-contradictory. One cannot believe by faith something that is philosophically unbelievable. (Charlesworth 2012)

Contemporary European Philosophy

Contrary to the culture of the University of Melbourne Philosophy Department, which mostly focused upon technical issues, Max was intent in taking philosophy beyond the ‘ivory tower’ of the university into society at large. He was secretary of Melbourne University’s Extension Committee and the Vice Chancellor’s representative on the Victorian Council of Adult Education (1962-72). Max was always interested in bringing philosophy to the people outside the university and spent many years teaching Adult Education classes.

In the late 1960s Max established the course that he called ‘Contemporary European Philosophy’, which focused on Sartre and de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty and others. This course was very popular with students and even attracted a slew of psychiatrists who undertook the course as a single subject. Although it was by far the most popular course in the Philosophy Department after first year, this was a different time from now: it was not at that time regarded by Max’s colleagues to be much of a bonus!

Although the Philosophy Department at the University of Melbourne was diverse in its religious composition and attitudes to materialism, Wittgenstein and ethics, the approach to Contemporary European philosophy was not. Max Charlesworth was pretty much a ‘one man band’. (Max once quipped after one of Jan Srzednicki’s eruptions about Contemporary European Philosophy that he was ‘certainly a Contemporary European’!)

Max was invited by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) to write three one-hour programmes on ‘The Existentialists and Jean-Paul Sartre’, broadcast in 1975 and subsequently published as a book by University of Queensland Press in 1980. These very popular programs spurred the ABC to invite Max’s colleague and friend, Tony Coady, to present a fascinating seven-hour series, somewhat as a counter, on British philosophy, titled ‘The Fly and the Fly-bottle’, which included interviews with Sir Isaiah Berlin, Bernard Williams and Tom Stoppard. There were valuable contributions on all sides. Max remembers:

When I was writing the script of these programmes, I was keen to get live interviews with Sartre and de Beauvoir. The ABC’s reporter in Paris, Pierre Vicary, asked me to prepare a set of questions which would make clear that our programs were serious and not just chit chat, and he was able to cajole both Sartre and de Beauvoir to participate. Vicary’s interview with Sartre at the end of his incredible life was extraordinarily moving. (Charlesworth 2012)

Max has been a major innovator in bringing contemporary European philosophy to its current importance in Australia.

Deakin University

Max was Head of the Department of Philosophy of the University of Melbourne in 1974-75. At the end of 1975, literally as he turned 50, Max was invited by Victoria’s fourth university, Deakin, to become Planning Dean of Humanities in Geelong. It was an existential decision: would he spend the next 15 years in a ‘good’ job as Reader in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne or would he do something quite different and less comfortable? Max opted for the challenge to help create ‘the Athens of the South’ at Deakin and set up the School of Humanities as interdisciplinary areas involving Philosophical Studies, Australian Studies, Literary Studies and Performing Arts. As Deakin was set up so as not to duplicate other universities, there was a licence, and expectation, to be different from alma maters, particularly the University of Melbourne. Another essential social mission for Deakin that fitted closely with Max’s values was the innovation of off-campus education with open entry for mature age students, which meant that many people over the age of 21 from around Australia who had missed out on study or were interested in further study could undertake courses that engaged them. This was all part of Max’s adventure of ideas and social contribution. The overall aim was not to train would-be professional philosophers, for example, but to bring philosophy to a wide range of people who often found it made quite a difference in their lives. The pedagogical mode was writing quite elaborate study guides with readers, taped interviews and discussions, and weekend schools. This was certainly a project of philosophy in the world. Max always insisted that philosophy was in its element when it was applied.

As Planning Dean, Max played a significant role in appointing staff, and he set up new areas of study. He loved and encouraged interdisciplinary, lateral thinking and creativity. Max was able to appoint a varied and exciting group of academics in a number of disciplines across humanities. Philosophical Studies encompassed not only philosophy proper, but also the history of ideas, religious studies and social studies in science. As one of the first appointed to Deakin in 1976 as a lecturer in Philosophy and History of Ideas, I can testify to how exciting, vibrant and enthusiastic the academic culture was at Deakin. And as it eventually turned out, owing to the expansion of higher education in Australia, including Deakin, it wasn’t such a bad career move to undertake doctoral studies in Europe. Appointees in philosophy included Jocelyn Dunphy who undertook her PhD with Paul Ricoeur, Li Veit-Brause who studied for her PhD in Germany, and Russell Grigg who undertook his PhD in Paris with Lacan’s close collaborator and son-in-law, Jacques-Alain Miller.

In his role as Planning Dean of the School of Humanities, Max mandated that all units would have course teams, often interdisciplinary, on the basis that two academic heads were better than one. Despite the success of the heady days of this early team approach in units such as the interdisciplinary ‘Images of Man’ in philosophy and literature (Sartre, Camus, Freud, Kafka, Marx, Brecht), and ‘The Australian City’ in the new inter-discipline of Australian Studies at Deakin, Max later gave a paper to the School following Freud’s lead titled ‘The Psychopathology of Course Teams’. In academic matters, experience counted at least as much as reason did. Max was mostly infinitely patient with notoriously individualistic academic colleagues, but in the end Max himself collaborated and wrote many study guides across a range of disciplines. Max was Foundation Planning Dean of the School of Humanities from 1975-80 and remained Professor of Philosophy until his retirement in 1990, when he became Professor Emeritus.

Max has played a wide variety of significant roles in education, the community and the Church. Some highlights from a long list provide a flavour: member of the Charles Strong Trust (1975-); Chairperson of the Advisory Committee of the Centre for Human Bioethics (1987-90), Member of the Victorian Government Standing Review and Advisory Committee on Infertility (1985-); member, National Bioethics Consultative Committee (1988-90).

In addition to his role as a national innovator in education, Max’s contributions to bioethics were also recognised nationally when in 1990 he was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia for his contributions both to education and to bioethics.


A major focus and application of philosophy for Max was in the field of bioethics. He summarises his contributions in this area in his own words:

1n 1980 I became involved in the debate about the ethical implications of the new reproductive technologies (in vitro fertilisation, etc.). Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse at Monash University had established a group that was concerned with these questions and they invited me to join them. The Federal Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council, of which I was a member entered the debate, and the Victorian Government established a Standing Review and Advisory Committee on Infertility of which I was a member was also involved.

Later I was invited by the ABC to deliver the 1989 Boyer Lectures and I used them to critically appraise the new technologies (Life, Death, Genes and Ethics: Charlesworth 1989). Again, in 1990 I was invited to give a paper at an international conference on Human Genetic Information: Science and Law and Ethics arranged by the CIBA Foundation in Switzerland, ‘Human genome analysis and the concept of human nature’ (Charlesworth 1990). A little later, I published a book called Bioethics in a Liberal Society (1993) in which I argued that the fact that we live in a society in which the freedom of individuals has important implications for how we view death and dying, birth and family formation, the just distribution of health resources, surrogacy, etc. I view this book as perhaps my best publication and I was pleased when Cambridge University Press arranged translations of the book into Spanish, German and Italian. I might mention that I was in 1963 awarded a Nuffield Foundation Fellowship for study at the Warburg Institute, University of London. At the Institute I did research about the beginnings of science in the 16th and 17th centuries. Some years later I was able to use some of this research in a study with three other colleagues on the anthropology of science, which resulted in the 1989 book, Life Among the Scientists. (Charlesworth 2012)

Concluding Remarks

Max has made major contributions throughout his life in many fields.

He has always been interested in the new and, with his remarkable generosity of spirit, very much encouraged others, particularly academic colleagues and students, to explore what was new and different.

Max pioneered a broader approach to religions going well beyond traditional philosophy of religion and extending our understanding of the anthropology of religion. Moreover, as Father Paul Collins observes, Max is ‘truly the doyen of religious scholars in Australia. He has written on a range of issues from philosophy and reproductive ethics to Aboriginal religion. A genuinely ‘Catholic’ man in the deepest sense, he has contributed an enormous amount to the ministry of the Australian church’ (Collins 2009, p. 91).

Max was interested in existentialism, structuralism and hermeneutics well before they became academically acceptable and fashionable. In fact he played a vital role in introducing European philosophy into Australia. Max has led the way in many of the issues that are now accepted, including in particular the emphasis on philosophy as being best when it is applied to other disciplines, such as bioethics.

Max played a crucial part in setting up Deakin University where he was planning dean of humanities. He introduced many innovations in the new off-campus teaching of which Deakin was the clear quality leader in Australia.

He powerfully influenced many individual students, both at the University of Melbourne and at Deakin, and has played a critical role as a mentor to many academic colleagues.

Max has never stopped being fascinated by the world around him and has never stopped trying to make a difference. He continues to be an inspiration for the life of the mind, of critical thinking and has made big differences in so many arenas. His generosity of spirit and love of both people and ideas has touched many. Max has a very special place in each of many individual hearts and minds.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Arts and EducationDeakin UniversityMelbourneAustralia

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