BA (Minnesota), BPhil (Oxford), DipEd (Tert.) (Monash), FAHA
Philosophy and Religious Studies
Janna Lea Thompson (1942-2022)
We were lucky enough to serve with Janna as co-convenors of the Victorian Branch of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (ASSA). This was during the first couple of years of the COVID-19 pandemic that was at the end of her life. Together with her and former ASSA president professor Leon Mann, we jointly organised a Symposium to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the foundation of ASSA.
In view of the prevailing pandemic in September 2021, this Symposium had to be held virtually. It was a timely and successful event with three panels that discussed various contributions of the social sciences to pandemics based on the COVID experience. Afterwards, Janna volunteered to draft an excellent summary of the Symposium that astutely integrated a range of disparate contributions from the various distinguished speakers.
Janna was a conscientious and diligent colleague who delivered what she promised and in good time. She did not waste words; she got to the point efficiently and effectively.
Although philosophy was her field of expertise, she had much knowledge of a range of other fields. During the pandemic lockdown Janna wrote a detective novel Lockdown, Clan Destine Press, 2022. We and many others miss her.
Greg J Bamber and Dennis Trewin, co-convenors, Victorian branch of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia
Robert Young was a long-term friend and colleague of Janna. We are grateful to him for summarizing below a longer obituary that he wrote for the Academy of the Humanities.
Janna Lea Thompson, one of Australia’s most distinguished philosophers, died on 24 June, 2022, only a few months after being diagnosed with multiple brain tumours. She was, fortunately, largely free of physical suffering throughout the period of medical treatment that followed her diagnosis and remained characteristically cognitively sharp until her final couple of days of drug-induced sleep.
Janna was born in Faribault, Minnesota, south of Minneapolis, in 1942. She was the first of two girls born to school teacher parents. Apart from a year spent at a grammar school in England while her parents were on a teacher exchange programme, all of her schooling prior to undertaking a B.A. at the University of Minnesota was in the public school system in Faribault. She went to the University of Minnesota with the intention of becoming a journalist but was inspired by several of her Philosophy teachers to pursue further study in the discipline because they not only sought to use evidence and argument to support their views but were willing to change their views when others produced more compelling evidence and argument. After completing her undergraduate degree Janna successfully applied for a Marshall Plan scholarship which enabled her to undertake postgraduate study at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She completed a B.Phil.
Janna’s first appointment was to the University of Manchester where she taught from 1966 until 1970 when the English weather and her spirit of adventure led her to seek a change. It was Australia’s good fortune that she obtained an appointment at Monash University. She taught there from 1970 until 1974 and while doing so took the opportunity to complete a Dip. Ed. (Tertiary) to enhance her teaching skills. She moved to La Trobe in 1975 where she remained until her retirement in 2012 other than when she accepted an invitation first, to be the Deputy Director of the ARC Research Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne for 2003-2005, and, second, in 2007 as Humphrey Visiting Professor in Modern Feminism at the University of Waterloo, Canada.
On arrival at La Trobe Janna helped introduce environmental ethics and feminism into the curriculum. The choice to focus on these applications of Philosophy (and others to which she turned her attention later in her career) stemmed from her desire first to understand why things were as they were and then on how to change them for the better. She was ethically and politically concerned from her teenage years through till the end of her life because she was always seeking ways to achieve a better and more just world. Her activism was motivated by her socialist conviction, but she also saw her teaching as an important vehicle for raising awareness of key ethical and political issues. Students thought highly of her teaching and supervision because it was well organised, rigorous and committed.
For much of the first two decades of Janna’s academic career teaching was her main focus. In that period she published only a handful of refereed papers and edited a special supplementary volume on ‘Women and Philosophy’ in 1986 for the Australasian Journal of Philosophy. That she did not publish very much in her early career years did not signify a lack of interest in research. Her extensive subsequent productivity is best understood as showing that Janna had been refining her thinking about various ethical and political issues, incorporating the refinements into her teaching, and readying herself to publish carefully considered treatments of those issues. In the remaining three decades of her career Janna published five monographs, co-edited two important collections of articles by leading thinkers from around the world, published scores of articles in refereed journals and scholarly collections, and regularly contributed to public discussion of matters of significance for the nation in more popular outlets like The Conversation and The Drum. Janna described her publication record as modest for someone who had had a lengthy academic career, but this seriously undersells it.
The first of Janna’s monographs, Justice and World Order: A Philosophical Inquiry, published in 1992, attempted to provide a theory of international justice that took into account the growing philosophical interest in cosmopolitanism as well as providing a practical account of how it could be realised in a world where positive changes to international relations resulting from the end of the ‘cold war’ seemed possible.
Janna’s second monograph, Discourse and Knowledge: Defence of a Collectivist Ethic, published in 1998, attempted to explain why people disagree on ethical issues and how they can nevertheless reach a consensus.
It is the third of Janna’s books, Taking Responsibility for the Past: Reparation and Historical Justice, which appeared in 2002, that she thought of as her most important work. She took her cue for it from Prime Minister John Howard’s contention that it was unnecessary to apologise for wrongs done in the past to indigenous peoples because present-day people should not have to take responsibility for the deeds of past people. Janna deployed examples of historic injustice ranging from the treatment of native Americans and African slaves in the United States, and of indigenous peoples in Australia, to support her argument that as we are participants in an intergenerational society, each generation has good reason to make commitments future citizens are honour-bound to keep. Accordingly, present-day citizens are obligated to make reparation for historic wrongdoings and for past failures to keep commitments. The book led to Janna receiving a raft of invitations to speak at overseas conferences concerned with intergenerational justice. In 2006 she was awarded the Eureka Prize for Ethics for the book.
Her fourth book, Intergenerational Justice: Rights and Responsibilities in an Intergenerational Polity, published in 2009, elaborated on, and developed further, the account she had argued for in the previous book and in various articles. In 2018 she published her final monograph, a commissioned work entitled Should Current Generations Make Reparation for Slavery?. Janna also co-edited two well regarded collections on topics of contemporary social significance: first, in 2008, with Loane Skene, The Sorting Society: The Ethics of Genetic Screening and Therapy, and, in 2015, Historical Justice and Memory, with Klaus Neumann.
She was elected to a Fellowship of the Academy of Humanities in 2002 and to a Fellowship of the Academy of the Social Sciences in 2011.
Janna’s life, however, encompassed far more than her academic career. While she was not much interested in competitive sport, she was physically very active. As well as being an enthusiastic bush walker, swimmer, canoeist, and cross-country skier, she participated in group cycling tours in Europe and cycled the roughly 14 kms from her home to the university and back until well into her seventies. The journey she made along the Camino de Santiago might be seen as topping everything. Along with these varied physical pursuits, her life included a love of cinema, opera, travel, and reading. Even though an eye condition made lengthy periods of reading difficult she was extremely widely read, with her interests ranging from modern science, through literary fiction, including crime and science fiction, to the reading she did for professional purposes.
She is greatly missed.
Professor Janna Thompson was a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at La Trobe University. Her main speciality was political philosophy and she wrote books and articles on reparation for historical injustices, intergenerational justice and global and environmental issues. She served as Deputy Director and University of Melbourne Head of the ARC Special Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics for 3 years. She was also a Humphrey Visiting Professor in Modern Feminism at Waterloo University in Ontario, Canada.
- Ass. Lecturer, Manchester University (1964 - 1970)
- Lecturer, Monash University (1970 - 1975)
- Lecturer / Senior Lecturer / Associate Professor / Professor, La Trobe University (1975 - )
- Deputy Director, ARC Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (2003 - 2005)
- Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities
- Winner of Eureka Prize for Research in Ethics (2006)
J Thompson (2009), Intergenerational Justice: Rights and Responsibilities in an Intergenerational Polity. New York: Routledge
J Thompson (2002), Taking Responsibility for the Past: Reparation and Historical Injustice. Cambridge, UK: Polity
J Thompson (2011), Is political apology a sorry affair?, in Social and Legal Studies, UK: Sage
J Thompson (2011), Ethics of Repatriation: Rights of Possession and Duties of Respect, in Appropriating the Past. G F Scarre & R Coningham (eds). Cambridge/London: Cambridge University Press
J Thompson (2009), 'Identity and Obligation in an Intergenerational Polity', in Intergenerational Justice. A Gosseries and L H Meyer (eds). Oxford/London: Oxford University Press
J Thompson (2008), Genetic Technology and Intergenerational Justice, in The Sorting Society: the Ethics of Genetic Screening and Therapy. L Skene & J Thompson (eds). New York: Cambridge University Press