SUTCLIFFE, John Philip. MA, PhD (Sydney). Emeritus Professor (Psychology). Professeur-invite, Departement Informatique, Ecole nationale superieure de Telecommunications, Paris (since 1995). 1964. Panel D.
(Deceased), 2000-02-08

Professor John Philip Sutcliffe died on Wednesday 2 August after a long illness. Known to his friends and colleagues simply as ‘Phil’, he was born in Woollahra on 24 May, 1926, and attended Canterbury Boys High School. Phil enrolled in Arts at the University of Sydney in 1946, and after a string of first places and scholarships, graduated with first-class honours, first place, and a University Medal in Psychology in 1949. In 1953, he was awarded Master of Arts, first class in Anthropology and the following year, Master of Arts, first class with University Medal in Psychology. Phil’s PhD, conferred in 1959, was the first awarded in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney. His examiners were the distinguished psychologists, Robert White of Harvard, Hans Eysenck of London and Gordon Hammer of Sydney, and his thesis was deemed by these examiners to be, ‘a model for what a PhD thesis should be’. Phil began his academic career as a part-time tutor in Psychology in 1949, progressing to Senior Lecturer in 1956, Reader in 1963, Professor in 1966, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia in 1970, McCaughey Professor in 1987 and Professor Emeritus in 1992. The longest serving member in Australia’s oldest Department of Psychology, Phil and his long serving colleague, the late Professor RA Champion, epitomised the vigour and intellectual energy created during the headship of their mentor, Professor WM O’Neil.

Phil’s areas of research were many and varied. In his Festschrift, he claimed not to have published a lot. Indeed, Phil opposed the current fetish for publication, believing that economically driven pressures on academics to get material into print are counterproductive for their subject. In a career spanning 40 years, he published only 21 papers, one edited book, 13 book chapters, three reports, 19 conference papers and six abstracts. Nevertheless Phil Sutcliffe’s research was of the highest quality. His work, and that of his graduate students, on hypnosis in the 1950s and early 1960s not only redefined, but set a new course for research in this entire area. Phil’s now classic paper on credulous and sceptical views of hypnotic phenomena is one of the most cited in the discipline of psychology. His contributions to the logic of measurement in psychology were no less influential, and he passed this particular baton to his student, Dr Joel Michell, whose published work on a reassessment of the foundations of measurement in psychology has been subject to considerable international commentary and acclaim. In 1949, Phil was probably the first psychologist in this country to employ Sir Ronald Fisher’s method of analysis of variance. Later, as a lecturer in the Psychology Department, he introduced these methods to students, initiating the strong, innovative, methodological tradition that still characterises this department. Phil’s work on the reliability of psychological testing and the resolution of reliability paradoxes continues to challenge accepted opinion in differential psychology, and his formal, relentless and uncompromising approach to experimental design and analysis has engendered rigour and precision in generations of Sydney Psychology graduates. Phil’s research on taxonomy, in particular his Differential Concept Formation theory and its model SYDNEY, dominated the final 30 years of his research effort. The legacy of his activity in this area can be seen in my own research and that of my postgraduate students, but despite this, Phil was very much the prophet in his own country.

It was not until his visiting appointments in French and Belgian universities that the true import of his ideas began to be appreciated internationally. The closely linked European philosophical and psychological traditions provided a rich and fertile soil for the sowing of Phil’s ideas, much more so than the underlying dustbowl empiricism of American Psychology. In 1990-91 he held a visiting professorship at the University of Paris V. In 1995, he was visiting professor at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Telecommunications. His influence in taxonomic theory and systems continues to grow nationally and internationally and wherever psychologists seek precise, realistic, explicit and transparent accounts of our fundamental ability to know, classify, categorise and name objects in our environment. Phil is to receive later this year the posthumous award of Doctor of Science, University of Sydney, for a thesis entitled ‘A Critical Enquiry into the Classification Movement of the Last Half- Century’.

Phil was an excellent teacher, and exemplified the Socratic method in all aspects of his teaching. His students, regardless of ability, were taught to approach all argument analytically. They were encouraged to identify premises and conclusions, to determine their truth and to assess the validity of all inference. Importantly, students were not only taught how, but were urged to rehabilitate flawed theory and experiment. Phil championed critical inquiry and objectivism and was uncompromising in his search for what is the case. As Joel Michell observed in his tribute to Phil Sutcliffe as a university teacher, ‘The character of his style was not exhausted by the fact that he probed with such seriousness, rigour and persistence. His interrogation was not aimless probing. It was focused on the objective issue before us. What I mean by the objective issue is the issue as it exists independently of us, of our interests and our wishes.’ (Latimer & Michell, 1996: 14).

Phil alternated as Head of Department with Professor RA Champion for long periods from 1960 to the late 1980s and was responsible for initiating an elaborate and effective committee structure for the administration of affairs in Psychology. He believed passionately in the need for a democratic administrative system that allowed for open debate on how a department should progress and develop, how its funds and resources should be distributed and how the welfare of its staff and students should be monitored. As he grew older, Phil became progressively more outspoken on the plight of the universities, the lack of funding, and voiced his opposition to what he saw as careerism and the lack of distinction between scholarly publication and CV publication. He was passionately opposed to many of the changes that have been thrust upon universities in recent decades, especially the ways in which managerialism has been used to defeat the democratic aspirations he supported. It was Phil, who in his wisdom in 1970, argued for and won funding for Psychology’s first digital computers - a PDP8 and a PDP11. Today, Psychology has the largest, intranet in the university. It spans five buildings, seven large teaching laboratories, one graphics laboratory, two terminal rooms and its tentacles reach to the desktop of every staff member and postgraduate student in Psychology. It was Phil’s foresight and commitment that guided our computer system through the early years, and it will remain forever a testament to his vision.

But what of Phil Sutcliffe the man - the softly spoken, mildmannered academic? There was none of this demeanour on the squash court, the tennis court, across the chess board, on the golf course or behind the wheel of his Subaru. In these activities, when Phil’s competitive spirit and his physical fitness took control, it was, in the opinion of many, almost as if he had undergone a brain transplant! Like all of us, Phil had his foibles, his vanities, his obsessions, and his students loved him for these. Personally, I experienced many very funny moments with Phil. I share with him and another colleague, Mr George Oliphant, the distinction of being one of the only three people in the University of Sydney ever to have attended a seminar during which the entire audience and the speaker fell asleep. I was the speaker. Phil and George were the audience. Phil retired first, reclining his chair back against the wall, folding his arms and snoring softly. George was harder to judge, keeping very still and hiding his eyes behind his upper spectacle rims, but when I had stopped speaking for several minutes and George had not moved, I put my feet up on a chair and dozed off. We were wakened by a postgraduate coming into the room, and Phil, never to be bested, opened his eyes, came off his perch and immediately asked me a question!

Phil was such an allrounder, whose uncompromising and rigorous approach extended to his extra-mural interests. He learnt French at a very late age, and conversed, wrote and delivered scholarly papers in the language. He took his students and friends to jazz concerts, on bird watching and bush walking trips. He could restore furniture, explain the intricacies of weaving tartans, and just before he died, he engaged me for hours with his informed and perspicuous comparisons of American and European culture. He taught us all so much and influenced us in so many subtle ways. He was my mentor, my tormentor, my very dear friend. I shall never forget him.

If I may be permitted to conclude this eulogy on a personal note, but one that hints, I think, at why Phil’s national and international standing is so high, why he was so much loved and respected as an academic and a teacher, and why the influence of his work will continue to grow for many years to come. I have been very fortunate in that I have travelled widely. I have attended many international conferences, and during the course of my travels I have met with many of the great psychologists of my time. I have listened to their papers and have argued with them far into the night. But while I have learnt many things from them, I am still glad that, rather than any one of them, Phil Sutcliffe was my teacher.

Phil is survived by his wife, Associate Professor Margaret Sankey and his stepdaughter, Katherine.

Cyril Latimer

Reference: Latimer, CR & Michell, J (eds) (1996). At Once Scientific and Philosophic: A Festschrift for John Philip Sutcliffe. Brisbane: Boombana Publications.