Australian logic: a salute to Malcolm Rennie

Recently, I posted a salute to Mervyn Pragnell, a logician who was present in the early days of computer science.  I was reminded of the late Malcolm Rennie, the person who introduced me to formal logic, and whom I acknowledged here.   Rennie was the most enthusiastic and inspiring lecturer I ever had, despite using no multi-media wizardry, usually not even an overhead projector.  Indeed, he mostly just sat and spoke, moving his body as little as possible and writing only sparingly on the blackboard, because he was in constant pain from chronic arthritis.   He was responsible for part of an Introduction to Formal Logic course I took in my first year (the other part was taken by Paul Thom, for whom I wrote an essay on the notion of entailment in a system of Peter Geach).   The students in this course were a mix of first-year honours pure mathematicians and later-year philosophers (the vast majority), and most of the philosophers struggled with non-linguistic representations (ie, mathematical symbols).  Despite the diversity, Rennie managed to teach to all of us, providing challenging questions and discussions with and for both groups.   He was also a regular entrant in the competitions which used to run in the weekly Nation Review (and a fellow-admirer of the My Sunday cartoons of Victoria Roberts), and I recall one occasion when a student mentioned seeing his name as a competition winner, and the class was then diverted into an enjoyable discussion of tactics for these competitions.

After that year, my university provided no more courses on logic (and its study was discouraged by my pure mathematics lecturers), and I took up mathematical statistics in addition to pure math.  I wrote to Rennie to tell him. He eventually replied, writing from Woop Woop; he and his family had taken some time off to travel around Australia by caravan.   A year or so later, as a consequence of a sequence of four independent and extremely improbable events, our paths crossed again.  (“There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”)   He and his family then settled near to where mine lived on the far north coast of New South Wales, and so I would meet up and visit with him each university vacation that I was home, a couple of times per year.    At his suggestion, I bought a copy of Hughes and Creswell’s book on modal logic, and worked my way through it.    The conversations I had with him on these occasions were among the most riveting and profound I have had in my life.   I did not learn of his death until some time after it took place, and the news made me very sad.  I feel honoured and privileged to have known him and to have had the opportunity to visit with him.

Later I learnt that Malcolm had embarked on his academic career in Philosophy by first reading every single article in every single issue of the journal Mind, in order to be properly prepared.   This did not surprise me:  he was extremely well-read and thoughtful about all that he read.  He had put himself through university by working as a programmer for IBM in Sydney, so he also had a connection with the early days of computing.  When he died, he left a wife and son.

The Australasian Journal of Philosophy published an obituary for him in 1980, written by LG and RR, whom I believe were Len Goddard (1925-2009) and Richard Routley (later Richard Sylvan) (1935-1996).  Goddard himself died earlier this year.  I have excerpted some of their obituary of Malcolm Rennie here:

MALCOLM RENNIE
1940 — 1980
Assistant Editor, 1974-1977

When a friend dies, what is remembered is a patchwork of disconnected memories; and different people remember different patchworks. There is no way to pull them all together to create a rounded memory of the whole man, certainly not on paper in a formal obituary. The best way is for his friends to remember him, together, over a few pints in the pub, one memory triggering another, one patchwork blending with another, so that, for a brief time, he is there again. Malcolm Rennie would have liked to be remembered in that way, and there will be many occasions when he is. Whenever a few philosophers who knew him get together, he will be remembered with affection and gratitude, both because of the person he was and for the work he did.  Someone will recall a friendly lunch during which the topic of conversation turned rapidly to Russell’s paradox and stayed there, with Malcolm in his quiet, persuasive, way making everyone see it all in a new light. Someone else will remember a seminar in which Malcolm presented an entirely original way of handling predicate modifiers, a beautiful blend of logic and grammar. And someone else will remember the time when he threatened to set up an alternative life style in Canberra by living in his van in the portico of the  administrative building.

That is how he should be remembered and how he will be remembered. This has to be different. This is a substitute for real remembering, the bare curriculum vitae, a life on paper without the rich reality of the man who lived it. But perhaps it will trigger some memories for some people.

Malcolm came into philosophy late and left it early. He was twenty-one before he completed first-year Philosophy as a part-time student at Sydney. He died at the age of thirty-nine, though he had given up academic life three years earlier, crippled by arthritis and in permanent pain. Friends could only watch in anguish, caring but impotent. But he got a little pleasure from contemplating some of the bizarre remedies which they suggested to him from time to time – one involving a complicated process requiring a couple of tons of paw-paw leaves. We were all clutching at miracles.

Three years after his introduction to philosophy, Malcolm graduated from Sydney with first-class honours. A year later he picked up a first-class M.A. in Logic, and the University Medal, at Armidale. But after he had sat the M.A. papers and before the results were out, he was sure that the was going to fail. As if he needed to worry: his papers were brilliant. But he was a worrier. The best always are, and he was one of the very best.

He found his true intellectual home in logic. Two years after leaving Armidale, now a Lecturer at Auckland, he published the first of a steady stream of papers. All but one were on logic and all were an important contribution to philosophy. He would have liked that way of putting it. He was exasperated by those who thought that logic was not a part of philosophy and he despaired of those philosophers who seemed almost to take pride in saying that they knew no logic. He could get angry at times.

This is no place to review his papers. They are there to read; so, too, are flattering reviews of them. Everything he did was impressive. His early published work was mainly in modal logic and the related area of tense logic. The clarity with which he presented complex semantic analyses revealed the fine quality of his mind. This ability to present complex matters clearly is part of what made him a superb teacher; the other contributing part was his warm nature. He enjoyed teaching and he cared about his students. He had immense patience with those who wanted to learn. A former colleague recalls how, whenever Malcolm visited his house, even the younger children would swarm about him and he would interact with them by teaching them, and the children would be fascinated. When he left Auckland and went to Queensland University, he involved himself in the teaching of logic in schools. The textbook which he wrote with Rod Girle was intended for use in Queensland schools. It is so used, but it also used in universities; surely a testimony to its clarity and scope. A more advanced text based on his lecture notes, which he was writing in collaboration with lan Hinckfuss, will be published soon.

At Auckland and Brisbane, Malcolm taught logic across its whole range, from elementary introductory courses to set theory, recursive function theory and the philosophy of mathematics. But he was not just a logician (a phrase he hated). He also gave courses on political philosophy, ethics and the pre-Socratics; and he brought to them the same precision and clarity which marked his work in logic. He was good at teaching, whatever he taught, and he was prepared to teach almost anything at any level because he enjoyed teaching. Yet he gave it up when he went to his last job, a research post at Canberra. The pull of full-time research in his favourite field of logic was a strong incentive, and besides, Canberra was not far from his birth place near Cooma. He was born on a farm and the countryside was always with him.

He had a love-hate relationship with Canberra. The city was too pretty for him and too artificial. He once said that he wished he had a truck-load of mud to throw on the buildings just to make them look real; and he was delighted when he came across a garden in which someone had not swept up the autumn leaves. But Canberra had some secret charm for him. It was enough of a country town to make him feel at home. He grew vegetables and watched the gang-gangs in the garden and worked away on his logic. It was during his stay in Canberra that he served for several years as Assistant Editor of this Journal. Those who received his comments on their submitted articles will know how acute his criticisms were, and how helpful. And he volunteered to do some undergraduate teaching, though he was not required to do any at all; but he could not give up teaching entirely. He was not an idle man.

At Canberra he continued his work on modal logic but he also became interested in the logic of predicate modifiers. His adaptation of Church’s type theory to serve as a categorial grammar was brilliant. Fortunately the first volume of this is published. He finished the second volume before he left Canberra but two sections are now missing. As his illness progressed, he became despondent, lost interest in his work, and simply dumped his papers. Friends rescued most of them, but not all. There are plans, however, to publish the incomplete second volume as part of a new edition of the original first volume.

So much of Malcolm Rennie’s work remains unpublished. He was, for example, working on a book on the theory of finite automata, an interest which developed from his knowledge of computers. And it was a wide knowledge: he worked as a computer specialist for several years when he was a part-time student at Sydney University. He also left a lot of unpublished material on procedure theory and a half-completed dictionary of logic.

There is so much more to be remembered: small things and big things. He hated conferences. He thought they were vanity shops for the self-indulgent.  He hated pomposity. He hated rules and rule-makers. Bureaucracy and officialdom were his bete-noires. But he had deep loves too: philosophy, the countryside, his home. There was in fact very little about which he was indifferent. He held strong views about most things, and this made him a rich man to know.

When he left Canberra, he spent two years driving round much of Australia with his family and wrote long letters to his friends about what he had seen, though it caused him much physical pain to drive and to write. He was living on the north coast of N.S.W. when he died.

He would have hated this. Obituaries are for members of the establishment, and Malcolm was never a member of that. The pub is a better place.”

References:

LG and RR [1980]: Malcolm Rennie, 1940-1980. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 58 (4):  438-439.

Malcolm K. Rennie [1974]: Some Uses of Type Theory in the Analysis of Language.  Monograph Series #1, Department of Philosophy,  Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. (166 pages)  This report applies type theory to predicate modifiers (chapter 1) and intensional logics (chapter 2).

 




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