Historical Ideas in Queensland: An Invitation for Dialogue and Engagement in Study, or please rescue me from my crazy notions…

By Neville Buch

There are different approaches to history practiced in this state. Family history is very popular. Many of our members are practitioners of local history, as am I. A few get the opportunity to break open a field that cast the research across Queensland.  A number of historians do well in heritage studies, and house or property history. And there are arrays of topics that cover the horde of ways Queenslanders live their lives – education, heath, law, transport, employment, gender, children, aging, dying, and so forth.

When we attempt to reflect on the discipline in this general and large picture outlook, we can see that there are several fields in history that don’t get the attention that hard philosophical questions demand. Of course, the biographies and histories of objects and places are very satisfying to the mind, and my remarks here in no way devalues the many contributions which are being made, and there are occasions where the writing of such histories are enriched by philosophical methods and problems. But the questions remain: Where did that idea come from?  Why are histories that speak directly to the subject of a person’s beliefs not written more? Why is there such little discourse on what historians think they are doing when they are thinking historically? What is the history of our practice as historians? Indeed, not merely the abstract history of the practice, but the local history of our profession — who we profess to be, living in an Australian state and in a specific timeframe.

My dream life-time project is to prove that Queensland does have an intellectual history, somewhere buried away.  I am sure that this must come across as a bizarre and ridiculous thought.  To talk of historical ideas in Queensland’s past would assume the existence of notable thinkers, and the response is usually that this is something to expect of Melbourne, not something that is even remotely possible in Brisbane, Toowoomba, Warwick, Roma, Mackay, Rockhampton, Townsville, and Cairns. One thinks of the brain-numbing hedonism of the Gold Coast, not of the Cyrenaics, Epicureans, and Utilitarians. Although one must confess that this is a difficult challenge for the Sunshine State (once referred to as the ‘Smart State’) – to shed light on the darken corridors of historical cognition – we can find notable thinkers, public debates on topics that go beyond basic political advantage, and there maybe hope that we’ll find something close to an original thought. As only a small indicator of that hope, if you search for academics – given that they are typically expected to have big ideas – who lived in Queensland –at one time in their career at least – in the Australian Dictionary of Biography – Online Edition, you get a list of 57 distinguished Australians (see list at the end of the article). There is at least ten in the list who were known for engagement in abstract ideas.

If you got this far in your reading, you would, no doubt, noticed that there are several sub-disciplines involved in the questions I have raised, and they all have something to contribute in Queensland historical study.  Definitional problems are to be expected with how to use the terms of the sub-disciplines – if you attempt tease them out – but as a rough guide, there is:

Historiography, or what we can refer to as the theories and methods of history: Usually this refers to the “how to”, as well as how history has been done in the past.  Queensland historian Ross Johnston has on several occasions provided some insightful thoughts in this area.

The Philosophy of History: Here the study usually involves elaborate ideas about what history is. It could be “one damn thing after another,” or it could be some type of system. One thinks of the work of Queensland historian Martin Stuart-Fox on the evolutionary theory of history.

The History of Philosophy, and other big ideas or beliefs: The historical studies of notable thinkers and their ideas, as well as how certain ideas, beliefs, fit or do not fit together over time. Long ago, Max Hamilton ran a double-semester second year course on major European thinkers.

The History of Ideas: Usually the study that traces the history of a concept, an idea, or a collection of beliefs. Some scholars have referred to this study as a “genealogy.” My own work on Queensland conservative Protestantism was not merely an institutional history but an attempt to trace systems of belief back to nineteenth and twentieth century American revivalist culture.

Intellectual History: The historical study of thought that could include the areas covered by the above terms. I struggle to think of a Queensland historian who has opened up this field. If there is someone, I am happy to stand corrected.

The concept of intellectual history here suggests that the practice of these sub-disciplines do crossover.

Does this have anything really to with Queensland history?

Certainly these are sub-disciplines, and conversations, that are global, crossing cultures and places; although a minority of scholars, who wish to emphasize the fragmentation or the radical relativity of language and culture, would want to argue it is not so. The craft may not be unique in Queensland history but our sense of place and our regard to our closest neighbours might be good reasons to dialogue and study what has been happening in our state of Queensland which relates to:

  • theories and methods of history;
  • systems, or its antithesis, about history;
  • notable thinkers who have lived in Queensland or have come this way;
  • ideas that were big, or took some time to clarify, somewhere in the state;
  • thoughts of Queenslanders that had a better quality to them.

Am I a muffled voice in the wilderness? Are there professional historians out there who would be interested in joining me on a journey of dialogue and study in Queensland intellectual history? If so, you know where to find me.

Dr Neville Buch MPHA (Qld)
Professional Historian
ABN 86703686642
Understanding history is philosophy in practice
(07) 3342 3704
0416 046 429

Distinguished Academics in Queensland History Who Might Offer An Intellectual History?

Search Results from the Australian Dictionary of Biography – Online Edition, using the search terms, “academic” (Occupation) and “Queensland” (Occupation Place). Search undertaken on 13 June 2010. There is at least ten in the list who were known for engagement in abstract ideas.

Adam, Geoffrey William Shedden (1908 – 1973) obstetrician and gynaecologist

Anderson, Harry Ross (1917 – 1961) professor of law

Bage, Anna Frederika (Freda) (1883 – 1970) university teacher

Bostock, John (1892 – 1987) psychiatrist

Brandon, Hugh Earle (1906 – 1984) musician and educationist

Cairns, Kevin Michael Kiernan (1929 – 1984) dentist, economist and politician

Clark, Colin Grant (1905 – 1989) economist and public servant

Cumbrae-Stewart, Francis William Sutton (1865 – 1938) lawyer, university administrator and teacher

Cummings, Robert Percy (1900 – 1989) architect

Duhig, James Vincent (1889 – 1963) medical practitioner

Earnshaw, Percy Alan (1893 – 1980) paediatrician

Edwards, Lewis David (1885 – 1961) public servant

Flinn, Mary (Isabel) (1894 – 1959) teacher and housewife

Fraser, Sir Kenneth Barron (1897 – 1969) surgeon and soldier

Fry, Thomas Penberthy (1904 – 1952) lawyer

Gibson, Alexander James (1876 – 1960) engineer

Gilliland, Margaret Sylvia (1917 – 1990) biochemist

Goddard, Ernest James (1883 – 1948) professor of biology

Greenwood, Gordon (1913 – 1986) historian

Hadgraft, Cecil Harry Huddlestone Hay (1904 – 1987) university lecturer and literary critic

Hamlyn-Harris, Ronald (1874 – 1953) entomologist

Hanger, Eunice (1911 – 1972) playwright and schoolteacher

Hawken, Roger William Hercules (1878 – 1947) civil engineer

Herbert, Andrew Desmond (1898 – 1976) professor of botany

Hirschfeld, Otto Saddler (1898 – 1957) medical practitioner and university chancellor

Holmes, Austin Stewart (1924 – 1986) economist

Johnston, Thomas Harvey (1881 – 1951) biologist and parasitologist

Jones, Thomas Gilbert Henry (1895 – 1970) professor of chemistry

Langer, Karl (1903 – 1969) architect and town planner

McDonald, Sydney Fancourt (1885 – 1947) paediatrician and army doctor

McGill, Alec Douglas (1886 – 1952) barrister

Marlay, Elaine (1915 – 1977) dentist and university lecturer

Mayo, George Elton (1880 – 1949) social theorist and industrial psychologist

May, Sydney Lionel (1882 – 1968) organist and music lecturer

Melbourne, Alexander Clifford Vernon (1888 – 1943) historian

Michie, John Lundie (1882 – 1946) professor of classics

Molesworth, Bevil Hugh (1891 – 1971) educationist and broadcaster

Morrison, Allan Arthur (1911 – 1975) historian

Murphy, Sir Alexander Paterson (1892 – 1976) physician and cardiologist

Murray, Sir Jack Keith (1889 – 1979) colonial administrator and teacher

Parnell, Thomas (1881 – 1948) physicist

Priestley, Henry James (1883 – 1932) professor of mathematics

Richards, Henry Caselli (1884 – 1947) professor of geology

Ringrose, Edward Colin Davenport (1899 – 1957) educationist

Roberts, Frederick Hugh Sherston (1901 – 1972) entomologist and parasitologist

Robinson, Frederick Walter (1888 – 1971) university teacher

Schonell, Sir Fred Joyce (1900 – 1969) vice-chancellor and educationist

Seddon, Herbert Robert (1887 – 1964) veterinarian

Shann, Edward Owen Giblin (1884 – 1935) economist

Stable, Jeremiah Joseph (1883 – 1953) professor of English

Steele, Bertram Dillon (1870 – 1934) professor of chemistry

Teakle, Laurence John Hartley (1901 – 1979) professor of agriculture

Tully, Joan (1907 – 1973) agricultural scientist

Walkom, Arthur Bache (1889 – 1976) palaeobotanist and museum director

Whitehouse, Frederick William (1900 – 1973) geologist

Wilkinson, Herbert John (1891 – 1963) anatomist

Wright, Sydney Edward (1914 – 1966) pharmaceutical chemist