Obituary — Peter Munz

Peter Munz (1921-2006)


In 1924 Stalin is reputed to have said that of academicse had no fear but intellectuals were always a threat. Emeritus Professor Peter Munz was an intellectual, challenging received wisdom, brave in his judgements and a committed rationalist in an age of fundamentalist certainties and relativist vicissitudes.

But Peter was, of course, an academic too and a very successful one. He completed his MA at the Canterbury University College in 1944, studying philosophy with Karl Popper, and he began his PhD at Cambridge University the following year, where he was a member of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s seminar.

He began a long and fruitful career at Victoria when he was appointed to a lecturership in history in 1949. Peter rose through the ranks and, following the retirement of J C Beaglehole, he became Professor of History. Professor Munz was an excellent and memorable teacher who lectured without notes; published specialist monographs and books on history as a discipline; regularly reviewed leading works in history; mentored younger colleagues; was the best-known New Zealand humanities scholar internationally; and kept up a correspondence with many prominent commentators and intellectuals of our age. Peter knew everyone.

Peter was that rare bird, a public intellectual. His letters published regularly in the New York Review of Books and the Guardian Weekly gave expression to his deep concern about current events and the ways that our intellectual endeavours impact on and interpret the world. Peter, a true intellectual, was engaged with many of the great thinkers and issues of our day.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Peter developed his research in two central areas. The first was the place of religion in the modern scheme of thought. This led to the well reviewed and ground-breaking study Problems of Religious Knowledge (1959), followed by Relationship and Solitude: An Enquiry into the Relationship Between Myth, Metaphysics and Ethics (1965). Here he argues against positivist science in that it has failed to capture the significant dimensions of our human condition. This work contains an original classification of metaphysical themes in terms of myth and develops a theoretical framework for linking myths to the practices of human societies. Myth was just about to become a major topic in Europe and America.

Peter’s second field was medieval history, particularly political history, leading to his revisionist studies: Frederic Barbarossa: A Study in Medieval Politics and Life in the Age of Charlemagne, both published in 1969.

During this period Peter also translated and published major works of historical scholarship into English from both Italian and German, including Heinrich Fichtenau’s Das Karolingische Imperium [The Carolingian Empire] (1957) and Eugenio Garin’s Scienza e Vita Civile nel Rinascimento [Science and Civil Life in the Italian Renaissance] (1969). His medieval work convinced him that life was better in the Enlightenment but that this would need to be defended.

The theme raised in his 1969 inaugural lecture, “The Concept of the Middle Ages as a Sociological Category: An Inaugural Address” was developed in his 1977 book, The Shapes of Time: A New Look at the Philosophy of History. Peter argued that history was not a science but an art much closer to literature and poetry than mathematics and was primarily concerned not with data but judgement, and that historical knowledge is created rather than discovered. It is however, all the more important for not being a science.

My particular favourite of Peter’s books is When the Golden Bough Breaks: Structuralism or Typology (1973), which I read as an undergraduate at Victoria. It was so very stimulating to read a sustained study of structuralism, and Peter’s critique and alternative in the form of a revised and revived typology. Structuralism had become a dominant methodology and ideology across the humanities and social sciences everywhere – but received no mention at the time in any of my courses at Victoria. Peter was our engagement with the broader currents of contemporary thought and not just as disseminator but as active critique.

On his retirement, Peter embarked on a series of studies that would occupy his fine mind for the years to come. This project was a historian’s exploration of knowledge; that is, a critical history of knowledge itself. The first published product was On the Growth of Knowledge: Popper or Wittgenstein (1985). He contrasted the positions of his two teachers in the interests of developing a critique of the then dominant relativism – that would soon lead to postmodernism; supported Popper against Wittgenstein in his claims that there is such a thing as certain knowledge and offered trenchant challenges to the work of Thomas Kuhn and Richard Rorty.

From Popper’s later works Peter picked up on his heightened interest in biology and evolution. Using Popper’s distinction between open and closed cultures, Peter paralleled these with two models of the natural selection of knowledge. In one, shared beliefs create powerful social bonding, but “where people cannot afford the luxury of exposing it (knowledge) to critical discussion lest their co-operation be endangered or cease”, the result is a dangerously closed natural selection of knowledge. This he contrasts with his own endorsement of the Enlightenment – an open natural selection of knowledge .

Peter’s insights about the evolution of knowledge were fully developed in his critically acclaimed Philosophical Darwinism: On the Origin of Knowledge by Means of Natural Selection (1993). Here he moved from the critique of Kuhn, Lyotard and Rorty to offering an alternative thesis: that natural selection in biology is paralleled by artificial selection in knowledge. This is Peter’s most philosophical work.

It was followed by Critique of Impure Reason: An Essay on Neurons, Somatic Markers and Consciousness in 1999. Here Peter began by reporting that “the neurons are silent” and argued that consciousness is linguistic in nature and not separate from language. The book is an attack on the limitations of cognitive psychology. He developed the three levels of the title as neuronal events, somatic markers and explicit consciousness. And the key link between the
second (mood and physical flutters) and the third, consciousness, was of course language.

In Beyond Wittgenstein’s Poker: New Light on Popper and Wittgenstein (2004), Peter offered a powerful critique of evolutionary psychology and its failure to fully appreciate the impact of a Darwinian account of evolution, and rightly accused evolutionary psychologists of reviving an older form of positivism. He found his answer in a creative synthesis of Popper and Wittgenstein.

Peter’s current project was the evolution of culture. He sent me an email to note my criticisms of the paper that was to form chapter one of the new study. He and I differed in our views on religion though we both agreed that it was absolutely central in human history. His
startlingly original thought was that religion is a system of non-adaptive falsehoods. His argument is that some institutions and modes of thought survive not by adaptation but by the attempt to remain static. He considered that our overly-large brains use religion to soak up, as it were, their surplus capacity.

Peter was a joy to read and of course to listen to. His books and he were filled with wit and humour. He was a friend, a fellow Jew, and came from a European intellectual tradition that I recognise and treasure.

Peter is a loss to the intellectual life of our nation. Where will we find his like again?


This is an abridged version of a eulogy given by Paul Morris at Old St Paul’s, Wellington, on 20 October 2006.

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Posted in Obituaries
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