John Anderson was born in 1893 in the small town of Stonehouse, twenty miles south-west of Glasgow, Scotland. He attended the local school, where his father was headmaster, before enrolling at the Hamilton Academy in 1907. In 1911, he won first place in the All Scotland Bursary Competition which enabled him to study at Glasgow University from 1911 to 1917. During this time he won several prizes and awards, before graduating with an M.A. degree in philosophy in 1917. From 1917 to 1922 he worked in the philosophy departments at Glasgow University and the University of Wales, before being employed at Edinburgh University on the Shaw Fellowship from 1922 to 1926. In 1927, he was appointed Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University and, apart from a sabbatical year spent in Britain and America in 1938, he remained there until his retirement in 1958. He died in Sydney in 1962 at the age of 69.
Anderson never published a book on philosophy during his lifetime, confining his published record to journal articles. The philosophy Anderson expounded in those articles, and in lectures to students, is generally known as ‘Andersonian Realism’. This systematic view of philosophy was enormously influential on several generations of students at Sydney University, many of whom, such as John Passmore, J.L. Mackie, and D.M. Armstrong, went on to become important philosophers in their own right.
Anderson was also a controversial figure, often speaking out on a range of political, educational, and religious subjects, as well as contemporary issues of the day. He also regularly spoke out in opposition to censorship and in defence of freedom of thought, and in this respect he is best remembered as a prominent Freethinker. He was censured twice during his residence in Sydney: once, in 1931, by the Senate of the University of Sydney for his comments on war memorials, and once, in 1943, by the N.S.W. Legislative Assembly for an address he gave on religion and education.