Vale Len O’Neill (a brief note byTim Oakley)

01 Mar 2016 6:13 PM | Anonymous member

Len O’Neill, a member of the Melbourne University Philosophy Department (as it then was) from 1966 to 1996, died on February the 18th this year. 

Len completed his undergraduate and masters degrees at Melbourne University, before gaining a doctorate at Cambridge in the mid-1960s. He returned to Australia to take up a lectureship at Melbourne University, where he remained for his entire professional life. His masters and doctoral work was in philosophy of logic and epistemology. While these interests persisted throughout his career, and were the subject matter of his publications, he also worked extensively in the theory of punishment, and the philosophies of Buddhism, and anarchism. He completed a second PhD, and during his retirement was well into a third, left uncompleted at the time of his death.  

 Len particularly admired Douglas Gasking, one of his teachers and his MA supervisor at Melbourne, and attempted – with considerable success – to emulate the clarity and rigour with which Gasking approached philosophical issues. He initiated and co-edited the posthumous publication of a collection of Gasking’s papers (Language, Logic and Causation: Philosophical Writings of Douglas Gasking, M.U.P. 1996). Following Gasking’s physical incapacitation by a stroke, Len visited him regularly, and they engaged in continuing philosophical discussion, especially on the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, a philosopher they both held in very high esteem. Len’s regard for Gasking was further demonstrated by his organising, in 2011, a celebration of the centenary of Gasking’s birth. This was attended by a large number of people who shared Len’s admiration and affection for their former teacher and colleague.  

 Len drew a similar admiration and friendship from very many students over the years. They enjoyed the quality of his lectures, but also liked Len for his patience and generosity, to say nothing of their delight in his unconventional style and non-conformist behaviour. No one else in the Arts Faculty dressed, or wore a hat, with quite the elegance Len managed. Few rode such a frighteningly potent BMW motorcycle. Few furnished their room in the Old Arts Building as elaborately.

 Len will be missed by all who knew him.  He is survived by his wife, Jacqui, who he married in 1965, and by his son, Lawrence. 


  • 03 Mar 2016 10:50 AM | Anonymous member
    In one of my first memories of Len, he came up for air in the next lane over in Melbourne University's Beaurepaire Swimming Pool, sometime early in 1985. As I had been bold enough to walk to the front of the Public Lecture Theatre after my first-year philosophy lecture the previous week and ask a question, he remembered me, said a cheery hello and proceeded to chat to me in his togs and swimming cap. Though I was a mortified 18 year old he was completely unembarrassed and unaffected. I don't remember much of what Len taught us in that first year but a landmark in my philosophical education was his second-year Philosophy of Inquiry class in 1986. As it was an honours requirement, the class was stacked with the department's most talented and dedicated students, and the number of topics and the amount of detail that Len covered was amazing. We had the Gettier problem and its many suggested solutions (reading the original research articles in the Journal of Philosophy!), Dutch book arguments, a comprehensive introduction to philosophy of science, ideas from pragmatism, and more. It was also in this class I first heard of Peirce as I remember Len mentioning a book called "Chance Love and Logic", saying he thought that was the most wonderful title for a philosophy book he'd ever heard - an intriguing remark which stuck in my memory. Much later it was good to re-encounter Len as a colleague at a mini-conference on Peirce where he delivered a very intelligent and thought-provoking paper on induction.
    I'm really sorry to hear of Len's passing - he was one of the kindest and gentlest philosophers I have known.
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  • 14 May 2016 8:32 PM | Anonymous member
    When I was making the move from maths/statistics to philosophy, I sat in on Len's Philosophy of Inquiry class, which I found fascinating. After the move, I sat in on his course on Peirce - likewise. While I was a graduate student, we kept in touch, and he invited me to give a couple of guest lectures, which meant a lot to me. He had the nickname "Lovely Len". He truly was.
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