John Moore: Jim Flynn – a philosopher with “dangerous” ideas

John Moore: Jim Flynn – a philosopher with “dangerous” ideas

John Moore pays tribute to Prof Jim Flynn of the University of Otago, a man who he describes as his own most impactful teacher and one of the world’s greatest thinkers.

I first met Jim Flynn in 1990 at a NewLabour Party (NLP) social event at the University of Otago. The NLP was a leftwing social democratic party that had split off from the New Zealand Labour Party. I also took two of his political philosophy papers, both of which had a profound impact on my thinking and identity. His theorising on how to defend humane ideals, alongside his argument that there is no objective basis for such ideals, threw me into an existential crisis. I was forced to reflect upon and discard my initial rationale for a commitment to Marxist socialism, radical egalitarianism and human solidarity. 

The last time I spoke to Jim was in his office at the University of Otago. Dr Bryce Edwards and I went to have a chat with him about contemporary politics and some of his more controversial ideas. Well into his 80s, Jim was clearly engaged with modern political trends. He discussed his concerns over the modern trend of cancelling and de-platforming controversial thinkers. And he spoke of the dumbing down of society, with few people now reading books and with even most academics no longer seeking knowledge outside their own specialist fields.

Jim had never been a man to play it safe. His commitment to humane ideals saw him first buck heads with conservative university administrators in the United States during the 1960s. He faced discrimination within the American university system due to his outspoken leftwing ideas and his anti-racist activism. Jim was a committed anti-segregationist, and both his activism and intellectual work in this area led to him being roughed-up at protests, fired from academic jobs and even being arrested.

At this time in the US, blacks were legally segregated to varying degrees throughout the country. In response, a mass civil rights movement against racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans had emerged under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. Flynn’s participation in this civil rights movement, coupled with his left-wing views, effectively made him unemployable as an academic in the United States at that time. His solution was to move to New Zealand.

Jim continued to cause controversy in his adopted home country. He caused academics to walk out of his talks in which he set out his critiques of what he saw as the logical inconsistencies of liberal post-modernism. Moreover, Jim’s rigorous defence of free speech and academic intellectual freedom caused alarm amongst colleagues and others who feared that students needed to be protected from certain controversial ideas. One of his final books which critiqued attacks on free speech at universities was effectively censored in the UK for fear of breaking hate speech laws there. The book finally found one brave publisher willing to distribute Flynn’s “dangerous” ideas on intellectual freedom, under the title A Book Too Risky to Publish: Free Speech and Universities.

Jim’s own commitment to humane ideals were partly shaped by his poor, Irish-American working class background. He explained how his factory working father’s antagonism towards the rich helped to shape his own commitment to democratic socialist and social democratic values. Also, his father’s rather lax-Catholicism led to Jim questioning religious tenets as a youngster and eventually becoming an atheist.

I recall chatting with Jim at a Dunedin café after a public talk he gave in the late 2000s. He spoke of the dilemma he faced as a public intellectual, with his passion for philosophy clashing with his success driven by his research and writing on intelligence. Jim’s work on race and IQ had made him semi-famous overseas. But questions relating to epistemology –questions around the theory of knowledge –were his real interest.

Jim is certainly most famous for his writings and public talks, including a 2013 TED Talk, on the topic of race, intelligence and IQ. Jim’s research on race and IQ proved that differences in IQ tests between racial groups are the result of our environment and not genetics. His revelation that IQ tests between generations show a marked increase in IQ scores has been called “the Flynn effect”. However, Jim was quick to point out that the substantial increase in intelligence test scores does not mean we are now more intelligent than our grandparents. Rather, our immersion in modern education and our modern social environment has made us more able to tackle the abstract problem-solving that IQ tests elevate.

Jim dedicated the last period of his life to writing a series of books which he believed filled the gap created by what he saw as the inadequate nature of a modern secondary school and tertiary education. The books are designed to guide people in attaining a self-taught education that will allow them to more critically understand, operate within and ultimately transform contemporary world society. Let us hope these texts will be embraced and popularised as guides to critical thinking in a time that demands radical and “dangerous” ideas.


Jim Flynn’s books to expand your mind and your understanding of and engagement in the contemporary world:

How To Improve Your Mind: 20 Keys to Unlock the Modern World


The Torchlight List: Around the World in 200 Books


How to Defend Humane Ideals: Substitutes for Objectivity 


Fate & Philosophy: A Journey Through Life’s Great Questions


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