Richard Sylvan was born Frances Richard Routley on 13 December, 1935 at Levin in New Zealand. From 1954 to 1958 he studied at Victoria University of Wellington, graduating with first-class honours in mathematics and philosophy. In 1955 he started a law degree at Wellington, but abandoned it without graduating. For his Wellington MA in 1958 he submitted a massive 385 page thesis on moral scepticism, which was highly praised by Arthur Prior, who examined it, and accepted for publication by Blackwell. Typically, Routley never bothered to submit a revised text, and the work remained unpublished. In early 1959 George Hughes, the professor at Wellington and an important early influence on Routley's development, appointed him to a junior lectureship, during the course of which he completed work on what he described as "a small mechanical-electronic computer". The adjective "small" referred its computing power, physically it was the size of two small filing cabinets, but nearly twenty years later it was still able to compute truth-tables.
Late in 1959 he left New Zealand for Princeton, where he worked with Alonzo Church. He gained a Princeton MA in June 1961, but dropped our before completing his PhD. (In 1981, he submitted his book Exploring Meinong's Jungle and Beyond as the missing thesis and finally obtained his Princeton doctorate).
He returned to the southern hemisphere in 1962, taking up a lectureship at the University of Sydney. In 1964 he left to take up for an appointment in logic at the University of New England, in Armidale, New South Wales. At Armidale he came into his own. Len Goddard, then the professor there, was attempting to create the first teaching and research program in formal logic in Australia, and in 1964 was able to make two appointments in logic: Routley and another Wellingtonian, David Londey. Goddard, Routley, and Londey became the nucleus of what became known as The New England Group, the most notable feature of which was its enthusiasm for non-classical logics. Armidale's new MA program in logic, the first in Australia, soon drew in many talented new logicians. With Routley came Val McCrae, a former Sydney student, later to become Val Routley and after that Val Plumwood.
The Routleys did not stay at Armidale long. In 1968 Richard Routley took up a senior research fellowship at Monash University, Melbourne, where he stayed until 1971 when he took up a senior fellowship in philosophy, a purely research position, in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University, a position he held until his death. Logic had not previously been one of the interests of the Research School, but Routley quickly became the nucleus of a new Logic Group in the ANU philosophy department. Malcolm Rennie followed him to Canberra soon afterwards, and Robert Meyer arrived soon after that. They quickly drew in a new generation of very talented graduate students. At ANU Routley worked both on logic and on environmental philosophy, and eventually widened his range far beyond those two fields. In 1982 his marriage and long-standing collaboration with Val Routley came to an end. She changed her name to Val Plumwood and became well-known as a feminist and environmental philosopher. Richard married Louise Mirlin in 1984: they both changed their names to Sylvan. He died in 1996 while on holiday in Bali.