Reinventing the wheel: why philosophy still matters

Giacomo Bianchino defends a besieged discipline

Over November 2-4, thousands turned out for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, which brought thinkers like Erwin James, Peter Hitchens and John Safran to the Opera House before throngs of thought-hungry people. This is philosophy at its apex: the considered engagement of ideas in a public context. Looking at the history of philosophy, it’s difficult to see it as something detached from the interests of society. Socrates was Athens’ most notorious conversationalist, known for accosting people in the street and arguing with them. While we tend to label anyone with similar methods a little unstable today, there’s no doubt that philosophy has always had public aspirations.

However, there has long been a tendency to treat philosophical thought as a pointless luxury of civil society. In fact, there seems to be a widespread presupposition that Australians are unconcerned with philosophical questions. Despite this, thousands testified to the importance of philosophy by attending the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.

MP Jamie Briggs

A furore erupted in September when Coalition MP Jamie Briggs labelled four government grants as “wastes of time”. Two of the projects were directly philosophical. Both were said to be “ridiculous” and treated as obstacles to Australia’s future. The crux of the argument was the appropriate allocation of government funds to “useful” ventures. The underlying implication, however, was that Australia had outgrown philosophy.

Among that which came under fire was the work of USYD academic  Professor Paul Redding. His work on the topic of God and Identity was singled out by Briggs as particularly pointless. Redding launched a retort in the Guardian, comparing philosophers to scientists in their rigorous engagement with ‘concepts’. On his account, our capacity for rational contemplation allows us to do more than just react to our environment: we can challenge and change it.

The Coalition’s funding cuts raise the question: why is philosophy important? It doesn’t seek to create avenues for profit or for the manipulation of the environment. For the economist, philosophy is an auxiliary concern. It is something to be overcome on the way to success. The marketplace is not the traditional home of philosophy.

Most people associate philosophical practice with universities. Dr. Tom Dougherty, a USYD lecturer in practical ethics, wants to distance philosophy from this reputation. His work in Britain, the US and Australia has given him perspective on how ethics and philosophy function in the public arena. For him there is “no sharp line between the sort of discussions that people have about morals or how we should organise society and the discussions that we have in universities.”

As a craft, philosophy is about “trying to persuade people with arguments.” The abolition of slavery, the restrictions of sovereignty and even the advent of democracy have their historical and ideological basis in sound rational argument. In the words of Dr. Dougherty, the university acts as a repository for philosophical knowledge, “so that we don’t have to constantly reinvent the wheel and start from first principles.”


Australia was once notorious for its poor attention to ethics. Dr. Simon Longstaff, director at the St. James Ethics Centre in Sydney, recalls a joke that was once circulating Wall Street. “What have you got when you have eight Australian entrepreneurs up to their necks in Sand? Not enough sand.” Obviously things have changed since the late ‘80s, but this hasn’t lead to any revolution in public ethics. For many students, “ethics” lectures spell an opportunity to get a pork roll or study more important things.

Outside of the world of academic ethics, however, there are individuals and groups who recognise the importance of reasoning about values. Dr. Longstaff started the Ethics Centre in 1989, under the auspices of the St. James Church. Despite this, he recalls that the church involved itself “with a vision, and a very important vision, that it not be a religious organisation.” Though the focus was initially Australia’s crisis in business ethics, the human focus has since expanded.

“For many years,” Dr. Longstaff tells me, “I used to set up chairs in Martin Place with a sign propped up on the footpath saying, “If you want to talk to a philosopher about ideas, come and take a seat.”” The reputation of the Centre spread quickly, and came to represent an ethical voice in the media. Over the last few years, international institutions like the Intelligence Squared Debates began collaborating with the Centre. Annually, this series of talks brings international figures into direct conversation with each other and the public. Popular response to the debates has been formidable.

Dr. Longstaff harbours his own opinions about why we should stand up and take notice of philosophy. “Ethics matters because it is constantly the case that we engage with our humanity, that thing which is most distinctive about us. Namely, this is our capacity to make conscious choices, to transcend instinctive desire and to say “though everything about us says that this might be a good idea, there are some cases where we won’t do it””.

Briggs has made the issue of philosophy a practical one. For Dr. Longstaff, this poses no real issue. At the heart of the Centre’s project is the pursuit of “ethical literacy” among the Australian public. This literacy allows one to approach problems from more than one perspective or direction. “Some think about things in terms of consequence; others consider duty and others have a valency towards virtue and character. And if you’re not literate in those three, and perhaps more, you’re at real risk of never really talking to anybody in a way that they think is legitimate and understandable.”

The thought of a functioning democracy in which people are unable to voice their opinions or critically engage with facts is troubling. Philosophy might not appear useful at first sight. In Jane Campion’s Bright Star, the Romantic Charles Armitage Brown explains that “doing nothing is the musing of the poet.” But this is not the case for the vast majority of philosophers. The insistence of practical ethics and political philosophy forces both disciplines into almost every academic discipline.

It was unfortunate that a member of the USYD community came beneath the reproachful gaze of the all-knowing state. If a government refuses to dedicate time and money to the enrichment of a critical tradition, how can it be expected to wield power appropriately? The popularity of events like the Festival of Dangerous Ideas and the Intelligence Squared Debates shows that philosophy is no dead weight on Australians. In fact, we pride ourselves on our “bullshit metre” and reservation of judgement (however fatuous this pride may be). But hey, the world might not be completely lost without philosophy. Reinventing the wheel will certainly take a lot less time if everyone’s an engineer.

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