The Australian, August 6, 2008

I have had the good fortune to know a philosopher. He was my teacher. In his prime he had the happy sprightliness of a youth; he continued to have it, I believe, even as a very old man. His broad forehead, built for thinking, was the seat of an imperturbable cheerfulness and joy. Speech, the richest in thought, flowed from his lips. Playfulness, wit and humour were at his command. His lectures were the most entertaining talks. His mind … comprehended equally the newest works of Rousseau … and the latest discoveries of science. He weighed them all, and always came back to the unbiased knowledge of nature and to the moral worth of man. The history of men and peoples, natural history and science, mathematics and observation, were the sources from which he enlivened his lectures and conversation. He was indifferent to nothing worth knowing … He incited and gently forced others to think for themselves; despotism was foreign to his mind. This man, whom I name with the greatest gratitude and respect, was Immanuel Kant.

AS student evaluations go, Johann Gottfried Herder’s evaluation of Kant would seem hard to top. So much so that it would be natural to suppose that any who thought themselves philosophers would aspire to being thought of in similar terms. It must therefore come as a surprise to discover that, on the whole, Australian philosophers do not aspire to such standards. This is not because Australian philosophy is an intellectual backwater. On the contrary, it enjoys a hard-won reputation for high-quality work. But these achievements have been bought at the cost of narrow horizons.

Admittedly, philosophy is not only the name of an ancient concern with knowledge and wisdom in general, it is also the name of a modern academic discipline. So, to describe oneself as a philosopher implies an interest in theories of knowledge, language and mind, rather than with natural science, social theory, etc. Still, the sense that philosophy is concerned with a synoptic grasp of the whole and of its meaning for us, has not disappeared, even among academics. Moreover, Kant was an academic, so if he was “indifferent to nothing worth knowing”, why should this not remain a professional ideal? Nevertheless, among Australians, it is not.

This lack of breadth is most easily illustrated with a few anecdotes. A few years ago, I met a young visiting lecturer from Cambridge, fresh off the plane for a stint at the University of Sydney. “Why is Australian philosophy so good?” he asked, a little breathlessly. To which I replied, just a little sourly, “Well, it’s good at what it’s good at.” Six months later, at the end of his time with us, he went off to the annual Australian philosophy conference. “How did it go?” I asked him on his return. He replied: “I’ve never heard so many papers about David Lewis in my whole life!” (Lewis was an influential American professor who regularly attended the local conference.) I took it that he had come around to my point of view.

Narrow interests are supported by complacent attitudes. Thus a recent visitor to a leading Australian university was startled to hear a successful Australian philosopher, known for having views that derive from the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, cheerfully admit in a public conversation that he didn’t really know anything about Hume. The visitor was startled to discover the Australian’s complete lack of interest in the originator of his kind of outlook and his lack of shame at his ignorance. He would have had less cause for surprise if aware that ignorance can be a badge worn with pride: “Never read anyone whose corpse is cold” is the explicit principle of one highly promoted Australian.

My final anecdote concerns limited cultural horizons. A highly regarded Australian philosopher found himself, for reasons of departmental solidarity, at a seminar on the Oedipus complex. He interrupted the paper to find out who Oedipus was, and what he had done.

Of course, such extremes of cultural ignorance are not typical, nor do they show professional incompetence. There are plenty of nerdy guys in maths and physics who would be similarly ignorant, and whose ignorance would be found amusing rather than shocking. A cultural deficit is not always an intellectual deficit.

Entire article here.

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