How philosophy can transform you


Photo: trait2lumiere

Everyone has their favourite teacher.

In fact, the theme is so strong that Hollywood has built a whole genre around it –from Dead Poets SocietyDangerous Minds, the terrific Ryan Gosling vehicle Half Nelson, to October Sky where an outcast Jake Gyllenhaal takes his fascination with amateur rockets all the way from the state science fair to a job at NASA.

And last week one of my favourite teachers was attacked. Professor Paul Redding was my honours thesis supervisor at the University of Sydney, and I also took a class of his on Hegel that I would happily describe as transformative. 

But this humble, hardworking and globally recognised scholar had his work put on a shortlist of four Australian Research Council (ARC) grants that were described by Jamie Briggs, the head of the Coalition's Scrutiny of Government Waste Committee, as ‘those ridiculous research grants that leave taxpayers scratching their heads wondering just what the government was thinking’.


Redding was not personally singled out for some error in his project or the way he researches or teaches. Instead, it's likely a junior Liberal staffer ran over the ARC list and, searching for anything that sounded foreign or didn’t relate to science, maths, or medicine, picked Paul's The God of Hegel's Post-Kantian idealism. It was easy to set his research up as somehow too abstract and a waste of money. 

So what does Paul Redding do? Why should we pay for it?

They say that the man on the street can do philosophy. It’s true. The man on the street can also catch a ball and drive a car – that doesn't make him Derek Jeter or Juan Manuel Fangio.

Behind every political slogan is an argument. Stop the boats, for instance, fairly bluntly argues that there are limits to compassion.

And behind the argument behind the slogan is a philosophy.

Tony Abbott’s philosophy, touched on in his autobiography Battlelines and in exhaustively researched profiles like David Marr’s essay Political Animal, is fairly explicitly informed by a bit of B.A. Santamaria’s modern compassionate Catholicism mixed with some arch Thatcherism that rubbed off at Oxford.

Margaret Thatcher herself drew heavily on economist philosophers like Friedrich Hayek, who was Ludwig Wittgenstein’s second cousin and one of the first people to read the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Wittgenstein’s ground breaking first book). Hayek took lectures in Aristotelian ethics, and read extensively of Ludwig Feuerbach, often described as the philosophical bridge between Hegel and Marx.

B.A. Santamaria was himself an arts student, and wrote a thesis that could easily have ended up on Jamie Briggs’ hit list, titled Italy Changes Shirts: The Origins of Italian Fascism. Santamaria’s influence on Abbott has meant that, as Chris Uhlmann wrote last year, ‘Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas echo [through Abbott’s politics]… it's arguable that some of his best political impulses are those shaped by a rich tradition of theology and philosophy.’

The truth is, scratch almost any major political leader and you start to find philosophers.

That is because philosophy is training for leadership.

Al Gore studied philosophy and phenomenology with an interest in Merleau-Ponty at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Pierre Trudeau, Prime minister of Canada for 15 years through two terms, was an intellectual influenced by philosophers such as Emmanuel Mounier, John Locke and David Hume. 17 Nobel Prize winners have studied philosophy, despite there being no specific prize for that discipline.

Anyone who can survive the complexities of modern political office is more often than not resourced with philosophy – and not the stuff you get in a two dollar book store, the serious stuff.

An IT consultant who has lost his Zetland investment apartment in a divorce reads Tony Robbins, a prime minister struggling to solve the intractable problems of the modern state reads Hegel.

Philosophy is not an easy subject nor some latte set cop out, it is the foundation and the dissection of all knowledge and is utterly painful to study.

I remember university law subjects as exercises in rote learning combined with a bit of horse-trading to get the best crib notes from older students. Legal reasoning involves dexterity and precision but it is at the end of the day a casual bun fight over how to define a few words and phrases in scraps of legislation and case law.

When a philosopher, like Martin Heiddeger for instance, rolls up his sleeves to argue the toss over the definition of words, what occurs is utterly different. Heidegger, the subject of another ridiculed ARC grant run by Dr Diego Bubbio at the University of Western Sydney, was a brilliant classicist able to describe the mutation of language from Ancient Greek philosophy to the present day.

He showed how words are very old tools that have been broken up and reassembled and reused, and how our confused and messy language is often not robust enough to talk through deep issues. Heidegger is insurance against the trickery of even the greatest rhetorician, against dogma in economics and science, against traps in language and traps in life.

Heiddeger's invented concept of zuhanden has influenced artificial intelligence, neuro-linguistic programming, hermeutics, cognitive science, every area of history and art, and continues to help people understand our interaction with technology.

Thinkers like Heidegger are capable of radically altering how you engage with the world – not just for a few weeks, but for the rest of your life. You don’t have to subscribe to a deity or follow a plan or give someone money – you just have to read a difficult book. 

These difficult books are not going to make immediate sense to the man on the street, or even to academics outside the field.

But the same applies to high level research papers in economics or physics

Philosophy gets attacked because people think it’s impractical and doesn’t have a link to medicine or science or economics or our lives.

The truth is the opposite. 

I remember studying Paul Redding’s course on Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right. It was the clearest explanation of social institutions I had ever heard – how they are made and what they mean. Rather than rehearse the typical foundational myths, Redding’s patient teaching deciphered the project of democracy and society, and taught me more about the true obligations and responsibilities of citizenship than scouts and organised sport and years of private education in Catholic schools.

In my paper for that class I remember quoting James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and bonding with Redding over what a painful reminder Joyce's book was for anyone who had grown up in stultifying Catholic institutions full of guilt and doubt and misinformation.

I’ve carried that course with me ever since. 

Philosophy is about including you, not excluding you. It attempts to overcome difference. It untangles knots and delivers us closer to each other.

It trains politicians to happily navigate the mythologies of public life.

So strange then to see politics turn on its humble and wise parent. 

Let’s hope it was a moment of irrational exuberance in a hard fought election campaign.

After all, as John Howard said, a social conservative is supposed to be ‘someone who does not think he is morally superior to his grandfather’.