Comprehending Complexity

The Philosopher’s Stoned

In this regular column, Anthony Merlino seeks to capture the unique perspective of a different ANU philosopher each fortnight. In doing so, the column will act as a bridge between the School of Philosophy and the ANU student body.

Photo: Adam Engel. Source: Fox & Hedgehog

As the sun descended above Queens University Belfast on one evening in November 1967, a psychedelic twang from Jimi Hendrix’s guitar rang throughout the university auditorium. To enter this concert, Philip Pettit scaled a brick wall instead of using the faraway entrance gate. That night, Hendrix employed mercurial instrumentals in performing his classic tune, Purple Haze. Hendrix’s central music style manifested in diverse forms. Professor Philip Pettit’s experience with philosophy reflects this performance technique. Namely, Pettit’s overarching approach to philosophy has been expressed in a range of settings. Through the practice of philosophy, Pettit has traversed continents, transcended ethnicities, and addressed the perennial questions of existence.

Pettit was raised in an intellectually curious Catholic family in Western Ireland. At the age of 17, he commenced training for the priesthood at a seminary. Simultaneously, he was studying classics and mathematics at university. Eventually, Pettit realised this was not his passion. Consequently, he was forced to ruminate on the direction he wished to steer his life. One possible route was to study philosophy. Upon investigation, he became ‘hugely excited’ that one could academically dedicate themselves to examining philosophical questions. This marked the first manifestation of his experience with philosophy.


On the streets of Paris, in 1968, thousands of students protested the conservative structures of French universities. One year later, a similar movement was flourishing at University College Dublin, where Pettit was employed as a lecturer. In this revolt, students and young faculty members, including Pettit, demanded that academic appointments be publicly advertised and competed for. Under pressure, the university granted these requests. At this point he witnessed abstract concepts from political philosophy take life in political mobilisation.

In the following years, Pettit obtained a Research Fellowship at Cambridge University. Upon returning to Dublin, three years later, he published his first standard book in political philosophy, Judging Justice. After this, Pettit accepted a professorship at Bradford University, and in 1983 he obtained employment at the ANU. Whilst in Australia, Pettit discovered that the long-standing tradition of ‘republicanism’ addressed questions he was exploring in political philosophy. Ultimately, the concept of republicanism cemented itself as a central tenet of Pettit’s work. In his monumental text, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Pettit uses republican ideas to investigate democratic institutions.


The republican tradition developed through Ancient Rome, Renaissance Italy, 17th century England, and 18th century France and America. An enduring theme in this development is a particular conception of ‘freedom’. In Pettit’s view, this notion of freedom provides for more adequate political frameworks. For example, imagine a husband is conferred superior legal rights to his wife. He may still provide his wife with non-interference. Regardless, she is free only insofar as her ultimate controller allows her to act. She may change her behaviour because of this oversight. Therefore, individuals must possess freedom from ‘non-domination’. Pettit extracts this from the republican tradition.

In Pettit’s eyes, freedom from non-domination has a social implication. For example, a wife cannot have freedom in a marriage without legal protections against a husband’s mastery. This freedom also has a political implication. Namely, the polity imposing laws that protect individuals from private domination can also become a dominating power. Therefore, the citizenry must possess an equal measure of electoral control over the governmental entity. Likewise, citizens must be able to ‘contest’ government during the parliamentary term. Pettit uses the ‘eyeball test’ as a heuristic device. Specifically, a republic is functioning ideally if individuals can look at both government and their fellow citizens in the eye ‘without fear or indifference’.

When José Zapatero assumed leadership of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, he began heralding Pettit’s republican philosophy in public speeches. After Zapatero became the Prime Minister in 2004, Pettit accepted an invitation to deliver a public lecture in Madrid. Here he expounded his philosophical values. To commit to these republican principles, Zapatero requested that Pettit provide an independent assessment of his government. Upon returning in 2007, Pettit awarded Zapatero a ‘nine out of 10’. One reason for this was that Spain had become one of the first legislatures in the world to legalise marriage equality with minimal parliamentary and public support. Zapatero invoked the ‘eyeball test’ to muster political support. This time in the international political arena, Pettit’s central approach to philosophy was able to manifest itself as a tangible solution.


Currently, Pettit holds dual positions at Princeton University and the ANU. He detects a distinct difference between the cultures of the two institutions. Princeton is ‘one of the wealthiest universities in the world’ and usually ‘attracts the very best minds’. In Pettit’s view, this is due, in part, to an American culture where individuals ‘are uniquely faithful to their alma mater, which is totally admirable on Princeton’s part’ – though, Pettit is hesitant to claim that Australian universities can or should replicate this culture. Specifically, it engenders ‘extreme privilege’ for some universities. In turn, those existing outside this privileged sphere are presented with vastly different academic opportunities.

Many experiences have been woven into Philip Pettit’s career. This highlights that philosophical enquiry is not shackled to a distinct guiding force. Rather, it is manoeuvred by each individual who wields it as an intellectual tool. For Professor Philip Pettit, his central philosophical concerns have become a prism through which to comprehend the complex diversity of the external world.

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