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.
Situated next to the famed – and now tragically deceased – Jacaranda tree in the quad, is the University of Sydney’s Philosophy Department. Within this building, in 1974, political tumult entered the realm of academia. At one stage, differences of opinion over the Vietnam War divided the department in two. When asked to capture the current landscape of academia, Professor Frank Jackson immediately turns to this partition. In one way, the split is emblematic of currents that still threaten academic departments today. On the other hand, it acts as a reminder to Jackson. From his perspective, the Australian National University’s School of Philosophy has become a secure island amongst these changing tides.
Jackson’s former colleague, Professor Peter Singer, is settled in front of a row of glaring cameras, as an episode of Q&A begins. On this program Singer aroused controversy by defending the claim, made in his capacity as a political philosopher, that the euthanasia of severely disabled infants is justified under specific conditions. However, in the field that Jackson is renowned for – the philosophy of mind – such political controversies are ‘more or less non-existent’. He refers his former lecturer, David Armstrong, who had ‘unpopular’ views on the Vietnam War. These opinions, however, had ‘no impact on his philosophy of mind’. Within Jackson’s fields, evidently, there is little tension between political ideologies. For this reason, Jackson does not regard himself as a public intellectual. Regardless, he believes his work remains relevant to everyday life. He says, for example, ‘everyone is interested in whether their mind is something more than their brain and the way it works.’ In Jackson’s eyes, the life of a public intellectual begins when academia directly touches on public policy. Still, this does not diminish the practical import of other areas of philosophical inquiry.
On 1 March 2001, the University of Sydney’s two separate philosophy departments were reunited under a single banner after 27 years of divorce. Cognisant of these past disputes, Jackson considers himself fortunate, since the philosophy departments he has resided in have been ‘very friendly’. He believes this is partly because the ANU School of Philosophy places a particular emphasis on constructive debate. Within this department, academics are routinely ‘developing and debating reasoned lines of thought’, which makes philosophers more ‘tolerant’ of criticism. In fact, these debates are cause to reconsider the strength of one’s argument or ‘try and convince your discussant that they are wrong’. Jackson believes that ANU has fostered an environment conducive to reflection and deliberation, which prevents division.
Additionally, Jackson believes this exchange of ideas should emphasise an interconnectedness between the different sub-fields within philosophy. If a philosopher is interested in ethics, then they are interested in reasoning. Therefore, to properly investigate ethics, philosophers ‘need to pay attention to issues in philosophical logic about the nature of reasoning’. Relatedly, Jackson regards it as vital to ‘see connections between disciplines’. As such, an academic working in the philosophy of mind ‘should pay attention to evolutionary theory, to neuroscience, and to experimental psychology’. That being said, this interdisciplinary approach does not mean being ‘not so strong’ in several disciplines. Ultimately, he believes an interdisciplinary method, if approached correctly, encourages informed academic discourse.
This exchange of ideas also attracts fervent criticism. There is a narrative that philosophy, and academia more generally, has an adverse ‘publish or perish’ culture. Jackson acknowledges there is ‘much more pressure now’ to constantly meet publishing requirements. Nowadays, to get a job and be promoted, academics ‘must’ publish. He believes, however, the culture is broadly positive as it ‘puts a bit of pressure’ on staff to perform. But, quantity should not be the only concern. Whilst Jackson believes this culture helps stimulate important research, it can, at times, be to the detriment of insightful academic discourse.
Underneath the surface, the School of Philosophy has deeper divisions. John Farnham’s anthemic tune ‘The Voice’ implores the audience to recognise the similarities that bind humankind together as, ‘we’re all someone’s daughter, we’re all someone’s son’. In 1986, as these lyrics were carried across the globe, Jackson joined the School of Philosophy. When he arrived, however, ‘no woman had ever held a faculty post’, which was ‘both surprising and disturbing’. Despite female academic appointments increasing since, Jackson believes that women still face additional barriers to entering philosophy. He is unsure what strategies are required to repair this ingrained division: ‘It is a puzzle as to why philosophy has been such a male dominated subject’. Happily, Jackson sees good indicators. He feels that ‘this situation is changing around the world’ with more women entering graduate school than in the past. As Jackson sees it, philosophy is gradually becoming less divided as progressive ideas infiltrate conservative frameworks.
As the sun descends above ANU, Frank Jackson returns to his nearby home. When he reviews his prolific career, he recognises that the university has provided him with a secure platform that is free of overpowering division. Because of this, he has been able to refine the portrait of his philosophical inquiry. He hopes, also, that the university provides the first brush stroke for many others.