I recently published a book called What Are They Thinking? Conversations with Australian Philosophers.

One reason I did this was purely selfish—I wanted an excuse to keep having interesting philosophical conversations after finishing my PhD. Another reason was that having had some experience teaching philosophy to adults who had no academic background, I knew that there are people out there who are interested in philosophy but intimidated by its difficulty. I wanted to put together a book where people could ‘eavesdrop’ on a number of conversations with actual working philosophers, written in an accessible way.

A third reason I wrote the book was to demonstrate the value and joy of philosophy at a time when the Commonwealth government had decided that philosophy (along with a number of other subjects) was not to be encouraged among new university students; rather it would be actively discouraged via the tripling of fees. Australia needed ‘job-ready graduates’—the implication being that philosophy makes no-one ready for any particular job at all. In fact philosophical training is hugely valuable in a knowledge economy—but the more important point is that education should be about how to live, not just about how to work.

I started each conversation with the question: ‘What is philosophy?’. One of the glories of the discipline is that it includes this question. For me, the answer has something to do with the questions that lie behind other questions. Every question we can ask has other questions behind it—for example, somewhere in the background of the question ‘what will I have for lunch today?’ lies a whole range of questions about human flourishing—and as soon as we start to consider these ‘questions behind’ then we are moving, I think, in a philosophical direction.

Each philosopher answered the ‘what is philosophy’ question differently, and the answers were interesting; but as a reviewer pointed out in The Age newspaper, ‘more meaningful and instructive than any broad explanation they might offer is the way their own practice unfolds within these conversations.’ Conversation is a good way to do philosophy. Socrates knew it; today a lot of podcasters know it too. A fair question to ask about my book is why it is not a series of podcasts. The answer is that while the dialogue form is important to me, I wanted each piece to be more than a transcript—each is a carefully crafted piece of writing; each is even, I hope, a small philosophical contribution in itself.

We covered a lot of ground. With Daniel Halliday I talked about capitalism and political economy; Margaret Cameron and I discussed the history of philosophy and the medieval contribution. Greg Restall explained logical pluralism; Christopher Cordner explored the place of love and attention in our moral lives. Kristie Miller stretched my brain by making me think about the nature of time and how it passes, and Bronwyn Finnigan shared her latest thinking about Buddhist contributions to dealing with fear. Moira Gatens showed how Spinoza (no feminist) can inform feminist thought; Seth Lazar explained how new technologies are changing the power relations within which we live. Dalia Nassar brought German Romantic thought up against our current environmental challenges, and Peter Singer described his move from hedonistic to preference utilitarianism and back again.

As I read back over these descriptions I realise they are inadequate—in each case we roamed over many different aspects of the philosopher’s work and of philosophy itself. I’m very grateful to each of the philosophers involved. I hope this book will be interesting to people ‘in the game’ of professional philosophy, as well as the merely curious. One of the philosophers in the book told me that she looked forward to reading it to find out what her colleagues were up to! I hope also that it will be picked up by a young person, perhaps doing a first year philosophy subject or two, perhaps not, who will be moved by some of the questions explored in the book, disturbed by them, unable to let them go. This person will go on to study more philosophy, both formally and informally, and the habits of thought this allows them to form will shape all of their thinking, and, indeed, their approach to their life. This may in fact help them to be very valuable to a prospective employer, but that’s not why they do it. They do it because they are thinking creatures and they are excited about where their thought may take them.

What Are They Thinking? Conversations with Australian Philosophers available now: https://scholarly.info/book/what-are-they-thinking/

Share this post