About2022-12-20T09:56:14+11:00

Raimond Gaita (detail) 2012
Dave Tacon
type C photograph on paper
National Portrait Gallery
© Dave Tacon

A bit more about me.

I’m often described as a philosopher, writer and public intellectual. I’ll try to explain why.

View my CV

I‘ve worked in philosophy departments for more than forty years and regard philosophy as my vocation rather than my profession or career. My writings and teaching have ranged over several fields, as the following pages reveal – moral, political and social philosophy, and aspects of the philosophy of law. Universities have changed greatly since I became an undergraduate in 1964; so much so that no institutions, at least in Australia or the UK, think of what they do under an historically deep concept of the university. For that reason, my relation to academia has been complex, ambivalent, and sometimes tense. Nonetheless, I’m grateful to the universities that employed me. I’ve been fortunate that my life in them has been nourishing, exciting and often inspiring, especially during my undergraduate years at University of Melbourne, and differently, in the early years of my post at King’s College London. For most of my life they enabled me to do what I love doing. Above all I am grateful to have had the opportunity to teach, which has been a joy and a privilege.

I

’ve worked in philosophy departments for more than forty years and regard philosophy as my vocation rather than my profession or career. My writings and teaching have ranged over several fields, as the following pages reveal – moral, political and social philosophy, and aspects of the philosophy of law. Universities have changed greatly since I became an undergraduate in 1964; so much so that no institutions, at least in Australia or the UK, think of what they do under an historically deep concept of the university. For that reason, my relation to academia has been complex, ambivalent, and sometimes tense. Nonetheless, I’m grateful to the universities that employed me. I’ve been fortunate that my life in them has been nourishing, exciting and often inspiring, especially during my undergraduate years at University of Melbourne, and differently, in the early years of my post at King’s College London. For most of my life they enabled me to do what I love doing. Above all I am grateful to have had the opportunity to teach, which has been a joy and a privilege.

Iam also often described as an Australian philosopher, but the voice of Australian philosophy, heard with appreciation throughout the English-speaking philosophical world, is uncongenial to my ear, which is more tuned to a European key. Nonetheless, growing up in Central Victoria had a profound influence on my cast of mind. In an interview I put it this way:

Commenting on my work, many people have remarked that they hear in it a distinctive voice. That voice was formed, growing up as I did in the harshly beautiful landscape of Central Victoria, with my Romanian father, his Romanian friend Pantelimon Hora, haunted by my German mother; and with the Anglo-Celtic men and women who farmed it and worked in its towns.

In England it was my good fortune to encounter Roy Holland, who supervised my PhD, and Peter Winch, who appointed me to King’s College London in 1977. They were, though differently, morally and philosophically intense, partly because as young academics they were open to the influence of Rush Rhees, a student of Wittgenstein. I’ve been called a Wittgensteinian. I can see why, but it’s a description I resist, generally to no avail. My denial that my work is religious, or that it depends for its completion on religious commitment, has also been to little avail.

My philosophical output is controversial, highly praised by some and abhorred by others. When she reviewed A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love & Truth & Justice in the philosophy journal, Mind, Sophie Grace Chappell wrote that my work “does not stand on the battleground of theories”. I think she is right. I have invited philosophers to step off the battlefield so that they might see that their shared assumptions, which constitute the battlefield and distort what is at issue between them, are perhaps more significant than their disagreements.

In 1997 I published Romulus, My Father, a memoir that was praised as a work of literature and secured many invitations to writer’s festival. That is the main reasons why I’m called a writer.

Romulus, My Father changed the way I write. The English philosopher, Roger Scruton, called The Philosopher’s Dog, “an experiment in narrative philosophy”. He liked the book, so I assume he thought the experiment succeeded.

At the end of my Preface to the 2nd edition of Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception, I write:

Am I suggesting that the distinction between philosophy and art should be blurred? Yes and no. Philosophy should still be primarily a discursive discipline, distinguished markedly from the writing of novels, poetry and plays.

But if the discursive is no longer restricted to the exercise of the kind of thought in which form and content are separable, then, in roughly those parts of philosophy that the Europeans call philosophical anthropology, there will be no marked distinction between the narratives that must, to some degree, nourish inquiry and philosophical engagement with them.

My philosophical output is controversial, highly praised by some and abhorred by others. When she reviewed A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love & Truth & Justice in the philosophy journal, Mind, Sophie Grace (then Tim) Chappell wrote that my work “does not stand on the battleground of theories”. I think she is right. I have invited philosophers to step off the battlefield so that they might see that their shared assumptions, which constitute the battlefield and distort what is at issue between them, are perhaps more significant than their disagreements.

In 1997 I published Romulus, My Father, a memoir that was praised as a work of literature and secured many invitations to writer’s festival. That is the main reasons why I’m called a writer.

Romulus, My Father changed the way I write. The English philosopher, Roger Scruton, called The Philosopher’s Dog, “an experiment in narrative philosophy”. He liked the book, so I assume he thought the experiment succeeded. At the end of my Preface to the 2nd edition of Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception, I write:

“Am I suggesting that the distinction between philosophy and art should be blurred? Yes and no. Philosophy should still be primarily a discursive discipline, distinguished markedly from the writing of novels, poetry and plays. But if the discursive is no longer restricted to the exercise of the kind of thought in which form and content are separable, then, in roughly those parts of philosophy that the Europeans call philosophical anthropology, there will be no marked distinction between the narratives that must, to some degree, nourish inquiry and philosophical engagement with them”.

Nonetheless, I don’t think of myself as writer in the sense in which poets, novelists and playwrights are writers. I think of writers as people who take pleasure in the literary construction of their works and in a finely constructed sentence. A friend and poet described poetry as “the mind in love” He meant in love with language; in loving engagement as one works with it, painful though that sometimes is. I take that to be more generally true of writers. I’m not that kind of lover, as I explain in a short video. There I also explain why, nonetheless, language matters profoundly to me because I believe that in all writing about how things in life mean to people, one must have an ear for tone, for what rings true or false, for what is sentimental and so on. In such writing style and content, and feeling and thought cannot be separated

I’ve not met anyone who likes to be called a public intellectual. Despite the long history of argument over “the responsibility of intellectuals”, the concept of an intellectual is a mediocre one. Nothing important comes from reflecting upon it. I’ve attracted the title because I’ve written for non-academic publications and spoken to many non-academic audiences, but not because I believe academic moral or political philosophers are obliged to do it by virtue of being those kinds of philosophers. For twenty years I organised, and spoke each year at, a series of public lectures; six lectures per series on a common theme, followed by two hours of intense discussion between ten people sitting around (literally) a round table.

For over thirty years I’ve contributed to public discussion about reconciliation, collective responsibility, the role of moral considerations in politics, the Holocaust, genocide, crimes against humanity, education (the nature of teaching as a vocation and the role of love in teaching), the plight of the universities, the idea and ideal of a common humanity and the fragility of both.

Writing as a philosopher in the public domain, I was not simply applying ideas developed in a theoretical, academic context to a more practical, public one. I was not delivering the results of academic research to a lay audience. Rather, I was doing philosophy in the context of public life, always mindful that though many in the audience would not be philosophers, they would be educated people who knew how hard it is to think seriously about most things that matter in life. They therefore would know that if they had to read a sentence twice, it was not necessarily the fault of the author.

At the end of an essay, To Civilise the City, (also on YouTube) I write:

When academics enter the public domain, engaging with an educated, well read, hard thinking public, they do it best, I think, when they go beyond their capacity to give expert advice. They do it best as citizens in critical conversation with other citizens.

Of course, it will show that they are academics, but the public conversational space I have in mind is one in which no one takes for granted that even very good philosophers, historians, literary critics, physicists, evolutionary biologists and so on, will contribute only for the good. Even distinguished moral and political philosophers might speak from the perspective of narrow lives and narrow reading outside of, and even within, philosophy. As often as not, probably more often than not, they will speak from a narrow conception of what counts as rigorous thinking.

‘Frogmore’, my home until I was 16, a year after we left

I’ve not met anyone who likes to be called a public intellectual. Despite the long history of argument over “the responsibility of intellectuals”, the concept of an intellectual is a mediocre one. Nothing important comes from reflecting upon it. I’ve attracted the title because I’ve written for non-academic publications and spoken to many non-academic audiences, but not because I believe academic moral or political philosophers are obliged to do it by virtue of being those kinds of philosophers. For twenty years I organised, and spoke each year at, a series of public lectures; six lectures per series on a common theme, followed by two hours of intense discussion between ten people sitting around (literally) a round table.

For over thirty years I’ve contributed to public discussion about reconciliation, collective responsibility, the role of moral considerations in politics, the Holocaust, genocide, crimes against humanity, education (the nature of teaching as a vocation and the role of love in teaching), the plight of the universities, the idea and ideal of a common humanity and the fragility of both.

Writing as a philosopher in the public domain, I was not simply applying ideas developed in a theoretical, academic context to a more practical, public one. I was not delivering the results of academic research to a lay audience. Rather, I was doing philosophy in the context of public life, always mindful that though many in the audience would not be philosophers, they would be educated people who knew how hard it is to think seriously about most things that matter in life. They therefore would know that if they had to read a sentence twice, it was not necessarily the fault of the author.

At the end of an essay, To Civilise the City, (also on YouTube) I write:

When academics enter the public domain, engaging with an educated, well read, hard thinking public, they do it best, I think, when they go beyond their capacity to give expert advice. They do it best as citizens in critical conversation with other citizens.

Of course, it will show that they are academics, but the public conversational space I have in mind is one in which no one takes for granted that even very good philosophers, historians, literary critics, physicists, evolutionary biologists and so on, will contribute only for the good. Even distinguished moral and political philosophers might speak from the perspective of narrow lives and narrow reading outside of, and even within, philosophy. As often as not, probably more often than not, they will speak from a narrow conception of what counts as rigorous thinking.

‘Frogmore’, my home until I was 16, a year after we left

Loading...

In all its forms my work is, at its heart, a celebration of what I believe is precious, fragile, historically contingent and easily lost. This is how I put it in the closing paragraph of my introduction to the Routledge Classics Edition of The Philosopher’s Dog:

I dread the prospect of a world in which my grandchildren could no longer affirm – for it is an affirmation, an act of faith to be true to what love has revealed, but reason cannot secure – that even the most terrible evil doers, those whose characters appear to match their deeds, who are defiantly unremorseful and in whom we can find nothing from which remorse could grow – are owed an unconditional respect, are always and everywhere owed justice, for their sake, rather than because we fear the consequences if we do not accord it to them.

I dread the prospect of a world in which because we have allowed the language of love to die on us, they no longer even it find intelligible that those who suffer radical, degrading and ineradicable affliction could be accorded a respect that is without trace of condescension, and thereby kept fully amongst us, mysteriously our equals.

And I dread the prospect of a world in which they fear to affirm, because it would be derided as sentimental and obscurantist, a love of the world . . . and a sense of mystery and awe that informs the deepest of our conceptions of our ethical responsibility to nature and all its creatures.

Roy Holland (My Obituary for The Times – London)

Gerry Simpson’s speech to a dinner in 2019 that marked the 20th anniversary of The Wednesday Lectures and their end. He spoke in four of the series, one of them titled Who’s Afraid of International Law, on which we based and coedited a book of the same name.

Listen to Gerry’s speech

Our country home, Shalvah, 8km for Frogmore, Victoria.

Go to Top