Throughout the 1960s and 1970s huge environmental struggles were erupting throughout Australia. Spectacular campaigns were fought for the Great Barrier Reef, the Colong Caves in the Blue Mountains, Fraser Island and Lake Pedder. Meanwhile, along the eastern coast of the continent the native forests, threatened with wholesale wood-chipping by the Forestry Commission, were providing a training ground for young environmental activists. Two of these, Val and Richard Routley (later to become Val Plumwood and Richard Sylvan respectively), happened also to be philosophers, headquartered at the Australian National University. Their participation in the fight for the forests brought to their attention a jumble of unexamined values, assumptions and allegiances on the part of conflicting parties, a political terrain of obfuscation, ideology and sentiment ripe for philosophical analysis. Sifting through this jumble, the Routleys recognised that the environmental problems that had by that time come starkly into public view were the upshot not merely of vested interests, incompetent administration and inappropriate technologies but also of underlying, barely conscious attitudes to the natural world that were built into the very foundations of Western thought. In a series of papers they circulated to colleagues at the Australian National University, they analysed these attitudes as the expression of human chauvinism, the groundless belief, amounting to nothing more than prejudice, that only human beings mattered, morally speaking; to the extent that anything else mattered at all, according to this attitude, it mattered only because it had some kind of utility or instrumental value for us. This assumption, which came to be known more widely as the assumption of anthropocentrism or human-centredness, was a premise, they argued, not only of the forestry industry, with its narrow-minded reduction of ancient forest to timber resource, but of the entire Western tradition. In response to this assumption, Richard Routley posed, in clarion tones, the inevitable question: Is there a need for a new, an environmental, ethic? Is there a need, in other words, for an ethic of nature in its own right, an ethic that values the forest, the natural world at large, for its own sake independently of its utility, its instrumental value, for us? (Routley 1973; Routley and Routley 1980)
Drawing for inspiration on the American thinker, Aldo Leopold, and in dialogue with contemporary American environmental philosophers, such as John Rodman, the Routleys rapidly worked out the elements, as they saw them, of such a new environmental ethic. They argued that any such ethic must rest on the intrinsic value of natural entities, where intrinsic value was precisely the value that attached to those entities in their own right, independently of their utility or instrumental value for us. Intrinsic value, they thought, would confer moral considerability. But how exactly was this hypothesis of intrinsic value to be understood? Did it imply that natural entities would be valuable even if (human) valuers did not exist? Richard Routley thought it did. He set out the ‘last man’ argument, according to which it would be wrong for the last person left alive on earth, after some imagined terminal human catastrophe, to destroy the remaining natural environment, even if it consisted only of vegetation, rocks and rivers, and other insentient elements (Routley 1973). But how could value exist without a valuer? Since, the Routleys conceded, the activity of valuing requires some form of mind or consciousness, non-conscious natural entities could not confer value on themselves. The Routleys were not prepared to extend consciousness, in some larger sense, to all natural entities, since that was the way of ‘mysticism’ or ‘pantheism’, anathema in those days (and probably still today) to analytical philosophers, and a reductio ad absurdum of any argument that led to it. So how was the purported intrinsic value of non-conscious entities to be accounted for? Uncomfortably, the Routleys plumped for a view of value as tied only to possible rather than actual human valuers: if actual human beings did in fact value natural entities for their own sake, as the last man argument purported to demonstrate, then even if human beings ceased to exist, it would still be true to say that, were they to exist, they would value those entities, and this was sufficient, according to Richard Routley, to confer intrinsic value and hence moral considerability on nature (Routley 1973). (Critics were not slow to find this argument strained. See Elliot 1982a and, for a later critique, Grey 2000.)
The kind of moral consideration appropriate to the environment would properly translate into respect, care, responsibility or concern, the Routleys argued, rather than more legalistic moral categories, such as rights and obligations, that seemed to imply a social contract. Such moral respect and responsibility were consistent with the use of natural resources, provided such use was respectful and hence circumscribed, limited to what was genuinely necessary (Routley and Routley 1980).
Armed with their new theory of environmental ethics, the Routleys took on the Forestry Commission in their seminal 1973 book, The Fight for the Forests, a comprehensive economic, scientific, sociopolitical and philosophical critique of the forestry industry in Australia (Routley and Routley 1973a; Orton 1997). Environmental historian William Lines makes no bones about the impact of this publication:
No Australian author or authors had ever combined philosophical, demographic, economic, and ecological analysis in one volume as part of one connected argument. The Routleys were unique. They challenged conventional academic boundaries as barriers to understanding and dismissed claims to objectivity as spurious attempts to protect vested interests. They exposed both wood-chipping and plantation forestry as uneconomic, dependent on taxpayer subsidies, and driven largely by a ‘rampant development ideology’. (Lines 2006: 144–5)
It is hard not to concede that the Routleys set the bar: they not only helped to articulate in the 1970s questions that would define the agenda for environmental philosophy for decades to come, both in Australia and in the rest of the English-speaking world, but in their hands these ideas also became a potent weapon of engagement, of strenuous environmental activism.
Meanwhile, of course, others within the small circle of Australian philosophy had responded to the Routleys’ challenge regarding the moral status of natural entities. Not all concurred in the need for ‘a new, an environmental, ethic’, an ethic that broke with the entrenched anthropocentrism of the West. For instance, in his 1974 book, Man’s Responsibility for Nature, John Passmore argued that, while the natural environment indeed stood in need of protection from unfettered exploitation and degradation, a case for such protection could be made in traditional Western terms. He identified several Western traditions of human/nature relations, of varying degrees of anthropocentricity: the despotic tradition, according to which humans were indeed permitted to dispose of nature as they saw fit; the stewardship position, according to which we were entitled to cultivate nature for our own purposes but were also charged with its custody; and the cooperative tradition, in which the task of humanity was to increase the productiveness of raw nature. While despotism, the major tradition, was indeed patently unqualified to serve as a basis for environmentalism, both stewardship and cooperation could be adapted, Passmore argued, to environmental ends. Passmore also pointed out that other traditions had at times been influential in the West: primitivism, romanticism and mysticism, all of which were dismissed by him out of hand as inconsistent with science—and hence with reason—on account of attributing mind-like properties to non-sentient natural entities. Like the Routleys, he characterised such positions as pantheist, and ‘pantheism’ was for him, as it was for them, a term of opprobrium and last resort, requiring little in the way of refutation.
The debate between Passmore and the Routleys illustrated nicely a distinction that the Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, had drawn in his important 1973 paper, ‘The Shallow and the Deep, Long-range Ecology Movement’. The shallow ecology movement, according to Naess, was the movement to protect and preserve the natural environment for purely anthropocentric reasons, which is to say for the sake of its utility for humanity. The deep ecology movement, by contrast, was the movement to protect nature for biocentric reasons, which is to say, for nature’s own sake. Stewardship and cooperation might serve as a basis for a shallow ecology movement that sought to preserve natural resources for human benefit, but they would not, as the Routleys quickly pointed out, serve as the basis for an environmentalism that valued nature for its own sake: stewardship and cooperation were both compatible with a total (albeit, in today’s parlance, sustainable) makeover of the earth’s environment, and by no means guaranteed the protection of wilderness that environmentalists of a deeper green persuasion particularly sought (Routley and Routley 1980).
The question of moral considerability—who could claim it and what conferred it—was central to the discourse of environmental philosophy as it began to take shape in the English-speaking world in the late 1970s. Peter Singer was already arguing that any creature that possessed sentience (by which he meant the capacity for experiencing pain) could claim moral considerability, since, according to his utilitarian perspective, wrongness consisted in nothing other than the giving of pain or misery to those capable of experiencing it. Little stretching of conventional Western moral categories was required then to bring sentient animals into the moral fold, and the publication in 1975 of Singer’s concise, tightly argued but accessible and amply illustrated book, Animal Liberation, had already helped to launch a world-wide animal liberation movement. On Singer’s criterion, non-sentient natural entities, such as insects, plants, rivers, ecosystems and landscapes, failed the test of moral considerability, but to the extent that sentient creatures depended on such entities for their existence, a case for their protection could still be argued (Singer 1979).
Amongst other early respondents to the Routleys’ challenge were some who, like Passmore, rejected the imputation of moral considerability to nature and others who accepted it, though on varying grounds. Janna Thompson considered anthropocentrism to be inevitable and any attempt to disengage value from human valuers to be incoherent, but, following Marcuse, she argued for an enlightened anthropocentrism, according to which a way of social life premised on appreciation for and receptivity to the joy and, as Marcuse put it, the ‘erotic energy’ of nature would be conducive to harmony and creativity in society and hence to human fulfilment. The psychology that led to the domination of nature was, from this point of view, indicative of a larger political psychology of domination, and was therefore ultimately opposed to human welfare (Thompson 1983, 1990). More sceptical even than Thompson concerning the prospects for a new environmental ethic was John McCloskey. His scepticism arose principally from his sense that certain ecological entities, such as the tapeworm and the malaria organism, were self-evidently neither intrinsically nor instrumentally valuable (McCloskey 1982).
Another member of this early circle, William Grey, was initially well disposed towards the notion of the intrinsic value of nature (Grey 1982), but eventually adopted a position not unlike Thompson’s, finding the basis for an environmental ethic in an enlightened anthropocentrism. According to Grey’s argument, human goods and goals were inextricably entwined with nature, but not with nature under its largest, evolutionary aspect: the successive waves of extinction and planetary adjustments of evolution render nature under its evolutionary aspect beyond the scope of ethics altogether. Human goods and goals were rather entwined with the particular biological fabric of our own immediate world, the world of the present evolutionary era. That fabric requires protection if the shape and meaning of our own human purposiveness is to be preserved (Grey 1993). Robert Elliot, on the other hand, embraced the notion of the intrinsic value of natural entities, but analysed it precisely as a function of the origins of such entities in long and deep evolutionary and ecological processes, in contradistinction to artefactual entities, which originate in abstract human conceptions and intentions. Elliot brought out the force of this distinction by a comparison between fake and original objects: a fake work of art, for instance, is regarded as of little value compared to the original. By similarly contrasting instances of ‘ecological restoration’ with original and intact ecosystems, Elliot revealed an important aspect of what it is about ‘nature’ that environmentalists find intrinsically valuable (Elliot 1982b; for further discussion, see Lo 1999).
In an international context, arguments for the moral considerability of nature and for a specifically environmental ethic were by now, in the later 1980s through to the 1990s, tending to fall into distinct streams, or ecological philosophies. These ecological philosophies included deep ecology (inspired by Naess), ecological feminism, socialist ecology (generally known as social ecology), the land ethic and bioregionalism. Australian philosophers, including new players who had not been part of the Routley circle in the 1970s, made significant contributions to most of these streams, though some, such as Andrew Brennan (who arrived in Australia in 1991), preferred, in the face of such a diversity of approaches, to take a frankly pluralist rather than partisan stance on the question of environmental value, providing bracing critical commentary across the board. Environmental offshoots of the process philosophy of A. N. Whitehead and of the Hegelian tradition also came on-stream in this decade, notably via the contributions of Arran Gare and philosophically-minded biological scientist, Charles Birch.
Deep ecology was conceptualised by Arne Naess as a political platform supported by philosophical foundations—worldviews or, as he put it, ecosophies—which could vary from one supporter to another. It was via agreement on the platform that one counted as a deep ecologist. Over the years different versions of the platform were formulated, but central to all versions was the idea that the non-human world was intrinsically valuable and non-human beings were in principle as entitled to ‘live and blossom’ as were human beings. At Murdoch University in Perth, Warwick Fox, under the supervision of Patsy Hallen, wrote a doctoral thesis, published in 1989 as Towards a Transpersonal Ecology, in which he provided the first truly systematic defence of deep ecology, arguing that the idea of the ‘ecological self’ at the heart of Naess’ own ‘ecosophy’ received confirmation, as developmental psychology, from the field of transpersonal psychology.
Freya Mathews offered a metaphysical extension of the idea of the ecological self in her 1991 book, The Ecological Self, attributing ‘self’ status to self-realising systems generally, arguing that not only organisms and perhaps ecosystems and the biosphere, but the cosmos itself, qualified as such systems. ‘Selves’ were imbued with a conative impulse, or impulse for self-preservation and self-increase, that set them apart from purely mechanical systems, and constituted self-value. Selves were intrinsically valuable because, by the reflexiveness of their very nature, they valued themselves.
Another book that appeared in 1991, A Morally Deep World, by Lawrence Johnson, also argued along ‘deep’ lines. Johnson construed the good, morally speaking, in terms of well-being. Any life process with a degree of organic unity and self-identity sufficient to endow it with well-being interests qualified as morally considerable. Such life processes could be identified at a number of levels—not only at the level of the individual organism, ecosystem and biosphere, but also at the level of species: things can turn out better or worse for a species just as they can for an individual organism. Some species flourish while others decline. Something can thus be defined as a life process with interests without it being in any way a subject of sentience or consciousness. Johnson emphasised that there was no neat way of tying up the various levels of value via strict rules and rankings. Appropriate morality was a matter of attitude, of respect and consideration for all entities that have interests. We should aim to forge a modus vivendi consistent in a general way with the balance of nature.
Ecofeminists approached the question of the moral considerability of nature from a different quarter. Why, they asked, had nature in the Western tradition been instrumentalised, stripped of moral considerability and subjugated, in the first place? Their answer was that this subjugation was conceptually of a piece with other, political subjugations, particularly the subjugation of women. The concept of nature was the cornerstone of a dualistic conceptual system organised around mutually defining pairs of opposed and differentially ranked categories, such as nature/culture, human/animal, mind/body, reason/emotion, spirit/matter, civilised/primitive, theory/practice, science/superstition, mental/manual, white/black, masculine/feminine. This conceptual system had evolved over the course of Western civilisation to legitimise the domination of a number of groups, including the working class, colonised peoples and women. The construction of ‘nature’ as a moral nullity, to which subordinated groups could be ideologically assimilated (workers, women and indigenous peoples being positioned as ‘closer to nature’ than white middle-class males), was at the core of this dualistic system. It followed that the deconstruction of this dualistic conception of nature was key not only to the ‘liberation’ of the natural world itself, but also to that of these other groups. A definitive treatment of this ecofeminist argument was furnished by Val Plumwood in her 1993 classic, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Patsy Hallen and Ariel Salleh also made pioneering contributions to the articulation of ecofeminism, Hallen via feminist critique of science (Hallen 1995) and Salleh via historical materialist analyses of gender roles (Salleh 1992). Salleh also joined Plumwood in mounting an ecofeminist critique of deep ecology (Salleh 1984; Plumwood 1993).
Indeed, from the late 1980s into the 1990s the ‘green wars’ raged, both inside Australia and outside. Ecofeminists accused deep ecologists of masculinist bias in many of their central tenets. These included their reliance on abstract theoretical conceptions of nature as sources of deep ecological attitudes and a ‘cowboy’ valorisation of wilderness and wilderness experience in preference to more modest and immediate, embodied and domestic, manifestations and experiences of nature (Salleh 1992; Mathews 2000). Deep ecologists also allegedly demonstrated a preference for holistic over relational conceptions of nature, where holism was seen to imply, in contrast to relationality, the incorporation and obliteration of others rather than engagement with them (Plumwood 1993; for a reconciliation of deep ecology and ecofeminism on this point, see Mathews 1994). Social ecologists, led by Murray Bookchin in the U.S., joined postcolonialists and critical theorists in attacking deep ecologists as misanthropic, since deep ecology seemed to prioritise the interests of nature over those of the world’s poor and dispossessed. Deep ecologists were also charged with political naivety, their prescriptions for change being deemed to lack any analysis of political power. (For a spirited Australian defence of deep ecology against these charges, see Eckersley 1989, 1992.) Richard Sylvan poured scorn on deep ecology as an insufficiently rigorous discourse, describing it as a ‘conceptual bog’, ‘afflicted’ and ‘degenerate’, and styling himself a ‘deep green’ theorist as opposed to a deep ecologist (Sylvan 1985a, 1985b). Everyone, it seemed, took a swipe at deep ecology, and Fox, for one, spent a lot of time defending it (Fox 1986, 1989a, 1989b). But ecofeminism was also disparaged, both by other feminists and by social ecologists, as ‘essentialist’, on the grounds that some of the earlier ecofeminists, seeking to claim the ecological high ground for women, had seemed to endorse the patriarchal characterisation of women as ‘closer to nature’ than men, on account of women’s reproductive biology and practices. These debates were unquestionably unnecessarily vitriolic, but they were also sometimes productive of useful clarifications, as in the debate over holism versus relationality, thrashed out between deep ecologists and ecofeminists.
Despite the fact that arguments were flying thick and fast, much of the debate in the 1980s and 1990s tended to skirt around what was arguably the foundational question of the whole discourse, namely that of the actual nature of nature—what was it, if anything, about the natural world that warranted our treating it as morally considerable? While it was plain to see why sentient animals might be entitled to moral consideration, it was not so clear why plants, let alone rocks and rivers and landscapes, might be so entitled. The Routleys’ original arguments for the intrinsic value of nature fell far short of the mark (Godfrey-Smith 1982). The deconstructive approach of ecofeminism largely by-passed the question by focussing on the political rationale for the moral nullification of nature. Purely psychological or phenomenological approaches, such as those favoured (though not exclusively so) by Naess and Fox, which advocated acts of psychological ‘identification’ with wider circles of nature as a source of ecological consciousness, left open the question of whether such identifications had an objective basis in ontology or were just a matter of subjective choice. Despite these evasions, there can, at the end of the day, be no avoiding the ‘hard problem’ of environmental philosophy, the question of metaphysics, of the nature of nature. We are drawn back inevitably to questions of telos, of self-meaning and self-purpose, of conativity, intentionality, agency, subjectivity and mind in nature—to the very spectre so shunned by the analytical philosophers of the original Routley circle, the spectre of supposed ‘mysticism’ or ‘pantheism’.
While some of the thinkers in the ‘deep’ tradition, such as Mathews, had approached the question of the moral considerability of nature from an avowedly metaphysical perspective, there was one branch of environmental philosophy that positively specialised in the metaphysical approach, namely that derived from process philosophy. Amongst philosophers in Australia, Arran Gare was the preeminent exponent of this approach. In a series of books in the 1990s, but perhaps most importantly in Nihilism Inc, Gare provided a broad analysis of the metaphysical foundations of modern civilisation and the political and environmental implications of those foundations, while also proffering an alternative in the shape of the process tradition, a tradition that began in the Romantic period and continued into the twentieth century in the persons of Bergson, Alexander, Whitehead and others. The process perspective, defined in contrast to the mechanistic perspective of classical science, represented the world dynamically, as intrinsically in-process, its differentia indivisible, inter-fusing and self-becoming rather than ontologically discrete, inert and set in motion only by external forces, as the particle manifold of classical physics was. From such a perspective, reality was more analogous in its structure to music than to a machine, with both the past and the future actively, morphogenetically, immanent, as unfolding form, in the present. In other words, from this perspective ‘reality’ could not be conceptually arrested at a single moment, frozen in a Newtonian snapshot of the universe, any more than a symphony can be arrested in a single note. Both time and space were in this sense emanations of form rather than antecedent containers for it. From such a perspective, we ourselves are already implicated in the self-unfolding of the world, and so it makes no sense to try to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ with a view to instrumentalising and dominating it. To compromise the self-unfolding of the world is to compromise our own existence.
This ‘hard question’ of environmental philosophy, the metaphysical question, which was by and large shunned by the earlier analytical philosophers of the environment, has come more to the fore in the last decade. As the concerns raised in environmental philosophy in earlier decades have rippled out into other disciplines and been taken up by a range of scholars in the field that anthropologist and cultural theorist Deborah Rose has dubbed the ‘ecological humanities’, a language of sentience and agency, often influenced by Indigenous thought, has crept into discussions of nature (Rose 1996; Rigby 2005; Plumwood 2009; Tacey forthcoming, and many of the articles in the journal PAN Philosophy Activism Nature). Attributions of ‘sentience’, in the sense of awareness, to the natural world are popping up in Australian scholarship in many contexts. Rose and Plumwood have adopted the term ‘philosophical animism’ to cover a position that construes nature as a community of persons (Rose 2009; Plumwood 2009). Mathews has developed her argument from the conativity of self-realising systems into a full-blown cosmological panpsychism (Mathews 2003, 2009). Quite diverse possibilities for interpreting nature as a locus of mind-like attributes are currently opening up, and much exciting work in this connection remains to be done.
Meanwhile, in the last decade other new themes have been emerging in the philosophically-informed discourse of the ecological humanities. Aboriginal voices, long referenced in ecological philosophy but seldom heard, are now making their own representations (Graham 1999, 2009; Grieves 2009). Place as a locus of identity and of conservation has been added as a key category of environmentalism. Jeff Malpas, for instance, has established a place studies network at the University of Tasmania; John Cameron of the University of Western Sydney organised a series of ecologically oriented ‘Sense of Place’ gatherings in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (Val Plumwood, on the other hand, has problematised the valorisation of favoured places. See Plumwood 2008a.) The earlier preoccupation of environmental philosophy with forests and wilderness preservation has come under fire with a new emphasis on cultures of sustainability in the suburbs and the city (Davison 2005; Fox 2006). Andrew Brennan and Norva Lo are investigating the relation between worldviews and behaviour, challenging the traditional assumption of environmental ethics that anthropocentric worldviews give rise to bad environmental behaviour and ecocentric worldviews to good environmental behaviour: they are calling for an ‘empirical philosophy’ that sociologically investigates the correlations between belief and action (Lo 2009; Brennan and Lo 2010). Ocean ethics has finally commanded the attention of philosophers with the publication of Denise Russell’s Who Rules the Waves? Piracy, Overfishing and Mining the Oceans. Val Plumwood, before her own death in 2008, published a series of influential essays on the ecological significance of death (see, e.g. Plumwood 2000 and 2008b).
To the old focus on value questions in abstracto has been added, in the last decade, a new emphasis on the literary and cultural studies of environmental themes. For example, an Australian journal, PAN Philosophy Activism Nature, launched in 2000, and the ‘Ecological Humanities Corner’ of the journal Australian Humanities Review, both encourage a mix of philosophical, literary and cultural studies perspectives in their approach to environmental themes. Kate Rigby at Monash University leads a research effort into the Romantic antecedents of ecological thought in a literary and ecocritical context. Animals—their place and meaning in human cultures rather than merely the ethics of our treatment of them—have also become a major preoccupation (Franklin 2006, Rose forthcoming). A major international conference on the cultural studies of animals, Minding Animals, was held at Newcastle in 2009. And as the planet enters the sixth great extinction event in its history, the significance of extinction, particularly animal extinctions, has emerged as a topic of urgent philosophical and ethnographic inquiry, as evidenced in Deborah Rose’s circle of postgraduates and postdoctoral fellows at Macquarie University.
Though for some philosophers environmental ethics was, in earlier decades, merely an academic pursuit, for most it was intended as a moral wake-up call, a call to the world to take moral responsibility for the ravages wrought by industrial society on natural systems. Core categories of environmental philosophy, such as anthropocentrism versus biocentrism and intrinsic versus instrumental value, were eventually absorbed into the rhetoric of the environment movement, but the wake-up call was not by and large heeded by the wider society. Our planet is consequently today in the throes of an ecological catastrophe the reality of which scientists no longer deny and the proportions of which defy human imagination. Now that the wake-up stage has passed, it remains to be seen whether philosophy in any shape or form, in Australia or elsewhere, will be capable of helping to elicit an effective human response to this epochal challenge.
The Ethics Centre of South Australia (ECSA) is a collaborative venture between Flinders University, the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia, in partnership with the Government of South Australia. The aims of ECSA are to promote scholarship and education in applied ethics, and to contribute to public debate on ethical issues. To this end, ECSA has a number of research themes and a central series of public seminars on contemporary ethical issues.
Deliberations about ECSA began in 2003 when a group of academics across the three South Australian universities met to discuss the possibility of establishing a centre for applied ethics, drawing upon the staff and resources of all three institutions. A working party was formed, with two staff from each of the universities, representing a range of disciplines and interests in applied ethics. The working party obtained seed funding from the three universities to appoint a project officer and develop a business plan for the centre. During 2004, supported by the project officer, the working party met regularly to develop formal plans for ECSA. This included numerous meetings with staff across the universities and with ministers and senior public servants in a range of departments of the Government of South Australia, seeking support for ECSA. In tandem with meetings seeking support and the development of the business plan, members of the working party commenced with various projects including grant applications, public seminars and workshops.
In late 2004, members of the working party met with the deputy vice-chancellors and pro vice-chancellors (Research) of Flinders University, University of Adelaide and University of South Australia, who agreed to establish ECSA formally as an unincorporated joint venture between the three universities. This was followed by a public meeting to inform interested stakeholders, and to seek endorsement for the establishment of seven research themes plus an education theme, led by members of the working party:
Following a lengthy period of negotiation, in mid 2005 the deputy vice-chancellors and pro vice-chancellors (Research) from Flinders University, University of Adelaide and University of South Australia signed the Joint Venture Agreement to establish the Ethics Centre of South Australia, in partnership with the South Australian Department of Health. A/Prof. Annette Braunack-Mayer (University of Adelaide) and A/Prof. Wendy Rogers (Flinders University) were appointed as Interim Joint Directors of ECSA. The ECSA was officially launched on 25 November 2005 with an invited address from Julian Burnside QC.
Robert Crotty, emeritus professor of religion and education at the University of South Australia and with interests in religious ethics and ethics of the world religions, was appointed as Director in early 2006. Under Professor Crotty’s leadership, members of ECSA have developed a range of active research programs, delivered seminars and workshops on topics in applied ethics for the university and public sector, made international links and commenced planning for an educational program extending across the three universities. ECSA is governed by a Steering Committee, managed by a Research and Education Committee, and has an Advisory Board.
N. N. Trakakis
Australasian philosophers have in many ways led the field in recent discussions on the notorious problem of evil, the problem of reconciling the existence of a being that is unlimited in power, knowledge and goodness with the existence of evil (or evil of certain sorts or amounts) in the world.
It all began with J. L. Mackie’s ‘Evil and Omnipotence’ paper, published in 1955 in Mind. Here Mackie posed the problem of evil as a logical problem: it is the problem of removing an alleged logical inconsistency between certain claims about God and certain claims about evil. Mackie argued that the inconsistency can be removed only by giving up one or more of the propositions constituting the problem, e.g. by denying God’s omnipotence (or placing significant limits to God’s power) or denying the existence of evil. Seemingly more promising strategies, such as the idea that evil is due to human free will, were rejected by Mackie on the grounds that ‘if God has made men such that in their free choices they sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil, why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good?’ (1955: 209). This view, that God could have created a world in which everyone always freely did what is right, came to be known as Mackie’s ‘Utopia Thesis’, and it provoked much debate in subsequent literature.
Interestingly, two early Australian responses to Mackie’s argument came from Catholics who challenged Mackie’s Utopia Thesis. Father P. M. Farrell, in a response to Mackie also published in Mind (1958), defended the Thomistic view that evil is a privation of being that is inherent in the creation of contingent things (though Farrell’s critique of Mackie soon became more public and more strident, if not uglier as well; see Franklin 2003: 84–5). Anticipating Plantinga’s free will defence, Selwyn Grave (1956) argued that, if free will is given an indeterminist reading, then for all we know it might not have been possible for even God to create a world in which all free agents always do what is right. Mackie replied to these critiques in his 1962(b) paper, ‘Theism and Utopia’. And in his posthumously published The Miracle of Theism (1982)—a work which functions as a kind of counterpoint to the natural theology of Swinburne’s The Existence of God (1st ed. 1979)—Mackie again turns to his argument from evil, which he modifies and defends against recent critics such as Plantinga. (Despite this, Plantinga’s free will defence is widely considered today as having decisively refuted logical arguments from evil such as Mackie’s. For an opposing view, see Oppy 2004.)
One innovative twist in Australasian contributions to the problem of evil relates to the widely held assumption that compatibilist theories of free will render the problem of evil insoluble (for if compatibilism is true, then God can simply determine all his creatures to always do the right thing, without thereby removing their free will). John Bishop (1993b), however, has argued that even compatibilists can avail themselves of the free will defence, provided that the defence is supplemented with a further higher good (beyond freedom of action itself), viz. the good of the highest forms of mutual loving personal relationship (though Perszyk 1999 has replied that Bishop’s compatibilist version of the free will defence is not in fact consistent with compatibilism). Like Bishop, Robert Young (1975) contends that, even if compatibilism is true, it does not necessarily follow that God would prefer a world in which people always freely choose the good over a world with moral evil in it. Having defended a compatibilist account of freedom against rival libertarian accounts, Young then admits that resolving the problem of evil given the truth of compatibilism becomes ‘one of the most difficult exercises in Christian apologetics’ (1975: 214). Not deterred, however, he conducts a thought experiment where a compatibilist world in which every person always (freely) does what is right is described in detail and compared with a world like ours where people (with compatibilist freedom) regularly do what is wrong. Young argues that, although there is nothing obviously incoherent or inconsistent in the description provided of the evil-free world, such a world is so radically different from our world that it is easy to overlook not only the difficulties in drawing evaluative comparisons between the two worlds, but also the many demerits of a world without (moral) evil: for instance, the inhabitants of such a world ‘wouldn’t even be of moderate moral stature because they wouldn’t be faced, for example, with needing to forgive or with the difficult task we presently have of acting rightly even when morally wronged’ (1975: 221). Similarly, Martin Davies (though not at the time working in Australia) argued that, ‘even if causal determinism is true, it is very far from clear that the mere existence of evil, or the existence of moral evil in particular, provides an argument against the existence of God’ (1980: 127).
Continuing with the non-theistic side, both H. J. McCloskey and Michael Tooley have also developed arguments from evil. McCloskey (1960) discusses and rejects a number of purported solutions to the problem of natural evil, before doing the same with the problem of moral evil, rejecting as does Mackie (but not for the same reasons) appeals to human free will. (McCloskey 1974 is a book-length treatment of the subject.) Michael Tooley (1991), at the time a senior research fellow in the Philosophy Program at the Australian National University’s Research School of the Social Sciences, distinguishes different ways the argument from evil can be formulated; contends that the argument is best stated in concrete, not abstract, terms (thus focussing on particular kinds of evil, and not on the sheer existence or quantity of evil); considers a number of responses to arguments from evil, and argues that each of these fail; and concludes that ‘nothing less than a reasonably complete theodicy will do’ (1991: 131), though he does not engage in an assessment of theodicies. Although Tooley left Australia’s shores long ago, it is worth mentioning that he has recently engaged in a debate on the existence of God with Alvin Plantinga, published as Knowledge of God (2008). Here Tooley’s case against theism is based largely on his evidential (or inductive) argument from evil, and his defence of this argument rests on his justification of the crucial ‘inductive step’ that proceeds (roughly put) from ‘No goods we know of justify God in permitting evil e’ to ‘(It is likely that) no goods whatsoever justify God in permitting e’.
Another debate on the existence of God, in the same Blackwell series, features J. J. C. Smart against John Haldane (1996, 2nd ed. 2003). Evil, argues Smart, is readily explicable from the perspective of evolutionary naturalism, but not from a theistic perspective: there is no plausible way of reconciling the existence of God with the existence of evil, especially natural evil (1996: 66–73). Haldane’s reply (1996: 152–60) that natural evil is an unavoidable by-product of a natural system made up of a variety of species with different capacities and competing interests, only prompts Smart to ask: ‘But could not God have created a universe with different laws, non-metabolising non-competitive spirits, all engaged in satisfying non-competitive activities such as pure mathematics or the production of poetry?’ (1996: 184).
On the theistic side, the Catholic philosopher M. B. Ahern (1971) ends on the irenic note that, given the nature and complexity of the problem, it is impossible for any theist to show that all actual evil is justified, and similarly impossible for any non-theist to show that actual evil is not justified. This view, now known as ‘sceptical theism’ as it is usually proposed by theists who are sceptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for permitting evil, was ably defended by another Catholic philosopher from Australia, F. J. Fitzpatrick, in a 1981 article in Religious Studies. The sceptical theist view has found many proponents of late, but its shortcomings and dangers have been documented by both Oppy (2006: 289–313) and Trakakis (2007: chs 4–7).
Theistic yet less sceptical has been the Jesuit, John Cowburn (1979, rev. 2003), who has developed a theodicy based largely on Teilhard de Chardin’s view that evolutionary progress—and hence the concomitant physical suffering and disorder—is an unavoidable feature of any universe containing corporeal living beings. Bruce Langtry also develops a (partial) theodicy in God, the Best, and Evil (2008), but one that appeals to goods bound up with free will and moral responsibility, while remaining neutral between compatibilism and libertarianism. Langtry, however, does not discuss theodicies for natural evil, while Trakakis (2007: ch.11) argues against received opinion that leading contemporary theodicies do not even succeed in accounting for some instances of natural evil, let alone natural evil of the kinds and quantities actually found in the world.
Other Australasian contributions to the problem of evil that are worthy of note include Ken Perszyk’s work on Molinism, this being the theory that God’s omniscience encompasses both foreknowledge and middle knowledge (i.e. knowledge of what every possible free creature would freely choose to do in any possible situation in which that creature might find itself). Perszyk has contested various common assumptions about Molinism, including the view that Molinism, in virtue of attributing a high level of knowledge and control to God, renders the theodicist’s task harder in comparison with some alternative conceptions of divine omniscience, such as the ‘open theist’ view that the future is open and unknowable even for God (Perszyk 1998).
More radically, Michael Levine (2000a) characterises the theodicies (or defences) recently developed by Christian philosophers—especially Swinburne and van Inwagen—as ‘terrible solutions to a horrible problem’. ‘If van Inwagen and Swinburne were political figures,’ Levine writes, ‘there would be protesters on the street. I mean this literally and not polemically. After all, what they have done is to offer not just a prima facie, but an ultimate justification for the holocaust and other horrors. What should be explained is how this has gone virtually unnoticed in the literature’ (2000a: 107). Levine goes on to suggest that the proposals of Swinburne and van Inwagen are ‘indicative of the lack of vitality, relevance and “seriousness” of contemporary Christian analytic philosophy of religion’ (2000a: 112). (A similar stance on theodicies is taken in Trakakis 2008.) In his comprehensive study of pantheism, Levine (1994) has also argued that pantheistic conceptions of divinity, unlike traditional theistic conceptions, evade the problem of evil altogether.
More radically still, John Bishop (1993a, 1998, 2007b) has long argued that the problem of evil renders the traditional theistic conception of God (or ‘the omni-God’, as he calls it) morally problematic. The argument from evil that Bishop develops is a logical (and not evidential) one, and one that is based on particular concrete cases of great suffering. Bishop’s claim, in short, is that from the perspective of certain non-utilitarian value-commitments (commitments which, Bishop concedes, can rationally be rejected), God cannot justifiably permit, say, a child being tortured to death, even if this were necessary for the realisation of some supreme good. Consider, for example, the fact that God, in the classical theodicist world, must sustain the world even while some terrible evil is taking place, so as to bring about some greater good. But what this entails—e.g. sustaining in each episode of torture and abuse the perpetrator’s capacities to inflict suffering and the victim’s capacity to endure it—seems incompatible with what a perfectly virtuous moral agent would do, at least given certain value-commitments. The theist’s best option, then, is to look for alternative and religiously adequate understandings of the divine, and Bishop’s preferred alternative is one that is thoroughly naturalistic: God on this view is not a supernatural agency or entity, but is (literally) love, a supreme community constituted by and emerging from persons-in-loving relationship.
(Thanks to Peter Forrest, John Bishop and Bruce Langtry for reviewing an earlier draft of this article.)
The common concern that loosely unites the diverse assortment of writers known as ‘existentialists’ is a preoccupation with the question of what it means to exist as a human individual situated in the world.
Although it is not a doctrine or even a unified set of themes, what marks existentialism as significantly different from analytical philosophy is its approach and style. Its starting point is the phenomenological orientation of the experiencing subject and for this reason it is seen as part of the Husserlian phenomenological tradition. Within the broad field of Continental philosophy it is further distinguished by a number of features: it emphasises authenticity and is a philosophy of engagement, seeing values and meanings as the creation of the individual rather than a matter of conformity to fixed, universal and rational principles. Existentialist philosophy embraces the experiential dimension of human existence, emphasising and evoking moods and emotions such as angst, dread, absurdity, futility, and alienation.
Amongst Australian philosophers, there is general agreement about the centrality of the French existentialists, most notably Sartre and to some extent Beauvoir and Camus. Some of the ideas of Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Nietszche and Merleau-Ponty, though problematic, are also included. Marcel and Jaspers are usually included to a lesser extent as are writers such as Kafka, Dostoevsky and Beckett.
In Australian philosophy, existentialism-related teaching and research has largely followed the fortunes of phenomenology, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. As a teaching area it is usually understood as a fairly well-circumscribed movement, or at least a cluster of agreed-upon themes and exponents. However, research in the area is much richer and far more diffuse, ranging from exegetical commentaries and interpretations of key thinkers and themes, to the practice of existential phenomenology. Existential phenomenology is the use of Husserl’s phenomenological method to address existential themes, specifically those concerning Heideggerian-derived being-in-the-world. These themes include relations with others and embodiment, as well as a broad range of cultural and political themes.
The 1940s to the Mid 1970s
Despite their geographical isolation from Europe, Australian philosophers in the 1940s and early 1950s were not totally unfamiliar with the ideas of the existentialists. A. M. Ritchie (1947) published a critical review of existentialism in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, and there is mention of Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Marcel in other issues (McDonald 2008). By the late 1950s and the 1960s, the ideals of secularism and rationalism had replaced the pluralism characteristic of the earlier years of Australian philosophy, and there was little tolerance for a philosophy like existentialism which celebrated irrationalism, was unashamedly subjective, and was far too close to religious concerns like the meaning of life. Along with phenomenology, it was perceived to lack clarity and rigour, and remained ‘other’ in Australian philosophical circles (Harney 1992). Its reception was typified by the ‘partly puzzled, partly hostile’ response of Sydney analytical philosophers to a paper by Max Deutscher on ‘Sartre and Self-Deception’ in 1970.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s existentialism had a minor presence in the teaching programs of many Australian universities. It was often the first of the ‘Continental philosophy’ subjects to enter teaching courses, and was usually combined with a phenomenology component. Sometimes existentialist themes were incorporated into other subjects on personal identity, ethics, or philosophy of mind. Academically, however, existentialism was better known in the scholarship of other disciplines—theology, literature, modern languages (French and German)—well before Australian philosophy departments embraced it.
It wasn’t until the 1970s when as part of, or precursor to, a blossoming of interest in Continental philosophy generally, centres of interest in existentialism began to emerge offering prospects of postgraduate studies. Initially these were associated with Max Charlesworth at University of Melbourne, and with Max Deutscher at Macquarie University.
In 1967, Max Charlesworth introduced a second-year subject, ‘Contemporary European Philosophy’, which emphasised the existentialism of Sartre, Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty. In this he was supported by Alexander Boyce Gibson, then professor of philosophy at Melbourne, who also lectured on existentialism at Monash University in the late 1960s. At Macquarie University, Max Deutscher began introducing aspects of Sartre, Jaspers and Marcel into his philosophy of mind courses in the early 1970s, and later taught a subject, ‘Existentialism and Phenomenology’, previously taught by Husserl scholar Luciana O’Dwyer.
A series of lectures on existentialism was presented by Robert Solomon from the University of Texas at Austin to philosophers at the University of Melbourne and La Trobe University in 1970. This was the first of many visits by Solomon who helped to communicate the unfamiliar ideas of existentialists to audiences of analytic philosophers and to legitimate it as genuine philosophy.
The ‘Golden Years’: Mid 1970s to Mid 1980s
The decade from the mid 1970s marked the golden years of existentialism. In 1974, Charlesworth became founding dean of humanities at the newly-established Deakin University. Its first philosophy course, ‘Images of Man’, was built on existentialist philosophy and drew cross-disciplinary links with literature and psychology. Douglas Kirsner and, later, Stan van Hooft and Russell Grigg joined Deakin University having served their apprenticeship in existentialism with Charlesworth at the University of Melbourne. Another early recruit was Jocelyn Dunphy, who had studied in Paris with Ricoeur. There was a lively interest in existentialism amongst professional psychiatrists at this time, and the relationship between Sartre and R. D. Laing was the topic of a book by Kirsner (1976).
Cross-disciplinary links were also forged between existentialism and education in Robin Small’s teaching at Monash University. Small had completed a doctorate on Heidegger at the Australian National University (ANU) in 1973. His supervisor, Richard Campbell, had a strong interest in metaphysical and theological aspects of existentialist themes. ANU philosophers were generally supportive of Continental philosophy, and Maurita Harney introduced subjects on existentialism there from 1973 to 1981.
From the late 1970s a new generation of graduates with a grounding in existentialist thought helped to establish existentialism as an area of serious intellectual concern. Marion Tapper taught existentialism at the ANU (1982), the University of Queensland (UQ) (1983–1985), and the University of Melbourne (since 1986). Tapper developed a strong interest in Sartre and Beauvoir as a result of her teaching, although her involvement in Continental philosophy is far broader than existentialism.
Opportunities for communicating and presenting research in existentialist ideas were provided by the phenomenology conferences of 1976 (ANU) and 1980 (UQ). The small number of emerging ‘alternative’ journals also provided a forum: Dialectic, convened by Bill Doniela of University of Newcastle, and Critical Philosophy edited by Paul Crittenden, who taught some existentialist subjects at the University of Sydney. Sartre, Beauvoir, Nietzsche and Heidegger were the popular figures in existentialism research.
Beyond the academy, existentialism was capturing the popular imagination during the 1970s. It had a strong following in continuing education courses and, in Melbourne, the Existentialist Society was formed by David Miller in 1971. It continues to offer monthly public lectures on a very broad range of topics.
Early in 1975, Max Charlesworth presented a series of programs on national radio on French existentialist thought. It included interviews with Sartre and Beauvoir and other French intellectuals including Raymond Aron. It was immensely popular and the interviews were subsequently published as a book (Charlesworth 1975).
Existentialism was a philosophy that captured the spirit of the time, especially the liberation movements of the late 1960s—in politics, education, psychiatry, and in feminism where Simone de Beauvoir’s La Deuxième Sexe had already been ‘discovered’ by first wave feminism. Students perceived existentialism as relevant to their own experiences, and key writings were increasingly accessible through literature, especially with new translations coming out in affordable paperbacks.
Existentialism’s popularity with students did not go unnoticed by departmental conveners in an era where student numbers began to matter. However, although the 1980s saw broader acceptance of existentialism as a respectable undergraduate subject, most teaching of it was fairly minor, usually confined to a single subject in undergraduate courses. For new generations of students, however, it was often the magnet that drew them into the richer intellectual field of Continental philosophy that was beginning to flourish in a variety of manifestations in Australian philosophy.
In New Zealand, there has been a long tradition of interest in existentialism at the University of Auckland. It is an important component of Julian Young’s writings and teaching in Continental philosophy. Young joined the department in 1970 and is a frequent visitor to the University of Tasmania. Robert Solomon’s visits to Auckland began in 1968, and continued since, with almost annual frequency in the decade before his death early in 2007. Although his interests were not confined to existentialism, Solomon was an important influence on the Auckland department, including then student, Jeff Malpas. Malpas was to teach existentialism at Murdoch University from 1989, and then from 1999 at the University of Tasmania, where he holds the chair in philosophy and has continued his commitment to existential phenomenology.
Fragmentation and Eclipse: Mid 1980s to the Twenty-First Century
By the mid 1980s, amongst philosophers aligned with the Continental tradition, existentialism began to lose its appeal. Key figures like Nietzsche, Heidegger and Beauvoir remained popular research targets, but for reasons other than their existentialism. Moreover, as conference proceedings and publications from the mid 1980s show, existentialism was eclipsed by the more fashionable movements of structuralism, and then poststructuralism, deconstruction, and postmodernism. Many ‘first generation’ philosophers of existentialism who had moved on to other areas of Continental philosophy saw existentialism as old-fashioned mainly because of its humanist overtones. This was more likely in the case of Melbourne-based philosophers who tended to see existentialism as a fairly well-circumscribed historical movement, with fluctuating contemporary significance. Their Sydney-based counterparts in Continental philosophy were more likely to identify explicitly with the tradition of existential phenomenology, thereby seeing their work as continuous with ‘traditional’ existentialism. Deutscher, in retrospect, identifies most of his work as existential phenomenology. Malpas identifies with this tradition as well, reflecting his emphasis on Heidegger’s contribution to that tradition, most notably to the notion of existentialist engagement. Other philosophers work within the tradition of existential phenomenology on topics such as ethics and politics, including Sartre’s politics of engagement (Marguerite La Caze and Michelle Boulous-Walker, both University of Queensland), and a broader range of themes relating to contemporary culture, sexual difference and embodiment (Ros Diprose, University of New South Wales).
Renewal: the Twenty-First Century
There are signs that existentialism has enjoyed a renewal of interest in Australia in the first decade of the twenty-first century. To some extent this is a European-led revival inspired by contemporary thinkers like Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Nancy and Alain Badiou, who are not regarded as ‘existentialists’ per se, but whose works draw on or problematise traditional existentialist themes relating to humanism and ‘the subject’.
However, a number of local conferences and events honouring existentialist thinkers attest to renewed interest in existentialism quite independently of these global developments. In 2003, Max Deutscher published Genre and Void: Looking Back at Sartre and Beauvoir. Themes from this work became the subject of papers by Paul Crittenden and Marguerite La Caze at the 2004 conference of the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy. In 2005, day-long conferences in honour of Sartre were held at the University of Queensland organised by La Caze, and in Melbourne organised for the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy (MSCP) by Marion Tapper and Anne Freadman (Department of French). In the same year, Jack Reynolds (La Trobe University) taught existentialism for the MSCP summer school. At Auckland in 2007, a conference in memory of Robert Solomon, which included sessions on existentialism, was organised by Robert Wicks. Similar events are planned to honour Beauvoir’s anniversary in 2008.
There is a long tradition of Kierkegaard scholarship in Australasia, and although a large proportion has been theologically-based, its philosophical exponents have become more visible in recent years. It is represented by William McDonald (University of New England), who has documented Kierkegaard scholarship in Australia (McDonald 2008), the late Julia Watkins (University of Tasmania), Antonio Imbrosciano (University of Notre Dame, Fremantle), and Patrick Stokes (University of Melbourne). A ‘Kierkegaard and Asia’ conference was held in Melbourne in 2005, and a Kierkegaard stream was included in the 2007 conference of the Australasian Association of Philosophy. Derrida’s work on Kierkegaard has also contributed to a renewal of interest.
The relationship between existentialism and religious themes finds expression in a variety of ways. It is present, for example, in the writings of Kevin Hart, formerly of the Monash Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies, and in Ian Weeks’s teaching at Deakin University. It is also emerging as a theme of interest in Max Deutscher’s recent work.
There are many generalist publications on existentialism by Australian academics. These include numerous encyclopædia articles on existentialism, as well as books aimed at introducing students and lay audiences to existentialist ideas (Reynolds 2005; Fox 2008). There are also significant publications which, like Deutscher’s Genre and Void, undertake a reassessment of existentialism in the light of post-existentialist thinking. Neil Levy (Melbourne CAPPE and Oxford) observes links between Sartre and Foucault in the context of modernism and postmodernism, and entertains the idea of a ‘Foucauldian’ existentialism (Levy 2001). Sartre and Foucault are also linked by Robert Wicks (2005). Reynolds (2005) explores the relationship between traditional existentialists and later thinkers including Derrida in his assessment of existentialism and its contemporary standing.
Existentialism lives on through diverse forms of expression in the teaching and writing of Australasian philosophers. The legacy of existentialism is acknowledged by philosophers working in existential phenomenology on a very broad range of topics and approaches, some traceable directly to existentialist influences, others seemingly remote from existentialism but still within Continental philosophy. In keeping with the spirit of traditional exponents of existentialism, such themes and topics are all explored as part of the question of being and of human situatedness.
Existentialist Discussion Group
The Existentialist Discussion Group (the precursor of the Existentialist Society) commenced in 1970. Its origins were not from academia but from soapbox oratory. Its convenor, David Miller, had been spruiking at Melbourne’s Speakers Corner at the Yarra Bank on Sunday afternoons in an attempt to discover whether he was an anarchist, an individualist, or a nihilist. His confusion had arisen from reading the German philosopher, Max Stirner (1805–1856). Several of the Speakers Corner participants sometimes gathered after the Sunday sessions to argue the pros and cons of the British ‘Angry Young Man’, Colin Wilson. This group would then wander off to argue over a coffee and, perhaps later, a meal.
Social ferment was in the air. The Student Rebellion had hit Melbourne. Demonstrations against the war in Vietnam were taking place. One of the activist groups, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), had organised the ‘Free University’. Miller approached the SDS at Melbourne University and asked if he could set up discussion groups within the Free University. Permission was granted. So the ‘Yarra Bank group’ became the nucleus for the meetings of the Existentialist Discussion Group in the University of Melbourne’s Students Union. Soon, however, the SDS decided that organising the Free University was far too ‘bourgeois’, and that they should be taking to the streets to participate in the demonstrations. The Existentialist Discussion Group met on a weekly basis for a few years, before becoming a monthly meeting. Miller had dropped out in 1974. The Group lasted till 1977. Although attendances ran to about a dozen people, there was a period in the early 1970s when it attracted a weekly attendance of fifty to sixty. Perhaps because of its location at the University of Melbourne, the Group was mainly comprised of students.
As a reflection of the ‘Student Revolt’ the rebels had rejected the god-like authoritarianism of the academic lecturers and demanded their say. The discussion-group format seemed to be the democratic way of achieving this. One recurrent problem was the in-group jargon of those utilising the verbiage of a particular philosopher or discipline, so everyone was encouraged to have their say no matter how crude or inarticulate. Ideally, others would translate it into lucid terms. Unfortunately, this was not always done.
In 1971 the Existentialist Society was launched. Miller was attempting to combine a lecture format with a discussion-group format. Following the lecture, the audience was invited to critically demolish the speaker’s viewpoints, if they could. Alternative viewpoints were presented and cross-floor disputations were encouraged. The question/discussion periods were not chaired. Admittedly, it did not always work. If things got out of hand, a volunteer chair-person was called for. Nevertheless, this seeming chaos proved to be popular.
The Existentialist Society has an informal structure. It has no constitution. There is no formal membership. It has no committee; people volunteer for tasks. At the monthly lectures, ‘begging bowls’ are passed around for donations towards hall-hire expenses from those who can afford it.
The first few meetings of the society took place at the Athenaeum Art Gallery, above the Athenaeum Theatre. The society’s meetings then moved to the Royal Society of Victoria. In 2005, after thirty-four years at the Royal Society, the Existentialist Society relocated to the Unitarian Church Hall (in East Melbourne).
The society’s inaugural speaker was Max Charlesworth from the University of Melbourne’s Department of Philosophy. Over the ensuing years Charlesworth presented occasional lectures on existentialist issues. However, by October 1978, his lecture topic somberly pronounced ‘The Death of Existentialism’. Charlesworth’s final lecture to the society, in December 1981, was entitled ‘After Existentialism’. Nevertheless, the society soldiered on.
The society’s original aim was to provide lectures and discussion on the ideas of those philosophers, authors and playwrights who, for whatever reason, were labelled as ‘existentialist’. Rather than following a narrow focus on existentialism, the society’s interest area widened out to such a degree that it became a hotch-potch of not only philosophy and literature, but also psychology, ethics, theology, ideology, history and science.
The purpose of the Existentialist Society is expressed as follows: ‘For those who question whether life has a meaning and a purpose. For those who despairingly ponder whether one can live without self-deception or without hedonistic escapes; yet who, despite the anguish of life’s futility and meaninglessness, still seek purpose and an authentic existence’.
Exploring Meinong’s Jungle and Beyond: An Investigation of Noneism and the Theory of Items (EMJB) is the 1980 treatise by Australasian philosopher Richard Routley (later Richard Sylvan), defending and developing Meinong’s theory of objects. At 1035 pages it constitutes a formidable attempt to rehabilitate Meinong’s theory of nonexistent objects from the obscurity into which it had fallen.
Early work by Routley on problems in the philosophy of science led him to think that the dominant empiricist, reductionist views were in need of radical reform. His substantial work in non-classical logic was one aspect of this reform. His development and application of a Meinongian metaphysics was the other key aspect. Joint work and discussion with his collaborator Val Routley (later Val Plumwood) convinced him that the key assumption, ‘the fundamental philosophical error’ that generated so many philosophical problems, was what they called the Reference Theory (1980: i). This error, leveled across the board at empiricists, Idealists and materialists alike, was the acceptance of the ‘mistaken’ view that all proper use of subject expressions in true or false statements is referential use, and thus truth and falsity can be entirely accounted for, semantically, in terms of reference—i.e. reference to entities that actually exist (1980: 54).
A perceived characteristic of the fallacious Reference Theory was the rejection of all discourse that could not be explained simply in terms of the reference of its (proper) subject-terms, particularly intensional discourse (1980: 54). A related characteristic was what was termed the Ontological Assumption, the view that one cannot make true statements about what does not exist. Routley’s arguments for the falsity of the Reference Theory then led, most notably, to his attempt to rehabilitate Meinong’s theory of nonexistent objects through his advocacy of noneism—a theory of objects which aimed at ‘a very general theory of all items whatsoever, of those that are intensional and those that are not, of those that exist and those that do not, of those that are possible and those that are not, of those that are paradoxical or defective and those that are not, of those that are significant or absurd and those that are not; it is a theory of the logic and properties and kinds of properties of all these items’ (Routley 1980: 5–6). This was the task taken up in EMJB.
The first half of the book, Part I, contains revised versions of essays first written and presented to audiences in the late 1960s. This work points to the overall ambition of the project, the basic noneist theses, the perceived inadequacies of classical logic and the logical revision necessary for the project—in particular the development of a suitable intensional logic (a relevant paraconsistent logic dealt with in some detail in the Appendix, ‘Ultralogic as Universal?’, originally published as Routley 1977) and a quantification theory capable of distinguishing between ‘neutral’ and existentially loaded quantification. Importantly, on the view developed ‘there is’ is not synonymous with ‘there exists’ and distinct quantifiers are proposed. Further issues centring on existence, identity and time are also discussed with the development of a temporal logic consistent with noneism and an ‘improved’ philosophy of time.
Part II begins with a response to Quine’s famous attack on Meinongianism, ‘On What There Is’. Chapter three, ‘On What There Is Not’ (an abridged version later appearing as Routley 1982) clarifies and develops the noneist view that some things do not exist (e.g. contra Meinong, nonexistent items are said to have no being of any kind) and long-standing philosophical puzzles surrounding non-existence (e.g. the Platonic riddle of nonbeing) are then taken to be easily resolved. Chapter four continues with an extensive survey, analysis and response to a wide range of further objections. (It builds on the earlier Routley and Routley 1973—perhaps the clearest, succinct presentation and defense of Routley’s views on Meinong.) Subsequent chapters, five to twelve, then deal with elaborations and applications of the theory.
Key to the defense of noneism, and a central unresolved difficulty for Routley’s account, is a clear account of the properties nonexistent objects may be taken to have. Like Meinong himself, Routley takes a primary application of the theory of objects to be in the philosophy of mathematics and the theoretical sciences (see chapters ten and eleven). Mathematical objects and the theoretical abstractions of scientific explanation are taken to be nonexistent objects to which we can nonetheless correctly attribute properties. The number four is even, and is not odd; ideal gases are composed of molecules whose collisions are elastic, not inelastic, etc. Objects can be correctly attributed properties whether they exist or not. But what properties can they be correctly said to have? The answer is addressed by way of the characterisation postulate (CP).
According to CP objects have the properties they are characterised as having. Thus the tree outside my window is a tree, and the round square is round. But problems quickly emerge with an unrestricted CP. If the round square does not (contra Russell) already invite inconsistency, the square that is square and not square does, counting as both square and not square. Having already restricted CP (in chapter one) so as to exclude ‘noncharacterising predicates’ like ‘exists’ (thus excluding problematic attributions like existence to nonexistent objects), chapter five develops a ‘paraconsistent Meinong’ accepting of inconsistency and tamed by the use of an underlying paraconsistent logic rather than imposing further restrictions on CP.
Much subsequent criticism of noneism has focussed on the characterisation problem: which predicates are ultimately to count as characterising. Even accepting a paraconsistent turn, predicates like ‘being an x such that Fx & p’ (for arbitrary proposition p) will, if characterising, result in triviality. In the eyes of many, the characterisation problem was never satisfactorily resolved in EMJB. (Explicitly building on EMJB, Priest 2005—dedicated to Routley—proposes a solution and further refines and develops noneism.)
A book that typified much of Routley’s work, EMJB is highly innovative and unorthodox. He himself wrote in the preface, ‘it is pleasant to record that much of the material is now regarded as far less crazy and disreputable than it was in the mid 1960s, when it was taken as a sign of early mental deterioration and of philosophical irresponsibility’ (Routley 1980: vii). He, along with a number of collaborators, did much to advance disreputable theories on a number of philosophical fronts. EMJB was one such example.