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A Companion to Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand


Victoria University of Wellington

Ismay Barwell

Philosophy as an autonomous department of Victoria University of Wellington was established in 1952 with George Hughes as its inaugural professor. Previously there had been a philosophy presence in the university only because history of philosophy was taught by Henry Hudson. Hudson and Hughes were joined by Michael Hinton and David Londey. Michael Hinton left in mid 1958 and was replaced firstly by David Lloyd Thomas and then by Chris Parkin. David Londey left in 1962 and was replaced by Maxwell J. Cresswell in 1963.

In the years between 1963 and 2000 the department was transformed. The number of staff and students doubled, the range of courses tripled, interdisciplinary connections were established, a steady stream of masters and doctoral theses were awarded and publications increased. This expansion has continued. In 2004 the department moved from the Victorian house on Kelburn Parade, which had been its first home, to Murphy building where it occupies two floors.

By 2000 there were eight tenured positions. These were filled by Nicholas Agar, Ismay Barwell, Ramon Das, Maxwell J. Cresswell, Edwin Mares, Ken Persyck, Jay Shaw and Kim Sterelny. In the interim George Hughes had retired, Chris Parkin had left, and John Bigelow, Tim Dare, Maurice Goldsmith, John Iorns, Gordon Matheson and Shivesh Thakur had held positions for a while. Maurice Goldsmith remained associated with the department as a research fellow and from 2003 was editor of the Australasian Journal of Philosophy. Between 2000 and 2005 Stuart Brock, Sondra Bacharach, Josh Glasgow, Cei Maslen and Nick Smith were appointed to places in an establishment which had eleven positions in 2007.

In the 1950s and ’60s the range of undergraduate courses was very limited. In the mid 1960s the undergraduate course offering was one two-paper ‘unit’ at introductory level, two papers at second level (epistemology and metaphysics as one and logic as the other) and at the third level three papers (metaphysics, ethics and history of philosophy). By 2005 the range had increased to enable specialisation in logic, aesthetics, ethics, politics, philosophy of science and biology, or metaphysics and epistemology, but not history of philosophy, which had almost disappeared from the curriculum.

In 2005 there were six introductory level courses, eleven at second level and thirteen at third level. The range of topics offered reflected the diverse interests of the staff. For example, the 200-level courses included Indian Philosophy, Feminist Theory, Ethics and Genetics, Ethics and Social Evolution, Contemporary Political Theory, Irrationality, Philosophy of Literature, Philosophy of Language, Logic and Computation and a Special Topic which, in 2005 was Society, Power and Knowledge. A wide range of course was also offered at Honours level. The extent of this range was possible because some second and third level courses and some third level and Honours courses were taught together and courses alternated. For example, in 2005 students were able to take Philosophy of Literature as either a 200-level or 300-level course and Philosophy of Literature was replaced in 2006 with Philosophy of Popular Art and Culture. In the same year students could take Alternative Realities as a 300-level or Honours course.

During the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s interdisciplinary links were established with several other departments. The connections with the departments of Politics, Women’s Studies, Mathematics and Linguistics were the most extensively developed and continued to exist into the new millennium. Courses which could be included as part of a degree specialising in either Politics, or Philosophy or Women’s Studies began to be taught in the 1980s and were still being taught in 2007. During the 1970s and ’80s a fortnightly logic seminar was held and in 2006 Edwin Mares with Robert Goldblatt (Mathematics) and Neil Lesley (Computer Studies) developed an Honours program in logic and computation.

In the mid 1960s an Honours program in philosophy involved five papers, to be chosen from a range of six or seven and completed in one year. By 2000 Honours required only four papers, which could be taken part-time over four years and were chosen out of a range of seven or eight in any one year. These included a research essay of about 10,000 words and a supervised reading course which enabled a student to follow a specific interest. Until 2000 in any one year there were seldom more than five Honours students, two or three M.A. students and one Ph.D. student enrolled. In 2008 there are fifteen Honours students and seventeen thesis students enrolled. Moreover, as well as those who have joined the postgraduate program at Victoria, many graduates from the standard Honours and the specialist logic and computation program have gone on to pursue postgraduate research at universities in the U.S. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rutgers, North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Stanford), Britain (Cambridge), Australia (Australian National University), Japan (University of Tokyo) and Holland (University of Amsterdam).

The publication in 1968 of Introduction to Modal Logic, which was the product of a collaboration between Maxwell J. Cresswell and George Hughes, was not the first book published by members of the department, but it is one of the most significant. With this book the tiny department acquired an international reputation. The first book was George Hughes and David Londey’s Elements of Formal Logic. When Hughes retired Cresswell became the sole professor. Cresswell produced a steady stream of articles and books—the most widely read being Introduction to Modal Logic and its successor in 1979, New Introduction to Modal Logic, again with George Hughes. Logics and Languages was published in 1973 and Structured Meanings in 1985 (1985b). Cresswell left the department in 2000 but has remained associated as emeritus professor.

The publication by Edwin Mares of a succession of articles and a book Relevant Logic shows that the department continued to be a centre of excellence in logic. In addition, it became a centre of excellence in philosophy of science, metaphysics, and political, moral and aesthetic theory. This is demonstrated by the following examples of published research in these areas.

In The Representational Theory of Mind, Kim Sterelny defended a physicalist account of the mind and in Sex and Death, he and Paul Griffiths discuss issues in evolutionary biology. In 2003 Sterelny received the Jean Nicod prize for Thought in a Hostile World. Sterelny has edited Biology and Philosophy since 2002 and with Robert Wilson he is the co-editor of the MIT series, Life and Mind. In Joshua Glasgow’s article, ‘On the New Biology of Race’, he debates the biological reality of race.

In Nonexistent Objects Ken Perszyk follows Meinong about objects of thought which do not exist. Stuart Brock has made a significant contribution to the understanding of fictionalism with articles such as ‘Fictionalism about Fictional Characters’ and with Realism and Antirealism, which he co-authored with Edwin Mares. Cei Maslen’s interest in causation and conditionals is expressed in ‘Counterfactuals as Short Stories’. Jay Shaw has concentrated on comparative philosophy and was co-author of Analytical Philosophy in Comparative Perspective.

In Life’s Intrinsic Value Nicholas Agar discusses ethical issues arising from the new genetics. In Liberal Eugenics his focus is the limits of procreative freedom. In 1999 Maurice Goldsmith’s edition of Bernard Mandeville’s By a Society of Ladies was published. Others have had articles on normative issues published in anthologies and scholarly journals. Sondra Bacharach’s ‘Towards a Metaphysical Historicism’ won the Fisher memorial prize in 2003. Ismay Barwell’s interests in aesthetics and feminist philosophy are represented by ‘Who’s Telling This Story Anyway?’ In ‘Virtue Ethics and Right Action’ Ramon Das evaluates the claims of virtue ethics.

In 2008, philosophy is a considerable presence in Victoria University of Wellington because of its significant contribution to undergraduate teaching and to the university’s research profile through its postgraduate program and staff publications.

Virtue Ethics

Daniel Russell

Virtue ethics is a species of normative ethics in which the concept of virtue is central to the account of rightness. It is one of the three major approaches to normative ethics in contemporary philosophy (alongside consequentialist and deontological theories), with roots in ancient Greek philosophy. Australasia is home to some of the chief contributors to contemporary virtue ethics, particularly (in alphabetical order) Rosalind Hursthouse, Justin Oakley, and Christine Swanton.

Rosalind Hursthouse is professor of philosophy at the University of Auckland. Like her mentors Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot, Hursthouse has been a pioneer of modern virtue ethics, devoting herself mainly to demonstrating the practical value of virtue ethics, something several early critics of virtue ethics had insisted was impossible. Especially noteworthy in this respect is Hursthouse’s article ‘Virtue Theory and Abortion’ (1991), where she argued that whereas most discussions of abortion focus on rights to make decisions regarding the foetus, virtue ethics observes that a decision made within one’s rights could still be callous, say, or cowardly. Such decisions, she argued, would be ethically problematic and potentially devastating for those making them, whatever the status of the foetus and the reproductive rights of women. Hursthouse’s emphasis on the practical nature of virtue ethics is also evident in her books Beginning Lives (1987) and Ethics, Humans, and Other Animals (2000), as well as in numerous articles. Hursthouse’s work is deeply grounded in the history of philosophy and especially in Aristotle’s ethics, on which she has written extensively. However, Hursthouse’s greatest single contribution to modern virtue ethics is her book On Virtue Ethics (1999). This book explores the structure of virtue ethics as a distinctive action-guiding theory, the relationship between virtue, the emotions and moral motivation, and the place of the virtues within an overall account of human flourishing. On Virtue Ethics also expands her well-known formulation of right action in terms of what a virtuous person would characteristically do. Hursthouse is the world’s best-known virtue ethicist working today.

Australian philosopher Justin Oakley is Associate Professor, Director of the Centre for Human Bioethics, and Deputy Head of the School of Philosophy and Bioethics at Monash University. Oakley’s research focusses on applied virtue ethics, particularly in bioethics and ethics for medical professionals. In addition to his many articles, his chief contribution to virtues-based professional ethics is his book Virtue Ethics and Professional Roles (2001), co-authored with Dean Cocking (Australian Defence Force Academy) and a leading book in the field of applied virtue ethics. This book focusses on the role of virtues in the relationships of professionals with clients, arguing that virtue ethics offers a compelling understanding of such issues as professional detachment and integrity. In an earlier book, Morality and the Emotions (1992), Oakley defended the Aristotelian thesis that moral goodness requires not only acting well but also having appropriate emotions about the right things and in the right way, and that virtue ethics is in a particularly good position to accommodate such a thesis.

New Zealander Christine Swanton is retired from philosophy at the University of Auckland, where she continues to lecture. Swanton’s chief contribution to modern virtue ethics is her book Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View (2003). Swanton understands a virtue to be a disposition of character to respond in a sufficiently appropriate way to those things with which it is characteristically concerned; an action is right when it is the or a best action with respect to the ‘target’ of a virtue (e.g. making others feel welcome is a target of the virtue of kindness). Modern virtue ethics has typically focussed on Aristotelian ethics and psychology, but Swanton also draws on a variety of other sources, including Kant, Nietzsche, and the mental health literature. Her view of the appropriate responses characteristic of virtues draws heavily upon the idea of psychological strength, and she argues that aspiring to a degree of virtue beyond one’s psychological strength can be both psychologically and morally ruinous. Accordingly, Swanton eschews idealised accounts of the virtues, and does not define right action in terms of the virtuous person. These themes also connect with her many papers on satisficing in normative ethics, the relation between virtue and psychological strength, and the virtue theories of Nietzsche and Hume. Swanton’s recent work has expanded into applied ethics, focussing on the relation between the virtues of character and virtues associated with particular professional roles.

A Companion to Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand

   by Graham Oppy, N. N. Trakakis