Big Thinker: Judith Jarvis Thomson

Judith Jarvis Thomson (1929-2020) is one of the most influential ethicists and metaphysicians of the 20th century. She’s known for changing the conversation around abortion, as well as modernising what we now know as the trolley problem.

Thomson was born in New York City on October 4th, 1929. Her mother was Catholic of Czech heritage and her father was Jewish,  who both met at a socialist summer camp. While her parents were religious, they didn’t impose their beliefs on her.  

At the age of 14, Thomson converted to Judaism, after her mother died and her father remarried a Jewish woman two years later. As an adult, she wasn’t particularly religious but she did describe herself publicly as “feel[ing] concern for Israel and for the future of the Jewish people.”   

In 1950, Thomson graduated from Barnard College with a Bachelor of Arts (BA), majoring in philosophy, and then received a second BA in philosophy from Cambridge University in England in 1952. She then went on to receive her Masters in philosophy from Cambridge in 1956 and her PhD in philosophy from Columbia University in New York in 1959.   

Violinists, trolleys and philosophical work

Even though she had received her PhD from Columbia, the philosophy department wouldn’t keep her as a professor as they didn’t hire women. In 1962, she began working as an assistant professor at Barnard college, though she later moved to Boston University and then MIT with her husband, James Thomson, for the majority of her career.  

Thomson is most famous for her thought experiments, especially the violinist case and the trolley problem. In 1971, Thomson published her book A Defense of Abortion, which presented a new kind of argument for why abortions are permissible during a time of heightened debate in the US as a result of the second wave feminist movement. Arguments that defended a woman’s right to an abortion circulated feminist publications and eventually led to the Supreme Court ruling in favour of Roe v. Wade (1973) 

“Opponents of abortion commonly spend most of their time establishing that the foetus is a person, and hardly any time explaining the step from there to the impermissibility of abortion.” – Judith Jarvis Thomson

The famous violinist case asks us to imagine if it is permissible to “unplug” ourselves from a famous violinist, even if it is only for nine months and being plugged in is the only thing keeping them alive. As Thomas Nagel said, she expresses very clearly the essentially negative character of the right to life, which is that it’s a right not to be killed unjustly, and not a right to be provided with everything necessary for life.” To this day, the violinist case is taught in classrooms and recognised as one of the most influential thought experiments arguing for the permissibility of abortion.  

Thomson is famous for another famous thought experiment, the trolley problem. In her 1976 paper “Killing, Letting Die and the Trolley Problem,” Judith Jarvis Thomson articulates a famous thought experiment, first imagined by Philippa Foot, that encourages us to think about the moral relevance of killing people, as opposed to letting people die by doing nothing to save them.  

In the trolley problem thought experiment, a runaway trolley will kill five innocent people unless someone pulls a lever. If the lever is pulled, the trolley will divert onto a different track and only one person will die. As an extension to Foot’s argument, Thomson asks us to think if there is something different about pushing a large man off a bridge, thereby killing him, to prevent five people from dying from the runaway trolley. Why does it feel different to pull a lever rather than push a person? Both have the same potential outcomes and distinguish between killing a person and letting a person die.

In the end, what Thomson finds is that oftentimes, the action as well as the outcome are morally relevant in our decision making process.  

Legacy

Thomson’s extensive philosophical career hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2012, she was awarded the American Philosophical Association’s prestigious Quinn Prize for her “service to philosophy and philosophers.” In 2015, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Cambridge, and then in 2016 she was awarded another honorary doctorate from Harvard.   

Thomson continues to inspire women in philosophy. As one of her colleagues, Sally Haslanger, says: “she entered the field when only a tiny number of women even considered pursuing a career in philosophy and proved beyond doubt that a woman could meet the highest standards of philosophical excellence … She is the atomic ice-breaker for women in philosophy.” 


Big Thinker: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Committed to individualism and credited as the father of transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was an American essayist, lecturer, philosopher and poet.  

Initially on a path to follow his father’s footsteps and serve in the Christian ministry, Emerson attended Harvard’s Divinity School to become a pastor. But as time went on and he delved deeper into his religious studies, he realised an unignorable sense of detachment and divergence from the traditional religious values he was immersed in. And so he left the Second Unitarian Church and decided to forge his own path.  

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

Emerson’s influential career began with public lectures in Boston that would inspire some of his most renowned essays and ideas. His lectures centred on human culture, English literature, biography and philosophy. He was known for popularising the major movement known as transcendentalism.  

The Father of Transcendentalism  

“Transcendental” was initially coined by philosopher Immanuel Kant in his theory of transcendental idealism. It’s a theory of perception that holds space and time, along with our five senses, are all subjective experiences and don’t exist outside of the human experience.  

Even though Kant coined the term, Emerson is regarded as the father of transcendentalism.  

Emerson’s transcendentalism, which became one of America’s first literature and philosophical movements, holds that we ought to be doubtful of knowledge we get from our five senses or even logic and reason; the only trustworthy source of knowledge manifests itself in our personal intuition and self-revelations. 

In one of his first lectures, “The Uses of Natural History”, Emerson planted the initial seed for the movement when he explained science as something innately human. He emphasised nature to be an extension of one’s self: “the whole of Nature is a metaphor or image of the human mind.”  

His book-length 1836 essay “Nature” is what officially and explicitly defined transcendentalism.   

In essence, transcendentalists believe nature is paramount: all their ideals are rooted in the natural world. They believe all things are inherently good, humans and nature alike. In much the same way, transcendentalists see the divinity – the “God” – in everything and everyone. As Emerson wrote, “I am part or particle of God.” Transcendentalists also believe in the human potential for achieving greatness and genius. 

Emerson is responsible for introducing a number of people to metaphysical concepts for the first time. A group he helped found in the late 1830’s called the Transcendental Club had dangerous conversations that critiqued societal institutions of the time, such as organised religion and slavery. Its members included prominent thinkers of the time, like Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, and allowed a space for transcendentalist ideas to grow.  

Self-Reliance

As the title of one of his most famous essays, “Self-Reliance” describes one of his principal philosophies: relying solely on ourselves. Emerson’s transcendentalism has been equated to romantic individualism because of his emphasis on the self. For understanding and greatness, Emerson believed we ought only to rely on ourselves and trust our intuition. In fact, he believed the only thing separating the common person from “greatness” is that the “greats” have the gall to admit precisely what they’re feeling when they feel it. As humans, much of our experiences and emotions are shared, and Emerson saw beauty in such commonalities.  

At the same time, he cited conformity as a major barrier to achieving greatness. He thought we should be comfortable and proud of being distinctly ourselves. He praised individuality and the pursuit of achieving “an original relation to the universe” by tuning inwards.   

The key to unlocking genius is listening to what Emerson called our “creative insight”. He felt such insight was decidedly divine, God’s way of individually speaking to us. This insight is necessary for anyone to accomplish anything meaningful, and so Emerson encouraged everyone to trust their own creative insight over societal ones. Listening to our divinity, our creative insight, yields a life lived authentically. 

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

It’s these transcendentalist ideologies that would eventually inspire philosopher Henry David Thoreau to reject society and go into the woods in order “to live deliberately and front only the essential facts of life”. And that same line of thinking is what inspired Christopher McCandless, an infamous American adventurer, to abandon family and escape to Fairbanks, Alaska in the 1990s. His story of living in the solitude of wilderness was later popularised in the film and novel Into the Wild.     

Although some find wisdom and beauty in Emerson’s fierce admiration of solitude and complete rejection of groupthink, others see privilege in his ideals. Not everyone is able to exercise free will; not everyone can afford to stray from the norm and escape their social circumstances. And so to some, his ideas are lofty and unattainable, less you have the power of class and money on your side.  

Beyond privilege, others see selfishness in his philosophies. By tuning inwards and considering only our own needs and desires, what is lost? What might we sacrifice when we neglect those around us? When we disregard even our loved ones? And yet, Emerson never said anything definitively: 

“But it is the fault of our own rhetoric that we cannot strongly state one fact without seeming to belie some other. I hold our actual knowledge is very cheap.”


Five Australian female thinkers who have impacted our world

In a world where some women still struggle to have their voices heard, there are many female thinkers whose contributions throughout history have impacted our thinking today. This International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating five influential Australian philosophers, activists, academics and thinkers who have shaped our ethical landscape and beyond.  

 

Kate Manne

Kate Manne (1983-present) is an Australian philosopher best known for her feminist, moral and social philosophies, and her work around misogyny and masculine entitlement. Notably, instead of thinking of misogyny as hatred for women, Manne redefines the word and focuses on its systematic nature, specifically in how law enforcement polices women and girls to uphold gender norms.

To illustrate masculine entitlement, Manne coined the term “himpathy”, which explains “the disproportionate … sympathy extended to a male perpetrator over his  less privileged, female targets in cases of sexual assault, harassment, and other misogynistic behaviour.” She took a deep dive into this idea in her 2020 book Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women and critiqued Justice Kavanaugh’s appointment to the US Supreme Court, despite allegations of sexual assault, as himpathy” in action.

 

Marcia Langton 

Marcia Langton (1951-present) is considered one of Australia’s top academics, anthropologists and geographers. As the greatgreatgranddaughter of survivors of the frontier massacres and a Yiman person, Langton uses her influential platform to advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. When her great aunt Celia Smith, an organiser of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, convinced her to work with the council in 1967, Langton was launched into her outspoken career of Aboriginal activism.

Since, she’s worked on vital pieces of research and legislation impacting Indigenous people and has held the Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at University of Melbourne since 2000. More recently, she’s worked on the Voice to Parliament that would recognise First Peoples in the Constitution, permitting them “to have a say in the legislation that affects their lives.” To her, upholding Indigenous knowledge and rights goes beyond environmental preservation: It’s cultural preservation.

 

Veena Sahajwalla

Veena Sahajwalla (undisclosed-present) is an Australian scientist, inventor and professor. Named one of Australia’s 100 most influential engineers in 2015 and one of the 100 most innovative in 2016, Sahajwalla is putting New South Wales on a path to a net zero carbon, circular economy. Nicknamed “Queen of Waste”, she’s worked to repurpose everything from old clothes to beer bottles and abandoned mattresses. Growing up in Mumbai, India, she was introduced to the art of recycling through waste-pickers.

Her most famous invention, “Green Steel”, replaces coking coal in steel production with old, shredded tyres. The process is much less carbon-intensive and prevents 2 million tyres from hitting the landfill each year. This, in addition to her numerous other achievements – such as being councillor on the Australian Climate Council and opening the world’s first e-waste microfactory on the University of New South Wales’s campus – led to her being named Australian of the Year in 2022

 


Germaine Greer

Germaine Greer (1939-present) is a writer and regarded one of the major voices of the radical feminism movement in the latter half of the 20th century. Born in Melbourne, her 1970 book, The Female Eunuch, made her a household name where she argued the expectation for women to be feminine – in the clothes they wear, in marriage, in having a nuclear family – is what represses them. And so she calls for liberation, for revolution, because this repression cultivates political inaction.

Since then, she’s written several other books on feminism, literature and the environment. Of all her ideas and claims, she holds that freedom is the most dangerous, though critics say otherwise. Some of Greer’s views of have created controversy, including her views on gender binaries and expressions, rape and the #MeToo movement. While her audacious language, beliefs and controversy have cultivated furore at times, Greer remains a prominent participant in intellectual discourse and debate.  

 

Val Plumwood

Val Plumwood (1939-2008) was an Australian philosopher, activist and ecofeminist. Her work focused on anthropocentrism and discouraging the idea that humans are superior to and separate from nature. This “standpoint of mastery”, as she called it, legitimised the “othering” of the natural world, which included women, indigenous and non-humans.

She experienced a major paradigm shift that coloured her opposition to anthropocentrism after she was attacked by a crocodile while canoeing alone at Kakadu National Park. She couldn’t believe such a thing was happening to her, a human. She went from being top of the food chain to part of it, having “no more significance than any other edible being.” To Plumwood, the flawed mindset of only human life mattering is the root of our planet’s degradation. She proposed nurturing the natural world for nature’s own good instead of our own, famously questioning, “Is there a need for a new, an environmental, ethic – an ethic of nature?”


9 LGBTQIA+ big thinkers you should know about

In celebration of Sydney World Pride and Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, we’ve profiled nine notable thinkers who have contributed to our understanding of gender, sexuality and identity in some way. Whether navigating such spaces themselves or contributing to prominent research in the field, these figures have propelled public awareness of LGBTQIA+ issues in a meaningful way.

 

Michael Foucault (he/him)

Michael Foucault (1926-1984) was a daring, outspoken French philosopher, historian and psychologist. Much of his work was concerned with power and the random, coincidental ways in which big ideas and movements manifest in public consciousness. He explored the idea of sexuality in great extent and the modern fixation to define it and attribute sexual relations to an identity. To him, such definitions and labels effectively other parts of the population whose sexual behaviours are seen as deviant from the norm, even though evidence of same sex relations is present throughout human history.

Foucault thoroughly explored these ideas in his study, The History of Sexuality. He did not believe sexuality could be definitively defined – and any attempt to define it, in his eyes, constrained the mobility of human sexuality, which he believed ought to be fluid. Foucault’s provocative ideas and the content of The History of Sexuality laid the foundation for what Teresa de Lauretis would later call “queer theory”.

 

Judith Butler (they/them)

Judith Butler (1954-present) is an American activist whose writings and philosophies colour their commitment to radical equality. They are best known for writing Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, which is widely considered a founding text of queer theory. In the world-renowned book, Butler rejects the stance that gender equals biology, instead viewing gender as a product of behaviours and self-expression. To them, gender is produced by performance and is the root of their idea of “gender performativity”.

To eliminate any confusion on its definition, Butler explains that “We are formed through gender assignment, gender norms and expectations. But we’re not trapped. We can work and play with them [and] open-up spaces that feel better or more real for us.”

 

Audre Lorde (she/her)

Professionally a poet, professor and philosopher, Audre Lorde (1934-1992) also proudly carried the titles of intersectional feminist, civil rights activist, mother, socialist, “Black, lesbian [and] warrior.” She is also the woman behind the popular manifesto “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Lorde’s self-expression and personal philosophy has became one of the greatest contributions to the discourse on discrimination and equality today. By offering an authentic depiction of the female, queer and Black experience, she portrayed the good, the bad and the complex. She felt academic discourse on feminism was white and heterosexual centric, lacking consideration of the lived realities so she put the stories of these women at the centre of her literature. An advocate for difference amongst human beings, Lorde’s difference was key to helping eradicate discrimination and moving forward in unity.

 

Raewyn Connell (she/her) 

Raewyn Connell (1944-present) is an Australian sociologist. Born in Sydney, she approaches her research work with what she calls “southern theory”. Essentially, this perspective gives space to the global south’s backgrounds, which are often overshadowed by northern narratives. Connell was initially recognised for her research on class dynamics, exploring how class and power are inextricably linked and thus defined class as a social structure. This social framework propelled Connell into the realm of sexuality, which she also viewed as a social structure. Exploring how class influences and shapes gender, she understood gender as multi-dimensional and subject to change; something far beyond a mere aspect of our social identity.

In Masculinities – one of her most famous works — Connell coined the term “hegemonic masculinity”, which is the most dominant and socially celebrated version of a man. Though best known for her work in male studies, she explained that “my theoretical concern was the gender order as a whole; masculinity was one piece of the jigsaw. Additionally, she’s written about her experience as a trans woman, gender equality, poverty, AIDS prevention and education.

 

Dennis Altman (he/him)

Dennis Altman (1943-present) is an Australian queer thinker and professor of politics at La Trobe University. His 1971 book, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, kickstarted his outstanding career that eventually led The Bulletin to name him one of the 100 most influential Australians. He primarily pondered the differences between radical gay activists who question heteronormative frameworks versus the tamer gay equality activists who demanded space in such frameworks. As time went on, Altman’s predictions of the normalisation of homosexuality laid out in his 1971 book proved correct. And though such advancements are certainly ones to celebrate, part of Altman mourns the radical roots of gay liberation.

For his complete support of gay rights, his opposition of same sex marriage might come as a surprise, but not if you consider the fact that he opposes marriage of any kind. In rejecting “the assumption that there is only one way of living a life”, Altman never married his partner of twenty years. He vehemently stands by the “equal right not to marry and refuses to seek permission from the state and religious bodies that don’t want to sanction same sex relationships.

 

Susan Sontag (she/her)

Susan Sontag (1933-2004) was a relentless and prolific writer, philosopher, playwright, filmmaker and activist. She obsessively pursued the truth and had the courage to express it, no matter how unpalatable. To her, “All understanding begins with our not accepting the world as it appears.” Sontag’s first notable work, Notes on “Camp”, is what propelled her into the public eye, especially after it appeared in Time Magazine. Best known for detailing modern culture and aesthetics, her work expanded definitions of the word “camp” – for instance, using it to define works of art when they fail at being serious.

Her extremely publicised divorce from sociologist and cultural critic Philip Rieff in 1957 forced her into the public eye and involuntarily exposed her sexuality. Rather famously, after that event, she never formally came out as lesbian or bisexual. On this, in an interview with the New Yorker, she said, “That I have had girlfriends as well as boyfriends is what? Is something I never thought I was supposed to say since it seems to me the most natural thing in the world.”

 

Natalie Wynn (she/her) 

Natalie Wynn (1988-present) is an American, Baltimore-based YouTube personality whose work aims to educate via theatrical entertainment and humour. In a play-like fashion, Wynn plays different characters and wears complex costumes to try and voice all sides of an issue, from which the audience can draw their own conclusions. On her channel, ContraPoints (like counterarguments), she tries to make people think; and beyond that, she wants them to question why they think that way in the first place. Wynn questions, “What matters more: The way things are or the way things look?”

As a transgender woman, many of her videos tackle trans experience, sexuality and gender roles. Wynn principally tries to depolarise conversations that typically divide people and humanise those who are questioning their own identity and sexuality. She claims that “in a free society, different people will have lots of different sexual lifestyles,” and she uses her platform to give space to such lifestyles.

 

Masha Gessen (they/them) 

Masha Gessen (1967-present) is an unreserved, influential journalist, activist and author. Born in Russia, they relocated to America to realise greater sexual freedoms. Called “Russia’s leading LGBT rights activist” they have candidly discussed living in Russia as an openly gay person at the time – where homosexual propaganda is illegal and removing children from same sex households is possible.

Gessen has brought international queer issues into academic discourse to better understand the anti-queer movement, like that in Russia. They’ve blatantly critiqued Russia’s president Vladimir Putin since he was first elected and holds that former American president Donald Trump is “worse” than him. Gessen continues to expose injustices and Russia’s rise of LGBTQIA+ hate crimes in the wake of the state’s homophobia.

Alok Vaid-Menon (they/them) 

Alok Vaid-Menon (they/them) is an internationally acclaimed writer, comedian, poet, and public speaker whose work explores themes of trauma, belonging, and the human condition. Their 2020 book Beyond the Gender Binary has been described as a “clarion call for a new approach to gender in the 21st century.”

Their approach to fundamental and often violent clashes with peace and compassion can feel radically hopeful. Vaid-Menon says “I’m fighting for trans ordinariness… I want to be able to walk down the street wearing what I want without it having to be an event.”


Big Thinker: Kimberlé Crenshaw

Kimberlé Crenshaw (1959-present) is one of the most influential feminist philosophers of our time. She is known for her advocacy for American civil rights, being a leading scholar of critical race theory, and pioneering what we now know as the third wave of feminism.

Crenshaw was born in Ohio, US in 1959. As a child, she grew up through the US civil rights and second wave feminist movements, both which occured throughout the 1960s and 70s. This time of revolutionary movements towards equality influenced how Crenshaw was raised. 

“My mom was a little bit more radical and confrontational and my father was a little bit more Martin Luther King and ‘find common ground’. Which is probably why there are strains of both of those in my work.”

In 1984, Crenshaw graduated from Harvard Law School. At this time, there was only one woman and one Black professor of the 60 who were tenured. She is now a tenured professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and splits her time there with the Columbia School of Law in NYC. 

Where do race and gender meet?

“I argue that Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender.”

Crenshaw is most notable for coining the term “intersectionality,” which refers to the idea that when someone has multiple identities, it causes them to experience different and compounded forms of oppression. Rather than oppression being additive across multiple identities, intersectionality tells us that the experience of oppression will be multiplied. For example, a Black woman will experience discrimination because she is Black, because she is a woman, and also because she is a Black woman – which is a different kind of discrimination altogether. 

“Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.”

In the academic world, the term intersectionality debuted in Crenshaw’s 1989 paper Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. Many scholars would say that the publishing of this paper catalysed the third wave of feminism, which is characterised by advocates demanding a more wholistic type of equality for people of all genders, races, socioeconomic backgrounds, abilities, ages, and in all countries. 

Two years after the paper was published, Crenshaw assisted Professor Anita Hill’s legal team during Judge Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing to the US Supreme Court in October of 1991. In an interview with the Guardian, she reflects that the experience cemented the need for an intersectional theory of social justice. It was clear that “race was playing a role in making some women vulnerable to heightened patterns of sexual abuse [a]nd … anti-racism wasn’t very good at dealing with that issue.” 

Intersectionality finally appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015, where it is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

A founder of critical race theory

“You can’t fix a problem you can’t name.”

Crenshaw has also spent a large part of her academic career developing and writing about what is now known as critical race theory. In its purest form, critical race theory is a 40-year-old academic framework that concerns itself with defining and understanding the plethora of ways that race impacts American institutions and systems, and how American institutions and culture uphold racist ideals. Crenshaw’s own definition, however, is more of a verb than a noun. For her, critical race theory is “a way of seeing, attending to, accounting for, tracing and analysing the ways that race is produced.” 

One of the big cultural issues in the 21st century in America has been whether to teach critical race theory in public schools across the country. Parents and politicians across America have fought to remove what they think critical race theory is out of children’s education. They have argued that CRT is racist and teaches kids to “hate their own country.” Crenshaw now says she sees her work “as talking back against those who would normalise and neutralise intolerable conditions in our lives.” 

Where to now?

Crenshaw continues to educate and inspire the next generation by teaching classes in Advanced Critical Race Theory, Civil Rights, Intersectional Perspectives on Race, Gender and the Criminalization of Women & Girls, and Race, Law and Representation at UCLA. At Columbia, she continues to work on the AAPF and through the forum, co-authored a paper in 2015 with Andrea Richie entitled Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women

She regularly writes for a number of publications and provides commentary for the new outlets MSNBC and NPR. Crenshaw also hosts her own podcast Intersectionality Matters


Big Thinker: Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker (1954-present) is an experimental psychologist who is “interested in all aspects of language, mind, and human nature.” In 2021, Academic Influence calculated that he was the second-most influential psychologist in the world in the decade 2010-2020.

Steven Pinker is a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, psycholinguist, popular science author and public intellectual. He grew up in Montreal, earning his Bachelor’s degree in experimental psychology from McGill University and his PhD from Harvard University. He is currently the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard. 

At the start of his graduate studies, Pinker found himself interested in language, and in particular, language development in children. In 1994, he went on to publish the first of his nine books written for a general audience, entitled The Language Instinct. In the book, Pinker introduces the reader to some of the fundamental parts of language, and argues that language itself is an instinct that makes humans unique. 

Language, society and the mind

Try and have a thought without any language. It might be an idea or a memory that appears in your mind with no words or internal monologue. It’s quite difficult to switch off the voice in our heads for more than a few seconds. Pinker researches this connection between language and how our minds work. 

To date, Pinker is the author of nine books written for a general audience. He covers a wide range of topics and questions that get at the heart of how we learn languages and what this does to our minds. His book The Stuff of Thought (2007) looks at how language shapes the way we think. He begins by suggesting  that when we use language, we are doing two things: 

  1. Conveying a message to someone
  2. Negotiating the social relationship between ourselves and whoever we are speaking to  

For example, when a professor stands at the front of a lecture hall and tells her students “may I have your attention, class is about to begin” the professor is doing two things. First, she is alerting her students that class is starting (the message), and second, she is operating within the professor-student hierarchy (the social relationship) in which students should give their attention.  

Taking this framework for language, Pinker works to untangle some of the complicated questions around language, such as “Why do so many swear words involve topics like sex, bodily functions or the divine?” and “Why do some children’s names thrive while others fall out of favour?” 

Trends of today: is violence declining? 

Pinker’s academic interests and research extends beyond language. In 2011, he published The Better Angels of Our Nature, which makes the claim that violence in human societies has generally decreased steadily over time. 

Historical data from past centuries are far less complete, but the existing estimates of death tolls, when calculated as a proportion of the world’s population at the time, show at least nine atrocities before the 20th century (that we know of) which may have been worse than World War II.”

Violence in this case does not just mean war. Pinker also looks at collapsing empires, the slave trade, the murder of native peoples, treatment of children and religious persecution as acts of violence in the world. While it feels like we see and hear about a lot of violence today, he notes that it’s often because these are ‘newsworthy’ events. 

In the case of violence, you never see a reporter with a microphone and a sound truck in front of a high school announcing that the school has not been shot up today, or in an African capital noting that a civil war has not erupted.”

After establishing the trend of declining violence, he looks at historical factors that work to explain why we live in a less violent world. Some of these trends include increasing respect for women, the rise in technological progress, and more application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs. 

Current work

Steven Pinker’s work has received a number of prizes for his books, including the William James Book Prize three times, the Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize, the Eleanor Maccoby Book Prize, the Cundill Recognition of Excellence in History Award, and the Plain English International Award. He has also served as an editor and advisor for a variety of scientific, scholarly, media and humanist organisations.

Steven Pinker still spends his time researching a diverse array of topics in psychology, language, historical and recent trends in violence, and neurobiology. One specific area he is currently researching is the role of common knowledge (i.e., things that we know other people know without having to say what we know) in language and other social phenomena. 

Steven Pinker presents Enlightenment or Dark Age? as part of Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2022. Tickets on sale now.


Big Thinker: Joanna Bourke

Joanna Bourke (1963 – present) is an historian, academic and philosopher who specialises in understanding the history of social and cultural phenomena. Her work has profoundly shaped our understanding of many fundamental aspects of human experience. 

Joanna Bourke was born in New Zealand, and lived in Zambia, Solomon Island, and Haiti as a young child. She graduated from Auckland University with a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in history, and went on to complete her PhD at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. 

The dark parts of human experience

After writing her dissertation, titled Husbandry to Housewifery: Rural Women and Development in Ireland, 1890-1914 (1989), Bourke became interested in the experiences of men and women during wartime. Her work as a social and cultural historian has led her down a path of dealing with some of the less pleasant parts of being human, including topics such as pain, killing, war, violence, fear and rape. Bourke has been drawn to these elements of human experience because she feels that “these are the disciplines that have the most to offer us in terms of intellectual responses to current crises.”

Bourke’s book An Intimate History of Killing (1999) asks the question: what are the factors within society and in a war that turn a regular person into a good killer, or more politely, a good soldier? To answer her question, she uses excerpts from diaries, letters, memoirs and reports of Australian, British and American veterans of WWI, WWII and the Vietnam war. Bourke concludes that ordinary, gentle human beings can (and often do) become enthusiastic killers during a war because the structure of war encourages soldiers to feel pleasure from killing.

Some of her writing is also born out of personal experience. After a massive operation and a broken morphine drip, Bourke started thinking about pain and how difficult it is to describe in the English language. In her book The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers (2014), she concludes that it is useful to think about pain in adverbial terms” because “it describes the way we experience something, not what is experienced.” As well as tracing the history of pain from the 1800s to present, she also details how factors such as race, class, gender and age have influenced the medical treatment of pain and often resulted in cruel abuse and neglect.  

“Life’s too short for second editions.” 

Joanna Bourke’s academic interests are vast. She has written 13 books and published over 100 articles, often tackling controversial and taboo topics. 

In her recent book Loving Animals: On Beastiality, Zoophilia and Post Human Love (2020), Bourke argues that we should take a more nuanced approach to how we understand loving relationships between humans and non-human animals. When we take this more nuanced approach, Bourke finds that we are able to gain a clearer understanding of the nature of relationships, love and what we owe each other. 

I will be suggesting that animals are actors in society. This serves to challenge the anthropocentrism of history, human exceptionalism, and the idea that ‘culture’ is an entirely human preserve.”

Bourke begins by pointing out that “studies suggesting a link between bestiality and psychosis should be treated with caution due to sampling bias, because they were conducted on people already within the penal system, rather than a cross-section of the population.” She calls us to think about how we can so freely say that we love our pets, but turn a blind eye to slaughterhouses and factory farming. Bourke wants us to ask: what does it mean to love a non-human animal, and more broadly, what does it mean to love? 

When we remove human exceptionalism from our understanding of human-animal relationships (which Bourke urges that we must), we can begin to think more about what we owe animals and how moral attitudes such as care, compassion, affection and pleasure are not unique to human beings. 

Current work

Bourke is currently a professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London in England. She is also the Principal Investigator for a project called SHaME, or Sexual Harms and Medical Encounters. The project explores the medical and psychiatric aspects of sexual violence, with the aim of moving beyond the shame of sexual assault and address it as a global health crisis. 

Her newest book Disgrace: Global Reflections on Sexual Violence, which has been partially motivated by her work with SHaME, will be available for purchase in Australia on August 15.

 

Joanna Bourke presents The Last Taboo as part of Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2022. Tickets on sale now.


Big Thinker: Matthew Liao

Matthew Liao (1972 – present) is a contemporary philosopher and bioethicist. Having published on a wide range of topics, including moral decision making, artificial intelligence, human rights, and personal identity, Liao is best known for his work on the topic of human engineering.

At New York University, Liao is an Affiliate Professor in the Department of Philosophy, Director of the Center for Bioethics, and holds the Arthur Zitrin Chair of Bioethics. He is also the creator of Ethics Etc, a blog dedicated to the discussion of contemporary ethical issues.

A Controversial Solution to Climate Change

As the climate crisis worsens, a growing number of scientists have started considering geo-engineering solutions, which involves large-scale manipulations of the environment to curb the effect of climate change. While many scientists believe that geo-engineering is our best option when it comes to addressing the climate crisis, these solutions do come with significant risks.

Liao, however, believes that there might be a better option: human engineering.

Human engineering involves biomedically modifying or enhancing human beings so they can more effectively mitigate climate change or adapt to it.

For example, reducing the consumption of animal products would have a significant impact on climate change since livestock farming is responsible for approximately 60% of global food production emissions. But many people lack either the motivation or the will power to stop eating meat and dairy products.

According to Liao, human engineering could help. By artificially inducing mild intolerance to animal products, “we could create an aversion to eating eco-unfriendly food.”

This could be achieved through “meat patches” (think nicotine patches but for animal products), worn on the arm whenever a person goes grocery shopping or out to dinner. With these patches, reducing our consumption of meat and dairy products would no longer be a matter of will power, but rather one of science.

Alternatively, Liao believes that human engineering could help us reduce the amount of food and other resources we consume overall. Since larger people typically consume more resources than smaller people, reducing the height and weight of human beings would also reduce their ecological footprint.

“Being small is environmentally friendly.”

According to Liao, this could be achieved several ways for example, using technology typically used to screen embryos for genetic abnormalities to instead screen for height, or using hormone treatment typically used to stunt the growth or excessively tall children to instead stunt the growth of children of average height.

Reception

When Liao presented these ideas at the 2013 Ted Conference in New York, many audience members found the notion of wearing meat patches and making future generations smaller to be amusing. However, not everyone found these ideas humorous.

In response to a journal article Liao co-authored on this topic, philosopher Greg Bognar wrote that the authors were doing themselves and their profession a disservice by not adequately considering the feasibility or real cost of human engineering.

Although making future generations smaller would reduce their ecological footprint, it would take a long time for the benefits of this reduction in average height and weight to accrue. In comparison, the cost of making future generations smaller would be borne now.

As Bognar argues, current generations would need to devote significant resources to this effort. For example, if future generations were going to be 15-20cm shorter than current generations, we would need to begin redesigning infrastructure. Homes, workplaces and vehicles would need to be smaller too.

Liao and his colleagues do, however, recognise that devoting time, money, and brain power to pursuing human engineering means that we will have fewer resources to devote to other solutions.

But they argue that “examining intuitively absurd or apparently drastic ideas can be an important learning experience, and that failing to do so could result in our missing out on opportunities to address important, often urgent issues.”

While current generations may resent having to bear the cost of making future generations more environmentally friendly, perhaps it is a cost that we must bear.

Liao says, “We are the cause of climate change. Perhaps we are also the solution to it.”


Big Thinker: Sally Haslanger

Sally Haslanger (1955-present) is one of the most influential feminist philosophers in contemporary philosophy. She is one of the pioneers of social philosophy and works to make the field of philosophy more inclusive.

She has some interesting life experiences, to say the least. Haslanger was born in 1955 in Connecticut, but moved to Los Angeles in 1963, where Jim Crow laws legalising racial segregation were still in effect. Moving from an unsegregated to a segregated part of the US as a child had an impact on her philosophical interests.  

Her mother and grandmother were Christian Scientists, a small sect of Christianity that doesn’t believe in modern medicine, and she grew up attending their church. Later, her family moved to Texas where she attended an Episcopal boarding school, and started college before she had finished high school.  

In a Q&A with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( MIT), Haslanger says that her interest in feminist philosophy was catalysed when she was sexually assaulted as an undergraduate student at Reed University. Afterwards, she became involved in feminist activism, especially during her time as a graduate student at University of California, Berkeley. Later in life, she and her husband adopted and raised two African-American children. Haslanger says that these life experiences have played an important role in directing her philosophical interests.  

 

What is race? What is gender?

While these seem like straightforward questions, Haslanger has spent a large part of her academic career trying to answer them. Race and gender are categories that allow us to group people in particular ways, predominantly based on physical characteristics. However, she doesn’t believe that the categories of race and gender refer to just physical characteristics, they also refer to social positions. Social positions refer to where someone fits into their society: they could be in a privileged position or a more marginalised one.  

On my view,she said, both race and gender are social positions that individuals occupy by virtue of their body being interpreted a certain way.”

In 2000, Haslanger published what is now one of her most well-known and controversial papers: Gender and Race: (What) are they? (What) do we want them to be? In her paper, one of the things she tried to do is find a characteristic that all women have or experience. The characteristic she finds and defends in her paper is systematic subordination. On Haslanger’s view, to be a woman is to occupy a lower position in society because of the way that her body is interpreted by others.  

Her definition sparked controversy amongst transgender rights activists. Some people identify as women, but are not necessarily perceived by society as women. Haslanger’s definition of a woman excludes these people, namely, trans women who have not yet transitioned.   

Since the paper was published, Haslanger has taken on a lot of the criticism and worked to make her definition more inclusive. However, she still holds that gender and race refer to more than physical characteristics; they also refer to positions within society.  

 

Advocacy and inclusivity

Haslanger feels strongly about promoting feminist causes outside of the field of philosophy. During the 2016 US presidential election, she wrote about some of the ways Hillary Clinton’s campaign was being undermined by sexism. 

“As long as ‘being presidential’ and ‘looking presidential’ are about being and looking masculine, we will be unable to address what is ripping [the US] apart as a country.”

Within the field of philosophy, she is a strong advocate for inclusivity and making the field a more inviting space for women and people of colour. Now, as a philosophy professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Haslanger predominantly teaches courses in social and political philosophy, feminist philosophy, philosophy of race, and history of philosophy.  

To boost participation from traditionally underrepresented groups in philosophy, Haslanger worked to create a summer program alongside a few other philosophers in 2014. Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institute (PIKSI) creates a space for underrepresented undergraduate students to work in more formal areas of philosophy (such as logic and metaphysics) or in areas that may be seen as less important and rigorous (such as the philosophy of gender and race).  

Haslanger is also the founder of the Women in Philosophy Task Force (WPHTF), which is a group of women who work to coordinate initiatives and intensify the efforts to advance women in philosophy.  

“Philosophers spend a lot of time worrying about the mind: what is it? How does the mind relate to the body? They can hardly get a handle on the mind, so the social is completely out of reach. I’m a little impatient. I’m not going to wait until the mind is figured out to figure out the social world.”MIT Q&A

Sally Haslanger has had a considerable impact on inclusivity in philosophy. Her work has encouraged philosophers and activists to investigate and question what we thought we could take to be truths about race and gender. Her work today continues to facilitate important discussions on how society functions and what we might be able to do to make it more equitable.  


Big Thinker: Tyson Yunkaporta

Tyson Yunkaporta is a researcher, arts critic, poet, and traditional wood carver. He works as a senior lecturer in Indigenous Knowledges and is the founder of the Indigenous Knowledge Systems Lab at Deakin University.

A scholar of free-ranging ideas

Yunkaporta is not your typical academic. In a recent interview, he said: 

“I try to avoid naming anything. And I try to avoid making too much sense, and I try to say things a bit differently every time and to mix it up. And I’ll make points that you can’t put together. I do that quite deliberately because I don’t want the things I’m thinking or working on to become an ideology or a brand, or something that people can use as a name… you’ve got to avoid that packaging and repackaging of ideas and let these things be free-range.” 

Yunkaporta tries to keep his writing and discussions “free-range” because he doesn’t want to give complex ideas or concepts an “artificial simplicity.” 

According to Yunkaporta, when we simplify complex ideas, they can become easily distorted or manipulated and the original intention behind them can become lost. But more problematically, when we simplify complex ideas, we fail to see how they connect to the larger patterns of creation at work. 

“There is a pattern to the universe and everything in it.”  

Nothing is really created or destroyed, it merely moves and changes. When we start to pay attention to the way that things move and change, and take note of the patterns that they make, we gain a better understanding of the world around us. 

This is important, Yunkaporta states, because future survival of all life on this planet will be dependent on humans being able to perceive and be the custodians of the patterns of creation again.” 

Indigenous thinking can save the world

Yunkaporta’s recent book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, is all about identifying and learning from the patterns of creation.  

Sand Talk has sometimes been described as an exercise in “reverse-anthropology”, because rather than looking at Indigenous knowledge systems and practices from a Western perspective, Yunkaporta examines Western knowledge systems and practices from an Indigenous perspective.  

He is careful about what knowledge he shares in the process, explaining that symbolic knowledge is often restricted (for example, by age or birth order) or is only appropriate for a specific places or groups (for example, members of particular clans). 

However, he shares enough to help his readers start to recognise patterns in the world around them and to “come into Aboriginal ways of thinking and knowing, as a framework for the understandings needed in the co-creation of sustainable systems.”  

Although Yunkaporta believes that sustainable systems cannot be manufactured by individuals (this is something that we must undertake collectively), he does think that each of us plays an important role as an agent of sustainability. 

Agents of sustainability have four main protocols or guidelines, according to Yunkaporta: diversify, connect, interact, and adapt.  

These guidelines tell us that we should diversify our interactions, so that we engage with people and systems that are dissimilar to ourselves and what we’re used to.  

We should also aim to expand the networks of people that we currently engage with, so that we connect with as many new people and engage with as many new systems as we can.  

Through these connections, we should also share knowledge, energy, and resources. But most importantly, we should allow ourselves to be transformed by the knowledge, energy and resources that are shared with us.  

Ironically, Yunkaporta believes that frameworks are nothing more than “window dressing.”  Yet, as he himself highlights, the four main protocols for sustainability agents are a kind of framework for sustainability.  

This contradiction is, however, just part of Yunkaporta’s style. He describes his work as a “free-range ramble that should never be taken at face value.” 

He writes to provoke thought and reflection in his audience, not to give them all the answers. After all, he muses, “perhaps the worst possible outcome of this work would be civilisation embracing these ideas.”