From The Matrix to Euphoria, writer, philosopher and poet Joseph Earp has profiled some of the greatest philosophers, TV shows, films, music and pop culture moments to date, discussing what they can tell us about ourselves and the world. 

Which is why we’re excited to share we’ve recently appointed Joseph as an Ethics Centre Fellow. Currently undertaking his PhD at The University of Sydney, studying the work of David Hume, we sat down with Joseph for a brief get-to-know-you chat to discuss ethics, his favourite philosophers, and the role of pop culture in society.

Tell us, what attracted you to becoming a philosopher?

You learn the language of institutional philosophy by reading it, and – as long as your financial and geographical circumstances allow for it – by studying it in an academic setting. But the central questions that drive philosophical work are innate to almost all people, regardless of academic study.

I am a pragmatist, so I don’t believe that philosophers hold insight that stretches beyond the understanding of those who haven’t studied the discipline. As philosophers, we are merely using a certain vocabulary to ask our questions. I grew to love that vocabulary in my late twenties through university study, under the guidance of my honours and PhD supervisor, Anik Waldow and those academics I studied closely with throughout my undergraduate degree. Most notably, these academics include Caroline West, who I believe to be one of our country’s most unique, inspired, and challenging thinkers – even and especially as I disagree with her – and David Macarthur. My study with these people is what drew me to being a philosopher in the strictest sense. But I think we philosophers are, thankfully, just doing what everyone else is doing.

Do you specialise in any key areas?

Generally, I write about popular culture, emotion, and virtue ethics, but my key area of specialisation is the philosophy of sex. I think that we sadly retain, in many cultures, a suspicion and fear of sex – one that infringes on our ability to self-describe and live our most flourishing lives.

I often think of a story about Pablo Picasso. Towards the end of his life, he was so rich and famous that he could draw any object in the world, whether it be a Ferrari or a mansion, and his drawing would be worth more than the object itself. He could sell a sketch of an object, and use the accrued capital to buy that object – which is a way of saying he could create changes by charting what he felt had already changed. It seems to me that’s the potential, and the potential harm, of philosophical thinking. We construct the world by calling it what we think it is, and for a long time, our views on sexuality have created a world that contains a lot of fear and sexual repression, both internally and externally maintained.

Your honours thesis focuses on emotional contagion. What place does emotion have when it comes to ethics?

Personally, I think it’s emotion all the way down when it comes to ethics, as with most things. David Hume is the philosopher that much of my work has operated in the framework of, and I agree with Hume that when we talk about “rationality” – a word that is sometimes conceived as being opposed to emotion – we are really just talking about a certain kind of emotional work.  

What have you been working on this year?

One of the most profound experiences of both my intellectual and personal life has been connecting with a community of thinkers whom I met largely through my university work – all of them world-class philosophers, some of them write for, and work with, the Ethics Centre; and some of them no longer consider themselves strictly philosophers at all. In particular, Georgia Fagan, Danielle Turnbull, Finola Laughren, Eleanor Gordon-Smith, Grace Sharkey, Oscar Sannen, Mitch Flitcroft, Alexi Barnstone, Elle Lewis, Mitchell Stirzaker, Henry Barlow, Zach Wilkinson, Finn Bryson, and Henry Hulme.  

All of these people have work that you can, and should, find online through an easy Google search, and work which I believe in every case benefits the world, and drives real change. What else is philosophy for? I am continually astonished by the intellect and bravery of these collaborators and friends. I consider myself useless without them. When I think about the real work that I have done this year, it is not anything I have written, but conversations with these people, and the ways I have learnt from them. 

Do you have a favourite philosopher or writer?

Hume is the philosopher whose writing I know best, but I believe the thinker you apply the greatest amount of study to is usually the one who you have the strangest, most frequently frustrated relationship with. So my favourite – as in, the philosopher who serves as the background to almost all of what I think and do, and who I have the most uncomplicated connection to – is the pragmatist Richard Rorty. It’s Rorty who cuts through the chaff by asking, again and again, one of the simplest questions: what is the real-world application of our work? And it’s Rorty who tells us that we should remember we can make ourselves whoever we want to be. 

Your writing covers a lot of tv series, films and music. Why is pop culture important?

Again – it’s Rorty. Rorty believed that social change isn’t led by philosophers, particularly those analytic philosophers who consider their work to be sorting through “falsehoods” and “truths”. For Rorty, philosophers inspire prophets and poets, and prophets and poets are the ones who do the work of change. That is, for me, the importance of pop culture. That form of art is guided by philosophical questions, and led by prophets and poets, and represents a way of understanding a culture and a vocabulary. It’s how lives are changed, and possibilities for self-description are opened up

What are you reading, watching or listening to at the moment?

The poetry collection The Cipher, by Molly Brodak, a writer who means a great deal to me; the pornographic film Corruption by perennial sadsack and visionary Roger Watkins, which I try to return to every month or so; and the song ‘Lark’ by Angel Olsen, often enough that I should probably take a break. 

Let’s finish up close to home. What does ethics mean to you?

We all play the game of ethics, and we all want to play it better, and we’ll never play it well. That, in fact, is the joy – the trying, and the starting again.