A recent article in ABC Religion by Steve Fuller described philosophy being “at the crossroads”. The article explores philosophy’s relationship to universities and what living a “philosophical life” really looks like.

Reading it, my mind whisked me back to some of my earliest days at The Ethics Centre. Before returning to Sydney I enjoyed the great good fortune to complete my doctorate at Cambridge – one of the great universities of the world. While there I mastered the disciplines of academic philosophy. However, I also learned the one lesson that my supervisor offered me at our first meeting – I should always “go for the jugular”. As it happens, I was quite good at drawing blood.

Perhaps this was a young philosopher’s sport because, as I grew older and read more deeply, I came to realise what I’d learned to do was not really consistent with the purpose and traditions of philosophy at all. Rather, I had become something of an intellectual bully – more concerned with wounding my opponents than with finding the ‘truth’ in the matter being discussed.

This realisation was linked to my re-reading of Plato – and his account of the figure of Socrates who, to this day, remains my personal exemplar of a great philosopher.

The key to my new understanding of Socrates lay in my realisation that, contrary to what I had once believed, he was not a philosophical gymnast deliberately trying to tie his interlocutors in knots (going for the jugular). Rather, he was a man sincerely wrestling, with others, some of the toughest questions faced by humanity in order to better understand them. What is justice? What is a good life? How are we to live?

The route to any kind of answer worth holding is incredibly difficult – and I finally understood (I was a slow learner) that Socrates subjected his own ideas to the same critical scrutiny he required of others.

In short, he was totally sincere when he said that he really did not know anything. All of his questioning was a genuine exploration involving others who, in fact, did claim to ‘know’. That is why he would bail up people in the agora (the town square) who were heading off to administer ‘justice’ in the Athenian courts. Surely, he would say, if you are to administer justice – then you must know what it is. As it turned out, they did not.

Surely, Socrates would say, if you are to administer justice – then you must know what it is. As it turned out, they did not.

The significance of Socrates’ work in the agora was not lost on me. Here was a philosopher working in the public space. The more I looked the more it seemed that this had been so for most of the great lovers of wisdom.

So that is what I set out to do.

One of my earliest initiatives was to head down to Martin Place, in the centre of Sydney, where I would set up a circle of 10 plastic chairs and two cardboard signs that said something like, “If you want to talk to a philosopher about ideas, then take a seat”. And there I would sit – waiting for others.

Without fail they would come – young, old, rich, poor – wanting to talk about matters that loomed large in their lives. I remember cyclists discussing their place on our roads, school children discussing their willingness to cheat in exams (because they thought the message of society is ‘do whatever it takes’).

Occasionally, people would come from overseas – having heard of this odd phenomenon. A memorable occasion involved a discussion with a very senior and learned rabbi from Amsterdam – the then global head (I think) of Progressive Judaism. On another occasion, a woman brought her mother (visiting from England) to discuss her guilt at no longer believing in God. I remember we discussed what it might mean to feel guilt in relation to a being you claimed not to exist. There were few answers – but some useful insights.

Anyway, I came to imagine a whole series of philosophers’ circles being dotted around Martin Place and other parts of Sydney (and perhaps Australia). After all, why should I be the only philosopher pursuing this aspect of the philosophical life. So I reached out to the philosophy faculty at Sydney University – thinking (naively as it turned out) I would have a rush of colleagues wishing to join me.

Alas – not one was interested. The essence of their message was that they doubted the public would be able to engage with ‘real philosophy’ – that the techniques and language needed for philosophy would be bewildering to non-philosophers. I suspect there was also an undeclared fear of being exposed to their fellow citizens in such a vulnerable position.

Actually, I still don’t really know what led to such a wholesale rejection of the idea.

However, I think it was a great pity other philosophers should have felt more comfortable within the walls of their universities rather than out in the wider world.

I doubt that anything I write or say will be quoted in the centuries to come. However, I would not, for a moment, change the choice I made to step outside of the university and work within the agora. Life then becomes messy and marvellous in equal measure. Everything needs to be translated into language anyone can understand (and I have found that this is possible without sacrificing an iota of philosophical nuance).

I think it was a great pity other philosophers should have felt more comfortable within the walls of their universities rather than out in the wider world.

You constantly need to challenge unthinking custom and practice most people simply take for granted. This does not make you popular. You are constantly accused of being ‘unethical’ because you entertain ideas one group or another opposes. You please almost nobody. You cannot aim to be liked. And you have to deal with the rawness of people’s lives – discovering just how much the issues philosophers consider (especially in the field of ethics) really matter.

This is not to say that ‘academic’ philosophy should be abandoned. However, I can see no good reason why philosophers should think this is the only (or best) way to be a philosopher. Surely, there is room (and a need) for philosophers to live larger, more public lives.

You constantly need to challenge unthinking custom and practice most people simply take for granted. This does not make you popular.

I have scant academic publications to my name. However, at the height of the controversy surrounding the introduction of ethics classes for children not attending scripture in NSW, I enjoyed the privilege of being accused of “impiety” and “corrupting the youth” (by the Anglican and Catholic Archbishops of Sydney). Why a ‘privilege’? Because these were precisely the same charges alleged against Socrates. So far, I have avoided the hemlock. For a philosopher, what could be better than that?

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