Philosophy in action

Daniel Stacey mounts a defence of his favourite subject.

By Bec Crew

Image of Daniel Stacey

Like most Sydney graduates, Daniel Stacey (BA Hon ’05) will never forget his favourite teacher. Describing the classes of Professor Paul Redding from the Department of Philosophy as nothing short of transformative, Stacey was appalled to find the research of his former honours supervisor very publicly targeted by the Coalition’s Scrutiny of Government Waste Committee last September.

“The Coalition would look to targeting those ridiculous research grants that leave taxpayers scratching their heads wondering just what the Government was thinking,” said head of the Committee, Federal MP Jamie Briggs, singling out Professor Redding’s Australian Research Council (ARC) project, The God of Hegel’s Post-Kantian idealism, as one of the worst offenders.

Stacey, the Editor of ABC Radio National Online, took to his regular column on Fairfax’s Daily Life website to discuss just how valuable philosophical research and education have been to him in his professional life, and also to those of our most influential politicians and leaders – including Tony Abbott himself.

What prompted you to write the article?

I wanted to talk about my personal experiences of studying philosophy, its practical applications, and its importance to intellectual and political life.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is himself from an intellectual background. In his autobiography, Battlelines, and in profiles like David Marr’s essay Political Animal, it’s clear that [Australian political activist and journalist] B A Santamaria’s modern compassionate Catholicism, as well as the Thatcherite economic theory Abbott was exposed to at Oxford, have both played a large role in defining his political outlook. Both these strands draw from a rich tradition of Western Philosophy. Margaret Thatcher herself drew heavily on economist philosophers like Friedrich Hayek.

There will always be a need for philosophy. In a hypothetical universe where philosophy as a discipline was erased, it would regenerate pretty well immediately. Smart people would find themselves facing intractable problems in trying to run modern states, modern businesses, and in navigating their everyday lives. They would set up institutes and think tanks to solve these problems. Those groups would run in to bigger problems, and they would set up philosophy departments to solve them.

That is pretty well, on the back of a napkin, how many universities were established, as existing religious orders (Oxford) and legal schools (Bologna) outgrew their original purpose. Renaissance thinking likewise encouraged rulers to consider a thirst for knowledge as something that enriched the whole of society, and so to fund universities. Nothing much has changed, and that these values remain enshrined in the ARC grant system should surprise no one.

How did your time at university prepare you for your career?

After finishing my honours thesis under Professor Redding, I moved to London and started a publishing business. Philosophy gave me the confidence to look at problems across a range of fields, from fine-tuning the ideas of writers and other contributors to the magazine we published, to pitching for business and developing major creative projects with partners like the Victoria & Albert Museum and Channel 4. I also reviewed literature for The Australian across Europe, and associate produced the Emmy Award-winning film Saddam’s Road to Hell, which was later used as evidence against deposed president Hussein in his trial for human rights abuses.

Philosophy trains you to think critically, and to be confident exploring new subject areas. At the same time, it forces you to express yourself as clearly as possible.

Philosophy is misunderstood by a large part of the population and unfairly victimised. It doesn’t seem tangible, although it is.
One way I think philosophy can demonstrate its influence in the real world is not through new technology, or culture, but through people. By observing the leadership choices of people informed by philosophy, we can see it in action.