Graduation address given by Professor Paul Redding

Professor Paul Redding gave the occasional address at the Faculty of Arts graduation ceremony held at 4.00pm on 20 April 2007. Professor Redding is a member of the Philosophy Department of the University of Sydney and was recently appointed to a personal chair in Philosophy.

The photo of Professor Redding is copyright Memento Photography.

Professor Paul Redding

Graduation address

Today is one of celebration and congratulation, and I would like to add my voice to those congratulating all of you graduands on your achievement - and I’d like also to extend my congratulations to your respective support teams, cheer squads and mentors on the right side of the hall. But I would also like your indulgence for a few moments to reflect on that nature of the area in which you have achieved. It is often said that Australians do not recognize achievements in intellectual pursuits – the arts, and sciences and so forth – to the degree that they might, and that this is symptomatic of a generally anti-intellectualist current that has pervaded much of Australian life up to the present. This thesis is, I think, too crude, but there is buried in this diagnosis something that might be relevant. Many Australians have a keen critical nose for intellectual pretence - and this, surely, is a good thing. But, unfortunately, this can sometimes spill over into an apparent indifference to the real thing, and this is far from being a good thing. I think this is symptomatic of a situation that I call Australia’s greatest secret. That secret is that intellectual-cultural-creative life is per se valuable, and not only valuable in relation to external ends, and that it is deeply pleasurable and rewarding. At the heart of the prevalent silence about this aspect of intellectual life is an attitude to the exercise of reason that I call, the “you wouldn’t do it if you didn’t have to” thesis. What I mean by this might be brought out by a few examples from my own education.

Going to primary school in that generally beige decade of the1950s, I quickly learned that the worst label that one could attract was that being what we called a “conch” - Like many of my class-mates, I went along with this rampant “conchophobia”, assiduously hiding any enthusiasm I had for particular subjects studied. The prevailing assumption was that it is impossible to be “conscientious” because one was interested in what was taught at school, and so any interest shown there had to be feigned and so part of a general toadying up to authority. That this attitude was prevalent was hardly surprising, as it was perpetuated by the mode of instruction itself. The methodology of the teaching I refer to was a variation of the carrot and stick approach. Basically carrots and sticks, but “hold the carrots”. The general message that this method sent out, was that thinking, learning, inquiring, was fundamentally a painful activity and that no sane person would indulge in it willingly - it was a painful activity that could only be motivated by the threat of even greater pain.

Cut to the early 1960s, and to early years of high school. I vividly remember participating in many intensely aesthetic “compare and contrast” playground discussions that at least used to characterize teenage life then – discussions about the particular hedonic qualities attaching to things we claimed to like and do. But among the topics, I cannot recall any that concerned pleasures of the mind rather than the body. We had all absorbed the message that in the league-table of life’s pleasures, the pleasure of thought was certainly not a strong contender. Take, for example, a debate I remember from around 1962 about the comparative pleasures of surfing and sex. These were topics to which we brought the type of analytic detail worthy of a PhD thesis on Madame Bovary. The classic surf ride was broken down into its atomic components - the turn, the trim, the nose ride, the kick out, and so on. The quality and quantity of ecstasy involved in each manoeuvre was diligent assayed and classified - the exhilaration of the classic bottom turn, the mystical oneness with the wave of the tube ride and so on. For propriety’s sake, I will pass over the other side of the comparison in silence, but these discussions knew no bounds: the mathematicians might called in to help with the question of hedonic quantity: perhaps differential calculus would help in working out if surfing was in fact, better than sex, or especially in relation to the latter, probability theory. Now as you may guess, both said activities so described were overwhelmingly, probably entirely, part of our imaginative than our actual lives. What we really liked to do, it seems, was to discuss and theorize about these things. But we never acknowledged that this was the sort of thing that we took pleasure in.

For someone growing up in the 50s and 60s, university came as a real revelation. There, one encountered a critical mass of people with a sprawling variety of intellectual passions, as well as an openness to expressing them as such, all giving the lie to the idea that thinking needed some external motivation – some carrot or some stick. One example with suffice. During my first years at uni I caught up with one of my former teachers and found that this rather uninspiring high-school teacher had another life as a postgraduate student in chemistry, specializing in X ray crystallography. He would describe to me in passionate detail how he would think his way into the very structure of the molecules he was studying - getting right inside them - and how, in fact, while “in” the crystal and appreciating its incredible architecture, he felt remarkably “close to God”. He was a religious man, and I was not, but I quickly came to appreciate something of what he was saying. In this case, the university had seemed to have magically transform my somewhat dull former chemistry teacher into a glowing late medieval christian mystic. This was very impressive indeed!

Well - as the television professor used to ask: “Why is it so?” Why do we as a community have difficulty in acknowledging those intense pleasures that go with the activities of reflection, imagination, and critical inquiry? To some extent I hold the seventeenth century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, to blame. Hobbes was convinced that the only possible motive for reasoning could be to either gratify bodily-based appetites, or to avoid bodily-based pain. Besides this, he led the early modern reaction against Aristotle, who had, among other things, a very different attitude to reason. For example, Aristotle had regarded the exercise of thought itself as not only a pleasure, but the highest pleasure one could attain, and was so confident in this view that he effectively invented a god who did nothing else but think. Of course, the other side of Aristotle’s attitude to the joyous nobility of thinking was his acceptance of slavery. If you aspired to a life of the mind, you needed someone else to do the housework, the cooking, the child-raising, and so on, that provided the material support for Aristotle and friends to do the serious thinking. Aristotle’s thinking god was soon replaced by another one, who had more detailed work to do, like creating the world out of nothing; and the institution of slavery, eventually came to be seen as a bad thing, albeit comparatively recently and even now perhaps without full conviction. So the conception of inquiry as Aristotle conceived it, had to break down, and it eventually did. But on the question of the intrinsic value and pleasurableness of the activity of reasoning, it seems to me that Aristotle had it all over Hobbes.

With what you have achieved in your time at university, you have undoubtedly undergone the value-adding process as discussed by economists. Your testamurs reflect your considerable power on the market as a provider of intellectual goods. But you have achieved more than this, and it is important to keep this in mind. You have achieved an enviable capacity for bringing the tools of the modern humanities to bear on life, and in exercising those tools their might be occasions when your thoughtful activity doesn’t fit smoothly and seamlessly into the corporatized market-place of the modern world. On those occasions you might very well attract criticisms akin to that of primary school “conchophobia”, and be regarded as a “nuisance”. But this will only be made by those who can’t see beyond their Hobbesian noses, and can’t distinguish “being a nuisance”, from “making a difference”.

Thank you