Key Thinkers

Key Thinkers 2010

You can listen to the audio podcasts of this series, and some videos, by following the links below each entry.

Program for 2010

28 July
Dr Richard Stanton, Media & Communications, Faculty of Arts

Leon Mayhew, a late 20th century sociologist, argued that public relations professionals, using influence and persuasion, dominate public communication. Mayhew argues the modern public of the enlightenment has been replaced by a new public subject to mass persuasion and influence in which professionals, including elected politicians and corporate chief executives, are not expected to defend their rhetoric, and in which there is no longer a place for meaningful discussion of public policies or issues. This lecture will examine Mayhew's claims against 21st century public engagement through 'netroots' microblogs such as Twitter and social media such as Facebook, and speculate on what he may have concluded had he been alive today.

Listen to the podcast (Running time 46 min, 21.5Mb MP3)

11 August
Professor Simon Tormey, Social and Political Sciences, Faculty of Arts

Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos is a spokesperson for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), which is currently engaged in a struggle for the recognition of indigenous land rights in the Chiapas region of Mexico. Marcos rose to prominence amongst activists in the global North after Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. He has only ever been seen wearing a balaclava and his true identity remains still remains unknown. Marcos has been instrumental in seeking to gather and retain the support of public opinion across the world for his cause through a variety of means: poetry, manifestos, interviews, and encuentros or encounters with activists and journalists. Marcos reminds us that answers to many of the dilemmas that confront the contemporary world do not have to come from the key thinkers of the academy, but might also be supplied by those engaged in daily struggles in the global south for what Marcos terms ‘dignity’ and ‘respect’.

Listen to the podcast (Running time 1 hour 20 min, 37.1Mb MP3)

Download the PowerPoint presentation (PDF format, 1.69Mb)

18 August
Professor Frank Stilwell, Political Economy, Faculty of Arts

The distinguished political economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) thought economic reform should help to create ‘the good society’. He excoriated orthodox economists for being overly enamoured with the free market economy. He warned that capitalism, unless strongly regulated by government, would generate social imbalance, economic instability and unacceptable inequalities between rich and poor. Reform would require changing the structures of political economic power. This lecture will examine Galbraith’s place in the contest of political economic ideas, his attempt to refocus economic thinking on progressive social goals and the relevance of these challenging ideas in the twenty-first century.

Listen to the podcast (Running time 1 hour 18 min, 36.1Mb MP3)

25 August
Peter Farleigh, Physiology, and Centre for Human Aspects of Science and Technology

What would the consequences be, if rather than substances and structures, we took events and processes to be the primary entities that make up the universe? And what if instead of the traditional mechanistic model we used the concept of the organism, as the key metaphor in our understanding of the world? These are two central questions that Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) wrestled with in his later years. Whitehead of course, was famous for his early collaboration with Bertrand Russell on one of the most important works of mathematics in history—the three volumes of Principia Mathematica. While the two equally shared the work of this heroic attempt to establish a logical foundation for mathematics, it is not commonly known that there had been a fourth volume planned, which Whitehead alone began working on. But what became of the unfinished volume and why was it important for his philosophical development?

Listen to the podcast (Running time 1 hour 17 min, 35.8Mb MP3)

1 September
Dr Nijmeh Hajjar, Arabic and Islamic Studies, Faculty of Arts

Ameen Rihani (1876-1940) was an influential Arab-American thinker, writer and political activist, and was one of the most prominent humanist intellectuals of the 20th century. The career of this pioneering intellectual during the late colonial era and early decolonisation was characterised by a progressive secular humanist vision and an abiding interest in engaging both the Arab world and the West. In this lecture, Dr Hajjar aims to demonstrate that while Rihani was the pioneer of Arab–American intellectual humanism–which reached its zenith with Edward Said–he remains an outstanding exemplar of the Saidian intellectual. She particularly argues that in the light of today’s momentous world events and the search for global peace and cultural dialogue, Rihani’s secular vision of progress, liberal democracy and Arab-Western mutual respect is a balancing counterpoint to the obscurantism of both ideological fanaticism and the ‘clash of civilizations’ paradigms.

Listen to the podcast (Running time 1 hour 19 min, 36.4Mb MP3)

Download the PowerPoint presentation (PDF format, 1.46Mb)

8 September
Dr Chris Hilliard, History, Faculty of Arts

Putting names to the faces in the street, recapturing the experiences and struggles of the forgotten people of the industrial revolution, was a central preoccupation of the historian E. P. Thompson (1924-1993). His moral passion, his emphasis on detail at the expense of 'theory', and his effort to reconcile Marxist interpretations of modern society with a romantic protest tradition running from William Blake to William Morris and beyond, inspired generations of historians and prompted fierce counter-reactions. It has been said that when a great work of history becomes outdated, it is reborn as literature. Thompson's classic book, The Making of the English Working Class, has been going through such a reincarnation for some years, but it also remains a touchstone or lightning rod for historians. This lecture explores the power and limitations of Thompson’s brand of history and takes stock of his legacy.

This event is also part of the NSW History Council's History Week 2010

15 September
Dr Charles Wolfe, History and Philosophy of Science, Faculty of Science

Julien Offray de La Mettrie, a medical doctor and philosopher was born in Saint-Malo (Brittany) in 1709, and died in 1751 in Berlin, where he was an intellectual-in-residence at Frederick II’s court ... of indigestion, food poisoning, or acute peritonitis after having consumed a whole pheasant pasty with truffles. He had been forced to flee from France and then even from Holland because of his writings, and was one of the most scandalous figures of the Enlightenment. I will focus especially on his best-known work, L’Homme-Machine or Man a Machine (1748), one of the greatest examples of materialist philosophy ever written - in which mind and body are explained as belonging to one material substance, which medical and physiological knowledge sheds light on. How is it that a philosopher admired today by all manner of ‘brain scientists’ was also the hero of the Marquis de Sade? Addressing this sort of question gets us to the heart of Enlightenment materialism.

Listen to the podcast (Running time 1 hour 13 min, 33.8Mb MP3)

22 September
Professor Glenda Sluga, International History, Faculty of Arts

There are few historical figures as dramatically enticing and colourfully enigmatic as Germaine de Staël. The young Germaine had an early introduction to the culture of the French Enlightenment through her mother’s influential Paris-based salon. As a mature woman of substantial means, de Staël mingled with and morally and financially supported many of the most important members of Parisian political and literary life. She was the instigator of crucial political alliances during the years of revolution, and the saviour of numerous victims in its darkest days. Her contemporaries thought her, according to one of the gender conventions of the time, a bluestocking and political meddler. More importantly, they also pronounced her an original thinker when it came to the idea of the nation. De Staël’s published oeuvre spans a crucial period in the modernist history of the nation as an idea: from the French revolution to the Restoration, and from the Enlightenment to Romanticism. This talk will sketch out the parameters and significance of de Staël’s conception of nation, and its importance for our historical understanding of patriotism as an idea and ideal.

Listen to the podcast (Running time 51 min, 24.9Mb MP3)

6 October
Professor John Keane, Centre for the Study of Democracy, Faculty of Arts

Discussions of lying in politics often cite the work of Plato and Kant or (more usually) draw upon the writings of Hannah Arendt. But it was the Russian-born philosopher and historian of science Alexandre Koyré (1892-1964) who was perhaps the first contemporary writer to pose radically new questions about the damaging effects of lying. This lecture aims to unsettle our thinking about the political dangers of telling lies by revisiting Koyré’s provocative but little-known claim that democracy and lying are twins: that we live in times in which ‘there has never been so much lying’ because the powerful, in order to advance their interests and save their skins, are constantly tempted to ‘say what is not so’.

Listen to the podcast (Running time 1 hour 58 min, 56.7Mb MP3)

20 October
Dr Dominic Murphy, History and Philosophy of Science, Faculty of Science

One hundred years ago, Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926) was the most influential psychiatrist in the world, revered as the man whose system of classification put the study of mental illness on firm scientific foundations. We owe to Kraepelin the distinction between schizophrenia (which he called premature dementia) and manic-depressive illness. Kraepelin saw mental illnesses as distinct processes with characteristic outcomes, ultimately rooted in the biology of the brain. His ideas were eclipsed by psychoanalysis, but have returned to serve as the basis of contemporary psychiatry, which is often called neo-Kraepelinian. This lecture will explain Kraepelin's approach to psychiatry and his influence on modern psychiatry, and discuss why some contemporary theorists think that his influence is keeping psychiatry on the wrong track.

Listen to the podcast (Running time 1 hour 4 min, 29.4Mb MP3)

27 October
Dr Julia Kindt, Classics and Ancient History, Faculty of Arts

Towards the end of the fifth century BC Herodotus wrote his Histories, a work in which he sought to explain why the Greeks had won the Persian Wars. The Histories are widely credited for pioneering the Western tradition of historiography – already Cicero called Herodotus “the father of history”. But what is original about Herodotus’ Histories is not so much what he wrote about – after all Homer had already focused his narrative on a great war – but how he wrote about it. Herodotus blended history and literature, political, cultural, and military history, ethnography, geography, zoology, linguistics and religion (to name just a few interests of this highly versatile author) in a unique and sophisticated fashion. In bringing these different strands of knowledge together Herodotus’ Histories reflect the cultural and intellectual milieu of ancient Greece during the late fifth century BC when different areas of human life became subject to critical inquiry.

Listen to the podcast (Running time 57 min, 26.3Mb MP3)