Key Thinkers 2011

The 2011 Key Thinkers series has finished. Please see the program below with links to podcasts when available.

Past Lectures

RF Skinner

3 August
Emeritus Professor Bob Boakes, School of Psychology, Faculty of Science

Established in 1913 by John Watson with the aim of making psychology a truly scientific discipline, over the next fifty years Behaviourism became a significant force within academic psychology and in society at large, particularly influencing child-rearing practices. In the 1930s B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) started as a laboratory-based researcher and later became increasingly concerned with applications of operant conditioning in areas that ranged from education to psychopathology. Skinner attained fame as a psychologist by the 1970s that was second only to that of Freud. However, his influence – and that of behaviourism in general – soon declined. This talk will first examine behaviourism in general and the particular direction – radical behaviourism – it took under Skinner’s lead. It will then look at the reasons why his scientific approach became marginalised and why his general philosophy was eventually rejected. Finally, it will address the question of whether he has had a lasting impact.

Listen to the podcast ( 56 mins, MP3, 25.8Mb)

Paulin Hountondji

10 August
Professor Raewyn Connell, Faculty of Education and Social Work

Our usual models of knowledge, and our machinery for ranking 'excellence', assume a homogenous culture and a level playing field. But this doesn't exist, on a world scale. The most powerful analysis of the flows of data, theory and resources that shape modern knowledge systems comes from the West African philosopher Paulin Hountondji (b.1942) In this lecture, Raewyn Connell will introduce the thought of one of the most important contemporary theorists of knowledge, who is almost unknown in Australia. We will discuss the sources of Hountondji's thinking in post-colonial Africa and radical Paris, his battles with the exponents of 'African philosophy', his engagement with revolution and democratisation in his home country Benin, and his path-breaking work on the relations among intellectuals and knowledge systems in post-colonial times - and the importance of this analysis to understanding intellectual life in post-colonial contemporary Australia.

Listen to the podcast (1 hour 16 mins, MP3, 35.2Mb)

Lord Byron

17 August
Associate Professor William Christie, Chair Department of English, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Walcott? Heaney? Plath? It is unlikely, arguably impossible for a modern poet to find an audience as large and passionate as the 19th-century audience mesmerised by George Gordon Noel, 6th Baron Byron (1788-1824). Byron’s death from a fever at Missolonghi, fighting for the liberation of Greece from the Ottoman Empire, was universally mourned (to quote the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon) as ‘a great loss to the Literature of the Age’, and to this day Byron remains a national hero to the Greeks. ‘He kept it always in excitement’, wrote Haydon of the ardour the charismatic Byron inspired in his public, ‘with all the prerogatives of a man of geniuss – what is he about! – what has he done! – what is he going to do, were always the accompanying questions of those who did not know him privately, and when he was a subject of conversation’. This lecture will examine the confusion of life and work in a poet whose avatars haunt the fascinated and voyeuristic imaginations of a mass public.

Listen to the podcast (48 minutes, MP3, 22.0Mb)

Joseph Priestly

24 August
Dr Victor Boantza, Unit for the History and Philosophy of Science, Faculty of Science

Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) was one of the most controversial figures of the eighteenth century. A true Enlightenment polymath, he wrote more than two hundred books, pamphlets, sermons, and essays on subjects ranging from science to politics and from metaphysics to theology. He was a religious dissenter, political radical, vocal supporter of the French Revolution, and lifelong defender of the losing side in the Chemical Revolution. Shortly after his house and laboratory were burned down in the Birmingham Riots (1791) he was forced to flee England. Although religion and his ministry were at the centre of his life’s work, Priestley is best known for his contributions to chemistry, physics, and botany through his studies of electricity, optics, photosynthesis, and gases (he “discovered” oxygen, among other things). This lecture will discuss aspects of his science, especially his work in pneumatic and experimental chemistry, to probe the relations between natural philosophy, religion, and non-conformism in the Enlightenment.

Listen to the podcast (50 mins, MP3, 27.3Mb)

Hannah Arendt

31 August
Associate Professor Danielle Celermajer, Department of Sociology and Social Policy, Faculty of Arts and Social Science

The political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), who famously described Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann with the phrase “the banality of evil”, and who wrote such seminal works as The Human Condition and The Origins of Totalitarianism, was controversial in her lifetime and beyond. It was the immediate shock of the burning of the Reichstag on February 27, 1933 that provoked her lifelong conviction that she had a direct responsibility to engage with the world as it is lived, rather than philosophising as if the object of her analysis were ‘on the moon’. It was, however, simultaneously her identity as a Jew in Nazi Germany that thrust her outside the world, placing her, along with millions of stateless people then and since, on the periphery of human societies and polities where their lives are rendered without impact or effect. This lecture will consider how Arendt’s experience of wordlessness and her deep love of the world underpin her unique contribution as a thinker who illuminates the conditions of modernity and most particularly, the grave dangers wrought by the many ways in which individuals lose their sense of responsibility for, and thus place in, the world.

Listen to the podcast (1 hour 24 mins, MP3, 38.6Mb)

Alfred Cort Haddon

14 September
Dr Jude Philp, Senior Curator, Macleay Museum

Alfred Cort Haddon (1855-1940) was a marine biologist and ethnologist by training , and became a pioneer in British Anthropology, responsible for bringing under the anthropological 'umbrella' the genealogical method, material culture studies, physiology and linguistics. His influence extended to Australia through the foundation of the discipline of anthropology at the University of Sydney. This lecture concentrates upon his own conversion to anthropology through his fieldwork in the Torres Strait in 1888 and 1898. It includes an investigation of the men and women in the Torres Strait who influenced his career and his thinking about culture, history and survival on the fringes of the Victorian Empire.

Murrary Bookchin

21 September
Professor David Schlosberg , School of Government and International Relations, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) was one of the key contributors to environmental philosophy and political thought in the 20th century. Along with figures such as Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, and Arne Naess, he inspired a generation of thinkers to reconceptualise the human relationship with the natural world. The main argument of Bookchin’s ‘social ecology’ was that nature is not a place of domination and exploitation, but is only painted that way by a society steeped in those type of relationships. Removing domination from social relationships would help human societies realise the cooperative potential of the natural world. Unfortunately, Bookchin himself was domineering – insisting on sole ownership of the idea of social ecology, while criticising and demonising others who tried to build the school in alternate directions. Bookchin ignored his own lessons, denying the potential benefits of a cooperative, social approach to ideas themselves. The tragedy is that the idea he created became as dominating and alienating as the false image of the natural world he correctly analysed.

Listen to the podcast (1 hour, 8 minutes, MP3, 31.2Mb)

James Ferguson

12 October
Dr Gaynor Macdonald, Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

American anthropologist, James Ferguson, has used his localised ethnographic focus on southern Africa to develop far-reaching critiques of globalisation, development and modernity which have impacted across the social sciences. Gaynor Macdonald will outline Ferguson’s contributions over the past two decades, as well as his recent work comparing a focus on production with that of distribution. Ferguson’s study of the impacts of the neoliberal world in Africa provides insights into modernity and inequality in Australia, particularly in the way in which Aboriginal peoples have been categorised. His recent thinking challenges taken-for-granted values, such as relationship of labour to social value, to create a space in which to restore a sense of shared citizenship and social equity. Nevertheless, Macdonald is not without her own critique of Ferguson’s approach.

Listen to the podcast (MP3, 1 hour 18 mins, 36.0Mb)