A Conversation with Graham Oppy


Alan Bechaz, Will Cailes, and Thomas Spiteri from UPJA spoke to Graham Oppy in May, 2021, as the inaugural interview of what we hope will be a series of discussions with philosophers in the Australasian region. Conversations from the Region invites philosophers from or based in Australasia to share their experiences. The segment looks into what inspires people to study philosophy, how they pursue their philosophical interests, and gives our audiences a better idea of philosophy as an undergraduate.

Will: To start off, could you please introduce yourself to the readership perhaps explaining what your philosophical interests are broadly?

For the last 25 years I’ve thought of myself as a philosopher of religion. One of the things that I like about philosophy of religion is that almost all of the areas of philosophy feed into it. So I get to do metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of language, logic, ethics, political philosophy, and so on. And it’s also the case that I think that if you’re doing it properly, you also get to kind of read around in nearby areas to philosophy. So in the politics of religion, history of religion, sociology of religion, and so on. So it makes a nice, big field where there’s lots and lots of stuff today. 

Will: Very interesting. Are there any papers that you’re specifically working on at the moment? 

Right now, I am producing a new paper on religious fictionalism. Roughly, a religious fictionalist is someone who participates fully in a religion, but who either disbelieves or is agnostic about the teachings of that religion. Perhaps there are some weaker attitudes that the person has towards the doctrine; even though they do not believe it, they do accept it. This runs roughly parallel to fictionalism in other domains: scientific fictionalists who do not believe scientific theories but treat them as reliable instruments for making predictions about future data; or mathematical fictionalists who do not believe that there are numbers, but who think that it is OK to use mathematics in science because mathematics conservatively extends science. That is: there are no conclusions from physical premises that you can derive with the aid of mathematical premises that you could not, at least in principle, derive without the aid of the mathematical premises. On this view, use of number-talk is a practical convenience; it does not require you to believe that there are numbers. So some people have said that maybe you could take a fictionalist approach towards religious entities. I’m not so sure. I suspect that real belief is essential to the origins and/or early development of religions that catch hold. At any rate, that’s what I’ve been working on most recently.  

Will: Sounds very interesting. I imagine it has been complex journey to get to this point, so going back to the start, what initially drew you to study philosophy? I know you did an arts/science degree back in time, and, obviously, that allows a lot of scope. So why philosophy? 

I kind of decided before then that I really wanted to be a philosopher. I guess that happened, although that path is slightly roundabout, probably when I was in about year 10. For my 16th birthday, I got a copy of Bertrand Russell’s autobiography, and I read it and I thought, I want to be like him. He had studied primarily maths and philosophy so I decided I would do two degrees. I did a science degree and an arts degree, and I majored in maths with a minor in physics, and I majored in philosophy with a minor in history and philosophy of science. And that really is the explanation. So I wanted to be a philosopher long before I found out whether I was going to be able to be one or not. 

Alan: That’s so interesting. I think that sort of leads into the next set of questions. A big motivation for us speaking with you and talking to philosophers is to demystify academic philosophy a little bit for some of our readers who might be quite early on in their degrees. So we wanted to ask you about your undergraduate experience. And to begin with maybe, what was the philosophical culture like when you were a student? Perhaps if you can tell us about any memorable classes you had or experiences then, as well as what might have changed. 

So maybe I can start a little bit with what’s changed. Because in some ways, I think my experience is quite different from the experience that people get now. So there’s a lot of external things that have changed. One of them is that I’m old enough that when I went to university, there were no fees, there were no student fees, which is quite significant. And the other thing is that, I think, I know I’m not an economist, but I think that this is probably true, that you didn’t need to work too many hours in paid employment in order to make enough to live on. Maybe that’s partly because there were less things to spend money on, like now you kind of really have to have an internet connection, and you’ve got to have a smartphone, and there’s a bunch of other things around. I’m old enough that I kind of predated all of that. So the consequences of those kinds of things is that I studied a lot more philosophy as an undergraduate than undergraduates get to study now. So, I was trying to work it out before, and I think the major at Monash, not the major but the arts degree, now the BA, you do 24, 6 point units, in order to get the degree. I would have done that many units in philosophy, when I was an undergraduate, that is 24, 6 point units worth. And then in my honours year, I did another six full year subjects, and had an examination on them at the end of it. So there’s a kind of exposure to philosophy that’s quite different now. 

As far as the experience goes, I’ll talk a bit about my Honours year. So there were 10 or 12 of us in the Honours year, and we were a fairly tight group. We actually went away on holidays together, we definitely partied together, and because we had six subjects during the week, we saw each other all the time. And I’m still in contact with several other people from my Honours years, and that was a long time ago. And I think that made a difference, because that’s what we talked about, we were doing philosophy all the time. And so there was that, but there was also the accessibility to staff. I had several mentors on the faculty at Monash and I spent a lot of time in their offices talking to them about philosophy. And again, that’s something that for whatever reason, is much less common. Now, it’s much less common for a first year student now to be spending an hour a week in a lecturer’s office, talking to them about the subject matter of that unit. 

One other thing that was different about the culture was that there was a department library. It was right in the centre of the department, it was full of books and every lecture when the lecturer said, ‘you might want to read this’, I’d write it down, and I went off to the library and sat in there and read stuff when it was recommended. And that way, I also got to know a lot of people because I mean, apart from obviously from the students, the staff also use the library as well. 

There’s quite a lot of externalities that have changed. It’s not clear whether it’s better or worse. People going through now will have spent a lot more time typically in paid employment of one kind or another, because most students need that just to be able to get through the degree, which gives you one set of skills but cuts back a bit on other sorts of skills that you might get. 

That was a bit about what’s changed, but what was my most memorable class? My most memorable class was one where I felt that I was both a student and a teacher. This happened to me when I was in graduate school where I was lucky enough to be a tutor for David Lewis. I sat in on this course of lectures that he gave, and they were amazing. They were just so good. In fact, they may have been too good, because the students after class would just say, ‘why is he saying all of these obvious things?’, as if it was all really, really simple. But that was just an artefact of how brilliant he was at giving a lecture. 

Alan: In a similar vein, then, as an undergraduate student, what kind of perceptions do you think you had of philosophy as a field at the time? And maybe as well, was there anything you struggled with when entering the field? 

Lots and lots of stuff seemed impossibly hard. We were given stuff to read and I can remember battling my way through these very big books, not understanding much at all of them. To give you some examples, in my fourth year Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, in my third year Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. I could give some other examples, as well. It was really hard and I think that that’s a common experience of pretty much everybody who does philosophy, at least if you do a wide enough range of things, you’ll come up against stuff that just seems completely alien. 

Perception of the field— that’s really hard, because it didn’t really emerge much. I didn’t really have much of a sense of philosophy beyond my university for a long time. I said, I had a couple of mentors on the staff, one person in particular that I talked to quite a lot was Allen Hazen. And he spent a lot of time telling me about American universities and who was there and who was good and who wasn’t. So by the time I finished, I knew an awful lot about the department at Pittsburgh, and the department at Princeton, and the department at Yale, and a few other places. But I still had a very patchy view about what the field was like. All I knew was that I wanted to go to one of those places. 

Alan: Having that sense of where else you might go then, did you feel pressure to continue to pursue graduate study and graduate study abroad? 

I didn’t feel any pressure – I wanted to go. I’d come around to the view that I wanted to go either to the UK or the US, wherever I could get into, and I would go to the best place that I could get into. I can’t remember when I came to that view, but it was pretty early on. Probably, it was before I started the honours year that that was my aim. I definitely wanted to go and study with the best people that I could. 

Alan: Thank you. Just to finish this segment on undergraduate studies, do you have any advice that you want to give  undergraduate students? 

I guess it depends what we’re thinking about. If you’re doing a class, the important thing is not to give up. No matter how hard it seems to you, that’s going to be a measure of how hard it seems to pretty much everyone, I  would think. If we’re thinking more broadly about the possibility of a career in philosophy, it’s probably worth knowing this: the job market in philosophy in Australia has been terrible since about 1975. So, if you’re thinking about a career in philosophy, you may well end up somewhere other than Australia, and you should know that  before you go into it. Because, if you kind of get to a point where you have to give up because you’re not  prepared to leave Australia, and you’re not finding one of the very rare positions that comes up in Australia, it’s  better to avoid that disappointment from the beginning, I think. The reason why 1975— well, there was a big explosion of places in Australian universities from the beginning of the 60s and all of the new universities were around and had filled up their staff profiles by about the mid 70s. Since then, there have hardly been any new departments. There have been a couple, ACU and Notre Dame, Bond maybe, but there have been hardly any.  Also, there’s been some shrinkage in the size of departments. So, there’s just very few positions that become available. That doesn’t mean that you should think that you can’t do it. After all, I’m proof that you can, and  there’s a bunch of other people just like me all around the place. And I will be shuffling off fairly soon, I don’t have that many years left. So, it’s not that you can’t do it, it’s just that you can’t take anything for granted, right? It may well be that in order to find the job that you want, if you go on, you might have to be prepared to, as some of my students have done, go to Taiwan or Hong Kong. Or some of them who are better than me, the US  and the UK. 

Thomas: Well, this next set of questions pertains more to what it’s like to be a philosopher, and your experiences as a philosopher. But, on that last note, there might be some students reading who are a bit dismayed by the limited job opportunities in Australia in academic philosophy. So, aside from pursuing academia, where might you  recommend someone direct their philosophical interests? 

So, there are lots of places that you could go. It’s just a fact that most of the people who do PhDs in philosophy will not end up working in academic philosophy. But that’s perfectly fine, because there’s lots of good, fun things  that you can do, and many of those things will turn out to be things where you can use your philosophy. One of the most direct things will be in the media. There are magazines like New Philosopher, there are television  shows, there are radio shows, there are all kinds of places where there are philosophers who are employed to do things. 

A second thing that’s kind of really obvious is education. In most states there’s philosophy in the high school curriculum and you can teach philosophy and be part of a community of philosophers, namely the philosophy teachers. So, that’s the second possibility where you’d get to directly use your skills. There are people doing kind of interesting jobs that you might not have thought of. We had a few graduates who ended up teaching ethics to police as a kind of full time thing. That’s part of their job description, they’ve ended up being employed at training colleges for police. And there’s other things. Probably more people will end up in one of two places, either in government or in corporations. On the government side, lots of people end up doing policy. Being a philosopher actually suits you pretty well for being the kind of person who writes policy. We’ve got lots of people in the state and federal government. I’m thinking of philosophers, but also people who’ve done bioethics as well, which I’m thinking of as part of philosophy. On the corporation side, some are just looking to take the best people that they can, and they’re not worried about their training at all, so there’s no problem there. But there are some things where philosophy is a huge advantage. So one thing that happened to me: I had a PhD student  back in the late 90s or early 2000s. He got a job as a technical writer. There’s a company in South Yarra that was making precision scientific instruments and they needed someone to help them write the manuals that go out with those things. He managed to land a job. So anyway, the company came back to us next year and said, can you send us another guy like him? So we did. And they came back the next year and said, can we have another one, please? And the first two guys both stayed with the company for quite a while. One of them is still there, except he’s moved way beyond writing manuals. Now, he’s somewhere near the top of the company. But you have to remember that you’ve got a lot of skills that have a very wide range of applications and there’s lots of possibilities for employment. 

I should mention one other bunch of people, because there are several in this category, too. I had another PhD  student and I employed him on a research grant that I had. While he was on the grant, I got him to help me write some research grant applications. It turned out that he actually had a bit of difficulty finishing his PhD. He wrote two thirds of one and said ‘I don’t like that one’, started another one. Wrote two thirds of one, said ‘I don’t like that one’, started another one. He got about two thirds of the way through it and thought, ‘I’m never going to finish this, what am I going to do?’. And I had a conversation with him and I said, well, you know, you’ve got all this experience writing research grants, you could go into research administration in the university. He’s now heading up the research side of another university. And we’ve had a bunch of other people who’ve gone into research administration. In fact, of all of the areas for our graduates, probably going into administration in universities is the very top of the list, because it’s something that you know from the inside and you’ve had a  chance to learn about it. And I should say, the guy that I was just talking about is very happy with the job that he’s got. I mean, he would have been a fantastic philosopher, it’s kind of frustrating to me that he couldn’t finish  his PhD, but he’s very happy with the way things have turned out. 

Thomas: That’s great, it’s a nice optimistic note for some of the undergraduate readers out there. So, maybe in a different direction, how do people in your experience usually react to the fact that you’re a philosopher? 

So, it depends which sorts of people we’re talking about. Down at the cricket club, they just scratch their heads. They have no idea what I do. And if they want to make a guess, they think maybe I’m a psychologist. That will be the closest that they get. If we’re talking about a different set of people who sort of know what philosophy is, they may still be a bit puzzled about what I actually do with my time. But usually I’m not going to say I’m a philosopher, I’ll say I’m an academic, I teach. And people are happy with that and they actually don’t want to ask you more questions about it, usually. 

Thomas: Right, and for people who are familiar with philosophy, are there any sort of go-to “big” questions, as it were, that you’re asked about? 

So I guess I get asked a lot about philosophy of religion. The big question, so does God Exist? Just because that’s what I do, and if I happen to tell people that’s what I do then they’re going to ask me. So, what else? Explaining about ethics, you know, especially applied ethics is something that’s pretty easy to communicate. Explaining what I was doing for my PhD was awfully hard. There’s a fairly arcane part of philosophy of language. It was very hard to explain to people what I was doing. 

Thomas: It seems you’ve jumped around a bit. You started with the philosophy of language, if that’s correct, and now you work predominantly in the philosophy of religion— recently to more meta subjects in philosophy. Tell us a bit, if you can, about what prompted this change and how it’s progressed your current research. 

I don’t think that I’ve really changed what I do all that much. In the period after I finished my PhD, I published things in a range of areas, partly cannibalising stuff I’d written for my classes when I was a graduate student. I published a few things in aesthetics, and then I published new things in philosophy of religion, I published stuff out of my thesis on philosophy of language and I published on some new topics that just came up in conversation with people that I was in the same department with. And I really think that all of my interests have continued. Occasionally, I’ve picked up a new interest. But, as I said at the beginning, philosophy of religion is a kind of fairly broad umbrella and most of what I do fits under that. Maybe at some point I’d like to write a kind of historical work, which is more on the history of atheism, rather than a particularly philosophical thing. But overall, I don’t think that I’ve jumped around much. I think that it’s been more from the beginning. And part of the reason why I mentioned what was different about my undergraduate education is that it had an enormously broad base. I knew a bit about a lot of things by the time that I got out into the workforce and over my time at Monash I’ve taught in a correspondingly wide range of areas. I’ve taught things that you would probably think it was quite implausible that I would have taught in because for a number of years I was kind of the go to person if somebody had to leave halfway through the semester, because their family member back in the United States was seriously ill and they had to go back. So I’ve taught courses on feminism, continental philosophy, aesthetics, metaphysics, epistemology, logic, philosophy of science, history of philosophy, Descartes, and so on. Lots of stuff. Maybe a different generation, different people, might have a different experience, but that’s just what mine’s been like. 

Will: What are your hopes and thoughts about the future of philosophy and philosophical work? Either in the Australian context or globally. 

So in the Australian context, philosophy, at least as far as the numbers of philosophers go, have been kind of in a holding pattern since about 2000. So, there’s roughly the same number of philosophers now as there were 21 years ago. I think that, all things considered, philosophy is doing pretty well. There has been the odd department that’s been closed down but to sit against that there’s been some departments that have got a lot stronger. Like Monash is an example of a department that’s got much stronger over the last 15 years than it was before that. 

Do I have fears about philosophy kind of disappearing altogether? No. However, in some ways, that’s not a completely empty question because there are disciplines like Classics which have almost completely disappeared and it’s not clear that it’s alive in Australia now. It’s possible, especially with the kind of unsympathetic government and policies that are clearly not designed to favour the humanities, that there might be a threat; but I think that philosophy will be fine, I think that it will continue to have a strong presence in universities. 

Regarding what future would you like to see for philosophy? How would I like to see it change? Obviously, I hope that it’ll be vibrant and that it will be engaged with other academic disciplines such that there’ll be research on big questions that will include philosophers— that there will be philosophers involved in trying to solve problems associated with climate change, or, you know, we could list all the other problems that we currently face. I guess that would be the main thing. The other big question is probably about the composition of the philosophical community and a question about representativeness. Whether groups are represented in the philosophical community in proportion to their representation in the community as a whole. Obviously, that’s not all groups. I mean, if you think of one group of people as being those who just have no competence to do philosophy, then we don’t want them to be represented. However, there are various groups where, clearly, you would expect that there’s no reason to think that philosophical competence is distributed differently, such as across men and women. But the representation of women in the profession is still low. Despite decades now of worrying about this and some trying to do some stuff about it, it remains that their representation is quite unequal. This is kind of curious, because other disciplines, including maths, have actually managed to improve in this respect, yet in philosophy, not so much.

Will: Following up on that discussion about representation in philosophy, as you said, there’s yet still a high degree of inequality, particularly in gender, race and other subsections of society. Why do you think there is still such a high degree of under representation of some groups? And, as you said, the under representation seems like it has stayed pretty consistent, but do you think it’s starting to change at all? 

I don’t think it is and I think that, at least in part, it’s because the people who are the leaders in philosophy just haven’t resolved strongly enough to do something about it. If you think about the changes that have happened in mathematics, it’s because decisions were made that they are going to actually make appointments of women and there’s no philosophy departments that have done that, at least, not in a public way. You might think that you couldn’t do that because there are equal opportunity laws that you might think would prevent you from doing it, but there are ways. For example, the math department of Monash has got around that in legal ways and philosophers have not taken that kind of action when they probably should have. 

Alan: We’ve got a few shorter questions to finish up with, and we were keen to ask you if you could tell us about a book or a paper that’s had a particularly profound effect on your intellectual development? 

I already told you about one and probably the most influential one was Russell’s autobiography. But not because of its philosophical content as it’s not a particularly philosophical book. Maybe Mackie’s book, The Miracle of Theism would be the book that had the biggest influence on me. I keep finding ways which I hadn’t realised that I’d been influenced by Mackie when it turns out that I had been. I’ve developed views that I then find out they’re there in Mackie already. That still happens. So, if I had to nominate one book, that would be it. 

Alan: Thank you. What do you think the most controversial philosophical stance that you hold is? 

That’s a really hard question to answer. I think it will probably be, but I haven’t developed it yet, a current project. I have a research grant to develop a new theory of good arguing and I suspect that the view that I’m going to develop for that will turn out to be easily the most controversial set of views that I hold on any topic. But it’s still a work in progress so I can’t say that for sure. 

Alan: Well, thank you so much. That’s the end of the questions we prepared for you and we’re so pleased you’ve been able to speak with us for our inaugural Conversations from the Region

To see more of Oppy’s work, visit Think, or purchase a copy of his book, Atheism the basics