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A Conversation with Graham Priest

Graham Priest

In February 2022 James Cafferky, Anna Day and Jack Hawke interviewed Graham Priest for UPJA’s Conversations from the Region, an ongoing series of discussions that invites philosophers who are originally from or based in Australasia, or whose work has had significant influence on philosophy in the region, to share their student experiences, ideas from their areas of expertise, and thoughts on the discipline more broadly. The segment looks into what inspires people to study philosophy and how they pursue their philosophical interests, and aims to give our audiences a better idea of the work that academic philosophers do.

Note: this interview has been transcribed and abridged.

30-40 Minute Read

Jack: What are your philosophical interests and what are you working on at the moment?

I started my philosophical life as a logician but that was a long time ago. I’ve been around for quite a long time, and I’ve acquired lots of interests over the years. I’ve never lost an interest. There are actually very few parts of philosophy that don’t interest me. So I’ve written a lot of logic, philosophy of logic, metaphysics, history of philosophy, East and West – I am particularly interested in Buddhist philosophy. The course I’m teaching at the moment in New York is on the philosophy of mathematics. The next book is going to be on ‘nothingness’, and the last book was on political philosophy – so it’s a pretty broad spectrum.

Jack: What initially got you interested in philosophy, and why were you motivated to specialise in logic?

Well, it helps if you understand my background. My undergraduate degree is in mathematics, in fact, my doctorate is in mathematics too, so when I was given a job in a philosophy department (when I finished my doctorate) I was kind of surprised. But I was very happy, because my undergraduate degree was in Cambridge and that allowed me the luxury of doing some philosophy as well as mathematics. I knew that the bits of mathematics I was particularly interested in were the bits that had the closest connections to the philosophy of mathematics. By the time that I finished my doctorate, I knew two things. The first was that philosophy was a lot more fun than mathematics. And secondly, I’d only ever be a crappy mathematician. So when I was offered a job in the philosophy department, it was a no brainer.

Graham (in yellow) circa 1978

Jack: Following on from that, do you think that there are parallels between the ways in which maths and philosophy are done, or are assumed to be done?

Philosophy is a pretty broad subject, and there are so many different ways you can do philosophy — there’s a question of different topics, of course, but also if you go to different countries and see how philosophy is done there, it will differ quite a lot. It’s different in Delhi and Kyoto, and Berlin, and San Jose, so it’s very hard to generalise. But generally speaking, I think there’s a lot more standardness in mathematics. If you learn a branch of mathematics at a university, you’ll likely be given a bunch of axioms or something in the first class, and then spend the rest of the semester looking at theorems or solving differential equations or something like that. Whereas if you are an undergraduate in philosophy, depending on where you are, you’re going to learn some history, you’re going to learn bits of metaphysics, political philosophy, ethics, logic… and sure as hell you’re not going to be given a bunch of axioms and sets to make deductions, maybe unless you’re studying Spinozan ethics.

Jack: Do you think that maths is more rigorous than philosophy? Ethicists generally think that ethics is done via a process of reflective equilibrium, which aims to render theories and case-specific judgements as coherent with each other as possible – but nothing is indispensable. In contrast, some think that the axioms of set theory are just so intuitive for us that we can’t imagine them being any other way. So deriving a mathematical proof automatically amounts to finding out some kind of truth.

What one is doing in pretty much any branch of philosophy is theorising, you theorise in ethics, as you said, you theorise in metaphysics. You theorise in logic — we choose logical theories. Theories of logic have changed quite a lot over thousands of years, and we’re still in the process. And they’re a very general criteria theory choice. They can be tweaked, but generally speaking, I’m inclined to think that they’re pretty standard.

Reflective equilibrium is a version of this. And that’s a method that gets applied widely in philosophy, although philosophers often don’t conceptualise what they do in that way. But of course, it’s also applied in other disciplines like science, politics. So turn to mathematics, as I said, if you take an undergraduate maths class, you’re likely to be given a bunch of axioms at the start and then spend the rest of the semester exploring them. And, with a certain caveat (which I’ll come back to) either things follow from the axioms or they don’t. So there’s less to argue about there.

As you may know, set theorists are still arguing about how well grounded some of the axioms are, particularly large, cardinal axioms. So it’s not as though there’s complete unanimity on what counts as a good axiomatic foundation, so there are theoretical choices to be made there. 

Now let me come back to the caveat. Because I said that once you’ve agreed on your axioms, there’s usually not much argument about whether something follows or not. That’s not always true, because often mathematicians don’t agree on whether something follows — I mean, there’s the now famous case about the ABC conjecture, which some Japanese mathematician claimed to have a proof for about 10 years ago now, and whether or not the proof works has been contentious amongst mathematicians. So there can certainly be contention in mathematics as well. But also when you’ve got a theory, then there’s a question about what kind of logic is best to use in the making of deductions. For example, there’s a running battle in the 20th century between intuitionist mathematicians like [L. E. J.] Brouwer and [Michael] Dummett, and so-called classical mathematicians, which is mostly everybody else. But now you know, paraconsistent logic has joined the fray. So that is going to be contentious as well. So to summarise what I’ve said, I think there is more contention in philosophy than in areas of mathematics, that’s fair, partly because there’s nothing like the axiomatic method in philosophy. But to suppose that there isn’t contention in mathematics is just to ignore the history of the subject.

James: What was the learning culture like as an undergraduate student at Cambridge, and the philosophical culture, if you had any exposure to it? Could you tell us if you have any memorable classes or influential teachers that come to mind. What do you think is changed between the student culture and the student culture now, if anything? 

When I was a maths undergraduate at Cambridge, the pedagogy was absolutely terrible. We had lecturers who came in and spent their whole hour with their back to the audience writing on the blackboard, and you just copied down what they wrote on the blackboard and you went home to try to understand that thing. Whether that’s changed now, I don’t know. I sincerely hope so. Later in my life I did have some good mathematics lecturers; when I moved from Cambridge to LSE (or London, anyway) to do an MSc in logic, there were some really good mathematics lecturers there, John Bell and Moshé Machover, two of my favourite lectures, and they didn’t do that! They had the ability to grasp essential points and put them over clearly. So you don’t have to teach mathematics that way – and a good teacher makes an enormous difference. So I hope that, generally speaking, techniques of mathematical pedagogy have improved in most places. 

So taking philosophy classes was a breath of fresh air because the teachers would come in and they’d actually talk to students, and they were obviously engaged with the problems. You got a real sense of intellectual challenge that I personally never got from mathematics, at least in Cambridge. There was one particularly memorable philosophy lecturer. His name was Casimir Lewy. He was Polish, given the name. And I don’t know how old he was. I mean, I was a kid. And he seemed ancient. But probably he was, you know, 50 or 60. And he had this rather gaunt face and a rather kind of sagging neck. In those days in Cambridge, people wore gowns — I suspect that’s gone now. And so he used to wear this tatty old gown, but he used to gesticulate with his arms out, and the gowns had long, long sleeves. So when he held his arms out, he looked a bit like a vulture. And he was passionate about what he did. And so he would say, ‘sooo you think that vixen can be a female fox!?’, and rush down the aisle and put his face about two feet away from some poor student. And it was great fun!

Do I think it’s changed? That’s a bit hard to judge because, you know, I haven’t been a student at Cambridge for a long time, and I’ve taught most of my life in Australia, and in the US for the last 10 years, but only with graduate students. I can’t really talk about how the teaching of mathematics has changed because I haven’t really been involved with that. I don’t know that the teaching of philosophy has changed much, as the people I know that teach philosophy are pretty passionate about it. That’s certainly true in Australia, it’s certainly true where I work in New York. Passion is really important. So most people who teach philosophy do it because they read problems. And they have a sense that they want to convey this passion to students – generally speaking, I think this has been a feature of philosophy most of the time I’ve been in the profession.

“…one reason I travel is, if you write a paper on some bizarre topic that goes into a journal, people say, ‘oh, Jesus, this guy believes in contradictions. That’s wacky, I’m not going to read that’. It’s hard to say, ‘okay, I understand that reaction’. But if you are face to face with someone they cannot do that. They say, ‘oh, contradictions, you can’t believe that, that’s absurd’. And you say, ‘why?’ And then they can’t throw the journal away, they’ve got to come to an answer…”

Graham Priest

Anna: As you started your journey in philosophy, what perception did you have of philosophy as a field, and what did you most struggle with? And do you have any advice for students?

Okay, so remember that my background is a bit different from your average philosophy student. As I said, I wasn’t a very good mathematician. I never struggled so much with philosophy, because I enjoyed it so much. But when I started life as a professional philosopher, I finished my doctorate, I didn’t know much philosophy! I’ve had to teach myself actually all the philosophy I know, for the last nearly-50 years. And I’ve loved every minute of it.

The thing I found hardest in that time was this: coming at philosophy from mathematics, as I did, I read people like Frege and Russell and Kant – and they have a certain way of writing philosophy. And I felt very much at home in that. But then I discovered that there are lots of great philosophers who do not write like that. You know, The Critique of Pure Reason… let alone Aristotle, let alone Marx, let alone Asian philosophers like Nāgārjuna or Dōgen, or philosophers like Heidegger or Foucault. They just have a different way of writing. And that’s okay. There are many different ways of writing philosophy. But I found it very hard, at first, to engage with philosophers who wrote in a style that I wasn’t familiar with. And I wondered sometimes whether they were really good because I couldn’t understand a word, or whether it was me. But over the years, I’ve come to see that there are many different good ways of writing philosophy. If you want to get to grips with what a philosopher is thinking, then you really have to tune into the way they express themselves, what they take for granted, the metaphors they use, the cultural assumptions, etcetera. And if it’s a good philosophy, it’s worth it. Of course, what you’re used to depends very much on what you’ve been exposed to when you’re learning philosophy. When I started reading Derrida, I couldn’t understand what the heck he was talking about, right? But someone like Kripke, it was easy, right? I remember chatting to someone once who said to me ‘yeah, this Derrida guy is easy, but when I read Kripke I can’t understand a word he’s saying!’ It just depends where you’re coming from. Don’t write off philosophers just because they’re hard to read — you have to make an effort to make a judgement! 

Graham in 1990

James: Do you think that there’s a level of logical literacy that all would-be-analytical philosophers should aspire to and acquire? If so, what would that look like?

The quick answer is no. Let me give you a longer answer. Philosophy is one of those subjects which intersects with so many other things — history, politics, law, psychology, mathematics. Generally speaking, the more you know about more things, the better it is in philosophy. So for that reason, it’s a good idea to know some logic, okay, but that’s a very tangential issue to the one you raised. 

Logic often helps in what you’re doing. Not because it makes you argue better. It doesn’t any more than learning linguistics makes you able to speak better. But it gives you a certain toolbox. Once an argument gets complex, it does help to use the tools of formal logic to analyse it. So it is a useful toolbox, but it is much more useful in some areas of philosophy than others. It’s much more useful in the philosophy of language and metaphysics than in aesthetics or political philosophy, where often the forms of arguments are simpler; you use things like reductio, disjunction elimination, modus ponens, and so on. But often, in metaphysics, the arguments get much more involved and formal logic can really help to disentangle what’s going on.

So, it always helps a bit, but I think for many areas of philosophy, even analytic philosophy (whatever that is) you can be a very good philosopher without knowing much logic. What areas of logic are most helpful? Well quantifiers are so ubiquitous in our reasoning, an understanding of how quantifiers work is really important. And some people do this quite naturally. So they don’t need to study much logic to recognise fallacious quantifiers or inferences, but a good knowledge of how quantifiers work is really important. For the kind of stuff that goes on in contemporary philosophy of language, metaphysics — lots of areas of philosophy use modal jargon nowadays, so some knowledge of how modal operators work is good.

Pretty much a first course in logic at most places nowadays will teach you the elements of so-called classical logic. That’s not a bad start. Often, a second course in logic will comprise some meta-theory. Meta-theory is important if you want to be a logician. But I think much more important for most philosophical purposes is a knowledge of some non-classical logic and understanding of modality, counterfactuals, fuzziness, the possible ‘failing’ of excluded middle explosions. These are things which do have a habit of creeping into so many different areas of philosophy. So if people want to do a set course in logic, I’d be inclined to make it a course in non-classical logic.

Anna: We are really interested to know what came first for you — Dialetheism or Buddhism?

Let’s see, easy — Dialetheism. The idea of Dialetheism occurred to me when I was doing my doctorate, it was very soon after that I was writing about logic. Buddhism came much, much later. I’d been in the profession for 20, 25 years, teaching myself philosophy, starting to feel that I had a reasonable grasp on the overall picture. And then I got the shock of my life. Because I met someone who is now an old friend, in Australia, Jay Garfield, who you may or may not have heard of — at the time he was a professor of philosophy in Tasmania. I met Jay at a conference and we started to talk. And Jay knew, and still does know, a lot more Asian philosophy than I do. But talking to him, I realised that I knew only about half of the world’s philosophy, you know, the Western half… and probably less than half, and I was completely ignorant of all this stuff coming out of Asian traditions. But once I realised that, then I set about teaching myself some Asian philosophy, just as I’ve been teaching myself some Western philosophy. It’s not that I’ve given up on Western philosophy, far from it. But I know a lot more about Asian traditions than I did 25 years ago. And when I go to philosophical problems now, I’m able to bring to bear a knowledge and understanding of both Eastern and Western philosophies. And I find that really enriches my philosophical perspective. 

Jack: David Lewis once said something along the lines of ‘everyone keeps telling me that modal realism is such a brilliant theory — it’s so interesting, so creative and so on. But when I ask them, “well, do you buy the theory, do you think it’s true?” people wouldn’t say anything’. I was wondering, have you experienced anything similar in the case of Dialetheism?

Oh, that’s an interesting question. Let’s talk about David for a little bit. David, as you may know, was a regular visitor to Australia, he used to come with his wife, Steffi — unfortunately, they’re both dead now. But he was there every year for a 20, maybe 25 year period. So Australian philosophers, including myself, got to know him very well. And he was a really smart guy, a really lovely guy, very eccentric, but very loved, really bright. And Lewisian realism about worlds is a very interesting theory, but it’s a very strange theory, and people found it very hard to sort of sympathise with it. He coined this phrase — the ‘incredulous stare’ — and I’ve no doubt that he got it. I mean, I gave it to him from time to time. So what does that show? Let me put it this way… when we make philosophical positions, we, of course, are hopefully looking at the arguments and the reasons and so on. But whenever we come to philosophical positions, we approach them with a bunch of prior assumptions, things that ground “normal” thinking. And if we made a theory that runs against those presuppositions, we’re inclined to require higher standards of argument. Because if a theory kind of doesn’t gel with those, we need higher burdens of proof, as it were. And I think this is entirely reasonable. And I think that what David was meaning was essentially that — the thought that there could be many possible worlds all like ours grates with so many kinds of assumptions that philosophers normally make, like naturalism, and all these things. People found David’s position really hard to take. Or at least let’s put it this way — in philosophy, there’s always a plurality of views. And what it meant was that people were going to be predisposed to being more sympathetic towards the other views. I do think that David had a hard time persuading people.

So, let’s talk about Dialetheism. So this was in Australia, back in the late 70s. And there were two Dialethists in the world, myself and Richard Sylvan. As you can imagine, no one believed it. Because it’s rather like the phenomenon that I talked about just now, how the principle of noncontradiction is so ingrained in philosophers and much, much more ingrained than any kind of naturalism. I mean, it’s been high orthodox in Western philosophy for something like 2,500-1000 years, and people found it crazy, almost literally. That’s why we got an enormous amount of pushback. I understand that. I mean, yeah, there are lots of wacky ideas out there in philosophy, and you can’t give serious credence to all of them. You’ve got to spend your time investigating those things that you think are more plausible, and if something strikes you as just plain wacky, then you’ve got better things to do in life than think about it. So I understand that.

When David came to Australia, his reputation was already very well made. So people listened to what David said, just because they knew he was such a good philosopher. But I was a very young philosopher at the time; Richard had a reputation amongst logicians, because he was such a good logician. But his work wasn’t terribly well known in other areas of philosophy. So we didn’t have the same kind of street cred that David had. And so people didn’t give our views the same kind of airtime that they gave David.

Let me make one more comment, just to finish off the thought. I’ve travelled a lot over the years. And one reason I travel is, if you write a paper on some bizarre topic that goes into a journal, people say, ‘oh, Jesus, this guy believes in contradictions. That’s wacky, I’m not going to read that’. It’s hard to say, ‘okay, I understand that reaction’. But if you are face to face with someone they cannot do that. They say, ‘oh, contradictions, you can’t believe that, that’s absurd’. And you say, ‘why?’ And then they can’t throw the journal away, they’ve got to come to an answer. And what I found, over the years, is that when you put a philosopher on the spot they find it very hard to come up with good reasons. I’m not saying there aren’t good reasons. But what discussion of this kind makes people realise is that Dialetheism is not as crazy as it sounds. And even if it’s wrong, there is a really serious philosophical conversation to be had about this. So this tells us something about the way that the sociology of our profession works, in fact, about how new ideas arise and get accepted as legitimate, occupying legitimate spaces in philosophical space, and so on. The sociology of our profession is really interesting. And we don’t talk about it much except, you know, over a beer in the pub. One day, I hope some sociologists are going to actually write about the sociology of our profession. And it’ll be fascinating, you know, what gets accepted? Why, who are the gatekeepers? How does this institutional prestige play a role? To what extent are philosophers guided by fashion? Other fascinating questions! As I say, you know, there’s a lot of work to be done there. 

Dialetheists Dinner in Japan

James: You’re a dedicated practitioner of martial arts, more recently Tai Chi – what value do you draw from this? Do you feel like they can offer something that is perhaps lacking in the average 21st century lifestyle?

What is the average 21st century lifestyle? I’m not sure I know, but let me say this, the Romans had this — mens sana in corpore sano [a sound mind in a sound body]. Your mind is important. Your body is important. And if you are sitting behind a computer all day, your body is not getting much. If you spend your life doing manual labour and don’t get the intellectual stimulation, then you know, you’re going to atrophy. So it’s important that in a balanced life you have both physical and mental exercise. To what extent people achieve this well now, I’ll leave that for the anthropologists to judge. I do think that if you spend your life sitting behind a computer like I do, most of the time, getting out and doing something physical is really important. It can be any kind of physical activity or sport. Nowadays, I don’t do much martial arts because my body is slowly wearing out, but I swim. So it’s really important, I think, to get physical exercise.

Martial arts, in particular, did play a pivotal role in my life. They did a lot more for me than just provide exercise. I’m not quite sure how to say this without sounding a bit wanky. But you think of a martial art as something which teaches you to be violent, and it is not about that. I know that sounds strange. Good training in the martial arts is in disciplining your mind… also concentration, focus, ability to switch suddenly. So your spirit and your ethics, the way you relate to people in the dojo and outside the dojo. So I learned a lot from martial arts training, just from the mental and the spiritual side of them. And it did change the way that I related to people. I came to understand how my relationship with other people is so important, and their relationship with me. I recognise that I’ve learned so much from others in my life. And when I get a chance, I can teach them things too. This is part of being a good member of society. 

And oddly enough, studying martial arts changed the way I teach philosophy. I know that sounds odd, but yeah, I practised karate for many years, and for 10 or 15 years I was frequently teaching. When you’re new to martial arts, most people are not very good yet, but they can be better. So when you’re teaching martial arts, you have people that you don’t know very well. And the first thing you do is kind of have a look and see what they can do, what they can’t do, what they’re good at, what they’re not good at. And then you think, okay, that’s where they are. Now, how do I, as a teacher, get them to the next level? And then you start to practise with them things which will take them to the next level. I never thought about teaching philosophy that way until I started teaching martial arts. I just thought, you know, here’s a philosophy class, we’re going to discuss the philosophy of ‘good’. I’m probably better at it than the students, but hopefully, they’re gonna learn by engaging with me. That’s maybe a traditional way of teaching philosophy, and it works sometimes. But I wanted to teach philosophy in the way that I teach martial arts. Now, if I get a new class (and I do this with my graduate students in New York) it takes me a few weeks to get to know them. I start to think well, what do they know? What are they good at? What philosophical techniques (of which there are many) do they have in their tool bag? How can I help them to get to the next stage of being a good philosopher? And then I start to think about the things that I can do to help them along the path. Of course, I’m teaching philosophy, so we do some of the standard things like reading texts, having philosophical discussions. I’m very conscious of the pedagogical techniques. So again, my training in the martial arts and teaching martial arts did have quite a big effect on me and my pedagogy in philosophy.

“When a job’s going, people go ‘we’ve only got two philosophers in mind, we could really do with a third’. Well, hang on, we’ve got no one who teaches anything in the Asian traditions. And there’s this kind of stunned silence, and they say, ‘yeah, but we really need another philosopher of mind’…..”

Graham Priest

Anna: How has the degree of representation amongst different demographic groups changed over the course of your time in academic philosophy?

Women are over half the population, just over half. And that’s pretty constant across all societies. But of course, racial demographics change a lot from country to country. So Australia is still largely a white country with an increasing number of North African, East Asian, Indian, and Hispanic people. But I think it’s fair to say that it’s still more than 50% white. Obviously, that’s not true in all countries. In the United States, the proportion of Asian, Black, and Hispanic people is higher than in Australia. So the question about racial demographics is going to change from country to country. 

Now when it comes to the demographics of gender, the demographics have changed incredibly. Virtually every teacher I had as a student was a man, virtually every colleague for the first 10 years was male — there might have been one or two women. It was a very male group, and a very male culture. That has certainly changed, at least in Anglo countries — there are plenty of countries where that has not changed, I think, in Japan, for example, it’s still a very male profession. But certainly in the Anglosphere it’s much, much better than it was. I don’t think it’s true that there’s now a gender balance. I think, probably in most departments, there are still more men than women. But it has changed, it is much more equal than it was when I was in my early years in the profession. So that’s the most notable change.

Now when it comes to race, let’s talk about two contexts, Australia and the United States. The racial balance hasn’t changed a lot in Australia, I think in the last 40 years — there are more East Asians in Australia than there was, say 40 years ago, and that is reflected in the undergraduate population. Wave after wave of immigrants have been absorbed into Australia. But the place this has not happened is with the native Australian population, who remain on the margins of white Australia, and universities. Obviously, the Aboriginal Australian proportion of the population is very low. But it is vastly underrepresented in Australian university culture. As it is in so many cultures in Australia, whether it’s law or medicine… that has something which hasn’t changed much, and it’s about time that it did change.

In the United States, I think it’s true to say that the representation of Black and Hispanic people in the North American tertiary education system is much better than it was 40 years ago. It’s still got a long way to go. I mean, at the [CUNY Graduate] Centre, we have about 10 PhD students here. And I’ve never had never had a look at the demographics. But maybe about 20% of our students are Hispanic. We’ve got maybe two or three Black students, which is much, much less than the proportion of of those races in the general population. And Native Americans haven’t fared much better than native Australians. So they’re still a very marginalised group. 

On the racial front, there’s a long way to go. And of course, the causes of the situation are many. Some of them are very obvious — power structures, those of patriarchy and race, and class, because a lot of this has to do with wealth, especially in the United States. It is clear that there is an average wealth gap between the white population of the United States and the Black population. I’m sure there is also a gap between the white population of Australia and the native population of Australia. So I mean, there are lots of issues here. Lots of things that need to be addressed to change the situation. It has gotten better, but there’s still a hell of a long way to go.

Jack: Someone you mentioned before, Jay Garfield, wrote an opinion piece with Bryan Van Norden in which they argue that some of the practices in the field of philosophy reflect inherent racism.

That’s true. Philosophy is not sociologically neutral. Who gets taught? I mean, what philosophers get taught, what subjects get taught? What texts do we use? For a long time, philosophy was very white, and very male. And of course, if you teach that stuff, then people who come from different cultures, genders and different cultures are going to find it rather strange. And doing that ignores so much good stuff in the history of philosophy, important female philosophers, and of course, when it comes to the Asian tradition, really important Asian philosophers. So why have we not, in philosophy, changed — by increasing the proportion of texts by women philosophers and Asian philosophers? Well, we have slightly. Most departments I know now will make a point of including text by women philosophers, but in most departments in the Anglosphere you will not see much Asian philosophy taught. 

If you talk to philosophers, Anglo philosophers, they would say, look, these ancient traditions, they’re not really philosophy. You know, they’re a kind of religious mysticism. But of course, there are elements in Western philosophy too. And the sad thing was that people who had these views had never read the bloody texts. You cannot read the texts and not see that they’re great philosophers. That attitude I think now is disappearing. But there’s still a marginalisation, and that attitude really does have to change. People think of them like aesthetics — on the margins, on the fringe.  That needs to change. 

When a job’s going, people go ‘we’ve only got two philosophers in mind, we could really do with a third’. Well, hang on, we’ve got no one who teaches anything in the Asian traditions. And there’s this kind of stunned silence, and they say, ‘yeah, but we really need another philosopher of mind’. You know, it takes time to overcome these attitudes. Partly, the problems are self-reproducing — what we teach (we being the profession) are the things we know. It’s changing a bit, there are more Asian texts, and there are a lot of students now who realise they’re interested in this stuff. Gradually, the profession is changing. In 20 years time, the number of professional philosophers in the Anglosphere who know something about the Asian traditions will be a lot more than this now. It will get packed more into the undergraduate curriculum, and it will slowly improve the situation — and I look forward to the time when the philosophical curriculum in the West is equally balanced. In some sense, it’s already much better balanced in the East, because the East has had to put up with 150 years of Western imperialism. So people in India and China and Japan have had to come to terms with a lot of Western philosophy in a way that philosophers in the West have not had to come to terms with the Asian traditions. So in some sense, Asian philosophy is a long way ahead of the West in that particular regard. 

We’re at a really exciting time in philosophy. Philosophy changes all the time. You guys haven’t experienced that, because you haven’t been around for long enough, but I’ve been around. And I’ve seen philosophy change a lot in 50 years. One way in which it’s changing now is precisely that old philosophical barriers are breaking down. So the divisions between so-called analytical and so-called continental philosophy (and there’s a much bigger divide between Eastern and Western philosophy) are slowly breaking down. 

That’s really great, because it means that when you learn philosophy, when you think about philosophy, you marshal the philosophical resources you have at your disposal to address philosophical questions — and you have a much broader range of ideas, influences, and techniques, theories, and thoughts to draw on. So we are, for the first time I think, starting to see global philosophy in a genuine sense, where many philosophers now have the ability to draw the world’s philosophy (at least a lot of it) together for the first time. When you get different traditions meeting in this way, the cross-fertilisation always produces something really exciting, something greater than the sum of its parts. You see this in the history of philosophy, so many times — when Greek philosophy meets Christian philosophy, or when Indian Buddhism meets Chinese philosophy. Always fascinating new ideas come out of this. We are, I think, coming into that situation now. You know, I’m not going to be around in 50 years, 80 years, but I think that philosophy will be very different then from what it is now. And you know, I wouldn’t mind a sneak preview of what it’s going to be like in 100 years time.

Graham, 2010

Jack: What do you think of philosophy as done in Australasia versus philosophy as done in other English-speaking countries? 

Australian philosophy is very distinctive. Maybe it’s changing right now, I haven’t spent a lot of time in Australia in the last 10 years, so I’m not really in a position to judge. Of course, many of the same things are discussed in Australia and in Britain and the United States. But what was distinctive about Australian philosophy was two things.

First of all, in my experience, Australian philosophers were much more open-minded than British philosophers and North American philosophers. They were prepared to give a lot more airtime to unorthodox ideas. And you know, you’ve seen this many times in Australia. Let’s think about the kind of ideas that came out of Australian philosophy over a period of say 30 years — the mind-brain identity theory, environmental ethics, paraconsistent logic, these things did not get any airtime outside of Australia. The attitude of Australian philosophers that I’ve always met is, ‘okay, tell us something interesting. Let’s think about it. If it’s interesting, then, you know, we’ll think about it some more’. And that’s an attitude that I don’t think you get so much outside Australia. I said that David Lewis used to come back to Australia every year, and he came back precisely because of Australian philosophy, and the much more open culture to do philosophy than he was used to in the United States. So that’s one way Australian philosophy was distinctive. 

Second, philosophy in Australia is not just more open-minded, it’s also more tough-minded. So philosophers in Australia, if they thought it was a shitty idea, they would tell you, okay? Not because they wanted to sort of crucify the speaker or anything, but just because they’re frank, and they’ll tell you that that idea doesn’t work. You know, I’ve had ideas in Australia which got shut down. And that was good, because they weren’t very good ideas. So in Australia, there’s this fusion of open-mindedness and tough-mindedness. That’s a really great culture in which philosophy can flourish; new ideas are given airtime, the bad ideas are shut down. There’s less attention as to whether or not this is the latest craze coming out of Oxford or Harvard or whatever. People are interested in ideas for their own sake, but if they think they’re bad ideas, they’ll tell you. This is something I actually miss very much about the Australian philosophical culture — here, it’s not as open. When I say Australia, please hear Australasia. I always think of New Zealand as the best Australian state, and that offends everybody. Australasia is, as far as I’m concerned, one philosophical culture.

Anna: Do you think there is philosophical progress? 

The nature of philosophy and philosophical progress is a really cool philosophical question. And again, we’ve talked about it over a few beers in the pub, but we don’t talk about it much in the seminar room — we should talk about it more. My own view (and of course I can only state it here, I cannot defend it) is that philosophical progress is constituted by an increase in understanding. So, philosophical ideas of any depth do not disappear. We’re still taking ideas from Plato.

Aristotle, Nāgārjuna, the Medievals, Dōgen. Okay, some shit ideas have gone. Good riddance. But great philosophical ideas do come back. By and large, we understand the arguments better. Now we can see better what’s involved in these ideas, not because we’re smarter than these guys, but just because you’ve had how many 2000 years to think about it. So we understand the views, we’re able to improve on them, we know the weaknesses, we think of some new views. And you don’t find definitive solutions in philosophy — it doesn’t mean you can’t find views that satisfy you. I mean, most of us have views that are satisfying, but you’re never going to reach a consensus on our understanding of various issues. I think that’s evident from the history of philosophy. I think philosophical progress is constituted by an increase in the depth of our understanding of things. And, of course, lots of new fields are opening up, because philosophy interrelates with every other topic. New philosophical problems arise precisely because of this interpenetration and engagement with political science, medical ethics, science, gender studies, you name it. Maybe I should have also said, progress in philosophy is constituted by the discovery of new problems. And that might sound a kind of crazy way to phrase philosophy progress, but it isn’t. Problems are really important in philosophy, as well as our understanding of solutions.

Anna: Can you tell us about a book or a paper that had a particularly profound impact on your intellectual development?

Very hard question. The sorts of papers that I read in my first few years as a philosopher were the ones you’d predict based on my background. So you know, Frege, Russell, Klein, Carnap. And they taught me a lot about how to do philosophy. So I mean, I can’t deny that those had some impact on my philosophical development. But over the years, I’ve read so many good texts by good philosophers, both East and West. I’ve been influenced by reading Plato and Kant and Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Nāgārjuna, Dōgen, Kripke, probably lots of other people I’m forgetting. And all of them have had an impact on my thinking, just because, whether you think these philosophers are right or wrong — these are profound texts, they have insight. I try to take away the insights I can from these texts. I’ve read so many over the years that it would feel wrong to single out any.

James: What is the most controversial philosophical stance you hold?

Well, controversy will vary from community to community. Look, I’m an atheist. If I was in the south of the United States, that would be pretty controversial. In Australia no one cares about this, right? Yeah, atheist Prime Ministers and so on. So, that could be controversial depending where you are. In philosophical circles, I’d have to say Dialetheism. I think it is less controversial than it used to be — which is not saying that many people are Dialetheists, but at least the ideas have been so widespread that it’s recognised as a position in philosophical space, as it were. Many people don’t pay much attention to it, but it is recognised out there as a possibility. I suppose that’s the contentious philosophical view that I am most associated with. 

My last book was on political philosophy, and it drew on Marxist and anarchist thinking. Especially in [the US], probably in Australia, too, those are going to be pretty controversial. You know, Marxism gets a pretty bad rap in most places. And anarchists, people don’t even know what it means, because they identify it with social anarchy — which is one perfectly good meaning of anarchists, you know, chaos — but the great anarchists like Kropotkin, Bakunin, [Johann Rudolf] Rocker, they were not anarchists in that sense, they were social theorists who had a very profound understanding of the nature of society and how one might move it in a more civilised direction. So I guess my political views are probably pretty controversial, too. Those are just a few reflections on your question. 

In the classroom, 2018

Anna: Any parting words of wisdom or philosophical recommendations for our readers?

A couple of thoughts. First of all, if you’re a philosophy student, whether you’re an undergraduate or a graduate student, you’re really just learning philosophy. And that’s fine. Everybody starts somewhere, right? So you’re only going to know a little bit. There is always more than you will ever possibly know. The more I know in philosophy, the more I know I don’t know. I feel I only know a sort of small fraction of philosophy, and there’s a lot more than that. So, you know, certain humility behoves you and me — but you’ve got to start somewhere. 

Where should you start? Start with a bit that interests you most. You’ll do your best philosophical thinking in something that really engages you. Follow your interests, whatever they are. Your interests in due course will lead you all over the place, because philosophy is this kind of networked subject, where knowledge of one thing will take you into knowledge of another — but that will come in time. The thing is to do the best philosophy you can, maintain your enthusiasm, and that will be achieved by doing the things you’re enthusiastic about. Humility I’ve already mentioned. But open-mindedness is a great virtue talked about in the context of Australian philosophy. One thing about philosophy as you’re now doing it, in the way that it’s done in all parts of the world — don’t think that the way you’re learning through philosophy now is the way that you will be doing it or it will be done professionally in 20 years time or 30 years time — it won’t be. 

So bear in mind that things are gonna change, your thinking is going to change if you stay in the profession, or if you carry on thinking about philosophy. Be prepared to think about new areas that you find interesting, even though they might take you off into wild new directions. Don’t diss a philosopher just because that philosophy or those takes come from a tradition that you don’t know anything about. Be prepared to read stuff. Learn from it, maybe you’ll write it off as crappy philosophy in the end, and that’s fine too. But a lot of people will have been around in philosophy longer than you have, generally they’ll give you good advice on what’s worth reading and what’s not. Be prepared to investigate, and understand, and make your own mind up. Because in the end, in philosophy, there’s consensus about very few things. In the end, you have to make your own mind up, and when you’re making up your mind you’ll be best informed if you take into account the thinking of philosophers from a great deal of traditions. So be prepared to be adventurous — it will benefit you!

Thank you, Professor Graham Priest!

You can see more of Graham Priest’s work here.

This interview was edited and abridged by the 2021-2022 UPJA Editorial team of Jack Hawke, Jessica Sophia Ralph, Anna Day, and James Cafferky in May 2022.