In February 2022, James Cafferky, Anna Day and Jack Hawke (何健平) interviewed Graham Priest for UPJA’s Conversations from the Region, an ongoing series of discussions with philosophers from, or working in, Australasia. The segment explores how people become philosophers and how philosophers work, giving our audiences a better idea of the work that academic philosophers do.
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. 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. But 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.
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 the matter of different topics, of course; but also, if you go to different countries and see how philosophy is done there, you will see that it’s not exactly the same. It’s different in Delhi and Kyoto, Paris and Berlin, and Saõ Paulo and Mexico City. Different assumptions are made; different texts are emphasized. So it’s 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 Spinoza’s 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 things are still in the process of change. Now, there are very general of 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. There are theoretical choices to be made there as well.
Now let me come back to the caveat. 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 sometimes mathematicians don’t agree on whether something follows—I mean, there’s the now famous case about the ABC conjecture, which the Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki claimed to have a proof for about 10 years ago. Whether or not the proof works has been contentious amongst mathematicians since then. So there can certainly be contention in mathematics as well.
When you’ve got a mathematical 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. Now, paraconsistent logic has joined the fray. 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 has changed between the student culture then 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 it. 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 mathematical logic, there were some really good mathematics lecturers there, John Bell and Moshé Machover, two of my favourite lectures, and they didn’t lecture in that way! 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.
Anyway, 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. And I don’t know how old he was. I mean, I was a kid, and he seemed ancient. But probably he was 50 or 60. He had this rather gaunt face and a rather 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. So he would say, ‘sooo you think that vixen might not be a female fox!?’, and rush down the aisle and put his face about two feet away from some poor student. It was great fun!
Do I think it’s changed? That’s a bit hard to judge, because I haven’t been a student at Cambridge for a long time. I’ve taught most of my life in Australia, and in the US for the last 10 years (but only with graduate students there). 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. The people I know who 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 are engaged with 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.
Anna: We are wondering, as you started your journey in philosophy, what perception you had of philosophy as a field, and what did you most struggle with? 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 struggled with the subject. I never struggled so much with philosophy in the same way, because I enjoyed it so much. But when I started life as a professional philosopher, when I finished my doctorate, I didn’t know much philosophy! I’ve had to teach myself almost 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 Carnap—and they have a certain way of writing philosophy. I felt very much at home with 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 just 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 philosopher, it’s worth the effort. 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; but someone like Kripke, it was easy. 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 before you make a judgement!
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. But that’s a bit tangential to the issue 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 the forms of arguments are simpler; you just use basic forms, 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, logic 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 they work is really important. And some people have this quite naturally. So they don’t need to study much logic to recognise fallacious quantifier inferences, but a good knowledge of how quantifiers work is really important. 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 card-carrying logician. But I think much more important for most philosophical purposes is a knowledge of some non-classical logic: an understanding of modality, counterfactuals, vagueness, the possible failure of Excluded Middle. These are things which do have a habit of creeping into so many different areas of philosophy. So if people want to do a second 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?
That’s 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 philosophy of 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. I met someone who is now an old friend, in Australia, Jay Garfield. 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… 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’d 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 the 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. 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. And Lewisian realism about worlds is a very interesting theory, but it’s a very strange theory, and people found it very hard to 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 meet a theory that runs against those presuppositions, we’re inclined to require higher standards of argument. Because if a theory doesn’t gel with those, there’s a higher burden of proof, as it were. I think this is entirely reasonable. And I think that what David was meaning was essentially this. 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, empiricism, and so on. 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 this means is that people were going to be predisposed to being more sympathetic towards other views—ersatzism, as David called it. I do think that David had a hard time persuading people.
So, let’s talk about dialetheism. We’re in Australia, back in the late 70s. There were two dialethists in the world, myself and Richard Sylvan. As you can imagine, no one believed it. It’s like the phenomenon that I talked about just now. The principle of noncontradiction is so ingrained in philosophers—much, much more ingrained than any kind of naturalism. I mean, it’s been high orthodoxy in Western philosophy for something like 2500 years, and people found dialetheism crazy, almost literally. That’s why we got an enormous amount of pushback. I understand that. I mean 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 to David’s.
Let me make one more comment, just to finish off the thought. I’ve traveled a lot, over the years. And one reason I travel is this: 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 answer. And what I found, over the years, is that when you put a philosopher on the spot like this, 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.
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 positions in philosophical space, and so on. The sociology of our profession is really interesting. And we don’t talk about it much, except 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. What gets accepted? Why? Who are the gatekeepers? How does institutional prestige play a role? To what extent are philosophers guided by fashion? All fascinating questions! As I say, there’s a lot of work to be done there.
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, it’s not doing much for your body. If you spend your life doing manual labour and don’t get any intellectual stimulation, then your mind is 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. But 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, or not just about that, anyway. I know that sounds strange. Good training in the martial arts disciplines your mind… concentration, focus, ability to switch suddenly. It’s also about your spirit and your ethics, the way you relate to people in the dojo and outside the dojo. I learned a lot from martial arts training, just from the mental and the spiritual side of it. And it did change the way that I related to people. I came to understand how my relationship with other people is so important, as is their relationship with me. I recognised 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 all 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 people start a martial art, they’re not very good yet, but they can be better. So when you’re teaching martial arts, you have people that you probably don’t know very well in front of you. And the first thing you do is 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 ‘Here’s a philosophy class. We’re going to discuss philosophy. 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 tried to change to teaching 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 the standard things like reading texts, having philosophical discussions. But I’m very conscious of the pedagogy in which this is embedded. 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.
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 in the profession, things 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, philosophy is 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—we still have a way to go. 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. I don’t think that the racial balance of the profession has changed a lot in Australia in the last 40 years. What of students? In Australia there are more Asians 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 same has not happened with the Indigenous Australian population, who remain on the margins of white Australia, including 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, though. I mean, at the [CUNY] Graduate Centre, we admit about 10 PhD students a year. So say we have about 60 in total at any one time. I’ve never had never had a close 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 those races in the general population. And Native Americans haven’t fared much better than Indigenous Australians. They’re still a very marginalised group. So 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 Indigenous population of Australia.) So there are lots of issues to be faced 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, are going to find it rather alienating. 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 traditions, 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 texts 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 Asian traditions, they’re not really philosophy. You know, they’re religions, mysticism’. Well, those elements are present; but of course, they are present in Western philosophy too. And the sad thing is that that the people who had these views had never read the bloody texts. You cannot read the texts and not see that they’re the product of great philosophers. Fortunately, that attitude is now, I think, disappearing. But there’s still a marginalisation. People think Asian philosophy as ‘fringe’ philosophy. That needs to change.
When sitting on appointments committees, you hear people say ‘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. Then there’s this kind of stunned silence, and they say, ‘yeah, but we really need another philosopher of mind…’.
Now, 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; and what we know is what we were taught. Things are changing a bit: there are more Asian texts available, and there are a lot of students now who realise that there’s interesting stuff in these traditions. 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 it is now. It will get packaged into more of 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 balanced. In some sense, it’s already much better balanced in the East, because the East has had to put up with centuries 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 yet, because you haven’t been around long enough, but I’ve been around a bit longer than you guys. 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 the 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 have at your disposal a much broader range of ideas, influences, 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. 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. I wouldn’t mind a sneak preview of what it’s going to be like in 100 years’ time!
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; but I doubt that it has changed that much. 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 are 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. We’ve seen this many times in Australia. Think about the kinds of hereies that came out of Australian philosophy over a period of say 40 years—the mind-brain identity theory, environmental ethics, paraconsistent logic. These things did not get much airtime outside of Australia at first. 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 the way philosophy is done in Australia, 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’ll tell you so. Not because they wanted to crucify the speaker or anything, but just because they’re frank, and they’ll tell you that that idea doesn’t work. I’ve had ideas in Australia which got shot 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 shot 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 [the US], it’s not as open.
Oh, when I say Australia, please hear Australasia. I always think of New Zealand as the best Australian state! so 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 talk 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. We can see better what’s involved in these ideas, not because we’re smarter than these guys, but just because we’ve now had centuries more to think about them. So we understand the views better than they did; 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, but that 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 many issues. That’s evident from the history of philosophy. But there is more hope in reaching a consensus on an understanding of issues. 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 in philosophy, 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 also constituted by the discovery of new problems. And that might sound a kind of crazy way to say that philosophy progresses, 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, Quine, Carnap. And they taught me a lot about how to do philosophy. 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 whatever insights I can from these texts. I’ve read so many over the years that it would feel wrong to single out any in particular.
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. We’ve had atheist Prime Ministers and so on; that would be impossible in the US. So, that view could be controversial, depending where you are. In philosophical circles, I’d have to say dialetheism. I think this is a less controversial view than it used to be—which is not saying that many people are dialetheists, but at least the idea has become 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 anarchism—people don’t even know what it means, because they identify it with social anarchy, that is, chaos—which is one perfectly good meaning of the term. But the great anarchists like Kropotkin, Bakunin, [Rudolf] Rocker, were not anarchists in that sense. They were social theorists who had a very profound understanding of the nature of society and its organisation, 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.
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 know only a small fraction of philosophy, and there’s a lot more than that. So, a certain humility behoves you—and me—but you’ve got to start somewhere.
Where should you start? Start with a bit of philosophy 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. 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. I talked about that in the context of Australian philosophy. Don’t think that philosophy as you’re now doing it is the way that it’s done in all parts of the world; don’t think that the way you’re learning to do philosophy now is the way that you will be doing it, or that 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. A lot of people will have been around in philosophy longer than you have, and 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 armed to do so if you take into account the thinking of philosophers from a great many traditions. So be prepared to be adventurous—it will benefit you!
Thank you, Professor Graham Priest!
This interview was edited and abridged by James Cafferky, Anna Day, Eloise Hickey, and Mark Rothery and published in September 2022.