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Australian philosophy and reconstruction of the renaissance citizen

I consider myself to be a child of the European Enlightenment. This is not only because of my Irish heritage, but because of my admiration for the development of questions and ideas from Greek philosophers, from the industrial revolution and from the establishment of modern science. People from other continents and countries have pursued their own understandings, but what might be broadly called European thought and perspective is my starting point.

While it is often said that American Pragmatism stood European philosophy on its head, I am pleased to draw upon this tradition as well. Both projects were asking questions of human existence from their cultural standpoints, attempting to understand our place in the universe and implications for how to live. Yes, there are significant differences between and within these traditions, but their similar direction and resolution can assist human understanding.

As far as Australia is concerned, I am not aware of what might be called a distinctively Australian philosophy regarding these matters. That is, an underlying set of views held by ordinary people that form the basis of beliefs, values and customs arising. Australia has only had a short history since British colonisation, making the development of an independent, coherent and indeed international philosophical framework somewhat problematic.

Taking these considerations into account, I want to propose the table below as a preliminary outline of Australian philosophy, a philosophy arising from ordinary experience. It suggests seven concepts from which we can identify main ideas and current beliefs of the Australian community and then, what broad and consistent understandings or world view that may be formulated over the decades ahead.

Table 1. Outline of Australian Philosophy (draft only, for discussion)


(Broad concept)



(Main idea)


(Current beliefs)


(General acceptance)

Origin Unity of opposites Pluralist Dialectical emergence
Harmony Cosmic order Part of whole Wholeness beyond
Land Of the land Strong connections Naturalist existence
Materialism Reality World exists World experienced
Truth Shared viewpoints Pluralist Meaning known
Knowledge Relational objects Reason, experience Existence and essence
Virtue Excellent conduct Equality Flourishing humanity


It is apparent that the table draws inspiration from Greek philosophy, in particular Aristotle and from American Pragmatism. It suggests that human understanding comes from our direct experience of the universe and involves a combination of sensory perception and reason over time. The revolutionary view of Protagoras, that ‘man is the measure of all things’ rather than the gods, can be seen throughout.

From an Australian point of view, the concept of ‘land’ is central to thinking, given the diverse nature of landscape, an island continent with huge expanse and presence regardless of population centres dotted mainly around the periphery. There is strong, emotional awareness of land. Therefore, any attempt at identifying an Australian world view must incorporate Indigenous philosophy of living and ways of knowing, where connections with the land involve social being that is ‘of the land’, with earth as mother.

Theorised by John Dewey and other pragmatists, humans engage the world through a process of investigation and inquiry to solve problems regarding interest and progress. Knowledge is constructed as we probe relationships between the objects of practice and thought, and note the impact that our actions have on experience. Heraclitus had similar views regarding constant flux in the universe and the dialectical unity of apparently contradictory elements.

Dialectical processes involving the unity of opposites can be taken as the foundation of order and harmony throughout the cosmos, a view supported by Hegel and Marx. We can observe this process occurring as humans work through what it means to live with virtue, or excellent conduct; the basis of what Aristotle understood as ‘human flourishing’.

It is extremely difficult to ascertain how these philosophical conceptions inform Australian thinking at present, although certain aspects are apparent in different locations. In a previous time, for example, with a much higher proportion of the workforce being employed in manufacturing, construction and agricultural work, there was a greater emphasis and commonality on a shared industrial experience and the ideas, or truths, encountered.

Australians today have a range of views regarding human origin that probably exist in many other similar countries. Generalised truths can be promulgated by different authorities, while personal truths of what is real arise from direct experience, including advice from family, formal education, and community histories. Such pluralism is supportive of democratic life, although it can tend to separate social groupings rather than unite around concepts of what it means to be flourishingly human.

Given that the European Enlightenment was about autonomy and emancipation, the right to think, express and act for ourselves, to eliminate all forms of oppression and ignorance once and for all, my thoughts cannot help but return to that of the renaissance citizen. We think of Leonardo and Michelangelo in this regard, where new ideas and knowledge emerged across literature, art, politics and religion: a new humanism where citizen wisdom and character were recognised.

This may be seen as a somewhat romantic and idealised vision of a bygone age, an image of the European village green, small workshops and the carving of violins by expert craft workers. It neglects the advances in health, education and housing that we enjoy today, including services like electricity and clean water. But humanity requires a vision of something, of the compassionate, meaningful and connected society that, despite economic advances, many would argue is lacking in emotion and heart.

It is doubtful if the notion of Australian Philosophy sketched above will produce a new renaissance citizen, at least in the short term. But consideration thereof will provide a benchmark for critique of the dominant neoliberal market ideology and establish a democratic framework for communities, individuals and institutions to reimagine and reconstitute how they live, learn, work and love. It is a contribution to the world for peace and justice.

Dr Neil Hooley is Honorary Fellow, College of Arts and Education, Victoria University Melbourne.

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