ABSTRACT

Raimond Gaita’s writings celebrate life. That statement will come as no surprise to readers of Romulus, My Father, Gaita’s book about his father and the events of his childhood. But it is true perfectly generally, of his philosophy and his ‘public’ writings as well as of Romulus. Celebrating life in moral philosophy? Some will find this strange, even suspect.

Surely for over 2,000 years philosophy has understood itself as calling on the spirit of dispassionate rational reflection. Gaita would not disagree. But as I read him he thinks that sometimes such reflection can be wholly truthful only if undertaken in a spirit of celebration, and that this is especially so in moral philosophy, his main concern. Socrates famously said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ and Gaita rightly sees Socrates (and Plato) as living out that conviction as a distinctively philosophical mode of celebration. Gaita’s philosophizing gives us his own such mode. Many griefs and terrors rise before us in Romulus, My Father. Remarkably,

they do not qualify the book’s spirit of celebration but deepen it. Only the work of a very fine thinker and writer can display this almost-paradox. In that book Gaita says, of those whose sufferings he portrays, that ‘their lives were broken but never diminished’. It is an extraordinary thing to say, and more extraordinary still that the book shows us its truth, by letting those thus broken become present to us as ‘undiminished’. This imaginatively realized truth in Romulus dovetails with the ‘full humanity’ – sometimes Gaita calls it the ‘absolute preciousness’ – of human beings on which his philosophical work often reflects. In this and other ways, Gaita’s philosophy is porous to the spirit infusing

Romulus. His books Good and Evil, A Common Humanity and The Philosopher’s Dog – the heart of his philosophical work – all manifest it. For this reason his writings in moral philosophy give us not just different arguments for various views, but also something much rarer: a different philosophical voice, philosophy in a different register. One thing this means is that Gaita’s work is a constant exploring of what

philosophy is, and a testing of the boundaries between it and other kinds of writing. Perhaps the best work in philosophy always constitutes its own specific answer to the question of what philosophy is. Certainly revisiting the question

is ever an important task for philosophy. Over 2,000 years ago Plato spoke of the ‘quarrel’ between poetry and philosophy as he sought to shape a personal and cultural space for the practice of philosophy. That space was not secure then (and it is not secure now). This is not because ‘what philosophy is’ is perfectly clear, and there is just a question of whether our (or any) culture will continue to value it. Philosophy is unique among ‘disciplines’ because the question of just what is involved in philosophizing is always a contested one. ‘What philosophy is’ is never simply clear. If keeping that question open has always been important it is especially so

now. The kind of reflective space needed for the best philosophical work is hard to keep open under the growing pressure upon and within universities to justify what they do in terms of ‘output’. The ever-increasing professionalization of philosophy is partly (though only partly) a response to this pressure. Highly polished articles in ‘the best’ journals thoroughly embedded in all the relevant literature; work in epistemology, ethics, logic, and philosophy of mind drawing on and contributing to work in psychology, evolutionary psychology, neurobiology, and cognitive science to help push back, bit by bit, the frontiers of what is agreed to be ‘real knowledge’: while good things can come from these trends, they also carry real dangers. Philosophy’s professionalization is in tension with that lack of given definition of what philosophy is that has always animated its most important contributions. The English philosopher Roger Scruton described The Philosopher’s Dog –

about our lives with animals – as ‘an experiment in narrative philosophy’. Another commentator said that the book was written ‘across the boundary between the philosophical and the personal’; Simon Critchley described A Common Humanity as ‘a series of ethical meditations drawn from the midst of things’; and another reviewer has spoken of a ‘purity and simplicity of voice rarely achieved in philosophy’. Of course the house of philosophy can have many mansions. But these comments rightly suggest that Gaita’s work instantiates one novel possibility for philosophy – at least for moral philosophy, broadly understood – as a humanly rich practice of reflection that also deepens our public culture. This reminds us that as well as being a philosopher and the author of

Romulus, Rai Gaita is also a public intellectual. That can mean different things, even when the public intellectual is also a philosopher (most are not). There is ‘popular philosophy’, philosophy made simpler than it really is – for better or worse – for a ‘non-professional’ audience. There is also philosophy – usually ethics – ‘applied’ to particular issues of social and political importance. While these modes of writing sometimes overlap, often they do not – ‘applied ethics’ can be dauntingly detailed or technical or abstract or sometimes just inhuman. But Gaita’s writings as a public intellectual belong to neither mode. His distinction is to explore such issues in ways that deepen his readers’ sense of what is at stake in ‘everyday’ concerns, attitudes, practices, understandings, questions. Gaita does not water the philosophy down, he lifts his ‘public’ readers up. This is not philosophy simply ‘applied’. Gaita’s writings in this

vein are often creative contributions to philosophy at the very same time as they illuminate public debate. This is a rare combination. In his writings as a public intellectual Gaita has often reflected on the heights

and depths of human experience: on (among much else) genocide, the Holocaust, the dispossession and brutalization of Australia’s aboriginal peoples, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iraq war, torture, murder, suicide, shame and remorse, and also on love in its many varieties, including what he calls ‘the love of saints’. Many of these heights and depths are also explored in his more purely – the difference is one of degree – philosophical writings, as they are, in rather different ways, in Romulus. It is vital to appreciate that these heights and depths are not at odds with, do not at all exclude, ‘the ordinary’. On the contrary, in all his work the ordinary is bathed in the light, takes on the resonance, of the extraordinary. If all of Gaita’s work celebrates life, the essays in this collection aim to

celebrate his work. Picking up many of the themes indicated above, the essays range across Gaita’s writings and domains of interest. Some engage his work directly, others build on it or alongside it, others testify to its spirit in still different ways. And one of the ways these essays honour Gaita is by making their own contributions to the issues they explore. Lars Hertzberg explores aspects of what Gaita means by ‘our common

humanity’ through reflection on Gaita’s discussions of racism and on other everyday ways in which we deny our common humanity with others. Hertzberg argues that rather than consisting in a specific property we share which then justifies limits on our acceptable moral responses, our common humanity is ‘the result of a reflection on our responses’, a ‘result’ that is never fully determinate. Hertzberg’s essay shares with Coghlan’s and Lloyd’s the idea that philosophy’s conceptual articulations always depend on an imaginative background that exceeds them. StephenMulhall exploreswhat he calls ‘the religious impulse’ in Gaita’swriting.

Mulhall queries Gaita’s disavowal of any religious orientation, especially when he acknowledges the power of saintly love to reveal the ‘absolute preciousness’ of human beings. Mulhall agrees with Gaita that ‘the God of the philosophers’ is irrelevant to anything Gaita says. But Mulhall argues, across more than one front, that ‘the work of saintly love’ as Gaita invokes it actually depends on an unacknowledged affirmation of the God of religion. Jonathan Glover discusses the role of ‘the unthinkable’ in Gaita’s philosophy.

Gaita has argued that some things are simply unthinkable, and for that reason already beyond the pale of serious consideration; and that appreciation of this gives us a different perspective on the real scope of philosophical reflection. While accepting the force of much of what Gaita says, Glover argues that some of Gaita’s claims about the unthinkable have unduly conservative implications, whether for the practice of science or in reflection on social and political issues. Christopher Cordner’s essay picks up some of Gaita’s reflections on goodness.

Gaita links goodness to a mode of love that reveals the ‘absolute

preciousness’ of human beings and that can affirm the beauty of the world. He also often invokes Socrates’ valuing of justice, and the Platonic Good, in speaking to these themes. While acknowledging important connections there, Cordner explores whether Gaita’s invocations of Socrates and Plato sometimes blur important differences between their outlooks and what is most important in his own. In his essay, Antony Duff identifies three themes of Gaita’s exploration of

how we can respond to moral wrongs, and asks whether those themes could and should inform how we think about the meaning of crime, and of criminal trial and punishment. The idea of recognition unites the themes: recognition of wrongs as wrongs, and not merely as the cause of harm or loss identifiable in non-moral terms; recognition of both the perpetrator and the victim as our fellows; and recognition, by an offender in his or her remorse, of wrongdoing. Duff outlines, and affirms, a vision of the criminal law as it would be if informed by these three modes of recognition. Marina Barabas asks why goodness, at the heart of Gaita’s moral philosophy,

has been ‘of little concern to ethics’. She argues that ‘the ethical’ is not a human universal, and tells a persuasive and subtle story of its emergence in classical Greece, and of how and why its continuing influence makes goodness hard for us to recognize reflectively, even when we encounter it as authoritative in our everyday experience. Barabas not only brings out difficulties in the way of appreciating one of Gaita’s main themes, but also helps reposition us to overcome them. Avishai Margalit asks why we should respect human beings. He finds that

traditional answers to this question alternate between ‘kitsch’ (sentimentalizing human victimhood) and ‘deification’ (treating human beings as divine or as images of the divine). Explaining his wariness of both these answers, Margalit fashions his own humanistic one – that human beings warrant respect by ‘being icons of one another’. This answer picks up, but reshapes, Gaita’s concern with our ‘common humanity’. Margalit’s concerns overlap with Martin Krygier’s. Krygier outlines what

Gaita has written about ‘blindness’ to other human beings. In its light he reflects on what Gaita has said about the landmark High Court Mabo judgement on native land title in Australia and its implications, and then continues to tell the human depths of those legal, social, and political implications in his own voice. Krygier ponders both the difficulty and the importance of our becoming ‘re-minded’ of the meaning of the original dispossession of Aboriginal people. Only out of such a re-minding, Krygier suggests, is there any hope for our truthful reconciliation with them. Robert Manne’s essay seeks to appreciate the so-delicately-realized authority

of Primo Levi’s writings about the Holocaust. Manne first reflects on what Gaita says about the distinctive evil of the Holocaust, and in particular on his view that the concept of genocide is inadequate for characterizing it. Gaita has argued that the Holocaust ‘represented the most radical attack on the preciousness of the individual of which history has record’. In a tone finely

attuned to Levi’s own, Manne speaks to the ways in which Levi bears witness to this conception of its evil. At the same time, Manne finds that what he calls ‘moments of reprieve’ in Levi’s account are also crucial to its authority. M. M. McCabe explores Plato’s Charmides to try to answer the question of

how knowledge can be somehow general or universal, as she thinks Plato supposes it to be, while self-knowledge must ‘accommodate the particular [self] and be peculiar to it’. McCabe’s answer finds that Plato ascribes an exemplary character to the Socratic aspiration to self-knowledge, as it is enacted in Plato’s text. Each reader is summoned, precisely in his or her philosophical engagement with the text, to appreciate the necessity of striving for such selfknowledge. Genevieve Lloyd finds that philosophical issues arising from ‘literary’ features

of Romulus, My Father pose questions about the relations between philosophy and literature. Lloyd explores the way the description of landscape in Romulus takes on moral dimensions, which in turn mediate how the events narrated are ‘given’ to the reader. At issue throughout, says Lloyd, is the requirement of truthful telling, essentially linked to tone and style of writing. Truthfulness is recast in terms of ‘voice’ rather than Platonic or Murdochian ‘vision’; and Lloyd then explores how the subtle exercise of imagination is involved in finding a truthful voice. Peter Coghlan’s essay also ponders the relations between philosophy and

the reach of imagination. The kind of witness or testimony Coghlan says is required for ‘full appreciation’ of Romulus, My Father he also finds embedded at ‘crucial points’ in moral philosophy. This means, he thinks, that what is needed for the truth of any work dealing with ‘the realm of meaning’ – and this includes any worthwhile works in moral philosophy – cannot be laid down in advance. The imagination always has an unpre-emptable creative contribution to make. ‘Witness’ is a mode of responsiveness to that creativity. Nick Drake wrote the screenplay for the film of Romulus, My Father. His

essay recounts various issues that arose in the transposition – his own word – from the book to the film, and tells how he, along with the director and others, engaged with them. How was what shows in the ‘fluid, reflective’ prose of the book, to be revealed through the ‘different expressive possibilities’ of film? And how can the truthfulness which so many readers have felt in the book be realized in that very different medium? Each viewer must decide whether the film rose to these demands, but it is a matter of record that it was chosen as best Australian film of the year at the Australian Film Industry Awards in 2007. Peter Steele takes a poet’s liberties to celebrate what he finds matters most

in Gaita’s philosophy. He does this by bringing Gaita into the orbit of Samuel Johnson, the great eighteenth-century English poet and critic, with his vitality, robustness, and earthy, imaginative fertility. Steele finds no ‘quarrel’, as Plato called it, between poetry and philosophy as sources of insight. He brings out beautifully the continuity of moral philosophy as Gaita practises it with the poet’s imaginative opening up of our lives to ourselves.