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Philosophy for the people: commencing a dialogue

Perth City.

I have always been interested in how we try to understand the world in which we live, and artworks provide us with a great stimulus for such discussions. My research focuses on aesthetics, ethics and education and I believe philosophy has an important role to play in encouraging critical and creative thinking.

My PhD thesis focused on whether or not films could be morally educative and encourage critical and compassionate responses from audiences. The contemporary virtue ethicist, Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher at the University of Chicago, writes about how narrative artworks can help us to practice a moral attitude.

By imaginatively engaging with characters who we may not meet in real life, or by considering scenarios we may never actually find ourselves in, we can practice empathising with others and seeing from another point of view. We can learn from fictions in this way by being open to new experiences that we see in our mind’s eye.

With films, of course, we don’t even have to imagine the scene, as it is depicted in lifelike fashion before us on a screen. These narratives can teach us something new and encourage openheartedness.

When I was writing my thesis, I worried that the majority of blockbuster films portrayed dubious moral messages of, for example, the value of money, beauty, fame and consumerism. That was about six years ago. And it has been fascinating to see how television shows have really come into their own and are now being created about a whole range of topics, most often depicting flawed characters with whom we are asked to identify or at least sympathise.

The contemporary viewer has many choices and they can engage critically with intelligent series, or they can switch their brains off and “veg out” in front of reality TV. Human curiosity is an incredible driving force and we connect with others by telling stories. The stories we tell are important and it’s important to keep telling all the stories, as well as supporting and questioning those voices that are courageous enough to speak up.

I didn’t set out to study philosophy. I knew I wanted to complete a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Western Australia. I had decided not to continue studying music at tertiary level, although I loved playing percussion, I felt I wasn’t passionate enough about it to make it my career. After a gap year spent travelling to England, Greece and Italy, I selected psychology and English literature classes but needed another unit to round out my timetable. Philosophy best suited my schedule, although I expected to find it difficult. By the end of my first year I knew I would major in philosophy, having found something that suited how I thought about life, the universe and everything.

My PhD supervisor, Professor Michael Levine from UWA, has always been an inspiration to me because he keeps writing on the most interesting and current topics. He inspired my thesis topic after I took his Philosophy and Film class in third year.

For my thesis, I chose to concentrate on Hollywood blockbusters because I believed they were the medium most people watched, connected with and enjoyed. I was sure the only way to successfully complete a PhD was if you had a topic you were really interested in, and I enjoyed being able to chat with anyone and everyone about whether or not movies could affect viewers. It’s a subject almost everyone has an opinion on, and I enjoy listening to diverse perspectives. I have always believed that if you can explain something simply enough, everyone can contribute to a thoughtful discussion on the topic.

My mum tells me she raised a philosopher because she always took my “why?” questions seriously. I would chat with her and her friends over dinner, and accompany her to music and dance performances and art exhibitions, never thinking any of this was unusual. She was a potter (ceramicist) and my friends and I would often play with clay in her workshop on the weekends.

When I eventually discovered philosophy for children it was a natural fit for me as it made perfect sense to encourage childrens’ natural inquisitiveness. I’ve been involved with Philosophy in Schools ever since and believe it is of the utmost importance to support critical thinking early on and allow children to question the ideas presented to them.

I am grateful to be a part of this new philosophy blog. Philosophers aren’t always very good at making their voices accessible, and we have a lot of knowledge to share given that philosophy draws on ideas from the beginning of recorded history.

I love that we still ask the same human questions about life and meaning, but we also have very modern questions to consider now that our technology has advanced at such a rapid rate. I also know that women philosophers need to speak up and make their voices heard as well.

There is room for all the stories, and we all have a unique perspective on life given our own experiences, but I believe humans still share the same values of wanting to lead a good and happy life. I look forward to sharing more ideas and entering into a dialogue with many new people.

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