Rose: You’ve studied philosophy. When and where did you do that? What kind of course was it?
David: I began studying philosophy as part of an Arts degree which I commenced at ACU in 1998. I did a lot of my undergraduate philosophy with Mark Wynn. Mark was an excellent teacher (as well as both kind and encouraging). The first of his lectures which I attended was on Decartes’ Meditations, and it had a substantial impact; so much so that I decided to double-major in philosophy. I then did Honours, where I became increasingly interested in philosophical logic. I wrote my Honours Thesis on Quine’s critique of modality. At the suggestion of John Ozolins (who supervised my Honours work) I came to UQ to work on my PhD. In my PhD I worked on some problems to do with intensional logic. Supervised by Dominic Hyde, I completed my PhD in 2014. Throughout all my studies I’ve also had a ‘normal’ job, so I’ve studied almost entirely part-time.
R: What drew you to philosophy in the first place?
D: When I was a teenager I became interested in Nietzsche, which I now tend to regard as a youthful indiscretion. But it is undeniable that his writings sparked my interest in philosophy.
R: How has philosophy helped you?
D: I think that philosophy has helped me to become a more careful thinker than I would otherwise have been. By this I don’t mean to suggest that I ever get anything right! I just mean that studying philosophy has encouraged me to pay attention to the details of an argument, to consider multiple points of view, and provide thoughtful and respectful criticism where it is warranted.
R: What is philosophy to you and why do you think it’s important?
D: I suppose that philosophy is a discipline which seeks to facilitate understanding. I vaguely recall that a philosopher is (literally) a ‘lover of wisdom’. Whether all wisdom can or should be loved is an open question. But a mere passing acquaintance with the state of humanity should be sufficient to show that a lot more thoughtfulness is currently required.
R: Do you have any advice for people studying philosophy right now?
D: My only advice to those currently studying philosophy is to keep studying philosophy.
R: Who is your favourite philosopher?
D: I think that my favourite philosopher is Nelson Goodman. The breadth of his contribution to 20th century analytic philosophy is impressive. Early on he did a lot of work in logic, especially mereology. But he then went on to do work in epistemology, the philosophy of art and metaphysics. His approach to all these areas was characterised by a constructivistic nominalism, which I am intrigued by. He was also an exceptionally clear and elegant writer. Goodman is almost the only philosopher whose work I can read purely for pleasure.
R: Do you have a favourite quote you’d like to share?
D: At one point Wittgenstein was interested in G. E. Moore’s work on the question of what we can know with certainty. In response to this work, Wittgenstein imagines the following scenario:
“I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again ‘I know that that’s a tree’, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: ‘This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.’” (On Certainty, p. 61).
R: What is the biggest problem we face in contemporary society?
D: I’m not confident that I’m sufficiently qualified to answer this one. If pushed, I suppose that I would say that our obsession with ourselves strikes me as something of a problem. In our society we obsess over ‘me’ and what’s ‘mine’, which I think tends to result in conflict between a large number of ‘me’s all fighting over what each thinks is ‘theirs’ (i.e., fighting over ‘their country’, ‘their religion’, ‘their parking space’, etc.). However, it seems to me that a little philosophical reflection (viz., a little reflection of the mereological reductionist variety) shows us that there really is no ‘me’, and thus nothing which is ‘mine’, and thus nothing to fight and suffer over. However, I’m sure that I’ll receive angry letters from Platonists about this.
David Parsons completed his PhD on logic at UQ last year. He is currently a casual lecturer in Formal Logic at UQ.