Challenging epistemological arrogance, and the wait for a career epiphany: A Graduate interview with Toby Coates

By Rosie Trappes

April, 2015

Rose: You’ve studied philosophy. When and where did you do that? What kind of course was it?

Toby: I studied Logic and Philosophy at the University of Queensland between 2007 and 2010. This formed the bulk of my Bachelor of Arts, with majors in the Logic and Philosophy of Science and Political Science, supported by a (technical) minor in Philosophy.

R: What drew you to philosophy in the first place?

T: I was never (and am still not!) sure what to do with myself and my life, and had no calling to a clear career. I enjoyed looking at options and life in general, and wanted to tackle a big picture view of it all. Logic was the first major set in stone as I loved having the foundation of formulaic logic to challenge and build reasoning. The discussions offered in Philosophy and Political Science then gave me an interesting space to develop these skills while I waited for a ‘career epiphany’.

R: What have you done since then? What are you doing now?

T: After completing my Arts Degree, I wanted some time away from academia and study. I spent over a month in Melbourne learning the Luthier trade in building acoustic guitars, then returned to Queensland to join my partner in the country where she had taken up a first year teaching post in a primary school. The next year and a bit saw me learning how to cook, working with the local Mayor, selling shoes at a local sport store, and stocking shelves at the IGA from 4am.

It was time to establish some semblance of a path, and after a lot of internal debate I set my sights on teaching. One thing that frustrated me immensely during my undergraduate was that I hadn’t engaged with this ‘stuff’ before. How did all of those years of education not teach me the definitions of Argument, Validity, Soundness, etc.? Why was I never encouraged to really challenge the nature of society? Of religion? Of myself? I saw teaching as a way that I could make baby steps at injecting Logic and Philosophy into at least one school (then Australia, then the world!) whilst not ignoring my selfish interests to keep learning in the area.

I picked up HPE as a secondary teaching area – to Philosophy and Reason – and while I can’t say I enjoyed all aspects of the teaching GradDip (online study from the bush was tough), the experiences on pracs throughout Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast were an awesome challenge.

With the paperwork in my pocket, I moved myself to the Sunshine Coast where I saw some hope for P&R. One term of relief work around the place and I have since been on a growing position at a great school, arguing for (and being steadily granted) the addition of Critical Thinking and Philosophy based programs whenever anyone will listen.

R: How has philosophy helped you?

T: Studying philosophy has really pushed me through a three step process:

  1. think I know something
  2. think I know everything
  3. know I know nothing

It has stripped my knowledge bare, taking away a variety of opinions and unfounded ideas that I was weirdly attached to in that way we love to have opinions. Challenging at first, but I have loved ridding myself of this ‘epistemological arrogance’ and getting to the heart of my own questions and issues.

I have become less attached to ideals yet hungry for new perspectives; less concerned with winning debates yet more comfortable with the challenge; less engrossed in self yet more content with ‘me’ and my place in the global community.

R: What is philosophy to you?

T: I hold to the etymology and see philosophy as the simple love of wisdom. It is that joyous quest for knowledge. For me, the most beautiful of philosophical discussion is that which cuts through emotions, ambiguity and blind acceptance to challenge the core of our thoughts and understandings; it is the absolute surgery of knowledge with the cold scalpel of logic.

R: And why do you think it’s important?

T: The ongoing and conscious search for knowledge is a vital element of human evolution and being. In my mind, we are flawed and fickle beasts a long way from any ideal; but every little step to an understanding – from how to act, how to interact, how to think, etc. – is a step forward as a human and as humankind. It is also, in my view, one of the greatest journeys we can take in our personal lives; to learn is to grow.

R: Do you have any advice for people studying philosophy right now?

T: Make the most of it! Enjoy the push to explore various topics and debates you may never see when out on your own. Engage with the discussions in tutorials, and push yourself to actually read and understand the words we have from thinkers across time. It may not always feel like it, but it’s an awesome thing to be in the deep end of study and ignorance and surrounded by the quest for knowledge.

R: Who is your favourite philosopher?

T: I always like elements of various philosophers and philosophies. While I spent some assessments working against his arguments, I was drawn to Baruch Spinoza as I loved his use of deductive theorem to present ideas. His concise argument was a nice break from the rambling rhetoric and lack of clarity presented by many other texts. Beneficially, it also made it an easy treat to present and counter in only 2000 words!

I should also note a particular respect for UQ’s Dominic Hyde. I hate that I don’t know his personal views or philosophies, but I can say the man has an incredible mind for logic and critical thinking, and we can all learn a thing or many from his desire for smart and concise reasoning.

R: Do you have a favourite quote you’d like to share?

T: Relax and keep smiling.

R: What is the biggest problem we face in contemporary society?

T: What a massive question — better folk than me are needed here…

In my little bubble of experience and life, I have to say the nature and application of education is a monumental problem for the further advancement and happiness of us all. While surface politics will continue to hit new bumps and waves, the tsunami under it all is why and how we educate the future.

I sadly think we are a hell of a long way away from a truly meaningful and effective approach to education. However, with more people engaging in critical discussion and philosophy on a local and global scale, there’s always hope!

So, to any reader(s), please:

  1. Learn what good argument is
  2. Do all you can to challenge the people around you in their views and ideas; learn from them and teach when you can
  3. Attach yourself to truth, not ‘winning’
  4. Be positive and happy through it all – it’s a truly awesome gift of the human endeavour


Feature Photo by John-Mark Kuznietsov.

Toby graduated from his undergraduate degree at UQ in 2010. He currently teaches Philosophy and Reason at a Queensland secondary school.



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