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9 December:  End of Year Introspection    - Caroline Brem, Alex Livingston, Chris Sanderson, Danny Beran, Peter Bowden & Sam Alexnder

Our final session of the year looked back over the last 12 months to discuss attitudes or learnings from philosophy, with or without Philoagora.  So we focussed on issues facing ourselves and our world within a philosophical format.

Caroline Brem

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Peter, Sam, Cara and Hazel for the work they put into running the show. It’s been an interesting year – my first but certainly not my last.Two meetings in particular stand out in my mind. One was the talk about mind and matter; the other was the last one of the year: Karen Lai’s talk on Eastern philosophy. This latter brought to mind a book I’ve read several times over in the 25 or so years since it was first published.And I’m going to take the liberty of reading a short passage from the foreword of the book:‘What’s this you’re writing?’ asked Pooh, climbing onto the writing table.‘The Tao of Pooh,’ I replied.‘The how of Pooh?’ asked Pooh, smudging one of the words I had just written.‘The Tao of Pooh,’ I replied, poking his paw away with my pencil.‘It seems more like the ow! of Pooh,’ said Pooh, rubbing his paw.‘Well, it’s not,’ I replied huffily.‘What’s it about?’ asked Pooh, leaning forward and smearing another word.‘It’s about how to stay happy and calm under all circumstances!’ I yelled.‘Have you read it?’ asked Pooh.And still quoting:That was after some of us were discussing the Great Masters of Wisdom, and someone was saying how all of them came from the East, and I was saying that some of them didn’t, but he was going on and on, just like this sentence, not paying any attention, when I decided to read a quotation of Wisdom from the West, to prove that there was more to the world than one half, and I read:‘When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,’ said Piglet at last ‘What’s the first thing you say to yourself?’‘What’s for breakfast?’ said Pooh. ‘What do you say, Piglet?’‘I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?’ said Piglet.Pooh nodded thoughtfully.‘It’s the same thing,’ he said.‘What’s that?’ the Unbeliever asked.‘Wisdom from a Western Taoist,’ I said.‘It sounds like something from Winnie-the-Pooh,’ he said.‘It is,’ I said.‘That’s not about Taoism,’ he said.‘Oh, yes it is,’ I said.‘No, it’s not,’ he said.‘What do you think it’s about?’ I said.‘It’s about this dumpy little bear that wanders around asking silly questions, making up songs, and going through all kinds of adventures of intellectual knowledge or losing his simpleminded sort of happiness. That’s what it’s about,’ he said.‘Same thing,’ I said.That was when I began to get an idea: to write a book that explained the principles of Taoism through Winnie-the-Pooh, and explained Winnie-the-Pooh through the principles of Taoism.When informed of my intentions, the scholars exclaimed, ‘Preposterous!’ and things like that. Others said it was the stupidest thing they’d ever heard, and that I must be dreaming. Some said it was a nice idea, but too difficult. ‘Just where would you even begin?’ they asked. Well, an old Taoist saying puts it this way: ‘A thousand-mile journey starts with one step.’So I think that we will start at the beginning…..So, my question for philosophy is this:How do we become what we are? At what age or stage does a human decide to ‘be something’? Did Plato wake up one morning and say ‘I’m going to be a philosopher’?The one I find most puzzling, actually, is the male who decides to spend the rest of his working life looking at female genitalia.Anyway, if Plato did decide, what did he do? Did he find a school or a university in Athens with Phil 101 on the list of courses for the next semester?So, in my mind, there are two strands to this subject: do those who study the history of philosophy come to call themselves, at the end of their university courses, philosophers?Or do some people have a special set of wiring in their brain which gives them a wisdom the rest of us don’t have.Do philosophers, like evangelists, proclaim themselves to be such? Or does the title come to them? And if the latter, from whom, by whose authority?Philosophy, I think, is a way of rationalising the world we inhabit; a way of explaining the often inexplicable.Which leads to the observation, on my part, that philosophy and religion seem to have, on the one hand, much in common but, on the other hand, seem intent on disenfranchising one another.Perhaps what I have learned is that Eastern philosophy gives me simple messages to help me cope with the life I try to live, where Western philosophy seems more to be about using esoteric language in order to sound more erudite, which mainly makes for obfuscation rather than enlightenment or clarification.And I’d like to finish with a quote from Malcolm Fraser, of which only half is usually cited:Life, he said, wasn’t meant to be easy, but it was meant to be interesting.Thank you all for being here this evening. 


Peter Bowden:  

I have to start off by stating that I have come to believe that Philosophy is fascinating rubbish, - or if you prefer, intriguing codswallop. And that Philo agora has done nothing to help change this pictureWhy?Well; first we have to define philosophy – what does it do? Unfortunately, if we asked every person in this room for a definition, we would get many different answers. So we have to supply our own understanding.

I like, most of all, the definition that says that it tells us how to live. But if we explore that version – ask ourselves how we want to live – we find philosophy unbelievable deficient. For a start, we don’t even know the questions that we should ask about how to live Who am I? Should I believe in God? Is there an afterlife? Do I have a soul? How did I start? How did the universe start? What should I seek to do in life? Many theories – no answers. I am not even sure that these are the questions I should be asking.

Another definition – love of wisdom – is equally unrewarding. In fact, it seems to me the definitions are identical. For I would love to be wise. But I do not know the topics and issues on which I want to be wise about – except on how I should lead my life On one question – how should I live - with my family? –with 5 billion other people in this world ? - Philosophy does provide some response. It tells us that we should live morally. Great! But the trouble is that philosophy does not tell us what is meant by living morally.

There are again a dozen different moral theories. Virtue ethics, deontology, utilitarianism, justice, duty of care, etc, etc.But they are fascinating topics - intriguing even. Just exploring the topics is immensely satisfying...But it is so sad that we can come up only with answers for ourselves –We can spend hours trying unsuccessfully to convince others that we have the answers - or as academics, write papers

If we look at the other branches of philosophy that are taught in the schools of philosophy around the world – metaphysics, of course, is incomprehensible – Do I exist ? Is this chair really here? What colour is blue? The other branches - epistemology (what is knowledge?); logic; aesthetics (what is beauty?); philosophy of the mind (what is a mind?) are equally riven by dispute and disagreement. They have the added disadvantage that they do not tackle the core issue of how we lead our life. And the philosophies of the disciplines and humanities - philosophy of science, of love, of art, of music are a wonderful way to be freed from the rigours of a facts based discourse – they just soar, constrained only by a speaker’s creative limitations.

So what has Philo Agora done to help us? Nothing. Clearly - nothing. No one stream of widely accepted thought has emerged over the many years that we and its predecessor at Berkelouws have been running We say we are a peoples’ café – we set our objectives on our website - ideas on the issues facing ourselves and our world within a philosophical format.Do we do that? Of course not. We can’t. If philosophy schools around the world are still arguing, how can one little suburban café in Sydney make any impact? We do have talks on the big issues - God, our minds, free will, religious belief, etc but all you get is one speaker’s interpretation. In fact it is somewhat like presenting papers in a department of philosophy – not that any of us have that experience. Your interpretation opposed to other interpretations is how you rise up the academic ladder.

But there is the joy, It is fun, even creative, You will not have picked up one single idea on how to lead your life, But you will have enjoyed the talks If you gave one, you will have enjoyed the search, even the attempt to convince others of your wisdom, that your ideas should be adopted. That you did not succeed is immaterial.


Sam Alexander

What has Philo Agora meant to me? Other than the trials and tribulations associated with getting a night together for 30 to 50 people, it has changed me considerably in three ways.

1. What I have learnt from the other speakers. There is almost a “lucky dip” feel about any night here. From the presenter, the talk itself, and most interestingly, from the contrasting comments from the audience.The one specific talk I’ll mention is from last year “The Celtic Philosophy of John O’Donohue from his book ANAM CARA– as understood by Mary Hendriks.“We are a knowledge based society, without a real sense of the rhythm of living. In this book, John moves from the mind of the scholar, to the Celtic connection to the natural and spiritual. He has therefore moved away from the external God of his Catholic training, to a concept where the physical body and its connection with nature is celebrated, and where the physical becomes the link to a spiritual dimension which is internal rather than external.”In essence, not only do we have our mind, our ego, our heart, our soul, but we also carry our God around with us. This thought has changed the way I see life and society.

2. The second interesting lesson is what I have learnt in preparing a talk. I often used to quote that, “a hypocrite is someone who believes one thing, preaches a second, and practices a third.” I had no idea that it was in fact the basis for my talk on “Values, Ethics and Morals.” i.e. Beliefs, Rules and Practice.

3. Finally, the most important lesson I take away with me, is that I have learnt to speak and listen more carefully. I can no longer run off at the mouth and expect to get away with garbage; there is always someone here who will challenge me. Similarly, I am more inclined to challenge another on their statements. As a consequence, I believe that I am a better person because of my attendance here.I therefore want to thank the past and future speakers who give us the topics to discuss, and of course, you the people who make this such a wonderful social occasion within the ambience of the Fair Trade Cafe.  

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