Friday, April 15

Philosophy remains relevant

I attended the ‘The Biennial Conference in Philosophy Religion and Culture’ held in Sydney quite some time ago. The theme then was “Creation, Nature and the Build Environment”, which is even more relevant today.     

Keynote Address.   
The keynote address was by three New Zealand academics namely Elizabeth Aitken-Rose, Douglas Pratt and Jennifer Dixon on “Community and Incarceration: The Architecture of Alienation and the Politics of Redemption”.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies (Kings College, London) New Zealand has the fifth highest rate of incarceration per head of population in the OECD – after the USA, Chile, Poland and Czechoslovakia – and well ahead of Australia. New Zealanders pride themselves on breaking records and perhaps the most impressive is the rate at which they lock people up and throw away ongoing responsibility. A new prison in the city of Auckland looms large over the surrounding urban landscape: it is a larger, gloomier, shadier and more embarrassingly obvious human cage than anyone had anticipated. From a Correctional perspective, the locality addresses essential needs. It is close to the courts and a perfect situation for the requisite remand centre. ‘

The presenters argued the need for a radical improvement in the design and administration of prisons to combat the world wide high degrees of recidivism. Their multi-faceted approach highlighted the physiological and religious fundamentalism perpetuated in the design roots from a medieval societal view of incarceration. Those involved were currently working with the NZ government to instigate design improvements and were of particular interest to the press in Australia. In NZ it currently costs the state $90,000 pa per prisoner.

At the conference the conclusion reached was that a cluster of smaller type housing for prisons would engender a much better outcome over the favoured current mega structures.


The environment was a popular theme with a large number of papers talking about eco-spirituality and drawing attention to environmental concerns.

(Fr) Gregory Jacobs's paper argued ‘that there needs to be a change away from the dualistic model of a mechanical worldview when we look at creation, and returning to an organic, or holistic model. Here he believed that the Temple theology (the idea of reverence for the temple to encapsulate the earth as the sacred tabernacle) of the Old Testament, and a deeper understanding of the ‘creation covenant ‘are helpful starting points for analysing the creation stories, and thereby gaining a new understanding of both our place in the environment, and our use of the resources of the earth.

Cullan Joyce’s religious thinking about the environment focused on moral issues and on spirituality. His paper approached the question as something that should be of concern to the systematic theologian. As such it asked what saving the environment might have to do with the doctrine of salvation. This entailed a consideration of the connection between the doctrines of creation and salvation. In the end, it may all be a question of how we understand and communicate an adequate understanding of the eschaton.

Personally I think the wisdom of Albert Schweitzer is to be recommended though inevitably there are flaws in his philosophy as there are in any philosophy. His insight contained within his ‘Reverence for life’ involved the ethic of love evidenced in the New Testament to be realized in one’s natural occurring gifts.

Schweitzer’s ideas were to think positively about life (life affirmation as he calls it) to share with all living things in the world in which we live. His idea came from his concern about civilization which he thought had lost its spiritual roots because of our lack of reverence for life as the post enlightenment worldview which had become totally reliant on reason. His philosophy was not a utopian ideal or quantifiable to given values, outcomes, behaviours or morality. Rather he encouraged a way of thinking which would return to our spiritual roots, whose outcome, although diverse, shared in the communal ancestry of all living things which he referred to as ethical mysticism. The aim was to think about the reality of our co – inhabitants with the world by accepting our life mystery which was to show reverence for it. His thinking is much more deep seated than a casual observation might first conclude.

Another enthusiastic scholar was Robert Tilley who presented a paper entitled Cosmic Liturgy and Biblical Criticism: a Question of Method: ‘For some decades now there has been what many have called a crisis in biblical criticism. A crisis concerning many of the basic assumptions informing the methods used, which we can see now were little more than the prejudices of modernity. With the rise of the 'Third Quest' the task has been not only to assimilate the early Jewish and Christian material previously neglected, but to rethink our method. A good deal of this project has involved a focus upon the concept of covenant, not merely as a social factor but as a cosmological, even metaphysical, one as well. The effects of this have been both profound and exciting, but the new approach is not without its own attendant pitfalls. By reference to the works of Margaret Barker this paper identifies what is one of the major pitfalls: this is the failure to give due attention to the way in which common concepts can be differently employed, not least by reference to the use of irony and reversal. It is a mistake that not only flattens out the depth and dimensions of history and the texts under discussion, but lends itself to what one might call 'a conspiracy theory method'. A method that effectively means the assumptions of the critic can only ever be confirmed. Thus, we run the risk of repeating the same errors of earlier biblical criticism. ‘

Tilley invites us to think about the prevailing literature at the time and the propensity for the Hebrew writers to engage in different styles as evidenced in the prevailing literature and culture apparent at that time. His invitation was to review the societal nuances from an ironical perspective in contrast to previous scholars who attribute different styles of writing to different authors. Tilley asserts changes in style are a deliberate ploy in keeping with the cultural approach of that age which leads to more liberal interpretation of scripture which is best viewed through the prism of irony. The writer(s) use of myth, poetry, allegory and above all irony add to the rich composition and often confirms an understanding of the sacred nature of life's mystery unable to be articulated in rational dialogue.

Aristotle’s Most Beautiful City
Scholar Andrew Murray at the time was involved within the Australian government to bring peace and stability to the troubled Solomon Islands located close to Australia. By introducing the harmonious philosophy of Aristotle he aimed to bring peace and tranquillity to these troubled Islands.

‘In Book VII of the Politics, Aristotle notes that beauty is realized in number and magnitude, and the city which combines magnitude with good order must necessarily be the most beautiful. ‘{Politics VII, 4 (1326a33-35)}.

There is a number of interesting questions for discussions. For instance, what is Aristotle‘s understanding of beauty? How is it found in the physical features of a city as discussed in Book VII? How does it relate to the moral entity of the best possible city?

The paper is in sections to discuss Aristotle‘s understanding of beauty, the beauty of the built city and the beauty of the constituted city.

He provides some very useful insights as to how the design and architecture of a city create a welcoming, friendly, beautiful environment as opposed to the fortress mentality which only engenders mistrust as a bar to peaceful co-existence with one's neighbours.

If we want to create a trusting environment we need to pay attention to providing warmth and appeal in a welcoming design layout for a model city. Andres critiques Sydney’s architecture in the light of Aristotle’s beautiful city essay.  


Click below to read his paper.