Report: 18th Century Philosophy in Dialogue: Research Day in 18th Century Studies at the University of Sydney, 28 August 2015


The Sydney Intellectual History Network (SIHN) recently hosted a Research Day in Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of Sydney. The event supported the efforts of ANZSECS in building a new community of scholars and postgraduate students from a broad range of disciplines within the humanities.

ANZSECS awarded two travel grants for the event, to Emma Gleadhill (Monash University) and Lawrence Mays (Australian National University). Emma and Lawrence have kindly provided the following reports on the day:

Emma Gleadhill

The Research Day in 18th Century Studies at the University of Sydney presented scholars from a diversity of fields with the rare opportunity to have a valuable interdisciplinary conversation about 18th Century Philosophy in Dialogue. The morning’s panel presentations by Dalia Nassar and Justin Smith (philosophy), Jennifer Ferng (architecture), Alan Maddox (musicology), and Amelia Dale (literature) inspired a wide-ranging conversation between fields that reflected the research day’s topic. Nassar and Smith’s presentations on the century’s crisis in philosophy and the philosopher’s shifting position provided a comprehensive framework for insightful, field-specific presentations concerning the dangers of imagination in the female Quixote, the balance of self-evident and arbitrary beauty in Claude Perrault’s Louvre Colonnade, and the tension between rationalism and expression in music. While it was agreed that eighteenth-century philosophers engaged with the fields of architecture, music, and literature, the extent to which they influenced what was written, designed, or performed was a subject of energetic debate. The afternoon’s workshop centred on the development of philosophy over the long eighteenth century with a particular focus on Nassar’s research concerning the salon’s central role in the inherently social evolution of German Romanticism. This session shed valuable light on the dialectical relationship between philosophy and practice during the eighteenth century. I am very grateful to the Sydney Intellectual History Network and the two brilliant facilitators, Justin Smith and Dalia Nassar, for the opportunity to attend this research day and engage in my own dialogue with some lovely eighteenth-century scholars from a diversity of fields.

Lawrence Mays

When I first went to university many years ago the standard joke about philosophers was that if you wanted to succeed in the field, all you had to do was to wear a tweed sports coat with leather elbow patches, smoke a pipe and look puzzled. While things may have changed, the perception is still widespread that the praxis of philosophy is a kind of performance art, with little relevance to the bulk of humanity getting on with their everyday lives. After participating in the Research Day in Eighteenth-century Studies, I can confidently say from a personal viewpoint: “Not so”. In fact, at the risk of sounding New Agey, I believe that the day was a life-changing experience. The reason is that people who study, discuss and write about philosophy seem better able than most to articulate the concerns, conflicts, confusion that we all have about what we should do, what the world is and how we can know about it. For most of us, however, these concerns lurk in our subconscious, unexpressed and unresolved.

Several issues broached during the day are directly relevant to my PhD work on an eighteenth-century opera about an imaginary Moon society. These include the ‘Harlequin Principle’, the abandonment of geocentralism, the significance of Descartes’ embryology, and his concept that the rational soul does not have gender. In addition, the day was useful in that I met new people and maintained contact with Sydney music scholars.

Throughout the day, the academic panel intimated that philosophy was in a sort of crisis in the 18th C, regarded as a dilettante pursuit, ‘sick’, divorced from poetry and science. It was suggested that Kant in the Critique of Judgment (1790) partially resolved this – although I’ve yet to fathom the explanation fully. By discussing how philosophy underwent a crisis of relevance in the eighteenth century, we gained some insight into why it may be dismissed by elements of contemporary society.

I did not infer that philosophy has all the answers. I came away quite comfortable with the idea that it is an ‘infinite struggle’ – never providing all the answers, but allowing you to ask the right questions. The case for the importance of this struggle was made well on the day, and was reinforced by Justin Smith in his evening lecture. Maybe I could make an extrapolation to philosophy from the aphorism about learning to improvise as a jazz musician: ‘There are no mistakes, only better choices’. For philosophy, this could be: ‘There are no right answers, only better questions.’