Tag Archives: Philosophy

First public reading of Lovers of Philosophy

It’s my pleasure to announce that on Saturday the 7th February I’ll be doing my first public reading from my work-in-progress Lovers of Philosophy.

This will be at a free salon event hosted by the Queensland Writers Centre (QWC). Thank you Aimeé Lindorf and all the crew at QWC for supporting emerging writers such as myself, and giving us an opportunity to share our work.

There will also be a reading by poet and short fiction writer Carmen Leigh Keates, and a Q&A with special author guest fiction writer Inga Simpson. The afternoon, set in The Fox Hotel in South Brisbane, will be topped off with a musical set by O’ Little Sister.

If you’re in Briz Vegas on that day and are able to come along, I’d love to meet you. All writers and readers welcome!

Details are as below:

What: Whispers is a reading salon hosted by QWC throughout Queensland.

Date and time: 3:00–6:00pm on Saturday 7 February 2015.

Venue: The Fox Hotel, 73 Melbourne Street, South Brisbane.

Transport and parking information is available on the SLQ website.

Price: Free.

Full details: On the Facebook event page, https://www.facebook.com/events/602930773140737/.

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Breaking into the École Normale Supérieure

photoFor as long as I can remember, I have had a fascination with the École Normale Supérieure. So many French philosophers I have read about have studied there. Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Hyppolite, Althusser, Beauvoir. In fact, Sartre and Beauvoir first met here in 1929, when both were studying for the agrégation, France’s toughest exam for want-to-be-philosophers. Throughout the twentieth century, this most elite of Paris’s educational institutions has been a breeding ground for new bold new ideas, a hotbed of -isms, including existentialism, humanism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism and more recently, postmodernism.

Naturally, when I was in recently in Paris doing research on the lives of French philosophers for my book Lovers of Philosophy, I wanted to visit the place where so many prominent continental philosophers developed their initial ideas. So, along with my 14-year-old daughter Alex who was travelling with me, I found myself cycling through the Latin Quarter in search of this esteemed institution. It’s usually more fun looking for places that are off the tourist track when travelling, and this journey was no exception. Before long, we found ourselves on the Rue d’Ulm, a narrow tree-lined backstreet with cheap and battered bicycles chained up along the railings of its wide pavements, a clear sign we were close to a place frequented by poor and struggling scholars. Sure enough, we soon saw increasing numbers of young people in that universal student uniform, jeans and T-shirts, walking along singly or in twos and threes, books and bags in hand. Then we came across what we were looking for, an old nondescript sandstone building with a faded sign across the top of its entrance. The sign said École Normale Supérieure.photo 1

I had travelled 26,000 km, all the way from Brisbane on the other side of the world, to visit the place where Sartre and Beauvoir had met ninety years ago, but now I faced an unexpected obstacle. There was a boom gate and security guard at the university’s entrance, with access only allowed to authorised students and staff. I thought about just trying to discreetly walk in as a student let himself out, but my conscientious, rule-abiding and embarrassment-averse daughter got visibly nervous when I mentioned this idea, and I had to admit I didn’t fancy the prospect of being handed over to French authorities for trespassing in a school of philosophy.

Eventually I decided to just ask the security guard. I explained that I was interested in visiting as I was writing a book on Jean-Paul Sartre and other philosophers who had studied here. His English was nonexistent, and the little of the French language I knew departed me at this crucial moment. Consequently, I made no headway at all in trying to communicate an idea clearly beyond my limited linguistic capacities. So I resorted to the age-old technique of tourists, especially of the American variety, of repeating myself, getting louder each time. ‘Sartre! Sartre!’ I boomed, gesticulating meaninglessly and unhelpfully at the young and bewildered security guard. Clearly he had never heard of the esteemed philosopher, but he started looking up his computer database to see if he could find a student or staff member by that name. Knowing he was unlikely find the name of a student who hadn’t been there since the 1930s, I shook my head, waved my hands, and tried another tack:

‘Can we just go in for 5 minutes?’

‘Sure’, he nodded, and opened the gate.

Easy as that, after all.

Somewhat exhilarated, we walked through the security gate and up the stone stairs into the institution’s front building. Inside we found several highly intelligent-looking impossibly young philosophers of the future going about their business. ‘Try to look like a student’, I whispered to my daughter, who was thoroughly enjoying our adventure by now. Posters of upcoming philosophical events graced the walls.photo 4 One poster featuring a large full-length photo of Jacques Derrida looking wistful on a beach announced a talk that day about the recently deceased father of deconstruction.

The foyer then opened up into a beautiful garden, in which students with laptops, papers and books sat here and there on park benches and tables. It was a beautiful sunny day, and a lovely light breeze rustled through the trees and shrubs in the garden as students murmured softly and earnestly to each other. I couldn’t make out whether they were talking about philosophy or their social lives, but I did notice one attractive-looking young female student looking at her paper with a middle-aged man, presumably her professor, sitting very close to her as he pointed at the unwieldy manuscript on the table before them. I instantly recognised what appeared to me to be an example of a notorious and age-old pattern in university teacher-student relations.

photo 5I sat with my daughter on the edge of the garden, in a stone recess in one of the four walls that bordered the garden. Both of us tried our best, with a spectacular lack of success I suspected, to look inconspicuous.

I then realised that this was probably the very garden in which Beauvoir had first met Sartre many years ago. I recalled reading an account of her visiting the École Normale Supérieure one day from the nearby Sorbonne University where she was studying, whereupon she saw a student pouring a bucket of water from a second storey window on to his fellow students below, whilst shouting ‘Thus Pissed Zarathustra!’ The twenty-one-year-old Beauvoir was most impressed with this young man’s mischievousness, not to mention his knowledge of the philosophical work Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher whom she was familiar with and greatly admired. The water-pouring prankster was, of course, the future existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Within weeks he and Beauvoir would team up to become the most renowned philosophical couple in history.

photo 2

Nizan’s name is a third-way down the centre column

I wandered out of the garden into an exit on its far side, which led into another foyer. On one of the walls of this large sandstone room I found a large memorial board of the type that sadly one sees frequently throughout Europe. This board listed the names of previous students of the École Normale Supérieure who had perished in the Holocaust. Amongst this list I recognised the name Paul Nizan. I remembered from my reading that Nizan was one of the students whom Sartre had poured water on in that fateful prank in 1929. He was one of Sartre’s closest friends at the École, and became a close friend of Beauvoir’s, too. He, along with Beauvoir, was part of a small group of students that met regularly at Sartre’s place to discuss philosophy. It was at this group’s meetings that Sartre and Beauvoir’s relationship blossomed. It came back to me on seeing Nizan’s name on that board, that I had read how he had been detained during World War Two and transported to a concentration camp, never to be seen again.

In her autobiography, Beauvoir would later write of the shock and despair she and many others experienced in the wake of World War Two:

‘It was a ravaged world… No blade of grass in any meadow, however I looked at it, would ever again be what it had been.’

photo 3

The start of a love affair at the ENS in 2014? Sartre and Beauvoir started theirs here in 1929

It was into this ravaged world, in which people had lost faith in institutions such as the church, the state, and even science and technology to guide them, that the existentialist philosophy of Sartre and Beauvoir, based on the idea that each of us must create our own meaning in life, would later flourish and become the philosophy de rigueur on the streets of post-war Paris.

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How is the mind different to the brain?



I will always remember the first time I held a human brain in my hand.


I was a medical student and it was our first neuroanatomy prac. There we stood, hapless medical students in our white coats. Each group of six students stood around a bench, on the centre of which sat a Tupperware container with a brain floating in it in some nondescript fluid. The fact each cerebrum was floating in such a banal-looking Tupperware container, the sort my Mum used in the kitchen, made the spectacle even more surreal and disturbing.


The professor taking the class took some time to explain to us where all the twelve cranial nerves were, before encouraging us to spend the rest of the tutorial trying to locate them on the specimens before us. At this point everyone went silent for several painfully slow seconds until I put my hand up to ask the question that might have been in others’ minds (not brains) too: ‘How do we get the brain out of the container?’ He looked at me as if I was some sort of imbecile: ‘You take it out with your hands’. The look that followed left us in no doubt how incredulous he was that I could ask such a dumb question.


And so I squeamishly – with a straight arm as if to protect my body from contamination – picked up the two pounds of nondescript firm grey stuff that was a human brain and put it on the bench. After tentatively and dutifully looking for all twelve cranial nerves (they all looked so insignificant) my colleagues and I looked for other bits – the cauliflower cerebellum, the cortex, the pons, the medulla. It didn’t take long before we became totally desensitized, just like in my high school biology class two years earlier when we had to dissect a rat, and we rapidly descended from apprehensive dissection to using the rat’s head in macabre pranks on each other when the teacher wasn’t looking. Now, as medical students with only slightly more maturity, we again found ourselves behaving like the lads in Lord of the Flies, as we pinched, pulled, cut and crumpled the piece of insignificant dead formaldehyde-stained flesh before us until there was nothing left but a grey indecipherable mush. Bored and spent, we then listlessly waited for the clock in the classroom to indicate that time was up.


After the prac was over, I felt disturbed. I had cut apart a brain and found nothing of what I felt it was to be human. I felt empty, cheated. Like so many have before and since, I said to myself: there has got to me more to us than this.


And so began my quest to understand – to grasp – the human soul, the spirit, the mind. That which makes us human, unique, and inconceivably complex and precious.


As I went on to complete my medical studies, and afterwards my psychiatry training, I got to know more about the brain, which I found (and still find) fascinating. But it didn’t teach me about the mind. Because for me, the mind is different to the brain. They are not one and the same, although I acknowledge there is a big overlap between the two.


Our current society’s way of seeing the mind is influenced greatly by the dominant scientific opinion of it as an illusory phenomenon arising out of brain neurons firing, While not totally disagreeing with this, I would venture that minds, as opposed to brains, are worth exploring in their own right. We can look at phenomena at different levels: from cell right through to society. We don’t gain anything, and lose a lot, by trying to reduce everything to atoms (or neurons for that matter).


Anyhow, back to my quest to better understand the human mind (as opposed to the brain which I learnt more about in biology classes), I have found myself reading in many diverse fields of human enquiry, including psychology, philosophy, religion, literature, linguistics and the arts. I have looked to the law, to politics, to the cinema, to cultural studies. To history, to feminist studies, to Marx, and to Freud. I haven’t arrived at many answers but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the journey. And throughout all this I have been concerned with mind , not brain.


Our everyday language regularly reflects the difference between the two, much to the chagrin of some scientists of a reductionistic bent who can be quite dogmatic and evangelical in their certainty that the brain exists but the mind does not.


Brain equates to the matter inside our skulls. It has a certain colour, weight and texture. It is composed of neurons – of cells. The mind on the other hand, refers to consciousness, self-awareness (animals have brains but it is not clear they all have minds). The mind contains not neurons, but thoughts, feelings, hopes, wishes, fears, fantasies and dreams. The mind is not locatable and describable in space like the brain is.


One argument often used against the existence of a mind separate to the brain, is that when the brain dies the mind dies too. However this is not strictly true. Through the magic of the written word we can still access the minds of those whose brains have died, whether it be Einstein’s theory of relativity, the ideas of Freud, or the imagination of Tolstoy or Mark Twain. Through literature, we still have a window into their minds (but not their brain).


When I talk about ‘mindfulness’ techniques with my patients I am asking them to observe their mind’s constant narrative, not their brain’s neuronal firing. When I ask a patient in therapy to imagine how they would like their life to be in twenty years, or what they would like said about their life at their funeral, I am inviting them to harness their free will to imagine something in their mind’s eye. They are using their brain to do it, but a purely mechanistic, deterministic brain-based scientific explanation seems to fall short of explaining how he or she can use their free will to imagine themselves transported across time and place. Just how does a brain produce Tolstoy’s War and Peace? And why would it want to? For that matter, can a brain want? Or is it only a mind that wants?


Which brings me to culture. The mind is inextricably linked up with culture and society. The now somewhat unfashionable philosopher G.W.F. Hegel appreciated this when he wrote his highly influential and acclaimed work Phenomenologie des Geistes in the early 1800s. In trying to capture the German notion of the Geist this work has been variously translated as The Phenomenology of Mind or The Phenomenology of Spirit – but never as The Phenomenology of Brain for good reason. Hegel contended in this work that Geist, or what we might today refer to as consciousness, is the primary reality and that matter came later as a secondary phenomenon. Hegel argued that the history of the world is a history of consciousness – or the mind – gradually evolving to the point where it has become aware of itself through the arrival of self-conscious human beings, a development that Hegel saw as inevitable. Hegel saw the evolution of increasingly sophisticated political systems in Western civilisation throughout history as further evidence of consciousness evolving. As has been mentioned, his perspective would not be a fashionable one nowadays, but it does provide an alternative narrative to science, that perhaps better accounts for the phenomenon we refer to as our evolving society and culture – a collective mind that we all experience.


One of the most dramatic developments in philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century, particularly in Europe in the so-called continental tradition, has been what has been referred to as the ‘linguistic turn’, whereby thinkers have realized the importance and centrality of language in constructing our realities. Philosophers such as Foucault, Derrida, and to a lesser extent Wittgenstein, have suggested that words (arguably products of the mind) are in many ways a more primary reality than matter.


I would argue that this very essay is a product of the mind rather than the brain, drawing as it does on the thoughts – the minds – of other thinkers whose brains are long gone but their minds are still with us. Furthermore this essay is produced by my mind for the hopeful benefit and interest of other minds, who will still be able to grasp my thoughts even if a sudden misfortune were to befall me, the writer, and result in my (and my brain’s) demise immediately after writing and sending this.


Food for thought.


Which is, of course, a metaphor, another product of the mind rather than the brain. Or so I would argue. But I am mindful (not brainful) that other minds (or brains) may beg to differ.




May 13, 2014 · 6:11 pm

Free Love


Sartre and de Beauvoir’s relationship lasted continuously for over fifty years from soon after they met in 1929 until Sartre’s death in 1980. But their relationship was a most unusual one. From the very beginning of the relationship, they agreed, at Sartre’s suggestion, that each would be free to take on other sexual partners as they pleased. But to avoid jealousy or the deceit characteristic of many bourgeois marriages, they would be totally honest with each other at all times about their other liaisons. As it turns out, they both took on many lovers and shared honestly with each other about their experiences. Sartre, in particular, seemed addicted to seduction, spending long periods pursuing his quarry, and keeping de Beauvoir informed of his progress. But de Beauvoir, too, had many lovers, a considerable number of them female.

Their lovers were often students, young actresses or courtesans, all plentiful in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s.

Both philosophers, by choosing this lifestyle, were being true to the existentialist philosophy they developed, which was based on exercising one’s personal freedom to create a life worth living. They also fulfilled what they believed was their duty to document this existentialist experiment, in the many novels, letters and memoirs they left behind.

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