Tag Archives: John Passmore

Does Australia need a culture?

“To begin uncontroversial: some philosophers live in Australia. The question is whether that fact makes any difference to the way in which they philosophise. It is sometimes said that it cannot, since philosophy is a cosmopolitan subject. But we talk without hesitation about ‘British philosophy’, ‘French philosophy’. Is this just shorthand for ‘philosophy in Great Britain’, ‘philosophy in France’? Let us suppose that it is not. There might still be special difficulties in talking about ‘Australian philosophy’. Should we take special steps to cultivate an indigenous philosophy, or, at least, to link philosophy in Australia more closely to other forms of culture in Australia.”

John Passmore, “Australian Philosophy or Philosophy in Australia” abstract of paper, Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference, Uni. of WA, 1988. The paper has since been published in Essays on Philosophy in Australia ed. Jan T.J. Srzednicki & David Wood.

Some artists, fashion designers, writers, etc. live in Australia but this does not necessarily mean that there is Australian art, fashion, literature, music, etc. An arbitrary political boundary does not imply that a different culture exists within that boundary.  I have serious doubts that there really is an Australian culture, many more doubts than I have about the existence of Anglophone or Francophone culture or, even, hippy culture. And the more that the politicians try to manufacture one, with Australian citizenship tests, “Australian values”, etc. the more dubious I become because cultures grow organically and cannot be manufactured.

When ever the need for a national style is mentioned I always think of art nouveau, which was intended by the architect Victor Horta to become the national style of Belgium. As a successful style of architecture it inspired many other architects and designers and became a successful international style. Local styles and traditions are only the marginally successful styles, surviving due to local traditions and tastes, but unable to successfully spread any further.

A culture is more than just an identity, as you can have identity without an accompanying culture. A culture is “not a heap of unrelated phenomena but an organic whole” that “is extended in time”, conscious of its past and present and projecting itself into the future. (R.A.D. Grant, A Companion to Aesthetics ed. David Cooper, Blackwell, 1992, p.100) A lifestyle is a temporal heap of unrelated phenomena that may be more or less manufactured. Traditions are not a culture, as traditions do not project themselves into the future but remain fixed in the past. There may be Australian lifestyles, Australian traditions and Australia slang but those things alone do not imply an Australian culture.

What does Australia need a culture to do? And, can a culture do this? Irish, Scottish and Greek culture was needed to prevent complete assimilation into larger alien empires. Hippies saw their proto-culture as a viable, competitive, environmentally sustainable, alternative to the conformist consumer lifestyle. Culture could be described is a kind of mass reaction to a perceived threat that attempts to equip its members to combat the perceived threat. In doing this it is clear some cultures support some horrible and stupid ideals, including racism, sexism, homophobia and violence; it is less clear, what good, if any, any culture does.

Although shallow nationalism might be very popular in Australia there is no taste for deeper cultural analysis. So I am asking readers to comments if they think that Australia needs a culture and, if so, what it needs this culture to do. I would suggest that instead of debating whether Australia has a culture it would be better for the people in Australia to be concerned about the extent that Australia is civilized. Civilized by having a constitutional protection of human rights, civilized in its treatment of refugees, civilized in keeping its word when signing international laws and treaties, the kind of civilization is more important than any culture.


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