Life examined

04 August 2014

Deakin philosopher Patrick Stokes is taking philosophy to the people.

Whether the topic be social media, refugees, or even the movie “Wolf Creek,” philosophy can help us to make sense of modern life, argues Deakin philosopher Patrick Stokes.

Dr Stokes is determined to take philosophy out of the “ivory tower” and bring it to the people. He spends a good deal of his time appearing on radio and writing articles that use philosophy to examine public issues – and has just received the Australian Association of Philosophy’s 2014 Media Prize for his efforts.

“The original philosopher was Socrates, who spent his days philosophising in the market place,” said Dr Stokes.

“It’s important that people have the opportunity to see how philosophy can illuminate the things we care about in our everyday lives, things like personal identity, time, imagination and death.”

The media prize was for the “best philosophical piece published by a professional philosopher in the popular media.” The judging panel highlighted three of Stokes’ articles: “Burying Thatcher: why celebrating death is still wrong” (The Conversation); “Do you really exist online?” (New Philosopher); and “Just who do you think you are? The splendid mess of personal identity” (New Philosopher).

The panel noted that Stokes’ articles are “models of accessible philosophical writing, striking a fine balance between public accessibility and philosophical analysis,” and “lifting the tone and improving the quality of public debate by bringing reasoned argument into the discussion of a polarising topic.”

Stokes is a regular contributor to “The Conversation” and “New Philosopher,” and appears on radio stations such as the ABC, BBC and 3RRR.  He notes that contemporary life has raised a myriad of ethical issues, but emotion and ideology often hijack public debate. Philosophy, he argues, can provide a much-needed counter-weight.

One of his current projects involves exploring the relationship between death and on-line social networks.

“Once people die, traces of them persist, on-line, as part of daily life. This has ethical implications that we haven’t fully worked out yet. For instance, we need to ask if we have a moral duty not to delete people after they have died,” he said.

“That may sound weird, but social networks are a big part of how we’re present in people’s lives now, and that may give our ‘digital remains’ a particular kind of importance.”

“There are a lot of ethical concepts that people talk about – ‘entitlement’ is a big one right now – that people put a lot of weight on. If we are going to use terms such as these, we need to be clear about what we are talking about, and that’s why philosophy is so important.”

Deakin’s Philosophy Department comprises seven academics specialising in various aspects of European Philosophy and encompassing Analytical, Continental and Eastern philosophical traditions. Originally from Melbourne, Dr Stokes joined the Deakin department in 2012, having previously held research fellowships at the Universities of Hertfordshire and Copenhagen.

Stokes says that he has always been fascinated by philosophy, since encountering existentialism as an undergrad – and he is determined to share this enthusiasm with the wider community. He hopes to use his prize money to organise a dialogue between philosophers and scientists, so that philosophers can learn from the pros –successful science communicators.

The time is right, he says, as demonstrated by the popularity of philosophers such as Australia’s Peter Singer and the British/Swiss Alain de Botton, who has almost reached cult status.

“There’s a surprising amount of interest within society to engage more deeply with philosophy,” he said. “It might seem from the outside that philosophy doesn’t make progress, and, indeed, the questions we ask haven’t changed much since Socrates’ day. We still wonder about the nature of existence and how we should live.

“These aren’t questions we can simply answer and move on. But equally, they don’t go away just because we ignore them. All of us end up confronted by philosophical questions in the end.”

          Read Dr Stokes' latest article in "The Conversation:"

Sharing his passion for philosophy - Dr Patrick Stokes. Sharing his passion for philosophy - Dr Patrick Stokes.

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