Thinking Dangerously: An Exchange of Open Letters Regarding the UQ Philosophy Department

Last year, Brisbane thinker, writer, and activist Taylor Redwood penned ‘An Open Letter to the UQ Philosophy Department’ where he detailed his response to the Faculty’s decision to reject his application for Honours, and identified a number of broad structural problems with philosophy as it was taught at UQ.

In response, Dave Eden, another member of the Brisbane Left, published a response. “For the most part, the open letter is both a stinging critique of the contemporary university and of the functional cynicism of the contemporary student,” Eden wrote, “... but the open letter is more than this. It is the first statement that has emerged in the context of the current cycle of struggles in Brisbane that explicitly places the relationship between theory and action on the table. And for this reason, it is worth noting and taking seriously.”

Redwood and Eden’s exchange is republished in full below.

An open letter to UQ Philosophy

By Taylor Redwood

Dear UQ Philosophy Faculty,

I am writing this letter to express my disappointment with the faculty’s decision to reject my application for honours. Although I was subsequently offered an alternative route into the program, my philosophical qualms with the compulsory nature of PHIL2110: Formal Logic and the reasons behind my conscientious objection have not been addressed. I thus began to question why I was fighting to gain acceptance into an institution whose own curriculum embodied the very same oppressive practices that my philosophical studies led me to believe must be challenged in order to bring about a more just and fair society. While I may find it fruitful to return to the institution at some stage in the future, for now I find that I must respectfully decline your offer. Instead, I will pursue my philosophical inquiry through the Brisbane Free University’s (BFU) exciting new inter-disciplinary research cluster. Free from the entrenched structural practices of the neoliberal academy, I find the avant-garde, innovative, and fluid space provided by BFU to be more conducive to deep and critical thought.

To be clear, this was not an easy decision to make and I deliberated long and hard before (metaphorically) putting pen to paper. However, if I was one to follow the easiest or most convenient path, then I would never have abandoned my engineering career in the first place. But I did quit engineering, and I did so because I knew that although solutions to the world’s problems existed – at least from a technological point of view – something else (social, cultural, political?) prevented me as an engineer from putting these solutions into practice. Every day I would go to work knowing that global warming was no longer a future possibility but our present reality, that our civilisation’s desecration of the natural world (ecocide?) meant that unless we changed course soon, the rapidly unfolding mass extinction event – the first since the demise of the dinosaurs and only the sixth in life on Earth’s 3.5 billion year history – would not only be our fault, but also likely include homo sapiens among its victims. While outside my scope of work, I also knew that even after Kevin Rudd apologised, Australia still removes more First Nations children from their homes than at the height of the Stolen Generations. I knew that Australia incarcerates – that is, locks in cages – First Nations folk at a rate five times higher than South Africa during the Apartheid, and that Australia operates race-based offshore concentration camps and that the majority of my people are okay with this. I could go on but you get the idea, I realised that the Australian notion of the fair go was a lie and that the wicked problems plaguing our society weren’t going away. So I embarked on a journey to better understand why the world was the way it is; this is why I enrolled in a Diploma of Arts and majored in philosophy. Not only did I want to understand why the world was so screwed up, but what I really wanted was solutions, to develop a theory of change about how to bring about a better and more just society.

With its critically inquisitive attitude, philosophy certainly seemed to be the place where I could interrogate the root causes of the world’s problems. To me philosophy was an endeavour through which I could take up Aimé Césaire’s invitation “to see clearly, to think clearly – that is, dangerously.” While I still believe this holds true, I found that most of the courses offered by the institution focused on abstract or niche philosophical problems. These problems may be intellectually stimulating, but for the most part they did not help answer the questions I wanted elucidated. In fact, I found that I had to leave the philosophy department and enrol in classes such as ABTS2020: Indigenous Approaches to Knowledge & Philosophy to really dig my teeth into decolonial philosophy, a field rich with the answers I sought. I understand that the department has been ravaged by the neoliberal assault on higher education and many courses have been cut, but I also have not witnessed any organised resistance to this attack and rather than excuses, I came to university to find solutions or at least a path forward.

In particular, I struggled to motivate myself to properly engage with the compulsory philosophy courses – especially the cornerstone – as I found that I had fundamental disagreements with the content. When I used my essays to elaborate on these issues I was penalised and told that I did not understand – even though my fully referenced arguments came directly from what I was learning in other philosophy courses. Dejected, I abandoned critical thought and simply regurgitated what I was being taught. For this I was rewarded with high distinctions. Philosophy should be a place where critical engagement with content is encouraged – even if the professor doesn’t agree with the argument being made – and it is concerning that I had to turn off my natural inquisitiveness in order to achieve good grades in certain classes.

As far as I understand, honours is the place where students prove their grasp of core philosophical curriculum before being allowed to branch out as higher research students. Judging by previous years, philosophy done on the margins – that which I find most intellectually stimulating – is absent from the honours curriculum. This leaves me with two options; for one, I could think in the ways that I am being taught to think, not engage critically with the content, and simply reproduce the expected or allowed arguments. I received distinctions and high distinctions when I did this in undergrad and have no doubt that I could do it again in honours. But I did not take up philosophy to rote learn and so comes the second option, critical engagement and the introduction of different ways of thinking, decolonial philosophy from the likes of Nelson Maldonado-Torres, Maria Lugones, and Ramón Grosfoguel. Unfortunately, my experience is that I will be penalised for thinking as these philosophers think and this will impact upon my ability to receive an APA Scholarship. Not to mention that my undergraduate studies have already led me down the fertile path of decolonial, feminist, and transmodern philosophy and I’d rather not return to the well-trodden path of the Western canon at the expense of my scholarship in these fields.

Some may argue that I should just ‘do my time’ and that it would only take two years (I can’t afford to study full-time) to prove that I can think in the approved ways before being afforded the relative academic freedom of a higher research degree. But frankly, this is a luxury that I cannot justify. A neofascist regime has taken control of the United States of America and a rising tide of hatred threatens to engulf the Western world. Meanwhile, a grassroots political movement is building on the streets of Brisbane. Through my involvement with this movement I am able to put my philosophy into practice and engage in a form of praxis. I also believe that it is fundamental for political movements to have scholars embedded within them to ensure theoretical depth and philosophical engagement permeates their work.

It seems that I have found myself in the right place at the right time and have been presented with an unexpected third option. Instead of enrolling in UQ’s honours program and being forced to compromise my ethical stance, I will instead continue my philosophical journey through BFU’s new inter-disciplinary research cluster. My mind is bursting with avenues for scholarship and I have multiple writing projects just waiting to be let out. Thus, at this stage of my life I find that pursuing honours through the institution would distract from my philosophical project. As a thinker by heart, the university is my natural home. So as you can imagine, this was a very difficult decision to make and I hope this letter goes some way to explaining why I made the decision I did.

Even though I will not be returning to UQ at this stage, I would still like an explanation as to why UQ is the only philosophy department in the country to require something more than a major in philosophy with grades above a certain standard to enrol in honours. Furthermore, I would like to take this opportunity to outline the philosophical issues I have with making PHIL2110: Formal Logic a compulsory requirement of students wishing to undertake honours study.

The compulsory nature of PHIL2110 is presumably due to the fact that the faculty views logic as fundamental to the study of philosophy. From the start, I wish to make clear that it is not my intention to challenge this view. It must also be noted that I am not arguing against the teaching of formal logic at UQ, nor am I arguing against it on epistemic grounds. I must also note that the common responses that I have received when I raise this issue – that I would find studying formal logic useful, or that I must understand formal logic if I wish to argue against it – are not relevant to the point I wish to make. My issue has nothing to do with formal logic itself, but, rather, I find it problematic that formal logic is imposed on students wishing to study honours and that this special requirement serves to implicitly privilege formal logic over all other logics.

As someone particularly interested in decolonial philosophy, questions of epistemicide, and cognitive justice, the privileging of one particular Western – and some would argue masculine – logic system over all others sends my intellectual alarm bells ringing. I take note of the fact that the faculty calls itself the School of Philosophy, not the School of American and European Philosophy, nor the School of Western Philosophy. It would be one thing if formal logic was the only logical system made compulsory in a School of Western Philosophy, but philosophy at UQ is positioned as universal and in this context the requirement for students to only study formal logic would seem to reveal a Eurocentrism implicit in UQ’s philosophy curriculum. To state the obvious, the University of Queensland is not located in Europe and European intellectual traditions do not hold a monopoly on the practice of philosophy. Thus, other than revealing a deep bias towards European knowledges, I do not understand why the study of a foreign logic system is considered to be imperative while local logical systems such as Aboriginal Relational Logic are not. If the faculty truly believes logic is fundamental to the study of philosophy, then it makes more sense to me that students should be introduced to a diversity of logic systems. In the context of the privileged status given to formal logic at UQ, I would like to ask the faculty question: Why does the faculty consider formal logic to be more important than Aboriginal logic?

One response to this question may be that formal logic was central to the birth of Western philosophy in Ancient Athens and is thus an important part of any fledgling philosopher’s formal training. While this may be true, it is also true that Aboriginal logic is central to Aboriginal philosophy. While Aboriginal people did not call what they did philosophy, to argue that it should not be considered philosophy would be a shallow counterargument and I struggle to see how the work of people like Aunty Mary Graham – a distinguished UQ professor – could be anything but philosophy. There are multiple different knowledges in existence and Europeans do not hold a monopoly on the creation of knowledge. In this context, I fail to see how the privileging of formal logic over Aboriginal logic can be anything other than an example of epistemic coloniality.

I understand that my letter is of a quite critical nature and I have been warned by many people to be wary of the negative ramifications I may face if I do decide to actually send it. However, I remain confident that my letter will be received in good faith – as it was intended – and that you will in fact encourage my questioning. From my perspective, I am engaging in the most philosophical of practices, the self-critique and questioning of what precisely philosophy is. Critical voices should be welcomed if philosophy is to remain relevant and not stagnate in dogmatism, but even if my letter is well received, it is very concerning that so many people in the institution felt the need to warn me against sending it. But I digress. In closing, I would like to thank you for introducing me to so many philosophical concepts and all the encouragement I received as a burgeoning philosopher. Without your feedback I would not be in the position I am today. I look forward to receiving answers to the questions I have posed and wish you all the best in your own philosophical journeys.

Yours philosophically,
Taylor Redwood


Return to sender – a reply to ‘An open letter to UQ Philosophy’

By Dave Eden

Open letters are funny things. Who are they really addressed to? Do they solicit an answer and if so from whom? And if an answer was sent who would it be addressed to and would it arrive in time? An open letter to UQ Philosophy by Taylor Redwood compels serious engagement. For the most part the open letter is both a stinging critique of the contemporary university and of the functional cynicism of the contemporary student. Now this is reason enough to be read but it doesn’t really necessitate a response. But the open letter is more than this. It is the first statement that has emerged in the context of the current cycle of struggles in Brisbane that explicitly places the relationship between theory and action on the table.  And for this reason, it is worth noting and taking seriously. This open letter is much like Machiavelli’s cannon – it ‘marches in the opposite direction to that in which it fires’ (Althusser 2000, 5). Whilst the open letter is aimed at the UQ Philosophy Department it really is a line of flight away from the university proper into a new intellectual and theoretical space.

Redwood makes at least three claims:

There is a fundamental division between Western Theory[i] and Decolonial Theory[ii]. The former is incapable of understanding and critiquing the global social order and simultaneously reproduces oppression; the latter can both explain the social order and offer a radical contribution to emancipation.

That the UQ Philosophy Department by privileging Formal Logic as a key component of philosophy, and as a necessity for entrance into a higher degree, coupled with the exclusion of Aboriginal Relational Logic, means that as a department it is unable to either contribute to understanding and/or changing the world and even more than this it is thus complicit with the oppressive nature of the social order. As such UQ Philosophy fails to meet the benchmark of the university as a place of critical enquiry.

A new space has developed – The Brisbane Free University (BFU) – that does offer the possibility of this radical and critical scholarship and thus announces the possibility of thought and struggle meeting. Quote: ‘Through my involvement with this movement I am able to put my philosophy into practice and engage in a form of praxis. I also believe that it is fundamental for political movements to have scholars embedded within them to ensure theoretical depth and philosophical engagement permeates their work.’

What can be said about this? All three points share the same problem: they insufficiently ground theory in the concrete and material social relations of society and thus fail to understand how theory is constituted by and expresses the antagonisms that live within the afore mentioned social relations.

At the level that the open letter is a call for increasing the range of and space for knowledges that are accepted at university, a demand for students to have an increased role in determining the content of what they study, and a critique of the cravenness of the university life I can but agree. So too I can but agree with the idea about the need, possibility and virtu of intellectual spaces outside of the university –   especially that of the BFU. But it is on the deeper and more complex point of the relationship of theory to social struggles that I think Redwood remains limited and this needs to be fleshed out in more detail. And this is what is really at stake in the open letter: what is the relationship of ideas and action? And how should this relationship be lived in the ecology of radical efforts that BFU contributes to and is part of?

Because really who cares about the university? Or better yet the only way to really care about the university is to not care. Redwood (like so many Left critiques) judges the present university against the image of an ideal university (place of learning, community of scholars, etc.) and finds the former wanting. This is a complete error. The university has always been an integrated part of the social order – as well as being a site for rebellion against its role. It is an error to conflate the former and the latter. What has changed is the specifics of how it functions within capitalism as capitalism itself has changed. In contemporary capitalism, the university functions to produce technical knowledges and useful ideologies, carry out R&D and train and validate labour-power. It is thus a workplace in the broader social factory. The image of the ideal university works as an ideology to entrap and enwrap those that work in the university (paid and unpaid). Rebellion on the terrain of the university needs to critique this ideology and understand the university as just another node in the planetary work machine and thus, as such and because of this, a place of antagonism and struggle.  It is by doing this that those who work in and are exploited by the university can grasp their common concerns and conditions with everyone else who work across and are exploited by capitalist society. And whilst the different specifics of labour at university vary from the specifics of labour across society this is the actual common condition of labour today: that no one figure of the worker unites us (Endnotes 2013, 44-52). Equally rejecting the ideology of the ideal university also means rejecting the identity of the academic and the student as the primary figures of labour at university.

Redwood conceives of theory as made up of opposing and pre-constituted blocs that can be picked up and used or brought to struggles. But theories, and ideas more broadly, don’t really exist separate from the people who think them, discuss them and write them and they live in these practices. The very fact that in our society ideas appear to have a life of their own, to exist above us and dominate us (that is to constitute ideology), is an effect of the way that these tasks are organised in our society as part of a broader division of labour. ‘If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process’ (Marx and Engels 1973, 47). Thus ideas, like any social practice, being a product of the social order are also cut by the antagonisms and conflicts that constitute the social order.

The opposition that the open letter deploys is one between Western/European/Anglo-American thought and Decolonial/Aboriginal Thought with the crux of the opposition being between two forms of logic. Whilst it is clear that Redwood opposes the former and supports the latter it is not made explicit why the readers should do so based on the content of either approach. But this division is premised on each camp being somehow consistent and coherent – and this is completely unsupportable. In fact, the difficulty that Redwood has in consistently naming each bloc is indicative of this. This is not Redwood’s failure but rather a red light that should alert us to how each bloc is unable to wear a stable name because in a very real way each doesn’t exist. For sure it is often useful to try to name schools of thought, to create a taxonomy of thinking, indeed this is often what academic careers are built on, but doing so often obscures what it reveals.

When we describe a group of thought as Western/European/Anglo-American the first question is where is this place that is meant to think these thoughts? European fascists remind us that they oppose both the ‘the helmet of a Red Army soldier’ and ‘a diet of hamburgers in Brooklyn’ (de Benoist quoted in Cottrell 1991) and anti-Deutsch electroclash musicians would rather be Americans than Germans . The notion of the West or Europe or America as being cohesive spaces is pure ideology that ignores the torn, contested and antagonistic history that such an ideology was constituted in and a response to. Western Philosophy can only indicate at best a series of violent conflicts and disagreements. Formal logic is surely shared by only some in this conflict. Does it apply to Hegel or Derrida, Foucault or Butler? These conflicts don’t just float around in the air but rather ‘Philosophy represents the class struggle in theory’(Althusser 1971, 8). These disagreements are products of and part of the conflicts in the social order they exist in, emerge from and feedback to. As Hardt and Negri argue in Empire ‘Europe and modernity are neither unitary nor pacific constructions, but rather from the beginning were characterises by struggle, conflict and crisis’ (2000, 70). This place we call ‘Europe’ emerged with and is characterised by the struggle between revolutionary, immanent and creative forces and the counter-revolution against them in the form of sovereignty (when does it emerge? 1600s?). This struggle also plays out within philosophy.

So too it seems to be inappropriate to present as unified Decolonial Thought with First Nations Philosophy as well as too assume to present Aboriginal Philosophy itself as a cohesive bloc; whether one refers to the latter’s existence on either side or cutting across the violent process of colonialism.  Take for example the current Decolonial hit The Ends of The World (Danowski and Viveiros De Castro 2017) which displays a strange disregard for actual Indigenous people even as it transports Amerindian cosmologies to the centre of its ‘cosmopolitical’ project. The authors dismiss with a flick of the wrist the vast majority of actual existing Amerindian political projects celebrating only the Zapatistas (107) . But it is a poor celebration that shows little substantial engagement with Zapatista thought. Danowski and Viveiros De Castro pose their entire project as one against the concept of ‘Humanity’. But for the Zapatistas ‘Humanity’ is a key part of their thinking and identity – often posing their struggle as being ‘for humanity and against neoliberalism’(The  Zapatistas 1998).

If we were to look at current work of Aboriginal theorists in Australia what we can see is not a simple conceptual unity but rather rich divergences, sharp disagreements and serious debate. Not only does there seems to be little in common between, for example, Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s (2017) conceptualisation that the ‘ontological relationship to land is a condition of our embodied subjectivity’ for Aboriginal people and Marcia Langton’s (2011) arguments for modernisation they are in fact opposed and hostile projects. Both are attempts to transform Australian society and vastly improve the conditions of Aboriginal people – but they differ from top to bottom not only in how they diagnose the problem and propose the solution but also in how they understand reality itself. (It is a common mistake on the Left to try to see only the politics and thoughts of Indigenous people we agree with as authentically Indigenous and genuinely representative. But this is a dangerous game that if it is not actually racist borders on the edge of being so and involves strange mental gymnastics to count those we agree with as being more important than those we don’t).

None of these demarcations and divisions in thought are simply scholars’ disagreements. They are expression of the deep real division in society over who rules and who is ruled, who gets what and who doesn’t and the necessary forms of strategy and tactics to achieve these ends.

The open letter leaves in place the specialist role of the thinker, perhaps embedded in but still separate from, the movement that they guide. Thought doesn’t exist ‘out there’ nor thinkers either.  When Redwood imagines the meeting of theory and action as ‘scholars embedded within them (social movements) to ensure theoretical depth and philosophical engagement permeates their work’ Redwood’s framing of the existence of ideas and the role of the theorist bears a relationship to a revolutionary that I suspect Redwood would be shocked or unsettled by the comparison with: Lenin.  And it is in Lenin’s work that we see both the richness and the failures of an approach that says yes theory and action should meet but ultimately doesn’t try to dissolve the appearance of theory as a separate realm or undermine the specialist role of the theorist.

Lenin states that ‘Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement’ (1973, 28). That revolts and social struggles remain imprisoned in the ideological coordinates of capitalism unless they can develop a systemised and critical understanding of the system itself and their own struggle against it. This revolutionary theory emerges from, is produced by, the encounter of the intellectual armed with ideas and the worker in struggle. Revolutionary theory then lives in the organisational apparatus of the Party and techno-media architecture of the revolutionary newspaper. The latter aggregates all the small struggles and partial understandings into a larger critique of a larger totality. Lenin is particularly concerned that without this living fusion of ideas and action then ideas are pulled back into the confines of the dominant ideology and actions are contained within the accepted limits of society – neither challenging the roots of our condition.

The strength here is the insight that we need to understand the world we are struggling in-against-and-beyond to change it and that this knowledge is a living production that arises out of thinking and struggling together, a transformation of specific experiences and insights into a larger picture. The weakness is that it sees the theoretical contribution to the creation of revolutionary theory as coming from outside the antagonisms of society – a product of a world of reified thought. And the division of labour between intellectual and worker, mind and body, is reinforced rather than undermined.

The problem with this is that it reaffirms a division of labour between thinking and doing, leaders and led – that is it reaffirms the granular relationships of class society. So too it reduces the span of what we understand to be theory – cementing the idea that it is only big words in books. Rather we can open up the idea of theory to mean all the attempts people make to understand their world whatever medium or genre. Lenin also ignores the deep historical traditions of popular and worker’s education.  This is not a call to replace abstraction in method with empiricism or that theory may only be presented in ‘everyday’ language. Such demands are patronising bullshit that imply the vast majority of people lack the capacity or interest to do the heavy lifting to understand their world. If this is the case what is the likelihood such people would attempt to transform it? Theoretical reflection will probably always involve retreating to the study to hit the books, as well as arguments at demos and meeting, rich communion on car trips, spray paint on walls, long conversations over dinner, performances of erudition in the pub, songs sung, films watched, slogans hurled and whatnot.

But even when theory is expressed in the most difficult language or uses the most abstract methodology it is always of the world it attempts to explain and critique. To theorise is to attempt to make summations and understandings of the antagonisms of the society we stand within – to illuminate the possibilities and trajectories that we inhabit. Marx’s letter to Ruge provides us with a most useful summation: ‘we shall simply show the world why it is struggling, and consciousness of this is a thing it must acquire whether it is wishes or not’ (1992, 208-09). Theory is our attempt to understand our world in a way that presents the possibility of other worlds within it – in latent, embryonic and/or spectral forms. ‘Theory does not simply decipher the meanings of the world but recodes and rearranges them in order to reveal something about the meanings and incoherencies that we live with’(Brown 2005, 80).

The strength of Lenin’s approach is the understanding of revolutionary theory as greater than one individual and as something that lives in an assembly of efforts. Revolutionary theory arises from the constant and ongoing interaction of reflection and social struggles – both of which emerge from and constitute the antagonism of the social world. Any attempt to bracket or further entrench the role of the specialist of thinking breaks the fecundity of these interactions.

The answer to Lenin isn’t to simply deny that differences in understanding, education, access and/or erudition exist (this denial another form of patronising behaviour dressed up as egalitarianism). But rather to build into the creation of revolutionary theory a practice of pedagogy that undermines the division of labour by raising everybody up.  The point of getting a specialist to speak to a crowd is to contribute to her own self-abolition as a specialist: to generalise all knowledge as a common. As should be the motivation of a revolutionary to write…

Whilst often unacknowledged I think it would be impossible to imagine the current Brisbane moment without the Brisbane Free University. The BFU and other spaces (various programs on 4ZZZ, some blogs, a series of conferences/meetings around the Right to The City, The Queensland School of Continental Philosophy, etc and a broader culture of conversation built in the scene in South Brisbane through the efforts of people like Anna, Briohny and Fern) help to clarify our collective understanding of the moment and bring people together to think. At no point does BFU paper over differences in knowledge and has resisted the demand to do so – but in practiced it has helped to overcome them. (Though I think there is still too much deference to the speaker rather than what is said).

Redwood’s desire for BFU to dig down and start producing more serious research and scholarship is exciting. But if this effort holds ideas as pre-existing clear and coherent sets and valorises the thinker as specialist then it will limit the usefulness of this work to the ‘real movement which abolishes the present state of things’(Marx and Engels 1973, 57).

Taylor Redwood writes, works, and lives on lands stolen from the Jagera, Yugara, Yugarapul, and Turrbal Nations. They pay their respects to elders past, present, and emerging. As a disaffected student of philosophy, their goal is take up Aimé Césaire’s invitation “to see clearly, to think clearly – that is, dangerously.”

Dave Eden blogs at Word from Struggle Street and With Sober Senses, and co-hosts Living the Dream.