Martyn Evans’ New Zealand Travelogue – Part 4

Martyn Evans writes: Sunday 3 April: An intriguing approach to a postgraduate seminar last Friday: a group of staff and students performed a set of scripted dialogues written by Grant Gillett (see Part Two) based on a book chapter on ethics and the soul, in which a philosophical time traveller (read by Top o’the Marning) interrogated a number of key philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Philippa Foot, Levinas) before putting the results of her enquiries before her mentor, Kant (read by Gillett). This could have been gruesome, but in fact worked really well – it took most of the available hour to read, and there was precious little opportunity for discussion, but in Grant’s skilled hands many points were made artfully, amusingly and – hence – memorably. Grant is likely to visit CMH in the autumn, and we must have a try at this or a development of it during his stay. Also memorable was that the assembled group included New Zealand’s foremost living philosopher, Annette Baier, a Dunedin native and Otago graduate, whom it was a privilege to meet.

This reminds me that Otago is a great place to meet philosophers in my experience, perhaps because (in philosophy and in all other disciplines here) resources are spent on bringing people together as a matter of policy, overcoming the country’s geographical isolation; hence interesting scholars are always passing through. On my last visit I had one of the intellectual treats of my life, meeting – indeed sharing a philosophical dinner with – Bryan Magee, philosophy’s best public advocate, and Schopenhauer’s best English-language expositor. (Magee’s wonderful philosophical autobiography, Confessions of a Philosopher, has on the cover the critical tribute: ‘Philosophy made thrilling’. It’s entirely true, and this book is the invitation to philosophy that I recommend more than any other.) It’s bizarre that it took 24,000 air-miles to achieve a meeting I might have sought in Britain, but who cares? I’m enduringly grateful to Otago Vice-Chancellor David Skegg for arranging that splendid evening a couple of years back, when the Otago philosophers were represented by the subtle realist Alan Musgrave (whose 1970s collaborations with Imre Lakatos attracted much admiration ).

The weekend’s recreational highlight for me was a finally-fulfilled ambition to sail a Sunburst dinghy on Otago Harbour. I’ve been trying do so over the course of nine visits in twelve years, but it took until today to do it, for reasons that elude me and could in any case hardly interest the reader. All was set to rights; the weather was mild, the harbour clear, the boat battered but sound and fairly sprightly, the breezes indifferent but the company excellent – in my case, sharing a small open boat with a young marine palaeontologist from Mexico, who was a fund of knowledge. Gabriel Aguirre, who will I trust one day be famous, is pursing doctoral study of the origins of modern dolphins. I learned that, along with all cetaceans, dolphins are part of two groups of animals that retreated to the seas more than 45 million years ago; that they have asymmetric skulls accommodating differentially enlarged echo-producing chambers; that they have the largest brains on the planet after humans and have a sense of their own existence; and that their closest living terrestrial relative shows less intellectual promise – the humble (although highly dangerous) hippopotamus!

Now where could you learn things like this but in a University Sailing Club, and where could you do so in better surroundings than Otago Harbour? Bliss.

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