Martin Heidegger’s poetic prose was difficult to understand at the best of times. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote baffling waffle throughout parts of his speed-induced authorship. And even judges who reviewed Søren Kierkegaard’s dissertation found it complicated to get through. In fact, Kierkegaard never worked a day in his life but criticised the bourgeois. And Heidegger, who had a short spell with Nazism criticised Sartre, but he was quite fond of Kierkegaard. These thinkers were profound, but who were they writing for and what is their relationship to ordinary people?
Zan Boag is the editor of New Philosopher magazine – An independent print publication delivered to the general public every quarter. Zan and I had a chat about philosophy’s audience and what the everyday person can gain from thinking.
The Philotoric: Can you tell me a little about yourself – Who are you? What do you do? Hobbies, habits, heroes?
Zan Boag: The majority of my time is spent working on the magazine and taking orders from my young children. I play basketball, don’t watch television and believe that heroism is like happiness – it happens in a moment, it’s not a permanent state.
The Philotoric: You now have four issues of the New Philosopher magazine and each of them is beautiful, congratulations. What can you tell me about your readership – Is it trending amongst younger generations?
ZB: The writers and designers are doing a terrific job. They have managed to appeal to people of all ages – from school kids to those in aged care. We have subscribers in corporate offices, prisons and churches, apartments and mansions, rich suburbs and poor. Rather than age, religion, cultural background or socio-economic class, I’d say the common thread is that they are humans who think that there’s more to life than consumption, production, comparison and competition.
The Philotoric: I recently purchased a new translation of Søren Kierkegaard’s, The Concept of Anxiety by Alastair Hannay and the cover has the following blurb – A Simple Psychologically Orientated Deliberation in View of the Dogmatic Problem of Hereditary Sin. Does this type of jargon turn people away from philosophy literature?
ZB: That’s Kierkegaard for you, he packed a lot of complex ideas into his 42 years – In fact, Heidegger had twice as long to confuse people. It’s important to distinguish between philosophy for philosophers and philosophy for the general public. The former serves as a means to extend thought, to explore ideas by delving into the depths; the latter involves communicating these ideas to others so as to bring about some sort of positive change in our world, of our understanding of the world and our place in it. They are interdependent, both needing the other to thrive.
The Philotoric: How does an academic audience feel about the ordinary person’s involvement in philosophy?
ZB: When we [New Philosopher] approached leading Australian universities and the Australasian Association of Philosophy (AAP) – the professional association for philosophers in the region, they were thrilled that such a project was taking shape. Ultimately the AAP and five universities backed the project as founding partners. Philosophers have also lent their support, including Peter Singer, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Dennett and Angie Hobbs. Thinking is not a treasure they wish to keep to themselves, it is a virus they aim to spread.
The Philotoric: What would you say to those who think studying philosophy is useless?
ZB: I’m not sure how learning to think critically about the world and your place in it could be deemed useless, unless, of course, you’re content with studying to work, working to buy stuff, buying stuff to impress others, and then dying – all the while ignoring the plight of others on the planet and the planet itself. If you’re still not convinced, try this quote from Alex Pozdnyakov (a philosophy student in Europe): “I have this strange phrase I use when people ask me why I chose philosophy. I tell them I wanted to become a professional human being.”
The Philotoric: What is the purpose of studying philosophy and ancient texts in 2014?
ZB: I question the purpose of a lot of activities undertaken in 2014. Seeking wisdom from another time – a time before social media, 24/7 news and shopping malls – isn’t one of them.
The Philotoric: Can you provide a concrete example of how philosophy has changed your life?
ZB: Hmm, concrete and philosophy in the same sentence … I’d like to think that it has changed everything – what I deem important, how I view others and the way I live my life. But if you want a concrete example … well, thanks to philosophy, I’m pretty good at arguing.