Matheson Russell: 'We’re all philosophers in some sense'

Associate Professor Matheson Russell says we're immmersed in philosophical questions every day. But when it comes to policy being created in response to answers given in referenda, we need to think again.

Associate Professor Matheson Russell
Associate Professor Matheson Russell: 'Complex policy questions, such as the cannabis and end-of-life laws, require dedicated concentration and we can do that with a citizens’ assembly.'

Do people understand what philosophers do?

I don’t think so. I didn’t until I came to university and started taking philosophy courses. Some countries teach philosophy at high school but there’s not much taught here in New Zealand.

How do you introduce philosophy to students?
I explain that it’s not some abstract ivory-tower thing. We’re already immersed in philosophical questions which means we’re all philosophers in some sense already. It’s about thinking really well about the deepest questions we face. What is it to be a human being? What makes a life worth living? Are we in a post-truth age? Philosophy is not the only discipline that tries to address these questions but to come and study philosophy is to pick up some tools for thinking about those questions in a concerted way.

You’re a big fan of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Why is he important?
Habermas is one of the main figures in the 20th-century German tradition. When I started reading his work, I felt like it brought together a lot of themes I’m interested in and sympathetic to. Democracy for him is healthiest when it’s surrounded by a dynamic public sphere where citizens air ideas, evaluate arguments and circulate information. He believes a healthy, functioning democracy is one where we have democratic institutions embedded within a broader engaged citizenry.

Where does that happen?
Well it’s sort of a tragic story for Habermas because we don’t see very much of it. Just as journals and coffee houses were picking up pace in the 18th century and people were engaging in this sort of argumentation, those spaces became colonised or inundated by advertising, messaging from corporations and propaganda. That undermines the public sphere. A public sphere of communication and argumentation does still exist in some forms. The gold standard is in science when research papers are peer-reviewed. You present your reasoning and your evidence to a scientific community and they’ll pick holes in it. It’s actually a social process.

For the most part, science doesn’t progress because of geniuses. It progresses because it’s an organised collective activity where everyone’s contributing and criticising one another’s work. Collectively we work out what’s robust.

Complex policy questions, such as the cannabis and end-of-life laws, require dedicated concentration and we can do that with a citizens’ assembly. 

Associate Professor Matheson Russell, Philosophy University of Auckland

You’re interested in how we come to good policies. What do you think of referenda?
I don’t know that referenda have much of a place. Do we expect that everyone just casts a vote in a referendum and the result of that is a good policy? There’s a common perception that a referendum is the most democratic way to resolve controversial things because everyone gets a say. But developing good policy requires a carefully organised process of input from the right people. It requires critical reflection and discussion among people who represent different perspectives and bring different critical capacities to the question. Referenda give us a voice, yes, but I’d feel more confident in the decision if there was a more robust process.

Or should we just let politicians decide?
Making important decisions relies on well-organised forums where the participants get a chance to go in deep on issues and get the right kind of input from experts, then come out with a set of robust recommendations. That’s the kind of process that we’d hope our politicians would engage in, but they don’t because they’re doing ten other things at the same time. They’re trying to campaign and appear in the news media and stay in touch with their constituents.

Complex policy questions, such as the cannabis and end-of-life laws, require dedicated concentration and we can do that with a citizens’ assembly. If we were to redesign our system, maybe we could expect to be drafted into things like citizens’ assemblies every so often to play our part, sort of like we do in juries.

Does philosophy have an image issue?
Certainly, it has some baggage. It has a gender and Eurocentric bias. Philosophy is undergoing upheaval at the moment where we are collectively trying to overcome some of these problematic biases. Some of the most creative and able contemporary philosophers are women and people of colour and they’re really reshaping all fields of philosophy through their work.

Does New Zealand have good philosophers?
Yes! Just as an example, in this department alone there is distinguished professor Stephen Davies, one of probably four or five leading philosophers in the philosophy of art. Professor John Bishop works in the philosophy of religion, and he’s an internationally renowned thinker in that area. Professor Gillian Brock is a political philosopher whose work on global justice is at the top of her field. That’s just a few.

What brought you to New Zealand after you studied in Sydney?
After my PhD I initially came here for six months to teach a couple of courses. At the end of the six months, the University advertised a permanent position, which I got. I was a little bit lucky because I was here and they saw that I wasn’t crazy. That’s a good threshold to clear.

You’ve recently become an associate professor – what does that mean for you?
It’s satisfying to be promoted but it doesn’t change much of what I do here. Like a lot of academics, I have a bit of imposter syndrome. But now that I’m an associate professor, I feel like maybe I do know something about this. It brings a bit of confidence with it.

What do you do in your spare time?
I have a two-year-old and a five-year-old so they keep me busy. I’m involved in climate activism as well; climate change is something I’m really concerned about and I’m on the board of 350 Aotearoa. I also play music – cello and guitar.


Q and A with Matheson Russell (first appeared as 'My Story' in March 2020 UniNews.)