James Franklin, Corrupting the Youth: A history of philosophy in Australia (Sydney: Macleay Press, 2003), 465pp. ★★★☆☆ (3 stars)
This lively and opinionated history of philosophy in Australia is a good read, but lacks overall structure.
This book has more of a personal intellectual story to it than most, for me. In late 2004 I was decisively turning my back on the academic post’isms and looking for an alternative intellectual framework that I could base meaningful, readable research on. I’d been reading Keith Windschuttle’s The Killing of History, one of the Australian books written against post-ist nonsense, and decided to write to Windschuttle asking for some advice and reading recommendations. That it was taken as implicit in my department that one should revile Windschuttle was among the reasons I sought him out: if such misguided minds as those found in my department hated him, he probably had something worthwhile to say. Windschuttle passed my inquiry on to a friend of his, and somehow, in all this I found out about Jim Franklin, another of Windschuttle’s friends.
On Franklin’s webpage, I saw he’d written a book about philosophy in Australia. It was something I knew practically nothing about, and I was interested to pursue the intellectual connection, so I ordered it online. As with many books, it’s taken me months upon months to finish, but I’m glad I have.
What will forever stick in my mind about this book was that when I mentioned it, and Jim, in the postgraduate common room, Alex Murray (whose list of influences is a veritable shopping cart of obnoxious continental theory) picked up on the conversation from the other side of the room and chimed in, “that man is evil!” Upon asking why, I received an answer that I think had something to do with him being a Catholic. My further revelation that I’d heard about the book by writing to Keith Windschuttle probably earned me permanent suspicion from several people in the room.
But that’s by the by. I was pleasantly surprised to find that a scholarly work of this kind was in fact written as a rather good story, packed with scandal and incident. Franklin is full of opinions on philosophy, and his prejudices are very evident in the way he makes fun of particular figures and positions. While this tarnishes the credibility of the book in the deadly serious, scholarly sense, it’s a pleasure to see someone writing with a personal voice for a change, and taking a stand against or for particular thinkers while letting all speak through extensive quotations, such as this one:
Defects of empirical knowledge have less to do with the ways we go wrong in philosophy than defects of character do: such as the simple inability to shut up; determination to be thought deep; hunger for power; fear, especially the fear of an indifferent universe. (388, quote from David Stove, The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies
As with most such surveys of ideas, the chief value of Corrupting the Youth is that it may serve to acquaint one with great and beautiful writing and thinking. Stand-outs here are the moral sensibility of Raimond Gaita (405–408), the wit and wisdom of David Stove (i.e. 388), and the prose of Donald Horne (277). Franklin’s history is also valuable in chronicling some of the unsavory dealings and motivations that contributed to the rise of Marxism and the various post’isms in Australia’s academic humanities from the 1970s onwards.
Though an enjoyable read, Corrupting the Youth ends on a weak note, trailing off with a discussion of the euthanasia debate. It would have benefited from a conclusion that tied up the story into a cohesive whole, and guessed at future directions for Australian philosophy or issued some final judgement on it.