I spent a long time getting educated in the Humanities. I studied mainly philosophy and political theory as an undergraduate. I then wrote a masters thesis on Immanuel Kant’s theory of beauty and, finally, a PhD – at UCL in London – on aesthetic appreciation.
Career (last few roles/organisations, or your main or favourite):
I’m currently an Honorary Professor in the Arts Faculty at the University of Melbourne and Provost’s Fellow at the University of Tasmania.
How have the humanities helped you in your career?
Although I’ve been employed for many years by Universities, most of my work falls outside of the usual academic arena. Recently, for example, I’ve been trying to change the way people engage with art in Art Galleries. Last year, together with my colleague Alain de Botton, I published a book called Art as Therapy and this year the ideas from the book have been put into practice in exhibitions at the NGV in melbourne, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
The project draws on the Humanities, of course, but in a way that might be unexpected. The basic approach comes from Aristotle. In The Poetics he asks what tragedy is for? And arrives at at psychological answer: it’s function is to teach us (the community) how to be wise around terrible events – and specifically to guide the way we experience the emotions of fear and pity. We asked ‘what are art galleries for?’ and attempted to give the same kind of answer we imagine Aristotle would have.
A lot of work it seems to me is essentially philosophical. One is attempting to define what something – a product, an institution, or a policy – is for. What end does it serve or what true, essential problem does it try to solve? This is what Plato and Aristotle were obsessed with. The other side of work is rhetorical. It is the attempt to sell the truth to someone who doesn’t yet believe. This is applied Aristotle. Rhetoric understands that there are many many obstacles to the embrace of the truth – and intellectual disagreement is only one.
The tricky, exciting, move has been to go from learning about Plato and Aristotle to learning how to use their ideas. It’s the jump from saying there was a man who lived in Athens 2500 years ago who wanted to identify the ideal versions of things to doing the same thing oneself: actually trying to identify ideal versions of familiar entities. What would an ideal newspaper be like, or an ideal wealth management firm, or an ideal hotel, or ideal dating site? As Plato stresses an ideal isn’t just a fantasy. It is the embodiment of the deepest solutions to the real problems.
Why do you think the humanities matter today?
My feeling is that the future desperately needs the best of the humanities to resound through everything we do collectively – politics, the economy, entertainment, education. But it should not just be reverence for learning about the humanities. It should be a determination to put those ideals into practical use in the rough and competitive places; because that’s where they are most needed.
John Armstrong was a Committee Member of Humanities 21, and is now our Consultant Philosopher. He is the author of nine books, including In Search of Civilisation, Love Life Goethe, The Secret Power of Beauty, How to Worry Less About Money and Life Lessons from Nietzsche.