As an undergraduate, Stephen studied natural science before turning to philosophy. Two books had a formative influence: Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics and C. B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Virtues and vices aside, both books emphasized the transformations brought about in the early modern world, and, more generally, taught the necessity of understanding theories in their historical context. These concerns then shaped an academic career with a focus on periods of social transformation.
One important general outcome has been the thought that societies can be thought of as analogous to theories (in particular, of how to live): they embed ideas, in particular of justice and goodness, in the social order. So social transformations are analogous to scientific revolutions in some of the ways emphasized by Thomas Kuhn in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: there is a “paradigm shift”, such that once-central concerns can become marginal (or even seem absurd), while other once-marginal or detested modes of life can come to centre-stage, and so enjoy respectability or even admiration.
This thought goes a long way in explaining why the past so often seems opaque, or even oppressive, to the modern mind. Hence the tendency to think of the 17th century revolution in scientific explanation as the invention of science; of the 18th century Enlightenment as the discovery of human rights; of 20th century feminism as the dawn of recognition of women’s rights; and so on. All such thoughts are distortions built on ignorance of past social orders, and therefore also of the assumptions or social forces that rendered those past social orders untenable to a later age. Stable and peaceful societies are coherent to their members; shifts in beliefs or the material conditions of life disrupt this coherence, and usher in periods of dramatic intellectual and social change.
Understanding these shifts and why they occur has been an ongoing preoccupation. Thus the philosophical writings of the 18th century Scotsman David Hume are an outstanding attempt to argue the significance for human life of the 17th century scientific revolution. It is ultimately unconvincing – too sceptical for its own good – but is nevertheless a brilliant achievement. In contrast, the feminist interpretation of social history in terms of patriarchal oppression is a textbook example of how to misread the past. The feminist cause is largely justified – the changed circumstances of the post-war world required a recasting of social roles, and the feminists were right to insist on the fact. But the theory (and attendant vocabulary) feminism invokes testifies to little more than incomprehension of past social orders in which protection (and so restriction) of the vulnerable was local and familial.
Stephen grew up on Sydney’s northern beaches, an area better known for rugby league footballers and world surfing champions than for philosophers. The area has not been entirely bereft of intellectual life, however, with John Passmore its best-known product. Growing up in the area left two obvious marks. One was the unavoidability of reflection, when catching the Manly Ferry to the city, that one was retracing the passage of the First Fleet in 1788, and on all that that entailed. (This led to postgraduate study, and later a book, on early modern accounts of the origins of property rights.)
The other obvious mark was an entirely irrational attachment to the fortunes of Manly-Warringah Rugby League Club. However, an anglophile father meant that active participation in the local culture was resisted for the sake of traditional English pursuits: cricket and football (the world game). As a young cricketer he was inspired by Lance Gibbs to pursue the art of off-spin, and doomed to unwitting emulation of Geoff Boycott with the bat. His footballing career was informed by The Boys’ Book of Soccer for 1961, in which he learned to emulate the then England No. 10 Johnny Haynes. The career was book-ended by early success and a very late Renaissance when helping, as a postgraduate, to deliver two trophies to the H.C. Coombs Building at ANU. Also developed early was an interest in Arsenal FC, an interest that has given many life lessons in dealing with high hopes ultimately frustrated.
A different interest, free of such self-inflicted suffering, came about through the desire to fill in the cultural background to philosophical theories. This led, in particular, to the history of opera, which gives such a vivid picture of shifts in cultural sensibilities, from the classical tragedies of Rameau to the domestic comedies of Mozart to the fascination with myth in the 19th century. Hence the consorting in Bayreuth with Richard Wagner on the Home Page (with thanks to Dirk Schuettemeyer for the picture).