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Interview: philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse

Flagstaff Team

Rosalind Hursthouse looks back on her lifetime as a professor of philosophy. It’s not a subject that will ever stop exercising her mind but right now, she tells Helen Vause, finding fellow gardeners in Devonport is at the front of her mind.

A love affair with philosophy, and in particular with the teachings of Aristotle, has taken Rosalind Hursthouse all over the world in an international academic career spanning about five decades. She’ not long retired as a professor of philosophy from the University of Auckland and as a professor emeritus she’s still very much part of the university. There are still research projects she is working on and most mornings she’s at the computer early by her living room window looking out over Narrow Neck.

Coming up to 75, she’s at an age where most people are already well settled into retirement and into the local community. Rosalind has a bit of catching up to do in leisure pursuits, not least rather a lot of gardening. “Gardening is my other great love”, she says, waving an arm at a large back section
She saw the pathway to Oxford University and to working with some of the brightest stars in her field of philosophy when she was a schoolgirl in Wellington.

Born in England, Rosalind had come to New Zealand as an infant and although her parents were not academic, their house was full of books and vigourous debate around the dinner table. Rosalind recalls riding home on the outside seats of the Cable Car, up from the city as a fourth former at Wellington Girls’ College.

She’d watch the student passengers getting off at the stop for Victoria University and think to herself– that’s where I’m going; to University. Not just that to that University but into the world of academia.

Just a couple of years later the dreams of being in a University world firmed up when her Aunt Mary, an academic, came around to the family home for a sherry, recalls Rosalind.

“Dad asked her ‘what’s all this philosophy stuff then Mary?,”
“My Aunt leaned forward and rubbed the table and said ‘do you realise that we don’t really know this is a table in front of us. All we have to go on are our sensations.’

“My father thought it was the silliest thing he’d heard and promptly suggested another sherry. But I thought it was fantastic. I fell in love with philosophy at first sight and I enrolled at University the next year to start studying it.”

Rosalind started at Victoria University but finished her first degree and her masters degree at the University of Auckland. On a scholarship, she went to Oxford University as a graduate student and on to 25 years of teaching philosophy in Britain. Oxford was a stimulating, exciting place for a young student seeking an academic life and she felt pretty fortunate to be doing her doctorate there.

But back in the 60’s Oxford it was still very much a male dominated institution and typically it’s student community were the privileged offspring of the upper classes and Britain’s pubic schools. Looking for work to supplement her income, Rosalind successfully applied for a job at the University and she became the first woman to teach in an all men’s college, in those times of segregation.

Rosalind laughs a lot and her highly entertaining dialogue is embellished with many gestures. Memories of trying to crack the code to get alongside the chaps at Oxford bring on gales of laughter.

“They were difficult times for women there and the men were pretty ghastly to us really. Mostly they were not welcoming to me at all and often they were so very boring. But the women were tough and I had the luck to be mentored by two women who are leading academics.” But in the end she decided that being part of Oxford University at that stage of her career was not so important that she had to battle on into those bastions of the blokes. She realised there could be more fun and a better fit for her to be found somewhere else.

She stayed living in Oxford, happy in the culture and buzz of the place but her opportunity for change came when the Labour Government of the day signalled plans for an Open University in the late 1960’s.

Rosalind got a job in the ranks of founding staff of the new institution which is now one of the biggest in the UK for undergraduate education. The Open University is hailed as a world pioneer in distance earning and with something like two million students having passed through it’s courses, it’s said to have changed the face of higher education in Britain.

Rosalind is very proud to have been part of that change and to have taught there for many years.

“The establishment of the Open University was just so overdue. At the time it felt quite disgraceful to me that no-one seemed to have got around to considering education for those who were outside the public schools and the upper classes; the people who had to work and who didn’t have the opportunity to take years out to study or couldn’t afford to.

“Until then university education had been for those in a certain social position who could afford it but that left out thousands and thousands of intelligent people who would want to pursue higher education if they were given the opportunity.”

The Open University had some wobbly early years as political parties either backed of booed the development of it. Nevertheless, the students came by the tens of thousands.

“It certainly was what people were looking for,” says Rosalind. “And they were so different from the students of established universities. Our distance learning courses brought enrolements from the most incredible diversity of students from those in far flung places or in busy jobs to those in jail or people who were bedridden.

“They were of all ages and of greatly varying ability. But of course it was both very rewarding and challenging to be teaching them. You certainly couldn’t pre-suppose anything with these students. In my field for example, you couldn’t be sure they’d know about Aristotle. You’d have to tell them first that he was a Greek philosopher. “

Rosalind’s field is in moral philosophy, Aristotle is her inspiration and she is noted for her work on virtue ethics.

“It’s common sense really and doesn’t belong locked up in academia. The idea is to acquire and exercise virtues in order to live a life worth living.”

“Everyone has to think about the person they want to be and how they want to live, what they’ll stand up for and what they’ll let go.”

Virtue she says, means excellence and connotes the character traits that enable us to live and act well. Those traits include courage, temperance, generosity, honest, mildness and being able to manage anger.

It’s not about perfection but about what we aspire to, she says, and adds that deep down we all know what’s right and what is wrong.

Rosalind never tired of teaching at the Open University but the pull of home was getting stronger and her father was rapidly aging in Auckland. She was appointed Head of the Department of Philsophy at the University of Auckland in 200l5 and hed that position until 2005.

She remained as a professor but in her 60’s life took a turn that took her away from the entertaining and gardening she’d anticipated in her large Stanley Bay home.

Duty called and instead of hosting hordes of University friends from the UK, she moved into her father’s home to take care of him for the decade until he died last year at 102.

“It was at times overwhelming and it all rather bowled me over for a while,” she says looking around the pretty bungalow that’s now home.
Getting serious about semi-retirement includes lots of gardening hours, and hopefully some new gardening buddies.

“I had felt sure there’d be a gardening club to join in Devonport where there are so many lovely traditional gardens. But I have yet to find one. Gardening clubs are a wonderful excuse to stand around nattering to people about all sorts of things. And that’s one of the things I do love to do.”

Published in the September 7 2018 edition of Devonport Flagstaff. View online