Maurita Harney

“You can change your viewpoint after careful consideration, as long as you can defend it… It’s drawing the threads together.”

Dr Maurita Harney is an Honorary Senior Fellow in Philosophy, University of Melbourne. She has at least 37 publications (listed on ResearchGate), on topics ranging from biosemiotics to traditional problems in the philosophy of mind. (A comprehensive list of Maurita’s qualifications, publications  and more, is available on the University Of Melbourne Find an Expert web site.)

Recent U3APP Saturday Seminar – Artificial Intelligence: Hype and Reality (available on video)

Current Course: Philosophy and Sci-Fi.

Maurita became a member of U3APP and commenced tutoring classes in Philosophy in 2007.

What motivated you to become a tutor at U3APP?  “Well, I had moved back into this area having spent my childhood in Middle Park.  I have always been interested in Adult Education and had previously run courses at the Council of Adult Education, and elsewhere.

“But the other aspect that motivated me was my mother’s experience. My mother never had the opportunity to have any secondary education. She needed to nurse her own mother, but she clearly had a good mind.

“She enrolled in a philosophy course at the U3A city campus, and we were able to talk to each other about major philosophers. She found it to be a very rewarding experience, and this further motivated me to become part of an organisation like this. So, I have taught here at U3APP continuously, since then.”

Where did you spend your childhood years? “In Middle Park, but I haven’t lived here all my life. Although there has been continuity, as members of my family have always lived here.”

Maurita’s grandfather bought a house in Page Street, in 1918 or thereabouts. It was a large brick house, “our extended family shared this house. There was our grandfather, my parents, me, and my sister and also, at different stages, another family of cousins and their parents. Then later when they moved out, a maiden aunt and then a cousin who had lost his mother. So, it was quite a crowded house.

“During the holidays, we spent time with our country relatives. We would stay at their farms in northern Victoria, and then they would stay at our home in summer where we spent many happy days at the beach.”

So, a very integrated family life, was that a happy experience? “Yes very, except that I did crave a room of my own,” Maurita says with a laugh. Her father was a motor mechanic. During the war In New Guinea, he was remembered as being a “jack of all trades.” He had helped to keep the telecommunications system going, with “a tin can and string.” Maurita recalls that he was good at inventing solutions when needed.

When did you discover your love of learning? “I think I always had that, it was more the subject matter than the influence of the teachers at my school. I also loved music and art. I was good at English and loved maths, but they didn’t teach maths and science beyond Year 3 or 4, although they taught geology, which I enjoyed.”

Neither of Maurita’s parents had secondary schooling, so it was important to them that Maurita and her sister were given this opportunity. “They valued education even though they did not have it themselves.” Maurita and her sister attended Kilbride Catholic Secondary School in Albert Park.

Reflecting further on her parents’ contribution to her education, Maurita recalls, “You know the biggest gift was that they allowed me to learn music. Piano was the only option, I am eternally grateful for that. It gave me an understanding of music. There has always been music in our house, we would have singalongs together.”

Despite not having the opportunity to do science at school, Maurita decided that “I wanted to do science, it was challenging, it just opened up a totally different kind of world.”

Maurita obtained a scholarship to university but was required to wait  until she was of age, having matriculated early. She had a year to fill in. “I wanted to do science but for girls, the only scientific career path seemed to be pharmacy. Her uncle worked at CSIRO. He invited her down  to Hampton, to look around, “I was fascinated with the workings of the various equipment and installations,  also a particular device invented by my uncle.” She decided to fill in the year at Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) in Parkville.

However, Maurita  later decided that  working as a junior in the lab was not so interesting, “I changed my mind and ended up doing an Arts Degree at Melbourne University, where I was introduced to philosophy. It was challenging and for that reason I loved it, particularly philosophy of science.”

Maurita tells with some humour, that she obtained an honour’s accreditation. Whilst scanning the results board, she thought she had failed, as her name was not there. However, she was prompted to look at the Honours listings and to her surprise, found her name there.

Maurita obtained a Dip. Ed. and went on to teach history, English, music and French in various high schools “But I was restless to do more study, so philosophy was the logical step for me.”

What attracted you to philosophy in particular? “Well, at that time, the questions being raised in philosophy seemed to be in line with the kind of questions that I’d been asking myself, which were actually about metaphysics. For instance, a coin which is round, can also appear elliptical, as they are actually the same coin.”

Maurita became interested in the views of Bertrand Russell, “with whom I’ve had an on and off relationship.”  Clarifying with a laugh, “Intellectually only!” Despite his “appalling views on women, he writes superbly, his ideas are fascinating. He changed his views throughout his career, with good reason which is another thing I like about philosophy.

“You can change your viewpoint after careful consideration, as long as you can defend it, that’s OK.” For instance, Maurita was a Platonist in her past, “but I rejected that after reading parts of Aristotle. Back in the 70’s I was a great admirer of Jean Paul Sartre, but now I am very critical of his views.”

In her classes at U3APP, students appreciate that they can ask questions, “there is no such thing as a dumb question in philosophy, they can also be directed to read up on a particular aspect.”

After obtaining an MA in philosophy at the University of Melbourne, Maurita moved to Canberra where she obtained a position as lecturer in philosophy at ANU, and also completed her doctorate.

Maurita recalls that this was a politically vibrant period during Gough Whitlam’s era. He had appointed a woman as Head of Women’s Affairs, who was also a tutor in philosophy. “She was the person that I replaced, in 1973. It was a wonderful opportunity, as at that point in time I was changing my direction in philosophy. From the more standard analytical tradition, towards the Continental or European philosophy, including the French philosophers.”

Could you summarise the difference between analytical and European philosophy? “The ‘ancients’, would be common to both and whilst there has always been a kind of British versus French rivalry, the differences between them sharpened, probably in the late 50s and 60s.

“With the British analytic perspective becoming dominant, the ‘Continentals’ were treated with contempt. Much of their philosophy was more literary, more concerned with the big questions like the meaning of life, whereas British philosophy was becoming dominated by linguistic analysis. Much of my research during these years was devoted to attempting to bridge the gap in understanding between these two traditions.”

At that time only a few lecturers were interested in Continental philosophy. Maurita was given the opportunity to instigate  courses at the ANU, with the Continental perspective, “that was a big breakthrough really.”

“In retrospect, it was a terrific department to work in. The ANU was well funded and attracted many ‘big names’ from overseas.  It was the Gough Whitlam effect, as he did not share the anti-intellectualism of many others, so it was a wonderful time to be there.”

Whilst in Canberra, Maurita also had the opportunity to pursue her other interests. She participated in drawing and painting classes in the evenings. “There was not a lot of night life back then, as Canberra was not well populated at the time.”

Maurita also became interested in botanical gardens, bush walking and orienteering. “This really did open my eyes to the natural world, which I had not had time to explore before.”

After completing her PHD thesis, Maurita returned to live in Melbourne in 1980 where she continued  as lecturer at the University of Melbourne and the Swinburne University of Technology. She became Head of Department at Swinburne, recalling that “again, this was also a great environment.

Maurita (seated) and colleague Helen Ralston at Swinburne preparing Open Day posters promoting science and engineering courses for female students.

“At Swinburne, I was able to pursue my interest in technology, also computing, applying this to philosophy of mind.  AI was becoming an area of interest. I taught formal logic which was the basis  of an important part of computer science. The head of computer science was very keen on philosophy which led me onto teaching subjects like “Methodology of Simulation” and “Minds and Machines.” Recognition of the very low enrolment rates of female students in engineering and science courses prompted Maurita to join forces with a colleague from chemistry to undertake research aimed at increasing female participation in these areas.

What other activities were you engaged in? “Bush walking and orienteering were all part of social life. Contrary to common perceptions, Canberra, then a predominantly public service city, was not populated with one-dimensional people, but with a rich diversity of people with fascinating interests and lives.”

“One of my philosophical colleagues staged and directed operas by Handel, his speciality was playing the harpsichord. Another colleague was a musicologist, others were music or drama critics. There was a witch’s coven, but I did not join them! And the proximity to the seat of government, especially at the time of Whitlam’s dismissal in 1975, added a special edge to the Canberra experience.

“I met some terrific students whom I am still in touch with to this day. Some very bright undergraduates from low income or migrant families came there on scholarships and later went on to high powered positions.” Maurita’s lasting friendships from those days include an art connoisseur working at Sotheby’s in Paris, a merchant banker in Tokyo, and  a distinguished professor of philosophy in Holland.

“I would provide them with a flagon of wine, olives and all the exotic goodies from Melbourne and that established the basis for very strong relationships. When I travel, I have someone to stay with in Paris, Tokyo, and Italy,” Maurita adds  humorously.

With respect to your interest in neuroscience, philosophy has now turned its attention to science, has science returned the favour to philosophy? “Very much so. More recently, researchers in the philosophy of mind and brain, and those in neuroscience, have come to talk to each other for example on questions about the nature of consciousness, free will, etc. However, these questions take us beyond the brain as the only source of cognition and sentience to what is called ‘embodied’ cognition, and the field of biology researchers have suggested that even ‘brainless’ organisms (like slime moulds) can be said to have rudimentary cognitive skills.

“Aspects of the philosophy of biology, leads into the philosophy of living things in general, not just in humans. If you are talking about cognition, knowledge, intellect, reasoning, understanding, or problem solving, you can’t exclude the non-human world from that. Studies in the ‘mental life’ of the octopus have shown us that. ‘Sentience’ is a more appropriate word than ‘consciousness’ in describing the cognitive skills of human and non-human animals.

“You can no longer state definitively that this is the ‘preserve of humans’, this is arrogant. So, my recent interest has been with a group of ethologists based in Scandinavia and Prague, who work in an area known as biosemiotics. This is the study of how living things communicate with each other in a meaningful way. It studies the connection between organisms and their relation to habitat. Their work draws on many insights from philosophy.”

Do you think that in some way AI may change or improve on future political dilemmas given the long history of wars and controversies over the centuries?

“I don’t think so, changing ways of thinking is always difficult, it’s not under democratic control. AI may amplify the horrible things are already amplified on social media. Philosophers generally argue that it is important for us to take control, to make choices.

“My line of thinking is to look at AI, work with it, use it as an assistant, not as a master. Not to relinquish control when it comes to decision making. And transparency is important. Humans need to make the decisions, not a machine controlled by powerful entrepreneurs and the like.

“In the 1990s, the ‘looming question’ was developing into a big debate, as to whether machines are capable of thinking. More recently the ground has shifted, technology is much more sophisticated. In fact, what was called AI back then, was really ‘expert systems,’ a very small part of AI currently. There was no generative AI or ChatGPT or BARD and certainly not the sophisticated approaches to visual recognition systems or language understanding.” And, of course, before the age of the internet databases were extremely limited.

Your travel interests? Maurita’s work as an academic provided opportunities for travel, mainly to Europe and the USA for conferences and study leave. But in recent years she has sought more adventurous forms of travel. “I went on an archaeological dig with the University of Sydney, to a desert region in far west Uzbekistan near the Aral sea, south of Georgia, helping to excavate a site of the ancient Chorasmians (approx. 4th century BCE).

“The other big adventure was not so long ago, when I went to Madagascar. The sheer marvel of the wildlife there, the exotic animals, and plants. As I know very little about plants, it was wonderful having these ancient and unique plants pointed out to me. I am now less interested in traveling to big cities, more the natural environment.”

Following her retirement, Maurita returned enthusiastically to her piano, but finding time to practice is an ongoing issue. Bach, Beethoven, the Scott Joplin Rags as in The Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer, continue to be her favourites.

Maurita about to cut her birthday cake.

Earlier this year Maurita threw a party for her 80th birthday. She invited family and friends, and U3APP members (including this writer), to join her at the Middle Park Bowling Club. Guests were treated to a delicious array of food and wine, but the highlight was the cutting of the cake, and an invitation to sing together, The Galaxy Song by Monty Python, Whenever life gets you down, Mrs Brown…, everyone joined in enthusiastically. The cake itself was decorated with Maurita’s ‘favourite organism’ (a fake one, in this case!) – the physarum polycephalum, commonly known as the slime mould.

Your plans for the future? Maurita intends to run perhaps a more limited course in 2024, balanced with her travel plans and other pursuits. She has been “an avid concert goer”, enjoys experimental productions in music, including light opera productions.

One of her favourite composers is Mary Finsterer, as she “combines both ancient and medieval sounds, cadences, in a contemporary setting. What I like about some concerts in Melbourne, is that they often include a local composer who is in attendance, in the orchestra.”

Maurita used to enjoy going out to see a movie but nowadays prefers to watch movies at home, her favourite film being Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier.

What value do you give to a healthy, enquiring mind?” I give it enormous value. It builds up and you have it for as long as you have it.”

Maurita surmises, “Its drawing the threads together. You know, I sort of started off with a love of science and really was not able to do it at that time. But I ended up doing it via philosophy where both physics and biology have become the subject matter, even though I am not qualified in those subjects.”

For the past 16 years, Maurita Harney has drawn on her extensive theoretical research and expertise, to facilitate and encourage the enquiring minds of members of U3APP.

Maurita is very modest about her many academic publications, participation in international conferences, and being appointed as an Honorary Senior Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne.

She has the courage and versatility of an ever enquiring mind, to question everything. The transition from Aristotle, to introducing European philosophy into Australian Universities, to the philosophy of living things, of science and technology and the use of artificial intelligence, has motivated Maurita to continue to explore the many current philosophical dilemmas facing humankind.

This is quite a journey, and one which is still ongoing. Maurita’s innovative father, the intelligent mind of her mother, ensured that she and her sister received the education that they themselves were unable to have.

It is not surprising that Maurita selected for her birthday, The Galaxy Song: “Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving…” Where to, from here?

Felicity May interviewed Maurita Harney.

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