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25th Anniversary Booklet (2007)

In the Beginning

Augustine Shutte

I was the first chairperson of the Philosophy Society at its foundation in 1982. It was the brainchild of Zak van Straaten who had recently been appointed to the Chair of Philosophy at UCT. It was just one of many innovative ideas he had introduced, from the establishment of a "Centre for Advanced Studies in Philosophy" in the department to the arranging of musical evenings and receptions for colleagues from other departments and members of the public in the service of making the department better known to all.

The Philosophy Society was conceived as a way in which we could interest the public beyond the university in philosophy. It couldn't have been started at a better time. The 1982 UCT Summer School had put on a lecture series on philosophy by the hugely popular James Moulder, from the philosophy department at Rhodes University. Over three hundred people attended these lectures and - since our Society was advertised by James - virtually all of them immediately joined up. A wave of enthusiasm was sweeping the more affluent suburbs of Cape Town. And the Philosophy Society prospered from its huge membership. 

The early meetings were lavish affairs. After the speaker for the evening had delivered the address, tea, coffee and biscuits were taken in the Leslie foyer, followed by glasses of port for those who cared - all served by uniformed waitresses and waiters. After a decent interval I would stroll through the throng ringing a bell to break the spell induced by philosophical debate and port. We would then return to the auditorium for a discussion session, a session often continued by smaller groups far into the night.

These were heady times indeed for the members of the department. In addition to the novel experience of lecturing to a huge and devoted audience that included politicians, academics, clergy and other influential classes (for a substantial emolument, let it be said), one's words were reported in the local press and one was besieged by invitations to speak on the radio and other public platforms. To cap it all, the financial success of the venture made it possible to end the academic year with a departmental luncheon, the like of which members of the department had not experienced before and certainly haven't experienced since.

Now, 25 years later, the Philosophy Society still exists, with regular meetings throughout the year. Judging by the recent months-long discussion in the Cape Times of affirmative action, provoked by our present head of department, David Benatar's inaugural lecture, the wider public could benefit from, and even enjoy, regular contact with philosophy. To do this they only have to pick up the phone and become a member of the UCT Philosophy Society.

Dr Augustine Shutte was a member of the Philosophy Department at UCT from 1972 to 2003, and has been an Honorary Research Associate since then. He was Chairman of the Philosophy Society from 1982 until 1986.