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Edward H. Spence: Performing Philosophy

Dr. Edward H. Spence is the founder and director of the Philosophy Plays project, now in its 25th year, whose aim is the communication of public philosophy through dramatic performance and audience participation and discussion. He’s also an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sydney and Adjunct Senior Lecturer at Charles Sturt University, Australia as well as the Senior Research Fellow at the 4TU.Centre for Ethics and Technology in the Netherlands.

Dr. Spence has co-authored numerous academic titles such as Digital Era and Media Corruption in the Age of Information and is the author of Stoic Philosophy and the Control Problem of AI Technology: Caught in the Web.

How did you become interested in Philosophy?

My first interest in philosophy arose as a student at the American Academy in
Larnaca, Cyprus, where my father was serving as an officer in the British army (Cyprus was was under British jurisdiction at the time). Opposite the School was the statue of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoic Philosophy born in Larnaca – which in ancient times was a Hellenic City known as Citium.

Zeno established the first School of Stoic philosophy in Athens after he got shipwrecked there when delivering merchandise for the family business, and decided to stay and study philosophy. He later set up his own school of philosophy that became known as Stoic derived from the word stoa, which in Greek means “porch” from where he conducted his teaching.

Inspired by Zeno, I used to spend my summer holidays in the Municipal Library of Larnaca (I was 14 years of age at the time) where I spent my time reading philosophy and taking notes. Apart from Zeno, the other philosopher that inspired me (and still does to this day) was Plato and his Socratic dialogues. German poet Goethe had an impact on me, more specifically his long poem Dr Faustus.

It was much later, after spending many years working as a chartered accountant in London, that I came to Australia in 1981 with my wife Kaye. That’s when I made the wise decision to devote my life to the formal study of philosophy. In 1985, I began my philosophical education in the Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy at the University of Sydney in 1985. I chose U of S by a propitious coincidence. As the Irish might say, “God was talking to me anonymously” when my Greek-Cypriot friend Zeno, who I met in London, advised me that I could study philosophy under Professor David Armstrong at Sydney U. He was internationally famous at the time for his pioneering work in the philosophy of mind published in his book, A Materialist Theory of the Mind. The rest as you might say was not history but philosophy, and specifically Epistemology (Honours, First Class) and Moral philosophy (PhD).

Currently, my research interests are in Stoic philosophy and the ethics of emerging technologies, such as AI, as reflected in my new book, Stoic Philosophy and the Control Problem of AI Technology: Caught in the Web.

Stoic Philosophy and the Control Problem of AI Technology

As AI technologies have become “a way of life” for us (by choice or involuntarily) it is therefore of crucial importance to examine and evaluate those technologies more critically and philosophically through the lens of Stoic and Socratic philosophy.

Dr. Edward H. Spence

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

Inspired from the beginning by Zeno’s Stoic philosophy and Plato’s Socratic philosophy, the most important idea I teach is that philosophy must be perceived as a way of life, lived virtuously through courage, moderation, justice and practical wisdom-known as the cardinal virtues-for the attainment of eudaimonia (self-fulfillment, happiness or wellbeing). Symposium: The Dialogues of Plato (which inspired the Philosophy Plays project), on the topic of love, expresses in practice this idea.

“Plato’s Symposium” (Anselm Feuerbach)

I founded Philosophy Plays in 1997 as a form of philosophy portrayed through dramatic performance in taverns, theatres, arts festivals, and vineyards for the general public. This year, stage plays Smart Machine and Wise Guys, that I wrote for the Greek Festival of Sydney 2022, express some of the ideas in my new book, Stoic Philosophy and the Control Problem of AI Technology.

My book …Caught in the Web speaks to the important and crucial technological era in which we now live, given the influence and impact of AI technologies on most aspects of our lives. As AI technologies have become “a way of life” for us (by choice or involuntarily) it is therefore of crucial importance to examine and evaluate those technologies more critically and philosophically through the lens of Stoic and Socratic philosophy.

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we
can derive from your work?

Be curious about ideas and seek and critically examine their truth (epistemically). Also, be kind to others and yourself, do good to others as much as you can and where you can (ethically). Think and act as a cosmopolitan (like Diogenes) and, as the Stoic, recommend for the common good, considering others as if they were your own kin and friends (eudaimonically). Most importantly, though, seek wisdom as the most important concept and apply it to your life – making it a daily practice.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

That’s a difficult question to answer but if I had to choose, other than “I know one thing, that I know nothing” (Socrates), it is from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 on love. I have used more often than I can recall, on wedding cards especially. It’s quite amazing how one can express so much in just 14 lines:


Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

William Shakespeare

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about
what you do?

I can be contacted through LinkedIn, at my University of Sydney profile and CV as well as on Research Gate and Academia. I am currently working on revising and upgrading my website that will become available later this year.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens.

I would be delighted and honoured to stand in the place that I have always considered to be the “secular sacred”. I’d imagine the divine Diotima from Mantinea teaching me as she taught and Socrates in Plato’s Symposium talking about what true love is; love of the beautiful and the good. Perhaps even if the opportunity arose, I would love to have a philosophy play performed on the topic of Plato’s notion of love.

What do you think?

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