David Benatar

For twenty-five years the UCT Philosophy Society has provided a forum for interested members of the general public in the Cape Town area to engage with philosophical issues.

Founded by Professor Zak van Straaten, the Society held its first meeting at the beginning of 1982. The inaugural speaker was Dr James Moulder. He spoke, fittingly, on “How Philosophy Began”. Augustine Shutte chaired the Society from its founding until 1986. Subsequent chairmen were Zak van Straaten (1987 to c1990), David Brooks (c1991 to c1994), Paul Taylor (c1994 to August 1995), Alex Pestana (August 1995 to September 1997) and I (since September 1997).

For this commemorative booklet I asked each of the surviving past chairmen to contribute some memories or reflections about the Philosophy Society. In his contribution, Zak van Straaten reflects on why he founded the Society. Dr Augustine Shutte recalls the Society’s beginnings. Dr Paul Taylor describes a memorable meeting. Dr Alex Pestana recalls the period during which the Society was not chaired by a member of the Philosophy Department. Sadly, I was unable to ask Professor David Brooks, whose death on 27 October 1996, at the age of 46, deprived our department of an excellent philosopher.

Following the contributions from the past chairmen there is an almost complete list of meetings and speakers over the twenty-five years of the Philosophy Society. My tendency to horde documents has some advantages. My files contained full records for the years of my chairmanship as well as for many earlier years of the Society’s activities. Past chairmen of the Society were able to fill a few gaps, but I am especially grateful to Cindy Gilbert, the Philosophy Department’s Administrative Assistant, who has an Honours degree in History, for searching the archives of the University of Cape Town’s Monday Paper in order to fill in as many as possible of the remaining gaps. (Anybody who can fill residual gaps or correct any errors is requested to contact us.) 

The list of speakers includes international and national visitors to the Philosophy Department, members of the Department, academics from other UCT departments, and well as various others. Some of the speakers have been eminent scholars of the greatest distinction.

I am told that the Philosophy Society enjoyed huge membership in its earliest years. Members were issued with blue membership cards, which they used to gain access to meetings. Members were entitled to bring guests, who were charged an entrance fee of R2. By the time I started attending in the mid-1980s, the membership had dropped, but meetings still drew sizeable crowds. Over the years, the membership has waned and waxed. Soon after I started chairing the Society, I moved the meetings to a smaller venue on the top floor of the Robert Leslie Social Science Building. The more intimate environment has had its advantages. However, given the recent growth in membership we have sometimes overflowed our usual venue.

In addition to the more conventional lectures, we have had a number of unusual sessions. In his contribution to this booklet, Dr Taylor describes a philosophical play that was presented at one meeting. (He is far too self-effacing about the quality of his own contribution to this thespian venture.) On another occasion I invited one of our students, Laurence Wilse-Samson, who moonlighted as a stand-up comedian, to present, along with his associate Sean Wilson, an evening of philosophical humour. Laurence and Sean presented some excellent philosophical comedy. We then screened some philosophical segments from Monty Python (including the Argument Clinic and two scenes from the Holy Grail – the discussion of feudalism and the logic of a witch hunt). More recently, Professor Simon Beck, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, gave a talk, entitled “Putting the Magic back into Philosophy”, in which he illustrated philosophical matters with magic tricks.

The Society attracts a broad range of members. Although some have a substantial background in Philosophy, most have no formal training in the discipline but are interested in philosophical issues. Our members range in age from the retired to high school pupils. The latter include members of the Bishops (Diocesan College) School Philosophy Society. We hope, in the coming years, to interest more school pupils in attending.

Philosophy Society meetings occur one evening a month during the academic year. A speaker presents for about forty-five minutes. Those who wish to do so then adjourn to the Philosophy Department Common Room where, over either port or non-alcoholic beverage, a lively discussion ensues in a relaxed atmosphere.

It is my hope that the UCT Philosophy Society will continue, for many years, to provide so salubrious an opportunity for interested people to engage with philosophical problems and thinkers. 

David Benatar has been a member of the Philosophy Department since July 1997. He is currently Professor of Philosophy and Head of the Department. He has been Chairman of the Philosophy Society since September 1997.