Philosophy research at UNSW takes on problems in contemporary society, culture, science and technology from a perspective nurtured by our interest in perennial philosophical questions. Our work is distinguished by its pluralism, with staff working in both analytic and continental European traditions, and our scholarship advancing current understanding of the history of both Western and Chinese philosophy. Our staff publish regularly in prestigious refereed journals and with the top presses in the field and have also been successful at attracting external grant funding. We share our research at conferences around the world and contribute to the dynamic philosophical community of greater Sydney through workshops and public talks.

Academic Staff

Staff by specific research areas include:

  • Dr Heikki Ikäheimo: German Idealism (esp. Hegel); 19th and 20th century German philosophy; recognition theory and personhood; philosophical anthropology; critical social philosophy; social ontology; applied philosophy
  • Professor Karyn Lynne Lai: Chinese and comparative philosophy; Confucian ethics; Daoist philosophy; Zhuangzi; environmental ethics
  • Associate Professor Simon Lumsden: German Idealism (esp. Hegel); hermeneutics; habit; environmental philosophy; philosophy of history
  • Associate Professor Melissa Merritt: Kant; Kantian ethics; ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophy (esp. Stoicism); virtue and moral psychology; aesthetics
  • Associate Professor Michaelis Stephanou Michael: metaphysics; philosophy of science (esp. the logic of science and the philosophy of biology); Kant; philosophy of mind
  • Professor Jeremy Moss: political philosophy; climate justice; egalitarianism and the value of equality; morality and climate change; applied philosophy
  • Professor Timothy O’Leary: Contemporary European philosophy (esp. Foucault); contemporary critical theory; philosophy of literature and ethics; transformative experience and ethical sensibility; philosophies of happiness and well-being.
  • Associate Professor James Phillips: aesthetics; phenomenology; political philosophy; poststructuralism; philosophy and literature; philosophy and cinema
  • Associate Professor Markos Valaris: philosophy of mind; philosophy of action; epistemology; Kant’s theoretical philosophy
  • Associate Professor and UNSW Scientia Fellow Jessica Whyte: social and political philosophy; philosophy of war; contemporary French and Italian philosophy (esp. Agamben, Foucault); human rights; critiques of political economy; neoliberalism.

Research focus

Areas of particular research focus include the following:

Continental European philosophy: UNSW is home to the largest cluster of researchers in continental European philosophy in Australia, with specialists in recent French, German and Italian philosophy. Our staff have particular expertise in the following areas: aesthetics; cultural, social, and political philosophy – including hermeneutic and critical theory; phenomenology; and poststructuralism.

Epistemology, mind and metaphysics: UNSW has established research strength in the areas of epistemology, philosophy of mind, metaphysics and philosophy of science. We also work on issues having to do with practical reason, at the intersection of ethics and the philosophy of action.

History and philosophical traditions: We have a highly developed research profile in the history of philosophy in the following areas: classical Chinese philosophy, Kant, Hegel and German Idealism, Nietzsche and 20th century European philosophy.

Social, moral and political philosophy: Members of our group have a strong focus on major global challenges and issues of social justice, including bioethics, equality and minority rights, healthy policy regulation, and the ethics and politics of responses to climate change and ecological crisis. Our research in this area also includes foundational theoretical work on autonomy and social ontology, moral psychology, critical theory and recognition theory, and biopolitics.

Research projects

Knowledge & skilful action

A number of researchers in our group are working on projects relating to skilful action, skill and practical knowledge, from multiple perspectives: ethics and moral psychology, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and the history of theorising about these concepts in Western and Chinese philosophy. Members of our group working in these areas include David Bronstein, Stephen Hetherington, Karyn Lai, Melissa Merritt and Markos Valaris. Some of the research for this overarching project has been funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant.

Recognition & the human life-form

Heikki Ikäheimo is working on a project that combines the Hegelian theory of recognition, social ontology and theory of personhood. The aim of the project is an evaluative conception of the human life-form that provides ways to critically reflect on forms of human interaction across cultural and other differences and to provide a coherent philosophical articulation to a sense of common humanity required for solidarity and social cohesion in multicultural societies. This work has recently been funded by the ARC Discovery Project “The Social Ontology of Personhood”. Ikäheimo has also been a member of The Academy of Finland project ”Pathologies of Recognition“, and is a founding member of the editorial board of the Journal of Social Ontology.

Climate justice

Climate change is likely to have profound implications for people’s overall quality of life. This project considers the consequences of climate change for key areas of human security and wellbeing and develops an account of a fair distribution of the costs of adaptation and mitigation. The project also considers the role and responsibility of developed countries, including Australia, towards developing countries. In particular, the project develops a framework for evaluating the liability of fossil exporting countries for climate harms. The project also considers the moral issues associated with transitioning to a low carbon society, divestment and the carbon budget. The project is supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery grant.

Reason, value and virtue: assessing the stoic legacy in Kantian ethics 

ARC Future Fellowship FT180100494, 2019-2022; CI Melissa Merritt

This project aims to show how key ethical ideals — such as human dignity, autonomy, cosmopolitanism and goodwill — that come to us from the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant have deeper roots in ancient Stoic ethics. This project expects to produce the first comprehensive study of the influence of Stoicism on the development of Kant’s moral philosophy and to deploy the conceptual resources uncovered in this historical research to advance philosophical debates about human motivation, moral value and the cultivation of good character. Anticipated benefits include enriched understanding of contemporary ethical values and new ways of appreciating the therapeutic power of Stoicism as a moral practice.

The moral economy of civilian protection and the transformation of international humanitarian law

UNSW Scientia Fellowship project; CI Jessica Whyte

Today, civilians account for a higher proportion of conflict deaths than at any point in modern history. This project addresses the human costs of contemporary armed conflicts. It seeks to understand the historical and institutional processes that have established a moral and legal distinction between deliberate harm inflicted on non-combatants and the ‘collateral damage’ that is seen as an inevitable ‘side-effect’ of modern warfare. The project will produce an account of the role of military strategists, human rights organisations and international lawyers in normalising ‘unintentional’ killing. Drawing on archival material and military manuals, and combining insights from political philosophy, the history of human rights, and the anthropology of humanitarianism, the project aims to illuminate the moral economy of contemporary warfare.

Staff strengths & accomplishments

Our scholars have been effective in attracting major research funding, including regular success with Australian Research Council grants. The most recent Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) report, which assessed research quality at Australian universities, ranked philosophy at UNSW as “above world standard”, awarding us four out of a possible five points. This places us among the leading philosophy programs in Australasia.

The Australasian Journal of Philosophy — one of the top international journals in philosophy — is currently housed at UNSW and edited by Professor Stephen Hetherington.

We also house the climate justice specialisation of the UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture Practical Justice Initiative, a $5.4M UNSW strategic research priority. This specialisation, led by Jeremy Moss, focuses on the moral and political dimensions of responding to climate change.