Understanding things in retrospect, Professor Haldane explains

(L-R) Joe Jeremy Stuparich, Prof John Haldane, Suzanne Greenwood, Alison Burt and Fr Stephen Hackett MSC.

(L-R) Joe Zabar, Jeremy Stuparich, Prof John Haldane, Suzanne Greenwood, Alison Burt and Fr Stephen Hackett MSC.

Wisdom comes at the end of the day and we tend to only truly understand things in retrospect, Professor John Haldane told Church leaders gathered for a talk at the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) Secretariat recently.

University of St Andrews philosopher, Professor Haldane was appointed a Visiting Professor at The University of Notre Dame Australia within the School of Philosophy and Theology for 2016.

Professor Haldane visited the ACBC Secretariat in Canberra for a luncheon with senior Catholic agency and Archdiocesan staff on Thursday 31 March 2016.

Drawing attention to the ‘Philosophy of Right’, Prof Haldane began the lunch gathering by quoting Georg Hegel, a German philosopher who examined the role of philosophy in prescribing principles on how the world ought to be.

‘When philosophy paints its grey in grey, Hegel writes, a form of life has grown old, by means of philosophy it can only be understood, it cannot be rejuvenated, but only recognised by the grey in grey of philosophy; the owl of Minerva begins its flight only when the shadows of night are gathering.’

Professor Haldane explained ‘the last sentence highlights that wisdom comes at the end of the day and that we only understand things in retrospect. We have very little understanding of the future and our capacity to project into the future is limited because that future will be made by what we do. There is no sort of inevitability.’

Professor Haldane focused on a feature that he has identified in Australia and other countries like Ireland, Scotland and Canada, whereby they are very keen to assure others ‘they are right up to the minute in terms of being up there with the rest of the world.

‘Canada feels it particularly with the United States on its border. Ireland feels it because it sees itself as being perceived as a backward of part of Europe and so each of these countries is very concerned to be seen as progressive’.


Professor Haldane has a wide range of interests in humanity and society. He is described as one of the world’s leading philosophers with research interests and extensive publications in the areas of Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Value, Philosophy of Religion, Metaphysics, and Medieval Philosophy.

‘I’m interested in the currency and use of the word progressive, where this word is now used continuously I think it is a rhetorical term that’s designed to do two things; one is to affirm the correctness of your own views and the second thing is to assure your era that you are right up there. The countries I mention are all in the grip of focusing on the future and being at the centre of things. If Hegel was right, the primary role of ideas is to help us to understand what has already happened. Ideas are not there to drive the future but to understand the past’.

The future is driven more by events and process than by ideas, he said. ‘Events like famine, warfare, disease and immigration do much more to shape the future than ideas. Since we have no idea what’s going to happen in ten or twenty years time, I think all bets are off as to where morally or intellectually we will stand.’ The Ebola outbreak is a case in point, although not as bad as people feared, it could have had a big impact on the structures of our societies, he said.

‘Although we think that we are in control of the future through ideas, the drivers of the future are; events, processes and technological discoveries, families, disease and war.’

Professor Haldane has worked with the Catholic Bishops Conference of Scotland on the Communications Commission and the Doctrine Commission.

He concluded the talk with a little about ‘how the world perceives the Church and how Catholics see the Church in the world’.

‘One of the things that has dominated reportage about the Catholic Church and what people think about the Catholic Church is attributed to America. One of the great harms that it has done is in its coverage of Church affairs is to import into that coverage, the language of politics. Catholics have adopted this themselves.

‘Using the language of conservative and liberal Catholic; a political term, or the cultural terms; traditional or progressive, is not healthy. The only terms that the Church should have any interest in is the terms heterodox and orthodox. These are theological terms. Is this right or is it not?

‘These are disastrous terms of analysis because they don’t correspond to religious or theological distinctions. You’re a Conservative Catholic or a Liberal Catholic. For example, it’s perfectly intelligible that someone should be both highly orthodox in regards to questions of doctrine and teaching and so on, but politically be a fairly radical egalitarian socialist.

’[Catholics] come to see their Church as a political institution; one way that it reveals itself is the belief that the election of the Pope is like the election of the President.’

The Pope doesn’t come into office with a whole raft of policies that are going to move things in a different direction. ‘I struggle to explain to people that the office of the papacy is intrinsically conservative. By that I don’t mean politically conservative, the role of the pope as a bishop and the role of the bishop himself, is simply the transmission of the faith. It is an apostolic function, to receive what was given and to hand it on without any feeling of loss. It is not the role of the bishop to be doctrinally innovative.

‘The task of the bishop is not to add to the deposit of faith, the deposit of faith is complete with the death of the last apostle. There is no post-apostolic revelation. The totality of revelation is contained within scripture. This is why bishops are extremely important, because they are recipients of the revelation given to the apostles, which they then hand on to the faithful. What that means if you think about it, is that the office of bishop is intrinsically preservative, it is to preserve what they were given.’

Source :
ACBC Communications