Paul Carter on Dry Thinking

On a crisp autumn night, Paul Carter presented a paper on ‘dry thinking’ as a contribution to the Southern Perspectives series. There was a complex North-South dynamic at play in Carter’s talk. Although published in German, Carter’s paper had never before been presented in English before. And although invoking the broad trajectory of Western philosophy, it offered a view from a country in a radically different zone – Australia.

Carter’s talk provided an opportunity to respond to the challenge laid down by Raewyn Connell regarding the geopolitics on knowledge. What kind conceptual thinking might embrace the experience of living in country like Australia? It is hard to think of anyone in Australia who is better fit for this challenge than Paul Carter.



Carter has been able to combine a career both as a writer and ‘place maker’. His 1987 seminal contribution to Australian historiography Road to Botany Bay will be republished this year. Since that book, he has produced a series of publications that uncover a broader poetic context for inhabited space. His most recent Dark Writing, published by the Institute of Postcolonial Studies last year, develops the link between his thinking and the challenge of designing public space. University of Western Australia is about to publish his next book, Groundtruthing.

In this talk, Carter considered the use of water as a metaphor by thinkers in the European tradition. This offered a critique of the way water has been consistently problematised as a symbol of doubt and confusion, by contrast with the ‘dry thinking’ that subscribes to fixed distinctions. But Carter’s talk went beyond this in critiquing metaphorical thinking per se as a form of abstraction that denies relation to place. So Carter speculated on which river it was that Heraclitus thought we could not step into twice. He contrasted the gridded landscape around Descartes with the variegated nature within which Vico wrote. In painting these scenes, Carter seemed to take an almost cinematic approach to thinking, considering its ‘scene’ in the specific time and place of its emergence.

There was some discussion about the relationship between Carter’s grounding methodology and the determinist theories of geography by writers such as Montesquieu and the German Romantics. For Carter it seems more a matter of poetic interpretation as thinkers reflected on the world around them:

Look out through the porticos of the Stoa and, in Australia at least, the bush is burning. It makes little sense to praise the potentiality of democratic communities lying in wait when drought drives the pioneers of the plough from the land, or when deforestation removes their shelter. The philosophical Ilyssus, whose flowing has always hitherto licensed philosophers to dream of composing music – visions akin to poetry’s – has, at least in the south, dried up. 

There seemed room there for the kind of move characteristic of the existentialism of Sartre. Here the individual is seen to seize responsibility to create a project that responds to their immediate political situation.

One obvious challenge arising from Carter’s thought is to consider how his methodology might be applied to other locations outside the familiar scenes of Western thought. What ideas like under the shadow of the Andes or on an atoll? How might this be extended beyond landscape to engage with the layers of political history that inform a sense of place?


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