Reflecting on the Career and Work of Christopher Cordner

Associate Professor Christopher Cordner retires from teaching this year after more than three decades in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. During this time his contribution to his students and the wider philosophical community has been immense, and his work in moral philosophy has been globally recognised.  He will continue to be a valued part of the School of History and Philosophy as an active researcher, and is in the process of completing a book on the place of goodness in moral philosophy. In February he sat down with one of his many former PhD students, Daniel Nellor, to talk about his career and early philosophical development, going back to his time at Melbourne as an undergraduate.


Chris, what first drew you to Philosophy?

I suppose being an argumentative teenager was a good start! When I was 15 I had a brilliant schoolfriend who read widely, everything from Bertrand Russell to Camus, Sartre, Nietzsche, Beckett, Dostoevsky and various obscure nineteenth-century Russian poets, and he led me on a sort of wild chase across those moors. In my much more pedestrian way, I then somehow got hold of John Hospers’ Introduction to Philosophy. When I returned to it some years later I found it pretty boring, but at the time it struck a chord. So by the time I arrived at the University of Melbourne in 1968 I suppose I was primed to study Philosophy. But I also loved other forms of reading so I undertook a combined Honours degree in Philosophy and English Literature. In a way, that set the agenda for the rest of my working life.

How so?

In the Melbourne English Department it was still the heyday of the English literary critic, F.R. Leavis. Leavis was very opposed to ‘theory’. For him literary criticism was all about registering the ‘felt life’ in literary works, which meant exposing yourself to the thing before you in a direct and supposedly untheoretical way. And there was a lot there that I was attracted to. Leavis saw good literature as a rich and profound embodiment of the flow and ebb of the human spirit, one capable of morally educating and nourishing its readers. In this respect Leavis was very much the heir of a nineteenth-century English-speaking tradition of ‘humane letters’.

Analytic philosophy in the sixties was, in many though not all ways, a fairly ‘pinched’ business. While Wittgenstein’s influence was prominent, logical positivism was also still a strong presence in many quarters. I think it’s fair to say that in much analytic philosophy of the time there was a deep resistance to letting the life of the spirit do much, if anything, to inform and nourish the categories and modes of philosophical thinking. I think this encouraged a kind of intellectual schizophrenia in many people who were philosophers. A really interesting instance of this was David Armstrong, a towering figure in Australian philosophy from about this time for the next 30 years. David never taught me, but when he and I became friends many years later, I was surprised to discover the depth and breadth of his reading in literature. But nothing of that was ever reflected at all in his philosophical practice. Of course David saw nothing strange in that bifurcation. But I did, and do.

So you were caught in the middle of two very different approaches.

Yes, and I took the easy way out – I simply rode both horses, each in its own arena. I spoke one language in the English Department, and another in the Philosophy Department. I did it well enough I guess, as I ended up with an H1 Degree, in days when H1s were a bit harder to get! But even at the time I was uncomfortably conscious of the divided mind with which I did it; and I had a kind of background awareness that if I stayed in academia, although I didn’t think this likely, I would have to try to effect some kind of rapprochement between these two modes of thinking. I would say that my approach to moral philosophy over the years has been an attempt to do that.

What was the University of Melbourne like when you arrived in 1968?

It was the era of the ‘God Professor’. There were many towering figures on campus who were widely known and admired – and of course, being the late sixties, also widely criticised and condemned! In English there were people like Vincent Buckley and Sam Goldberg – Goldberg a Leavisite, Buckley not. Frank Knopfelmacher in Psychology, Max Crawford in History, and many other big presences (at that time virtually all men of course!).

And in Philosophy?

Douglas Gasking was Professor of Philosophy at the time. He was a lovely man, an Englishman who had studied under Wittgenstein. He was a very acute and thoughtful philosopher. He wasn’t one of those ‘big presences’ I mentioned, simply because of his quiet modesty.

I can come up with a list of about 15 names of full-time members of the Philosophy Department at the time. It was an eclectic group. There was said to be a policy of appointing atheists and religiously-minded philosophers in strict turn in the Department! Even if that wasn’t true, there was a good mixture of those.

Don Gunner was another who was very interested in Wittgenstein, and had in fact been on his way to Cambridge to study under him when Wittgenstein died. Graeme Marshall and Kevan Presa were also keen on Wittgenstein.

But there was a wide range of other interests and influences too. Among them Tony Coady, Mary McCloskey, her husband John, Eric D’Arcy, and Max Charlesworth; each subsequently wrote books that made a significant impact on the broader philosophical scene.

It was a wonderful time to be a student at Melbourne; and the Philosophy Department was just a terrific place to be around. Like many students, I knew many of these professors well: you’d go to lunch or the pub with them, you could knock on their door at any time. I was very lucky to be there.

I imagine it was a pretty volatile time politically on campus, too.

Yes, although I have to confess I wasn’t myself a very political animal at the time! The political clubs were very active; and of course the Vietnam War was a constant theme on campus. There would often be lunchtime student meetings in the Public Lecture Theatre – the biggest lecture theatre in the University at the time – to debate and vote on resolutions relating to the war. The political left were very good at stringing out the debate until the more conservative students had all left by 2.10pm to go to their next class – and then holding the vote!

There were political controversies between academics themselves, as well as between students, and of course all sorts of meetings, speeches, marches, resolutions and denunciations. This was in the days of compulsory student union fees, and a great many non-political clubs and societies were funded by those fees too. Every lunch time you could pick between dozens of meetings, lectures and other activities to take part in. The very large cafeteria in the Union was open and full every night of the week.

Who were your philosophical influences in those days?

I was instinctively anti-rationalist at that time. In fact there was a strong (I would now say rather adolescent!) positivist streak in me, but this was also in tension with various kinds of things I wanted to say. As Plato would put it, there was a struggle within my own soul. I would say that at the time I thought of Philosophy itself as having a reductive impulse – and of English literature as being the domain where the spirit could find expression. I thought that domain was fine in its own terms, but that these terms were provisional and subordinate to Philosophy’s more fundamental level of description. That said something about me, to be sure, but I think it did also say something about quite a bit of Philosophy at the time. In some ways, not all ways, things have changed for the better since then. Anyway, my own philosophical reading at the time was mainly confined to hardish-nosed contemporary analytic philosophy!

Plato is important to you now. Was he then?

No, he wasn’t. I didn’t read much Plato as an undergraduate, but anyway there was a great deal in Plato that I simply don’t think I would have been receptive to then. I thought of him in either/or terms: ‘Platonism’ came with a whole lot of ‘baggage’, which I thought you either bought or rejected, and which I pretty much just refused to engage with. When I look back at my spontaneous takes on things in those undergraduate days I rather blush at how crude some of them were! Eventually, my receptivity to literature worked its way into other parts of me, and so helped increase my receptivity to different things in Philosophy.


Christopher Cordner, December 1971.

From Melbourne you went to Oxford in the early seventies. What was that like?

I was initially enrolled in a second undergraduate degree at Oxford, called PPE – Philosophy, Politics and Economics – because my interest in Philosophy had waned a bit towards the end of my BA and I didn’t want to put all my eggs in that one basket. But even by the time I arrived at University College in Oxford nine months later things in me were changing again and I decided I wanted to switch to straight Philosophy, which meant a BPhil. Despite the name, this was a postgraduate degree, combining coursework and a thesis. I drew on the coursework in that degree to get up to speed in some areas of Philosophy I was light on because my undergraduate honours had been combined with Eng.Lit. I had to get permission to switch to the BPhil; and it was the Australian philosopher John Mackie, a don at University College at the time, who after some probing allowed me to make the change.

There were lots of very interesting philosophers in Oxford. I was supervised by Simon Blackburn and David Pears; Charles Taylor took up a Chair while I was there; Antony Kenny was prominent and A.J. Ayer was still Professor of Logic. Herbert Hart was still very active and Ronald Dworkin had just arrived. John McDowell was also a youngish don at University College. P.F. Strawson ended up being one of my D.Phil examiners, when after the BPhil I continued on to that degree.

And Iris Murdoch?

A woman at last! Murdoch was around, living in Oxford. She had by then given up her Philosophy post, and was writing lots of novels. No-one really paid much attention to her philosophical writings at that time.

That’s interesting, because of all those people I would see Murdoch as having perhaps the strongest influence on your work.

Yes, that’s right, though in due course I did also learn a good deal from Taylor and McDowell. But my first encounter with Murdoch’s work was when a girlfriend gave me a copy of The Sovereignty of Good in 1976. Even then it was still some years before I read those essays more than cursorily. Eventually that copy fell apart, as pretty well every square millimetre of it was covered in my notes!

Your doctoral thesis was in aesthetics.

Yes. In a way this was my first groping attempt at that rapprochement I’d been left feeling the need for from my undergraduate days: how to reflect philosophically on what I earlier called the life of the spirit; but also how to let the life of the spirit show through in the mode of one’s philosophising. The title of my thesis was An Analysis of Aesthetic Experience – not a form of words I’d use these days.

What was your approach?

It was sort of neo-Kantian, but I wasn’t then and never have been a ‘scholar’ of others’ works – someone who works in fine detail through another’s work with an eye to lighting up that thinker’s world as fully as possible. I’m more of a magpie. I see bright things that I like; and while I try to appreciate their particular colours and lights in their original context, pretty quickly I carry them away into my own nest. So while I did draw on Kant quite heavily, this was not a thesis about Kant’s aesthetics. Nor, I have to say, was it a piece of work I was especially proud of. I didn’t seek to turn it into a book. When I read it again just a year or so ago I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of it much better than I remembered, but still I think of it as very much belonging to my juvenilia.

Who was your supervisor?

John Casey, who was a young English don at Cambridge. He had just written a book called The Language of Criticism, a Wittgensteinian articulation of how a practice of literary criticism could be understood as genuinely illuminating literary texts.

I had to get special permission to have my Oxford DPhil supervised from Cambridge; and the arrangement meant I had to take the more than three hour bus trip from Oxford for supervision sessions. The first time I did this I knocked on my supervisor’s door at the appointed time and there was no answer. I went back to the Porter’s lodge where they called him on the phone and told me to go back and try again. This time a figure in a dressing gown appeared in the doorway and said ‘I’m afraid I’m not feeling very well. Would you please come back tomorrow.’ Not having the money to stay overnight in Cambridge, I had to catch the bus all the way back to Oxford, and then back again to Cambridge the next morning! John and I subsequently became good friends, and he has been to Australia to visit me and my parents a number of times.

In broad terms, how would you say your philosophical approach has changed from that day to this?

Charles Taylor says somewhere that we can’t reflectively understand our lives, or explain them to ourselves, in terms that move very far at all from the terms in which we actually experience things and live our lives. But we’re tempted to think that our experience is one thing, and how it is to be explained in Philosophy is another.

In a way that temptation is built into the very fibre of Philosophy’s being. Philosophy wants to ‘stand back from’ or ‘rise above’ the human experience it seeks to make sense of. And yes, one wants to say: there must be some such space or distance there, if there is to be any such thing as Philosophy’s illuminating reflection on our experience.

But on the other side of that is a danger to which Wittgenstein draws attention with his injunction to philosophers: ‘back to the rough ground!’ He is critiquing a kind of philosophical reflection that takes place on what he calls the ‘slippery ice, where there is no friction, so the conditions are in a sense ideal’ – but the trouble is you can’t walk on it! The suggestion is that often when philosophers think they are ‘getting somewhere’ in explaining things with their ‘theories’ or ‘accounts’ of things, they really are not. Instead they have moved away from what they thought they were illuminating, and started speaking about something else.

They’ve moved away from the rough ground.

Yes. And for some time I thought Aristotle was to be a key figure in helping me do justice, in ethics, to what Taylor and Wittgenstein were getting at. The ‘turn’, or re-turn, to Aristotle in ethics had not quite happened when I was an undergraduate, but it was about to. And when it did, I came to appreciate Aristotle’s overtly humanistic commitments: don’t seek more precision in an area of thought than it warrants (one size doesn’t fit all); the importance of ethical education; the emphasis on being a certain kind of person and not just on right action; his situating of ethics in the wider context of politics; his simple commitment to looking and seeing ‘how it is’ – all of that I found congenial and important, as have many others.

But eventually I found Aristotle simply couldn’t go with me, or I with him, where I needed to go, and where I think moral philosophy needed to go if it was to answer to various things of profound importance in our ethical lives. Although this is provocative, I think many philosophers who regard Aristotle as giving us the basic blueprint for ethics have been unduly influenced by Aquinas’s reading of him. My own belief is that Aquinas’s marrying of Catholic ethics with Aristotle actively obscured more from our philosophical view than it clarified, with lasting effects.

Across those years of my own attraction to Aristotle, though, the contemporary figure I engaged most closely with was the very influential English philosopher Bernard Williams. But while I often agreed with his criticisms of prevailing moral philosophy I found myself increasingly often disagreeing strongly with the basic terms of his own alternative views. They didn’t strike me as being as different as many people took them to be.

Meeting Raimond Gaita in the late eighties, just at the time I was beginning to feel constrained rather than freed up by Aristotle, was an important event for me in two related ways. His work and example opened up Plato anew for me, and also vivified my sense of how Philosophy might better reflect various elements of our ethical and spiritual life, in ways that have continued to resonate with me. The effects of this meeting also dovetailed with my increasing attention to Iris Murdoch. In due course there turned out to also be limitations in Plato which, again partly mediated by Rai’s example, I found aspects of the Christian tradition helped to overcome, though without either of us being Christian. But Plato is still important to me.

In seeking the ‘rough ground’, it seems to me literature has been important to you – and of course, literature can’t avoid the rough ground.

Yes, that’s pretty much right. Or to bring in another image: good novels can give us the ethical gristle, bone and flesh of our human being. I don’t think novels ‘are’ works of moral philosophy, as some philosophers have recently said. But good novels are very rich sites of ethical exploration, and of course poetry, biography, memoir and lots of other forms of writing can be so too.

In what ways has literature informed your Philosophy?

It’s not just, or even mainly, as a source of illustrations of moral ‘issues’ or ‘problems’ or ‘dilemmas’, as if the literary episode just instantiates an already clearly formulated ethical question. Of course any episode in a novel can be treated that way, but the ethical ‘texture’ of good literature comprises much more than that. Good literature enlivens the imaginative range of our ethical thinking by using language ‘at full stretch’, in Cora Diamond’s phrase. Very often, our ethical difficulties don’t lie in ‘deciding what to do’ among alternatives that are already fully determinate and clear to us (only sometimes is it like that), but in coming to see a situation clearly, and this can require a kind of reaching for the very terms in which to ‘make sense’ of it. Good literature can help enliven or enlarge in us  the moral imagination that is needed if we are to rise to what the situation calls for from us.

Moral philosophy, historically and right up to the present, has been pretty stolidly inattentive to this essentially creative dimension of our lives as moral beings. Of course this very dimension is not without its dangers. That creative potential also opens up new spaces for us to go ethically awry in various ways. When Plato banished the poets, it certainly wasn’t because he was a stolidly unimaginative philosopher. It was because he was so keenly alive to the dangers attendant on the activity of moral imagination.

It’s worth saying, by the way, that ‘the novel’ is a many-splendoured thing. There have been many changes across time in the novel as an art form, and there will be more. I guess there’s even no guarantee the novel won’t some time disappear entirely as art form. But so far it seems to have shown a remarkable capacity to keep re-inventing itself.

In 2001 you published a book called Ethical Encounter. What is this ‘encounter’ and why is it so important in your work?

Historically, Philosophy has condescended to the ‘happening’ of things. Take the idea of ‘substance’, for example. Under Aristotle’s influence this is at the centre of medieval philosophy, and it continues to be an important part of our thinking about what is fundamentally real. For Aristotle, changeless substance is the fundamental reality of things, and if we want to think about how things change we need to bring in other, less fundamental concepts such as modes and accidents. They so to speak bridge the gap across to the changing and less fundamentally real world of our experience. So when you start with substance the happening of things turns out to be less-than-fundamental.

You might say that my emphasis on the ‘encounter’ is an attempt to reflect at least certain kinds of happening as seminally and irreducibly important. Think about the Christian idea that ‘God is love’. Well, if God is love, then God is not a substance, because love is known by, manifested by, and exists in its happening. To say that God is love is to say that the deepest reality cannot be framed in substance terms. Similarly, the term ‘ethical encounter’ isn’t just singling out some encounters as ethically significant; it is more broadly pointing up encounter as an always potentially creative site of ethical happening.

And we shouldn’t try to explain that happening by reference to something more fundamental.

Right. But I realise these remarks will mystify some people. Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas are two names from a different background that might help orientate some people reading this to locate something I’m after.

Another concept that matters here is attention, something important to Iris Murdoch, which she in turn adapted from Simone Weil. One of its several senses (though I think they are all interlinked) is attending as ‘being present to’. Being present to something or someone involves a kind of receptiveness which reflects limits on our ability to control or direct or even fully understand what we attend to. Rai Gaita says somewhere that reason can recognise love as finer than itself, and I think love can only be made sense of in connection with this kind of ‘being present to’. My interest in encounter is at the intersection of these themes.

More recently you’ve been working on the concept of ‘simple goodness’.

Yes, and this too is to be understood against the background I’ve just been sketching. In contemporary moral philosophy goodness is commonly thought of as a ‘second-order’ thing. You work out your moral theory – whether it highlights right action, or duty, or reasons for acting, or virtues of character, or optimising outcomes, or maybe some combination of these or other things – and goodness is then defined recessively in relation to that. It’s roughly the disposition to implement or instantiate the requirements of one’s already-worked-out moral theory. Well, I think there’s a different sense of goodness, as something immediate and fundamental, and as having to do with an open-hearted attentiveness to things, including love in various forms. It’s not to be understood merely as a disposition to enact the requirements of an independently characterised moral outlook.

Of course, as Iris Murdoch says, sometimes we do just need to do what is right for the most common everyday reasons—but she also insists that this can’t be ground zero when it comes to thinking about goodness.

Are you sympathetic, then, to what G.E. Moore was trying to do in understanding goodness as a sort of a non-natural property?

I would not say goodness is ‘non-natural’. But that’s not because I would insist that it is natural. I don’t find the concept of the natural illuminating in this context. In fact in most contexts of its use in ethics I find it positively unhelpful. I don’t think much hangs on calling good a ‘property’ either. In calling it simple I think Moore is onto something important. But to be frank, while what he does with that thought has some negative-critical value it scarcely engages with what interests me. Goodness as linked to love, and to creative responsiveness? Perhaps nothing Moore says excludes recognising such links, but nothing he says takes us anywhere near them. Reflection on goodness also involves ‘the spirit in which’ people act and respond, and Moore’s discussion doesn’t seem to go anywhere near that either.

This concept of the ‘spirit in which something is done’ is something else that recurs in your work.

Yes. It’s loomed larger in my thinking more recently. Philosophy has been deaf to talk of the spirit. Descartes gets both praised and vilified for too much, but he did entrench a dualism of mind and body which has dominated Western philosophy ever since, and which elides the spirit altogether. As does the related dualism of reason and the passions. A version of this elision actually also occurs much earlier, in the shift from Plato to Aristotle, with Aristotle simply bypassing Plato’s category of thumos, often translated ‘spiritedness’. So there is a recurrent smoothing-away of the spirit in Western philosophical thinking.

Of course there are a few exceptions—the spirit is seminal in Hegel for instance. But mostly what belongs to the spirit tends to get either ‘pushed upstairs’ into Mind, or relegated to some mode of ‘the body’. Of course many philosophers have criticised these dichotomies over the last century or so in Philosophy, and often to good effect, but scarcely as part of an attempt to recover the spirit. I think there is a big lacuna here; and the theme of goodness can’t be developed properly without addressing it.

You’ve been involved in various activities outside the University. How have these impacted on your work?

My biggest single outside involvement was ten years on the Australian Health Ethics Committee, at the time when it was a Principal Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council, advising the Federal Health Minister on issues involving health and medical ethics. I learnt a lot in that work.

Perhaps the biggest single thing I learnt was the relentless power of institutional forces not only to impede the capacity of human beings to actually become present to one another, but at the same time to blind those in positions of power to the fact that this is happening. I hope I was able to be of some use in helping to check at least some of those pressures sometimes. But I know that my experience there informed for the better my own ways of reflecting philosophically on ethics. Shorter times on other committees before and after those ten years also played a role in shaping my thinking in similar ways.

You’re finishing at Melbourne at a time when universities are under a huge amount of pressure, and this inevitably has an effect on Philosophy departments. Why do you think it’s important that we continue to teach and study Philosophy at universities?

That is a really good question. And we philosophers have perhaps not been very good at answering it in recent times in the face of the pressure you speak of. My sketch of an answer is continuous with some things I was saying a minute ago. In philosophising we aspire to reflect upon something in a way that’s not immediately tied to a particular set of presuppositions or goals. Even as an aspiration that’s tricky, since we can’t step out of our own skin. But still I think there’s a point in that description.

The idea of that sort of space for reflection hasn’t been available in all cultures at all times; and it’s not one that is guaranteed to continue in our culture. All sorts of pressures – psychological, cultural, political, institutional pressures – can conspire to close it down. But if we lose the sense of such a space we will be more doctrinaire, less imaginative, and narrower, in our thinking and our living; because occupying that space is one of the ways of helping keep alive the possibility of coming to respond differently and better to the world.

That’s one reason anyway for thinking Philosophy at universities does and will continue to matter. Of course Philosophy itself, at least what goes under that name, can become narrow, or doctrinaire, or too closely identified with prevailing cultural norms. Philosophy is as subject to fashions and trends as anything else, even if its animating principle is opposed to that subjection.

Another – though related – thing: In saying that it’s important to keep teaching and studying Philosophy at university I don’t mean that the thinking and writing of Philosophy should be confined to universities. It’s probably true that the practice of Philosophy is now more closely tied to its academic expressions than ever before. But the animating spirit of Philosophy manifests something in and of us that is not, must not be, confined to or defined by its academic expression. It’s very important not to forget that.

How then do you see the state of academic Philosophy at the moment?

It’s hard to give a summary answer. But here are two thoughts.

First, a lot of contemporary academic philosophy is engaged with contemporary ethical, social, political, cultural issues and events, and often in very interesting and creative ways, ways that also benefit from an openness to and interaction with the social sciences. That is all to the good. But it’s also very important, I think, for philosophers to use a spoon of sufficient length when supping with the social sciences. Philosophy should no more be a handmaiden to the social sciences than to the physical sciences, as the logical positivists mistakenly thought it should be.

And the second thought will be familiar enough. Academic philosophers are forced to publish a lot. As a result a lot gets published that isn’t worth much. And young philosophers too are under pressure to compete for jobs in that kind of market. Very understandably that can often lead to them being encouraged to become a scrupulous master of a particular small area of Philosophy, and then to focus on publishing several extremely fine-grained and well-referenced articles out of their PhD thesis about it. That is, after all, the safest way of ‘getting in’. These pressures can help make for a kind of academic Philosophy that bears about the same relation to genuinely creative philosophical thinking as much well-credentialled nineteenth-century French and British Academy painting bore to the genuinely creative painting of the day. (I realise that this will sound to many like the grumbling of an old fogey!)

Given this, do you have any advice for young academic philosophers?

Well, since I’m in ‘old fogey’ mode … ! I think it’s very important to keep lifting your eyes to the horizon, and not just to look at the things immediately around you. It’s easy to get so caught up in what’s being done and the way it’s being done here and now, that the field of possibility becomes very constricted.

A second thing is something Wittgenstein said: “Take your time”. Take your time in thinking about any philosophical issue and responding to any question, because if it’s a decent question it will be doing something to engage with, and raise questions about, and perhaps even to dislodge, some assumption or preconception you might have. Not only should you not assume you already know the answer – don’t even assume you know the form the answer needs to take. How do you balance that with avoiding always being tentative and uncommitted? Well, that’s a constant challenge, in life as well as in philosophising.

And finally, what’s next for you?

Well, I want to complete a book I’ve been writing for a while now about what we were discussing earlier, ‘simple goodness’. Having uninterrupted time for this will be terrific. After that: while I know there will be more Philosophy, I might also try my hand at some other kinds of writing – but no more for now about what those might be!

Christopher Cordner, thanks very much for this and many other great conversations over the years.

Thank you, Daniel. I’ve enjoyed those conversations a lot too. As I have many other conversations with many students here over a long time. We are blessed here at Melbourne with the quality of our students. In addition to which the Philosophy Department and the wider University have overall been a very congenial environment to work in. I’ve been very lucky in all of that.

Christopher Cordner competed a BHons in Philosophy and English Literature at the University of Melbourne in 1971. He then went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. At Oxford he undertook a B.Phil in Philosophy, followed by a DPhil. His first full time teaching position in Philosophy was at La Trobe University. After that he spent four years at Monash University. He taught at Rollins College in Florida for two and a half years, and returned to a post-doc fellowship at the University of Melbourne in 1987. He was appointed to a Continuing Lectureship at the University of Melbourne in 1991.

While his main area of philosophical interest is ethics, including its classical and Christian influences, his teaching at Melbourne covered a wide range: in addition to many areas of ethics he taught subjects in philosophy of mind; the rationalist and empiricist traditions; aesthetics, including the history of aesthetics; the history of analytic philosophy; twentieth-century European philosophy including Sartre, Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas, Foucault and Habermas; and literary theory.

He has supervised many PhD and MA candidates, including a number who have continued on into academic posts in Philosophy. He served two stints as Head of the Philosophy Department. Outside the Academy he spent ten years on the Australian Health Ethics Committee, when it was a Principal Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council, advising the Federal Health Minister on many issues relating to health and medical ethics; and he has also served on a range of other ethics-related committees. In the last few years he has been a Senior International Consultant to the Centre for Ethics as Study in Human Value, in the University of Pardubice in the Czech Republic.

Daniel Nellor completed a PhD in philosophy in 2019 under the supervision of Associate Professor Christopher Cordner. He has worked as a writer, researcher and policy advisor in many different fields including welfare, academia, business and politics. He is currently working on a book of conversations with contemporary Australian philosophers.