Marion Tapper

The life of a philosopher

The life of a philosopher has always been beset by misrecognition. Worst of all are those misrecognitions that the philosopher entertains about themselves, each in their way avenues for avoiding the rigours and pains of philosophy while wearing the title.

The philosopher Marion Tapper did not entertain any such misrecognitions.

Marion always knew the difference between working for a university and philosophy, and acted immediately to dispense with the former as soon as the tendrils of neoliberalism became bold enough to creep into the teacher-student relationship. She once wrote to me to say that her wellbeing was an expression of 'being glad that I got out of UoM when I did.'

Marion also recognised and denounced the ruse of mastery. She knew that teaching is not mastery, but a function of learning. She also knew, above all, that the identification with a position of mastery is not just a ruse of power, but that under that condition, there can be no philosophy. She knew, and taught so many of us, that philosophy requires not an empire, an official language, or someone enamoured with the mirage of themselves in possession of the truth, but a furtive community.


When I met Marion, I was in the typically hubristic opening years of my own life as a philosopher. She took me on as a student writing about Derrida and translation - keenly aware that I was starting at the wrong end of a long tradition and guiding me to better understand the legacy of Kant, Husserl and Heidegger in Derrida. I can still remember the shock of working through the B edition version of Kant's Transcendental Deduction in one of Marion's classes, feeling at once suddenly terrified of Kant and envious of the meticulous skill with which Marion was teaching it.

Marion was always equanimous in discussions, but fiercely devoted to the letter of the text, and always ready to interrupt the swift move to conclusions made on vacuous premisses. To hear her begin a sentence with 'Or say better ...' was to know that you were being given a kind but firm reminder to not confuse rhapsody with philosophy. 

Later, as her masters student and friend, I was the fortunate recipient of the ritual she engaged in whenever one of her students graduated from higher degrees. After consulting on taste and dietary preferences, she would cook a hugely elaborate multi-course feast, to which all of her current students would be invited. Marion was, of course, a remarkable cook. But more, she recognised just how important it was for someone to be granted this grace, this moment to survey what had been achieved after so much struggle.


Marion had famous trouble with writing. I recall her saying to me at one point that she couldn't see any reason why to start with any one word rather than another. Despite this, she was a very keen and encouraging reader of her student's work. She would praise their work in public or in a group discussion - speaking of how prolific they were, or how remarkable a certain turn of phrase was. Marion would always introduce her students - including undergraduates - to other philosophy staff by saying 'They're working on ...' In this way, she made us peers, engaged in the same noble, difficult labour.

She also had no trouble finding the right words to mark up the sophomoric writing that composed my early work, and in particular my tendency to denounce certain ideas without good reason. When I wrote to her in 2009 to say that I was teaching Heidegger's 'The Origin of the Work of Art' for the first time - a text I first read with her - she congratulated me, but not without slyly reminding me that I used to rail against Heidegger's 'elitist views of art'.


The courage that choosing the first word requires, or at least its close analogue, was shown everywhere else in Marion's life, and not just in her resolute and total rejection of what had come to masquerade under the name 'university'.

I did not know at the moment when I was meeting Marion that she was years into the most awful and impossible experience of grief of her own. Her partner Kimon Lycos had also been a member of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, and had passed away in 1995. It was years until I realised that some of her silences were actually the expression of the shock of grief - not silences that came from pondering a question, but from the inability to draw a breath in face of a terrible truth.

Learning of that grief, gradually, as Marion supervised my honours and then my masters research, was at the same time to learn about how, in the worst moments of a life, you can remain a shelter for the lives and thoughts of others.

When speaking of Kimon, Marion would occasionally remark in astonishment that if it had not been for him, given her severe rejection of 'representationalist literature', she would have never read Dostoyevsky, Chekov, or Proust. The last I heard of Marion, some years ago now, she had embarked on a romance with a man who lived a rural life, far from her long-standing digs in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, in part because he read her Shakespeare.


The legacy of Marion's teaching in the philosophical community - in Australia as elsewhere - cannot be underestimated. Her meticulous presentation of Husserl and Derrida, for instance, or her way of framing the significance of the Aesthetic of the first Critique no doubt inform her students' students today. But the core of her contribution to intellectual life in Melbourne was her conviction about the communal work of philosophy.

For years, every Friday afternoon, Marion's honours and graduate students would gather together in her small corner office, a place that always felt like a marvellous garret or corner tower, stacked everywhere with books and papers. Those present would give talks about their current work, or read together some small text. During these years, Marion smoked like a chimney; despite the university having already banned in on campus, those afternoon sessions included a great many cigarettes.

When these intensive conceptual sessions didn't take place, but also often after them, we would flock - to the very evident disapproval of the door staff - to the University of Melbourne Staff Club, a fairly stuffy members' only scenario, and crowd tables with our raucous arguments about Spinoza, or Heidegger's Nietzsche, or the philosophy-critical theory interface. A skein in both senses: a flock of noisy birds, and a knotting or tangling of threads. Everyone would pretend that of course we knew this or that figure or idea, and go back out to the world to track something down to read and to follow the threads of those conversations further. In all of this, Marion remained the centre: the ring-leader and the guide, the friend and the critic. Her presence allowed us into the staff club, but also into that world.


It is often said, as Derrida does for instance, that in the death of someone, those who cared for them lose a whole world. This - the marriage of a half-truth and the feeling of the absolute, to paraphrase Hegel - is deeply felt, but wrong. To the extent that I, and not just I, are able to live the life of a philosopher, it is because I still live in that world, Marion's world.

The Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy was not just encouraged into existence by Marion. She was not just the supervisor or friend of all of those who were there at the start of the School's existence. She was not only the person who intervened with the Melbourne philosophy department to obtain a small stipend for the running of the school, nor just the one that ensured we had an official signature to put on forms. Nor just the one who won us guaranteed access to a photocopier in a pinch.

The MSCP was not just an organisation that she was a member of for a number of years, and it was not just that organisation whose meetings were held at her dining room table for those years and more. It is and will remain - as long as it remains what it is - within the world that Marion Tapper created.

~ Jon Roffe