Projects per year
At its broadest, my research seeks to make sense of how people make sense of the world, and how they interact with ideas and positions different from their own. In my first book Phenomenology or Deconstruction? (2009) I explored the complex relationship between two major philosophical tendencies in the thought of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Luc Nancy. Difficult Atheism (2011) then examined how three contemporary thinkers—Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux—make sense of the world without the gods of metaphysics, poetry and religion, and how their three positions critique and refine each other. In French Philosophy Today: New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour I shifted the focus from God to a humanity, arguing that very different contemporary thinkers each rely on a ‘host’ to make sense of the human, whether it be a capacity, substance or narrative. Michel Serres: Figures of Thought continues my investigation into different ways of making sense of the world by presenting the first systematic treatment in English of a key twentieth and twenty-first century philosopher whose genuinely cross-disciplinary work finds complex ‘North-West passages’ between the sciences, humanities and arts.
Current project: Rewriting the Social Contract
Our security and prosperity rely on a set of often implicit agreements that govern the relationships between individuals in society. One influential way of understanding these agreements is as a social contract, according to which citizens consent to respect lawful authority and to cooperate for reciprocal benefit. The trust, civility and sense of mutual advantage at the heart of the social contract are crucial to maintaining a cohesive and prosperous society.
In recent years an increasing number of influential voices have argued that the social contract in Western democracies is breaking down, and that it needs revising or even rewriting wholesale. The United Nations and the World Bank have advocated for a renewed social contract to address societal tensions and inequalities. In the environmental sphere there have been calls to expand the social contract to take account of non-human animals and the natural world, with Extinction Rebellion declaring that the current social contract is ‘null and void’. In the area of emerging technologies, governments in Australia and elsewhere are currently busy drafting regulatory frameworks for the governance of artificial intelligence and big data amid worries about the increasing robotization of the jobs market and calls for a new social contract to govern our digital lives.
This project will develop a new account of the power and importance of social contracts both as barometers for detecting and even predicting social tensions, and as instruments for healing them. It seeks to develop a new understanding of how social contracts work, and to provide the first extensive assessment of the current tensions within existing social contracts across key areas of society. It will demonstrate how current social, ecological and technological challenges show how the social contract can be renewed and strengthened. It enlarges social contract theory to include traditionally excluded groups, and it reframes the social contract not just as a language to describe society’s origins but as a tool to shape society’s future.
For more information on the progress of the project, see the Monash Social Contract Research Network page.
Philosophy and theology
My work increasingly explores the complex relationship between modern and contemporary thought and theology. In a series of three books I explore how Derrida (2017), Foucault (2018) and Deleuze (forthcoming) interact with theological gestures and motifs in ways that are not always accounted for on the surface of their texts, bringing their writing into conversation with theological approaches to the questions and problems their work seeks to address.
How ideas shape our lives
Finally, my writing seeks to show the practical relevance of philosophical, cultural and theological ideas for the way we live our lives and the assumptions and commitments in terms of which we understand our world. My books From Plato to Postmodernism: The Story of Western Culture through Philosophy, Literature and Art (2011) and Thinking through Creation: Genesis 1 and 2 as Tools of Cultural Critique (2017) lead a non-specialist audience on a journey through the ways in which ideas shape our selves and our world.
I supervise widely in contemporary European literature, theology, film and thought, as well as English and American literature. I welcome inquiries from students seeking postgraduate supervision in these areas.
I have active, ongoing research interests in themes of religion, atheism and the secular in philosophy and literature, in themes of liberation and emancipation across culture, and in philosophical understandings of the human being.
I would be delighted to hear from students interested in working on one or more aspects of Michel Serres’s thought.
The following is an indicative, non-exhaustive list of writers on whom I have supervised in the past, or would welcome supervising in the future:
Samuel Beckett, Maurice Blanchot, Simone de Beauvoir, Claire Denis, Jacques Derrida, Bret Easton Ellis, Jacques Ellul, Robert Guédiguian, Bruno Latour, Catherine Malabou, Marc-Antoine Mathieu, Vladimir Nabokov, Jean-Luc Nancy, Sylvia Plath, Paul Ricoeur, Michel Serres.
As an undergraduate I read Modern and Medieval Languages (French and German) at Jesus College, Cambridge from 1998-2002, with a wonderful year in Paris as part of my study. In 2002-03 I completed an MPhil in European Literature and Culture, with essays on Derrida and Calvin (a fascinating pair of thinkers to explore together), and a dissertation on Paul Ricœur’s work on justice. I then received AHRC funding to complete a PhD from 2003-2006, which became the book Phenomenology or Deconstruction?
After that I spent a year without a regular job, supervising and teaching at various colleges in Cambridge and applying for Junior Research Fellowships. I am very grateful to Magdalene College for the opportunity to work as the Lumley Junior Research Fellow from 2007-09, giving me the chance to work on the project that became Difficult Atheism. Gradually working my way further up Castle Hill, I then took up a temporary University Lectureship in French at Cambridge and fellowship at Murray Edwards College (formerly New Hall) from 2009-11, before moving with my wife Alison to Melbourne in 2011 to begin a senior lectureship in French Studies at Monash University. In addition to teaching and research duties I have served terms of office as Deputy Head of School (Research), school Honours Coordinator and Head of French.
I became a Christian when I was fifteen years old and since then I have been fascinated by the ways in which philosophy and contemporary culture can be brought into conversation with Christian theology.
Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals
In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):
Modern European Thought, PhD, Phenomenology or Deconstruction? The Question of Ontology in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Lcu Nancy, University of Cambridge
Award Date: 31 Jul 2007
European thought, Junior Research Fellow, Difficult Atheism, Magdalene College, Cambridge
Research area keywords
- Jean-Luc Nancy
- Michel Serres
- Catherine Malabou
- French philosophy
- Bruno Latour
- Alain Badiou
- Jacques Derrida
- Quentin Meillassoux
- Paul Ricoeur
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty
25/02/21 → 31/01/25
Beyond Autonomy: Understanding How New Social, Scientific and Technological Influences are Shaping the Future of Freedom
1/01/20 → 31/12/20
Building and Resourcing an Australia-Wide Network of Theologically and Philosophically Literate Students
25/05/16 → 31/12/17
Watkin, C., Apr 2023, In: Australian Journal of French Studies. 60, 2, p. 185-197 13 p.
Research output: Contribution to journal › Article › Research › peer-review
Watkin, C., Nov 2021, In: Logoi.ph. VII, 18, p. 171-176 6 p. Translated title of the contribution: A narrative phenomenology of the social contract
Research output: Contribution to journal › Article › Research › peer-reviewOpen Access
Watkin, Chris (Recipient), 2019
Prize: Prize (including medals and awards)
Watkin, Chris (Recipient), 2020
Prize: Prize (including medals and awards)
Chris Watkin (Peer reviewer)2016
Activity: Publication peer-review and editorial work types › Peer review responsibility
1 item of Media coverage
Press/Media: Expert Comment
John Elder, "What happens when your robot gets ambitious?". The Age, April 2 2016. http://www.smh.com.au/national/what-happens-when-your-robot-gets-ambitious-20160401-gnw02t.html
1 Media contribution
Press/Media: Expert Comment