Category Archives: history

The Age of Consent

You can listen to both parts now:  The Age of Consent.  I’m going on about engineering consent, and what that possibility does to the Enlightenment notion of consent as a ground for political obligation.  But there’s lots of other good stuff in there too.


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Philosophy Matters

Here’s a recording of my talk for the Oxford Brookes series Why Philosophy Matters (there’s a facebook group too).

I take up as many good objections to the idea that philosophy doesn’t matter (it’s dead, it’s without content, its subject matter has been taken over by science, it makes no progress, etc) and then sift through what I think are the best replies.  I think some of the objections really do hit home.

In the end, I’m a pluralist about why philosophy matters — I think it matters in a number of different ways, some cosmic, some not. I don’t think it always matters — a great deal depends on the person who reads and thinks about it.  The same bit of Aristotle might not matter at all to you the first time you read it, but when you have a real live philosophical problem on your hands, finding an ally in Aristotle can matter a very great deal to you.




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Does Philosophy Matter?

I’m giving a talk this Wednesday at 18.00 in the Ashmolean Museum Education Centre, Oxford, for Oxford Brookes University  and Bloomsbury Publishing.  It’s about Why Philosophy Matters.

Philosophy has had a hard time in the press lately.  It’s said that philosophy is dead, that is is without content, that it has made no progress in nearly two and a half thousand years.  Philosophy departments have been closed by those who say it’s an unjustifiable expense.  Philosophers, memorably, have been called the gym teachers of academia.  Philosophical chestnuts like the problem of free will are said to have scientific solutions, not philosophical ones.  Is this criticism justified? Does philosophy still matter?

I’ll put it up here when I’ve tweaked it a bit.

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Back to big thinking

The current issue of tpm features a series of essays on grassroots philosophy — philosophy that’s alive and at large outside the academic world.  We’re putting some of the essays online for free, and here’s one by Hilary Lawson, called ‘Back to Big Thinking’.

Some say that philosophy is marginalised, it has lost its way — to some loud scientists, philosophy is even a figure of fun.  What happened?  Lawson wonders whether analytic philosophy is responsible.

What came to be known as analytic philosophy developed its own arcane character and its own impenetrable terminology. In the process it has gradually walled itself in to its own ivory tower. At the outset the philosophy of logical analysis set out to provide the framework for others to do their thinking. It was to be the under-labourer clearing the ground. No grand theories here, just solid work aimed at making life more effective for other disciplines.

The very project of course in some sense demeaned philosophy – although it may have appealed to a British sense of understatement. Gone were the goals of a grand metaphysical vision. Instead, a limited role lay ahead. This would have been well if it had succeeded. If the clarifications it offered had indeed proved valuable to other disciplines and if other disciplines had taken its insights as a basis for their own investigations.

The reality has been rather more prosaic. A century of analytic philosophy is hard pushed to find a single clarification that has been of any real value to another discipline. Not least perhaps because such advances relied on the emergence of agreement amongst philosophical enquirers. How could other disciplines make use of the new insights if philosophers themselves were still in dispute? Philosophers in the public mind actually outpace economists or politicians in this respect as the philosophical joke currently doing the rounds neatly identifies: How many philosophers does it take to change a light bulb? It depends on how you define “change”.

The application of logic to language never lived up to Russell’s dream. Having demonstrated that logic could describe mathematics, or so he believed, he understandably wished to extend this to language, thereby providing a perfect medium, free of error, for all to use. It was a great idea. It has motivated generations of philosophers and philosophy departments. The problem though is that the dream is impossible – as Wittgenstein thought he had demonstrated in the Tractatus, almost at the outset of the project.

Philosophy has not turned into a science. The twentieth century desire to do so can now be seen as a wide-eyed scientism, the response of a culture that was so enamoured with the success of science that it sought to replicate it in every field. A century on the idea seems far-fetched. Under-labourers are all very well but not so effective if each is challenging the others work. Logic was meant to cut through dispute and provide definitive conclusions. Unsurprisingly it failed to do so. Is there anyone who seriously believes that philosophy is closer to definitive conclusions today than it was a century ago?

Well?  Anyone?  You can read the whole article here.

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The Story of Philosophy

A book written with Jeremy Stangroom, called The Story of Philosophy, is now out there in the world.  You can read a review by a fundamentally decent person here.  Here’s a bit from the cover blurb:

“Philosophy can’t be pinned down. There are histories which attempt to stitch the whole convoluted thing up into a single, long coherent sequence of events. Other books are organized thematically. Here we have metaphysics. This is ethics. Here’s what we know about the nature of knowledge. Similar books plough through the big questions. What exists? What can we know? How should we live? What does it all mean? Some of these books are excellent, but they’re all attempts to civilize something wild, something that mostly mistrusts authority, something that’s really only human, something messy that moves around in different directions at once.  Maybe the best way to pass along a feel for this kind of thing is to do what people have always done when they’ve got a great deal of complicated information to convey, and that’s tell a story.”

We really did try to do something other than write another history of philosophy, another collection of -isms, another list of theses and objections.  If a philosopher did or said something interesting that makes for a good story, we tended to put it in.  Reading philosophy can leave you with the thought that philosophers aren’t really people.  Maybe that’s too strong — maybe we just forget their humanity from time to time, and think of them as The Greats, rather people with first names.  This book tries to understand philosophy by getting to know philosophers a little.  It was fun to research, and I hope it’s a good read, too.

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Changing the world

I attended the last seminar in a series hosted by the HEA called “Philosophy and Public Policy:  Making an Impact

There was a good talk by Baroness Onora O’Neill called “Interpreting the World, changing the world” – a reference to Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, and his famous line, “philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it”.  With worries about funding in the humanities depending on the impact of research, at least some philosophers are trying to find ways to change the world, or anyway make a noticeable dent in it.  A good thought emerged in the discussion:  both Marx and those who call for impact presuppose that there’s nothing worth preserving or maintaining in the world that we’ve got. 

G E Moore to one side, philosophers don’t score points for writing papers in agreement with what everyone else says.  They’re not invited to give talks which argue that everyone’s got the right idea about, say, the mind-body relation.  Philosophers are supposed to be independent, have new ideas, question the assumptions of others, find reasons to take issue with the status quo.  I wonder how that might skew the pursuit of wisdom when, admittedly only very occasionally, our thoughts in some domain  are genuinely unobjectionable.

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I’m reading a lot of Hellenistic philosophy at the moment, research for a book on the  history of philosophy.  I just found something wonderful I’d forgotten about in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.  In his treatment of Pyrrho — an ancient sceptic, possibly the first, operating around 300 BCE — we learn:

“He used to clean all the furniture of the house without expressing any annoyance. And it is said that he carried his indifference so far that he even washed a pig.”

I know of no contemporary philosopher who would wash a pig if that’s where the argument led him.

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