Author Archives: Julian Baggini

microphilosophy podcasts #4 & #5

This latest podcast is an edited version of a talk on the lust for uncertainty given to a Sea of Faith Network conference in London earlier this year. If you missed it, podcast #4 also went up a few weeks ago, an interview with Sam Harris about science and morality.

microphilosophy podcast #3

In the latest microphilosophy podcast, tpm’s editor-in-chief Julian Baggini talks to John Gray about some of the ideas that emerge from his latest book, The Immortalization Commission: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death. Download from this link or iTunes. The podcast was recorded at the Bristol Festival of Ideas in May, at the Arnolfini.

Latest microphilosophy podcast

Can artificial intelligence teach us about what it means to be human? That is the fascinating question behind Brian Christian’s recent book, The Most Human Human. In his latest microphilosophy podcast, tpm editor-in-chief Julian Baggini is in conversation with Christian. More information here or download from iTunes.

Goodbye (sort of) from me

Long-term readers with good memories may remember me. I co-founded tpm back in 1997 with Jeremy Stangroom and for a long time posted quite frequently at this blog. (111 posts, I see from the right-hand box.) It’s been about nine months since my last and I thought I’d explain some of the changes that lie behind this silence.

Last year, I handed over the editorship of tpm to the wonderful James Garvey, who has taken to the role brilliantly. After 13 years in the editor’s chair (housed first in my London bedsit and latterly in my spare bedroom) I thought a change was overdue. tpm has thrived by evolving and keeping itself fresh and I felt I had more or less exhausted my capacities of refreshment. Plus I needed refreshing too.

I am still involved at tpm as editor-in-chief, but it’s never a good idea for the old guard to hover too close behind the shoulders of the new, so I am retreating quite far into the background. I also have plenty of other projects to get on with. (If anyone is interested in these, I post news of what I’m up to at my website and I’m also on twitter.) Most recently, I have replaced my Philosophy Monthly podcast with a new series called microphilosophy (iTunes users can subscribe here). Of most personal importance is my new book, The Ego Trick. It’s the book I’ve most wanted to write and if you only ever read one of my books, I’d love it if it were this one.

I still write for tpm and will probably post here again from time to time, so this is goodbye rather than farewell. Editing tpm has been a fantastic experience, made possible by the vital and extensive web presence Jeremy has built up. (tpm has always been a project whose web side, led by Jeremy, is at least as important as the print.) I’m very grateful for all the appreciation readers have shown over the years. But all good things (well, almost all) have a shelf-life and I want to go while I’m merely stale, rather than mouldy.

New podcast series

tpm’s editor-in-chief Julian Baggini has started a new podcast series, microphilosophy, which replaces his popular Philosophy Monthly. Each edition will be an interview, talk, discussion or feature, no longer than half an hour but usually much shorter. This first is an interview with the philosopher and theologian Richard Swinburne, conducted for Julian’s new book, The Ego Trick. More podcasts relating to the book will follow over coming weeks. You can download or listen to the podcast here and at iTunes.

Eye of the beholder?

Aesthetics always used to focus on the question of beauty. Indeed, as an undergraduate it seemed to me to be almost entirely about two questions: What is beauty? What is art?

We’ve got more sceptical about beauty since then, in philosophy and outside of it, in part, I think, because we seem to have become persuaded by the idea that beauty is too subjective for anything meaningful to be said about it. But the concept has been making a bit of a comeback in aesthetics, I understand, and even if philosophers used to wrong to focus so much on it, it’s surely of great interest.

Anyway, I’m trying to write something on this, in relation to buildings. But I thought before I did so it might be useful to actually get some idea of what people find beautiful, rather than make assumptions. I read Roger Scruton’s latest book recently, for example, and it seems astonishing to me how confident he is that people don’t like the kind of buildings he doesn’t like.

So, if you’ve got five minutes, could you complete this short survey about what you think is beautiful? Having done so, perhaps we could have an open discussion in the comments about matters and questions arising. (I know I’m not always the best at replying quickly to comments but give me time and I will read them and join in, honest!) Oh, and please share the survey link with family and friends, especially those not that interested in philosophy!

UPDATE: This Der Speigel gallery of ugly German buildings is interesting. How much is ugliness in the eye of the beholder too?

Why won’t I read your work?

To whom it may concern,

I’m sorry to address you in such an impersonal way, but I get quite a few letters and emails of the kind you sent me, and I thought I should take the time to explain at length, once and for all, why it won’t be getting the reply you hope for.

You are someone who thinks and writes about philosophy outside of academe. You have produced a book or some essays which you think are of wider interest. You may be quite modest about how important your work is, but more typically, you think that you have solved many big problems once and for all. Either way, you believe you have a worthwhile contribution to make.

The trouble is, few people will even read your work, let alone publish it. You’re understandably frustrated by this. You probably think that you are being ignored because you are working outside of the universities, that snobbery is at work here.

There may be some truth in this. It is much easier to have your work read if you have an academic position than not. But although this may be partly to do with snobbery that isn’t the whole story. The truth is that there is just too much philosophy being produced in the world, and anyone interested in it has to apply some crude filters to decide what to look at, let alone seriously read. If someone has got an academic position, that does not guarantee their ability, but it does show they have at least met some kind of minimal standard. Working to get a PhD and a job in a university thus earns people the right to have their peers at least pay attention to them. It is not therefore unfair to those who haven’t put in this work and made this progress that they have to work harder to get noticed. And remember even academic find it hard to get noticed: most books recommended to me by academic authors don’t get read either.

It is not the case, however, that academe is so closed that it won’t take on anything from outside. Most journals blind review papers. If your work is good, it can be published in a journal, whether you are in a university or not. You do, however, have to make sure you get familiar with the conventions and literatures surrounding issues, but the same constraint applies to people within academe. Book publishers will also be open to work by independent scholars.

So there is no institutional block to your work being received and understood. It’s just that there are hoops you have to jump through, procedures to get acquainted with and so on. You cannot expect that these hoops should be removed for you alone. You can read for a PhD, submit papers to journals and conferences. Just go to some conferences, for that matter, and get a feel to how things work. Talk to people about your ideas, listening to theirs at the same time.

But, you might say, the problem is that established academic philosophy works within certain paradigms that are flawed. It won’t listen to you because you do not share some of its core assumptions. You are too radical for them, and they are to blame for their conservatism.

If this is true, then you can only but do one of two things. First, you could decide that this is a club not worth joining. Why crave the attention and affirmation of professional philosophers if you think they’re all so wrong? The alternative is to accept that shifting paradigms is hard work, and you have to get within the system to change it. Again, that means no short cut to putting in the work, getting the PhD, or whatever it takes.

You might, however, just say this is all irrelevant. You have good work and all you are asking is that I read it. Why won’t I just do that? But what you have to realise is that countless people claim this, all the time. I can’t read all their work, and I have no way of knowing which are right. On the evidence of work I have looked at, virtually none are right. It’s hard to be boldly original and good in philosophy, and most people who claim those achievements for themselves are just wrong. If I do give work I’m sent a quick glance, there is rarely anything there that leaps out at me and demands that I hold my attention. What’s more, I’m often not an expert on the particular subject you are writing about, so I wouldn’t know if you were onto something or not.

Based on work I have looked at, most people who write to me claiming significant new work are intelligent, thoughtful people who know a lot about philosophy. But they have not had their own arguments tested thoroughly by well-informed peers, which is the real advantage university gives you. As a result, they have run too far, too fast with ideas, building up systems before the foundations have been secured. You could be the exception, of course. But if you are, the tragedy is that I can’t be expected to know that. And nor can others. So there really is no short cut.

If it is any consolation, I am in not such a dissimilar situation. I have no academic affiliation, and if I want to submit to academic journals or conferences, I have to do what everyone else has to do. Indeed, I can give you one example which shows you how hard it is. I once came up with a thought, an argument, which I believed could be interesting. The problem was – and I knew it – I have been outside of academe since my PhD and I just didn’t know if this was already old hat. So I sent the paper to a journal, It was rejected as well argued, but not original. Better for me to have found that out than to have worked it up into a book and then got annoyed when people didn’t read it.

I have no reason to think that independent scholars are any less talented than ones in universities. You may indeed have valuable contributions to make. I hope, however, you can understand why, even if you do, I am justified in passing by on the opportunity of reading them.

Good luck

If Aristotle ran the Huffington Post

Artifice is not the same as deceit. The media is full of artifice. Words are edited in print, chopped and put back together in audio and video, not to misrepresent, but simply to provide a smoother, more coherent picture of the ideas being presented.

Most of the time we do not think of any of this as deceitful. But this seems in part to depend on how good our media literary is. For instance, it is standard practice when filming an interview with only one camera to, at the end, record some “noddies”: the interviewer is seen nodding or responding to what the speaker is saying. This is in effect a re-staging of their actual reactions – at the time they are filmed, the interviewer is just looking into space. But some viewers do feel deceived when they discover this.

So where is the line between benign artifice and deceit? I got wondering about this after I received an email from Tom Morris, author of If Aristotle Ran General Motors. He has started a series of “interviews” with philosophers at the Huffington Post and he was on the look out for “interviewees”. You’ll see why I use scare-quotes when you read what his message contained:

If you have an idea for an interview of about 1,000 words or fewer (or up to 1,200 on rare occasion), please email me. Then I ask only that your submission be formatted like the interview you see. Suggest my questions and comments as well as your own, and I’ll edit from there. Please also help me with the formatting time by using this code for your name and mine with each question and answer….

As examples, he has:

Tom: Hi, fellow philosopher! You have a new book out on XYZ.

You: Hi, Tom. Yes indeed.

I wasn’t comfortable with this. Morris was asking people to write “interviews” with themselves, pretending that Morris had set the questions. Morris would then edit them if he didn’t like any bits of them.

Now this is hardly criminal behaviour, but I think that philosophers of all people should be wary about being so brazenly untruthful. I should say that Morris is very open about the process, and clearly doesn’t see this as deceitful. When I raised my concerns to him in an email he said “It’s just a quicker and easier way of providing a forum for the voices of others,” adding “I’ve been very fortunate to have ample public hearing for my work. I’m just wanting to share some of the stage, so to speak. I’m 58 and won’t be doing this forever. I want to encourage others in the academy to ‘get out there’ with more of their work.”

Although I made it clear I was not accusing him of any subterfuge, his response didn’t convince me. I followed up:

For me something doesn’t sit right abut philosophers presenting themselves so falsely. It isn’t an interview. You didn’t ask the questions. It’s just not truthful. It’s not a big deal, perhaps – we’re not talking about major disinformation here. But if Aristotle ran The Huffington Post, no way would he would approve! And I think if Huffington Post readers knew this, some at least wouldn’t like it.

One part of his second reply really didn’t convince:

Of course dialogues written by just one person have a rich tradition in our biz. Plato didn’t mean to trick people, nor did Hume. And these aren’t even written by just one person.

But no one ever thought they were real dialogues. He also wrote:

My understanding is that the philosophers I interview just suggest the questions. That’s how I take what they write to me. If I approve the questions, that amounts to my asking them. If I don’t, I propose a question of my own or a bevy of such questions. The end result, to me, counts as an interview, not just an “interview”.

I want to stress that I do not think Morris is behaving with any malign intent. He said he was happy for me to blog about this and quote from his emails. But I do think he’s mistaken here. The artifice in this case is misleading, whether it is intended to mislead or not. And although this is not an important case – it’s really just a good example of a wider issue – I do think it is important for philosophers to uphold values of truthfulness, even when the stakes are low.

Am I being too puritanical? Or hypocritical? After all, I use artifice when I edit my podcasts and written interviews. At a time where more and more people are using media tools, it is perhaps important that we try to draw some rough lines at least between acceptable and misleading artifice. But where?

Philosophers hold their seats

With most of the UK general election results now in, we can see that the philosophers standing have done well in some ways, not so well in others. (See yesterday’s post for details of the candidate’s philosophical backgrounds.) All four of the candidates standing for the major parties won their seats.

Oliver Letwin (Conservative) held his West Dorset seat with a 1.1% increase in votes compared to 3.9% for his party nationally

Jon Cruddas (Labour) held his Dagenham seat with an 8.9% fall in vote compared to a 6.3% fall for his party nationally

John Pugh (Liberal Democrat) held his Southport seat with a 3.3% increase in vote compared to 1% increase for his party nationally

Jesse Norman (Conservative) was elected as the member for Hereford and South Herefordshire, a seat previously held by a retiring member of his party. He was elected with a 5.2% increase in vote for his party since the last election compared to 3.9% nationally.

Alas, that means that even though it would have been meaningless anyway, due to the small sample size, we can’t have any fun talking of swings for and against philosophers, as it all pretty much evens out – unless someone else can spot a spurious statistical pattern.

There were also three Green Party candidates who didn’t stand much chance of winning their seats.

Shahrar Ali won 668 votes in Brent Central, 1.5% of votes cast, 2.2% down on his party’s showing last time.

Chris Fox (won 909 votes in Harwich and North Essex, 1.9% of those cast, 1.8% down on his party’s showing last time.

Ben Foley (a.k.a. Fairweather) won 393 votes Bedford, a 0.9% share, up 0.9% on last time ( i.e. there was no Green Party no candidate last time)

Nationally, the Green Party’s share of the vote was almost identical to last time, around 1%.

(Note: national results are not final yet, so all national figures are provisional. I hope to update when all results are in)

Philosophers standing for election

If election night in the UK tonight is not exciting enough already, why not add some spice by looking out for how some philosophers fare, as they put themselves up for Parliament? A probably not comprehensive list of candidates includes

Oliver Letwin (Conservative) MP for West Dorset since 1997
A Cambridge PhD, his brief stint as an academic philosopher was as a fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge from 1981-1983. In 1987 he published a book of serious philosophy, Ethics, Emotion and the Unity of Self.

Jon Cruddas (Labour) MP for Dagenham since 2001
Has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Warwick, for a thesis entitled An analysis of value theory, the sphere of production and contemporary approaches to the reorganisation of workplace relations. He was a visiting fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Madison for a year from 1987.

John Pugh (Liberal Democrat) MP for Southport since 2001
Read philosophy at Durham, then was Head of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Merchant Taylors’ School, Crosby

Jesse Norman (Conservative) Candidate for Hereford and South Herefordshire
Has a philosophy MA and PHD from University College London, and also taught at UCL and Birkbeck

Shahrar Ali (Green Party) Candidate for Brent Central
Former editor of Philosophy Today, the newsletter of the Society for Applied Philosophy, and is administrator of the Institute of Philosophy

Ben Foley (a.k.a. Fairweather) (Green Party) candidate for Bedford
Is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility at De Montfort University and is editor the Journal of Information, Communication & Ethics in Society

UPDATED 14:27. Thanks to Andrew Jorgensen for tip.
Chris Fox (Green Party) Candidate for Harwich and North Essex
Is a reader at the University of Essex’s School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, whose “primary research interests lie in the area of the philosophy of language and formal semantics”.

If you know of any others or have any further information, please do add them in the comments.