• News Feeds
Page last updated at 07:41 GMT, Friday, 17 September 2010 08:41 UK
Philosophy under fire

By Tom Colls
Today programme

Statues of Greece's ancient goddess Athena (R) and ancient philosopher Socrates outside Athens' Academy

"I think therefore I am" might be a good way to define a philosopher's job description, but in the internet age, should they be doing more to get the rest of us thinking too?

You might imagine that a podcast in which philosophers talk to a philosopher about philosophy would be a minority interest.

But Philosophy Bites, a podcast based on exactly that premise, is proving surprisingly popular - it has now been downloaded nearly eight million times and has made it into the top 20 podcasts in the United States.

Thinkers at the top of their profession explain, in 15-minute chunks, what they have figured out about the meaning of life, the nature of consciousness or the rights and wrongs of subjects ranging from war to cannibalism.

Bertrand Russel
Bertrand Russell was never far from the public debate during his lifetime

For philosopher Nigel Warburton, who produces the podcast with BBC documentary maker David Edmonds, Philosophy Bites' success shows two things: that there is a genuine public interest in philosophy, and that philosophers aren't doing enough to tap into it.

"Some philosophers feel that they've done everything they need to do when they've published a paper in an obscure journal that about three people will read," he explains.

"If you really want to change the world you're not going to change it by speaking to a few other philosophers."

It is "perverse", he says, that some publicly-funded philosophers spend their time thinking deeply about matters of the upmost public importance, such as pertinent moral dilemmas, only to discuss their conclusions within the rarefied confines of a small group of peers.

After all, Warburton adds, most philosophy is far less complex than subjects like theoretical physics or maths.

"But people have a vested interest in making it difficult because they'll be made to seem cleverer if they're the ones that understand it." And there lies the rub.

Ivory tower

As might be expected, this argument doesn't go down well on every university campus.


In the long history of philosophy, there have been some individuals who bridged the gap between their thoughts and the public.

Socrates refused to write anything down, preferring to debate with Greek citizens, Descartes wrote in a way comprehensible to millions, and Bertrand Russell was both a groundbreaking logician and fervent populariser of the subject.

But there are also many thinkers who couldn't care less whether anyone understood their arguments.

In 1929, in a now legendary moment in philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein submitted his master work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as his PhD thesis to examiners Bertrand Russell and GE Moore.

After some discussion, Wittgenstein slapped the internationally-renowned thinkers on the back. "Don't worry," he said. "I know you'll never understand it".

If centres of learning are to foster new ideas and groundbreaking research, perhaps they also need to accept that some academics aren't going to be easy to comprehend.

Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in physics and biology... their discussions seem increasingly outdated and irrelevant
Stephen Hawking

"Academia is in a large part about people who are more interested in certain things than other people think is normal. It is supposed to be that way," says Professor John Ladyman of Bristol University.

"It's one thing to say the subject as a whole ought to be able to make the case that it's able to speak to people other than philosophers, but the idea that every philosopher should is a palpable absurdity."

The titles of recent philosophical papers might be enough to persuade those who want university philosophers to engage more that they're singing from a different song book.

Fancy dipping into Expressivism Concerning Epistemic Modals on your bus journey home, or perhaps an investigation into Routley-Meyer Type Semantics for Relevant Logics Including Br Plus the Disjunctive Syllogism?

It is impossible now, argues Professor Ladyman, to calculate in advance the public benefits of this kind of in-depth research. Who could have predicted, he says, that the work on logic in the 1920s would eventually set the ground work for modern computing?

French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir
European philosophers are often seen as powerful cultural voices

Academics are already under enormous pressure to demonstrate that their research and teaching is of public benefit, says Ladyman, a leading critic of government measures that link research funding to the public impact of academics' work.

As they struggle to secure funding in difficult economic times as well as provide the best teaching possible, isn't it too much to ask for philosophers to engage with the public as well?


But what, then, of the kind of philosophy that seems to prick the public imagination, that deals with issues of morality and the meaning of life?

"The kind of philosophy that matters most to the person in the street, isn't necessarily the kind of stuff which academia is giving a lot of time to," says Julian Baggini, editor-in-chief of The Philosophers' Magazine.

There is a gap, he says, between academics unable to "zoom out" from the microscopic level of nuanced debate and popular bookstore philosophy, which is nervous of being too heavy.

"There is a serious, less technical and more broad-brushed way of doing philosophy. That ground isn't occupied by anyone," he says.

While it is certainly easier to be a rigorous thinker with university resources at your disposal, there is an opening going for anyone with well thought through ideas of genuine depth.

After all, he says, "there's nothing to stop anyone being a philosopher."

Are you a closet philosopher with thoughts you want to share? Do you want more philosophy in your life, but don't know where to find it? Get in touch using the form below or join the debate on Twitter or Facebook .

Your E-mail address
Town & Country
Phone number (optional):

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

Ajibola Lewis (right) with her daughter Police custody 'scandal'
A charity calls for a public inquiry into the number of people who die while being held by police.

Christmas tree Mass Observing the season
The spirits of Christmases past, as seen by the British people

Children selling low-value goods at the roadside are a familiar sight in Liberia Catch-22
Evan Davis examines Liberia's attempt to rebuild its economy following the recent civil war.




Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific