“One cannot step twice in the same river.” – Heraclitus
The world is constantly changing, but one thing stays the same, the big questions that have plagued and intrigued the human mind since the dawn of civilisation. The exploration of ideas and the search for answers has in many ways shaped the world in which we live today.
From Aristotle and Plato to the Stoics and in more recent times names such as Immanuel Kant and Bertrand Russell have had a profound impact on policy and laws across a range of areas from science to education.
With the sheer volume of work out there it’s perhaps surprising that there have been few contemporary collections that comprehensively recount this great intellectual journey. Until recently that is. Professor A.C. Grayling, Philosopher and Master of New College of the Humanities, has written a book which covers the full spectrum of the subject with, The History of Philosophy.
Professor Grayling’s book takes the reader from the world-views and moralities before the age of the Buddha, Confucius and Socrates, through Christianity’s dominance of the European mind to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and on to Nietzsche, Sartre, and philosophy today.
Ahead of his appearance at The Cheltenham Literary Festival, we spoke with him about how he came to write this eye-opening, landmark work. The role of philosophy, why it’s not the impenetrable subject some may feel and Professor Grayling also leaves us with some big questions for us all to ponder.
The MALESTROM: How hard was it to condense The History of Philosophy, such a broad subject, into around 700 pages? That must have been a mammoth undertaking?
Professor Grayling: It was, but it was an incredibly relishable challenge to try to do it concisely, clearly and accurately. I really did relish it.
I’ve had the good fortune to devote my working life to philosophy and the history of philosophy, so it’s comfortable terrain for me. And having a sense of what people need to know and what one should focus in on it was great. I loved it. In fact, I enjoyed writing it so much that when I got to the end of it, I was sad to let it go.
TM: It must have been hard to prioritise the subject matter, choosing which philosophers people should read above others?
PG: Not really: with the great figures in philosophy and the contributions they made, and the way the philosophical conversation has unfolded over time, you have a narrative spine to work with. So if you’re going to give a sense of this tremendous adventure of ideas, which is what philosophy is, you know pretty well where you have to go and what would be useful for readers to know about.
TM: Many people who don’t know much about philosophy, they may see it as quite an impenetrable subject, what would you say to that?
PG: Most of the great philosophers wrote for their educated interested contemporaries. They didn’t write for specialist professors.
So, without any specialist background you can read most of Plato, you can read Descartes, you can read David Hume, you can read John Stuart Mill, you can read most of Bertrand Russell: they were writing for all of us.
And they each made a good assumption, which is, anybody with a bit of intelligence and education would be interested in this stuff and would like to know about it.
TM: What would you say is the role of philosophy?
PG: Note first that the word ‘philosophy’ is a bit like the word ‘science’. Under the label ‘science’ there are physics and chemistry, biology, geology, meteorology, and the rest.
In the same way, the word ‘philosophy’ collects the following: Metaphysics, which is about the nature of reality (the nature of existence: the attempt to answer the question, what exists? And what is the world really like?)
And Epistemology, sometimes called ‘theory of knowledge’ which is about the nature of knowledge and how we get it (what is knowledge and what are the best means of inquiry? What do we mean by truth? What is reason?)
And there’s Ethics, and Political philosophy, and the philosophical inquiries into how we do science and social science, and how we think about history.
One of the central questions in ethics, what I call the Socratic Challenge – a great question that he said every one of us has to ask and answer – is the question, How should I live? What sort of person should I be? What values are going to shape and colour my life?
The answer is going to be different for each of us because each of us has different aims and projects, different abilities and capacities. So that’s a very important question for all of us to engage with.
TM: How have you seen philosophies change over time? Have you seen a big difference?
PG: A great philosophical answer coming up: yes and no. No, in the sense that perennial questions, like the ones that I just described about knowledge and ethics, remain the same. They challenge each of us in our generation and we have to address them afresh and think them through.
But Yes in the sense that it’s also the case that philosophy is a massively consequential enterprise. Out of philosophy in the 16th & 17th centuries came science. Out of philosophy in the 18th century came psychology, and out of philosophy in the 19th century came sociology and empirical linguistics. In the 20th-century philosophy helped to bring to birth cognitive science, computing and AI.
It’s a very consequential enterprise because what it comes down to is time to identify what problems we need to deal with, and then to ask the right questions about those problems so that we can have some possibility of getting an answer to that. And that is proved to be incredibly successful in history. And it has changed history.
TM: You mentioned Socrates previously, and his great question, what would you say are the greatest philosophical questions of all time?
PG: Well that is certainly one of them: How should we live? What should our values be? Another great question, and one which began the adventure, which results in you and I being able to speak on the phone together, fly in airplanes, benefit from antibiotics, and so on, is to ask about the nature of the world.
And to ask that question, expecting to be able to answer it not by appealing to legend and traditions and religious beliefs, but by observation, by reason, and by experiment.
Reason and inquiry, which is what philosophy and science are all about, has been absolutely transformative of our world.
If you think about it, you can imagine looking at the sky at night in the year 1600, seeing the stars and the moon, and you think they are going round and round the earth, with us at the centre of the universe, making us very important.
A hundred years later, by the year 1700, it was known that all those stars are a huge distance away, so we’re not the centre of the universe.
That’s an example of how new ideas and perspectives can utterly change our view about things in ways that if you lived through such changes you would find astonishing. I mean living through the politics of these last weeks, you see things in an utterly different way. And philosophy does that to us all the time.
Let me give you a non-philosophical example. Say I asked you the question, what percentage of freshwater consumed in the UK is imported? Many people would think about bottles of Evian and the like. The answer is a surprising one. It is that 70% of the fresh water we consume in these islands is imported. It’s imported in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables, grown in countries where there is a water shortage. So when you think of all the implications of that, you suddenly see the world differently.
That’s an example of how, when you dig into a question, you can sometimes get challenged with ideas or ways of seeing things that jolt you. Digging into philosophical questions is often like that.
TM: Is that why we need to essentially keep the conversation going with these ancient philosophers? And keep thinking about their ideas? Because obviously, things change over time and answers change I guess?
PG: Yes, we do. We need to keep that conversation going, and to stay aware of what you might call the ‘case law’ of philosophy. This is why the history of philosophy is so important, because it stops us from reinventing the wheel as a triangle, or making the same mistakes again.
So, if we understand something about these great debates, then we can start taking part in them. We can be what Newton said about his discoveries. He said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
These giants of the past, if we can climb up on their shoulders – and they offered us their shoulders to do that – then we can offer our shoulders to the next generations to go on with the great debates.
TM: You mention standing on the shoulders of giants. Who were your biggest influences in the field?
PG: My big heroes in philosophy are Aristotle, Kant, David Hume, Bertrand Russell. But I often put the point this way: Parnassus, the mountain of achievement, is not a sharp peak with not much room at the top; it’s a great plateau, with room for many. So, all the philosophers in their different ways have made great contributions.
I could mention Spinoza, for example, and I could certainly mention the Stoic tradition, a powerful philosophy of life.
The 20th century has been rich in fine philosophers because more people have studied, debated and written about philosophy in the 20th century than ever before. I had two wonderful teachers at Oxford, A.J. Ayer and P. F. Strawson.
I was very lucky to have great teachers like that. Philosophy is a collective enterprise, though some individual philosophers like Aristotle and Kant made a great difference because they reshaped the nature of the debate.
TM: And what first sparked your interest?
PG: I spent my early life in Africa, when my father was working in Zambia and Malawi. When you’re living in Africa you can’t really go for country walks, because you’d get eaten by a lion, so I spent my time reading. I became a pretty voracious reader when I was a kid.
We had this encyclopedia at home; I used to browse through it and came across entries on Plato, Socrates and Aristotle and read them and got really interested in them. When I was 12, I got a ticket to the grown-up part of the library and found the complete works of Plato in the translation by Benjamin Jowett. I took down the first volume, and I opened it at one of the early dialogues of Plato, the Charmides. It is a very accessible easy read.
It was fascinating and I was completely bowled over by it. I thought, these great iconic figures of our civilization, people like Socrates and Plato, if they’ve devoted their lives to this then I’m going to do the same. And that got me going from then on.
When I was 14, for sixpence I bought a book called The Biographical History of Philosophy by GH Lewes. I can’t tell you how many times I read that over and over. And it was only when we got back to the UK that I was able to get some of the original books by the philosophers.
I studied it at university of course. The one thing you find when you get interested in philosophy is that it’s like a kind of driving license or passport – a license to stick your nose into everything, science and history and politics included.
That’s the wonderful thing about it. Anything that human beings get engaged in, and it matters to us as human beings, feeds into philosophy. And so if you are a philosopher if you teach philosophy, and you write about it then absolutely everything and anything that goes on is grist to your mill.
TM: Does it concern you with modern society that people rarely think for themselves anymore but have opinions forced upon them?
PG: Yes, this is a problem. Bertrand Russell famously said, “most people would rather die than think, and most people do.” And this is the tragedy of the world. Because if people are not thinking things through but just accepting what politicians or preachers say, the result, as we see in our world, is a lot of conflict, of division and turmoil.
So it’s vital that people should be encouraged and challenged to think about things. All the more so now: think of the internet, a fabulous instrument because at the press of a button, at the speed of light, you can get information about almost anything at all – but it’s also an enormous lavatory wall, everybody scribbling lies and hatred on it.
So our education system now has to be about thinking critically. In the old days, a teacher would download information from his neck-top to the neck-tops of all the kids in the class. But now kids can get all that on the internet. What they need now is to be taught how to evaluate, how to think clearly about the arguments, claims, and supposed facts. They have to be really good at thinking their way through.
SO education should be about thinking, about analysis, evaluation, criticism, using evidence; about inquiry. And if we could generalise that, if philosophical thinking could be a core part of the curriculum at school, it would be a big help.
TM: Would you say philosophers exist to change things? Or are they mainly there to observe?
PG: It’s a bit of both. Critical enquiry is going to identify things that need changing or challenging. So, the process of observing and discussing sometimes lead to those challenges and those changes.
TM: A previous book of yours was called ‘Liberty in the Age of Terror’ – What do you think liberty means in the turbulent times in which we live?
PG: In my view it has two dimensions which are important. One, of course, is individual autonomy, individual liberty, the space that we have around us as individuals to make important choices about how we’re going to live and what our private lives are like. Without that degree of personal autonomy, the possibility of having lives that feel good to live, which are flourishing and rich in value, that constitute a journey whose direction you’ve chosen and which matters to you: that wouldn’t be possible.
So personal liberty, personal autonomy, is very important. In society this expresses itself as civil liberties. Take for example freedom of expression. It is absolutely key, because, without it, you can’t have education worth its name; you can’t defend yourself in law if you’re accused or need redress if you’ve been injured or harmed in some way; you can’t have democracy, because you can’t put forward policy ideas and challenge and discuss them.
Across the whole range, freedom of expression is a fundamental civil liberty and it combines with certain others, such as the freedom to associate with others and exchange ideas, the freedom of information, and freedom to travel.
If you look at history, what you see is ideologies, either political ideologies or religious ideologies, trying to close people down – to close down their choices, to limit and inhibit them.
And so, at the moment in this age of terrorism, we see the return of an endeavour to tell people they’re not allowed to think this or do that or say some other thing. This is, therefore, a challenge to us to protect our civil and personal liberties, because without them good lives, good societies, good democracy, education, everything that matters, is impossible.
TM: Let’s not get started on Brexit then…
PG: Please don’t. We’d be here till breakfast.
TM: We always finish by asking for a piece of wisdom that comes to mind, but it might be more fitting to ask you for a piece of philosophy our readers can ponder?
PG: Yes. I’d choose the ethical outlook of the Stoics in antiquity, and especially in Roman times. For over 500 years, before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, at the end of the fourth century, most educated people were Stoics.
The Stoics taught the following: With respect to things that you cannot control, like earthquakes or tsunamis, ageing or death, you must face them with courage. With respect to things that you have some influence over, such as your appetites, your fears and desires, you must try to achieve some degree of self-mastery. Because if you can live with courage towards the outward and a degree of self-mastery towards the inner, you will live nobly.
Although that seems simple, it’s a profound view. The Stoics lived by it; and I think if everybody in this world – and you notice there’s no religious prescription involved – if everybody in the world followed this approach, and followed the adjuration to think, the world would be a better place.
Professor A.C. Grayling is speaking at The Cheltenham Literature Festival, 4th -11th October.
The History of Philosophy by Professor A.C. Grayling is out to buy now.
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