‘Philosophy Bites Again’ Is a True Philosophical Gourmet

by Brice Ezell

27 January 2015

This is a dinner party in book form, although with topics such as torture, group agency, hate speech, and the afterlife, it's not for the absent-minded.
cover art

Philosophy Bites Again

David Edmonds, Nigel Warburton

(Oxford University Press)
US: Jan 2015

Philosophy Bites Again is the book equivalent of a chatty dinner party, although probably not the kind of dinner party most folks are acquainted with. At a normal dinner party, one might expect to talk about the latest movie or album, pesky weather patterns, or the crazy thing that happened at one’s last weekend getaway. By contrast, Philosophy Bites Again tackles the oh-so-simple subjects of torture, group agency, hate speech, and the afterlife. Each of those topics—which make up four of the book’s 27 interviews—require a great deal of explanation in order to get at the core questions of the topic in question. This is where the Philosophy Bites podcast, hosted by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, becomes a helpful resource for the amateur and professional philosopher alike.

The Philosophy Bites podcast began in 2007, and has since led to several spin-off podcasts: Ethics Bites, Bioethics Bites, Multiculturalism Bites, Free Speech Bites, and Social Science Bites. In the podcast Edmonds, a documentary filmmaker for the BBC World Service, and Warburton, a “freelance philosopher” and author, interview the leading academic philosophers on subjects spanning Aristotle to Rawls.

In addition to the podcast’s historical depth, Edmonds and Warburton provide a valuable service to the public in that they bring to light the work of contemporary philosophers that might otherwise be relegated to a collection of academic papers on JSTOR. The philosophical issues explored by these thinkers are not only brought to light but also presented in an accessible and inviting manner. For example, an issue like humor—“what makes a thing funny?”—may seem intuitive to the layperson, but in fact comic theory has a long-standing and complex philosophical history. In Philosophy Bites Again, Warburton interviews renowned aesthetician Noel Carroll on this very subject. Though their talk only runs seven pages, the points raised by Carroll are enough to get one thinking for hours, if not days, about what exactly it means for a joke to be funny.

Here an important qualification about the philosophical model of Philosophy Bites Again, and indeed the Philosophy Bites podcast as a whole, becomes necessary. A common assumption about doing philosophy is that it is a practice designed to “give answers to life’s most tricky queries.” Much of 20th century philosophy, however, does not aim at making bold claims for the purposes of answering such queries. The type of philosophy known as “analytic philosophy”, which makes up the overwhelming majority of Philosophy Bites Again‘s discourse, is designed to clarify philosophical problems. As a philosophy professor of mine memorably put it, “For an analytic philosopher, the three most important things are clarity, truth, and brevity, and the greatest of these is clarity.”

For example, the opening interview in this collection tackles the question of “pleasure”: what is pleasure, and are certain types of pleasures worthy of valuation over others? The discussion, held between Warburton and University of Toronto professor Thomas Hurka, outlines various types of pleasures, the implications of each, and how each one might be understood in relation to the other. By the end of the conversation, Warburton and Hurka have not come to a resounding answer as to what pleasure truly is. Rather, they have laid out and detailed the critical details necessary for formulating an answer to the question. The great works of analytic philosophy, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the voluminous work of W.V.O. Quine, spend the bulk of their time detailing what can be said about a certain subject, given the parameters of logic and definition.

Thus, to anyone coming to this book or Edmonds and Warburton’s podcast expecting “answers” to these 27 topics will likely leave a little cold. In many cases, these interviews clarify an issue so well only to conclude right before it seems that they are reaching something like a definitive conclusion. The Philosophy Bites Again interview with Melbourne Law School professorial fellow Raimond Gaita on the subject of torture is a good example of such a case.

Nevertheless, there is a value to clarifying knotty philosophical questions, a fact made evident by the significant contribution to the major historical philosophical debates made by the analytic philosophers of the 20th century and the present day. Philosophy Bites Again is a microcosm of this project of clarity, a potpourri of enlightening explanations that leads the reader towards being better informed about issues on which many assumptions are made but little is often proven.

It helps that Edmonds and Warburton’s project is also quite fun, particularly for those who are already invested in the philosophical discourse both of the present and the past. The dinner party mood of Philosophy Bites Again begins with its prelude, a collection of answers to the question: “Who is the most impressive philosopher you’ve ever met?” Edmonds and Warburton pose this question to a host of philosophers, and in reading through the answers one gets the feeling of being let in on an exclusive club of people talking about what they really think of each other.

Numerous answers attest to the brilliance of All Souls, Oxford fellow Derek Parfit, a philosopher whose volume Reasons and Persons is the go-to text on the subject of personal identity. There are plenty of cheeky replies as well, particularly Ronald Dworkin’s description of Harvard philosopher T.M. Scanlon, who in his groundbreaking work What We Owe to Each Other devises an ethical contractualism based upon principles that, when presented to others, could not reasonably be rejected. Dworkin explains, “When [Scanlon] writes about what is reasonable, what you can reasonably reject, a lot of critics say, ‘Well, that’s an empty word, what do you mean by reasonable?’ But if you know Tim Scanlon, then you have a very good sense of what a reasonable person is; it’s a person who would act like him” (xii).

This prelude creates a light and fun mood leading into the 27 interviews conducted by Edmonds and Warburton, which dive into deep mental waters without ever drowning the reader. Just as it does in the prelude, humor also plays a role in these chats, as evinced by this passage in the aforementioned interview with Noel Caroll on the subject of humor:

Noel Caroll: Humour is what causes us to be comically amused. For example, let me tell you a joke. An Irish man named Pat goes into a bar in New York City. He goes in and he orders three shots of Jameson. ‘Set them up, right away, three of them!’ The bartender sets them up. Pat orders three more. Three more. Three more. Finally, the bartender says, ‘Why do you always order your drinks in groups of threes?’ He says, ‘Well, I have two brothers: one’s in Sydney, one’s in Dublin, and I like to make believe we’re all drinking together.’ Well, Pat becomes a regular. As soon as he comes through the door, the bartender sets up three shots. One day, Pat come up to the bar and says, ‘No. Today, just two.’’ The bartender looks at him and says, ‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear of your loss.’ Pat says, ‘What loss?’ He says, ‘Well, you’re only ordering two drinks, did one of your brothers pass away?’ He says, ‘No, it’s me. Don’t you know I’m on the wagon?’

Nigel Warburton: (Laughs) That’s an example of comic amusement; I’m amused by that. (20)

Photo of Edmonds & Warburton by © Stuart Franklin from Philosophy Bites.com

Photo of Edmonds & Warburton (partial) by © Stuart Franklin
from Philosophy Bites.com

The true humor of that passage, of course, comes not from Caroll’s joke—although it is a good one—but rather from Warburton’s dry, stereotypically “philosopher” response. Moments like these help cut the frequently dense thought being expressed by the interviewees. Moreover, none of these interviews run at too great a length, which lets each issue get solid exposure without ever getting too muddied up in tertiary implications. In some cases, such as the interview with Australian National University philosopher Fred Jackson on the subject of physicalism as it relates to epistemology, it’s easy to feel that Edmonds and Warburton could have let things go on just a bit longer, but on the whole these discussions get the critical issues out in just the right amount of time.

In addition to the analytic bent of these philosophers, several other noticeable traits thread themselves throughout Philosophy Bites Again. Materialism and physicalism are dominant views that are either explicitly or implicitly stated by many of the philosophers in this book. In a telling passage at the end of the interview with University of California, San Diego professor Patricia Churchland, she observes:

Some philosophers were terrified by the idea that the sciences of psychology, neuroscience, economics, and so forth, were going to have to play a role in philosophy, and that they needed to think about hypotheses rather than a priori truths. We [Churchland and some of her colleagues] were caricatured as supposing that beliefs were nothing other than the firing of neurons in the basal ganglia, and I think we were largely written off. We were Americans, we didn’t speak the fancy English that people did in Oxford, we were saying the game needed to change if progress were to be made. (94)

Churchland’s summary of the straw-man argument that she was accused of reducing beliefs and intentions to mere physical phenomena is illuminating not just for her philosophical practice but also for many others in Philosophy Bites Again, such as the neuroscientist and famed “New Atheist”, Daniel Dennett.

Churchland’s understanding of her historical context, wherein philosophy and science are separate disciplines that need to be married together in order to form a greater understanding of the world, is quite new. The major figures of philosophical history, such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, and Hume, made no such distinction between the two practices. Philosophy and science, for these thinkers, are deeply interrelated, for both seek to understand the world in which we live. Aristotelian ethics and metaphysics pose questions that still matter in present philosophical discourse, but Aristotle’s contribution to science is also lasting. Aristotelian science was the norm up until the advent of Newtonian science and physics. If one were to go back in time, as Keanu Reeves once did in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and ask Socrates (or “So-crates”, if you like) if he was a philosopher or a scientist, he’d have no idea how to answer that.

Many of the philosophers in Philosophy Bites Again—to say nothing of the larger philosophical world at the present—face a problem Socrates never could have foresaw. Because of the stratification of the various academic disciplines that, to a contemporary academic, appear commonplace, there arises a need to “bring together” modes of study that, for a long time, were one and the same. (William James’ The Principles of Psychology, for example, is a cornerstone text in both the history of philosophy and psychology, though had one asked James to divorce the two areas, he’d most likely have given a confused shrug.)

For that reason, when a thinker like Churchland delves into the biological implications of thought and belief, it appears that she is no more than a reductive physicalist. Some things she posits could certainly lead one to think as much: “…right now, there’s very little evidence for the view that there is a non-physical substance, a kind of spooky thing, or ethereal thing, that does the thinking and the feeling and the remembering, and so forth: it looks like these are all part of the physical brain itself” (86). Thus, when she suggests that it is a “caricature” that she believes that “beliefs [are] nothing other than the firing of neurons in the basal ganglia”, it’s hard to tell exactly where her thought lands (94). On the one hand, her evidentiary standards seem to suggest that only empirical, physical evidence counts as legitimate in evaluating questions of intentionality and thought; on the other hand, she makes it clear that she does not want to make so reductive a claim.

Churchland, however, is far more measured in comparison to Daniel Dennett, whose philosophical thought counts the quasi-logical positivism of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris as its company. At one point, in his otherwise excellent interview on the subject of free will, he says about a tree: “Of course, it doesn’t have a soul; it’s not conscious.” The conflation of “consciousness” with “soul” is one that Dennett makes far too glibly, particularly since the notion of a soul has long been one of the most hotly contested subjects of philosophy.

A major part of the reason why Dennett’s statement is so troubling, however, has nothing to do with his views specifically. Instead, the statement is troubling because the separation of the disciplines of philosophy and science has led to a point wherein, upon realizing that the disciplines are indeed closely related, philosophers too often haphazardly slap the two together, confusing a common goal with an identical practice. Churchland is absolutely correct in noting that science and philosophy must be cozy bedfellows in order for either one to be done properly. The fact that they at one point were separated is a regrettable fact of history. Nevertheless, the question of exactly how the two relate to each other is an open one. As one reads through Churchland’s interview, along with the many others in this collection, it becomes clear that much progress has still to be made in reconciling philosophy and science—modes of thought that, once upon a time, were always unified.

This tension between the practice of science and philosophy becomes the predominant recurring theme of Philosophy Bites Again. Whether expressly said or implicitly hinted at, the tension clearly weighs on these philosophers, as it should on all people. For that reason, Philosophy Bites Again is a collection true to its own time, but also indicative of one of philosophy’s great paradoxes. No matter how great the progress made on the various major questions of philosophy—from the notion of a soul to the reality of an external world—in the end humanity struggles with the same basic problems, the ones that Plato and Aristotle did some 2,000 years ago. These problems may be reformulated or cast in a new light, but at their core they remain the same.

The feat of Philosophy Bites Again is that it encapsulates those confounding inquiries all the while retaining a light spirit. This dinner party is not for the absent-minded, but for anyone who likes to be intoxicated as much by lofty thought as by wine, this book is a valuable addition to her bookshelf.

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