The popular philosophy of today suffers from a curious paradox: it isn’t very popular. Even high-profile contemporary thinkers like Slavoj Žižek and Peter Singer are known mostly to the cognoscenti, while the masses largely ignore them and the mainstream of our money- and celebrity-obsessed culture passes them by.
It wasn’t always this way. It is said, for example, that Socrates—the greatest philosophical celebrity of all time—walked around ancient Athens challenging everyone—alright, everyone except women and slaves—with his unsettling quizzes. A rebellious figure, Socrates was eventually tried and executed for corrupting the minds of the young. Not for him the safe, modern style of philosophy that dwells in cozy colleges and is more profession than passion. Yet, precisely because our mass culture can be fickle and shallow, while our troubles are so deep-rooted and complex, the careful style of reasoning philosophy encourages should be more in demand than ever.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why philosophybites.com, the website launched by Brits David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton in 2007, has done so well. Featuring “podcasts of top philosophers interviewed on bite-sized topics”, it reaches beyond the walls of academia and isn’t afraid to tackle thorny everyday topics like schizophrenia, vegetarianism, and gun control. To date, its freely available podcasts—adding up to hundreds of hours—have been downloaded over 16 million times.
Now Edmonds and Warburton have edited some of those podcasts into this book, Philosophy Bites Back, following in the steps of an earlier volume, simply called Philosophy Bites. For that first volume, they chose interviews with “25 philosophers on 25 intriguing subjects”; for this second one, they’ve picked interviews discussing 27 of history’s greatest, and now deceased, thinkers—starting chronologically with Socrates and ending with Derrida, who died in 2004—on topics as varied as erotic love, justice, truth, and art. The interviewees are top specialists, yet the interview format combined with the effort to reach a broad audience renders the tone familiar—without dumbing anything down. The book, in any case, is not meant to be a comprehensive survey of Western philosophy but “more like an intellectual tasting-menu” (ix) for the reader.
Every interview in this book rewards us with the revelation that a great philosopher, no matter how dead, is still fresh, surprising, and relevant.
Take Thomas Aquinas, for example—a Dominican friar out of the high Middle Ages. “A lot of people believe that when the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair went to war in Iraq he was obeying his conscience”, says interviewee Anthony Kenny, former philosophy tutor at Oxford University. “But Aquinas—and I agree with him about this—would say that this doesn’t settle the question of whether Mr Blair acted right or not.” (34)
That’s because Aquinas rejects the notion that following one’s conscience is the ethical thing to do. “Your conscience may well be ill-informed,” explains Kenny, “and you have a duty to better inform it.” (33)
Another interview introduces us to Baruch Spinoza, whose free-thinking in the 1600s got him excommunicated from his synagogue and banned from mixing with fellow Jews. Spinoza teaches us to reject dogma and to beware the emotions. In order to tame the turbulent world inside and outside us, Spinoza believed, we need to step back from it and investigate how it works. “In Spinoza’s view,” explains Susan James, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, “learning to think in this more penetrating fashion amounts to becoming increasingly rational.” (76) By “empowering yourself in this way, you generate a sense of pleasure in your own activity which is, according to Spinoza, a source of unparalleled joy”. (77)
Poignantly for a man who had been banished from his own community, Spinoza held that such joyous freedom from ignorance can only be achieved by working with others.
Of course, whether dead or alive, and whether speaking to us through books, manuscripts, or podcasts, philosophers are only human. Like the rest of us, they have quirks, life stories, and personalities, and their views are shaped by the conditions of their place and time.
Aristotle, this book tells us, was the son of a doctor; Machiavelli dressed up in special costumes to hold imaginary conversations with figures of the past; Montaigne lost his fear of death after falling off a horse; and Hume liked to cook.
Some, like Spinoza—who lived through the 17th century’s Scientific Revolution—are full of humble hope and enthusiasm; others, especially as we get closer to our own times, less so.
For Nietzsche, for example, the world is “just a meaningless bunch of becoming and destruction… there’s no pattern to it, there’s no reason to it”, (175) explains Aaron Ridley, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton. “We’re just the froth on some maelstrom torrent of waves breaking for no reason against nothing.” (176)
Socrates, Aquinas, Spinoza—in Nietzsche’s estimation, all of them, and many others, tell lies. They pretend the world contains meaning and truth, which only have to be searched for, as we might search for glinting berries in the forest after a storm. For Nietzsche, however, there would only be the dark forest, there would only be the storm; and only art—the “lie that makes us realize the truth”, as Picasso, in part inspired by Nietzsche, would later say—to protect us from it all.
Be that as it may, there’s an art to popularizing philosophy, and there’s also a technology. The success of Edmonds’ and Warburton’s project shows that today’s new social media can radically democratize this most profound form of thinking. Other web-based initiatives, such as the Talking Philosophy blog, or The Stone, a New York Times series featuring “the writing of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless”, also show promise.
Compared with all this, Philosophy Bites Back, being a book, feels like a throwback. A book is certainly less instantly democratic than a podcast. You can’t read it while driving, chopping up potatoes, or jogging round the park. Yet it’s in the nature of philosophical learning that, at a certain point, you’ll want to relax, sit down, and take a proper text into your hands. It was listeners themselves who, by asking for transcripts, encouraged Edmonds and Warburton to edit some of their website’s podcasts into books.
In the end, of course, the media isn’t what matters most. Philosophy, says @GlynREvans—one of the winners of philosophybites.com’s twitter competition to define philosophy in 140 characters or fewer—is “loving the world by working out the right questions to ask it” (271). It follows that popular philosophy will only solve its paradox, only be truly popular, once people love the world enough to ask those questions and shape their lives and history with the answers.