Julian Baggini meets the debut philosophical novelist Lucy Eyre
I’ve just finished reading an introduction to philosophy for young people which might also be appreciated by adults. The story concerns a child who is taught about philosophy with the help of a supernatural guide. Sound familiar? If you think I’m talking about Sophie’s World, however, you’d be wrong. If Minds Had Toes has some superficial similarities to Jostein Gaarder’s bestseller, but as its author Lucy Eyre put it, “I like to think mine’s a bit sillier, with more jokes, a bit more of a story, and shorter.” To my mind that’s four improvements on Gaarder’s rather long-winded, didactic text.
If Minds Had Toes is set in England and its antithesis, the World of Ideas – a kind of philosophical heaven, or hell, if you think spending eternity with people who go on and on about ancient arguments sounds like torture. Eyre offers various clues that her world is a better literary device than it would be a place to actually inhabit. For instance, after hearing Socrates talk about his trial again, she has one man interrupt, saying, “One might hope that you would be bored of telling this story after two and a half thousand years.” But of course, each generation comes to the history of philosophy afresh. “I think the World of Ideas was a slight metaphor for the idea that the ideas keep going, and literally here the people keep going,” she says.
Eyre currently lives neither in England nor the World of Ideas, but in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. I caught up with her while she was back in her home country to launch her first book. We talked in the west London home of her parents, Richard Eyre, the theatre and film director, and television producer Sue Birtwistle, whose CV includes the adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth.
Needless to say, in such a home Eyre grew up with plenty of intellectual discussion and stimulation. “When I was a child, one of my favourite books, which my mum used to love and which she got me into, was [Norton Juster’s] The Phantom Tollbooth. That’s been a definite influence, that sort of quirkiness, taking expressions literally and taking the implications to their full extent. That’s not explicitly philosophical but I think there is a kind of philosophical view in that book that really hooked me as a child.”
As she grew older, her exposure to philosophy came mainly through literary and artistic channels. “In almost all films, books or plays there are ideas that you might generally call philosophical, content-wise. But I do think there’s this whole leap to the academic stuff or virtually anything that’s written down about it.”
Eyre’s first steps to taking that leap were taken after one of her school teachers suggested that she might read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University.
“I stared reading the usual, Thomas Nagel kind of things,” she says, “but it was only really when I went to Oxford that I started loving it. I had some great tutors there. It was the first thing and probably still the only thing that I found really satisfying and challenging.
“I was very lucky. I had two terms of tutorials on my own with Galen Strawson and two terms of tutorials with one other person with Jonathan Glover. That’s quite special. Then you can really do philosophy like it used to done and as it works best.”
However, philosophy was left on the back burner for several years after she graduated in 1997. She worked in radio and television for a few years, then went into economics, working as a consultant on competition policy. Her feelings about this period in her life are reflected in the fact that, in her book, an economist is thrown out of the World of Ideas for being an impostor.
“That’s a bit of a dig,” explains Eyre, “because I was working as an economist when I was writing it and I was desperate to get away from that world.”
Although she never wanted to become an academic, there was a sense of unfinished business with philosophy.
“When I studied philosophy I really loved it and wanted to tell everyone about these new things I was thinking about, but I felt I couldn’t do it by myself. I didn’t just want to have a discussion and start teaching them about it. But there weren’t that many obvious books that didn’t require quite a lot of concentration for people to get something out of it. There were basic philosophy books but almost all were aimed as a first step to studying philosophy and quite hard going. I was hoping with my book to bridge that gap and translate what I learned at university and spent quite a few years getting my head round, into something that I would tell people, if I had the energy, but it was easier to write it.
“I always wanted to write but it took me a while to get the confidence to just sit down and write it. In fact I was a bit ill so I gave up work for a few months and as soon as you step back from that particular career you think ‘of course, I can do anything’. Day to day I was doing it thinking ‘I must do something else one day,’ but it’s hard. So I took a few months off and I didn’t go back basically. I went to a very similar firm but part-time so I could write the book. I gave myself two years and it took just over that.”
Eyre was aware that philosophy for children was a burgeoning genre, but she deliberately didn’t read other peoples’ attempts while she was making her own.
“I tried to avoid it because I already knew quite clearly how I wanted to do it and I was sure there might be similar things out there and I didn’t want to risk reading something else and then thinking, no, I might be stealing that idea.”
She made an exception for Sophie’s World as, already familiar with it, she felt she needed to check if her book was going to be sufficiently different to merit the effort.
“I read about a third of Sophie’s World when I was a student, and got a bit bogged down in it. Then I conceived this idea and thought it’s a bit similar, so I’d better read it and just make sure that within the boundaries of what I wanted to do, mine was as different as possible. I think the philosophy is actually different in mine. I’ve done dialogues, it’s based on ideas and it is not a potted history of philosophy.”
Those differences avoiding making If Minds Have Toes read like a primer, even though its central dialogues are effectively introductions to the key themes of western philosophy.
“The philosophers are deliberately not real people so there’s no one who can say ‘you’ve misrepresented Kant’s view here’. Clearly some people have a bit of David Hume in them, or a Kantian influence, and stuff like that, but I wanted to be able to use old arguments and new arguments in the mouth of the same person, which is just not feasible if you make them John Locke or something.”
Nevertheless, it is possible to get arguments terribly wrong, and one of the great strengths of Eyre’s book is that her telegraphed discussions of the great debates always get the philosophy right. How did she achieve that, when she had not exactly been immersed in philosophy for years?
“I did go back to my university notes and essays. In a sense, when I started writing the book I knew what I wanted to write about and I knew what I wanted to say. I immediately wrote the list of the themes that the dialogues were about, and I knew that I wanted two opposing views. One person might move through several arguments but there were broadly two positions. I decided I didn’t want to teach myself any new philosophy. I wanted to write about things that I already felt comfortable with and had a view on, that had been sitting in the back of my mind for those five years. But of course I went back to remind myself of the subtleties and the different arguments and then I did spend a lot of time paring it down and simplifying it.”
The simplification might seem necessary because the main character, Ben, is 15, but it could equally be said that the age of the character was necessary because of the level of simplification Eyre sought.
“A lot of people assume it’s a book for young adults, and it is, but not wholly. The reason I have a 15 year old is that I wanted the arguments to be as if you were explaining them to your 15-year-old friend – that simple. I didn’t want to use any philosophical vocabulary as short cuts, in the way that people start using it to avoid having to explain what these words mean, assuming everyone knows. Everyone doesn’t know. They’re very specific; they’re quite off-putting; after you’ve heard about three of them you forget which is which, and automatically you’re having to concentrate much harder than is necessary. But I thought it would be oddly patronising if I made the character 35. It worked better to have him fifteen. I think everyone would like to read philosophy for fifteen year olds really, even if they don’t admit it, so that’s why the device is there.”
A central conceit of the book is that Plato and Wittgenstein have a bet as to whether philosophy can change a life for the better. The actual result is, of course, inevitable. “Clearly the bet has to end that way otherwise it would be self-defeating. I would have spent the whole book explaining why my book was pointless, which it’s clearly not!”
But does philosophy really change how people live on a day to day basis? Is Eyre’s life significantly different or better than those of the ex-pat diplomatic staff and NGO workers she is surrounded by in Ethiopia? Can’t we exaggerate the importance of living the Socratic examined life?
“If you take the examination to be a little bit broader than actual philosophy, you could say a life without fiction is not worth living, a life without thought and music and novels and some sort of beyond the necessities of life mental aspect is not worth living. Someone asked me a very difficult question: what about Ethiopia where clearly such things are a bit of a luxury? Then you’re forced to conclude that maybe their life is lacking something important, which is a difficult conclusion I don’t want to go to.”
I’m not sure why. Surely the whole point of helping the developing world is that we think there is more to life than mere subsistence and people should be helped to more than survive. That’s not to say more basic lives aren’t worth living, but that they could be much better. If that’s true, philosophy can add something worthwhile.
“I suppose the World of Ideas is a little bit of a metaphor for things you can find in books that are lurking if you open them and you can go and meet all these people. So in the broader sense I would have to say thinking in this way does provide something.”
The book leaves the possibility of a sequel open, but Eyre says, “At the moment I’m not in the mood to write it. My problem is that all the bits of philosophy that I really know about and love are already in there.” At the moment she’s working on a conventional novel. “The idea now is that I’ve started on a career as a writer, not particularly of philosophy, not a kind of Alain de Botton path, but you never know. I think there’s still more mileage to get out of the world of ideas and its interaction with the real world and Ben going back to visit.”
If Minds Had Toes is published by Bloomsbury
Julian Baggini is editor of tpm.