Philosophy Bites: 25 Philosophers on 25 Intriguing Subjects by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton (Oxford University Press) £9.99/$15.95
The interview form is an excellent way of encouraging philosophers to divulge their best insights. The well-focused question forces the interviewee not to summarise, or simplify, but to communicate. They must step out of their linguistic comfort zone, and convey what they have to say in a language that is accessible to all. It’s a valuable experience not just for the audience, but often for the philosopher too: his or her assumptions, unquestioned in the seminar room, may well be put to the test in the theatre of public debate.
Bryan Magee was a master of this. His BBC 2 TV series in the late 1970s adopted the talking-heads approach and broadcast fascinating exchanges with philosophers from W.V. Quine to Iris Murdoch. He once told me that you could never get such a series commissioned now. Television can no longer cope with such sustained conversations – which is sad, though new media are rising to the challenge.
Philosophy Bites is one of the most innovative. It’s a series of 15 minute interviews that are broadcast as podcasts for free; there are now well over one hundred. The format is simple. A philosopher, usually an academic, is questioned on a subject about which they are an expert. Since launching in 2007, the site has recorded over eight million downloads. Nigel Warburton presents and produces each episode with David Edmunds. As he’s recently said: ‘There seems to be a real hunger for philosophy out there, and I am delighted to be feeding it.’
Philosophy Bites has become a part of my life, like a favourite radio show. They’re primarily informative – a good way of catching up on subjects, particularly those you don’t know much about. Warburton usually takes gentle issue with the interviewee at some point, which makes for a better listen as it introduces some flaws for you to grasp.
Now Philosophy Bites is a book – probably to recoup some of the costs of the podcasts, and rightly so. Twenty-five interviews are included, covering a representative range of philosophical topics. (The authors promise a second book on great philosophers.) The interviewees have been given the opportunity to polish the dialogues, to ensure they read well and are correct. That’s important, as a nuance that comes across when spoken can be lost on the page. The written interviews have lost none of their conversational feel.
There’s rarely a dud interview released as a podcast, so the authors had an embarrassment of riches to chose from. To pick just one, I was glad to see Alexander Nehamas on friendship included. It’s a subject close to my heart, and the interview works because it focuses on three good points. First, Warburton asks why philosophy has not taken much notice of friendship recently. Nehamas replies that friendship is all about the particular: you love a particular friend as a unique person. But philosophy has tended to privilege the general or universal in more recent moral theories, as in Kant’s categorical imperative. Friendship doesn’t readily fit when you view ethics as rules, though it’s obviously valuable in life.
This leads Warburton to ask why friendship matters so much in life. Nehamas says that’s because it is with a friend that you become someone – the idea being that your friends make you who you are, and vice versa. This is why people fall out of friendship too, and why that can be so painful. It is like saying I don’t like the person I have become now, and more, I don’t like the person I have become with you.
Then third, Warburton asks whether friendship is just selfish. Clearly, Nehamas continues, you receive much in friendship, but you can give much too. And anyway, the selfless/selfish distinction tends to dissolve – or at least not become the central question – if you take seriously the idea that we become who we are amidst and with others.
The book is good to have. For one thing, it’s nicely produced. For another, the interviews are worth reading even if you’ve listened to them before, because seeing the words on the page helps to digest what’s been said. That can be a little frustrating on occasion, if you’ve not quite understood a topic or want to press the matter more, perhaps you realise that not enough has been said in the interview. Happily, Edmonds and Warburton include a short bibliography for further reading, and the interviewees’ books are often mentioned in the course of the conversations too, so you can pursue the topic further if you like.
Mark Vernon’s latest book is The Good Life, published by Hodder Education, with whom he’s also just published the audiobooks, Philosophy for the Curious and Ethics for the Curious.
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