Interview: A.C. Grayling

John Maier in conversation with A.C. Grayling about New Atheism, analytic philosophy, and the EU

The adjective ‘professorial’ might have been derived from Latin just to give A.C. Grayling a category to belong to. He seems plucked from an earlier time, one where scholarly contemplation had less to compete with in the rivalry for human attentions.

All this is borne out in his distinctive style, the delicate glasses, his nimble conversation, and the unmistakable mane of silver hair. The hair most of all, I suppose. I wonder if he’s ever thought of getting the hair insured. “Do you know what, you’re the first person in my entire life who’s ever suggested such a thing.” He laughs at length. “No, no. You’ve put a new idea into my head. I had never thought of this before.”

The hair aside—or brushed back to be accurate—Grayling is probably most widely known as one of the chief figures among the New Atheists. Along with friends and lauded horsemen of the movement like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, he has spilt his fair share of ink in the rail against God and organised religion. He seems to go about it though, I put it to him, in a decidedly different way from his rather more fire-breathing partners on the podium.

“Somebody once, to my immense pleasure, described me as a velvet atheist, or the velvet atheist”, he confesses. But he is keen too to emphasize his deep solidarity with his brothers in arms. “I wholeheartedly agree with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, but I try to present the argument in a way which is in a slightly different decibel level and a slightly different key.

“The one thing I add, which my colleagues don’t concentrate on so much is this: people say ‘if you don’t have a religion then how are you going to make sense of life?’. My argument is that there is an incredibly rich and profound tradition of ethical thought flowing from classical antiquity, from the Socratic challenge to ask the question, what sort of person should I be and how should I live. And this great tradition in ethics provides us with lots of routes into thinking about what we owe our fellows in the human story.”

I wonder whether he perceives that the movement, which emerged out of the rubble and dust of the World Trade Centre, has experienced a slow contraction, or been quietly intellectually deprioritised, perhaps given the assault today that seems to be coming from avenues other than religion. “I don’t think that it’s over”, he considers, “but I think it’s moving into a new phase.

“If I were to give you a parallel: imagine when in a rugby match, you know when there’s a tackle and the ball-carrier is brought to ground and a maul forms around him, and the backs sort of line up and get ready for the ball to come out for another attack.” I try to grunt in recognition, wondering how things got so out of hand.

“Well I think this debate is just at the point where the scrum-half is waiting for the ball to come out of the back of the maul.” I offer a noise which is meant to be agreement, but probably sounds more like the anguish of an interviewer trying to get to grips with a sporting metaphor.

Thankfully, Grayling continues. “The American Atheist Association has adopted a really interesting tactic which is the gay tactic—‘I’m gay, and I’m out, and I’m proud’—they say, ‘I’m an atheist, I’m out and I’m proud about it’. To this day in the United States of America there are many places in the Midwest and the South where, if you say you’re an atheist you don’t get a job, you can’t sell your products, people won’t come to your shop. But this movement of saying I’m out and proud about being an atheist is little by little beginning to make a difference—more people are able to come out the atheist closet.”

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Grayling gives example to a certain philosophic persona, or rather a sensibility, outnumbered in the tradition, perhaps, but a persistent feature of its history—in which philosophy has a decidedly practical aspect, as well as a theoretic interest. And he seems to have made it his life’s project to pursue both—as at ease in the public square as the armchair.

He studied philosophy in its “golden age” at Oxford, and was taught by A.J. Ayer and Peter Strawson. “I think philosophy at Oxford is very strong still. I mean, it’s one of the greatest centres of philosophy in the world.” Nevertheless the subject does seem to suffer from something of a public image problem, perhaps due to its absorption into the academy and the resultant specialisation that leaves it regarded as either faintly forbidding or excessively trivial. But as Grayling sees it, even the rather austere forms of analytic philosophy practiced here at Oxford have a special contribution to make to public life.

“The scrupulousness and the rigour of philosophical analysis is needed now more than ever. When you think about what’s in play when you are thinking about concepts like necessity and truth and meaning and the rest, what you’re having to do is dismantle the really important concepts to try and get at the structure, to try and get at its implications, which means that you can’t fudge matters.

“You can’t go for the kinds of explanations or viewpoints that are emotionally driven or have a political drive behind them.”

Is the contemporary philosopher guilty of being too inward-looking, then? Is it not fair to ask them to follow Grayling in confronting the public with his subject matter? “Well a great philosophical answer coming up now: yes and no”, he chuckles. “Anybody who has the interest and the ability to communicate these ideas really ought to do it. It’s a kind of obligation we have, so that we can pay back the opportunity that we got from having a wonderful education.”

But there are other ways to be useful. “Think of a Formula One racing team.” (I concentrate). “You need somebody who can tune the engine, somebody who can work on the suspension, and not just the person who’s going to be driving it around the track.

“So it can be that there will be great contributions made by people who just work away in the ivory tower: I think Derek Parfit—the late, so much lamented, Derek Parfit—is a wonderful case in point.

“He was very, very much somebody who worked on the technicalities, but in a pretty remarkable way, which will without any question impact the way people do things out there in the world.”

Grayling has hardly shied from turning his clear-sighted gaze to political events of late. He described the Leave campaign as “a big con”, and seems to think the coming general election is more of the same.

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“Really our situation in the UK at the moment is pretty bloody poor, if you’ll excuse the French.” He argues that the Leave campaign exploited numerous “small constituencies of disgruntlement, or disbelief, or sense of exclusion or something, and those different constituencies were aggregated together on the basis of some absolutely scandalous falsehoods and distortions and false promises.

“And the thing that is really shocking about this is that the referendum was sold as advisory only, and so in Parliament there was no need to ask for a supermajority bar, and there was no built-in protections against anybody thinking that a mere 37 per cent of the electorate—and by the way it was a restricted electorate—that a mere 37 per cent of that electorate could be regarded as mandating exit from the European Union.

“This is another act of dishonesty which is tantamount, really, to a kind of coup.”

“Really as a direct result of the Brexit-Trump phenomena, in an act of white heat, I’ve written yet another book, I’m sorry to say”, his mood lightening.

“I argue that representative democracy of the kind that we are meant to have in the UK and the US and most advanced democracies is actually the best solution. I mean you’ll know, you’re a philosophy undergraduate right?” Yes. “So you’ll remember what Plato says in book seven of The Republic”, he hurries along. Hmm, I assent, using my best tutorial nod.

“Well [Plato’s] problem about how you make democracy work without collapsing into mob rule was solved really by Montesquieu, James Madison, de Tocqueville, and Mill, by setting up this idea that a representative democracy would provide a kind of filter where you could get popular consent to sound and stable government, but you would get sound and stable government because you would have representatives.

“People ought to understand what they’re doing when they vote in a representative democracy, that they’re not sending messenger boys and girls to Parliament, they’re sending people there to get the facts, to listen to the arguments, to make a judgment, and act in the best interests of the country.”

One thing that Grayling feels has to go is the party disciplinary system: “MPs should be independent in every respect other than the party manifesto pledges, and they shouldn’t be allowed to be whipped”, a practice that he deems to constitute an unacceptable throwback deriving from the Palace of Westminster’s anomalous legal status.

There is throughout our conversation a sense of Grayling’s urge to confront public life in its endless churn and see if philosophical thought cannot add some light. To be concerned with public understanding at the moment must be a fairly dispiriting enterprise, though, and it is impressive, and somewhat inexplicable, that Grayling can keep at it with such characteristic vigour.

He must be at least a closeted misanthrope, I comfort myself. One thinks of one of Grayling’s intellectual heroes, Bertrand Russell, and his phrase that most people would rather die than think, and as it turns out, most do.

How to avoid this paralysing realisation? “Well, what’s the alternative to optimism?”, Grayling protests, “I’d say the alternative to being optimistic is to find a high building and jump off it.”

Professor AC Grayling, philosopher and Master of New College of the Humanities, is speaking at Blackwell’s on Monday 1 May. Tickets available: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/professor-a-c-grayling-on-war-tickets-30894266583