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Interview: Nigel Warburton, best-selling philosopher

Daniel Sutton discusses dialogues, diversity and popularising philosophy with the well-know philosopher Nigel Warburton

Nigel Warburton, best-selling British populariser of philosophy, gave an unexpected answer when asked which famous philosopher he would most like to sit with on a 10- hour plane flight. “I wouldn’t mind sitting next to Diogenes; he has some great jokes. He might be a bit unpleasant to sit next to: as far as we know he was prone to defecate and masturbate in public. That aside, he was one of the funniest philosophers in history, and there aren’t that many jokes in philosophy.”

Sat in Blackwell’s, home of Nigel’s monthly Philosophy in the Bookshop interviews, Nigel goes on to reflect that this apparent humour deficiency has not hindered philosophy’s popularisation over the last few decades. “It’s actually been quite effective recently. In about 1988 I had a book commissioned called Philosophy: The Basics, and went to bookshops to find what was available as an introductory book, and basically it was just Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, published in 1912, and a really good book called Philosophy Made Simple, but there was nothing else.”

“Now, if you go into almost any bookshop, there’ll be books on a table with introductions to philosophy generally or a wacky take on philosophy, or biographies about particular historical figures. Some are terrible, but some are really good. It hasn’t had that huge flourishing biology had in the wake of The Selfish Gene, a major achievement in popularising very difficult thinking, but I don’t think we’ve had a particularly bad time. The internet has also been fantastic for philosophy and it’s flourishing online: philosophers are communicating through Twitter, Facebook, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and through blogs and podcasts, including some wonderful comedians of philosophy.”

In light of this flowering, is there perhaps room for an iconic television philosopher? “In my youth there were several: first of all Brian Magee, who in my view has not been surpassed in terms of his series he made where he interviewed philosophers, now Michael Sandel. On the other hand, it’s really difficult to persuade a TV producer to go with the philosophy rather than some kind of visual accompaniment. We can’t just talk about philosophy, it has to be a quiz show or a biography, we can’t actually go with Nietzsche’s ideas, we have to go where he lived, go up a mountain, we have to get sidetracked by the visuals. I was phoned up because someone wanted me to do drunk philosophy, where everyone had to have a drink before they went on the show, which was crazy. Philosophy is a very verbal subject and television is a very visual medium, and if you start putting interesting pictures, you lose the actual content very very quickly, so it may not be a very good medium for philosophy: audio may be far better for philosophy.”

What Nigel does think is missing are opportunities to debate philosophy in the flesh, engaging in the ancient tradition of dialectics. “There are plenty of opportunities to find discussion of philosophy, plenty of books, podcasts and magazines, but there is something special about face-to-face philosophy, a situation where you can ask questions and have a dialogue. Opportunities for that are few and far between, especially for non-students. I’m really delighted I’ve been able to have a number of conversations in this Philosophy in the Bookshop series I’ve been doing in Blackwell’s, which is free and open for everyone. We have Roger Scruton and Cecile Fabre coming, all really interesting people. You get a glimpse of how they think, and then there’s the possibility of interaction with the audience. That, I think, is the missing element in the popularisation: finding ways to meet and discuss face-to-face.”

Asked whether the demographic interested in philosophy is changing with the times, Nigel pauses for thought. “I don’t know, it’s interesting. There’s certainly a lot of interest worldwide: the podcast Philosophy Bites has had over 28 million downloads, and has had episodes in the top ten of American iTunes, ahead of very famous podcasts. Whether it’s new or not I don’t know, maybe there are different ways of satisfying and measuring people’s interests. Michael Sandel fills football stadia in Korea, that’s quite remarkable. I wrote a book, A Little History of Philosophy, and the Turkish translation is in its 14th imprint. Internationally, I suppose, there are unexpected pockets of interest.”

Nigel also points out that the content of popular philosophy is diversifying at pace, but philosophy departments are often struggling to keep up. “What we’ve been talking about the last few months is a lot of interest in Chinese philosophy, and why it is not taught very much in American Universities; there have been a lot of articles online about Chinese philosophers, arguing that they merit inclusion in a Western syllabus. Philosophy is also starting to address its sexist past, and there is also more women’s philosophy coming through, as well as interest in finding lost female philosophers of the past. What I don’t see is philosophy departments seriously addressing diversity and the lack of representation, and many people would say that be shouldn’t, we should just employ the best philosopher, it’s just that the best philosopher always seems to look and sound a bit like the person who’s already in the job.”

Each month, Nigel Warburton interviews a fellow philosopher at Blackwell’s in a series of events entitled ‘Philosophy in the Bookshop’

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