Simon Blackburn is one of Britain’s most respected philosophers, probably best known for his work in meta-ethics. He is also an outstanding populariser of philosophy who has written accessibly on a wide range of topics. This is a rare combination. In this interview for Virtual Philosopher he explains the source of his interest in writing for a wide readership and reveals his attitude to the professionalisation of Philosophy in British universities.
Nigel: Since returning to England from the States, taking up a professorial chair in Cambridge, you have been prolific as a writer of popular philosophy books: Think, Being Good, Lust, and most recently Truth. Is there a particular reason for this apparent change of direction?
Simon: Actually Think was published a couple of years before I left the States, and Being Good was finished before I did so. So if there was a change in direction, I suppose it was while I was in the States. It is a change of emphasis, I think, more than a change of direction. I have always had a democratic streak: one of my earliest books, published in 1984, was supposed to be an introduction to the philosophy of language (Spreading The Word). But I also like to blend some of my own attempts at philosophy into supposedly introductory books, so for instance that book was quite influential in its moral theory, and to some extent in what it said about other things such as rule-following and truth. I try to keep on publishing "professional" papers while I also produce books like these.
Nigel: David Hume in his essay writing saw himself as an ambassador from the 'dominions of learning to those of conversation'. Is that a position that you now identify with? Who are you writing for? Do you know who reads your books?
Simon: As so often, Hume puts it better than I could myself. Yes, that's an admirable description of a position I identify with. I think professional philosophy can be very odd, very self-contained and narcissistic and quite out of touch with more general cultural currents. Its writings, as Bernard Williams memorably put it, can often resemble "scientific reports badly translated from the Martian". I think good philosophy always has had to take some nourishment from surrounding politics, moral concerns, and science. It may be harder to identify what it returns, but in my books I try at least to exhibit something it can give back.
Nigel: What is the main theme of your latest book Truth?
Simon: It's the old battle between absolutism and relativism, although as I try to make clear, those terms are just pointers towards varieties of positions and varieties of issues. You could also see it as an attempt to come to terms with some typical thoughts of postmodernism, without either geting knocked over by them, or dismissing them out of hand, as is too often done.
Nigel: Has relativism had its day as an influential philosophical position?
Simon: No - and I don't think it should ever die. The danger is that it gets replaced by some kind of complacent dogmatism, which is at least equally unhealthy. The Greek sceptics thought that confronting a plurality of perspectives is the beginning of wisdom, and I think they were right. It is certainly the beginning of historiography and anthropology, and if we think, for instance, of the Copernican revolution, of self-conscious science. The trick is to benefit from an imaginative awareness of diversity, without falling into a kind of "anything goes" wishy-washy nihilism or scepticism. My book tries to steer a course to help us to do that, but the going is fairly rough at times!
Nigel: What are you working on at the moment?
Simon: I am trying to think further about representation and its connection with success in action, as part of an overall interest in giving a genuinely naturalistic theory of intentionality. That's the hard bit. For relaxation, I am writing an yet another introductory book, on how to read Hume.
Nigel: In the last twenty years or so Philosophy as an academic discipline has become much more professionalised, and to some extent philosophers in universities have been encouraged to become specialists in their fields. There has also been a great deal of pressure to publish articles in peer-reviewed journals. Is this a healthy situation? Is Philosophy thriving in UK universities?
Simon: I have my doubts about both these tendencies. The RAE is a complete farce [more of Simon's views on this here], and has indeed pressurized people to publish more and more about less and less, especially in peer-reviewed journals, whether or not they have anything worth saying. There is a lot of energy in UK universities, but I think there is no more creativity or genuine thinking-outside-the-envelope than there ever was. Originality is too risky: easier to turn the handle about some topic the journals find safe. I also think the RAE frenzy is hostile to large-scale academic endeavours. For example in the current review whole books are likely to count exactly the same as small-scale volleys in the journals. I think that's absurd, and translated into incentives will distort and corrupt the whole nature of UK philosophy. Fortunately we will still be able to look to the US and Australia for ideas.
Nigel: As well as writing bestselling philosophy books, you have been actively involved in the Humanist Philosophers Group...
Simon: Yes, if anything reassures me about the value of philosophy, it is seeing how debates about faith get conducted by people who are innocent of it.
Nigel: Lastly, what are the marks of a good philosopher?
Russell Moore famously singled out Wittgenstein from his lecture audience because he was the only one who looked puzzled. So that is probably a start. After that a certain bloody-mindedness or refusal to put anything to rest until it really is at rest. As so often, "it's dogged as does it". There is a certain scrupulous care about handling material, or refusal to stay content with mere rhetoric and metaphor. But then there are less learnable virtues: God-given talents of imagination, of a nose for a problem, of having a capacious memory, and so on. You might include knowing where to stop. Finally there is luck: being in the right place at the right time with the right toolkit.
Nigel: Thank you.
© Simon Blackburn 2007