Stephen Law first came to public attention with his excellent introductory philosophy book, The Philosophy Files. Through skilful use of imaginative thought experiments he manages to communicate quite complex ideas to a very wide audience. His later books The Outer Limits and The Philosophy Gym continued in a similar vein. More recently his polemic, The War For Children's Minds, addressed fundamental questions about moral education. But it is his book The Xmas Files that is most seasonally appropriate. In this brief interview for Virtual Philosopher, Stephen explains what it's about.
Nigel: Your book The Xmas Files is, as far as I know, the first book to look at the Philosophy of Christmas. Not an obvious topic. Could you tell me a bit more about it?
Stephen: It consists of 14 short chapters (some very short) each looking at a different aspect of Christmas in a philosophical way.
Nigel: One of the topics you write about, sentimentality, is particularly interesting. Ive already written a post about sentimentality: 'Sentimentality as a Way of Avoiding Clear Thought'. What do you think sentimentality is, and are we particularly prone to it at Christmas
Stephen: Christmas is of course a great festival of Dickensian sentimentality - all that hearty back-slapping and good will. I won't define sentimentality, but I will suggest that it sometimes involves thedisguising or hiding of reality by means of the kitsch, the Disney-esque. It often involves a form of self-deception. Christmas "round robins" are a good example. The authors are often guilty of sentimentalizing their own lives, presenting a glossy, sanitized version to both themselves and others. Not healthy, I think. And, I argue, potentially damaging.
Nigel : What other topics do you cover?
Stephen: There are chapters on the ethics of lying about that hideous tie Aunt Gertrude gave you, the morality of eating turkey (and meat generally), the dangers of kitsch Christmas sentimentality (attacked by e.g. C.S.Lewis), whether the Christian message of "peace" is such a good idea, whether our "thinking of others" at Xmas time actually goes anything like far enough, whether "faith" is a good idea, whether the "incarnation" of God even makes sense, whether atheists can enjoy Xmas with a clear conscience, and so on.
Nigel: How has your book been received? Have you, for instance, been accused of 'unweaving the rainbow', removing some of the joy of Christmas by subjecting it to such critical analysis?
Stephen: Not yet, but it is only a matter of time, I guess.
Nigel: Throughout your work you put an emphasis on the improving effects of the good use of reason. How would you reply to those who maintain that this is an exhausted post-Enlightment approach to life that is no longer tenable?
Stephen: Critics of the Enlightenment like Alasdair MacIntyre and John Gray point out, correctly, that those Enlightenment philosophers who thought reason alone would answer all our moral questions (e.g. Kant) and would inevitably usher in a brave new world were mistaken on both counts. It is certainly true that we cannot simply "think" our way to being good.There is currently a great deal of attention being focussed in the US on character eduction, which emphasizes the importance of instilling good habits (influenced by Aristotle). I agree. But of course none of this shows that the ability to think clearly and independently, and the courage to do so, aren't extremely valuable moral resources that none of us can afford to be without. In fact, those who distrust encouraging young people to think and question are usually either relativists who think there is no truth to discover, or religious authoritarians who simply want children to accept, more or less uncritically, what they are told (as an act of "faith"). This, by the way, is the central concern of my latest book, The War For Children's Minds [Melissa Benn's feature on The War for Children's Minds from The Guardian].
Nigel: What are you working on at the moment?
Stephen: I am finishing off two general introductions - a Companion to Philosophy for Dorling Kindersley, and then a Greatest Philosophers. I want then to do a more serious, hard-hitting, short book on religious belief. It will be based on a thought experiment I developed called "The God of Eth".