Philosophy for the masses


First aired on Ideas (11/03/13)

Philosophy doesn't have to be an arcane subject. It's about people thinking and, like Socrates, asking simple questions. Recently, Ideas talked to Nigel Warburton, the author of A Little History of Philosophy and a senior lecturer at the Open University of Britain, who is on a mission to make philosophy comprehensible and relevant to a general audience.

In A Little History of Philosophy, Warburton provides a survey of 40 western philosophers. He holds out Socrates as personifying "what's valuable about philosophy," because he was a self-described gadfly who asked questions and challenged received opinion.

Warburton went on to say that Socrates took his questions to ordinary people in public places, like the forum in Athens and the marketplace. "For Socrates, the questions are a way of getting at the reasons why someone believes something, and challenging their whole conception of reality."


We know about Socrates because Plato, who was his student, wrote down dialogues in which Socrates featured. As a loyal student, Plato presumably wanted to promote the ideas of his teacher. But in fact, Warburton said, "Socrates, the character in the Dialogues, speaks ideas which are completely Platonic." Plato thought because ordinary people are caught up with appearances, they don't understand reality and that society should be run by philosophers, who have the ability to see much further. He's also the most pro-censorship philosopher in the history of philosophy. "He wanted to prevent ideas which he felt were untrue, or ideas that could somehow upset the balance of society," Warburton said.

He went on to describe philosophy as "a strange mixture of humility, the recognizing that you could be wrong, recognizing how little you know, but also arrogance, the arrogance to challenge received opinion, to question experts."

Warburton acknowledged that there are philosophers who are immensely difficult to understand. "I think Kant could have explained his ideas more clearly," he said, adding, "I think that many philosophers today, working within an academic context, get away with absolutely terrible literary style." He believes that philosophy isn't as difficult to understand as theoretical physics, "and yet there are theoretical physicists who have made an attempt to explain their ideas to a wider audience...[while] there are relatively few philosophers on the same mission."

When asked how he selected his Top 40 of philosophers, Warburton said his aim was not to create a canon. "I wanted to pick on philosophers who, when put together, could present an interesting picture of the nature of philosophy."

He concludes A Little History of Philosophy with Peter Singer, a contemporary Australian philosopher. Warburton compares him to Socrates, because he asks difficult questions and has written on subjects like animal rights and euthanasia. "I'm not saying he's right," Warburton said. "I think one of the great values of a thinker like Singer is, like Socrates, that he challenges people to reflect on what they believe."

Warburton believes that the role of gadfly is important, and he refers to John Stuart Mill's belief that "it's only through the collision of ideas and the possibility of debate that we can hope for some kind of progress. If you silence people you disagree with, you run the risk of not discovering important things about how we should live, about the nature of the world, about how we should be living." He pointed out that Mill drew the line at incitement to violence, however.

Warburton believes that because of the internet and mass communications, philosophy now has the potential to address a huge audience. "Philosophy is going to change. I think there's going to be a demand for it to be tied to present-day reality not just abstract theorizing. But I also think it's going to be much more widely available."

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