Thursday, October 21, 2010

London’s Philosophers

London, I am told, has 60 full time professional philosophers. This seems to be quite a large number and might perhaps explain the buzz in the air. All those great minds whirring away. I thought you might like to meet a few of them from time to time, and I begin with two who could be considered celebrities, in a quiet philosophical kind of way:

A C Grayling

I start with Birkbeck’s own ‘celebrity philosopher’, who has been mentioned before on this blog, Anthony C Grayling. In addition to his role at Birkbeck, Professor Grayling is also a Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford.
Professor Grayling has visited Sydney on a number of recent occasions, including as a guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which was how I first became aware of his existence, and his books. In addition to writing numerous academic philosophy texts, Professor Grayling is also a literary journalist, broadcaster and editor. He presently writes a weekly column for The Times, and has been a columnist for other publications, and many of these interesting attempts to ‘apply philosophy to life’ have been collected into book form. I can recommend titles such as “The Meaning of Things”, “The Reason of Things”, “The Mystery of Things” – and so on.

There is also a very engaging short book called “Against All Gods – Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness”, which places A C grayling as a fellow traveller with the current celebrity atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins – though perhaps a softer version as least in his presentation of the arguments. Here’s a little sample quoted from “Against All Gods”:

And art – Raphael’s Madonnas, Bach’s sacred cantatas, exquisitely decorated psalters and Qur’ans, York Minster and the Blue Mosque of Istanbul – where would art be without religion? It would be exactly where it is now. Art is the outpouring of the human heart; its skill is human skill, it is the effulgence of the creativity, delight, passion and yearning of the human mind. When our gods were dogs and cats, in Egypt, people made exquisite effigies of dogs and cats, and painted them in their elegance on tomb walls. When gods lived in the clouds on Olympus, people built wonderful temples with marvellously wrought reliefs around their pediments, depicting Athene and Hermes, Zeus and Apollo...

I also have a copy of Professor Grayling’s book “Ideas That Matter: A personal Guide For the 21st Century” which covers ‘Ideas: from Absolutism to Zeitgeist. Are you thinking you might like to read a little of AC Grayling?
Lucky me – it is possible for me to choose an option in my course next Term which is taught by Professor Grayling. The subject is ‘Epistemology & Methodology’, and once I find out exactly what that is, I may well consider it!

But while Professor Grayling writes lovely and accessible prose in his ‘popular philosophy’ books, he is also quite capable of the denser obtuseness of academic philosophy. Consider this from “Truth, Meaning and Realism”:

There has been discussion of whether the notion of truth involved in any adequate theory of assertion has to be ‘substantial’ or not, but, because of the truth-involvingness of assertion is standardly taken for a platitude, there has been little discussion of whether a non-(realist)-truth-involving account is plausible.

You heard it here first.

AC Grayling is an engaging speaker. Before I left Sydney, Evan and I were privileged to hear him give an address at the Sydney Opera House (on the same bill as Richard Dawkins, who wasn’t half as much fun). He was also one of the debaters at the Humanist Society debate about the Pope’s visit to Britain which I attended during my first week in London. A Day Out in London

He is fond of making reference to his lovely head of hair when he speaks to an audience, so I assume that he would not mind me drawing it to your attention here too, as it is indeed a sight to behold and would occasion much envy in least one gentleman of my acquaintance:

But my personal favourite is this dapper picture presumably from earlier days which appears on the Birkbeck Philosophy Department's  website 

If you’re going to be a philosopher, why not look the part?

Raimond Gaita

Over at Kings College London, where I take some of my classes, there is a philosopher with a similar bent, that is, bringing philosophy to the thinking layman. Raimond Gaita is – wait for it – Australian, from Melbourne originally.  He is Professor of Moral Philosophy at KCL, and his special interest is Ethics. My bookshelf does not (yet) contain any volumes of his, but excitingly I could go to hear him speak at a public seminar later this month entitled "Genocide and Collective Responsibility - an essay on Bernhard Schlink, novelist & legal professor” – and I DO have Bernhard Schlink on my bookshelf (read ‘The Reader’ and ‘Guilt About the Past’).
Professor Gaita also has a link with the Sydney Writers Festival, which featured his memoir and film (2007) ‘Romulus, My Father’ – see (includes a trailer).

Raimond Gaita is also Foundation Professor of Philosophy at Australian Catholic University, and in his list of publications you can find a number of collaborations with Australian Robert Manne (an old lefty of whom I am fond); so clearly he still has strong links to Australia. I have found an article he wrote for The Age in August this year, on the subject of political spin, entitled ‘Even Socrates drew the line at spin’. Here’s a taste:

Socrates believed that oratory was not a morally neutral skill that can be directed at good, bad or indifferent ends, but intrinsically rotten because it betrays the trust necessary for genuine conversation and, in so doing, erodes the conditions of political (and other forms of) judgment. We should think the same about spin.
For many years, we in the democratic West have praised conversation in politics as though it expressed an ideal of democratic accountability. That may be a sentimental illusion about the nature of politics, encouraged by politicians who spin counterfeits of conversational intimacy to make us more vulnerable to manipulation.


No comments:

Post a Comment