Nigel Warburton, Virtual Philosopher

Nigel Warburton, co-presenter of Philosophy Bites, is interviewed by TPM's editor, James Garvey. (Originally published in 2013.)

Philosophy has always been ridiculed for having its head in the clouds, but in a virtual corner of the philosophical world, Nigel Warburton has been proving philosophy’s detractors wrong for years. The success of Philosophy Bites, the podcast series he presents with David Edmonds, is. genuinely astonishing. It’s been downloaded millions and millions of times by people all over the globe. He’s probably brought philosophy to more people in the wider world than any other professional philosopher. An enormous asset to any department, you might think, but when we meet in a loud London pub, he tells me he’s just resigned from his post at the Open University. This is a shock. Philosophers don’t resign. There’s frustration in his voice, but also a certain edgy excitement. What’s going on?

“It's complicated,” he says. “On the positive side, this is a wonderful time to explore new ways of communicating with a global audience free from the constraints and obligations of academic life. I've seen plenty of philosophy lecturers get increasingly bitter about higher education, and I don't want to end up like them.

“Far better to have a go at following my own direction than stagnate. It might not work out, but at least I'll be able to say I had a go. It feels exciting at the moment, and I wanted to see if it is possible to live as a writer and podcaster. I've always found lot of academic philosophy rather dry, but I love philosophy at its best. Through Philosophy Bites I've met some of the top living philosophers, and I’ve been inspired by them.

“But I feel weighed down by the short sightedness, the petty bureaucracy, and the often pointless activities that are creeping into higher education. These things eat time and, more importantly, sap energy. Meanwhile the sand sifts through the hourglass. At the Open University I'd always hoped that we'd be able to offer a named undergraduate degree in philosophy, but actually the subject has, if anything, become marginalised, with fewer courses available than when I joined nineteen years ago, and with much higher fees. This at a time when philosophy is becoming increasingly popular. There had also been suggestions that I might be able to take on an official role promoting the public understanding of philosophy, but that didn’t materialise either.

“The easy option would have been to sit it out and keep taking the salary, but I respond better to interesting challenges than pay cheques. I knew I'd made the right decision when I felt exhilarated rather than scared after handing in my notice, and already I've had numerous offers of paid work of one kind or another, including some interesting journalism and plenty of invitations to speak in schools. Interview me again in ten years to see if I was crazy.”

Crazy or not, it’s a worrying sign for philosophy in the academy. Someone who’s very good at conveying complex philosophical ideas in plain English– a good teacher, in other words – has come to the conclusion that a university is not the best place for him to be.

The podcasts started five years ago, when Warburton and Edmonds began to interview philosophers and post the recordings for free online. They’ve since discussed everything from Parmenides to Rawls, the nature of love to gun control – often with philosophers preeminent in their fields. There’s a soothing but steadying guitar riff, a short introduction to the subject, and fifteen minutes or so of philosophical conversation focused on a specific topic.

The initial thought was that mainly philosophy students and lecturers might take an interest, but he’s heard from American listeners with time to kill on long drives, people waiting out wildfires in Australia, and soldiers in Afghanistan concerned about ethics. When I ask for details over email, Warburton sends me a list of 40 countries, all with more than 10,000 downloads each, some with vastly many more, millions more in some cases. Just after the usual English-speaking suspects, China checks in at number five. The United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Taiwan, Iran and Indonesia make the list. Several spin off series, two books (and a third in the pipeline), more than 250 interviews and an alarming 16.7 million downloads later, and Philosophy Bites is an international philosophy phenomenon.

“It regularly appears in the UK top ten Arts podcasts on iTunes,” Warburton says. “It is often ranked above TED talks there, and above many BBC radio programmes – though it’s unlikely we’ll ever overtake The Archers. Not bad for two guys with laptops and a hard disc recorder doing this in their spare time.”

Certainly, but what interests me is the fact that Edmonds and Warburton are, perhaps uniquely in human history, the beneficiaries of seminars with most of the sharpest philosophical minds of the times. So once the air clears after talk of quitting his job, I’m dying to get to a question. Having spoken with almost all of the brilliant philosophical minds alive and at large right now, what’s he discovered? Has a pattern emerged? Can he decipher the wisdom peculiar to our age? He furrows his brow and after some reflection, looks up from his beer and says, “No.”

Damn it. But then again, what was I expecting? Warburton says philosophy is too big a subject to admit of the kind of distillation I’m after. Anyway, the podcasts are not attempts to discern the grand sweep of philosophy or even get a feel for philosophy’s zeitgeist, but to take up this or that bite-sized part of the whole.

There’s a lot to be said for conveying complex philosophical ideas through conversation – Plato certainly knew what he was doing. You can get an unusual bead on what a philosopher really thinks from a podcast, in a way you might not if you just read their carefully crafted, written words. When you hear philosophers speak, follow the argument as they think on their feet, ideas can open up in interesting and unexpected ways.

But a project like Philosophy Bites takes a huge effort and commitment. He says each episode can take hours of preparation, and as much as a day to edit. So why do it? Maybe there’s a biographical clue, and I ask how he got started in philosophy. Usually when you ask this you’re in for a well-practiced story about a childhood epiphany or inspirational teacher. For Warburton it sounds like a series of accidents.

“My grandfather gave me some really strange books to read, including Colin Wilson’s The Outsider and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He was an autodidact, left school at about twelve, a completely self-taught man, so he had a very eclectic taste. He would pass on books that interested him, some were philosophical books, and they interested me too.

“But as a kid I wanted to be a biologist. I was intrigued by philosophy, but I thought I would never have been able to do it at university because of parental pressure to do something more useful, and also a complete ignorance in my schools about what philosophy was. I say ‘schools’ because I went to a public school for three years, and then my dad, who was an alcoholic, gambled away the money for my education that my mother had inherited, so then I went to a state school.

“I spent most of my time at school playing rugby. I ended up going to Bristol University to do psychology, and I took philosophy and sociology as subsidiary subjects in the first year. I got disillusioned with psychology, dropped out, was a car park attendant for six months, tried to start a new course in English, but I wouldn’t have got a grant, so I carried on into my second year with philosophy, thinking I would become a journalist. Probably because I did so much student journalism I could write well enough that I conned them into a first class degree in philosophy, which meant I could go to Cambridge to do a PhD – there were proper grants in those days. I tried to get a job in publishing in my first year there but didn’t get that, so it’s only philosophy by default really.”

So, does his interest in introducing ideas to people who might not know much about philosophy have something to do with this convoluted journey? It wasn’t easy for him to make his way into philosophy, so is he trying to make it easier for others?

“No, that’s just the nature of philosophy. It’s always difficult – though nothing like as difficult as theoretical physics. If you’re not having trouble then you probably don’t really understand what’s going on. Many people seem not to have trouble, but I know from doing these interviews that if you ask them direct questions in ordinary language some can’t answer without jargon and mystification.

“A lot of professional philosophers lack the imagination required to think about what it’s like not to understand something. Some have got into a complacent habit of speaking to each other in a kind of technical language, which is almost at times the avoidance of doing philosophy. They’re part of a culture of people who always say the same things and make the same moves: just making finer and finer discriminations between whether they’re a particular kind of materialist or a particular kind of functionalist. People stake out little claims. When faced with the need to explain what they’re doing and why it should be of interest to anyone at all outside of that culture, many flounder.

“Not the best ones, interestingly. The really significant philosophers are able to explain with superb clarity precisely what it is that matters about a topic. Not just for others with similar interests but for anybody who might be concerned with philosophy at all. Weaker philosophers hide behind a series of coded nods and winks to each other. This often betrays a lack of clarity of thought.”

As he’s leaving his job I ask if he might now like to name a few of the weak ones he’s thinking about, but he rightly laughs and shakes his head. However, he’s willing to identify some of the philosophers who’ve most impressed him. Quentin Skinner, Philip Pettit, and Peter Singer are all praised for their minds and their humanity, as well as the ability to think on the fly and express themselves lucidly. He’s also discovered a new interest in classical philosophy as a result of talking to Angie Hobbs, M M McCabe, Melissa Lane, Martha Nussbaum and Myles Burnyeat. Being in the company of so many good philosophers has had a number of effects on him. Singer seems to have nudged him towards vegetarianism, but other changes run deeper.

“The best philosophers convey such an enthusiasm for thinking,” he says. “This has been wonderful for me on a personal level. My wife once described me as a vicar who’d lost his faith. I was in an awkward position as a lecturer because I didn’t feel completely committed to the academic world of philosophy. Meeting people who are both brilliant and enthusiastic about the subject has renewed my interest in it. It’s difficult to emerge unchanged from a conversation with someone who cares so much about the subject. It’s genuinely important to them. You catch philosophy from these people.”

Philosophers have a duty to pursue ideas which really matter to people, he argues. By his lights, there’s a revolution in higher education on the horizon, driven partly by the internet and the rise of massively open online courses, but also owed to a shift to open access journals, which might be scrutinised by philosophically-minded members of the general public, who, it turns out, are footing the bill. As research is publically funded, he says, philosophers had better learn to communicate in plain English and choose less obscure research topics.

But the argument for coming down from the clouds doesn’t just depend on funding, does it? “I’m sympathetic with Thomas Paine’s idea that each generation needs to renew and review the political system they find that they’ve inherited,” he says. “Philosophers are very well-placed to be critical participants about the nature of the democracy they’re living in, but very few respond to contemporary events. For instance today the big discussion is about gay marriage. It’s being discussed in Parliament. To my knowledge the only philosopher who’s made a significant contribution to the debate is Roger Scruton, publishing a bizarre document against gay marriage. I admire Scruton as a philosopher, I don’t agree with most of his conclusions, but there should be more voices than just his speaking about a debate as important as this.”

It’s certainly true that engaging in debates in the wider world will not do much for a professional philosopher’s career, certainly not compared to scoring a publication in a major journal. It’s just not considered doing real philosophy. “I’d be happy to have a debate with someone who thinks that, who does what I call ‘crossword puzzle philosophy’,” Warburton says, “just footnotes to footnotes. Is that real philosophy? Is that what Socrates did? Is that what Hume did? I don’t think so.

“Philosophers today have mostly got their heads down. They’re concerned with writing for a journal which will publish work that takes them two or three years, and only five people will read it. These are people who could be contributing to something that’s incredibly important. Gay marriage is just one example of many. I don’t think philosophers responded particularly well to 9/11. Issues about free expression, all over the world, are not just academic. They’re matters of life and death. There are exceptions, but philosophers are by and large more interested in getting a paper in Mind or Analysis than they are in commenting on the major political events of our time.”

Free speech is a topic that Warburton has explored as a philosopher, both in a podcast series and in print. So what does he think about free speech, particularly its limits? Does he agree with Voltaire’s slogan: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”?

“Actually nobody agrees with that,” he says. “To the death? I’m not going to defend to the death, literally to the death, David Irving’s right to deny the Holocaust. But I would fight quite hard for his freedom to express yourself, even if you are a bigot.”

Warburton argues that everyone thinks a line has to be drawn somewhere. No one is really in favour of entirely unconstrained speech. But where should we draw the line?

“I’m much more sympathetic to the American system where the presumption is for extensive freedom of expression, and there’s a reluctance to engage in prior restraint or shutting down artistic productions on the grounds that there is likely to be some sort of public disorder. In Britain there’s the exclusion zone around Parliament, the shutting down in Birmingham of Behtzi, the play that was thought to be offensive to Sikhs, and other such examples. We’ve had lots of cases where the establishment has been reluctant to defend freedom of expression.

“My view is that speech should be met with counter speech, not with suppression. Where suppression occurs the hydraulic model has something to be said for it as an explanation of what happens. It’s far better to have people expressing their thoughts, no matter how horrible they are, than their being gagged, and the energy coming out in some different form. That’s where violence comes from.

“Of course I’d draw the line at incitement to violence, certain sorts of pornography, plagiarism, false advertising, the disclosure of official secrets – there are all kinds of areas where I wouldn’t advocate complete freedom of expression.”

Is there some principle which puts all these things over the line?

“No. I think anyone who works in the area of freedom of expression realises the complexity and the changing nature of the debate. Prior to the internet certain sorts of assumptions about the means of access to public expression were part of that debate. But now anyone with an internet connection can create their own broadcasting platform online. The speed and reach of any pronouncement is now very different. It changes almost daily. So I don’t think simple principles will work. You have to take matters up on a case by case basis.

“If you’re going to curtail someone’s expression, as Mill recognised, it’s not just the words that they utter that matter. It’s the context and the meaning that gives to the words. Mill had this example of saying that corn dealers are starving the poor by charging a high price for corn. That’s fine in an editorial in a newspaper, but you can’t wave a placard with those words in front of an angry mob, because there that’s incitement to violence. Context determines the meaning. Yet the police in the UK prosecuted a man for a tweet about blowing up Robin Hood Airport, even though the context was his frustration at his girlfriend not being able to visit him because the airport was closed by snow. Context matters.”

We talk a little about harm, which, again thanks to Mill, is a large part of arguments for placing limits on free speech. In On Liberty, Mill writes: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”. Many agree that incitement to violence ought to be curtailed when it is likely to result in physical harm, precisely because of the harm it could cause. But harder cases concern psychological harm. Should we ban language just because someone finds it offensive or psychologically harmful? It’s a question which comes up a lot, particularly when people take offense at claims made about their religion. If someone’s religious beliefs are held very dear, taken as a core part of their personality, then doesn’t it make sense to say that language they find offensive really does harm them, and that it should therefore be curtailed? What’s the best way for believers and non-believers to engage with one another given the possibility of this kind of harm? Does religion deserve special protection?

“The same might be true about someone who’s a racist too. If their fundamental core belief is that racism is true, I might attack the thing that’s most dear to them. It’s true of an atheist as well. It’s true of atheists I know. Religious bigots attacking atheism attack something that they hold dear and cherish as the most important aspect of their being. So this isn’t restricted to religious believers in any way.

“But it is true that you need to recognise that religious people are likely to react strongly if you challenge those beliefs. Pragmatically, negotiating boundaries, it may not be most effective to come out with all guns blazing as an atheist attacking Islam or Christianity. If you want to achieve some middle position you’re not going to achieve it by denigrating the other side. Some strident atheists have damaged the cause of atheism.

“What’s needed is the opportunity for discussion which respects the thinkers even if it doesn’t respect the beliefs. Often there’s a conflation between the thoughts and the thinkers. To some degree you can always recognise the humanity of another person – we’re all flawed and we all have some false beliefs – without making every discussion about religion a personal attack. I think it’s important that people like Richard Dawkins did adopt the kind of tone they did, because there was a lot of pussyfooting around, but now we can move into another phase where we can acknowledge the variety of religions and religious thinkers without caricaturing their positions.”

Warburton says he’s happy to see philosophy now being taught in schools, and he hopes it will one day encourage reasonable and serious discussion of not just religion but also a wide range of other issues. That’s largely where the value of philosophy lies for him. Not necessarily in getting at truths, but asking good questions, teasing out what we really think or ought to think, about subjects which make a difference to people.

He says that this kind of work just isn’t done in academic philosophy as it’s practiced today. Part of the problem has to do with “the cuckoo in the nest, the burgeoning managerial class” which he sees as getting in the way of philosophical thinking and teaching. Other trouble lies with departmental committees hiring people who are just like them, creating clusters of similar people with similar views. Just as with society at large, he says, diversity helps departments flourish, but often departmental members are all nearly carbon copies of one another. So in their work they end up trying to discriminate themselves from each other with more and more hair-splitting but ultimately uninteresting distinctions. He reserves particular venom for the REF, the Research Excellence Framework, a system of expert review which assesses research undertaken in UK higher education, which is then used to allocate future rounds of funding. A lot of it turns on the importance of research having a social, economic or cultural impact. It’s not exactly the sort of thing that philosophical reflection on, say, the nature of being qua being is likely to have. He leans into my recorder to make sure I get every word:

“One of the most disturbing things about academic philosophy today is the way that so many supposed gadflies and rebels in philosophy have just rolled over in the face of the REF – particularly by going along with the idea of measuring and quantifying impact,” he says, making inverted commas with his fingers, “a technical notion which was constructed for completely different disciplines. I’m not even sure what research means in philosophy. Philosophers are struggling to find ways of describing what they do as having impact as defined by people who don’t seem to appreciate what sort of things they do. This is absurd. Why are you wasting your time? Why aren’t you standing up and saying philosophy’s not like that? To think that funding in higher education in philosophy is going to be determined partly by people’s creative writing about how they have impact with their work. Just by entering into this you’ve compromised yourself as a philosopher. It’s not the kind of thing that Socrates did or that Hume did or that John Locke did. Locke may have had patrons, but he seemed to write what he thought rather than kowtowing to forces which are pushing on to us a certain vision, a certain view of what philosophical activities should be. Why are you doing this? I’m getting out. For those of you left in, how can you call yourselves philosophers? This isn’t what philosophy’s about.”

Yikes. If he’s right about our present, does he think philosophy is in for a grim future? How does he suggest we fix the current state of things? Can we fix it?

“It’s going to fix itself because universities are going to become less important. People who are sophisticated users of the Internet will find ways to communicate which may not require them to be part of universities anymore. Established universities may be overtaken by publishers and other providers of resources and connections entering the world of distance education. What’s stopping people now is that they want a bit of paper at the end of it that says they’ve got a degree. Socrates didn’t issue degrees, but it would have been wonderful to have been taught by him. I think we’re entering a time of contact with interesting people. It’s difficult to imagine what’s going to happen, because things happen so quickly.

“There are a lot of brilliant people in universities, but they have no idea what’s going to happen, what’s just around the corner. Disruptive technologies have a history of producing dramatic change very suddenly. So a lot of those people who think they’re surfing the new technology, keeping abreast of developments and thinking that nothing’s going to change – I believe they’re fundamentally wrong. People thought massively open online courses were just another kind of distance learning, but already they’re changing, evolving very quickly, people are finding new ways of interacting.

“Because of changes in online teaching, in the next ten years, the university system will be turned on its head. If Philosophy Bites can make such an impact with two guys with a hard disk recorder and a couple of laptops, think what people who fully understand the new technology, who can write code, who can employ the best philosophical communicators around, think what they could produce. It’s only just starting. We’re going to see dramatic changes to how we learn, teach, do research and share ideas. I think philosophy’s future’s very bright.”