Seeking Answers with Philosopher Nigel Warburton

I have always been interested in asking awkward questions and have drifted in and out of philosophy all my life.

By | Thu 1 Feb 2018

Philosophy has been around for as long as we have had cognitive thought; after all we’ve all dipped or delved into the subject at some point in our lives, whether it’s to mull over the reasons for our own existence or to grapple with the greater purpose of humanity. These are the age-old questions which millions have attempted to find answers for over the past millennia.

What is exciting is that philosophy is more relevant and widespread today than ever before and that is thanks to many factors from technology to education, access to ideas from different cultures to the emergence of modern challenges. It is also thanks to an Englishman who has taken his lifelong study of and love for philosophy and turned it into a pithy podcast which has received 34 million downloads from listeners all over the world.

Nigel Warburton, who holds a PhD from Cambridge University, has taught philosophy and art at the Tate Modern and has published ten books including the bestsellers A Little History of Philosophy and Philosophy: The Basics, was in Chiang Mai for two weeks in January as part of the Artist Residency Thailand programme at Prem Tinsulanonda International School. During his time here he also gave a talk on A Question of Art to a group of around 200 people at Maiiam Contemporary Art Museum. In between his busy schedule, I managed to sit down with Warburton a couple of times for some philosophical sound bites.

“I believe that philosophy should affect every person,” said Warburton as we sat down for a chat. “It affects how we think, how we view the nature of reality, how we relate to other people, how we organise society and how we value things such as aesthetics and art. I have always been interested in asking awkward questions and have drifted in and out of philosophy all my life. Philosophy is essentially a subject of dissent. You question received opinions and this was very attractive to me because I never took anything for granted. I find philosophy to be essential because it’s how we value and make decisions about value,” though quickly adds, “I don’t think that it will give us radical solutions, but it will clarify matters and help us think.”

Warburton believes that the turn of the millennium has brought in a golden age for modern philosophy as it led people to reassess where they stood. The late twentieth century was also the start of the digital revolution, which he says has more of an impact on humanity than the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Another recent factor is the growing acknowledgement that the environment is in dire straits; this existential threat has become a stimulus for thought.

“I started my podcast Philosophy Bites [] with David Edmonds eight years ago, often uploading from my laptop in a caf้ somewhere,” explained Warburton of his incredible reach which has him hailed as the populariser of modern philosophy, and an exegete with the ability to communicate complex philosophical theories with clarity and apparent ease.

“To be able to reach millions of people around the world, to get them thinking and engaged, is quite phenomenal. There are many people out there who are striving to understand the various issues we are facing and how they can come to terms with the rapid changes in the world. Philosophy can help them to deal with these issues. There is always a risk that the answers you find will make things worse for you, but maybe a little bit of pessimism is in order.”

“The big question about freedom of expression is what are the limits, socially and in terms of norms and practices, but also legally.”

“Philosophy thrives on dialogue. Sure, there are areas where there is a straight forward opinion which you need to learn, but other areas are there to be explored as they are far from resolved and there is ample room for engagement and debate, questioning and challenging. Philosophy is very social, that is why it is thriving with new media. It never ends. It’s not fixed. I see it as an ongoing series of conversations.”

Free speech, debate, dissent and the challenging of norms are not traits readily associated with Thailand with our rigid education system, archaic censorship laws and culture of non-confrontation. Passivity of intellect doesn’t propel change and lack of curiosity never leads to innovation.

“This is my first time in a Buddhist country, so I can’t really comment much, but I do know that Buddhism itself has a tradition of philosophy. Simply look at its questioning of the idea of self; whether there is such a thing as self, many of these ideas converge with contemporary neuroscience.”

One of Warburton’s books is titled Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction, and a subject he is very passionate about as it goes to the heart of philosophy — the debate.

“I’m coming from a liberal tradition where we highly value robust disagreement which is essential to philosophy. The essence of western philosophy is to have your opinions and ideas challenged. Once this happens, you will have a very strong incentive to provide a reasoned response as to why theirs is not an objective opinion. That dissenting person does you a great service by either showing you where you are wrong, or by helping you to clarify why you are right. To test your ideas to destruction is how you test it the best.”

Which brought us to issues of censorship and freedom of speech, which is a global, and not just a Thai issue. “The big question about freedom of expression is what are the limits, socially and in terms of norms and practices, but also legally. Personally I’m keen on a model where there is extensive freedom of speech and where offending somebody else is not something you go out of your way to do but is not seen as a terrible harm. Inevitably when people disagree, someone can be offended, and psychological harm is real. The danger is when you tolerate direct incitement to violence. That is the traditional place where the line has been drawn. Hate speech can be even more damaging than real violence. But then you have the contrast between European countries which have written into law that hate speech is a crime, versus the United States where the First Amendment guarantees fairly extensive freedom of speech rights, which results in some extremely offensive material being legally produced. I am not sure, but my hunch is the American system, although it produces some nasty side effects, is ultimately healthier than one where people feel scared to speak out. Not least because when you speak out it allows you to identify the nastier elements in society and you avoid the hydraulic problem where you push down on one thing and it pops up somewhere else. People who are silenced are forced underground and this may erupt in violence whereas if they can speak openly it may be enough to let the steam out.”

Warburton goes on to talk about how digital media have spread new and different ideas far and wide and how philosophers were early adopters of new media, using new platforms to engage and discuss. “But there is a downside in that social media can create an echo chamber, a bubble where you manufacture what is sometimes described as the ‘daily me’, this isn’t challenging or stimulating and ideas are simply amplified by repetition, you never encounter people who don’t hold your opinion and that becomes a danger. As philosopher John Stuart Mill discussed, there is also the danger of the tyranny of the majority and how public opinion can make it difficult for non-mainstream views to survive. Then there is the danger of small groups of perverse people finding each other and magnifying their own power; technology now allows malevolent people to have power to cause disproportionate harm like never before.”

So what are the big questions philosophers are discussing today?

“We are told that AI and the singularity are going to be the next huge changes to humanity,” explained Warburton. “There are two ways of seeing that; liberating in that it could potentially free people from jobs, but also terrifying in that power could fall into the hands of individuals. For me, by far the biggest threat to humanity is environmental; climate change. The assumption that the world will go on as it has; water, resources, habitation seems ill-founded. Some believe that we will see a slow, gradual change, but radical unpredictable events could flip the world completely. As we see when a volcano erupts, technology can’t protect us. It is human arrogance to think that we have technological solutions to such situations. I believe that philosophy is crucial in helping us to be equipped to make hard decisions when the time comes. Questions such as is it more important to have a larger amount of people survive in bad circumstances or a smaller amount of people flourishing in the future, tough questions. Philosophers will be the ones commenting when the ship sinks.”

Philosophy isn’t all about navigating the gloom and avoiding the doom, Warburton’s talk at Maiiam about art and his thoughts on how we perceive art can lead to positive change. He is a great proponent of art education, whether it is its history or how it is shaping our society today.

“Language gets the lion’s share of everything,” Warburton told me, as I wrote down his every word. “Literature is mainstream, but we are all consumers of images, whether it’s through advertising, through personal information we create, or admire. It is important that we have a dialogue so that we can be aware of what is being done to us with images; how we use them or are affected by them. Images shape ideas. Look at young people today with their cycle of purchasing, all powered by relentless advertising. I think that if young people understood images and how it affects them then they can become sophisticated skeptics of visual bombardment. You can go two ways, legislate or educate. Education will put the power into the hands of consumers so that they can become more skeptical and see the opiate they are being fed for what it is. Modern society has such little time for what is important, that is why it’s so heartening to see philosophy take off the way it has.”