Interview with Nigel Warburton

Innumerable hours of my life have been spent hot, sweaty – breathless – listening to this man’s voice. Nigel Warburton is half of the two-man team behind Philosophy Bites, a fortnightly podcast featuring discussions with prominent philosophers. They make morning jogs immeasurably more bearable, which goes some way to explaining their remarkable success: the Bites have 11 million downloads to date.

My hearing his voice is typically accompanied by panting and early morning resolve, but as our chat in an Oxford cafe begins, two rather different feelings are discernible. Embarrassment, mostly, at my interviewing technique: he regularly tackles towering intellects, adroitly prodding and pushing – teasing out their insights – while I struggle to phrase a question about the identity of his favourite interviewee (Quentin Skinner, if you’re interested). But also gratitude. Gratitude for having the chance to talk to the man who has brought me those insights.

And to ask all the nerdy questions that I’ve been storing up for the last four years. I’ll spare you the specifics, but rest assured, my qualms over Podcast #55 have been put to bed (details available on request). The feeling of gratitude is shared across the table, though differently stirred. “I get to talk to some of the most amazing thinkers [on Philosophy Bites]…it’s quite awe-inspiring: you think you throw them a hard question and they effortlessly answer it. I shouldn’t really say this, but I’m getting hundreds of private tutorials with the best thinkers in the world for nothing. It’s an immense privilege.”

His podcasts are invariably pitch perfect: not so abstruse to be niche, but never dumbed-down (“Aside from #86!”, I hear you cry. Yes, fellow Biter, aside from #86). This carries through to – or, rather, is the manifestation of – how he sees the role of philosophy in public life. Philosophers shouldn’t fear the ‘public intellectual’ tag, he says: “It’s a crucial aspect of philosophy at its best…why shy away from society – why just talk to other philosophers – if you really believe that you are discussing something important?”.

He doesn’t neglect to spell out the implications of this view. “Is there really any point in writing an article that is read by three of your peers, who all nod and say that it’s wonderful, and then gets buried in the dust. It seems to me that that’s not a great way to spend your time.” In addition to the stumbling amateur sat opposite, he spots embarrassment, too, in a minority of his colleagues “who disguise how little they know because of fear of shame. It’s just embarrassing, isn’t it? To admit that you don’t know very much. I’m struck by how little some of them have read in the history  of philosophy”.

Consistent with his views on how philosophers should act, he summarily holds forth on current affairs. Now, you’ll only get a uncaveated opinion from a philosopher by misquoting him, and I don’t feel much like being whisked off to the US to study ‘Journalism 101’. Cue a full, nuanced quote on the subject of Wikileaks: “Defenders of Assange will say show me the victim, but it’s not that easy to do when these things are happening behind firewalls. That being said, I think it’s a fantastic development in the area of free speech. The presence of Wikileaks keeps people on their toes. He did expose war crimes of a serious nature that would otherwise have gone unknown about – that’s the good side. Then there’s the bad side, where it’s become an obsession with transparency without reflection about what the transparency is for.”

Warburton might, though, be more wary of entering the public arena after the recent brutal treatment of one of his peers, A.C. Grayling, on the founding of New College, a private university in London. The furore surrounding Grayling and his institution, he thinks, could have been avoided: “The timing of starting a new university just after you’ve rewritten the bible wasn’t great PR. He made a bad mistake.” But he concludes with qualified support for the experiment, “Fair play to him, at least he’s having a go.”

Philosophers should, perhaps, engage more, but surely the truth-seeker is ill at ease in the grubby world of politics? Warburton demurs, offering, though, a fascinating observation as an aside. “The way that philosophy most obviously influences politics is the fact that almost every politician has read Machiavelli’s The Prince. And if they say they haven’t, they probably have taken very seriously the teachings there, because they’ve read it, and they don’t want to show you that that is the source of their thinking, or that they’re being deceptive. There is something about the nature of politics that requires people to disguise their beliefs and their intentions.”

Our meeting comes to an end too soon, but neither embarrassment nor gratitude leave your interviewer. The former largely for not knowing how to turn off the voice recorder. The latter for the company of an lovely, intelligent man.

Nigel’s new book ‘A Little History of Philosophy’ is available now from Blackwells at £14.99. You can also follow Nigel on Twitter: @philosophybites.

Sean Scoltock – follow Sean on Twitter: @seanscoltock