Interview with Simon Blackburn: The People’s Philosopher

“Of course – I’d be delighted to give an interview. But could we do it over some wine? There’s nothing like a drink after the adrenaline rush of giving a talk.” Seeing him perk up at the suggestion that we conduct the interview in the bar, I follow Blackburn down the stairs in the direction of the Union’s plush leather sofas, and perch myself on the edge of one as he sinks back into another. Merlot in hand, Blackburn is ready to philosophise. It’s a nice clue of what is to come – this is a philosopher ruthlessly committed to the rigorous pursuit of truth, but also to maintaining the levity, humour and theatre that have made him so popular.

Blackburn writes philosophy books for the general public like Think, Being Good, Lust and Truth.  The first of these, Think, is an accessible exposition of the issues and arguments which have made up the philosophical canon since Socrates. It is also tremendously popular, on which point Blackburn wryly remarks: “When I’ve had to interview candidates for philosophy at Cambridge, it’s been somewhat embarrassing to have my own words thrown back at me”. In fact, we are at one point interrupted by someone who thanks Professor Blackburn “for getting [him] into Oxford”. Like most people who know of Blackburn, I found him (and the rest of philosophy) through this book, and I might have expected him to take some pride in popularising philosophy. But he balks when one questioner describes him as a “populariser” (as most people probably would). “I don’t popularise philosophy,” Blackburn insists. “I don’t bring philosophy to people; I bring people to it. I’d be mortified if anyone could show that in any of my work I’d said that anything was ‘simple’.”

He may not like the label ‘populariser’, but he nonetheless talks with some excitement about philosophy getting more popular. When I ask him whether he thinks he and his peers have had any success in bringing this about, he allows himself a little cautious optimism. “Statistically, there’s evidence that it’s working,” he says – but this was not always so. “I remember the first time I ever spoke at a literary festival, there was this huge queue and I thought: ‘Good Lord; there’s so much interest in philosophy from the general public!’ It turns out the huge queue was actually for Norman Mailer who was speaking in the next tent, and the queue for me was rather small”. Suspecting that many in his audience had got lost on the way to Mailer’s talk, he quips that he had to break the news to a modest crowd of disappointed festival-goers that that he had “never slept with Ernest Hemingway or bought ten rounds with Marilyn Monroe”. (He has evidently had some pretty intimate chats with Norman Mailer though).

Blackburn’s commitment to writing for the general public goes hand in hand with a little apathy towards the world of university academia. After 21 years teaching at Pembroke (Oxford), he resigned his post in 1990 – somewhat ironically, he felt like his increasing interest in education “was pretty much incompatible with living the life of an Oxford tutor”. Though he found himself unable to keep out of Oxbridge academia for very long, assuming a post at The Other Place in 2001, he is at his most vituperative when talking about academia and academics. Writing a few years ago about the arbitrary ways in which journals grade submissions with “stars”, he mused: “What kind of star would Socrates have got? He never wrote a thing. No measurable output at all. Rubbish.” A similar sort of wry sarcasm emerges when he’s quizzed about problems in contemporary philosophy.  One questioner asks: “Would you redirect the train”? He’s referencing a Philippa Foot’s classic trolley problem: there’s a train hurtling towards five people tied to the track, and you have the option to redirect it to a track with only one person tied down. In a more extreme version, you have the option to push a fat man in front of the train, inevitably killing him but also stopping the train from killing the five lucky people strapped to the track ahead. For Blackburn, the question bears so little resemblance to any real-life situation as to render it trivial. With a mischievous smile, he quotes Elizabeth Anscombe: “I’ll blow up the track and kill the lot of them”.

Whilst he doesn’t talk with great affection about philosophical academia in its present state, he is keen not to shrug off its weightier elements. The zombie problem is a philosophical issue that became important in the 1990s: how do I know that those around me are conscious beings and not automatons that behave just like conscious beings – how do I know they’re not zombies? And if it’s conceivable that they are zombies, what is it about me that makes me conscious whilst they are not? When I ask Blackburn about this, I expect him to brush it off as a colourful distraction that modern philosophers have constructed to give them new publishing opportunities on a familiar problem. But he won’t hear of it. “I think that there’s a very deep human and potentially catastrophic side to that problem,” he says. “It’s not just a kooky puzzle for the intelligentsia. I’m prepared to believe that of some philosophical problems. But the zombie problem calls into question our sense of ourselves amongst other people, and that can go catastrophically wrong.” But, as in a number of issues we discuss in the course of the evening, he finds the answer not in new literature but buried in the canon. “I think Wittgenstein made what is still very under-appreciated, and the key contribution to that problem, which is to say: ‘If you’re worried about other people being zombies, why aren’t you worried about yourself yesterday?’”.

Whilst Blackburn will talk with some deference about certain philosophers, he is unashamedly caustic about the attempts of some popular scientists to close the book on philosophical questions. In his talk, he reserves his best material for Richard Dawkins. “The more noise scientists make denigrating philosophy, the worse they are at it. As a work of philosophy,” he says, “The Selfish Gene is absurd. The idea that we can ‘teach ourselves to be nice because nature has made us nasty’ is a completely insane view of the relationship between mind and body. To say whether I’m selfish as a result of my genes, you need to know history, anthropology, philosophy – biology can’t tell you shit about it.”

As Blackburn is, by his own admission, pretty well aligned with Dawkins on the God question, I’m expecting a more sympathetic response when I ask him if he identifies as a ‘New Atheist’. His reply is almost stern: “No. The whole framework in which Dawkins presents the philosophy of religion is misguided, and was shown to be misguided by Hume. For Dawkins, religion is a matter of false beliefs about what exists. I don’t think that’s adequate to either the sociology or the psychology of religion. Anthropologists – I’m thinking particularly of Durkheim – have a much subtler understanding of what religion actually means in people’s lives. It’s a set of activities (often with a very sinister aspect, like death or sacrifice) that are very effective at welding people into units of congregation. The essence of the thing isn’t about making you believe in something or other.” Now he turns his analytical artillery to one of Dawkins’ own favourite philosophical tropes: Russell’s teapot. The idea is that you can no more easily disprove the existence of God than the existence of a celestial teapot between Earth and Mars, but nobody would require a disbeliever in the latter to present any evidence. “Well yes,” says Blackburn, but belief in the teapot alone is a “simply observed scientific belief.” Suppose instead that the teapot takes on a religious significance – it becomes “a focus of morality, a ritual, an object of sacred texts and so on. After that, it doesn’t matter a shit whether there’s a teapot or not.”

Blackburn is not shy about maligning other thinkers – the attack on Dawkins is the fourth time in the evening he declares that an author’s question or argument “doesn’t matter a shit”. But he somehow seems to get away with being quite so rude about other writers just by being quite so rude about them – it comes with such a sense of good fun and sardonic theatre that it’s difficult not to feel like you’re on his side. Crucially, though, he also makes you think you’re on his side – his arguments are precise, his illustrations powerful and his approach thorough. When he takes on the objective of persuading the masses to get interested in the philosophy, it’s easy to see why they’re convinced.  So when I see a Union committee member give me the smile and thumbs up to signal that our time is up, I slip in, almost apologetically, the obligatory last question: “any advice for aspiring philosophers?” He simply replies: “Follow your nose”. For those philosophy students whose nose also leads them straight to the bar, this endorsement can only be good news.