Interview: Nigel Warburton

For a number of years now, philosophers and defenders of spoken-word philosophy David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton have been creating a warm cocoon of soft-spoken intelligence, available to download for those who otherwise, like me, would not have been able to dabble in the world of philosophy. Edmonds and Warburton’s original vision was simple: “to see if we could make some interviews that would be of general interest with top philosophers”. This might seem ambitious, but the pair has only encountered success: their following has grown immensely and they have topped 23 million downloads on iTunes. Is there a limit to how far their chosen format can go? Not according to Warburton: “it can keep on going, just like Desert Island Discs or Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time. It’s extendable – there’s no reason it can’t go on in the same format.” The shorter length is also preferable to the excessively verbose manner of many philosophers: “There’s an advantage to keeping some philosophers succinct, because some of them are used to having an hour and a half to explain their ideas without interruption, and that’s not necessarily good for them. We’re not purporting to give the last word on anything we discuss, the purpose of it is to explore ideas and open up questions and possible directions that people can take, to stimulate people to think, it’s not meant to tell them everything that could possibly be said about the subject”.

Having been given the opportunity to have a conversation with Nigel Warburton, I was of course going to put him on the other side of the table and quiz him myself. The obvious topic was the recent controversy surrounding French Front National leader Marine le Pen’s visit to the Oxford Union: does the author of the Very Short Introduction to Free Speech support her visit and open platform? Warburton was cautious in his reply, generalising the issue to “a disconcerting readiness amongst many universities in Britain and in the States to prevent speakers airing their views, and even to stop certain university clubs discussing certain topics. I’d hope that universities can debate things – when people are prepared to debate, it can be useful to refute their positions rather than simply prevent them speaking at all. In the case of Marine le Pen, I think the issue is partly that she’d been given a very long slot in the agenda…I would prefer to see somebody like that given the chance to debate in more of a Question Time format, than a preaching one. I’m somebody who’s very much on the side of free expression…and when people are prepared to engage in debate rather than merely spouting propaganda, that’s an excellent opportunity to have their views challenged in public.”

As can be expected from any good philosopher, Warburton’s views here tie in with his views on other areas of life. His love for lively debate and good conversation come through when I ask who would be chosen for a “Philosophy Bites: deceased philosophers edition” when he chooses Socrates. “Socrates would give a good conversation I suspect, seeing as that was his metier. He liked debate and argument and to and fro  – many of the good philosophers were good at monologue and so wouldn’t be good at dialogue, but some of them would have been.” And when choosing a topic for his own Philosophy Bite? An examination of spoken-word philosophy, of course. “Philosophers spend a lot of time talking, and there are things in the quality of somebody’s voice and the intonation, the rhythms, the passion, the non-verbal implications that I think are important in communicating philosophy for many philosophers.”

Speaking to Nigel Warburton was a valuable reminder that philosophy does not have to be caught up in the dry and arduous textbooks to be found in the Bodleian, nor does it have to reduce you to tears in tutorials as you are made to feel inadequate by both your traitorous tute partner and your bemused tutor. Instead, philosophy can exist outside of these often suffocating contexts, in lively dinner party conversation and heated debate. David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton have gone to fantastic lengths to restore this socially stimulating yet loyally academic facet of philosophy, and I can only feel gratitude towards them for doing so.

Image Credit: EL DIARIO DE LEON S.A.