Matt Oliver talks to an East Oxford man seeking to bring philosophy to the masses
Nigel Warburton, ‘freelance philosopher’ is a man on a mission to bring philosophy to the masses. And he has a lot to show for it.
After writing eight books on the subject, co-editing another six and creating the hugely successful Philosophy Bites podcast with friend and producer David Edmonds, it is fair to say he must be doing something right. The podcast, in particular, has now been downloaded more than 20 million times across the globe and he has sold more than 150,000 English-language copies of his books.
But until recent years these were not things he would ever have seen himself doing, he said. Mr Warburton, now 52, grew up in Kent, and went to Bristol University as an undergraduate in psychology, before a switch to philosophy. “I was interested in it for a long time,” he said, “but as a career it wasn’t anything I’d ever planned. “It became my job little by little, almost by default. I became disillusioned with psychology because of the way it was taught, which seemed to me pointless. “We were doing experiments on psychology students and generalising the population using the results.” He ended up completing his degree and going on to Cambridge to do a doctorate.
On the way he took his first steps into writing, through student journalism. He said: “That helped, because I had an excellent editor. I learnt more about writing there then I did on my entire undergraduate course.”
He then drifted into teaching, doing A-level classes and private undergraduate teaching, before landing a lectureship at Nottingham University. It was there that he continued to hone his teaching skills and came to write his first book, Philosophy: The Basics, which is now considered one of the gateway reads into the subject.
Published in 1992 and now in its fifth edition, it has sold more than 100,000 copies and been translated into a dozen languages. “Teaching was what really got me interested in the subject,” he said. “To teach philosophy well, you have to properly understand it — to be able to answer all the awkward questions that students will throw at you. “That was when I ended up writing my first book. “I had been creating notes for teaching to sixth-formers and undergraduates and the book emerged from those notes. “It was the late eighties and, oddly I thought, there weren’t many philosophy introduction books around. “Students were just recommended to read Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy. ”
After the success of his first book he was to accept another job, at the Open University, one that he would hold for the next 19 years. “I got a bit bored at Nottingham,” he said. “I didn’t want to be marking essays for the rest of my life and there was quite a big age gap between myself and the other philosophers there.” “But then a job came up at the Open University, which fitted my beliefs about making education available to anyone who wants it, so I moved to Oxford to take up that post.”
It was a choice between moving to London or Oxford, he said, but he and his wife felt their children would have a better life in Oxfordshire and it also kept them close to his mother-in-law, who lived in the city. He said: “It is a good place and easy to get to London. I’ve met lots of interesting people here just through being neighbours in East Oxford. “What’s great is that when all the students go, suddenly you are down to the core of people who live here.” So why is philosophy important? Mainly, Warburton argues, because it encourages us to ask questions. “I enjoy popularising philosophy, but not dumbing it down.”
For example, he points out: “Most people at some point in their life decide if God exists or not. “That is a big philosophical question about what really exists and has huge implications for how you live you life. “Most of us have to make difficult choices about how to live and what we value — how we are going to spend our days, what we are going to do with our money and what the limits of our behaviour are going to be. Everybody at a given point in their life is a philosopher to some degree. “If you analyse and challenge your own beliefs and they still emerge unscathed — or you choose to modify them slightly — that is far more valuable than a view you hold to be true just because your parents told you or a religious teacher said it was the right belief.”
That philosophy is now much more widely taught in secondary schools is something he is particularly pleased with. “The philosophy A-level has got much bigger and the religious studies A-level is huge,” he enthuses. “I have been going into some major schools and found that now religious studies is a bigger subject than English literature. ”
Fast-forward to August 2006, while still working for the Open University, and Warburton had started his blog, Virtual Philosopher. Then, on June 2, 2007, the first Philosophy Bites podcast emerged on iTunes — Simon Blackburn on Plato’s Cave. In that 13-minute download, Mr Blackburn discussed one of the most famous concepts in the subject — the nature of reality.
By the following March the series had gained more than one million downloads. The idea of Philosophy Bites is remarkably simple: Take a topic of philosophy, invite an expert in for a discussion and make it clear enough for everybody to understand.
So far there have been 235 episodes published on iTunes, with more on his blog as well. “The podcast is the thing that has reawakened my passion for philosophy,” he said, “because through it I have met some of the most brilliant living philosophers.” The biggest audience is in the United States, then the UK, he explains — but they have had questions from troops on duty. “We get emails from all sorts of places and there was one email from soldiers in Afghanistan, who had been discussing ethics on the battlefield after listening to one of our episodes. “In Oxford, I have been approached by people who recognise my voice. “But to be able to communicate across the world from a laptop – that’s just amazing.”
Though their equipment consists of just a portable hard disk recorder, a microphone and two laptops, Mr Edmonds and Mr Warburton have had requests from would-be interns. “David is a producer, so he edits to a very high quality,” Warburton smiles.
“But some people actually assume we have a studio and make requests to come in, and that’s always quite funny for us.” In 2013, Warburton decided to give up his job at the Open University and go freelance.
It was a big decision, he admitted, but not one he regrets. English language sales alone of his latest book part of a larger series, A Little History of Philosophy, have already hit 45,000 and he is working on four new titles. He will also attend the Oxford Literary Festival in March. “I don’t really have a job,” he said, “but that’s my favourite thing about it. I can do anything now. “I’d like to carry on writing. I see myself as a writer, but I still enjoy teaching and now that is something I can do more flexibly.”
Whatever his job title, thinking will continue to be a way of life for Nigel Warburton.