A modern Socratic gadfly?

November 26, 2004

A. C. Grayling straddles academic philosophy and journalism, as he explains to michael North

When philosopher A. C. Grayling says, “If you really understand something, you can state it clearly,” it is close to being a mission statement. Grayling wants to make philosophy accessible to the widest possible audience. He tries to fulfil this aim with gusto in his prolific output of books for general readers, ranging from compilations of his erudite national newspaper columns to good reads on the history of thought. And he has an influence on public discourse, too: his writings are consulted by the Law Lords and discussed at conferences on medical ethics.

Arif Ahmed, a philosopher at Cambridge University, says of Grayling: “He has helped to advance everybody’s understanding of the nature of logic and the connection between it and realism. And he is a real philosopher in the sense that he bases his actions on his philosophical views. That is why he is much admired for his political work and his more polemical output. In this respect, as well as in the way he looks, he reminds me of Bertrand Russell.” He adds: “Maybe some people are jealous or snobbish because he also does popular stuff. But I think that attitude is all crap - if you have something to say, then there is nothing wrong with saying it in The Guardian or on TV.”
Certainly Grayling’s mission does seem to provoke the philosopher Nick Zangwill at Oxford University. “He has somehow got in with the media,” says Zangwill, who sniffs: “His work is of minor importance, even by national standards.”

Grayling himself, who at 53 is a reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, London University, recalls a time when two of his books appeared on The Observer ’s list of the top five philosophy books. “Instead of colleagues saying ‘well done’, there was a silence that said: ‘Perhaps we should give you more students or something.’ In philosophy, there is still a feeling that if you write for the general public, you are somehow not 100 per cent serious.”

He explains: “There is a problem in that the academy has been professionalised. The more philosophers fear the critical judgement of their professional colleagues, the more they ratchet up the intensity and technicality of their work.” He, by contrast, believes he has a responsibility akin to 19th-century professors at the University of Basel, who were obliged to share their knowledge with the public. “Because doing so doesn’t necessarily mean that you make it simplistic. You can make it simpler to grasp and understand without falsifying it.”

Grayling’s journey to being a public intellectual began at the age of 14 while growing up in East Africa, when he bought G. H. Lewes’ Biographical History of Philosophy from the Nyasaland Rotary Club fte. “It superinduced order on the random reading that had preceded it, and settled my vocation,” he later wrote. He took his first degree, which included philosophy, at Sussex University and, on the advice of the vice-chancellor Asa Briggs, also started a pure philosophy degree at London University. He attended Oxford as a postgraduate.

His first textbook, An Introduction to Philosophical Logic , was written while researching his PhD. “I really needed for myself a textbook to range over these very central topics in philosophy and, since there wasn’t a book, I decided to write it.” The “Holy Grayling”, as it has become known, is now in its third edition.

Many of his subsequent publications - Berkeley: The Central Arguments (1986), guides to Wittgenstein (1988) and Russell (1995) for the Oxford Past Masters series and the more recent What is Good? (2003) - in Grayling’s view could also qualify as textbooks. “They have managed to shoulder their way into the debate and become part of the teaching equipment.”

But his next unequivocal venture into textbooks was as an editor for Oxford University Press. The aim of Philosophy 1: A Guide through the Subject (1995) and Philosophy 2: Further through the Subject (1998) was to equip students on the single-subject London University philosophy course “with a real companion to the central mainstream study of philosophy and the history of philosophy”.

The two volumes have become standard fare on reading lists in the Anglophone world. However, Grayling says he was initially “very anxious” at the prospect of having to send back contributors’ essays that were unclear. “But partly from choosing good people and partly because of some kind of alchemy, everyone rose to the challenge. It was tremendously educative.” There was only one big hiccup, when on deadline day one contributor failed to deliver. Fortunately, Bernard Williams stepped in and completed an “absolutely beautiful” 20,000-word essay on ethics in just two months.

Bertrand Russell said of Grayling’s own specialism, philosophical logic, that “the subject matter... is so exceedingly difficult and elusive that any person who has ever tried to think about it knows you do not think about it except perhaps once in six months for half a minute... The really good philosopher is the one who does once in six months think about it for a minute. Bad philosophers never do.”

Grayling is cautious when asked if he has arrived at an original thought. He quotes Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun”, before adding: “But there are ways of seeing things and putting things, of clarifying, that move the debate on and help us get rid of the junk.”

He confides that he has a new idea about a very old debate on the relation of the mind to the world. “I have a take on that that really does solve the problem about it.” But he hasn’t found time to write his idea down. There is a sense, he says, that once you have worked through the idea, “you feel a sense of satisfaction, and thinking of spending a couple of years writing it out in a way that would be suitable for your fellows is not quite an irrelevance, but you feel ‘I’ll get round to that some day’. You know the answer, but maybe it’s going to die with you”.

To which Adrian Moore, another sceptical philosopher at Oxford, responds: “If anyone has an idea about something as fundamental as that, they would make sure that they wrote it down. Two years is not a long time. He may not be absolutely confident of the idea.”

In the 19th century, Alfred North Whitehead said that “philosophy begins in wonder”. Grayling may not be a contemporary Whitehead, but he has not lost the sense of wonder that he felt as a boy in Nyasaland. To convey this feeling to a wider public, he has become almost evangelical about philosophy. At this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, someone even called him “a modern Socratic gadfly who provokes us to thought”. Hyperbole it may be, but whatever else he is, Grayling is certainly highly readable - something one cannot say of the writing of most of his professional colleagues.

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