Philosophy - think about it, it's fun and it's for everyone

Warwick academic set to promote the application of ethics in everyday life. Matthew Reisz reports

October 15, 2009

"When I teach philosophy to first years, I always say I hope that by the end of the course they will find the world a more interesting and exciting place."

Angie Hobbs' approach as lecturer in philosophy at the University of Warwick, a post she has held since 1992, should stand her in good stead in her new role there as the UK's first senior fellow in the public understanding of philosophy.

She has long been committed to reaching out beyond the confines of the campus, with regular appearances on Radio 4, as well as more personal forms of public engagement. She reports "surprisingly little resistance" to philosophy, even among hard-headed practical types.

For example, she happened to be addressing a group of business people on the day the Royal Bank of Scotland seemed likely to go under, and assumed that "no one was going to want to hear about ethics at that moment. I could not have been more wrong," she said.

"They fully realised that one reason the financial sector was in such a mess was that basic ethical principles of transparency and so on, evolved over millennia, had been pushed to one side since the middle of the 1980s.

"They were very open to practical suggestions about what they could do to get some ethical discussion into their companies."

Although Dr Hobbs intends to continue her research in ancient philosophy and ethics to give "authority and credibility" to her new role - "you can't just waltz off and become a media talking head", she said - she will devote one day a week to "public understanding".

She also hopes to promote philosophy in schools and plans to tweet the occasional philosophical question, linking to a blog where she can discuss the topic in detail.

Possible early themes, she said, include "the role of the making and spending of money in the good life" and "the false dichotomy between local and global".

So how would we all benefit from a bit more philosophy in our lives?

Philosophy is fun, Dr Hobbs said. It promotes "clarity, rigour and precision of thought" and often works best as a social activity, teaching people "not only to articulate their own ideas more clearly, but also to listen to other people's". Even more importantly, philosophy provides "another tool to help us tackle contemporary and future problems".

"Different philosophers have given a huge range of 'answers' to questions about what kind of life one should live, what sort of person one should be, how happiness and virtue interconnect, if at all, and the best ways for societies to construct themselves," she explained.

"The more answers we have, the more options we have. We aren't so trapped in our current mindset."

When Richard Dawkins was professor for the public understanding of science at the University of Oxford, he famously used the position to attack religion.

But Dr Hobbs said she would not be promoting the joys of philosophy by savaging contemporary irrationalism. Instead, she pledged to "win people over with honey rather than vinegar".

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