Last week I completely bust my hamstring playing football against a bunch of younger and fitter players and I’ve spent the week laid up, doing my best to rest to recover. At some point, I will start training again but I am also realistic. At 56 years old, I have to face the fact that my playing days are probably half over. My retraining will be tentative, gradual and carefully managed.

Similar will be my philosophical retraining because, at the same time, my academic research is taking different directions. Most will know me primarily as a metaphysician (or metaphysicist, as I like to say). But the publication of Absence and Nothing was a turning point, I suspect: a finale to 30-odd years working in the field of analytic ontology. There is a sense of freedom that accompanies the end of a major, long-term project and with that comes excitement and a little trepidation.

I am undoubtedly in the mood to retrain. I’ve always wanted to do new things but now I want to do seriously new things. I think the world is facing ever-mounting problems, primarily around imminent environmental catastrophe and the related – for I am sure they are connected – return of fascism. Can I justify a philosophy as abstract and detached as metaphysics while the world around us burns? I think not, but if I am to make meaningful contributions to a more value-driven philosophy, then I need a considerable amount of retraining.

I have plans, including new work with brilliant rising star Sheree Bekker (I got in early because she is soon to be huge in feminist philosophy). First will be a book on public health in a complex world and during my recuperation I am reading-up on health and politics (Rob Baggott’s excellent Public Health: Policy and Politics currently). After that is a project on the connection between politics and metaphysics, arguing that the latter is not entirely detached after all. There is conservative metaphysics (basically Humean) and progressive metaphysics (holistic and emergentist) and many political problems stem from the dominance of the former in popular consciousness. To make the thesis convincing, I know I need some retraining in ethics and political philosophy.

There is a cliché that it’s never too late to retrain and I guess I’m going to find out whether that holds true. I don’t feel ready for my pipe and slippers yet. If I am lucky enough to have another decade to my career, I hope to make a meaningful contribution to public and political discourse. I might be quiet for a while but I know that, if it’s to be worthwhile, I first have a lot to learn.


The hardest route up Snowden/Yr Wyddfa, the highest mountain in England and Wales, is called Crib Goch. It’s a sharp ridge, uneven and rocky, with some vertical, sheer drops. A risk of ascending this vertiginous route is that some climbers become cragfast: so terrified that they can’t move in any direction. Like limpets, they stick to the uneven rocks, paralysed and overwhelmed.

I’ve never attempted Crib Goch, taking the less-challenging Pyg track instead. But I do think I know what it’s like to be cragfast. Something like it happens in academic life. We can be so overwhelmed by the quantity of tasks we face that we don’t know where to start. The decision on what to do first can be so difficult that hours can pass in a state of inactivity, fearing the mountain of work that awaits us.

And it often is a mountain, of marking, of emails, of incomplete documents, of reading: a mountain just as hard to climb as Snowden or Ben Nevis. It can be done, one step at a time, but you need to know the best footholds and have the right equipment. I don’t blame anyone who succumbs to the terror and clings to the secure ground on which they stand. But they may need help to move forward.

After a vacation such as the Christmas holiday, we are most susceptible to the paralysis. The work has built up while our gaze was turned. We’ve lost momentum and glimpsed a normal life. The mountain looks all the bigger from the bottom. Where to begin?

There have been times when I’ve made to-do lists and tried to prioritise tasks. I now think that this worsens the problem, though. Very often it’s not clear which task is most pressing. Maybe they all are. Then, like Buridan’s ass, we can’t advance because there is no reason to start with one thing rather than another. Only in the last few years have I found my own effective strategy. When getting back to work after a rest, for a little while I don’t bother to prioritise at all. It doesn’t really matter what you do first as long as you do something. Get some of the jobs off your desk and then the next decision becomes easier. Just keep moving. Perhaps this strategy would work on Crib Goch too. Just keep moving; that is, as long as you don’t go over the edge.

The fact-value dichotomy

The old conventional wisdom is that you cannot infer an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. The latter is a factual matter while the former is normative. One tells us how things are while the other tells us how things should or shouldn’t, ought or oughtn’t, be and there is no path from one to the other. It would be a naturalistic fallacy, for instance, to say that because something has always been a certain way that it ought to be that way. Decisions concerning what ought to be and what we should do are determined by what we value, not by what is factually the case. Wealth inequality is a historical fact, for example, but whether we ought to continue it or end it is a decision taken according to what we value. No fact can dictate which way we go. Even the facts that equality produces greater happiness and human flourishing matters only if we value those things.

I quite like this conventional wisdom, even though I now reject it. The difficulty I’ve always found has been to reject it in a way that explains its attraction and perhaps even retains a small part of it. Thinking about the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, and dipping into the work of Angela Saini, I’ve come to accept that facts, to one degree or another, are themselves value-laden. One might challenge this by saying that they can be established beyond doubt by scientific evidence but such a reply overlooks the point that science is a social, human practice and is itself norm governed. There are norms of objectivity and replicability that are held dear in science, for instance. Science is already a norm-governed enterprise and the facts it generates are products of those norms.

Worse than that, science is a historically situated social activity that reflects the dominant values of its setting. What gets researched, and thus what facts are generated scientifically, is a product of wealth, power and its values. Consequently, the science we know reflects all the flaws of Western society. We have to face the uncomfortable prospect that science is sexist, racist and capitalist. Consider the example I saw in a tweet this week: an illustration of a Black foetus. Shockingly, it’s likely to be the first such representation most of us have seen. Has medical science effectively denied that foetuses can be Black? Further, our model of knowledge production is one that requires funding. Money decides what is researched and how it is researched. Consider randomised controlled trials (RCTs): the gold standard in medical research. RCT is a method that structurally favours certain types of interventions such as commercially exploitable pharmaceutical products. Love might be the best thing for us but an RCT could never show that (what would be placebo love?). A drug company might be able to sell you a pill to feel good instead (after funding a series of trials and publishing only the one that suggests a favourable effect; discarding the rest).

Feyerabend suggested that science could be, and was initially, liberating. And, yes, I cannot deny that it has allowed us to do much of value, especially medically, if we choose to value life and health (and this turns out to be a bigger IF than you’d think). But he also points out that science can be oppressive, used as a stick with which to beat people, especially the disempowered.

If science becomes our master, something has gone wrong. If science tells us that a group of people’s rights should be over-ridden, something has gone wrong. And this is where a scintilla of the old fact-value dichotomy still has force. The oppressive use of science occurs when facts are invoked that supposedly dictate a course of action: almost always an unjust one; e.g., women are inferior according to some criterion, therefore … (gap to be completed by some unjust treatment). This is still a naturalistic fallacy and should still be resisted even if we believe there are no value-free facts in the first place. It follows that we should be suspicious of any declaration that we should just ‘follow the science’ if that is not supplemented by a discussion of what we value and what we are aiming to achieve. Without that, there have to be questions of whose science we are being asked to follow, what interests it serves, and what choices are being marginalised by this discourse.

Taking oneself seriously

I don’t really feel qualified to talk about imposter syndrome since it now has its own philosophical literature (Katherine Hawley: here). I do, though, have experience of it with students and colleagues and try to counteract it. It helps to be able to understand the thinking behind it. Now that I have grey hair, I might match the stereotype of a philosopher to some extent but I’m all too aware of the less visible ways in which I don’t meet that stereotype. I have often felt like an outsider and doubted my worth.

In academic circles, the problem is not simply feeling that one doesn’t deserve the markers of success one has already gained. There is also a lack of confidence and inability to take oneself seriously. If you don’t, others are less likely to do so too. In contrast, it’s not hard to find those whose self-confidence far exceeds there true ability, enabling them to sound sure of themselves and authoritative. As the cliché goes, it’s all the wrong people who have imposter syndrome.

I try hard to concentrate on the content of a person’s verbal utterances rather than their manner of delivery. This is an attempt to ignore matters such as regional and national accents versus English received pronunciation, hesitancy and tone of voice. Of course, you can’t be entirely unaware of those factors, and you don’t want to be since the disparity between content and delivery allows you to identify those whose confidence level is unjustifiably low.

Why bother? For one thing, it helps academic progress if we consider what people say rather than way in which they say it. In doing so, we then take others seriously and this in time allows them to take themselves seriously too. If they can do so, their confidence might come closer to matching what they offer, encouraging them to speak more freely.

This might sound like a worthy and noble academic ideal. There’s nothing wrong with that but in addition it is so absolutely joyous to see someone have their moment of realisation and awakening when they start to take themselves seriously. I’ve seen it in students and I’ve seen it in early-career colleagues. New entrants to academia often don’t realise just how good they have become. When that’s true, there’s nothing more beautiful than them seeing it. I’m aware of the social justice element to this, too. Lack of confidence and imposter syndrome are not merely individual pathologies: they have social determinants such as class, race, gender and disability. It’s a privilege to see those from traditionally disempowered groups demand a voice and assert that those factors should not and will not matter.

A personal library

One of the first things people often say when they visit my office is that I have a lot of books. True, there are bookcases on all the available wall space and they are pretty much full. My most precious and valuable books are at home where the shelves are full too. I soon will have no choice but to adopt a one-in one-out policy. When all the space is used, you have to think very carefully about any new acquisitions.

I grew up in a house without books but when I was an undergraduate, I shared with a mature student who was a real bibliophile. He introduced me to the joy of bookshops, both new and second hand, and that is where my personal library began. There are certain books that I have come to love both as physical objects and as intellectual treasures. I have a beautiful old copy of Hume’s Treatise, for instance, which I’ve read cover to cover, and the pleasure and stimulation it gave me outweighs the price I paid to an incalculable extent. I feel very lucky and, indeed, privileged to own the sort of personal library of which I once dreamed.

If only I could now sit back and enjoy my collection, carefully accumulated and curated, proudly display my Bertrand Russell first editions and complete works of Aristotle, and then recline in my armchair with a favourite volume. But things are never so simple in my mind. Recently, I saw a wonderful blog in praise of public libraries. I’m a big supporter of public libraries too and every word of that blog was correct. It puts me in a difficult position, though. Here I am, self-satisfied with my books, which I know function as signifiers of wealth, status and intellectual credentials. Public libraries are collectivist. Personal libraries are individualist. What on earth am I doing?

In theory, I would love to have no need of personal possessions. How can we not be inspired by the stories of Diogenes of Sinope, a true philosopher who lived for thinking alone and who owned virtually nothing? (OK, he owned a pouch, a stick and a cup, but upon seeing someone drink water from cupped hands, he threw away the cup since it was unnecessary.) As ever, I am torn. I want to enjoy my books but am not pleased or proud with my acquisitiveness. If only I could live on the public library alone. Then again, I wouldn’t then be able to lay my hands instantly on Russell’s Towards World Government or to smell a nice first edition of David Copperfield.

Whether it is the lot of a philosopher or simply a fact of my personal psychology to be permanently conflicted, I might never know. I fear I will never be able to experience carefree enjoyment of my own privilege: for that’s what it is. Living in a relatively wealthy situation while poverty and starvation are still a reality in many parts of the world, and now many parts of my own country, I think it’s quite right to have misgivings about possessions, of which my personal library is a conspicuous symbol. How much better I could enjoy my nice things if I knew that everyone else was enjoying theirs too. I don’t think I could ever be a Diogenes and nor do I think anyone else should have to be one. Collective rather than personal emancipation should always be the goal.

Good discussions

In my second undergraduate year, I got into badminton. I would go to the sports hall most afternoons and play against a few of my friends and course mates. Every single time I visited, there was a group of Indonesian chemical engineering students, who played constantly. They were obviously brilliant. One day, I plucked up the courage to chat with some of them and one invited me to have a game. Maybe you can guess what happened next; though maybe you cannot. Yes, he was clearly streets ahead of me. It was a mismatch. But, no, he didn’t annihilate me. Instead, my opponent effortlessly kept the rally going, seemingly standing still and whacking the shuttle to all four corners of the court while I ran hither and thither trying with all my might to return the next shot. Minute after minute I exerted myself, becoming increasingly hot, red and sweaty, until I just could go on no more. I had to stop. I think he didn’t particularly want to win the point, nor was he deliberately wearing me down. He just wanted to keep the game going as long as possible.

Badminton is no longer my passion but philosophy is. The best philosophy is discussion based. It’s an interaction between two or more of us wrestling with the same problem. I’ve noticed that some people are very good at discussion. By this, I don’t mean that they ‘win’ the discussion by being the cleverest or destroying an opponent with their irresistible argument. Those who are good at discussion have another set of attributes. The cleverest people are not those speaking loudest or trying to impress. They are generous instead. That generosity extends to interpreting the previous speaker’s point in as helpful a way as possible. The best discussant seems able to understand their interlocutor’s point, perhaps better than even its first speaker did. And then they offer something back, a new idea with which to play.

I sometimes mention as an example to others my experiences meeting the philosopher David Lewis. He would get asked a lot of stupid questions, or what could be interpreted as stupid questions. I might have asked him a few myself. I found, however, that he had an amazing talent for making any question a good question. He would always give it a good answer, pointing out something interesting and productive in it, which would allow a conversation to move on to new territory with us all feeling safe and satisfied. There was no “I don’t know what you mean” or “No, that’s irrelevant”. He would give a generous interpretation of the point and show what you could get out of it. A question is an opportunity. You can give the briefest of answers, and it might be true. But where’s the benefit in that? Instead, you can take it up and run with it.

I’ve had some beautiful discussions of late, which have prompted this post. I try to be the best discussant I can but I still meet plenty who are better than me. They look for agreement rather than disagreement. If they detect ignorance, they don’t point it out directly but gently correct it in their reply. Like my badminton opponent, they don’t try to win the point. They see that the value is in the activity rather than its conclusion. Let’s keep the back-and-forth going as long as we have the time. If we do it right, we all have a gain in understanding.

Ancient women philosophers

A little late to the party, I’ve been reading Peter Adamson’s A History of Philosophy Without any Gaps. It’s quite a promise to say there will be no gaps. There’s bound to be. All writers make decisions on what to include, which are also decisions on what to exclude (as Heraclitus said: the road up is also the road down). Still, I was intrigued to find a chapter on Ancient women philosophers. That certainly looks like a gap filled. I didn’t even know there had been women philosophers at that time. I assumed that they’d been excluded from the activity.

I had been looking forward to the chapter all through the book. It is near the end of volume 1: 42nd of 43 chapters. When I got there, my initial reaction was one of disappointment. There were only tiny surviving fragments and testimonies, though that applies to many of the men of the period too. But it was what those fragments said. It seemed that the Ancient women were mainly defending virtue, by which they meant running a good household, keeping their men happy, raising children, cleaning; that sort of stuff. There were no feminist trailblazers, like I was hoping. Nor was there any really interesting philosophy. One fragment has Theano talking about the relationship between nature and numbers but that is it.

Not all is as it seems, however. I’ve said elsewhere that the history of philosophy is written by the victor (which is not to be taken literally in this case: I’m not saying that Adamson has won philosophy). Everything that we know about Ancient women philosophers we know because of the reports of contemporaries and near contemporaries who were all men. The views of women philosophers are brought to us by the men who knew of them and those men were in a position to filter those views. Acting as gatekeepers, they chose what to include and exclude from women’s thought. It is men who tell us that early women thinkers were very concerned about keeping a good household. Were they really?

There are some fragments ascribed to women, such as one in which it is claimed that wives should permit the adultery of their husbands. Even if these words were truly written by the woman to whom it is attributed, we still find men acting as gatekeepers. Is it any surprise that out of everything a woman wrote, only the fragments men care to cite are the ones that survived? Might there have been somewhere a treatise on why women should rise up and destroy patriarchy? I suspect there would have been or, at the very least, some women would have thought it and discussed it. It is very likely that any such ideas would have been suppressed and destroyed.

A final case is where women’s thought is outright invented by men. It is possible that the character of Diotima in Plato’s Symposium was an entirely literary creation. If so, it is a case of Plato speaking on behalf of a woman, hence no reliable guide to women’s thought at the time. I am not claiming these as my own insights, by the way. Adamson has all these points and more and I warmly recommend his books (there are already five volumes in his ongoing History).

The powerful have always acted as gatekeepers of thought. I wish it were less true now than it was but I fear the opposite. With a mass media in the hands of a few, and now clear algorithmic manipulation of social media, it’s just as true as ever. That story all over the papers, radio and TV comes to you because a powerful actor has decided to allow you it. That inclusion is also an exclusion. Until we all have fair access, we are always going to have to dig deep to find the truly silenced voices. This is the Real Work and you will not find it in the newspapers.

The art of good argument

Most of us who write non-fiction will at some point desire to persuade our readers of some thesis. I see this as a natural extension of the persuasive dialogue into which everyone enters during daily conversations, trying to convince another interlocutor of some view. Writers have an uninterrupted space to themselves in which to develop a case at length. Perhaps they have a particular reader in mind, real or imagined, whom they hope to convince or impress.

There is an old, old battle between rhetorical and philosophical approaches to argument. As mentioned in an earlier post, I’m currently studying Plato’s Gorgias so this battle is on my mind. Some seek to persuade by their manner of presentation, appealing to the emotions of the listener, but with little regard to the truth of the matter. They wish merely to attract supporters. Others, the philosophers, are motivated by truth alone and think the only grounds for support should be a position based on good reason and argument. That seemed to be Socrates’, undoubtedly idealised, characterisation.

Philosophers are the true experts in good argument and the real specialists are the logicians. I’m not an expert logician at all, though I did once have to teach a logic module at short notice. My own logical training was idiosyncratic since it consisted only in the outdated ancient syllogistic. I enjoyed it as a student as it was the one part of my philosophy syllabus where there were right answers and it was easy to gain perfect scores. When teaching, I had to be more contemporary since the course content dictated I teach truth tables, predicate calculus and natural deduction.

It was natural deduction where I thought the fun really started. The decision procedures for syllogisms and truth tables were algorithmic: simply follow the steps and you would come up with the right answer. Natural deductions require more creativity. There are rules, of course, but you have to decide which rules to apply, seeking the most economical and elegant proof. I loved the way that logic could be seen as an art and not merely a science. With more practice, I got a sense of what rules are best applied in what contexts but it still felt like a stab in the dark. You sometimes have to go out on a limb and see if it works out in the end.

The appeal of this more creative approach to formal logic is that it reflects our real argumentative situation when writing to persuade others, as we sit down with that blank page in front of us. We have to invent the informal arguments. Should we argue analogically, inductively, by counterexample or reductio ad absurdum? Recently, I’ve enjoyed constructing inconsistent triads, where three claims each looks persuasive but they cannot be true together so at least one of them must be false. I’m realistic enough to recognise that argumentative creativity must extend to the inclusion of some rhetoric too, though. The way in which we present our arguments can play a major role in their success. I have a suspicion, for instance, that Humeanism is so popular because Hume was very good at writing persuasively, even though his philosophy is ultimately absurd. The balance I seek to achieve between rhetoric and philosophy, therefore, is that I’m willing to use rhetorical devices but only in the service of truth and validity. I guess, though, that almost everyone thinks that this is what they do.

Whereof we know nothing, pass over in silence

In recent months, and for the first time, I’ve been embarrassed to be a philosopher. Consequently, I’ve been hanging out with academics in other disciplines and keeping my background quiet. I had always assumed that philosopher was a noble vocation and the peak of intellectual achievement. Enough has happened lately to make me doubt this.

Philosophy has a problem and that problem is hubris. Philosophers pride themselves on their argumentative skills. They should have a better than average grasp of logic and a high capacity for understanding. Understanding of what? That is part of the problem. Philosophical skills are, in theory, general and transferable, so we can apply our techniques to any possible question. So far, so good.

Yet this can also generate hubris. Philosophical hubris is the belief that because of having general philosophical skills and mastery of reason and argument one is thereby qualified to pronounce on any subject whatsoever, even matters one knows very little about. Why read the literature and respect the existing traditions when one can take a razor-sharp philosopher’s scalpel to the problem and dissect it conceptually? One doesn’t need knowledge of a discipline when one can figure it all out a priori. One doesn’t need to engage with previous thinkers. Indeed, one shows one’s true genius more by ignoring and disrespecting what has come before.

Of course, I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past. I’ve written on philosophy of biology and philosophy of physics when I have no training in either biology or physics. In my defence, I’ve always tried to approach those subjects with a humble attitude and at least looked at what other philosophers of science have said. What I find difficult and problematic is when a philosopher wades in on some topic that has newly gained their attention and tries to pronounce based on First Principles, purposefully ignoring all prior work, even where it concerns an entire academic discipline. Failure is then inevitable, since it is likely that we repeat prior mistakes of other thinkers, overlook the breakthroughs that are already established in that field, or conclude something proudly that has long been known and argued in detail better elsewhere. The latter is likely the best we can hope. More probable is that we say something that was already, after due examination, dismissed for good reason. We repeat old mistakes.

Philosophers should not feel in a position to pronounce on anything that takes their fancy, and especially not matters with a long academic history. We should reject this hubris. Famously, the oracle at Delphi declared Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, supposedly because he knew that he knew nothing. For this, and other reasons, Socrates was my first philosophical hero. I’ve since had others besides but what I like about this version of Socrates is the humility. Contemporary publishers and journal editors like confident, controversial and categorical claims since they make a good read and provoke responses. But being provocative is not an automatic good in the current climate. Instead, I think it in the longer-term interest of our discipline to rediscover that Socratic philosophy of humility. A first step is to accept that whereof we know nothing, we should pass over in silence. This, I believe, is the way to rebuild the credibility and respectability philosophy once had.

Go slow

As the years roll by, I am becoming more and more of an ancient philosopher. When a colleague told me the Classics department were running a reading group on Plato’s Gorgias, I couldn’t resist. Last week we had our first meeting and I turned up not knowing what to expect. A few other philosophers were there and made to feel welcome though the group were mainly classicists, clutching their various scholarly editions and translations. I was a bit embarrassed by my 1980s Penguin paperback.

I guess I should’ve expected classicists to be thorough. Should we have read the text so we could delve straight into the analysis? No. Rather, someone led the group in the reading, a few sentences at a time, first in ancient Greek and then they improvised a translation. Discussion ensued over each line, sometimes over each word. It was a lively and thorough session but, above all, steady and measured. Progress was slow. Very slow. By the end of the meeting, we had covered a little over a page. Yet we were satisfied.

I’ve heard many people complain of being slow readers. I’d say that I’m one too. I have never been more aware than I was in that reading group, however, that this is a virtue, not a vice. I remain in awe of classicists. They have an ability not just to dissect a text but, above all, to savour it. Philosophers can do the same but not always. There is pressure to rush quickly through a book or article. Still, the best works are worth dwelling on, savouring, interrogating.

Good books are the ones we can use to assist our own thinking: those that stimulate you to pause and ponder as you go off on a flight of fancy. In that respect, philosophy is more like poetry than anything else. Two readers can see the same text and think very different interpretations or take ensuing thoughts in opposite directions. The reading group gave space for the participants to express the various associations they had garnered from the words. Plato is especially apt to be read poetically. Each line rewards your effort.

A couple of days later I was running a metaphysics discussion group and, I suspect, still intoxicated by the opening to the Gorgias. We had around five suggested discussion questions to get through. I was pleased that by the end we were still on the first one. Breadth of knowledge is fine but there’s no substitute for the feeling of depth. To get that, we have to overcome the pressures of the outside world and construct a safe cocoon in which it is allowed to go slow. With pressures on us all to produce as much as possible, as quickly as possible, it feels like nothing could be more subversive.