Nothing to see here

This week I had the fun of working on the cover design for my book, Absence and Nothing: the Philosophy of What There Is Not. It’s the most involved I’ve been in the design of a book and I was very pleased with how accommodating Oxford University Press were.

Given the subject matter, I wanted the cover to have letters that were absent though their shadows were present. You ‘read’ the title only by seeing its shadow. I rejected a couple of proposed designs that made the letters look too solid, and we agreed on a very minimalist solution.

There was a remaining worry that the words were a little too ghostly and might be difficult to read. Would this put off potential buyers who were browsing the covers? I hope not. I remembered something that happened years ago when I was a lecturer at Nottingham. I was given a study leave and wanted to put a sign on my door informing students. In the middle of a sheet of an A4, I typed ‘I am on study leave’ in the tiniest possible font. I think it was 6pt.

Surprisingly, absolutely everyone who passed by read the sign. No one could resist leaning in to see what it said. Even I, when I was passing my own door, couldn’t stop myself from looking closer. Someone passing for the 20th time couldn’t help looking. Michael Clark was my Head of Department back then and eventually asked me why the notice was so small. ‘I wanted to attract attention’, I could reply with good evidence.

How does this relate to the proposed book cover? I think most of us are curious beings and don’t want to miss out on potential new information. If something intrigues us, we will make an effort to get it. Similarly, if I want my kids to listen to me, I’ve found it better to speak more quietly than to shout. The title is not completely easy to read, I admit. It’s not exactly hard but if someone glances and sees the design, the element of uncertainty might produce a double-take. If so, it will get more noticed because of the slight doubt as to what it says. We are natural problem-solvers, after all, and sometimes it’s nice to play with that.

Thanks to Constantine Sandis for the title for this blog.


A heavy weight has rested on our shoulders in this past year and, I believe, much further back. For anyone with a social conscience, it is clear that the world is not how we would like it. Managing such a heavy load eventually takes its toll with anxiety, stress and depression increasingly likely outcomes for those who give a damn. We long for more innocent and carefree times: for a weightlessness that we might have been fortunate to experience before; for carefree joy and fun.

It would be easier, you might think, not to care about injustice and the suffering of others. Some live their lives that way, bothering not until the injustice and suffering calls at their own door. But I still think that standing for a better world has a point. If I blithely enjoy my own privilege then I am complicit in the exploitation of those less powerful.

There is a tradition of philosophers being willing to speak up for their causes. Yet here I am torn. It seems too easy for those who acquired esteem through working in some specialist area to feel thereby entitled to pronounce on matters, it often emerges, they know very little about, their words then causing harm to others. So I proceed cautiously, and continue to feel the weight.

We face a quandary. How can we experience enough carefree moments of joy to maintain our mental health while devoting the requisite attention to The Work of improving the world? Last night I had a glimpse of how this might be possible. It was Eurovision night. For those outside the continent, this is a social phenomenon that is hard to fathom. Nominally an international song contest, it has morphed over the years into a celebration of pan-European queerness that unites like-minded folk of many different countries.

Here is hope. On some occasions – just some – it’s possible for weightlessness to itself to be an act of subversion. Amid decades of hostility to others, where joy has been systematically stripped from our lives, compassion eliminated in politics, the arts deemed unnecessary, we show our defiance in levity, our humanity in joy, and our spirit in fun. The queering of Eurovision has been a success not least because of the political example it sets, proving that a moment of weightlessness can increase our care for others, not diminish it. This was a temporary unburdening, of course, but it’s moments like these that sustain us and show that the crueller world we are being sold is also soundly rejected.

Plans and capabilities

Over the past few weeks I have been reading Martha Nussbaum. I have researched before on dispositions, including personal character traits, and also on health and well-being so it was perhaps inevitable that I would arrive at Nussbaum. Her capabilities approach to human development is where these topics intersect. I’m early into my reading but liking what I see. When appraising quality of life we should consider not wealth but, rather, flourishing, which she outlines is a matter of increasing our capabilities. I flourish when I am capable of reasoning, forming attachments with others, playing, living a healthy life, and so on.

I have found Nussbaum inspiring for several reasons. For one thing, it gives a very positive conception of human freedom. We are not free simply when restraints are removed but when we have possibilities opened up to us through the acquisition of new capabilities. Someone who can swim is more free, in that respect, than someone who cannot; and someone capable of imagination has more possibilities open to them than someone whose thought is closed.

Nussbaum has inspired me in a more personal way, too. I am now redacted-years old and for a while have been planning how many (four) and which books I want to write before I retire. I was jaded and preparing for decline. Nussbaum’s capabilities approach has persuaded me that I should not succumb to those feelings. And then I saw her publication list. Into her 70s, Nussbaum is still publishing books at a rate of one a year. She remains a model of flourishing: living proof of the virtues of her philosophy.

An academic friend recently told me they were convinced my best work was still ahead of me. That’s the sort of friend I like. Whether I deserve such kindness remains to be seen but, between that encouragement and Nussbaum’s example, I feel ready to raise my ambitions higher than they have been for some time. Life could end at any point and we might leave some projects incomplete. But activity and capability are things we should nurture and maintain for as long as we possibly can, not just in ourselves but in others too.

The Yorkshire school of metaphysics

This week I took part in a recorded interview. It wasn’t quite what I expected. Having viewed a few others in what I thought was the same series, I was expecting gentle questions such as ‘What first attracted you to philosophy?’ Instead, it was a deep dive, starting with the metaphysics of causation, which I’ve not worked on for over a decade, and then proceeding to emergence, mind and free will. I had to shift through the gears pretty rapidly.

A few days later I saw that it was posted on YouTube. I listened, but only to the first five seconds. I know that I am not alone in hating the sound of my own voice but I couldn’t bear to continue. I never do. I’ve never watched or listened to a whole recording of myself. It’s excruciating.

This self-consciousness has an additional source. In case the reader doesn’t know, I have a conspicuous Yorkshire accent. When I go home to Wakefield, friends and family say that I have lost it, but in academic circles there is no disguising the fact. Even I recognise that it seems incongruous to discuss metaphysics in a thick Yorkshire accent. It’s almost like something from Monty Python or Ripping Yarns. I have met one or two other philosophers from Yorkshire but none who have as broad an accent as me.

I know that I shouldn’t think like this. Two of the most brilliant philosophers I know have thick Glaswegian accents. Universities are more diverse places than they were a century ago and regional and working class voices are now part of the conversation. There’s more than that at play in my case, however. Yorkshire is associated with stubborn, no-nonsense, down-to-earth common sense: about as far away from the esoteric problems of metaphysics as you can get. A Yorkshire metaphysician is, to put it bluntly, a comical combination.

As I enter the later stages of my career, I think I am now in a position to confess the insecurities and vulnerabilities of challenging academic expectations this way. There have been many times when I have wondered if it has held me back. I encounter prejudices all the time: I am sure not as drastic as others do in virtue of their race, sexuality, disability or gender but, nevertheless, it is real and impactful. When I am in parts of southern England, I see the assumptions people make about me. In the university environment, too, I know that I do not fit the mould and I am bound to wonder whether I have been overlooked for opportunities because I did not match the model others have of what a philosopher should be.

My response has been to focus on the written word. I love philosophical discussion in person but certainly feel safer in writing, where my words stand for themselves, free of any prejudices my spoken voice might elicit. And I often feel more accepted speaking in other countries, where knowledge of the English regions and their associations is more limited.

I offer this confession because I know that there will be others in a similar position, experiencing some of the same thoughts and insecurities. Academia is becoming more diverse, which is to be applauded, but it needs more than that. New entrants to the profession should feel welcome, be nurtured and accepted for what they are. After all, the rational part of me knows that having a Yorkshire accent makes me no less of a philosopher, just as it wouldn’t if I had any other accent, race, gender or disability.

I know that I am not always perfectly rational and neither are others. The more ‘outsiders’ that can smash the stereotypes, the better. Once these are a thing of the past, we might be able to avoid internalising them too.


Several years ago, when I was Dean of the Arts Faculty at Nottingham, I was asked to write a regular blog, which I called Arts Matters. I tried to cover most of the subject areas taught and researched in the faculty and not just focus on philosophy. After serving my time, I stood down from management and from the blog, maintaining a relative silence since. I had enjoyed writing my weekly musings but needed to focus on other things.

Now my blog is back; and this time it’s personal!

I have just completed a couple of lengthy projects to which I had dedicated all my writing energies. With a new sense of freedom, I’d like to return to some short-form writing. It’s likely that my posts will mainly concern philosophy; though in a very wide sense, not just the narrow academic one. And I will also be writing in a purely personal capacity this time. I am not representing my faculty or employer. When I read books and watch films, I always prefer the first half to the second. Conclusions are sometimes disappointing. I like the many possibilities that can spring to mind early in a story before the decisions of the writers start to rule most of them out. I have no idea exactly where this blog will go but I am very happy and excited by that right now.