Nigel Warburton’s engaging book A Little History of Philosophy (published this month) introduces the great thinkers in Western philosophy and explores their most compelling ideas about the world and how best to live in it. Taking inspiration from Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, Warburton makes philosophy accessible, offering inspiration to think, argue, reason, and ask questions in the tradition of Socrates. Here the author finds himself on the receiving end of questions about his new book…
Interview with Nigel Warburton
Why did you write this book?
Philosophy is one of the most stimulating and important subjects there is. We all philosophize some of the time when we think about how we should live, whether or not God exists, or how society should be organized. These questions have vexed the greatest minds for thousands of years. Yet some people are still daunted by philosophy. They think it’s an impenetrable and obscure subject that has no relevance for them. I wanted to show this isn’t true, that it’s possible to write an accessible and enjoyable book without betraying the spirit of the great thinkers of the past or making them obscure or irrelevant. I decided to focus on the Western tradition in philosophy and on one or two key ideas from each philosopher discussed rather than attempt an encyclopedic overview.
How is making philosophy accessible to all a challenge?
Part of the challenge of writing a book like this was to keep the language straightforward. Many philosophers have introduced complex technical terms that make their writing hard to follow. It’s easy to fall into the habit of mirroring them. Writing in a way that doesn’t presuppose knowledge is an excellent discipline, though, as there’s no place to hide.
Which philosophers do you personally find most engaging?
Socrates, the great fifth‐century Athenian philosopher who would cross‐question passersby in the marketplace and reveal how little they really knew, is one of my personal favourites. His unwillingness to accept assumptions, and his passion for discovering the truth or, failing that, how little he knew, provide a model for all philosophers. Although he wasn’t the first philosopher, he was the first great philosopher. He of all the philosophers in the book is the one I’d most like to have met. My second choice would be the eighteenth‐century philosopher David Hume, a remarkable thinker who was also a superb writer.
What are the major themes of your book?
A Little History of Philosophy focuses on the major themes of philosophy: appearance and reality, the nature of the self, and questions about God’s existence and about how we should live, both individually and as members of society. Throughout philosophy’s history these have been the perennial themes. Each era gives them a new twist, but they aren’t going to go away.
Nigel Warburton is senior lecturer in philosophy, The Open University. He is the author of several popular introductions to philosophy and is the interviewer on the Philosophy Bites podcast. He lives in Oxford.
A Little History of Philosophy is out this month from Yale University Press.