:: Article

Being Human

An interview with AC Grayling by SJ Fowler.


One of the world’s pre-eminent philosophical figures, AC Grayling is a champion of enlightenment value philosophy in the great essayistic tradition of Ruskin, Lamb and Russell. A regular contributor to major newspaper and a bestseller author of books of philosophical essays, he carries an immense philosophical pedigree to accompany his urbane and prolific philosophical output. To discuss the role of contemporary philosophy outside of Academia and the role of religion in philosophical thought, for 3:AM Magazine, he speaks to SJ Fowler.

3:AM: Where does philosophical discourse begin for you; in incredulity? Wonder? Mortality? Disappointment?

AC Grayling: Philosophy begins for me in fascinated interest, that is interest in the world and nature and the circumstances of mankind within it.

3:AM: Does philosophy have a literal role to play in people’s lives? Is it rather a mode of thinking that may benefit individuals or the specific application of rigour toward thought?

ACG: As I’ve stated for me philosophy means ‘enquiry’ – reflective enquiry – the effort to make sense of things, to go the final step beyond knowledge to understanding, and to construct a framework within which one can see clearly and act well. This is as literal as anything could be within our lives.

3:AM: Do you think there has been a decline in the relevance in philosophy (though I realise this question is fraught with the problem of a definition of what philosophy is) in contemporary life? Certainly political philosophy, moral philosophy, ontology – they appear at best an abstract and indirect presence in the thoughts of most.

ACG: If philosophy is reflective enquiry, then it is always relevant on all scales, large and small, to being human in a complicated world. And the task of navigation through a complicated world in a way which is thoughtful, chosen and principled is a necessity – otherwise one is an instrument of other people’s choices and aims.

3:AM: It seems that people who may be drawn to philosophy, especially as laymen, as non academics, may also be inquisitive, intellectually rigorous, autodidactic or mentally energetic, and so philosophy builds upon what was already present. What I mean to ask is do you think philosophy does or will penetrate beyond the borders of specific interest or academia in the future, as it appeared to in the past?

ACG: The sequestration of philosophy into a highly technical and abstract university discipline, if this is all that philosophy is regarded as, is a loss – but in fact philosophy belongs to everyone, and everyone engages in it (though usually without giving it that name: from conversations in pubs to thinking about big choices in life while waiting at the bus stop) – so the effort to keep it an elite pursuit to the exclusion is always bound to fail.

3:AM: What is the role of literature, poetry, music in contributing to our lives for the better? Do you believe art, in all its forms, has reached apexes, and so decline has taken place, or do you embrace the fluctuating forms of art that each generation produces as equally valuable?

ACG: The arts and literature are vital to philosophical reflection, because they provide insights, perspectives, alternatives, explorations and experiments in living, seeing and experiencing which are rich resources for the sense-making task of philosophy. I often think that the narrative arts, in particular, are the best kind of moral philosophy – and without doubt the empirical sciences are the best model of epistemology and the best resource for metaphysics.

3:AM: Your background, that is your education and career as a philosopher is venerable. Did you pursue philosophy from a very young age? Through parental influence? You were educated by some immense figures in modern analytical philosophy, who left the most indelible mark upon you?

ACG: I started reading philosophy when I was very young – the first things I read with special care were some of Plato’s dialogues, G.H.Lewes’s A Biographical History of Philosophy, Ayer’s Language Truth and Logic, John Stuart Mill – and they fixed my desire to find out more. At Oxford P.F, Strawson, A.J. Ayer and Michael Dummett were big influences as teachers and the first two later as friends,but I also learned a lot both from reading and personal acquaintance with W.V.Quine, Hilary Putnam, Jonathan Glover and others. I met and had conversations with the likes of Donald Davidson, Richard Rorty and others, who as big names in later twentieth century philosophy were influential in their different ways; but it was the example of Hume, Mill and Russell as philosophers who were also engaged in social questions that encouraged an interest in the wider application of philosophy as enquiry – you might say enquiry with a conscience.

3:AM: It seems from your beginning mode, philosophy as an act of humility as represented by the wonder and balanced curiosity represented in enlightenment values, and especially in your ethics, you suggest we must rediscover a conception of morality in order to successfully navigate a difficulty we have in dealing with such questions…

ACG: The central project of the enlightenment was emancipation of the individual through thought and considered choice, and in particular through the choice of good relationships between autonomous individuals. These are ethical matters, where ‘ethics’ is a far more inclusive thing than ‘morals’ (though the latter are of course part of ethics). The pursuit of emancipated, reflective, chosen goods is what makes life itself good and imbued with meaning, there being as many different kinds of good and meaningful lives as there are people, for people are individuals with different talents for creating meaning suited to themselves – always under the constraint of respecting others’ endeavours towards good lives – this is John Stuart Mill’s ‘Harm’ principle.

3:AM: Though perhaps not in this country, or northern or central Europe, but certainly in America, Africa and the Middle East, there has been a resurgence in religious extremism and fundamentalism. Why do you think this has happened? Are the reasons cultural or political, or economic?

ACG: In my view religion is diminishing not resurgent; what looks like resurgence is a turning up of volume, an amplification, the noise of protest and anxiety resulting from the pressure that religious groups feel from the secularising tendency of history. The historical precedent is the sixteenth-seventeeth century loss of hegemony by the Roman Catholic Church: as the Reformation broke its control over the mind and life of Europe, it fought back hard, causing nearly two centuries of extremely bloody and cruel religious wars and turmoil. At the time it would have looked like the Church militant and rampant, but it was more the rearguard action of a diminished power, like a cornered animal. I think something like this is happening today, not least with Islam, whose way of life and values are under severe pressure from a globalising world with the sometimes rapacious secular values of the powerful West.

3:AM: Do you think there will be a resurgence of religious belief and participation in the UK, with a younger generation?

ACG: The opposite is in fact happening, youngers cohorts of the population in the UK, Europe and US are less religious than older cohorts. The US statistics are particularly interesting.

3:AM: In a meaningful sense, your atheism seems to refute the idea that atheism is a philosophical necessity that results in pessimism. To what extent must atheism and the fragility of human nature be taken as given for us to begin legitimately philosophising?

ACG: As has been well said, atheism is to religious belief what not collecting stamps is to stamp collecting. If instead of ‘atheism’ you use the word ‘afairyism’ or some such, to illustrate the fact that there is no real subject matter in play (whereas ‘religion’ – a man-made phenomenon that has been a massive presence in history – is a different matter) you see that all that talk of ‘atheism’ does is to close down certain absurdities that get in the way of doing metaphysics and ethics properly. Whereas talk of ‘religion’ requires us to address the questions of the place of religious voices in the public square; this is where secularism becomes important.

3:AM: Can it be said if we are not overarchingly religious, nor taken with project of self improvement and personal responsibility, then we are inhabiting an age of ambivalence rather than nihilism or religosity. Now it seems the question of meaning is not answered yes or no, but not asked at all, especially in the young. Do you think consumerism, isolation, distraction has taken the place of any stringent belief?

ACG: Given half an invitation to reflect philosophically on the value and direction of life, people quickly begin to do so. (The religions do not want people to think philosophically, because then they begin to question the one-size-fits-all pieties that the religions sell.) The ‘distractions’ of entertainment, consumerism and co have more of a point in them than we sometimes acknowledge, because fun, pleasure, beauty and recreation are significant aspects of experience. But they don’t entirely stop people thinking about questions of value, for human lives also have sorrow and loss in them, and difficult choices, and periods of depression, all of which remind people of the task of thinking and choosing, which is inescapable. Philosophy can provide materials and suggestions here, and encouragement to think; that is or should be one of its principal gifts.

3:AM: Are you optimistic for the future of philosophy as a significant and direct practise that will play a role in people’s lives?

ACG: Yes: I think philosophy as connoted in the foregoing remarks continues to have a central role in the business of being human, and with the decline of religion (which claims to do people’s thinking for them) it is recovering the role it had in the first thousand years of western civilisation, as the demand for, the resource for, the practise of, and the treasury of – thought.

Image copyright – Mykel Nicolaou/Rex Features


SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 22nd, 2011.