PHILOSOPHERS OF OUR TIMES   Introductory Lecture

Edinburgh Book Festival 2015

This is a draft of an introductory lecture by Ted Honderich from his edited book Philosophers of Our Times -- 18 Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lectures, in five groups starting with the philosophy of mind. The draft includes a question or two by the editor, who was the chairman of the lectures.  There are also postscripts to the draft -- postscripts the day after, about what philosophy is, and consciousness, and determinism or explanationism, and what is right.


If you're here because you heard some laddish fellow say 'Whot's philosophy then?',  there are some dictionary definitions of philosophy to start with, for what they're worth.

"the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge"   Merriam-Webster dictionary

"general understanding of values and reality"  Merriam-Webster

"contemplation of the nature of being"  Chambers

'knowledge of causes and laws of all things'   Chambers

"study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline"   New Oxford Dictionary of English

"study of the general and fundamental nature of reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and language"   Wikipedia

"rationally critical thinking about the world, belief, and the conduct of life" -- 'thinking about thinking'    Anthony Quinton, Oxford Companion to Philosophy

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, more original in not entering into competition with the Oxford Companion and every other such volume, doesn't try to give you an answer at all to what philosophy in general is. It Just gives you parts of the thing, such as the Philosophy of Literature -- of which the rest of us philosophers had never heard before.

Can we do more to say what philosophy is, maybe what it's worth,  by way of a bird's-eye view of 18 Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lectures in the five groups, even with the bird flying high and fast? That is what you're about to get.

And can we also find out that or whether philosophy is at the heart of life -- which is the declaration that summoned 320 of you to this tent of the Edinburgh Book Festival?


1  Tom Nagel's Royal Institute Annual Lecture was an update from his renowned paper about being conscious, 'What Is It Like To Be a Bat?'. Nagel said originally and famously that what it is for a thing to be conscious, you or a bat or maybe some future computer, is for there to be something it's like to be that thing. 

His Royal Institute l ecture, you can say, is an answer to 'How is what it is like to be a bat related to the bat?' That is an instance or expression of what is called the mind-body problem. He persuasively says: Don't try to believe what you can't understand. Does he mean we can't understand the relation because we can't understand consciousness? But maybe we can.

Is there still my old question about his initial clarification of consciousness? And could it be that Nagel's renowned answer is circular, tells you nothing? Because it comes to 'What it is for a thing to be conscious is for there to be something it is like for that thing to be conscious?' Like being told being a dog is a canine.

2  Peter Strawson's paper, put into the book despite the fact that he was not able to give his lecture because of a car accident, asks what perceiving things comes to, say seeing the sheep out behind Magdalen College Oxford. What are you really aware of in seeing?

An old answer, from the 17th Century right up to Freddie Ayer and still going, is that you are really aware of things internal to you, things in your head -- ideas or images or sense impressions or sense-data or qualia or whatever. John Mackie, another Oxford stalwart, gave an answer called scientific realism. Strawson's answer was what he calls common sense realism. What is it? Well it's not all about inner or cranial things.

A thought for you. If the question is 'What is it to be conscious in perceiving?', what's the nature of that, don't you need an adequate initial clarification of what you're talking about? Of consciousness? Settle what you're talking about before you go on to say what it is, get to a theory or analysis of its nature? Is the pile of disagreement or seeming disagreement about consciousness mainly or significantly owed to people talking about different things, not asking the same question?

3  Tyler Burge from Los Angeles asks the question 'Where did mind begin?', meaning Where did it first come in in the whole evolutionary or upward-to-us history of unconscious and then conscious things. The development from single cells up to us?

The answer he gives is orthopods -- spiders and the like.

To go back to those definitions of philosophy, is that an instance of the pursuit of wisdom? Contemplation of the nature of being?

Could be, but if so, does that make any difference between philosophy any anything else. Say science? Or doing a puzzle in the newspaper?

And, just by the way, isn't "knowledge of causes and laws of all things" at least more about science than  philosophy?

4  Jerry Fodor of Rutgers University was in  way concerned with that Peter Strawson, Freddie Ayer, and John Mackie question -- roughly, what happens in your seeing? Maybe what happens consciously?

His answer, at a first approximation, is that there is evidence and a line of argument for there being something talked of an awfully lot loosely by other American philosophers -- something called the given.

There is something inner to you and me but like pictures on walls, like that sign at the gate that says Edinburgh Book Festival -- something inner but like ordinary outer representations or images. As distinct, by the way, from thoughts or concepts.

A question for you. Does this answer to a question about consciousness also depend on your initial idea of consciousness? Is it the same as other people's idea? Are you asking the same question?


5  Ned Block of Harvard and then MIT was in effect on about the same question in his lecture, which he expressed as whether there is something you can call mental paint.

As you may guess, mental paint is also in the line of philosophy that has those ideas of the 17th Century in it and Freddie Ayer's sense-data and maybe Fodor's the given.

I myself put a question to you. You're conscious in seeing this room. Does that come to your having something or being presented with it or not deducing or getting it from anything else? Does that had or presented or undeduced thing include more paint than the paint on the walls?

Block finds his way to the answer Yes. He also speaks of another kind of consciousness than what seems to be ordinary consciousness, by the way. When you were thinking about philosophy five minutes ago you were also somehow conscious of what the name on your passport is -- conscious of it in that you could have given it if asked. Whot's consciousness in general for him then?  Same as  your idea?


6  When you're on the sidewalk waiting for the lights to change to green, you do somehow intend to cross when they do. When they go green, you somehow intend to cross and do. Does all that involve two intentions or one -- a single one you also had when you were waiting, and another one that got you into action a little later? Are there both of what used to be called forward-looking or inactive intentions and also active intentions -- the latter maybe being what also used to be called acts of will?

That is a simple form, maybe too simple, of the question in the lecture of John McDowell. He was a Fellow in Oxford and is now ascended to the Philosophy Department in the University of Pittsburgh. Able fellow to say the least, not confused about what department he works in. There's no doubt it's philosophy. Anyway no clear reason to say it isn't.

In connection with two kinds of intention, what about those initial dictionary ideas of what philosophy is then? What about philosophy being "contemplation of the nature of being?" What about its being "study of the general and fundamental nature of reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and language"? Waiting for the lights doesn't seem grand enough for those descriptions, does it?



7   The first lecture here is by Christine Korsgaard of Harvard,  the chairperson of its philosophy department, once the student of its renowned theorist of an imagined social contract, John Rawls.

You get it into the lecture by imagining something, God choosing between creating a happy universe, everybody happy,  or creating a miserable universe, everybody miserable. The essential point is that if he chose the first universe there would be nobody for whom that choice made them better off than they would otherwise be -- if they weren't there in the happy universe they wouldn't exist at all.

You  agree, don't you, that the first choice would be an awful lot better, that it would be right to choose it if you were God? But there is a problem or question about this choice, isn't there? It 's not the usual sort of choice or judgement having to do with happiness, misery and the like? With respect to this choice or judgement, in favour of the happy universe, all there ever is, there is nobody better off.  It is between people and also animals existing and being happy or miserable and those people and animals not existing at all. And you could say that in a certain sense nobody at all would be being deprived of happiness by the second choice.

 Further, there is the same kind of situation, it seems, about choosing between a universe of greater equality and a different universe of lesser equality. The question here, as in the first case, to put it differently, is why the first world would be better. Here too, you can say, there exists no one to whom it matters. 

            Korsgaard agrees that the first choices are right but thinks about that a lot. No doubt she is right, but there are questions arising. By God there seem to be. What are they? Is there some awful  problem for the Principle of  Humanity,  which I'll get around to?


8   What are reasons?

The lecture of Tim Scanlon, once Oxford and now Harvard, is called 'Reasons Fundamentalism'. Is that the idea or rather an idea that reasons for saying and doing things, maybe moral reasons, are  fundamental things themselves? That they do not reduce or boil down to other things -- desires or inclinations or the like?

The bird in this bird's eye view of all the lectures sticks his beak in again. Think of the migrants drowning in the Mediteranean Sea. Suppose I give my Principle of Humanity as my reason for doing something. Say England doing as much as Germany is doing.

Is my reason not in a category of things that is concerned with desires, inclinations and the like, a matter of what you could call affective consciousness rather than perceptual consciousness or cognitive consciousness?

Well, ....


9   Are moral reasons, as this next lecturer declares, somehow or other a matter of exactly desires or inclinations or the like?  Certainly affective rather than  cognitive consciousness?

Simon Blackburn, now back around Cambridge after a spell in North Carolina, was not invited to give a Royal Institute of Philosophy lecture because he disagrees absolutely with what he calls Tim Scanlon's assertion of the sovereignty or majesty of reason. That is just how it worked out. But he sure does disagree.

You will gather that in this dispute is in some connection with those philosophical or religious declarations to the effect that real reasons for action are something like objective and those other declarations, some of them philosophical, to the effect that reasons somehow include attitudes.

The greatest of British philosophers said so. David Hume of Edinburgh. Pity his city knocked down his house.

Simon's definition of philosophy, by the way, in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, is 'The study of the most general and abstract features of the world and categories with which we think: mind, matter, reason, proof, truth etc."


10  Mary Warnock, a philosopher of whom someone once said, truly, that she gives the great and the good a good name, has as her subject what is natural, and whether something's being natural matters.

In particular, what about reproductive cloning for humans if we can get around to be able to do it? A born child having only one parent, like Dolly the Sheep? Certainly not natural, whatever questions there have been about the natural.

Certainly a bad idea because unnatural? Mary Warnock sheds a lot of light, but she doesn't say that.

Excellent philosophy, but an instance of 'knowledge of causes and laws of all things'? Of course not, if English still has meaning. And by the way, doesn't that definition cover science, indeed cover it more exactly than it could ever cover philosophy?

There just must be better definitions than at least some of those we began with. Including the one I'll end up with?




11  Are you in this place we're in as a matter of your own freedom?  Or was your choosing all determined? Explained by causes and the causal circumstances of which they are parts?

Your bird providing you with a bird's-eye view admits on the wing that he has spent or misspent a lot of time on this question. He is a repeated offender in saying that determinism is true, and so there isn't ever the particular freedom that is free will, sometimes called originationby philosophers. That is, there isn't the freedom that is uncaused choices, what you might call little acts of creation. There's just the freedom that is ordinary voluntariness, which is choosing and doing what you want to do -- not because of a man with a gun or prison walls or whatever.

But John Searle of Berkeley California and the Reith Lectures and so on, who also single-handedly put an end to a computerism about the mind and more particularly about consciousness, is a free-willer. The man who singlehandedly defeated the idea that understanding Chinese, not just operating with it,  is something that a computer does. Searle's being happy about uncaused willing is a shock to my sytem, to which I am getting used. Maybe a support to your system?

Do you think we have free will because you want a standing for us humans? Somehow above nature, or above the rest of nature? Is that a good enough reason? And might it be the case that you can get some standing by way of the right understanding of consciousness?  Does the right  understanding make you into what has been called in a  more  low-class  lecture than this one, a kind of little demigod, a very small creator of a kind of world?


12  What makes you who you are, that particular person? The one with your name? What makes for personal identity? Some say it's an inner thing, your self, maybe also to be identified, if there are any remaining Freudians, as your ego. Some say it's the body that is you. Some say it's something different, which is the human being you are.

Derek Parfit, of All Souls and elsewhere, the English philosopher and the thinking life exemplified, denies that last proposition. So he has a lovely and exact  title for his lecture. 'We Are Not Human Beings'.

We are instead unities of a kind, unities including memory above all.  Who I am, above all, is a matter of  what  is  remembered  in some unity of stuff.

I butt in, yobbily. Does who you are therefore have a lot to do with your being conscious? And, since that is so, are you helped to a personal identity answer by getting a good answer to two questions? (1) Your being conscious is what? (2) Where?

I'd say the answers are consistent with the Parfit truth, maybe closer than that  to it.


13  Anthony Kenny, educated in Rome, once a priest, then excommunicated for marrying, then Master of Balliol, goes against one of his Balliol predecessors who told us 'Never apologise, never explain'. He explains lucidly why for him belief in God is possibly false -- but nonetheless reasonable. So religion, as he says, is not really the root of all evil.

The lecture is also about a lot of what you can call the epistemic facts: knowledge, certainty, truth, belief, reason, scepticism, faith. The latter, faith, I guess I am glad to hear, is found not to be a virtue but a vice.

The lecture is also about what class of degee is to be awarded in the final examination of the atheist and biologist Richard Dawkins. Not to be confused with the same question about Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist and cosmologist, he who said philosophy is dead, being uniformed of the preceding line of undertakers, mostly scientists, that philosophy has buried.

I'd say the Kenny lecture's alive and about as good at truth as any other lecture around here.



14    Noam Chomsky, the rescuer and then among the makers of the science of linguistics, the greatest intellectual of The Left, the preserver of the sanity in the proposition of innate ideas as against the dopiness  of behaviourism,and a fellow who says there is no mind-body problem, is also something else. Indeed  universally known for something else.

He is the proponent of the view that there are not only hard problems but simple, available and refuting truths about terrorism, justice, anticipatory self-defence, and more.

One such truth is that our societies, anyway the leaders of our societies, are engaged in inconsistencies about terrorism and so on, and so give no arguable judgements as to right and wrong.

Another truth is that our societies and anyway our leaders make their judgements in historical ignorance or in denial of past fact. America stands out in this respect. There is state terrorism of course, some of  it  American.

Does Chomsky take it that there is no need for a general principle of right and wrong? In order to have an argument for which of two inconsistent propositions is right and which wrong?


15    Alasdair MacIntyre, another leaver of Oxford for America, a philosopher many have reason to swear by, including me, on more than the present occasion. His books are his own, not products of a joint workplace.

His lecture here is 'Social Structures and Their Threats to Moral Agency'. He asks what moral agents are, and how they can become such, and and what societies are against their existence and them.

The lecture starts with a man who is a scheduler of German passenger and freight trains during the war. His defence is that he did his prescribed duty, which had nothing to do with what was in the trains. Like his society, he doesn't escape judgement in the end. Nor does a certain American company executive. And all of his society.

MacIntyre's lecture is like Chomsky's in engaging with societies, not being somewhere else.  Certainly the subject of right and wrong  is in  philosophy, wherever else  it is.

The lecture also enables you to say a good word for what may or may not need it, which is sociology.


16    Jurgen Habermas. Here is Continental Philosophy for you. The real stuff. However it fits those definitions  mentioned at the start.

The lecture of the leader of contemporary German philosophy, the personification of the Frankfurt School, thinks Germanly and effectively on the subject that there are or should indeed be cultural rights in our democracies, including for Islams -- and that cultural rights have had as their pacemaker religious tolerance.

From such beginnings as a distnction between toleration and tolerance, and Goethe's superiority to tolerance, it goes on to Muslim calls to prayer by loudspeaker.It is as good an example of another philosophy as we in Scotland, England, and America are likely to have. It is different. It is more concerned than our philosophy with experience in the sense of lived lives, more akin to reflective literature, closer to the history of philosophy, less in touch with science.

An antidote to insularity? To a continentality? The American continent? I'd say so.



17    Bernard Williams of Oxford, University College London, Kings College Cambridge, California and more, draws on his experience to say what philosophy in general has often been, and what should it be, which is not always what it is now.

Philosophy (1) should be not scientized, but (2) should be a humanist discipline, which is to say (3) it should be making the best sense of our lives. Thus it is (4) something from a perspective, in a sense subjective, and (5) philosophy entails an awful lot more than just attending to our history and the history of philosophy.

It comes very naturally to a philosopher to disagree with his teachers, as I do, except about (1) scientization, if that is more than respect and use of science. Proposition (2) is somehow or other true if obvious -- philosophy isn't science. Proposition (3) is vague. Proposition (4) is somehow arguable but no distinction of philosophy. (5) is elevated, classy, but, so far as I can see, not much more than an audacious loyalty to an old degree in Oxford with Greek and ancient Greece in it. I myself was in favour of allowing University of London undergraduates to get a degree in philosophy without doing a finals paper in ancient Greek philosophy. That happened.

(1), to go back to it,  must indeed somehow be true -- for anyone with a decent sense of the practice of philosophy, of which more in a couple of minutes. 


18    Last but definitely not least  is David Chalmers, philosopher and neuroscientist, the affirmer of what is widely known as the hard problem of consciousness, the mind-body problem. His proposition in his lecture is the more general one that there is less progress in philosophy than in science -- notably on consciousness, determinism and freedom, and right and wrong. There hasn't been as much consensus as there is in science with respect to scientific questions. He took a poll that more or less proved it.

He touches on the reason, among others, that philosophy has to be argument rather than proof. That tends to bring the two of us together. My agreement  has to do  with my definition or rather account of  philosophy.

He also notes that there are verbal disputes in the way of progress -- no agreement on a common question -- which proposition again brings us together. And that there seems less progress in philosophy because when there is some about a problem, the problem is taken out of philosophy and into science.

An exemplary  lecture, in no need of summarizing.

That's it. Thanks for listening. Buy the book. It's the real stuff. And don't be shy about questions now. There's a lot to talk about.



            You can use the 18 lectures in the book and maybe the very slight summaries above of them as means to answering the question of what philosophy is. See also my fuller editor's introductory summaries of all the lectures in the book -- and also on this website.

            My own answer to the question of what philosophy is is closest to that one in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy -- closest but more informative.

            The Companion definition, I remind you, was rationally critical thinking about the world, belief and the conduct of life.

            But, remembering waiting for the traffic lights, and feminist philosophy on pornography, and other bits and pieces, should we have something a little less grand?  And with less implication of generality of subject matter?

            My answer is as follows. Philosophy, the practice of philosophy, and the right way to read it and hear it as, is concentration on the logic of ordinary intelligence.  That comes to four things: (1) clarity, usually analysis, (2) consistency and validity, (3) completeness, (4) generalness. Philosophy is therefore necessarily a matter of judgement, not big proof.

            If you want something still snappier, philosophy is thinking about facts rather than getting them. It is this nature of philosophy that makes it harder than science.

            And oh yes, is philosophy at the heart of life? That was the proposition that the Edinburgh Book Festival promised for consideration in the lecture. I leave that to you. Maybe it's more the several or various hearts of life? If it concentrates on ordinary logic, it doesn't leave a lot out. Doesn't leave out your waiting for a green light. Or God and those two universes.

             You can also use the lectures as stimuli to your own answers to philosophical questions. My main questions are the following three about mind, about determinism and freedom, and about right and wrong.


            As for consciousness, each of us has a hold on her or his own consciousness. As a result,  there's a database that puts together the identifying mouthfuls that we take our being conscious to be. What the database adds up to is that ordinary consciousness is something's being actual. That is an adequate initial clarification of ordinary consciousness. You can go on from that to a theory or analysis of consciousness. For a good start, it will answer two questions. What is actual? What is its being actual?

            The answers are different with the three sides or parts of consciousness -- perceptual or in-perception consciousness, and cognitive consciousness, and affective consciousness. Roughly the consciousness in seeing, and the consciousness that is kinds of thinking, and the consciousness that is kinds of wanting.

             What's actual with your perceptual consciousness right now is probably a room out there. A stage of a world. Physical and out there but different from the objective physical world.            

            What is its being actual? Its being subjectively physical. Which, to mention just a few of its characteristics, is its being lawfully dependent on both the objective physical world also out there and and on you in here, you neurally.

            What's actual with cognitive and affective consciousness? Representations in here. Subjectively physical in a different way.

            Look out for the book Actual Consciousness, which is for a dogged reader. Or wait for the snappy precis: Your Being Conscious is What? Where?



            The main philosophical problem about freedom has been the consistency of it with determinism or explanationism, the latter being the denial that there are events without standard lawful explanations, say standard causal explanations, whether or not we can find them or not.

            That problem is solved by the obvious truth that there are two ideas of freedom. We have them both -- the fact that philosophy has had a history of overlooking. One that is inconsistent with explanationism is of course free will or origination, which does not exist. The other is the freedom that is being able to do what you want, which is consistent with determinism. That obviously exists, in different degrees.

             Does anybody now deny that we have the two ideas?

             Have a look at the short book How Free Are You? or the long book A Theory of Determinism: The Mind, Neuroscience, and Life-Hopes.



            The only decent answer to what is right is the Principle of Humanity. It rests on the fact of our shared human nature, not on self-concern and the like.

            It is to the effect that we are to take all rational steps without exception to getting people out of bad lives. Anything if it really works and of course does not defeat itself.

            Bad lives are not left vague but defined by way of the fact of our shared fundamental desires, these in my view being six in number.

            Decent length of life; bodily well-being; freedoms and powers; respect and self-respect; goods of relationship; goods of culture -- one of the goods of culture, I guess, being philosophy, not quite so large as being able to read.

             A book: Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7...  American edition: Right and Wrong, and Palestine, 9-11, Iraq,7-7....