Words. What are they good for? — Nikhil Krishnan on Ordinary Language Philosophy

Words. (Huh? Yeah!)
What are they good for?
Absolutely everything.

At least this was the view of some philosophers early in the 20th century, that the world was bounded by language.

(“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” to use Wittgenstein’s formulation over the Edwin Starr adaptation)

My guest this week is Nikhil Krishnan a philosopher at The University of Cambridge and frequent contributor to The New Yorker. His book A Terribly Serious Adventure, traces the path of Ordinary Language Philosophy through the 20th century.

We discuss the logical positivists (the word/world limiters) and their high optimism that the intractable problems of philosophy could be dissolved by analysis, their contention that the great questions of metaphysics were nonsense since they had no empirical or logical content.

That program failed, but its spirit of using data and aiming for progress lived on in the ordinary language philosophers who put practices with words under the microscope. Hoping to find in this data clues to the nuances of the world.

This enterprise left us with beautiful examples of the subtleties of language. But more importantly, it is a practice that continues today, of paying close attention to our everyday behaviors and holding our grand systems of philosophy accountable to these.

Nikhil has recently started a podcast, Minor Books, with Raph Cormack hunting down forgotten works of literature. Like the books themselves, this podcast is a semi-hidden treat. Listen on the web here. And on Apple Podcasts here.


James Robinson: [00:00:00] I’m James Robinson, and this is Multiverses. I’m in Venice for a few days, and I don’t speak good Italian. I can’t express myself, conceal myself, promise, or do all the things that I more or less adeptly can normally do with language. In fact, there’s some things one can only do with language. You can’t write a will or a law using the medium of contemporary dance.

So this is a really powerful tool. As with all really powerful tools, it’s worth putting it under the microscope sometimes. And that’s what we’re doing this week. Our guest is Nikhil Krishnan, a philosopher who’s done stints at the universities of both Oxford and Cambridge, and he’s written a wonderful book, A Terribly Serious Adventure, which traces the origins and development of ordinary language philosophy.

Ordinary language philosophy was a movement within analytic philosophy more broadly. And it paid very close attention to the way that we use the words of everyday life. One of the central ideas was instead of [00:01:00] spending too much time thinking about the big words like free will and agency, which are quite unmoored from our everyday talk, let’s think about instead the simpler words, or the simpler practices.

How do we excuse ourselves? What’s the language of excuses? Thank you. And one of the outcomes was that when one does this, you see that our languages may be more nuanced than we think. For example, by accident and by mistake might seem completely synonymous to you. But when one thinks about it enough, we’ll all agree that there are actually instances where it’s right to say by mistake and not by accident.

And the reverse is true. And we’ll get into some examples of that in the podcast. The upshot of this is, if our language is more nuanced than we think, might think, then perhaps the world is more nuanced than initially meets the eye. And actually, we already know this. Like, it’s buried within our language and all we need to do is kind of uncover it.

We have this wonderful mine of [00:02:00] knowledge within us, but it takes some reflection to, uh, probably extract the, the minerals, extract the, the wonderful gold that’s there. If you’re watching this on YouTube, you might notice that the image quality is a little bit, uh, iffy later. Uh, I had some problems uploading the, the video.

Um, however, the images may be fuzzy, but I think the words are precise. So, I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

Nicole Krishnan, welcome to Multiverse.

Nikhil Krishnan: Hello. It’s great. It’s great to be here, James.

James Robinson: Um, so you’ve written something a little bit unusual, which is a kind of history book of philosophy. Um, there’s something of a tradition in analytical philosophy to kind of kick the ladder away as it were, and forget [00:03:00] how.

how ideas were produced. But it seems appropriate in this spirit to give a little bit of the history of yourself. Tell us what was it that brought you to philosophy?

Nikhil Krishnan: Well, I came into philosophy more or less by accident, like I think a lot of people. There are people who have stories of Lying awake at night from the age of three, pondering other questions they subsequently discovered were philosophical ones.

I don’t think that was it for me at all. I think I started out just being interested in the humanities generally. So, fiction, history, those are the things I remember being interested in as a child. And it was really through history that I discovered that there was a little bit of history called the history of ideas or intellectual history.

And I found that somehow more interesting than the sort of history that’s about, you know, why exactly did the First World War happen. Um, [00:04:00] and It was by beginning to read some of those, uh, texts, um, starting from Plato onwards. And I said, you know, this is a lot of fun. And it was really a discovery to me when I realized that the thing that was being done in those texts was not something that was stuck in the past.

People were still doing this. There were still philosophers and it wasn’t essential to being a philosopher that you were dead and in the past. So, um, once I began at university, I think I went in there thinking I was going to do You know, social science history. That was the kind of thing I was interested in.

Um, and then discovering that I was rather more interested in actually doing the thing that the philosophers were doing, uh, rather than learning about all the other stuff around them. So I think that’s what took me to the subject.

James Robinson: When you started studying philosophy at university, did it match up to what you were expecting, you know, particularly if you’ve been reading the Greeks and there’s a kind of vision I think that many people have of, [00:05:00] well, philosophy is something, as you say, that was conducted by, uh, a philosopher.

Yeah. you know, now dead, um, bearded men, I suppose. Um, and it’s about, well, it’s a very ponderous subject, um, you know, striving for depth and looking at these huge questions. Um, and my impression is that when one actually studies philosophy at university, it’s, it’s, it’s, It’s a kind of different enterprise.

Um, did you feel any sense of surprise or, um, did this seem kind of continuous with your expectations?

Nikhil Krishnan: Well, I slightly overstated in the book for, uh, for, for rhetorical effect, really. Um, It’s true that I was hoping for a subject that would be a tiny bit more continuous with the rest of the humanities.

The idea was that to do history was also to be interested in, you know, how the texts are constructed in the way that you’d study them if you were doing English literature. And, um, it would [00:06:00] involve knowing something about the language and the context, the historical worlds in which they were constructed.

Um, and a little bit of sensitivity to the way in which philosophy fits into the world now. What exactly is it doing? How is it intervening in the big questions that people are asking you, even if they’re not academic philosophers? And it’s true, early on at least, I discovered that that wasn’t quite how one is taught it, at least in the English speaking world.

I think it might be slightly different if you’re doing it in Germany or Italy or France, but certainly where I was doing it, which was in the UK in the um, late 20th century. 2000s. The sense was that we treated this subject as a largely a technical one, or more precisely, what it is to learn the subject is to learn a set of techniques, some of which are fairly technical, formal, sometimes bordering on the mathematical.

Um, and in general, one tried to put aside historical questions, stylistic questions as much as we could. Uh, now I should say in the long run, it’s turned out [00:07:00] that there is a way of doing philosophy. That’s. Fits all these different things together that it has the technical side is about ingenuity and precision and clarity But that also is able to draw on History and literature and anthropology and whatever else really you want to draw on But I think it was generally a wise thing for my education not to have been like that at the start Certainly for me given my own temperament with a tendency to sort of for always try and look at things You As broadly and connectedly as possible for someone to insist that nope, we’re just looking at this argument I want to know what the premises are and what the conclusion is.

So in the beginning I sort of resented it Um, it seemed like I was being stopped from getting onto the really interesting stuff but I think it was the most useful education I could have had putting me away from my natural tendencies and Excesses and instead saying there’s a method Uh, it was good enough for Aristotle.

You’re going to learn to do it yourself. Uh, and I think over time I have learned to do that and I’ve learned to integrate it with all the other things I’m interested in. [00:08:00]

James Robinson: Yeah, there’s a, a really nice view review of your book by Kathleen Strokes. He sort of describes philosophy as, um, well, the way that it’s taught in British universities, at least largely being as, as if an alien is approaching a problem and just has no, none of the kind of, um, historical context, but it’s just approaching something for the first time, which, you know, there is a certain sense of liberty in that kind of, um, you know, when one is not weighed, overly weighed down by tradition and yet has available the techniques of the tradition, um, that, that can be, um, yes, liberating.

And it’s interesting, your book, um, From what I understand, it sort of dates back to the period, I guess, where this move away from embedding philosophy very much within [00:09:00] the traditions of history and classics occurred. And I’m thinking particularly of how the degree of PPE, or modern greats, Uh, I should say that’s philosophy, politics, and economics, and it’s not just personal protective equipment, which is probably what comes to most people’s minds these days.

Um, so that degree was, was, was founded in, in, in 1920. And previously, I, I think the only way that one could study philosophy at Oxford was, was by, by studying, um, greats, which was a mixture of history and, um, classical languages and philosophy. And so, you know, Now, that move wasn’t designed to change the pursuit of philosophy.

It had very practical, um, purpose at heart, if I understand correctly. And it was just, we want to educate better administrators and maybe politics and economics are useful things. Um, but yes, I don’t, I don’t know if that, that, you know, maybe I’m overstating the impact of, [00:10:00] of, um, the creation of PPE, but it does seem at least to me, It’s intriguing that it happened at this time, um, early on in the 20th century, um, when the tide, I think, was, was changing and philosophy was becoming sort of shedding some of its past perhaps.

Nikhil Krishnan: Yeah, I think, um, that’s, I’d say that’s more or less, uh, accurate. Now my book is specifically a history of philosophy at Oxford in the first 60 years of the 20th century, but really primarily focusing on the period after the war. So 1945 to 1960 is the period I really, really sink my teeth into. But some of what happens after the war, some of the really interesting action that occurs there, um, happens because of the groundwork that had been done uh, in the period between the wars.

And one of those things, as you rightly said, was the move away from philosophy as a subject you could only study as part of the four year classics degree into something which you could study at least in one other, uh, possible degree [00:11:00] course which was the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics course, and, uh, that was the course I studied myself, sort of a hundred years after it had been uh, founded.

Now, in the immediate, um, context of, of that decision, I think part of what was going on there was, uh, was really an anxiety, a quite legitimate anxiety that this was a period when slowly but surely a British society was becoming a little bit more democratic, the suffrage was expanding, larger number of people wanted to go to university, and if you insisted that anyone who was interested in philosophy would have to do classics, that meant that you could really only.

Select your students from the people who had already done Greek and Latin at school. Um, and I mean there was a much larger number of those Back in the early 20th century than and then would be the case now But even then the numbers were declining and there were people for whom it just seemed unfair I mean It doesn’t seem true that you have to know The ancient languages as a condition of being able to do philosophy for one thing There are perfectly good [00:12:00] translations of the works and there’s a great deal of philosophy.

That’s not in ancient languages I mean philosophy has been You know, carried on, uh, in languages other than, than, than Latin. And it has been, uh, it’s been done in French. I mean, it’s happening in German, it’s happening in Italian, and it’s happening in English. And it seems like a shame to exclude a large class of potential students from it.

So, um, one side effect of that is what you mentioned. Um, so once you go into this degree, not thinking of it as a branch of the classics, not really as a branch of, uh, textual analysis, you can do, uh, something. Well, it’s something that was nicely captured by a former colleague of mine, the late Hugh Mellor, a wonderful, um, um, metaphysician and philosopher of science, um, and he was once asked by someone from a more historical, historically minded discipline what he worked on, and he said causation.

And someone said, Kant or Hume? And he said, no, no, I don’t do Kant and Hume. I do what Kant and Hume did. And I really like that distinction, uh, the distinction between the activity itself [00:13:00] and the study of other people who have engaged in that activity. Um, I think that once you take the subject to be a subject, Uh, a matter of doing the thing itself, doing philosophy, not just studying what other philosophers did, then sure, you can still read the philosophers, because in the same way that if you’re doing physics, you’re going to read what other physicists say.

But the task eventually is not to write a history of physics, it’s to do some physics yourself. There’s no reason why the same thing shouldn’t be true of philosophy, too.

James Robinson: And I, I think it reinforces this idea that there is,

it’s something of a leveler, the way that philosophy is, is, is practiced. People arrive at university and they have very different ideas. Mathematical abilities, um, they may be, you know, they may have a wonderful, uh, historical mind and lots of historical knowledge, um, but it’s not really going to help them that much when they study philosophy, uh, unless they spent some years kind of boning up on, um, you know, [00:14:00] exactly the sort of things which is taught at university.

But, um, I don’t think those things tend to be taught so much in, in schools. So everyone comes with almost as, as a blank slate. Um, And the things that are going to be most useful to them are actually just a keen ability to analyze and, um, interrogate, um, often how, how language is used. At least that, that is a kind of central thread to, um, philosophy nowadays.

Um, and again, this, this, come squarely back to the period in which, um, you know, the 20s before the war, uh, and 30s, um, I think that teed everything up and started to put language and by language, I mean, demotic language, ordinary language, not the ancient languages, you know, [00:15:00] right at the center of, of philosophy, perhaps too much so.

And we can come onto that. Um, but, um, you know, Suddenly it was a, or it must have been a breath of fresh air.

Nikhil Krishnan: Yeah, absolutely. Uh, I can agree with all of that. The leveling power of a philosophy which doesn’t require some specific body of knowledge that would require a specific kind of education, uh, in advance of you doing philosophy.

I think it’s a drawing on, uh, things that you already have to hand. If you’ve had the most minimal kind of education, I’m sure you need to be able to read and write and be able to. Think and talk in complete sentences. Given that the main subject of philosophy is everyday phenomena as we articulate them through our language.

And we already know our language. We know our native languages. So, um, the possibility of being able to reflect on these large questions, but [00:16:00] without, but without the intermediary of some, uh, difficult text, was liberating to people. To be able to say, I can talk about what it is to perceive something just by looking at these, uh, these words.

How do I use the word perceive? See? Hear? Smell? Feel? Etc. And the possibility of making progress by drawing on experiences and knowledge we already have without the need for any specialist training was bound to make it a subject that would attract people who didn’t have that sort of training, understandably, because they hadn’t been to the sorts of schools which would provide you with that sort of training.

James Robinson: And I think when, if we think back to when these, when these, ideas started to really gain currency. Um, there was perhaps even more in enthusiasm for them. And indeed the, the title of your book, A Terribly Serious Adventure, um, comes from a piece of travel writing by, uh, Ernest Nagel, who’s, um, as you recount so, so beautifully is, is sort [00:17:00] of just doing this wonderful philosophical tour of Europe, going to all the grand cities where philosophy is, is, is being practiced.

And in, and Vienna, he’s kind of really. Puzzled to see people so excited. Um, and this is, this is the time of the logical positivists who, um, who are really iconoclastic in, in, in some ways and their program, you know, it goes something, if I’m going to very crudely sketch, sketch it out. It’s something like, um, you know, Philosophy has completely lost its way, um, it’s become unmoored from reality, um, and the only things that kind of have any meaning are, um, things that can be deduced from empirical data, uh, you know, either directly or through some kind of inferential chains, or things which are, uh, logically free.

Deducible. So something has to be demonstrable, either empirically or in some logical way. Um, [00:18:00] and, you know, really grappling with this idea, they kind of come to the conclusion that just so much of philosophy is just nonsense. I mean, literally nonsense doesn’t doesn’t have any meaning at all and can just be thrown out.

So this is like, you know, um, revolutionary stuff in some ways. It’s clearly really exciting to a kind of cohort of, uh, or a generation around Europe, I guess. Um, and you also point out that, um, you know, perhaps this is linked to other things going on in Europe and Austria, particularly at the time. Um, this is the one place where people can break free intellectually.

Um, uh, It’s a, doesn’t require any resources, uh, other than, you know, that same kind of looking inwards or looking at outwards at language, however one thinks of it. Um, and, and [00:19:00] also looking at what science is doing. There’s a huge respect for science from the logical positivists. In fact, they essentially thought that philosophy would just end up being subsumed within science.

And once you cut off all the, the dead wood, what would be left was essentially a particular way of. Science and logic. Science and logic. Yes. Yes. Um, I mean, one should say that that program didn’t really wind up the way they thought philosophy still exists, and for good reasons, I think, um, but, but I, I do love the kind of spirit of enthusiasm with which it was, was started.

And I think that must have really helped propel this, this idea, um, throughout Europe, I suppose.

Nikhil Krishnan: Yeah, I think that’s right. Um, The thing about the Logical Apostrophes, in addition to all the intellectual stimulation they, they certainly provided and the kinds of provocations, uh, they represented, one important thing about them is just how energetic they were, um, at the [00:20:00] logistics of making philosophy happen.

Uh, there were places, uh, other places in the world where philosophy usually happened, in, you know, someone gave a long lecture, someone wrote a long book. And what the positivists are doing is to say, let’s experiment with our forms, both in the sense of the literary forms, let’s try and have lots of short papers, rather than long books.

And let’s start organizing conferences, let’s start getting people moving across Europe, hanging out with each other, trying out their ideas in each other, sort of testing them, improving them. And that was an idea I suppose they would have got from the kind of form that science was beginning to take, in particular physics.

Um, so they’re always organizing these enormous international congresses, as they’d call them. And then you’d be in Paris and there’d be British philosophers and Italian philosophers and German and Austrian philosophers that would all be hanging out and sharing these ideas. And they’d all go out and they’d start publishing in, um, Uh, journals, and they started new journals, right?

There was a journal that came out of Vienna itself, and then there was an English language journal called, uh, Analysis, which is founded in this period, [00:21:00] and the main rule for getting published in Analysis is, uh, keep it short. And the hope is that by keeping it short, you can have lots of little snappy exchanges, you know, little paper, little response, little paper, little response.

And what you won’t have is this, here’s my big theory of the universe and how everything is connected to everything else. Rather, here’s a little problem, and here’s my take on it. And someone says, no, that doesn’t work, here’s a better view. And the hope was that philosophy would actually begin to make progress in a way that it hadn’t made before, because, it’s, it’s Every idea was articulated in terms of these enormous systems.

It was very hard to compare ideas between systems because it seemed like everything depended on everything else within that system. And unless you really kind of got in there and mastered the entirety of Hegel’s phenomenology or whatever, uh, you had no chance of being able to assess any one of its claims.

But the idea that we can now take philosophy as a series of little problems and puzzles and try to make progress on each one of them. One of them individually in the hope that eventually it will all come together nicely. But you didn’t try and put them together at the start. The unity of the [00:22:00] system was something that would emerge later on.

James Robinson: Those are really interesting points. Yeah. So I, yeah, I, I, that had never struck me, but that these kind of methods, both in terms of bringing lots of people together, um, somewhat in the sciences, you say, Uh, or the spirit of, as you say, of, of science and, and one of course thinks of everything that was happening in quantum mechanics and, um, what was going on in Copenhagen and the, and the way that people were being brought together there by Bohr, for example.

But I also, it also comes to my mind. You know, the, the French artistic movements, um, like the Dionysus and so on, who were also bringing together groups of people coming up with like pamphlets and, um, you know, all these kind of different movements going on. Um, hard to know who was taking inspiration from whom, but maybe it was all part of the spirit of the age.

Um, and then of course, this idea, as you say, of breaking philosophy down. So instead of. these monolithic undertakings, [00:23:00] um, trying to be precise and break off pieces and, and problems, which clearly I think both those aspects really do endure. Um,

Nikhil Krishnan: yeah.

James Robinson: Yeah.

Nikhil Krishnan: I mean, in some ways they endure, um, precisely because Well, the positivists themselves, I mean, they had this spirit, as you say, of let’s write a look at the individual problems, let’s write shorter papers, let’s have lots of meetings and share ideas.

But on the other hand, they were motivated by this one very large idea, uh, which was that we can give A principle which will tell us the difference between what is meaningful and what is meaningless and certain kinds of, uh, human discourse, certain uses of language, in particular, religious language, ethical language, aesthetic language, that stuff is, is meaningless and should be understood in some other way as, you know, attempts to persuade, attempts to manipulate or have a psychological effect and express emotions, that sort of thing.

And I think. [00:24:00] Over time, one thing that emerged was that the spirit of that same kind of more scientific minded philosophy eventually undermined even that idea within positivism itself. I think the really sensible idea and the one that I think is essential to the Oxford stage in the development of this philosophy, is that they really took to heart the idea that philosophy is best done piecemeal.

Don’t try to have one principle, which will try to tell you the difference between the meaningful and the meaningless. Just look at each bit of language on its own terms. Try and work out what it’s trying to do. Don’t go in there having already, uh, prejudged the matter, right? Let the discourse, let the use of language determine what kind of theory or, uh, account best suits it.

So in that way, the spirit of positive and the scientific spirit of, you know, falsification testing, verification and so forth, you might think actually undermined what initially seemed like the essence of the positivist project. But in a way it was, um, in a way almost truer to the spirit of that project, that the spirit of the project was not really [00:25:00] some thesis that they were trying to defend.

It was rather a certain approach to how philosophy should be done and a way in which philosophy can learn something from the way in which sciences are done.

James Robinson: Yeah. So I, I, I guess one summarizes that. You know, the grand thesis was something like, well, we can just knock off all this dead wood, um, because it doesn’t really, doesn’t have any sense attached to it.

But then of course, when one looks more carefully, um, Surprise, surprise, all these kind of metaphysical questions are ones which are actually really important and bear upon everyday language and practices in all sorts of surprising, intriguing ways, and therefore just cutting them off. Just one lops off a huge part of, um, you know, one is unable to explain in a certain sense, the actual.

Yeah, simple phenomena of life. Um, there’s a beautiful line from your [00:26:00] book where you say, um, something like, you know, ordinary language held that language should be accountable or what we should say becomes accountable to what we do say.

Music: Yeah.

James Robinson: Um, and that kind of. Spirit, I guess, is very much in this empirical spirit again, that, um, what as philosophers, the, the, um, the way that, um, particular issues are discussed should pay attention to the words that are used within philosophy, um, that, that they need to be informed by the evidence of the way that words actually are used, um, Yeah, I thought that was very, very nicely put.

And again, just shows the continuity of spirit there, even if, um, in many ways, the, the grand [00:27:00] structure of logical positivism fell down, um, It’s key insight that philosophy needs to move forward in a kind of scientific way, uh, lives on. Yeah. Perhaps tell us, how did, um, yeah, how, how did, how were these ideas, uh, received in Oxford?

How did they come to Oxford? Um, as it’s quite intriguing to me. just, you know, how the world in general worked then, um, in some ways it seemed quite slow for things to, to filter through, you know, it wasn’t that someone would go and post something on Twitter or X as it is now and, uh, suddenly everyone would be debating it next day in, in Oxford.

It was much more kind of word of mouth and, uh, missionaries being sent out and coming back as it were.

Nikhil Krishnan: Yeah, that’s right. And that’s part of the excitement of writing a history like this is tracing those connections. Uh, so one, um, The way in which ideas are transferred then [00:28:00] is through the publication of journals.

Now journals are not a thing that have always existed, right? They have, they had to be, that idea had to be invented. The idea of a certain kind of publication which comes out, I don’t know, every few months, uh, at least. and which puts together relatively short pieces of work, which are then debated and discussed and people write responses and responses to responses.

I mean, that’s something that really starts to emerge in the late 19th century. Before then, I mean, there are still venues for publication, but they tend to be slightly more generalist, learned periodicals, something like the Westminster Review. It’s the kind of thing where, uh, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle, those kinds of grand Victorian figures, the places they would have published.

It’s important that they are generalist Um, venues, but something a bit like, say, the London Review of Books would be today. They’re perhaps a little bit more learned than that, but, but very much in that kind of vein. But a journal is something that requires slightly more, uh, a more specialist readership.

You [00:29:00] can count on them understanding certain words, certain terms of art. You can understand, you can count on them to, sit down and, and pay attention when you make a really, really complicated argument over the course of 15 pages. And you don’t have to try to entertain them quite as much as you would when you were writing for the older style of publication.

So, these journals start to exist. There’s one called Mind, uh, that’s published out of Scotland. There’s, uh, Analysis, which I briefly mentioned, which, uh, um, comes out in the 20s and 30s. There are a bunch of American journals at this point, including the Philosophical Review. Um, and there’s, uh, a journal called Erkenntnis, which is, um, uh, a journal that’s published out of, of the, the positivist world in Vienna.

So, uh, they’re getting the information through there. Libraries then, like now, have subscriptions to these journals. But you mentioned missionaries as well. So some people actually go and travel to these cities and they say, sure, I mean, we get bit of an idea of what’s going on through the journals, but the journals are always, you know, a couple of days, a couple of years out of date.

And so you really need to be there. That’s why Ernest Nagel, the American philosopher you mentioned, [00:30:00] travels to Cambridge and then Vienna and then to Prague to see what people are doing. And A. J. Ayres, this British philosopher who has heard a little bit about interesting stuff happening in Vienna from his old tutor, Gilbert Ryle.

And Gilbert Ryle says, yeah, why don’t you go to Vienna? I know this guy called Moritz Schlick. I’ll write you a letter of introduction. Go and hang out with him. He’ll make sure you get some sort of visiting position at the university. You can go and attend lectures. You can improve your German. And Eyre does that, and he spends a little while there, and he comes back and says, Right, I’m really persuaded by this philosophy, but no one’s really written about it in English.

And he very luckily gets a contract from this trendy publisher called Victor Galanx. Um, which generally publishes kind of lefty books, uh, in this period. Trendy lefty books, that’s his kind of thing. And you say, oh, here’s a young radical philosopher. I have no idea what he’s on about and his nature of meaning and so forth, but some people seem to be really into it.

So why don’t we give him a contract and get him to write a book? And he does. And then as soon as he does, [00:31:00] He’s in Oxford at a period when there’s a bunch of other philosophers of roughly the same age, and they’re mid to late twenties, and they all hang out in these kind of all male bachelor rooms in one of the Oxford colleges, and they’re going over each chapter line by line, coming up with objections, coming up with, uh, objections, um, responses and counter objections.

So, um, lots of the philosophy, on the one hand, it’s happening in these public places, right? These large international congresses and journals, but some of it’s happening in these more private settings. So basically you and your mates hang out and discuss what’s just been published in the journal and sometimes you publish what You come up with sometimes you don’t or rather you think that saying it to your mates is a species of publication I mean you’re making it public, right?

You’re not leaving it entirely private. So trying to reconstruct the history of what was said in these sorts of Um, uh, private ish meetings, uh, is, is one of the enjoyable aspects of, of the research for the book. You know, trying to find little notes and minutes that someone who left behind and say, Oh, that’s what, [00:32:00] then they discuss that idea, which eventually becomes that paper published 15 years later.

James Robinson: Yeah, it is so fascinating in the book to, to see the enterprise of philosophy in, in progress, as it were, and to understand just how important it is, these, uh, meeting groups, and there’s just various different ones going on, uh, among different generations of philosophers. It seems like a new generation needs to have its space, and so they, they come up with their own, um, meeting group, and, um, you know, they’ll be having, uh, tea or maybe something a little bit stronger, uh, depending on, On the Arab day, but, um, all meeting and and and not in the spirit of these aren’t debates that they’re having their discussions, their conversations.

Um, and you put it so beautifully in the book that both agreement. Well, both disagreement and agreement are permitted. Yeah, I mean,

Nikhil Krishnan: the other way around, both agreement and disagreement are permitted. The really [00:33:00] remarkable there wasn’t that disagreement was permitted. I think that you can take for granted.

It was perfectly fine to agree as well.

James Robinson: Exactly, exactly. And, and there was a hope that, you know, they would come up with some kind of consensus. Um, and, um, perhaps we should mention one of the kind of central figures to, to, to emerge at the, at this point, who I think was a bit of a thorn in the side of, of, uh, AJR was, uh, so, you know, As you mentioned, people would kind of start knocking holes in, um, the arguments of the Leucozoidal positivists as relayed by, uh, Ayer in his book, um, uh, The Problem of Knowledge, I think.

Um, and one of the, the chief, uh, hole knockers, uh, I can’t remember if it’s, I don’t know if it’s you who described me as such or if it’s, uh, just, uh, the name from the time. I think it’s a quotation

Nikhil Krishnan: from Isaiah Berlin describing him, you know, he’d be watching these debates between J. L. Austin and A. J. Ayer, and he described Austin as the hole knocker.

James Robinson: Yes, yes, and [00:34:00] Ayer is trying to patch up the wall, which, as, no, as soon as it patched up as J. L. Austin, um, Yeah, knocks in another another dent. Um, I should say as well, J. L. Austin is one of my favorite J. L’s. J. L. Borges, Jennifer Lopez, J. Lo, of course, and J. L. Austin. Um, and very much a figure of the times. Uh, I guess both, both, both personally and philosophically.

Um, so very much a kind of English person of a certain class. Um, yeah. One gets the impression that he was, yeah, somewhat straight laced, but also had a very keen sense of humor. Um, um, and it’s very interesting to contrast him, of course, with, with Wittgenstein, very different character, even though both of them had this, this, um, great respect for language, um, and [00:35:00] pursuing their philosophy using ordinary language and, and, and, um, You know, both in ordinary language and using it as the kind of key data, I suppose, for it.

Um, but, um, yeah. As we mentioned, uh, in some ways Austin really took on the positivist spirit of, of, of using, of being very scientific in his approach. Um, but it, one does get the impression that, um, poor Mr. Eyre was very, um, frustrated by the fact that no, no, no wall could be constructed because, Yeah. Uh, everything would just be, um, Dismantle, I suppose.

Music: Yeah, that’s right. What we’re thinking about is

Nikhil Krishnan: the difference between two philosophical temperaments, isn’t it? There’s people who want a system that takes the whole universe and connects it, uh, and says here’s the essence of things. And there’s the other people who think, well, the universe is really complicated and [00:36:00] messy, and what we need is something equally messy to do justice to the messiness of reality itself.

So they’re not looking to unify things, and they’re okay with not having a theory that connects everything. And so the knocking of holes then is an expression of that Yeah, let’s just live with, with messiness, kind of, of temperament. I mean, there’s a famous line from someone else who attends these meetings in this period, uh, Isaiah Berlin, who later on becomes a famous historian of ideas.

And, uh, he writes an essay called The Fox and the Hedgehog. Or is it The Hedgehog and the Fox? Which is partly an essay about Leo Tolstoy and the sort of weird reflections on the nature of history that you find in, uh, War and Peace. Um, The basic idea is from a fragment of this ancient Greek poet, from whom we have only one line surviving, and that line goes, The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one thing.

And he uses [00:37:00] that as a way of dividing up thinkers, writers, philosophers, scientists. There’s the hedgehog thinkers, who want one big idea which connects everything. And there’s the foxes, who think you need one. You know, plenty of different ideas. So, you know, Plato is supposed to be a hedgehog, and Aristotle is supposed to be a fox, and, um, someone like Shakespeare would be a fox as well, because it’s really hard to pin him down on anything.

There’s just lots of different human characters and variety. And I suppose Austen would count as being at least, to put it a little bit boringly, methodologically a fox. Don’t assume at the start that it’s all going to join up. Just try and talk about each thing on its own terms. And one other slogan that becomes, uh, really influential in this period is a remark from an 18th century, uh, thinker called Bishop Butler.

And Butler is famous for saying, Everything is what it is and not another thing. And in one sense, that’s a completely trivial statement, right? A tautology. In another sense, it’s a really useful thing to be reminded of, which is don’t try [00:38:00] and say, Oh, this thing you’re looking at is actually just an example of this other thing, right?

Ethical discourse is just like aesthetic discourse is just like religious discourse. Let’s use one principle to, uh, one principle to define the essence of each. Instead, no, attend to each one on its own terms. Ethics is ethics and not aesthetics. Aesthetics is aesthetics and not religion, et cetera. And I think once you bring the spirit of that into philosophy, you’re a slightly less inclined to want to make everything link up.

You’re just willing to say, let’s just talk about each thing by itself.

James Robinson: Yes, yes, yes. And I think that’s, that’s beautifully put. Um, perhaps we can give some kind of. More concrete impression of what, um, Austin’s methods were, some examples of the holes that he knocked, perhaps, in walls, um, because he would probably be turning his grave about how abstractly we’ve been talking about him, given that he was all about the precision and, you know, getting down to the business.

of um, [00:39:00] of things which I, one really enjoys this in his writing.

Nikhil Krishnan: Sure, uh, so perhaps the best way into this aspect of Austen’s work is to talk about what used to happen at Uh, these meetings he used to run, uh, after the war. So just very briefly, it might be worth saying that, you know, Austen had been a promising young philosopher in the, in the 30s, beginning to do some important work on, you know, language and epistemology.

And then suddenly he gets called up for war service. And he spends most of the war doing intelligence work, reaching a quite senior level. And I strongly recommend a recent biography by Mark Rowe, His Complete Life of Austin, much more details than the portrait you get in my book, where, you know, he’s a central figure in my book, but I didn’t do anything like the level of intense archival work that Rowe’s done.

It’s a really enjoyable account of his war work. But one thing that, uh, Austin learned from doing intelligence work during the war was that you didn’t make advances. [00:40:00] In intelligence by having one genius sit down and try and work out everything. You just needed lots of little reports of saying, well, this is what’s happening in this bit of Normandy.

And this is what, this is a little thing we encrypt, uh, decrypted at Bletchley park, and we just put these two things together and say, aha, this is what the Germans are up to, but it takes time. It takes effort. And most importantly, it takes cooperation. One genius can’t do it all. And he said, well, it seems like an intractable problem.

The problems of military intelligence, we solve them through cooperation. Why not think exactly the same thing could be done with the big problems of philosophy? So take a problem such as, um, free will, right? There’s a way of thinking about this problem on which there’s one single question, which is what is free will and do we have it?

And some people say, oh, yes, we do. And it’s really important. And, um, on the other hand, you have people who say, nope, we don’t. Um, complete illusion, um, we need to get rid of it and get rid of all the social practices that [00:41:00] seem to assume that we have free will. Things like, you know, blaming and praising and punishing and so forth.

Now, what Austin would do with something like that is, is to say, well, hang on a second. What on earth is a will? What on earth is it for it to be free? Um, Do we really need one concept that’s meant to do all this different work? One thing that’s going to be on the one hand, a theory of action, something that distinguishes supposedly human actions from animal behavior, something that can be the grounds of our entire set of extremely complex practices of blaming and praising and punishing.

He says, well, it’s not clear in advance that we have one thing that’s presupposed by all of these practices. Why not instead look at each one of these phenomena? each one of these activities on its own terms. So the paper in which he makes this point, uh, absolute classic, really represents his style and his approach.

It’s called A Plea for Excuses. And in this, uh, in this paper, one of the things he’s doing is to say, [00:42:00] look at the phenomena that we currently regard under a very, very general label, the label of responsibility. Now stop using that big word responsibility, instead look at the various ways in which we try to explain, extenuate, and give excuses for our actions.

And think about what’s happening in each one of these cases. And so he makes a bunch of very, very subtle distinctions. Um, on the one, for instance he says, the idea that everything can be divided into either free or not free. Right, and then you have a big debate between which things fall on which side of the divide.

Instead, you realize there are many, many ways in which things can be unfree. For instance, something could be unfree as an action because it was an accident. It could be because it was something done, uh, unwittingly. It could be unfree because it was coerced. It could be unfree because it was inadvertent.

And these are distinctions which our language is already able to make. We’ve [00:43:00] got all these different words, which is why we distinguish between doing something unwittingly and doing it unwillingly, doing it inadvertently, doing it accidentally, and doing it by mistake. And the idea that there’s one thing called freedom, which underlies all of these different cases, or if you like, the thing that is absent in all these different cases.

He says, well, we have no reason to assume that. And once you start looking at the phenomena, it’ll turn out there is not one thing. The word freedom actually is an enormous philosophical abstraction, which, far from connecting, unifying different phenomena, actually makes us think. There’s only one thing going on.

Well, actually, there’s, well, dozens of things that are going on. And the hope is that philosophy will start attending more closely to these different phenomena. I’ll ask what the difference is between an accident and a mistake. And by trying to uncover the various ways in which our actions can get it wrong, something can be off about them, you’ll understand everything that needs to be said about freedom.

There will be no further question about this big abstraction called freedom left to ask anymore. So, um, the word they’d often use [00:44:00] there would be that we’ve not solved the problem of free will, we’ve dissolved it. We’ve turned it into dozens of different problems, and each one requires its own methods, its own approaches, and a different set of phenomena, uh, that we need to examine in order to, to dissolve them.

But once we have reached that, in a way, we have addressed the thing we were worried about. It’s just, it turns out that the one thing we thought we were worried about wasn’t one thing after all.

James Robinson: It, it, it’s complete wizardry when one reads that paper, because, for example, Austen starts off with many terms, which.

One would say, okay, well, these are just synonyms, right? These mean the same things, accidentally and, um, you know, by mistake and so on. But then it shows very clearly that actually we do appreciate the difference between, uh, these terms. Well, similarly, um, you know, the example with, um, um, I know, yawning. Um, does one, does one either yawn involuntarily or voluntarily?

[00:45:00] Well, neither, neither seems right. So it’s clear that. Somehow, linguistically, we, or, you know, we don’t want to say that things are either voluntary or involuntary. Um, there is a kind of, our language is, is somewhat finer than that. Um, and of course, the, yeah, the mistake and the, um, by mistake and on, uh, by accident is, is just a beautiful example and involves, uh, kind of classic.

thought experiment of Austen, of donkeys being shot, a farmer going out to his field, and in one circumstance, a donkey, uh, he sort of, um, he doesn’t recognize, or he, his own donkey, and shoots it. The other one he’s, um, mistaken as the identity and the other case, um, he does take a bead on the correct donkey, but then the blasted, his neighbor’s blasted donkey just steps in front of the last moment.

And there’s, you know, clearly an [00:46:00] accident there. And one’s like, Oh gosh. So there is a difference between these terms, which I’d always thought that I had been employing kind of indiscriminately and at a whim. Um, but actually, you know, there’s some, there’s some deeper structure here, which, um, You know, anyone in principle can recognize in their own language.

Um, so it’s truly eyeopening, um, just how much data one has access to, or just how much, you know, how much mileage one can make, um, by sort of armchair philosophizing, although of course that’s a very unfair thing to say, because as we’ve mentioned, so much of the progress that Austin made was, uh, not sitting on his own, but, um, discussing things with, with other people.

Nikhil Krishnan: Yeah, that’s right. And the hope is that, I mean, this wasn’t always borne out by his own practice. I think it’s clear that he was a fairly charismatic person who, whom everyone deferred to. So, um, some of the more democratic elements of, of the, of the practice, I think, weren’t [00:47:00] always borne out in how he himself ran it.

He’s just one of these people who like to be in charge, but you know, that’s a, that’s not a problem in the method itself. It’s just as conceivable that The, that set of methods could be employed by someone with, um, a less, um, authoritative manner and someone who could actually allow it to be fully democratic.

And a good deal of subsequent philosophy which uses these methods is democratic in that way, right? It’s, it hasn’t got Austin breathing down your neck, telling you what you’re supposed to say. It’s, um, in the spirit of people saying, this sounds a bit odd. I wonder why. And someone saying, Hmm, I wonder if we put it this way, that might make it a little bit, a little bit better.

And I find myself just constantly in. Um, conversations which basically are conversations in that style, um, not always in an academic setting. These things come out constantly, and I think having read some Austen, it means that I’m utterly, utterly fascinated with these little, uh, nuances of, you know, Of ordinary language usage.

I mean, one of the remarks that one of the people who [00:48:00] participated in these meetings of Austin, one point he sort of bursts out and he says, how clever language is, and that really is something you start to feel, you realize, as you said, the way you put it was in terms of data, the amount of data to which we have access just by having, uh, learned her language, any language.

Uh, is really staggering, the amount of stuff that’s already in there, the number of distinctions that are already being made. And that really brings into focus the, the arrogance of a kind of philosophy which says, you know, let’s put all that aside. And let’s sort of invent a new term, which I just sort of came up with half an hour ago, sitting in my armchair.

And we’re going to talk about that. We’re going to talk about appearance and reality. We’re going to talk about, I don’t know, reality and illusion. We’re going to talk about freedom and, um, coercion, whatever it is. And you say, well, Language is much more complicated than that. You are cleverer than that.

And you’re making yourself stupid because of bad philosophical habits you’ve acquired from the tradition, right? And that’s the reason why we should reject the tradition. Stop [00:49:00] doing it in terms of these enormous abstractions. Attend to the enormous resource you have, uh, uh, to handle ready.

James Robinson: Yes, I completely agree.

I, I do want to sort of, um, um, I do want to say, though, one thing that’s always, I found a little disappointing is that no one has made that case, at least to my knowledge, very clearly for why language is, is so powerful in this sense. And one gets hints of it in, in Austin’s own, uh, work and words where he, he says sort of something like, you know, these concepts that have hung around over, you know, so many generations, uh, have kind of, I don’t know, I can’t remember his terminology, but there’s the sense that they’ve become battle hardened or they’re, you know, they’re any, if they weren’t useful, they wouldn’t have hung around so, so much.

Um, but of course, one wants a little bit more than that, because it’s [00:50:00] very easy to find counter examples, particularly in sciences and technology, where it is the new concepts and terms, which are actually. Far more successful than, than the old ones. You know, we have quarks and glue-ons and, and all these wonderful, rich ontology of things that have been, um, invented but not invented, discovered, I suppose.

Um, and they’ve replaced earlier things like ether and humans and, and so on. Um. And, you know, so clearly there’s good evidence that, um, at least from the sciences, at least, um, there can be huge benefits from bringing in new terms. And perhaps that’s what’s inspired some, um, philosophers in, in, in other traditions.

Um, but, um, one final thing I, I will say is that, um, you know, I, I, I’ve talked to some linguists who are working on language evolution. And what that does show is that, um, certainly grammar, um, [00:51:00] and the marvelous structural properties of, of, of language do emerge almost spontaneously as a, um, as a series of symbols is passed through generations, um, in such a way that that grammar will map onto, um, um, the concepts of similarity that are kind of pre linguistic and existing in the, the people.

So, for example, um, you know, you may have completely random words for photo, um, photographer, um, I don’t know, photography, uh, that, that have no bear, bear no relation to each other at the, at the beginning of one of these kind of, um, language evolution experiments. And then just over time, they will evolve to have, um, some kind of similar structure.

Um, And so there seems to be that, you know, perhaps there’s something there which could be availed by to make something of an argument for at least language mapping well on to the concepts that we [00:52:00] have. But it’s again, I, I wish one could go somewhat further and really, you know, prove the worth of language, um, beyond the fact that, oh, wow, like these, these kind of, um, exercises which Austin and others have performed are just so convincing, um, but perhaps they, the fact that they’re convincing is just because they’re all in, in language and they’re still locked within that same structure, right?

Nikhil Krishnan: Um, yeah. Yeah, sorry, I made a few things on the table. I think we can say a fair bit more than that. So, it seems initially that, I mean, Austen himself, like other philosophers of his generations, really doesn’t like talking about methods. He just wants to use them, right? He wants to do the thing, do the philosophy, rather than talk about what one is doing and doing it.

So there’s very little in the way of self conscious, I suppose. reflection on the method being used, but every now and then you’ll get a little, you know, obitur dictum, kind of passing remark, [00:53:00] which is supposed to illuminate what’s being done. And one phrase, um, totally ugly phrase that, uh, Austin uses to describe what he’s doing is linguistic phenomenology.

Very crudely, the idea is that it’s, you’re not interested in the words themselves, rather, you’re interested in looking at reality in as subtle, perceptive, fine grained a way as possible. And the hope is that the words will help you to do that. So having better words, more precise words, subtler, more nuanced words, will enable you to perceive something in the world, right?

And there’s um, later philosophers inspired by Austen who use analogies with things like art criticism. Or even just something like wine tasting. Now, I mean, wine tasting is not a thing I do myself, but I gather that there is a whole vocabulary. Of how one talks about wine and at the beginning, you say, I mean, what on earth is to say that is summary PT and a little bit apocalyptic or whatever it is people say to, uh, [00:54:00] to describe a wine, but the people who really do this stuff clearly are getting something out of that language, right?

That they’re able to articulate something that was a note that was in the wine, that the language enabled them to, to see, perceive. Better. So the same, I think, the hope is that the same thing can be true all other phenomena. You think there’s one undifferentiated mass of stuff. And someone says, no, no, no, look really closely.

Don’t you see that thing and that thing and that thing? So that’s what I understand to be the point here. The point isn’t just let’s make as many distinctions as we can. The point is that in making the distinction we’ll see something in the world itself that we weren’t able to see before. And then you ask yourself, well Sure, we can always make as many distinctions as we like.

Not all of them matter equally. And indeed, part of one thing that, uh, the development of science tells us is that a lot of good science happens because, you know, we thought there was hydrogen and there was helium and there was neon, there was argon, uh, [00:55:00] but it turns out that understanding something about the structure of atoms would connect together all these different elements.

Say, this is what’s going on, right? It’s to do with atomic number, which is definitely not a term of, of ordinary language. And we don’t say proton and neutron. That’s, that’s a word that emerges from within, um, science. So, the question has to be, well, fine, science comes up with one of these words, but that’s when the test begins.

Do people actually go on to, to use that word? We know through, through history, there have been abandoned scientific theories, which came up with interesting terms. There are these kind of pseudosciences like phrenology. which claimed to be able to explain human psychology and behavior by looking at bumps on skulls.

And it turned out that that stuff was completely meaningless. But of course, along the way, it came up with, um, a great many subtle distinctions and varieties of skulls. They didn’t survive. No one’s interested in phrenology anymore. Quite rightly, it turned out that it just didn’t do what you wanted a genuine science to do.

Now, I think [00:56:00] science is in many important ways, a special case. I think we should expect science to tell us things that are counterintuitive, uh, that don’t map onto how we wouldn’t really think of the world, because a lot of what science deals with are not the stuff of, of everyday life, right? It’s, it’s precisely attempt to look beyond the conditions of everyday life.

It seems a little bit weirder to think that the same thing would be the case for philosophy, especially when it’s philosophy of something very, very everyday, like, you know, praising and blaming to use the example I just did, or just, you know, what is it to see something? The idea that you could have a vocabulary that was utterly disconnected from and could replace all of our language in these sorts of phenomena sounds to me much less likely, at least to start with, right?

You’d need a very strong argument to persuade me of that. So the hope is that what we’ll do is to stress test our language. And some bits of language will survive the stress test. And that’s definitely going to be the case in the sciences, right? Not every neologism that a scientist has come up with has actually caught on.

There’s a reason [00:57:00] why. Quark did catch on because it did, um, explanatory work that alternatives to it didn’t. And so, and you can think of other such areas of human life which are really good for stress testing concepts. One particularly good one is, uh, is the law. That a lot of the law, um, lots of people kind of think of the law as being, you know, there’s this book which has all the laws in it.

But of course, I mean, it’s, it’s very unusual for law, certainly in the kind of common law world. But really the way in which law develops is by saying, Here’s a principle we got from this one particular case, but we tried to apply to another case and it didn’t quite fit. So we sort of modify it a bit. We make another distinction and so it goes.

So over time, you’ll find that if there are certain terms which are appearing in quite a lot of, of laws in, in statutes or in case law, it’s because that language was found to be especially useful as a way of. Drawing attention to, to, to the phenomena, right? So, um, even when, say, I don’t know, Supreme Court justices is faced with a question like, [00:58:00] Are gig economy workers employees or not?

And you realize the word employee and worker can sometimes be used interchangeably, but they’re clearly not the same. And the whole point about the gig economy is that it seems to make us, force us to draw a distinction between these two classes of people. And then you say, to what extent is, um, an Uber driver like an employee of a more traditional sort, someone who has a contract and someone who has a regular salary and someone who gets, uh, various sorts of protections of employment against.

Um, summary dismissal, et cetera. And you realize, well, in some ways they are, in some ways they aren’t. And then a judge actually has to look at the phenomena, right? By saying, how do we normally describe employees? How many of those features are present in the particular case of a gig worker? And just, by the way, the particular, uh, judgment I’m talking about, um, I’ve suddenly forgotten, uh, what the name, I think, was something like Uber and, uh, Aslam, A S L A M.

And [00:59:00] the Supreme Court Justice who wrote the judgment on that was himself originally trained as a philosopher, Lord Leggett. And you can really see some of that kind of subtle attention to language, how we talk about work and employment. That’s at work in the background of the kinds of principles he draws.

And in that particular case, he decided that given some of the things that, uh, Uber workers are required to do. They clearly are much more like employees than, than Uber itself wanted to, to allow. Uh, so that’s a case I think where we are really drawing on the resources of our ordinary language to illuminate something about, in this case, an incredibly important economic, political, uh, legal phenomenon.

And I think all of that is very much in the spirit of the Austinian approach to philosophy.

James Robinson: Yeah, I think that’s very well put. And, um, yes, as you say, it’s, it, looking at these edge cases, um, trying to push the limits. Um, and, and one is reminded of, you know, Wittgenstein’s famous dictum, the limits of my language, the limits of our world, which I don’t entirely agree with.

But of course, if [01:00:00] you want to really out delineate something, the best place to look is, is at the edges and the, and the most, um, you know, imagining these, uh, interesting, um, often somewhat unlikely scenarios, such as the donkeys being shot in a, in a field. Um, and, and, and, um, but of course, One wonders, you know, how far can one push the limits of language?

Um, is it always fair to expect our language to be up to the task? Of course, in physics and technology, as we’ve mentioned, there’s clearly examples where it’s not, and a new term is completely, um, uh, necessary and appropriate. Um, But of course, one, you know, what I’m thinking of is, well, a couple of things.

On the one hand, the kind of, um, thought experiments of people like Bernard Williams and others, in terms of personal identity, [01:01:00] where, um, We ask ourselves, so what would happen if a person went through a teleportation device and, and then we make various kind of little tweaks on, on that experiment to, to really tear apart our, um, concept of, of identity.

Um, but of course, maybe identity is just not the right concept to use anymore, or maybe we need, we need to abandon some of the baggage. Um, the other thing that comes to mind is popular, um. Saying from, or aphorism from Edgar, uh, Dijkstra, um, the question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim, you know, clearly saying that these kind of questions are, are just splitting hairs.

Um, I, and I, I really do disagree with that. And I think the reasons I disagree are very much linked to, um, the enterprise that, that Austin was interested in, because, you know, of course, whether something can think, um, [01:02:00] If we, if we agree that that’s the appropriate way of describing what it’s doing, that locks it into a whole web of other things, you know, it, it, it may mean that, you know, does that mean that we need to think of it as being conscious if it thinks, or, you know, perhaps not, but it certainly locks it into a, a certain, um, system of, of, uh, of language.

And. We cannot ignore how, how much of an effect that has on, on, on, on the way that we, um, ourselves think of something. Um, But yes, I, I do, what I, what I do worry is that even, um, for these questions of, of, of thinking, identity and consciousness, um, where, you know, there is a tension between wanting to employ these terms, um, which have stood us [01:03:00] so well in the past, um, but then there is the possibility that, um, Things are so, you know, there will be such a radical change in the way that things are that they may no longer continue to serve their purpose.

Yeah, I think that’s

Nikhil Krishnan: going to be right for something like thinking. It may just be that. We thought there was one thing here called thinking and either machines do it or they don’t. But it turns out really what we need is, um, uh, an idea, a bit of terminology that allows us to see that these kinds of things come on a, on a spectrum.

Uh, there are degrees to which something counts as, as a thought. And that initially seems a bit weird, you know, either something is or isn’t thinking, seems to be our initial assumption, but maybe that’s not one that’s, um, justified once you really think about the phenomena. And once you do think about the phenomena, you realize, well, it turns out it wasn’t, [01:04:00] it isn’t a new problem that’s revealed by, You know, reflecting on robots and AIs, maybe this is a problem we already had with animals, right?

Do animals think? I mean, sort of yes, sort of no. Maybe the problem is in thinking that the whole question has to be asked in terms of the word thinking. And again, the Austinian moral is really useful here. Why are we so invested in that word? Maybe there’s a way of describing all the things animals can do and all the things that AI can do and some of them will be pretty much identical to the things that are involved in human thought.

Some of them won’t be. We can just talk about what they can and can’t do and maybe that’ll be all there is to say. And the further question of whether, Thinking is a notion we need to apply many more, maybe one we have to give up, right? So the question, going back to your very helpful analogy there, can submarines swim?

It seems like it’s equally, um, okay to say yes or no, and in a way it kind of feels weird whatever you do say in that case. Right? Um, because on the one hand, you think swimming is just moving in water, then well, yeah, of course they do. [01:05:00] If on the other hand, you think swimming involves the movement of limbs, either hands and legs or flippers or fins, then it doesn’t seem that submarines have got those, certainly not literally.

But then you ask yourself, why do we need to make this distinction? What is it doing for us? What’s the purpose of drawing it in the first place? And Initially you say, well, I can’t think of any human context in which you have need to make that distinction. But then you could imagine a legal context in which it starts to become important.

Say there was a um, you know a bylaw of some lake saying swimming is not permitted in the lake and someone said well I’ve got a submarine in there. Um, and you say well On the one hand, it seems that the question is about whether they’re swimming in the lake or not, but maybe what that the submarine makes, forces you to think about is, is not do they swim or not, but rather what was the purpose of the prohibition on swimming, right?

So maybe it was that And it was worries about privacy. Maybe it was concerns about effects on marine life. Um, maybe it was about hygiene. I mean, it could be any number of things. So what, [01:06:00] um, you’re then forced to do is to ask, well, if it was about privacy, then clearly, uh, the submarine is violating the privacy of, I don’t know, uh, uh, those landowners or water owners.

And so it should come under the same prohibition. So in one way, you kind of have answered the question. You’re saying they do swim, but what really what you’re saying is they count as doing the same sort of thing as swimming would be doing. So, sure, in a sense, they’re not swimming, but there’s a reason why you should still include them within the scope of this prohibition.

So, really, the spirit I’m doing here is going a little bit beyond Austin. It’s going to a wider tradition of pragmatism, where you think about language not in terms of, Does it represent the world correctly, but rather does it do the thing we need it to do? And what that forces you to ask yourself is what does it what do we need it to do?

What are the expectations we have of this bit of language and a great deal of legal language technological language scientific language develops Because it turns out we have a need [01:07:00] that is not adequately um satisfied by our existing language and that’s the point at which the new development happens sort of Language starts to make, the new language starts making room for itself.

It just sort of tears apart the old distinctions and makes new ones. And when you get a good distinction in technology or science, which does that, um, you’ll find that it does then survive the Darwinian test that Austen himself has imposed. It will survive the test of time until we get a new technology and maybe we’ll need new language for that.

James Robinson: Yes. Kind of continuing on with the, the, the theme of, um, large language models and. Machines that may or may not think, um, I’m, I’m mindful of the, um, title of Austin’s book, you know, how to do things with words. And one of his kind of, um, great contributions, other than the, I suppose, kind of just series of techniques that, and, and, and, uh, the method that he, [01:08:00] um, uh, really helped me.

Pioneered, popularized, I’m not sure the best way of terming it, but, um, his kind of theory of speech acts, which is really, I suppose, just one very key insight that, um, you Um, you know, in, in uttering something, um, we can be doing more than one thing at once. And so, you know, the arrangements of our words aren’t just arrangements.

They can actually do things. They can perform acts. We can, uh, we can name a ship, we can make a bet, um, we can promise each other things and threaten each other. And, and these are not just, um, arrangements, they, they, they come with some kind of, um,

One thing that really strikes me about, um, LLMs at the moment is, you know, the extent to which they just manipulate, uh, symbols and move them around. Um, my impression is that that is the [01:09:00] correct way of thinking about them and they can’t, you know, They can’t place a bet. They can’t, um, uh, promise, threaten, and so on.

Although they might look like they’re threatening you, uh, if they’ve been, you know, badly programmed. Um, but, um, You know, at some point, uh, perhaps there will be links up to, uh, particular agencies and, um, abilities that would allow them to go beyond just manipulation of words. And then we will end up in a, in a, in a place where, for example, I don’t know, a machine could bid at auction for one, right?

Yeah. And their, you know, their action of saying, uh, I don’t know, 65 or whatever the number is, um, is, is not just an arrangement of words in a certain sense, but we would, at least again, in our ordinary language, we would think of it as placing a bid. Um, and. You know, even if it, yeah, it just strikes me as [01:10:00] interesting as, you know, whatever, even if those machines are patiently not conscious, um, right.

The fact that we start to, we would be compelled, I think, uh, you know, any sensible person would say, oh, that, that, you know. You know, robot just placed a bid for you, we’d be compelled to use some of the language, which has this, um, this baggage of intentionality. Um, even if we don’t regard the machine as having, um, intentions.

Um, and yes, I just don’t know. Uh, the right approach here. Right.

Nikhil Krishnan: Um, There’s a few things, since you’ve mentioned intentions in particular, it might be useful to bring in another philosopher, uh, who is kind of the philosopher of intention, someone called Elizabeth Anscombe. She and Austen kind of loathed each other personally, but I mean one of the things I try and do in my book is to show that these people who personally disliked each other were actually basically onto each other.

the same insight, and for reasons of personal animosity, never quite saw [01:11:00] just how, uh, how much of an intellectual affinity there was. So, Elizabeth Anscombe is, uh, was a student of Wittgenstein’s, and she returned to Oxford after the war. She taught there for 20 years, and one of the early bits of writing she publishes in the late 1950s is a little monograph called Intention.

Right. And then one of the things I think she very usefully does is to try to wean us off a very natural and tempting way of thinking about what an intention is, right? By thinking about it as a certain kind of conscious mental state. Uh, which, um, is kind of private to your mind, so you kind of know what you intend to do.

It’s something that’s inside the private theatre of your mind, and then, of course, you could reveal your intention through your actions, or by saying what you intend to do, etc. But ultimately, it’s a thing that’s going on, in some metaphorical sense, inside your head. And [01:12:00] she wants to say, well, that’s just not the right way of thinking about intention.

It’s not a thing that’s going on inside anything else. It’s not a thing that is going on. Rather, she says, why don’t you think about it this way? Think about words like intentional, intentionality, intentionally, and think about them as a form of description, a form of description of actions. And when you bring actions under that description, uh, that tells you a little bit about how you are thinking about that action.

So stop looking for a thing called an intention. You can sort of look inside a brain and find this one state that’s going to be the intention. She thinks, you don’t need to do that, and you probably shouldn’t do that anyway. So here’s some examples she uses, right? She asks ourselves, um, think about how we describe animal movements.

I think in thinking about things like AIs, it’s always, always a good idea to think about non human animals. I think it’d be really illuminating because on the one hand, we’re still talking about a creature with some level of consciousness, but not a human level of consciousness. So it [01:13:00] helps us to separate our ideas about consciousness from our ideas about what’s distinctively human.

So she says, observe a cat stalking a bird. And observe a cat kind of trying to fall on its feet and sort of tripping. Now, it seems clear that one of those two things is something the cat is doing intentionally, and the other is a thing that it isn’t. Like the cat slipping, or So it seems like the language of intention is one we can perfectly well ascribe to, at least non human animals, right?

But then you ask ourselves, well, how many intentions can we ascribe to the animal, right? So now take a dog that’s digging the garden. And you can ask yourself, why is the dog digging in the garden? And you say, ah, because it’s burying the bone. Yeah, that’s a thing we know dogs do. So there’s no mystery at all.

There’s nothing particularly controversial about saying that in digging the hole, the dog is trying to bury the bone. Right. But suppose you then say, oh, in digging the hole, the dog is trying to bury the bone so it can return to it next Tuesday. [01:14:00] That seems much less likely, right? We just don’t think that animals are capable of that further thought.

So it looks like the very notion of an intention is, is not either you have one or you don’t. It seems like the concept is already a bit messy. That includes things like, In doing one thing, you were trying to do something else. And that’s clearly something that can be the case for animals. And I suspect it could be true of a machine.

There’s now the further question of, um, whether, so in raising my hand at the auction, I thereby committed myself to paying certain money, a certain amount of money. That’s kind of what a bid is, right? To bid on something just means if there are no higher bids, then you’ve got to pay up. Now, there’s a question of whether a machine could, you know, incur an obligation.

And that seems a bit tricky. And I said, no, you, what the, this kind of process of reflection makes you do is to think of what has to be the case about something or someone such that they could incur obligations. Right now, in this particular [01:15:00] case, actually, it seems like maybe what we could say is what’s going to happen is that once The machine has made that noise, 65, and it turns out no one said anything higher.

What will happen is that it puts into, uh, that puts into motion a chain which will mean a certain amount of money is deducted from a certain bank account, right? And there might be certain legal principles which say that you can’t now stop that. In the same way that, uh, would happen in the case where we’re talking about a human being in its own and that person’s obligations.

Now, what we’re doing is clearly slightly stretching the boundaries of what words like bidding, promising, intending, um, being obligated and so forth are doing. But, again, in that kind of pragmatist spirit I introduced earlier, we ask ourselves, what are these concepts for? Don’t first say we’ve got these concepts, now do they apply?

Ask ourselves what the concepts are doing for us in the first place. And you can think of very good reasons why we might want a [01:16:00] system where a machine is in a position to put in a bid, right? It’ll just mean something slightly different. It doesn’t mean, oh, the machine should be ashamed of itself if it doesn’t pay up afterwards.

That whole language of shame and guilt and so forth isn’t going to apply to the machine. But the idea that there are now legal restrictions on whether Um, the money’s allowed to stay in the bank account or not. That seems to me to be entirely meaningful here. So again, we’re doing the Austinian thing.

We’re taking one concept and showing that actually it’s covering a wide range of phenomena. And what the situation makes us do is to draw those distinctions. Once we have drawn them, We don’t have to worry so much about whether that was really a bid or not, right? We could just say that all the consequences of making a bid will happen in the case where the machine makes those noises.

Do we need to worry about whether it was a bid? Well, that just seems like a fetish for answering the question of was it, wasn’t it? We don’t need to answer that question anymore. I myself feel no longer worried about that question once I’ve said all the things I just have.

James Robinson: Yeah, I [01:17:00] think that’s a wonderful example of the, the method in, in action.

Um, yeah, and it, it does, yes, well, in some ways it’s, um, to say, well, things are more complicated, right? Again, our language is, is, is actually up to the task. We do use it in very subtle ways. Um, and perhaps where we run into error is we, we latch on to some of the most controversial, um, big terms, consciousness.

Uh, free will, and we immediately want a question to, well, is it, isn’t it, right? And maybe the answer is, well, you know, those things are actually, um, you know, let’s think of some of the, um, more common words we are on, uh, stronger footing with. Um, uh, so, you know, for consciousness, one might think instead of, yeah, thinking, reasoning, um, saying, even asking, you know, what [01:18:00] are all the verbs that one associates, that can one associate with this?

And perhaps some of them will apply to machines and, and some won’t, and the ones that do may apply in certain situations and, and not others. And perhaps there’s maybe a better word that, um, we can use. Um, but yeah, I, I. Yeah, it really shows how applicable this, this, this way of doing things, this way of philosophizing is to this day.

Um, I have many more things we could talk about, um, but perhaps we can, I don’t know, well, maybe we can finish with something a little bit, uh, fun, uh, so, um, I’ve talked previously with Simon Critchley, who’s from sort of straddles, I guess, the analytic and continental traditions. Um, and, and, and maybe it would be fun just to, uh, I don’t know, contrast these two and lament the fact that perhaps they were moving apart.

So the continental [01:19:00] tradition, one might think of Sartre and the French, uh, Um, philosophers of, of, of that time, phenomenologists and, um, and also some, uh, Germans like, uh, Heidegger and Roussel and so on, um, a bit earlier, uh, There’s a beautiful quote that you, uh, have from Iris Murdoch in your book where she says, um, she’s describing a book by Gilbert Ryle, um, actually very much on the topic we were just discussing where Gilbert Ryle is trying to, it’s called The Concept of Mind, and he’s trying to, um, dismantle a bit of a straw man, Cartesian view of the world where things are either conscious or not.

And he’s trying to say, well, look, um, you know, if we, if we, if we pay careful attention to our categories, we’ll just see that. This is a problem that kind of just, just dissolves. But his book is, is, is rather quaint in, in some ways. And she says, The concept of mind evokes a world in which people play [01:20:00] cricket, cook cakes, make simple decisions, remember their childhood, go to the circus, not the world where they commit sins, fall in love, say prayers, or join the Communist Party.

And, um, So, yeah, what is, imagine on the one hand, uh, Gilbert Ryle, you know, in tweeds with elbow patches and a pipe, which, uh, I think it’s not an unfair description of him. And on the other hand, you know, the French philosophers in leather jackets with, um, Galois cigarettes. Um,

Discuss. Um, yes, where do we, what can we say about this? And, and, um, you know, can a rapprochement

Music: be

James Robinson: made between, between these worlds or, or, or should we just think of philosophy as, as, as, um, you know, a few different disciplines that really don’t need to talk to one another on the, on the one hand, this continental tradition, which is, you know, rather textual, um, [01:21:00] looks very much at the ideas as they attach to particular people, um, really is striving to understand, um, and express something about the human condition, um, in a kind of, rather grand sense.

And this kind of analytical Christian trying to break things down into their smallest pieces, um, concerned with, um, um, using language in a precise, clear way, throwing away, um, you know, not so interested in who generated a particular idea, but really just trying to avail themselves of arguments. Um, firstly, is that kind of a rare classification?

Nikhil Krishnan: Plenty of things to say on that, almost kind of too many things. I mean, one pedantic thing to say at the start is that, of course, there isn’t a thing called a The Continental Tradition, and some people would say there isn’t a thing called the Analytic Tradition either. These are all kind of

Music: invented

Nikhil Krishnan: [01:22:00] traditions.

They’re labels we apply to what were in fact diverse and disparate, internally quite differentiated activities or histories. And that is true, but it’s also true that you can draw a rough sort of line, um, in the way that you did, right? So one very crude way of drawing the line would be to say, what do you think is the most important thing for philosophy to be?

Is it important that it be clear, or do you think it’s important that it be deep? And then you’ve got all the clear philosophers on one hand and the deep philosophers on the other. Then that immediately makes you ask, well, why does it have to be one or the other, right? So very pointedly, the epigraph I chose for my book is one, uh, well, there are two philosophers I use as my epigraphs.

One is Nietzsche and the other is Bergson, Henri Bergson, a French philosopher. And it’s kind of, it was meant to be a deliberate irony that in a book that’s very, very English. Right, um, I [01:23:00] choose to start things off with quotations from Nietzsche and Baxall. So the Nietzsche quotation is, Those who know they are deep, strive for clarity.

Those who would like to seem deep to the crowd, strive for obscurity. And the Baxall quotation is, There is no philosophical idea, however deep or subtle, that cannot and should not be expressed in everyone’s language. Now, what I was trying to do there was to say that Uh, it isn’t either or, uh, and indeed, you might even think that being clear can be a way of being deep, right?

But, uh, There’s a further question now, which is what is clarity itself? And it turns out that there might be more than one way for something to be, to be clear, right? There are bits of philosophy which sort of, since it’s, uh, analytic philosophy as we’ve been calling it, which are clear But the way in which they try to make things clear is by setting everything out in, I don’t know, numbered propositions Uh, they introduce new terms of art, you know, they use abbreviations, um, [01:24:00] they set things out in formal arguments, premise one, premise two, conclusion.

Um, and sure, sometimes that can make things clear, but I think we’re all aware that sometimes those are themselves devices of obfuscation, ways of wearing the clothes of clarity, having features that clear prose has, but that actually doesn’t make things clearer at all. And that’s especially true of the formalism.

And I know this because I’ve been on the other side of it, particularly as a graduate student, and I’m trying to be all impressively analytic. And I just go about Numbering everything for no good reason. I mean, things that would actually be a lot easier to read and understand if I just wrote them out as a, uh, fluent paragraph.

But I think, oh, it looks more serious when we, um, set it out using numbers, um, bits of unnecessary logical notation to go with it. We don’t need this stuff. We don’t always need it. Right. So the question is going to be what forms, what styles best serve the end of clarity? And [01:25:00] sometimes it could be formalism, sometimes it won’t be.

Sometimes avoiding formalism could be precisely the thing we need to do. And then there’s a further question, which is, Um, just because something is clear, does that mean it can’t have other virtues? Right? And that’s where someone like, uh, Nietzsche is an especially important figure within the Continental Tradition.

Sure, there are some bits of Nietzsche which, you know, who knows what he’s on about. There are other sentences which are the most extraordinarily clear things you’ll ever read. But there’s not a single logical symbol in them. Right. It’s Nietzsche in the mood of someone writing, uh, in his aphoristic mood, he’ll come up with one of these statements and like, I don’t know, man does not strive for happiness, only the Englishman does.

You go slam, that’s such a good line, such a good line, and In it is contained a critique of a certain kind of British utilitarianism, right? Maybe the critique is right, maybe it’s wrong. Clearly that needs further discussion. But there’s something about the, what’s boiled down into that one very simple sentence with no fancy words at all.

So I think the, the [01:26:00] question we should really be asking is not analytic versus continental, but rather what kind of style. Do we want to aspire to in philosophy? And more specifically, what extent can philosophical writing be expressive, right? Not just report on, this is how things are, right? But, but also express something of one’s view of the world, what one values, what one cherishes, what one thinks is important, what ought to be salient, et cetera.

And it’s clear that all philosophical writing is doing that anyway. It’s just that the particular style that we are taught, if we’re educated in the analytic tradition, is one which says, no, the style you will be going for is one that is as, uh, un expressive as possible, right? The one that doesn’t use emotive language, that uses as few metaphors as possible.

And in general, I think that’s a virtuous tendency. It’s good for us to be taught to write like that. But every now and then, even within the analytic tradition, you’ll have writers who just Loosen the strings just a tiny bit, right? And I think it’s all the more effective in these writers. Some of them I [01:27:00] mentioned, Iris Murdoch is one, Bernard Williams is another, there’s one who doesn’t appear in the book, but is really extraordinary in this, a chap called Richard Walheim, and he’s one of these writers who will write an incredibly careful Paragraph of prose.

There’s a, um, there’s a little bit there about the nature of desire, right? So it starts with, you know, S has a desire for phi. It’s got all these kind of, um, algebraic symbols to start with. And it talks about the difference between consistency between, um, different beliefs and how all our beliefs have to kind of cohere.

But all our desires don’t have to cohere because the same demand of consistency, um, doesn’t apply to them. And then he just breaks out in this extraordinary metaphor. Our desires Each one of our desires may be seen as a little keyhole, but it is not true that once one turns the key, the door will open onto one beautiful garden.

I’m slightly misquoting. It’s slightly more elegant than that. But it brings out really effectively something about the difference between different [01:28:00] sorts of mental states, and I find it. All the more convincing because of the coherence and precision of the metaphor, right? But the fact that the metaphor itself serves the ends of clarity, and that it’s clearly been thought through a great deal, doesn’t mean it doesn’t also have the kind of power that a good piece of literary writing can have.

Right? So I think the best philosophical writers do have that kind of, uh, literary distinction on top of all the philosophical virtues they have. Now, is it something we can all achieve and we can all achieve consistently? Probably not, because that kind of thing is really, really, really hard. And it’s particularly hard if you’re a first year undergraduate, first being taught to write, uh, in a new form that’s utterly unlike anything you’ve been asked to write at school.

So of course, I, I understand why the insistence of the

As part of its training to insist on clarity and the judicious use of formalism. But I think that’s something we need slowly to break away from. Just allow ourselves just a bit more in the way of metaphor and expressiveness [01:29:00] when we think it aids, uh, what it is we’re trying to achieve, which is clarity and insight.

James Robinson: Yeah, I think that’s, that’s very nicely put. I, I, I would agree that I think one of the virtues of, um, analytic philosophy is, well, these lovely examples and illustrations that are used that, that, that, that often are just great.

indicate that a very creative mind is at work. Some of these, some of the flawed experiments that are devised are just, yeah, so ingenious. Um, and those are passed around very readily, um, and can be kind of just extracted from a work and related, you know, completely different language, but one gets the idea of the donkeys and so on.

Um, and so, But unlike in the, uh, you know, in the, I hesitate to call it Continental Tradition, because you’re absolutely right. It’s, it’s, it is [01:30:00] just the name is, uh, somewhat offensive. But, um, you know, in other ways of doing philosophy, um, you know, it might be quotes and texts that are passed around, um, which, um, I think, uh, You know, perhaps better way, you know, would permit for more of, um, yes, a little bit more liberty and, um, precision and something touching and continuous with, you know, poetry, with, uh, history to, to, to, to, to breathe through the works.

Yeah, I, I mean, maybe, I don’t know if you see any signs that, um, this is something that, that, that is happening, that if, that, that people are becoming generally a little bit looser, or is it just philosophers here and there, um, pushing, uh, testing the limits of what is acceptable?

Nikhil Krishnan: Yeah, I mean, my [01:31:00] own inclination is to say that There has never been a period of philosophy in which everyone wrote the same way, right?

There were always outliers, um, and the particular form that the expressiveness of philosophers will take will kind of depend on Where we are in the world where we are in history So what it was to be an elegant writer in the 1950s was to write like someone who’d spent the last 20 years reading a lot of Greek and Latin texts.

So, I mean, I like that style myself, but it’s only one way of being elegant, right? You, you go into the 60s, 70s in American philosophy, and they don’t have the same background at all. They haven’t been to those sorts of schools, haven’t had a classical education, but they may have had a scientific education, and some of what’s interesting about their writing is how it’s been informed by Uh, some elements of scientific style, right?

Not just bad, clunky scientific style, good scientific style. Right? And then you go on, particularly in American writing, you see people using colloquialism a great deal [01:32:00] more, right? There’s a paper by Hilary Putnam called something like Meaning Ain’t Just in the Head. And that’s a very nice way of using demotic English, like the really informal register of English for rhetorical effect, but there’s other writers, one of them, especially fond of called David Lewis.

Um, real master of English prose, not because he’s sort of flowery or florid full of metaphors that he uses a few of them every now and then. Um, but there’s something about, uh, the way in which he’s able to mix registers, go back and forth between. Sounding like someone wearing a tweed jacket and someone wearing, uh, uh, leather and smoking, uh, uh, uh, gauloise.

So, um, it’s always possible, I think, to mix things up, and people always have. And what you mix with what is partly a matter of your personal formation and the culture of your time. So, um, I generally kind of encourage it. I think your experiments with literary style can fail, uh, but that’s [01:33:00] because anything you do with writing can fail.

It can fail for argumentative reasons. It can fail for stylistic reasons. So there’s no really safe way of not failing. Um, and lots of people think that, oh, the safe thing to do is just to write boringly. Well, sure. In one sense, you won’t embarrass yourself. Another way, you will just bore the reader. And I think we should all be a little bit more courageous.

Sometimes, um, be more scared of boring people than you are of slightly embarrassing yourself. Um, and I think all writing would be better if we were less frightened of, of, uh, embarrassment.

James Robinson: Yes. So we need to hold ourselves accountable to the right way of using words, but maybe that extends to a beautiful way of using words as well.

Well, this has been, uh, yeah, a real pleasure. I don’t know if you have any kind of final comments, maybe advice for people either studying philosophy or thinking about studying philosophy about, um, that, uh, I think you’ve given a great flavor of, of, uh, [01:34:00] what it is to, uh, not only be a philosopher throughout these wonderful years of the 20th century, but you know, what the, what it involves these days as well.

But I wonder if you have anything you’d like to add.

Nikhil Krishnan: Yeah, sure. Um, I think, um, the thing I generally say, um, To people who ask about studying philosophy is there’s a there’s a there’s a bad way of thinking about philosophy where you think of it as a repository of, of wisdom, right, where you see philosophy as a simple variety of self help or therapy.

And I don’t think it’s going to be a simple variety of that, at least, right, because I think that what’s valuable about right, because I think that what’s valuable about philosophy is not the value of its conclusions, which is one reason that I slightly resist, um, a certain kind of self help book every now and then.

Just titles like, I don’t know how Aristotle can, can change your life. I kind of want to say, it’s not that he can’t [01:35:00] change your life. He absolutely can. He changed mine. But the way in which he changes lives is by involving you in an activity. And that’s the thing that helps. It’s a bit like, and maybe people do this more than they used to, but the difference between playing the video game yourself and watching someone else playing it, I mean, sure, it’s a thing you can, or perhaps more, more to the point, um, watching someone on YouTube, doing a workout and doing the workout yourself.

I think the really valuable thing comes with philosophy as with all these other examples is from doing it yourself. And sure, you can do it well, you can do it badly. And it takes a while before you’re in the position to do it well, but that’s the thing that’s really valuable. Uh, really try and make the question your own and try to answer it yourself.

And when you read texts and read works of philosophy, what you’re looking for in them is a spur to your own thoughts. You’re not looking, uh, at them as putting down some set of truths, which you can now sort of take on without really [01:36:00] understanding how they got there. I think that’s almost worse than useless.

Um, to, to treat the results of philosophy as the thing that’s most important about them. For a person intending to study it, I think it will make you better, not because it will tell you the truth about the universe, um, but it’ll be, make you better at pursuing it for yourself. So I think, um, What we want really is, is a sense of philosophy as something one does, not, and that’s something which essentially can’t be written down.

It’s only something, it’s something that only you can do for yourself.

James Robinson: Wonderful. Thank you so much, uh, Nikhil. This has been a real treat. Um, yes. That’s great. Thank you very much for having me, [01:37:00] James.