Angie Hobbs is the Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield, a position which was created specifically for her. Angie earned her degree in Classics and a PhD in Ancient Philosophy at New Hall, University of Cambridge. Angie Hobbs has also held a Research Fellowship at Christ’s College, Cambridge and worked on the Philosophy Department at the University of Warwick. Her chief interests are in ancient philosophy and literature, ethics and political theory. Angie Hobbs has published widely in the aforementioned areas, including Plato and the Hero (C.U.P). Angie also contributes on a regular basis to a plethora of TV and radio programs, as well as newspaper articles and philosophy websites. Angie Hobbs is also a well respected speaker, having given talks at the World Economic Forum at Davos, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the United States Air Force Training Academy. She has also been the guest on Desert Island Discs, Private Passions and Test Match Special. Angie Hobbs is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Honorary Patron of the Philosophy Foundation and Patron of the Philosophy in Education project. Talking books with such a well respected mind in the world of Philosophy is a real honour. Please enjoy my interview with the wonderful Angie Hobbs…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
Philosopher and teacher.
I am currently reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, which is simply magnificent: his psychological insight and sympathy are extraordinary, as is his ability to create an entirely believable world.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
So many. Some of the most important are The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne; Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame; The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; No More School by William Mayne. They all have vivid, nuanced characters, and they do not patronise children. They are also all infused with a deep love of the English countryside which I have certainly imbibed.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Something creative, usually a fiction writer. And I have written a lot of short stories as well academic books and articles. I just need to find the courage to send the stories off to publishers!
When did you fall in love with philosophy?
I first became intrigued by the problem of free will when studying De Rerum Natura by Lucretius for Latin A Level at school. Then studying classics at university I fell in love with Plato, initially with his Symposium, a glorious dialogue on the nature of erotic love. Plato is a great artist as well as a great philosopher, so he nourishes my love of both art and philosophy.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
She would be very surprised, but I think pleased that I am still exploring and still challenging myself, both intellectually and geographically.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
Perhaps something by Jane Gardam, such as Bilgewater or Flight of the Maidens. She writes so perceptively about what it feels like to be a teenager, about to embark on a mysterious adult life. Her voice is sympathetic and witty, but always clear-eyed and unsentimental.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
I lead a very full and busy life, so apart from the philosophical books and articles which I read in the day as part of my work, I am usually restricted to a few pages of a novel, or a short story or poem, before I fall asleep. But when I’m on holiday I love to read lying in the sun or shade, something chilled and delicious to hand!
As mentioned above, it would have to be Symposium by Plato, which made me realise that, in addressing questions about how best to live and love, philosophy could satisfy my creative imagination as well as my desire for rational enquiry. I was also very influenced at an early stage by Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel and Causing Death and Saving Lives by Jonathan Glover: again, they showed me that philosophy could help us think deeply and clearly about vital issues that affect us all. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre, The Fragility of Goodness by Martha Nussbaum and The Fire and the Sun by Iris Murdoch were also very important to me. And G.E.M. Anscombe’s article ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ was seminal in re-instating the importance of an ancient Greek ethics of flourishing and virtue.
What advice would you give a novice, looking for an introduction to philosophy?
I would always advise reading some original philosophy, by, for example, Plato or Aristotle or Hume or Mill or Nietzsche or Bernard Williams or Philippa Foot. And there are also some excellent introductory handbooks, such as those by Nigel Warburton. There are also some superb philosophy books for children and young people, such as The If Odyssey by Peter Worley (I am an Honorary Patron of the Philosophy Foundation, of which Peter is CEO). Also, I’d also mention a book that I contributed a short story to, and was also edited by Peter Worley – The Philosophy Shop, another great book for inspiring children and young people to embark on philosophy, whilst also providing a resource to help their parents do this.
Who would you say are the three philosophers that continue to inspire you?
Probably Plato, Aristotle and Bernard Williams. I also find Nietzsche very stimulating, for very different reasons. You certainly don’t always need to agree with a thinker to learn from them!
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
Definitely. My father was a great reader, and whatever else he was reading he would always have a volume of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust on the go (though I think his older edition was translated as Remembrance of Things Past). When he had finished all seven volumes, he would simply start all over again. I see him sitting in his favourite chair, drinking a gin and tonic, listening to Beethoven or Mozart and reading Proust. My mother introduced me to some of the lovely books of her childhood, such as The Caravan Children and The Magic Lamplighter.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
Again, so many! Scoop by Evelyn Waugh and Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse or Summer Lightening if they need cheering up. Any short story collection by Alice Munro or Grace Paley; anything by Jane Gardam. Also Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Márquez; Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
Possibly fiction, but I love philosophy and other non-fiction works too. That’s one of the reasons I love Plato so much, because I don’t have to choose! I also have a deep interest in herbs and gardening in general, and the best travel writing and cookbooks can also be transportative.
Do you think reading is important?
One of the most important things there is. It furnishes our imaginations with other ways of being, living and thinking – we do not have to remain enclosed in the circumstances into which we were born. And it can help us empathise with people whose personalities, views and lives may be very different from ours – utterly crucial right now. But there are also wonderful moments of startling recognition, when you realise that you are not alone in what you have experienced or how you feel. And the sheer rhythym and music of words and sentences and paragraphs can delight and uplift us.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Apart from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. I lived for a while in Naples, and though we are now told that the author does not come from Naples herself, she has depicted the suburbs of Naples perfectly, in all their raw, messy vitality. And her portrayal of a complex, intimate sometimes painful female friendship is very moving and powerful.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
Oh, real books, particularly old ones: I love the feel and smell and look of them. I particularly love it if a previous reader has – discreetly – marked a certain passage or made a little note in the margin. You feel a real connection across time and perhaps countries too.
Name a book that you feel everyone would benefit from reading and explain why.
Perhaps Middlemarch by George Eliot. She has such clear-eyed understanding of and compassion for such a huge cast of characters and their moral predicaments and complicated emotional responses. And as well as her grasp of intense romantic passion, she also has a great grasp of the importance of work, business and finances in our lives, and the difference it can make if these go well or badly. I also find The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats profoundly beautiful and sustaining; I often return to them.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley have all had a lasting impact on me. They all depict life as an endlessly surprising adventure and show that one needs to be bold and embrace it. I have also returned again and again to a book by one of Charles Darwin’s granddaughters, Period Piece by Gwen Raverat about her Cambridge childhood at the end of the nineteenth century. It is warm and funny and highly perceptive.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
Shakespeare’s history plays. I have a really deep love for Shakespeare – I find his language literally thrilling – and I have seen most of his plays performed more than once. But I think quietly reading the history plays might provide fresh insights, particularly given the turbulent state of global politics at the moment. I think we could learn a lot from Shakespeare’s understanding of different kinds of power.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Women Without Hemingway. Though I do love Hemingway too.