David Papineau was born in Como, Italy, and spent his childhood travelling around the world. He attended schools in Trinidad, Lancashire and London, before spending twelve years in Durban, South Africa. At the University of Natal, David Papineau studied mathematics and statistics for four years. In 1968, David returned to England to study philosophy at Cambridge, completing a second undergraduate degree in just two years, and then completing a PhD on conceptual change and scientific rationality. In 1973, David Papineau took his first philosophy job as a lecturer on the philosophy of social science in the Department of Sociology at the University of Reading. Since then, David has held lecturer positions at numerous other universities, including the University of Sydney, Birkbeck College in London, the University of Cambridge, Kings College London and more recently, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. David Papineau was the President of the British Society for Philosophy of Science for 1993-5, President of the Mind Association for 2009-10, and President of the Aristotelian Society for 2013-14. David Papineau has also recently released his new book, Knowing The Score: What Sports Can Teach Us About Philosophy, which is receiving popular reviews already. Please enjoy my interview with the brilliant David Papineau…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
If I just say ‘I’m a philosopher’, it only provokes giggles or ‘Aren’t we all?’ So I usually qualify it: ‘I’m a philosophy professor’ or ‘I’m an academic philosopher’. It’s still a conversation-stopper, but at least my audience understands.
Just Kids by Patti Smith, about her and Robert Mapplethorpe hanging out in New York in their twenties. It’s especially interesting for me, as the apartment where I’m currently living is a block from the Chelsea Hotel, where much of the book is set. It’s good fun, but the odd thing is that I’m half-way through the book, and she hasn’t sung a note yet.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, I suppose. I read everything. Much of my childhood was in South Africa, which had no television then, and my parents had a good library. But Arthur Ransome was my favourite among children’s authors. The sailing made the children seem properly independent. I remember The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain well too, for similar reasons.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I never had any clear ambitions at all, beyond somehow living by my wits. I suppose that being a philosopher is one way of achieving that.
When did you fall in love with philosophy?
My first degree was in mathematics. But by the end of that I wanted to do something less abstract, and I started reading around in psychology and philosophy. Some of my friends pushed me towards Sartre and Camus, but their books did nothing for me. Then by chance I picked up The Problem of Knowledge by A.J. Ayer from my parents’ bookshelves, and immediately thought ‘This is the stuff for me’. I’ve never had any second thoughts.
What do you think your school-aged self would think of the present day you?
I’m not sure I can remember my school-aged self very well. Perhaps he would be a bit disappointed by the uniformity of my career—nothing but academic philosophy since I was 20—but otherwise I think he’d be happy enough.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
Metamagical Themas by Douglas Hofstadter, his collection of Scientific American articles from the 1980s. It’s full of Hofstadter fun, from the title on (written as an ambigram on the title page, it’s also an anagram of Mathematical Games by Martin Gardner, the Scientific American column Hofstadter took over). But it is also super-informative about any number of crucial issues, from quantum mechanics and DNA to altruism and chaos theory.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
I’m probably reading stuff for work half my waking life, so I do that everywhere and anywhere. But I always have a book for pleasure by my bedside, and finish two or three each month.
The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl Popper. But I don’t mean that in a good way. Popper was a terrible philosopher, who bullied a generation of young British philosophers of science into accepting his absurd sceptical views. I was into my 30s and had written two books before I freed myself of his influence. I hold it against him.
What advice would you give a novice, looking for an introduction to philosophy?
Who would you say are the three philosophers that continue to inspire you?
Two are easy. Descartes and Hume. They combined unnatural philosophical acuity with metaphysical visions that permanently shifted our thinking in the right direction. After that I am not sure. I’d like to say Aristotle, on the same grounds, but I must confess that my knowledge of him is sketchy.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
My PhD supervisor in the early 1970s was Ian Hacking. His subsequent career has been a model of how a philosophical mind can illuminate a wide range of non-philosophical topics. The Emergence of Probability in 1975 was a transitional book for him, combining his technical work in the philosophy of probability with a Foucault-style history of ideas. (And, like all his work, it’s such fun to read: about ignorance of gambling odds in the ancient world, he says, “Someone with only the most modest knowledge of probability mathematics could have won the whole of Gaul in a week.”)
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
The Code Book by Simon Singh. It’s a great story. Throughout history, the code-breakers have always beaten the code-makers. Singh is a master-explainer, and he doesn’t cut corners in describing the unbelievably ingenious techniques the code-breakers have used. In particular, the long central chapter on Bletchley Park is the best account of cracking the Enigma code that I know.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
Goodness. I think I’m neutral. On those occasions when I am looking for a next book to read, I’m equally open to both.
Do you think reading is important?
Yes. We are very lucky to be living in such a data-rich world, where even people who are not great readers can absorb large amounts of information from other media. But the written word is far superior for getting a deep understanding of complex subjects, if only because it’s so much faster to read than listen.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Can I have more? It just happens that I’ve read three fantastically good books in the last few months: The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, All That Man Is by David Szalay, and Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and The Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith. The first two are novels and the third a sort of philosophy book by my colleague in the CUNY Graduate Center, but they are all both unputdownable and deeply insightful.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
I’m not too fussed. I suppose if I am at home I’ll choose a hard copy over the Kindle. But modern mobility argues against humping bulky books all over the place.
1984 by George Orwell. I spent my teenage years in apartheid South Africa, and a respect for habeas corpus and other civil liberties is deeply ingrained in me. I’d like more people to be sensitive to the way modern states are now riding rough-shod over the historical protections that ensure our freedom.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
I don’t have any sort of personal bible, but I might as well mention Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth here. I was a bit young and not English enough for the 1950s angry young men to speak directly to me, but Heller and Roth showed me and my friends the absurdity of many conventional expectations of us.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
There are so many: Austen, Dickens, Trollope, Waugh, Wodehouse, Hammett, Amis (x2), Flann O’Brien, Updike, Le Guin, Coetzee, Leonard. . . and no doubt many others that I haven’t called to mind
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
Perhaps I should have a go at Aristotle.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Do I have to? I doubt that academic lives make good biographies. Maybe At My Desk.