When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I say, ‘You call this a living?’ in a Spike Milligan accent. If they persist, I say that I spend my time thinking and writing about how the mind works and what consciousness is.
I read a lot of academic articles and books, mostly now about consciousness. Today I’ve been reading The Philosophy of Daniel Dennett edited by Bryce Huebner, which is a marvellous collection of new essays reflecting on the work of one of my favourite philosophers. I’m also reading a novel, An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. It’s a murder mystery set in 1660s Oxford, narrated by four different characters. It’s learned, atmospheric, and very well-written, and I recommend it highly. I also read every day to our three children. Currently, I’m reading The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank to the eldest, The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke to the middle one, and The Complete Borrowers by Mary Barton to the youngest. I love reading to them, and I enjoy the books we read myself too. Good stories work for all ages.
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
Going to the local library (closed now, alas) with my mum to choose books for her to read to me. She read all the popular children’s books of the time: Paddington stories by Michael Bond, Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge, Lone Pine adventures by Malcolm Saville, and so on. She was (and still is) a talented reader, who would read with expression and character, and I loved our reading sessions after meals and before bed. She gave me my love of books and reading, and I am hugely grateful to her.
If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be and why?
One I’ve already mentioned — The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. It’s vital for young people to learn about the Holocaust and the war, especially now it’s passing from living memory, and this book is one of the best ways for them to do so. As we follow Anne’s life in the Annex day by day, we see the Holocaust in a new way, not as a distant historical event, but as something that is happening to someone we know and care about, living a life like ours — and so as something that could happen again here and now. It’s both terrifying and salutary. But the book is much more than a warning. It’s a wonderful book about adolescence and family life. Every thoughtful teenager will identify with Anne’s frustrations, yearnings, and self-criticism, and respond to her passion, energy, and love for life. Anne Frank was a great writer, and despite the terrible circumstances under which it was written, her book carries a message of hope and love for life.
When did you fall in love with philosophy?
In my youth. I had an extended period of ill health, when I spent a lot of time reading, educating myself. I read all kinds of stuff — novels, poetry, plays, history, the classics. I found it all fascinating — largely, I think, because I was discovering it for myself, rather than being taught it. (I had an old copy of The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature by George Samson — an excellent book — which was like a treasure map to me.) But it was philosophy that really captured my imagination. It seemed to ask the deepest questions and to offer the best prospect of making sense of things. And, most of all, it gave me a sense of intellectual excitement. Great works of philosophy take you on an intellectual journey — often an arduous one, but one that brings you to fascinating places and reveals wonderful new vistas.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
In terms of mental pain, being a writer. It’s not so much writing itself that I find hard — once I’ve got well into a piece of work, the words usually flow — it’s getting myself psyched up to write and overcoming the self-doubt I feel about it.
What advice would you give a novice, looking for an introduction to philosophy?
There are many good introductions to the subject and its branches. I particularly recommend Nigel Warburton’s books — for example, A Little History of Philosophy and Philosophy: The Basics. Warburton is a first-class philosopher who explains difficult ideas clearly and shows why they are important for us today. In addition, his podcast series Philosophy Bites (created with David Edmonds) is a marvellous resource. It includes hundreds of short interviews with leading philosophers on topics from across the philosophical spectrum — all available for free download. But though these are great ways to get started, there’s no substitute for plunging in and reading the great philosophers for yourself. You’ll find it hard going at first, but it’s an exhilarating experience — think of it as an intellectual adventure sport — and it’s a wonderful feeling when things that had puzzled you finally slot into place.
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
No, but that’s a good thing. If I read as much as I’d like to I’d do nothing else.
What books do you feel are important reading for people on your career path and why?
The advice I’d give to young professional philosophers is to read widely outside philosophy. The pressures of the job mean that it’s hard to find time for serious reading outside the subject, but I think it’s vital. One needs to read widely, not just in related fields, such as psychology, but right across the arts, humanities, and sciences. As Wilfrid Sellars put it, the aim of philosophy is ‘to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term’ — and in order to do philosophy, one needs to be informed about things in the broadest possible way. Without such a background, it’s hard to maintain a sense of proportion and easy to become obsessed with technical puzzles that have no relevance outside the discipline.
Is there a book that you’ve read more than once? What is it and why did you revisit it?
There are many. The experience of reading a book is shaped by the context in which it is read — by the experiences, emotions, and ideas you bring to it — as well as by its content. A good book interacts with this context in such a rich way that it produces very different experiences each time you read it, and so rereading it is always rewarding. (In fact, I’d say it’s a measure of the value of a book that it bears repeated rereading. Weaker books don’t. I’m reluctant to reread some books I once loved for fear they won’t stand up to it.) One novel I return to often is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. It made a huge impact on me when I first read it, and I’ve reread it many times since so that its events and characters have become intertwined with my own life.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
A book I recommend widely is Soul Dust by Nicholas Humphrey. It’s about consciousness, and it’s a refreshing and exciting book, which is easy to read and sets out an important and original theory of consciousness. Humphrey is a fine writer who draws on a wide knowledge, not only of psychology, but also of philosophy, art, literature, music, and mystical writing. If his book doesn’t get you excited about the science of consciousness, then nothing will. I also frequently recommend the books of the late-Victorian Anglo-Argentinian naturalist, William Henry Hudson (1841-1922). He’s best known for his novel Green Mansions (which was made into a film with Audrey Hepburn), but it’s his writing about wildlife and the English countryside that I love most (in, for example, Afoot in England and A Shepherd’s Life). Hudson had a passion for nature, especially birds, and he conveyed it in natural, apparently effortless prose, which is a joy to read. (Joseph Conrad said of him, ‘He writes down his words as the good God makes the green grass grow.’) Reading Hudson is like taking a country walk with the most thoughtful, gentle, and well-informed guide you could imagine. I also recommend his autobiography, Far Away and Long Ago, which describes his childhood on the Argentinean pampas.
Who would you say are the three philosophers that continue to inspire you?
I’m inspired by so many philosophers, not all of them famous. My students inspire me. But since you want three people, I’ll say, Daniel Dennett, Ruth Millikan, and David Chalmers. Dennett has been a huge influence on me philosophically. I think he has seen more clearly than anyone how things hang together in the philosophy of mind, and almost everything I’ve done in the field has been inspired in some way by ideas and suggestions from his work. Millikan is another wonderful philosopher, who has thought deeply about meaning and mental representation from an evolutionary perspective, and she has developed a set of views on the subject that are, to my mind, the best we have. Her books can be demanding but they are also exhilarating and create that sense of intellectual excitement I talked about. As for Chalmers, those who know my views might be surprised that I list him as an inspiration, since he and I take very different views of consciousness, but in fact, I admire him greatly. He’s an exemplary philosopher — thoughtful, rigorous, and generous — and he has forced physicalists like me to sharpen up their act considerably. Whether he’s right or wrong, he’s done a lot to advance consciousness studies.
What’s your favourite genre of book?
I don’t have one.
What do you think a world without books would be like?
Barely human, psychologically speaking. The human mind is, I think, to a large extent a cultural creation, shaped by habits of reflection, self-instruction, and explicit thinking. Oral traditions might have got these habits going, but their full development required literacy and access to written texts. Books are as important to the development of our minds as good nourishment is to the development of our bodies.
Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?
I don’t generally have that kind of fanatical devotion to authors, but I try not to miss anything Daniel Dennett publishes.
Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?
For practical purposes, they probably will. I can carry dozens of academic articles and books around with me on a tablet and annotate them neatly too. (I hate annotating real books; it feels like desecration.) The convenience is huge, but there’s a loss too. I love real books, especially old ones that have a history. Real books age as digital ones don’t, and they carry the marks of past readings. I fear that in the future real books will be treated as antiques, valued for their rarity but not actually read. That would be sad. Books are more than text, but an unread book is dead, the link with its past readers broken.
What book do you feel humanity needs most right now?
The one it always needs — a book that reflects it back to itself with insight. I suppose that’s the fundamental function of literature — to help us know ourselves. And since we’re always changing — or, rather, always being reshaped by changed circumstances — we always need new writers to show us to ourselves afresh. The book we need right now is one that can show us to ourselves as we are right now. I’m sure there are many young writers working on it.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
I really don’t know. Books work at an unconscious level, like rivers that go underground and emerge in unexpected places. It might have been something my mother read to me long ago. (I’d rather like to think that my character has been shaped by the innocence of Paddington or the comradeship of the Lone Pine club.) And books affect us in all sorts of indirect ways too. If I hadn’t read a certain academic book at a certain moment, I might have chosen a different university for my postgraduate work, and so not met my future partner, and so on. I can’t unravel the threads, but I do know that books played a huge role in knitting them.
It sounds pretentious, but I must mention Shakespeare. Again, I discovered him for myself in my teens, reading a facsimile of the First Folio which my dad bought me. I love seeing Shakespeare’s plays on stage, but more than anything I love his language, his outrageous, breath-taking skill with words, and I read him a lot — out loud if people will let me. There are so many other books I’d like to mention, but I’ll stick to two: Middlemarch by George Eliot and Beloved by Toni Morrison. Both are great works of imagination, which illuminate human psychology and society, and achieve what Eliot herself said was the great task of the artist — the extension of our sympathies. Finally, I can’t omit P. G. Wodehouse from this list. He was a genius and his books are a joy.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I am planning an academic book on phenomenal consciousness, so I have a long reading list on that topic. I also want to read up on the history and culture of the island of Crete. (To start off, I’ve just got a copy of The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia.) But I don’t like to plan my reading too closely. For me, reading is a voyage of discovery, and serendipity plays a large role in it.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Hah! I’ve never thought about that. I’ve not led a very exciting life, but maybe I’d have an interesting tale to tell all the same. After all, the interest of life is in the detail. For a title, I’m tempted by ‘What Am I?’. It’s a question I used to ask myself when I was a young child. I found that if I did so over and over I created a very strange sensation in myself, almost of disembodiment. I felt that I was something quite distinct from the child people called ‘Keith’. There was the child Keith and then there was me. So, what was I? In a way, I’ve spent my life trying to answer that question.