Reviewed by Hannah Hiles
Podcast fans may already be familiar with the hugely successful Philosophy Bites series, which began in 2007 and has since been downloaded nearly 20 million times. But for those not in the know, Philosophy Bites Back is the second collection of transcribed interviews taken from the popular digital philosophical show.
Pulled together by the series’ presenters — Nigel Warburton, formerly a senior lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University and now freelance philosopher, and David Edmonds (Worcester, 1986), an award-winning documentary maker for the BBC World Service and senior research associate at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford — the book spans 2,500 years of western philosophy via conversations with current eminent thinkers. The 27 chapters begin with the ancient classics of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and rattle right through to the ground-breaking modern thought of Wittgenstein and Derrida.
There are the expected well-known names like Hume – seemingly the philosopher of choice for 20 percent or so of the podcast’s guests – Nietzsche and Sartre, but also many who wouldn’t feature on the scoreboard in a “name a philosopher” round of Family Fortunes. And while the thinkers of today may not be household names themselves, the notes on contributors reveal the breadth of scholarship contained in this slim volume — with the likes of AC Grayling and Mary Warnock among the leading academics tackling their chosen subjects with great knowledge and enthusiasm.
The brief chapters each take the same format, so the book lends itself to reading in short bursts rather than one long binge – much like listening to a regular podcast. Indeed, this isn’t a book aimed at the experienced philosopher, although they would surely still find much to enjoy among its pages. No, it’s more for those linguists who stumbled uncertainly through Montaigne’s essay Des Cannibales during their hazy first weeks at Oxford; the theologians, who know the writings of Thomas Aquinas largely in a religious context; perhaps financiers, more familiar with the economics of Adam Smith than his philosophical outlook; or those ex-Union hacks, for whom Machiavelli’s The Prince was a how-to guide for political success.
Philosophy Bites Back, then, is a fun, easy read for anyone with a broad interest in the world and why we humans are as we are. It will help you become better informed by telling you about people and ideas you probably never realised you needed to know about. The one thing it won’t answer, though – just as Wittgenstein before it – is whether they're ducks or rabbits on the cover.