The Oxford Philosophy group at OUP is teaming up with Blackwell’s Bookshop to celebrate Philosophy in all its diversity in November.

Peter Adamson, Professor of Philosophy at the LMU in Munich and at King's College London,Peter Adamson, Professor of Philosophy at the LMU in Munich and at King's College London, at last year's inaugural festival

By David Edmonds

In the fifth century BC, Socrates used to wander through the market place bugging people.  What is beauty?  What is love?   These questions were impertinent but also deceptive:  they seemed to offer simple answers, but, Socrates demonstrated that people knew much less than they thought they did.  Athenians gathered to hear what this strange, charismatic and disturbingly ugly man had to say.   Socrates is sometimes called the father of western philosophy.  He saw himself as a gadfly, shaking us out of our complacency. And, whether they wanted it or not, he brought philosophy to the people. 

In November, the Oxford University Press Philosophy Festival is rather hoping the opposite will happen.  The people will come to philosophy.Director of studies in philosophy at Oxford University's Department for Continuing EducationMarianne Talbot, Director of Studies in Philosophy at Oxford's Department for Continuing Education, chairing a debate in Blackwell's last year

The Philosophy Festival is, as far as I know, a unique event.  There are, of course, many literary festivals.  So many, indeed, that an in-demand author could appear at a different one each day of the year.   There are also festivals about ideas, in which philosophers are thrown into the mix.  But the OUP Philosophy Festival will feature philosophers and philosophers only.

DawkinsThe aim is to make philosophy accessible to people who haven’t studied it, and to allow the public to engage in dialogue with academics. School groups have been invited along, and to encourage budding philosophers of all ages, the Festival has partnered with Oxford University Department of Continuing Education.  The director of studies at the OUDCE, Marianne Talbot, will be chairing several sessions.

The overarching aim is to show how relevant philosophy is to many contemporary debates.  Marx thought that the point of philosophy is not just to interpret the world, but to change it.  That may not be true for some branches of philosophy.  But it is surely a central purpose of one sub-category of philosophy – applied ethics.  

At the Festival I’ll be launching Philosophers Take On The World (OUP).  The book is a collection of essays written by philosophers associated with the Oxford Uehiro Centre of Practical Ethics.  For a decade, the Uehiro Centre, has been running a blog, in which philosophers give their take on an event in the news: Philosophers Take On The World is a selection of some of the most thought-provoking of these posts.

Most of the chapters cover topics that, while puzzling, have found no place in text books.  Is it ok to hate a rival sports team?  Is it ok to be rude to cold callers?  Is it ok to serve ice cream made from human milk?  Is it ok to block ads on the internet?

In Britain, philosophy does not command the respect and status it does in some other countries.   And it’s difficult to be optimistic that this will change any time soon.  The growing suspicion of experts – and surely Brexit was one consequence of this absurd trend – makes the climate for academia even less hospitable.

Peter Adamson, Professor of Philosophy at the LMU in Munich and at King's College London,Still, last year 1,000 people turned up at the philosophy festival, and bigger numbers are expected this year.  There will be sessions, among others, on warfare, education, the media, the mind and religion.   Just as Socrates did two and a half millennia ago, philosophers will challenge our assumptions, and make us reflect that some of the beliefs we take for granted rest on shaky ground.

By so doing, hopefully they won’t be placing themselves at personal risk. Questioning received opinion is often uncomfortable, but in Britain at least, we’ve moved on from Socrates’ time.  Socrates was considered so dangerous he was put on trial and died by drinking hemlock.  He understood and was willing to take the consequences for being subversive.  As he said at his trial, the unexamined life is not worth living. 

David Edmonds (@DavidEdmonds100) is a senior research associate at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and the editor of Philosophers Take On The World (Oxford University Press).  The OUP Philosophy Festival will run from 7th-12th November in Oxford Blackwell’s. All events are free but require advanced booking. Go to for more information. 

Images © Oxford University Images


By Julian Roach

Exaggerated reverence for the especially irritating Ancient Greek philosophers had the effect of holding back the advance of real inquiry for too many centuries. It did mean that certain cleverer people of the idle classes could be true to their station in life, however, and continue to occupy themselves in an entirely useless pursuit, just as in Athens. When asked how the Universe was organised, the likes of Plato, had they really been lovers of truth, would have answered, "I do not know." Too vain to be honest, Plato gave the world a great deal of nonsense instead, for which he had no evidence of any kind, concerning ideal entities and perfect spheres of crystal that had something of a hum, rather like Pooh Bear's, only more perfect, though oddly inaudible. Weirdly, a millennium and a half or more later, this was still thought to be the case, simply because Plato said so. The clever dialogue of his master altogether depends for its effect on having a Patsy gives the expected Patsy's answer to a series of Aunt Sally Questions, something you could hardly get away with on the Today programme. We must assume that the paying customers at the Academy were, like many other wealthy and unuseful young men, not nearly as bright as they thought themselves. Yet it is Plato and Co who continue to take the applause, while most people don't even know the names of the genuine proto-scientists, such as Eratosthenes, Hipparchus and Aristarchus.
No, Philosophy is a mere intellectual sport, and a trifling one at that. Its place in the University would be better recognised by a half-blue than a degree.

By Timothy Keates

No, the Philosophy Festival at Oxford is not quite unique. In the Italian town where I live, Modena, there is a similar festival every year in September. Zygmunt Bauman is a frequent visitor. And I should add that when I commenced my study at Oxford, in 1961, the philosophy there appeared singularly arid — a sort of verbal gamesmanship, with interminable wrangling over the meaning of single words and a snub-nosed rejection of what was wrongly dubbed "metaphysics" (actually pseudo-metaphysics, as Collingwood rightly corrected). John Austin had recently passed away, in odour of sanctity, but Ryle, Ayer, Warnock and others were still in full spate. I think Oxford philosophy has since improved greatly. Nor can I agree with your contributor Julian Roach that philosophy is a mere intellectual sport. Is that really true of Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Kant et alii?


I'm an American alum and won't be able to attend the sessions. Will any be recorded? Thanks.

By Julian Roach

Dear Timothy,

If I may reply… I too first met Oxford philosophy in the early 60’s when clearly, we would have found much to agree about. In my own terribly, terribly, amusing parody at the time the central, pipe-clenching or finger-steepling question was ‘what do I mean by what do I mean?’ but it turned out that this wasn’t a parody at all. Of your list, three are best known for famous phrases. ‘I think, therefore I am’ is a great first line in anyone’s book, but Descartes’ search for the irrefutable makes no further convincing progress and reading him is little more than a hobbyist’s pursuit. Hobbes’ wonderful five-noun summary of life in the absence of civil government is lip-smacking stuff but altogether wrong. Actual acquaintance with the lives of extant hunter-gatherer bands refutes every one of his terms. It may be no sin to draw wrong conclusions but it is a bit of a sin to begin with definitive assertions founded on thorough ignorance of what one is not acquainted with. It is an error that could lead you to justifying absolute monarchy. Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ is really a familiar proverb in German sub fusc, though let us honour him for ‘sapere aude’. Which is just what sceptical, atheistical Hume did, so let all first year undergraduates, in whatever school, be given Hume to lap up. On the other hand, any time spent with Wittgenstein is wholly wasted and what is undoubtedly the case is that you’d be better off going to the pub.

By Julian Roach

I meant, of course 'five adjective summary'.


By Nicholas B Taylor

A while ago I compiled counts of philosophers in each century from 7th BCE to 20th C and noted the rapid rise in the curve from around the beginning of the 18th C. This may reflect that more people had the leisure, or were paid, to call themselves philosophers and had more access to means of publication. I am not convinced that the productivity of reliable findings has matched the activity. In science, new work tends to build on previous work, since both are evidence based even if they may not be entirely correct. One does not expect earlier work to be simply discarded in favour of some new fashion, on the strength of which I would rate most philosophy as an art form. Nothing wrong with art of course, but it may be an opportunity missed, because we don't have time to accumulate evidence about how to live, e.g. before we destroy ourselves or the world. Philosophy is not alone in this, one could say the same of economics for example.