Date posted: 13 May 10, 12:00
By Peter Fosl
We asked Peter Fosl, Professor of Philosophy at Transylvania University, Lexington KY, to comment on his current work and ideas that have influenced him…
Which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
I’ve been working on understanding Hume’s skepticism. In particular, I’m trying to figure out what the skeptical dimensions of his work imply about philosophy generally. If Hume (or anyone) in some sense accepts or acknowledges skepticism, then what becomes of his own philosophical theories? You might say that what I’m thinking about is skeptical metatheory – that is, what kind of philosophical theorising, if any, can a skeptic engage without becoming inconsistent or self-refuting. A small bit of that problem is the issue of what kind of beliefs, if any, a skeptic can hold. On the way to answering these questions, I’ve been assessing Hume’s skepticism in the light of traditional Pyrrhonism and Academical skepticism.
What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
Peter Cave’s thoughts on paradoxes have circulating around in my head. I’m interested in paradoxes because they seem to suggest that in certain forms of thinking, especially complex forms of thinking, self-reference (talking about oneself or talking about the form of thought one is using) leads to difficulties. That intrigues me because self-reference leads to problems in skepticism, as well. Can the skeptic be skeptical about his or her skepticism? Can skepticism express itself in a non-dogmatic way, or a way that doesn’t lead it otherwise to become self-refuting?
What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is utterly indispensable as my colleague Julian Baggini has already argued. When Julian and I were working on our Ethics Toolkit, wefound ourselves circling back and back again to it. I’m sure it’s cited more than any other text in our book. But since Julian’s already mentioned that I may have to suggest David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). It’s fairly accessible, and, moreover, it lays out in a durable and sensible way many of the philosophical issues that underwrite philosophy afterwards. It’s also surprisingly rewarding over the course of multiple readings. There are layers upon layers of issues there. It’s a rabbit hole; the bottom of which I still haven’t fathomed.
And finally, each year we ask everyone involved – audiences as well as speakers – one question. Charles Masterman, Liberal Party politician and journalist, asked in his book The Condition of England 100 Years Ago: “What will the future make of the present?” What is your answer to this?
Philosophy is notorious for looking backwards rather than forwards. The owl of Minerva flies, after all, at dusk, not dawn. Nevertheless, if I were to venture a guess, I’d guess that the future will look back at ours as a period that struggled with the demise of a number of dominant ideas and floundered around a bit looking for something new. The political ideologies of socialism and capitalism became dissatisfying and unworkable for many. Dominant strains of continental European and Anglo-American philosophy exhausted themselves. Simultaneously, people came to find that the habits of their daily lives were becoming physically and economically unsustainable as well as morally indefensible. At the same time that grand, systematic changes appeared to many necessary, the very idea of grand, systematic theories that could guide and justify those changes appeared unacceptable, even impossible. Fortunately, a resurgence of interest in philosophy, especially the history of Western as well as Asian philosophy, led by authors committed to bringing philosophy to a general readership helped light the way.
Peter Fosl is Professor of Philosophy at Transylvania University in Lexington, KY, and recipient of the 2006 Acorn Award for Kentucky’s outstanding university teacher of the year. Educated at Bucknell University, Emory University, the London School of Economics and the University of Edinburgh, Fosl is a contributing editor to The Philosophers’ Magazine and co–editor of the Dictionary of Literary Biography volumes on British philosophers. He has published on Hume, skepticism, the philosophy of religion, and topics in the history of philosophy. www.peterfosl.us/Peter_S._Fosl/Home.html.
Peter Fosl will appear at the Bristol Festival of Ideas on 15th May with Julian Baggini to deliver a Philosophy Workshop. Click here for more details.
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