We asked John Cottingham, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Reading and an Honorary Fellow of St John’s College Oxford, to comment on his current work and ideas that have influenced him…

Which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
The philosophy of religion has become a major interest in the past few years. In my latest book,Why Believe? (Continuum 2009), I tried to get away from the prevailing idea among philosophers that belief in God depends above all on abstract intellectual argument. I aimed to show how the religious outlook connects with our deepest human longings, how it links up with our moral and aesthetic experience, and how it is integrally involved in the quest for self-understanding.

What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
I was very impressed by Nicolas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs, published last year, which offers a powerful analysis of the roots of Western moral culture. The concept of rights is often supposed to have sprung from the rise of possessive individualism in the early-modern period. Wolterstorff proposes a historical counter-narrative, according to which the idea of inherent natural rights is deeply rooted in the worldview found in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
One could do worse that start with Descartes’s Meditations, which is not only a fascinating struggle to understand ourselves and our relationship to the world, but also provides a powerful link between the traditional idea of ourselves as created beings and the modern aspiration to independence and autonomy.

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?
It is very hard, and probably pointless, to try to evaluate where we are today and where we are heading. In general I think we are far too preoccupied with the babble of contemporary news and comment, and need to spend more time understanding our intellectual and cultural roots. We can gain much richer self-understanding that way than by excited speculation about the latest trends.

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