We asked writer and philosopher Julian Baggini 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’m writing a book about the self and personal identity and, although I don’t have a big new idea (since there have only been a handful of decent ones I’m not worried about that), I have been thinking more about how I understand the fractured nature of the self. I follow thinkers like David Hume and the Buddha who argue that there is not thing which is the self. We are all just a combination of thoughts, feelings and so on. But what precisely does this mean and what follows from the answer? I’ll let you know when the book’s finished.
What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
There’s an idea that it is generally attributed to John Rawls but has come to me through Amartya Sen, the idea of public reason. This is the idea that, in the public square, we have to discuss our differences and how to order society using a common language and a common process. This fits with ideas I have about the proper understanding of secularism, and I’ve found Sen’s articulation and defence of the concept in The Idea of Justice very useful.
What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
Aristotle’s Ethics. It is not only the blueprint for thinking about the good life in a secular, naturalised way, it is also a model of how to reason philosophically: only as precisely as the subject matter allows, no more and no less.
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?
There’s a tendency to beat ourselves up and think history will damn us. I don’t think we’re doing that bad, to be honest. We will be congratulated for the moves we have made towards equal respect for all people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, religion or any disability. We have also made unprecedented progress towards a better respect for non-human life. But it will probably be concluded that our success made us complacent, that having achieved so much we thought we had little left to do and had found all the key answers. The message for us now is that we shouldn’t buy into the idea that we are a world in terminal decline, with our best days behind us. But we do need to remember that we can and should do better. We’re neither as good or bad as many people think we are.
Julian Baggini is a British writer specialising in philosophy. He is the author of The Pig that Wants to be Eaten and 99 other Thought Experiments (2005) and is a co-founder and editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. He has written for the Guardian, theIndependent, the Observer and the BBC, and has been a regular guest on BBC Radio 4′s In Our Time. Baggini was awarded his PhD in 1996 from University College London for a thesis on the philosophy of personal identity. His latest book is Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover? He has undertaken many events for the Bristol Festival of Ideas ranging from The Philosophy of the Simpsons to issues of identity and Britishness. He was one of the judges for the first Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize.