Interview on The Philosophy Files

The Complete Philosophy Files is The Philosophy Files and The Philosophy Files 2 combined into a single volume.

Here is an interview I did for The Guardian newspaper when the The Philosophy Files was originally published way back in 2000.

Asking all the right questions

Philosopher Stephen Law tells Mel Steel why children are natural thinkers

"I've always been struck by how philosophically minded children are," says Stephen Law. "They ask questions and they get an answer, and behind that answer they find another question to ask, and it doesn't take long before they're starting to question some of our most basic and fundamental beliefs. If you repeatedly ask 'Why?', it's not long before you're really hitting philosophical bedrock."

The thought of dealing with philosophical bedrock at bedtime might be many parents' idea of hell; but philosophy lecturer Law believes in getting them while they're young. His first book, The Philosophy Files, goes straight to the heart of some of the most vexed questions there are to ask: What's real? Where do right and wrong come from? How do I know the world isn't virtual? Should I eat meat? And not forgetting: Does God exist?

Accessible, entertaining, and plentifully illustrated by Daniel Postgate, the only question it doesn't tackle head on is why nobody's written a book like it before. Unlike Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World or Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy, this is no dinner-party roll call of the great and the dead. It's philosophy in action rather than philosophy in aspic.

What Law shares with Gaarder and de Botton, though, is the irresistable impulse to popularise. "Which is considered to be career suicide," he says. "At least that's what I've been told. But then I'm not particularly ambitious in the sense of working my way up the academic ladder. I mean, the average philosophical journal article is read by a total of eight people. And while I do write journal articles, I don't think that's going to change the world, really. Whereas a book can, in some subtle but important way, change people's lives. And I do passionately believe that it's important that people think about these big questions in the course of their everyday lives. Moral questions, especially. It's slightly depressing, I think, if you live in a society where people don't."

He's been interested in the big questions for as long as he can remember, he says; but it took him a while to figure out that repeatedly asking "Why?" might actually amount to a legitimate occupation. Academia wasn't alien to him - he grew up in Cambridge, and his father had a doctorate in sociology - but he messed up at school, thought he'd blown any chance of further study, and had no idea that philosophy existed as a subject in its own right.

The first time he embarked on A-levels, he says, he was asked to leave - "basically because I was lazy and good for nothing. I don't blame them at all". A year or so later he tried another subject combination at another college, but found himself too irritated by the exam-oriented mentality of the syllabus to see it through. "You weren't allowed to do anything other than regurgitate," he says, "when what I really wanted to do was ask the questions."

So, after a couple of brief spells as a sand-blaster and damp-proofer, he settled into four years as a postman in Girton, just outside Cambridge. He was the only one on the job who never got a Christmas tip. "I wasn't a very accurate postman," he concedes now. "In fact I was a very bad postman. Possibly the worst postman Girton ever had."

But those four years gave him a lot of time to think, and to read. Left to his own devices, he consumed books. "One book would lead me to another, and then another, until eventually I ended up reading nothing but philosophy books. And I suddenly realised that that's what I'd always wanted to do - but that I'd never known what it was called."

He was 23: just old enough to qualify as a mature student, which meant that he didn't need A-levels after all. So he ditched the post office, bummed around India for a few months, and - "like a miracle" - was accepted to read philosophy at London's City University. Some of the papers he'd written for himself in the course of his reading helped persuade them that he was serious about doing a degree. Very serious, in fact. He got a gratifying first, went on to secure the coveted BPhil at Trinity College, Oxford, and then netted himself a prestigious junior research fellowship at Queen's, before taking up a teaching post at London University's Heythrop College four years ago.

It's precisely the maverick combination of passion, rigour, patience and sedition that makes Law such an engaging writer and teacher. But it's only now, reaping handsome praise for The Philosophy Files, that he's finally given up worrying that he might not be clever enough, posh enough or cynical enough to be a proper academic. "I did go through a major crisis of confidence at Oxford," he says. "I felt that I didn't fit into that mould particularly, and for a while I just couldn't produce any papers at all. But the fact is, I'm doing what I'm doing now because I enjoy it. It's good fun. I don't care any more what people think about me."

Now 39, he's delighted that the book he has been conjuring in his head for so many years - a real philosophy book for kids, which students and adults could enjoy too - finally exists. A kind of career suicide note with knobs on, complete with cartoons and dayglo cover.

"I wanted it to be an adventure in thinking of the sort I wish someone had written for me when I was younger," he says. "I would never have appreciated someone giving me a textbook which explained what Descartes had to say about this or what Plato said about that. But if someone had actually engaged me in my own language and on my own terms, talking about questions in the way that I wanted to talk about them at that age, then I would have lapped it up."

Original is here.


John Danaher said…
You know, this just reminded of the fact that your book, The Philosophy Gym, was one of the first books I actually read about philosophy. I had read Dennett's Consciousness Explained the year before because my brother wrote a thesis about it. I'm not sure if that was the ideal order in which to read them but that's what happened.

Anyway, I remember being quite inspired (and indeed persuaded) by the exchanges between the characters in the book. I particularly enjoyed the opening two chapters on the beginning of the universe and the morality of gay sex. They really introduced me to the philosophical method of developing arguments and considering objections.

I can't say it was the only thing that kicked-off my (sort of) philosophy-related career, but it was certainly in the mix. Thank you.
Andres Ruiz said…
Excellent. Good to know this exists. Im only 22 now, still have a few years before I have any kids, but already I've become frustrated at the lack of this kind of material for the young ones. I absolutely want to instill philosophical curiosity in my kids from an early age. I discovered philosophy my sophomore year in college and, by all accounts, I'm doing pretty well, but I can only imagine the fruits that being introduced to philosophy from an early age can reap. Thank you, will be picking it up once the kids are old enough. :)
Stephen Law said…
Well thanks. Good to know I'm still "corrupting the youth".
Dan P said…
My 6 year old daughter and I have an inside joke wherein after she asks me a question, she then asks for the meanings of each word comprising my explanation! What's a zebra? A striped, horse-like mammal? What's a mammal?...until I realize what she is doing! Then we both laugh!
Lapis said…
The joy of reading this book and finding is devoid of anachronisms... Not so I'm averse to a touch of classical philosophy. Actually the one thing I love about this is that it is the only book outside of the works of Jostein Gaarder (yes, the one disparaged in the interview...) that actually shows whimsy and also perspicacity.
Did the interviewer disparage Jostein Gaarder or did you? Gaarder's books are so accessible to children, many of them are in fact aimed at children. 'The Christmas Mystery' very well illustrates how 'philosophically minded children are'.
Have you read his work 'The Castle in the Pyrenees'- it is a modern epistolary novel between am evolutionary biologist and one of faith in the philosophical notions of the immortal soul, life after death, purpose in life etc. Absolutely fantastic!

In your book, on the chapter about the mind, Aisha talks about a soul being made of 'supernatural stuff', does the soul/conscious/mind have to be supernatural if one wishes to propose any form of dualism?
That is to say Aristotle's triumvirate soul doesn't hearken to a supernatural entity but the linking 'thing' between the material body and the mind, the organising force.
On a side note I much prefer the colour perception analogy of blind aliens to the one about Mary.