Neil Sinclair, Professor of Philosophy
If you could invite a philosopher to dinner who would it be and what would you discuss?
Probably Bertrand Russell, both because of his extensive knowledge of nearly all of Western Philosophy (his book "A History of Western Philosophy" is a must-read) and because of his social and political activism. I would ask him whether he thinks philosophy has progressed in the last 100 years or so, and how he thinks it can progress in the future.
Philippa Foot and Charles Stevenson could make up the rest of the dinner party – both excellent philosophers who understood that philosophy is not just something done in ivory towers, and that philosophical understanding is just one branch of a wider curiosity about the world.
Who is the world's most significant philosopher and why?
Plato for starting the whole thing off. (Whitehead was right.)
Why is philosophy so hard?
Because it is abstract and technical. There’s a brilliant moment in one of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time programmes, where they are discussing Logical Positivism. In his naïve way Melvyn asks one of the speakers for an example to help bring things down to Earth! The example starts: “Well, consider the set of all sets that are not sets of themselves”. The fact is that for most philosophers they can think about such things as easily as one thinks of everyday objects. But that doesn’t come naturally, it takes years of hard work and training to get a working familiarity with such ideas.
These features are also, of course, why philosophy is the most interesting subject. It asks questions at a level of abstraction and generality which no other subject does, and when it provides answers, the answers are correspondingly deeper and more satisfying.
What is your favourite module to teach and why?
Subjectivism and Relativism in Ethics (PHIL3020) because it is the subject of most of my research. This makes it easier to go into long detailed digressions to explain particular topics which students are interested in. It also helps my own research. At least one of my published papers has come out of discussions I’ve had with students in seminars.
What inspired you to teach your subject?
The prospect of being the teacher of (or at least having the chance to talk to) the next great philosopher, a Russell or a Foot.
What is the meaning of life?
I think Monty Python cleared that one up.