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Whatever happened to the public intellectual?

Philosophy used to be a staple of television and the newspapers. Not any longer. So where did all the philosophers go?

The Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit died on New Year’s Day. He was one of the leading thinkers of his generation, yet his death was not widely reported outside the obituary pages of the broadsheets. The contrast with the response to John Berger’s death the following day is striking. Soon after Berger died, a number of pieces appeared on the Guardian and New Statesman websites, and there were tributes on the BBC’s News at Ten, Newsnight and Today programmes.

Parfit was an outstanding philosopher. However, few people outside academic philosophy could name one of his books. Perhaps more telling, how many could name any British academic philosopher?

It has not always been like this. The reaction could hardly have been more different when another leading Oxford philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, died in November 1997. BBC2 showed two hour-long programmes about him on consecutive days, and Radio 3 broadcast a two-and-a-half-hour tribute the following month. Berlin’s death was reported on the front page of the New York Times and memorial services were held in three countries. In less than two decades something fundamental has changed. Has academic philosophy lost its place in mainstream British culture? If so, who is to blame? Is it the fault of academic philosophers themselves, or the media, or are there other changes going on in British culture?

Not so long ago philosophers such as Berlin, A J “Freddie” Ayer, Bernard Williams and Anthony Quinton were well-known public figures and received due recognition. Berlin was knighted in 1957, Ayer in 1970, Williams in 1999. The dates are significant. These years, from the 1950s to the 1990s, mark a golden age of British academic philosophy in mainstream culture.

Throughout the period, leading philosophers chaired important public inquiries and commissions. In the early 1980s Mary Warnock chaired the official committee on human fertilisation and embryology: her report led to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. She also chaired an inquiry into special needs education (1974-78), sat on a royal commission on environmental pollution (1979-84), chaired a Home Office committee on animal experimentation (1984-89) and later served as a member of the government advisory panel on spoliation of artefacts in the Nazi era.

Bernard Williams, too, served on several royal commissions and government committees: on public schools (1965-70), recreational drug abuse (1971), gambling (1976-78), obscenity and film censorship (1977-79) and social justice (1993-94). “I did all the major vices,” he said. But what put philosophers on the map was media coverage on radio and television. Leading philosophers often appeared on Start the Week and Desert Island Discs. Quinton became well known as a presenter of the long-running Round Britain Quiz. Berlin became a household name with his talks on everything from “freedom and its betrayal” to 19th-century Russian thought and literature.

From the 1960s onwards, it was television that brought leading philosophers into our living rooms. In 1978 the BBC broadcast 15 hour-long interviews with leading philosophers called Men of Ideas. Bryan Magee interviewed the likes of Berlin, Ayer and Noam Chomsky. Edited versions were published each week in the Listener magazine. In 1987 the BBC showed another 15-part series on philosophy, this one called The Great Philosophers, in which Bryan Magee interviewed prominent contemporary thinkers about the great philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle to Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Channel 4’s Voices featured debates about philosophy in the early 1980s. There was a series of six encounters with the fast-talking American John Searle, covering topics from artificial intelligence to French theory. And in the 1990s The Late Show on BBC2 frequently featured philosophy, with programmes devoted to Berlin and Michel Foucault, a tribute to Karl Popper, and appearances by thinkers such as Ray Monk, the author of a celebrated biography of Wittgenstein, as well as Mary Midgley.

However, it wasn’t just late-night discussions featuring talking heads. Philosophy appeared in other areas, too. There was TV drama, from Jonathan Miller’s mid-1960s adaptations of Plato The Drinking Party and The Death of Socrates to Tom Stoppard’s play Professional Foul, about a Cambridge philosopher visiting Prague during the Cold War. The Imitation Game by Ian McEwan introduced many viewers to the ideas of Alan Turing, and Michael Ignatieff’s Dialogue in the Dark was based on a conversation between James Boswell and the philosopher David Hume weeks before the latter’s death. On the BBC, Monty Python’s Flying Circus carried knowing sketches about Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Marx taking part in a game show, and a football match between Greek and German thinkers. There was a sense of connection between television and the university common room.

Today this seems like something from a bygone age. According to David Edmonds, the editor of the recently published essay collection Philosophers Take on the World (Oxford University Press): “The idea that you would now commission someone to interview Freddie Ayer in an armchair for 45 minutes with no sound effects, no cutaways, is almost inconceivable.”

It is true you can hear Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, which, over almost 20 years, has addressed subjects from “language and the mind” and Erasmus to logical positivism and phenomenology. Or there is The Public Philosopher with Michael Sandel and The Philosopher’s Arms with Matthew Sweet. However, these are confined to Radio 4, and other than Alain de Botton’s miniseries Philosophy: a Guide to Happiness, for Channel 4, philosophy has vanished from mainstream television.

Naturally, some of the older programmes were very blokey: middle-aged men talking round a table. Both Men of Ideas and The Great Philosophers included only one woman in 15 episodes each – Iris Murdoch in the former and Martha Nussbaum in the latter. The shows could also be very patrician. Philosophers such as Stuart Hampshire (Repton and Balliol) and Ayer (Eton and Christ Church) sounded posh. If you watch Conversations for Tomorrow, a BBC production from the 1960s, you find J B Priestley talking to Berlin and Ayer, all three smoking cigars and drinking port. Through the smoke come voices that sound like something from Edwardian times.

David Edmonds sees the change in tone as “part of the end of deference . . . these great figures like Isaiah Berlin telling you what to think”. He links it with Michael Gove’s infamous distrust of experts. “In some ways it’s democratising. We somehow think we have a right to express ourselves that we didn’t have forty years ago. The stranglehold these great figures had over us has vanished, for good or ill.”

It’s not just philosophy’s relationship with television that has changed. In 1970 Fontana started publishing its Modern Masters series, a popular set of introductions to great thinkers and cultural figures. Philosophers played a crucial role. The series included guides to the work of Wittgenstein and Popper, Bertrand Russell, Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche. Notable philosophers of the day contributed: Ayer on Russell, Richard Wollheim on Sigmund Freud, David Pears on Wittgenstein. In the 1990s there were acclaimed biographies of Isaiah Berlin by Michael Ignatieff, of Wittgenstein and Russell by Ray Monk and of Ayer by Ben Rogers. Most successful of all was Wittgenstein’s Poker (2001), by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, which has sold more than 200,000 copies worldwide.

Today, according to Ray Monk, the situation is very different. “Fewer philosophy books are published,” he says, “because of the RAE [Research Assessment Exercise].” The RAE set out to evaluate the quality of research undertaken by British institutions of higher education. As a result, Monk observes, academics would rather produce articles for eminent, peer-reviewed journals than spend years writing a biography. “Academics don’t make their reputations with books any more, but with articles,” he says. This has led to “the increased professionalisation of every academic discipline, including philosophy”.

Monk spent ten years writing his biography of Russell; he couldn’t have combined that with writing refereed articles for academic journals. He argues that, as a result, whereas in the 1950s it was the big names that counted, today’s philosophical ­debates are more issue-driven – consider “the trolley problem”, otherwise known as “Would You Kill the Fat Man?”. (A runaway trolley will kill five people or, if you pull a lever and divert it, one person. What do you do?)

“In the past,” Monk says, “you had Richard Ellmann on Joyce or Oscar Wilde; Michael Holroyd on George Bernard Shaw. Publishers can no longer hand out big advances [for such books], because publishing has become so precarious. And on the other hand, universities want articles, not biographies.” Consequently, many of the most successful authors in philosophy today are not academics but freelance writers, such as Alain de Botton and the NS’s John Gray.

What about newspapers? Again, Monk is pessimistic. “There is something seriously wrong with the press. The lack of coverage of Derek Parfit’s death tells us more about the state of the press than it does about philosophy.” In the increasingly desperate search for advertisers, articles about academic philosophy don’t pay their way.

Academic philosophy, by contrast, is in a good state. When Monk started teaching at the University of Southampton in 1992 there were nine members of the faculty. Today there are nearer 20 and, he says, “We attract more students than ever before.” At Oxford there are more than 180 members of the philosophy faculty. Increasingly, leading schools teach philosophy at A-level.

John Gray is more critical. “No intelligent general reader follows academic philosophy today,” he argues. He points to the huge changes that have transformed the subject’s status. First, he says, there was the Second World War. “As a result of the war, philosophers like Berlin, Hampshire and H L A Hart had a much larger experience of the world that involved making difficult choices and gave them what Berlin called ‘a sense of reality’.” Hampshire had interrogated Nazi war criminals and Hart worked at Bletchley Park. “They were brought close to moral and political realities in a way that subsequent generations were not.”

Second, Gray says, there has been a shift in “the social position of academics, especially academic philosophers. A previous generation had contact with leading ­figures in the worlds of culture and politics . . . That’s gone today. Academics have become marginal.”

This relates to his third point. “Academic life has become more professionalised. They write for each other, not for the general reader. Academic political philosophy ­today, for example, has zero influence on the practice of politics.” In the 1980s it was said that Margaret Thatcher was interested in Popper, Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott. “I doubt now,” says Gray, “whether any politician could name a leading academic philosopher. No one would know who they were.”

Edmonds agrees that there is a narrowing of the discipline. “People tend to ­specialise in very particular areas of philosophy. The way to make progress is to pick your area within a small part of philosophy.” He contrasts this with the recent past. “The Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein and Freddie Ayer, were arrogant enough to think they could transform philosophy. Philosophers are not that grandly ambitious any more.”

However, while the mainstream media may be giving up on philosophers there is a new player in town: social media is ­filling some of the gaps. Edmonds co-runs Philosophy Bites, a podcast that has had more than 30 million downloads since it started. The BBC may not rerun Michael Ignatieff’s interviews with Isaiah Berlin but you can find them on YouTube. Then, of course, there is Twitter. Alain de Botton currently has 639,000 followers; Daniel Dennett has almost 200,000.

Since his breakthrough book, How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), de Botton has written The Art of Travel and The Architecture of Happiness, among others, and presented the television documentaries The Perfect Home and Status Anxiety. We are a long way from consequentialism and the self-interest theory of rationality in Derek Parfit’s great book Reasons and Persons.

Dennett, Gray and Peter Singer, all popular writers, represent very different areas of philosophy from de Botton’s. Dennett is renowned for his work on consciousness, Darwinism and atheism. Singer has written polemical books on animal rights, effective altruism and “rethinking life and death”. Gray, as well as contributing to the NS, has written books on al-Qaeda, the quest for immortality and “the delusions of global capitalism”. All of these authors reach large audiences, both with their books and online, by addressing topical subjects that matter to people. Their work takes us a long way from the ivory tower and common room.

Such thinkers are public intellectuals and they address the concerns of the broad society. But what is striking is how few are based in British universities. They are either, like Gray, outside the academy, or, like Singer and Dennett, based overseas. Increasingly, when we think about public intellectuals, whether philosophers, or historians such as Andrew Roberts, Simon Schama and ­Niall Ferguson, or cultural critics such as the late Robert Hughes and John Berger, they fall into one of these two groups. A British-based academic who is also a public intellectual – say, the likes of Mary Beard – is increasingly an exception.

If you are an optimist there is no crisis. Philosophy departments are thriving; even if television isn’t covering philosophical debates Radio 4 is; and the internet offers every kind of philosophy, past and present. Publishers still offer a spectrum of philosophical books. If you are a cultural pessimist, however, the picture looks different. Postwar, we could watch the greatest philosophers of the time talking about the most fascinating ideas. They wanted to reach out to a broad audience and they spoke about vital questions with passion and vigour. It is a great loss not to have access on mainstream media to the best contemporary thinkers on the most pressing subjects of the day.

The response to Derek Parfit’s death is a symptom of changes in our universities, in the media and in the culture beyond. As a result, the border guards have changed. Once, BBC executives and the broadsheets decided who were the important philosophers and which questions mattered. They may have lost interest, but if you care about Parfit or the Fat Man, go to your local library or bookshop or follow debates online: be your own border guard and wear a black armband for an era that has passed.

David Herman was a producer of “Voices”, “The Late Show” and “Start the Week”

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.