You’ve just written a book called How To Think Like a Philosopher. The immediate thought I have is that philosophers don’t all think the same way. How can you teach somebody to think like a philosopher?
That’s a very good point. I also think they don’t always think in the right ways. I wanted the subtitle to be ‘and when not to’ but there are marketing reasons why that was considered to be ill-judged. The short answer is that ‘how to think like some of the best philosophers think when they are thinking best’ is just too long. So there’s obviously an element of shorthand in the title.
It’s true that philosophers think differently from each other. That’s one of the things I wanted to get over in the book. You shouldn’t think that there’s a method that you can learn, which is like an algorithm for generating good arguments, and then you can just churn out the philosophy. There is a lot of other stuff going on. To learn to think like a philosopher is learning to think like the most philosophical version of you, if you like.
There’s a strong element of philosophy being a personal endeavour. You’ve interviewed a lot of philosophers, Nigel, and you would probably agree that whereas, on the one hand, philosophers are trying to get at the most accurate and correct understanding, on the other hand, there’s a lot of acknowledgement that they’re really trying to work things out for themselves and hope that other people agree that it resonates. So that element of it being a personal mission, I think, is something which sometimes gets lost when we try and emphasize the objective and Truth (with a capital T)-seeking things about it.
My way of putting it usually is that philosophy is not a spectator sport, that in order to do philosophy you have to do the same kinds of things that the great philosophers of the past and present have done and continue to do: argue, give reasons, put forward hypotheses, take account of counterexamples, explore alternative ways of understanding the same phenomena, sketching a vision of how things could be, those sorts of things that throughout history philosophers have done. If you’re studying philosophy at any level, you have to do some of these. It’s more like studying chemistry and getting a Bunsen burner out and heating chemicals than it is like studying literature or art history from a critical point of view. You can study literature without writing a poem or novel or play, and you can study art history without painting a picture, but you can’t study philosophy in any meaningful sense without engaging in argument and critical thought.
That’s true and the other thing is that you have to take responsibility for your own conclusions. You can’t just defer and say, ‘Well, Kant said this, and Kant is smarter than me so Kant is right.’ One of the weird things that I remember writing about in an editorial for the Philosophers’ Magazine once, is this rather disconcerting fact that although few of us would claim that we’re the smartest people in the world and are right about everything (and everyone else is wrong), as a matter of fact, that’s how we operate. We decide who we’re going to agree with, who we’re going to disagree with, and we come to our own conclusions. We do take our own view to be final. We don’t respect people who just say, ‘Look, I’m not the cleverest person, I’m just going to defer.’ If it’s something technical, you would do that. if it’s a purely empirical scientific matter about what’s the best method for heating lead, I would just ask an expert and say, ‘You’re right.’ But any kind of substantive issue which involves ethics, politics or values, we end up going with our own judgment. If you think about it, that’s quite an arrogant thing to do. So given that that’s more-or-less inescapable, we have a moral responsibility to do that as well as we can, and not just allow ourselves to settle for our preference.
So what are the key elements of thinking philosophically, from your perspective?
I wanted to shift the emphasis away from traditional critical thinking ‘tools’. We’ve both done this actually, you’ve got your Thinking from A to Z, an excellent little book. I co-authored The Philosopher’s Toolkit. There are other books like this too. They tend to emphasize the more formal aspects of good reasoning, validity, soundness, spotting fallacies, all this kind of thing. Over the years, I’ve become more and more convinced that a really important element of good thinking is the attitudes we bring to it. It’s actually becoming a thing— ‘Virtue Epistemology.’ Epistemology is the theory of knowledge. So the idea is that to think well, you’ve got to approach your subject matter with certain kinds of ethical values and virtues. Bernard Williams’s last book was all about this. It was called Truth and Truthfulness. I didn’t include it in my choices here, but I almost did. He says that sincerity and accuracy are two virtues and if you want to think well, the primary thing you’ve got to start out with is the sincere desire to understand things as they really are, which overrides any kind of desire you might have to be right or to not be discombobulated or whatever it might be. The accuracy part is, again, a genuine attempt to try and get things as right as you can, both the facts and your steps in reasoning.
It sounds really simple, but I think not enough people take it to heart, and if you do approach your thinking with sincerity and accuracy, and you have reasonable intelligence, you’re very likely to understand things well and properly more often than not. Whereas you could be the cleverest person in the world, but if you don’t have those drives, if you don’t really focus on those desires for sincerity and accuracy, you will just be generating very, very clever arguments for whatever conclusions you want to reach.
That might be true of lots of subjects, not just philosophy. Do you pull out anything distinctive about philosophy? Because I think there are things which are distinctive about philosophy.
In a way, there’s nothing distinctive about philosophy. I think the thing that really distinguishes philosophy is simply that you are relying entirely on clear and good thinking. There’s no special information base. You do have to get your facts right and so you have to make sure you’ve got the right information. But in every other kind of discipline, they have their own unique methods or knowledge bases—the archaeological record, experiments in the laboratory, observations of populations and so forth. Whereas philosophy is, unusually, thinking without a safety net—that is how I sometimes put it. You really are relying on thinking alone to a degree that is unusual. I don’t like to overstate that, because I don’t like it when philosophers make out they’re the only people who do this kind of critical thinking. It’s very insulting to people from other disciplines. But I think we are unusually dependent upon it, and therefore there’s an extreme focus on it.
I suppose one aspect is that philosophers often challenge things which other people take for granted. Things which it might seem stupid to question in other disciplines, because they are the very foundations of those disciplines. It even pulls the rug from its own feet regularly.
I’ve got two reasons for not wanting to push that. One is that in other disciplines people do a heck of a lot of questioning. So my former colleague on The Philosophers’ Magazine, Jeremy Stangroom, used to get quite angry when philosophers said, ‘Oh, the thing about philosophers is that we question fundamental assumptions in a way that other people don’t.’ Having done a sociology PhD, he knew that sociologists question their own assumptions. He thought they did it all the time and that it was a philosophical illusion that philosophers were the only people to do it.
The other thing is, I’m not sure how well philosophers actually do question their own assumptions. A lot of the time, certainly in professional philosophy, people get settled into a certain way of doing philosophy and they accept certain assumptions. As a result, they can be totally dismissive of anything which doesn’t resemble it. A lot of the reason I knew virtually nothing about non-Western philosophy until recently was because Western philosophers thought that they knew what philosophy looked like. This stuff didn’t look like philosophy and therefore they didn’t have to read it. That doesn’t really seem to me to be indicative of people who really question their assumptions.
We’re going off on a sidetrack here, but I’ve got several things to say in response to that. First of all, Jeremy is thinking like a philosopher when he questions assumptions; whether it’s unique to philosophy is another question. I don’t think you have to accept the academic pigeonholing where sociologists can’t really be philosophers. Durkheim and Marx are important to sociology and they both are very philosophical at times. The other thing is that, as you said earlier, you’re interested in people who do this really well. Just because some philosophers aren’t very good at questioning their own assumptions, it doesn’t mean that that’s not a characteristically philosophical thing to do.
There are certain philosophical things which non-philosophers do very well. And there are certain philosophical things that certain philosophers don’t do so well. So I don’t think philosophy should claim ownership of any of this kind of stuff. But you see more of it, perhaps more commonly, than you do elsewhere.
OK, let’s get back to the main thread. Why on earth would anybody want to think like a philosopher?
There are quite a lot of reasons. One is that we’re looking at what it means to think well. We’re taking philosophers as our model because they’re the specialists in general critical thinking, so they’re very good models to follow. Another reason might be that philosophical issues are unavoidable. They turn up everywhere, so you can’t not think about them. If you’re thinking about any major political issue of the day, if you’re looking at the cost-of-living crisis or climate change or Ukraine, there are values and priorities and they have big philosophical elements. If you want to have views on these things which are informed, you don’t just need to read the papers, you need to be thinking about the values and judgments that inform them. I don’t think you can avoid the philosophical issues and, therefore, you really ought to know a little bit about how to think philosophically.
Let’s turn to your first book choice, which is Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, by Daniel C. Dennett.
I didn’t want to pick manuals, but the one that is closest to one is Dennett’s Intuition Pumps. I should say that I’ve taken all these books off my shelf because I don’t have great factual recall. I read a book and even a week later, let alone a year later, I probably can’t give a good précis of it. But what a lot of good books do is that they change the way you think a bit and in that way, they leave their trace. It’s about how you think as much as what you think.
Dennett’s Intuition Pumps is a really good book. It does have a lot of these standard critical thinking things in it. But he’s very witty, which is not very normal for philosophers. So in amongst Occam’s Razor and all that kind of stuff, he’s also got more quirky, unusual things. He has the idea of a ‘deepity,’ a phrase which he’s coined. As I understand it, a deepity is an utterance which sounds profound, but if you examine it, isn’t at all. Social media is a great promoter of deepities, these little quotes, which make you go, ‘Ah great, fantastic.’ And you’re clicking through them so quickly, that you don’t even ask what it means; it just sounds great and you share it and you go on to the next deepity.
Yes, Dennett is very good at coining phrases to pinpoint some kind of move in an argument or a particular tendency in thought. He’s a very eminent philosopher of mind as well as being a skilful writer. This one is unusual among his books. He’s stepping back and looking at the methodology, rather than just making a first-order contribution to the subject.
That’s right. And it’s very, very readable. One time I interviewed him, he said something like, he’s a serious philosopher, but not a solemn one. The point being that you can take your philosophy seriously without taking yourself too seriously and being too pompous. And I think that’s a good thing.
To be fair, some very good philosophers have been pretty pompous. It’s not a prerequisite to be humorous and lighthearted…
Absolutely. There are typical characteristics of good thinkers but not every thinker has every one.
Here’s another example from the book: the ‘surely’ operator. I love this one. Whenever somebody says ‘surely’, what they really mean is that this is not something I want to have to argue for. I want you to take it for granted. By saying ‘surely’, you’re inviting the person to think this is something which shouldn’t be questioned, which is a big red flag that you should.
I’m not sure this book has done as well as some of his other ones, partly because it’s a bit of a hodgepodge. It’s arranged into sections, but it’s not systematic. You dip into it and take things from it. But I quite like that as well. It goes back to what I was saying earlier. This book doesn’t trick the reader into thinking that if they follow the steps in this book, they will be a great thinker. It’s saying, ‘there are all these tricks and traps and tools that are useful, but actually, you’ve got to work out what the best ones are in any given occasion and try and apply them.’
Because that’s the other thing: it’s all very well to have a thinking tool, but how do you apply it? Bad thinkers know the tools and misapply them. An example I’ve often used concerns a philosopher who had written a good book on reasoning and knew his stuff. He was talking about Andrew Wakefield, who published a paper about the MMR vaccine in the Lancet, a top medical journal. The paper didn’t actually strongly link the vaccine to autism, funnily enough. It was the press conference and other things afterwards that made the stronger connection. Anyway. It turned out that he had been funded by people who had an interest in discrediting the MMR vaccine and wanted to sue the manufacturers. The Lancet withdrew the paper when they found out about that. And this philosopher said, ‘There’s this thing called the genetic fallacy, which means that you shouldn’t judge an argument on the basis of where it comes from, you should judge an argument on the strength of the argument. So this paper should be judged on the strength of the scientific evidence and the matter of who funded it is irrelevant.’ Now, this is someone who’s got hold of a thinking tool, and he’s applying it, but he is misapplying it because actually, in science, experimental bias is a huge factor. Therefore you do have to think about who’s paying for it. So what in certain contexts is a fallacy—don’t think of the origins when doing the justification—is a legitimate objection in scientific research because of the psychological effects of experimenter bias and, also, fabrication of evidence. So you can have all these tools at your disposal, but you still want to think very carefully, ‘Is this the time to apply it? Am I applying it in the right way?’
I like to think that good philosophers have a nose for philosophy. They know which questions to ask when and how far to push things. Dennett is a good example of that. He seems to sniff out rich topics and approaches to philosophy. The links with Darwinism seem obvious now, but the way he exploited those in talking about consciousness and the development of the mind are really fascinating. He knew how to do it. I don’t know how he got those skills, but he somehow knows where and how far to go. Bad philosophers get taken into these strange cul-de-sacs and never get out.
I think that’s true. In fact, having a nose for philosophy can be a nice segue into the next book.
Yes, tell me about Natural Goodness by Philippa Foot, one of the best known proponents of virtue ethics.
Philippa Foot was someone I came to quite late. She wrote very little over her career. There are two or three volumes of papers, one might even have gone out of print. She wrote one monograph, which is this book, Natural Goodness. It’s a short book, not much more than 100 pages.
The reason I wanted to highlight her as an example of a good thinker is that she’s not in a hurry to come up with her theories and her conclusions. She’s taking as much time as it takes. Again, I was lucky enough to interview her and Foot said something along the lines that she often does have a very good nose, but she can’t then necessarily pin down exactly what it is she has sniffed out quickly. It takes her time to really work out what’s wrong or right about it. I think that’s true. With Philippa Foot, you’ve got someone who had a real sense of what is important, and what matters and was patient in trying to work it out. She wasn’t in a hurry to present her grand thesis to the world. When things were ready, she would offer them out and that was that.
It’s a nice contrast to the idea that philosophy is about ostentatious cleverness and the ability to be very quick and think on your feet. Philosophical education in the UK, historically, at least, has been almost like performance. People give their paper and then other people in the seminar are trying to show how clever they are by trying to shoot it down. The speaker has to show how bright they are by batting away criticisms. It’s like a gladiatorial combat, really. It’s all about that cleverness, smartness, fastness. Philippa Foot wasn’t like that at all, and I think it’s really important. There are people like Philippa Foot: more careful, slow, considered thinkers.
Is this a book that you’d recommend to a general reader?
She’s a very clear writer, but it’s a subtle book. It’s short, but you should read it slowly and carefully. But yes, it is something I’d recommend to a general reader. All of these books I’ve chosen are ones I think a general reader could read. I haven’t picked anything which is too academic or dry.
What’s the main theme of Natural Goodness?
It’s about this idea, which is often attributed to David Hume, that there is an is/ought gap or fact/value distinction. In its strong form, this says that you can’t derive any conclusions about the way things ought to be by merely observing how they are. A statement of the fact that x is the case or something is the case, doesn’t ever generate the idea that something ought to be the case. But often we assume there’s a very strong and obvious link. For example, if you were to say to a child, ‘Don’t do that to the dog’ and they ask why not, you might say, ‘The dog doesn’t like it, it hurts.’ Now, we assume that means that therefore you ought not to do it. But there’s a logical gap. If the child then says, ‘Okay, it hurts the dog, so why shouldn’t I do it?’, you say ‘because you shouldn’t hurt the dog.’ But now you’re bringing in a moral judgment, which is not a fact. This is a big, big issue in philosophy. If you can’t derive all statements from facts, what’s the basis of morality, if you don’t have it coming from God, or whatever it might be?
What Philippa Foot is doing in this book is she’s trying to bridge that gap, to show how an understanding of the way things are and what is good for their flourishing, from a purely natural perspective, does give you that kind of route to a moral statement. But she’s trying to make that bridge without committing that fallacy of simply jumping from an is to an ought.
This is why it’s quite subtle, really. You have to accept the fact that there may well be a logical gap at some level between an is statement and an ought statement. But nonetheless, you can do a lot of work on the factual side of things, so much work that the point at which you have to make the transition to a moral statement is small enough that the only person who wouldn’t make it would be a sociopath or psychopath. There is still a logical gap to be bridged but there comes a point where, if you understand the way things are enough, then you shouldn’t really need any extra persuading that it’s good or bad to do certain things.
Let’s go on to your next book, Onora O’Neill’s A Question of Trust.
I picked this because it’s very, very readable. It’s listenable to as well, because these were her 2002 BBC Reith lectures, and the book is mainly the text of those talks. I wanted to have an example of someone who is very good at bringing her philosophical skills to practical issues of public life and communicating them.
In A Question of Trust she’s talking about issues of trust in public life, which is still a big issue today. There’s a lot of lack of trust in political institutions, political leaders. People have been talking about a crisis of trust for as long as we can remember. How do we increase trust? She was writing against a background where a lot of people seemed to assume the way to increase trust was to bring in mechanisms and guarantees that would reassure people that what was being said was true, that what was being done was right.
What she argues is that those formal mechanisms undermine trust. So to give an example, if you’re in a long-term relationship with someone, most people would say trust is very important. The way to increase trust is not to develop systems whereby you can closely monitor what your partner is doing on a day-to-day basis, so that you have empirical, factual backup that those statements are true. In fact, that would undermine trust. It’s the idea that trust always includes elements of risk. It’s inherent to trust and you have to accept that.
It’s a very rich book. It’s very brief. If you don’t know anything about philosophy, the arguments are very clear. They’re easy to follow. If you do know a bit about philosophy, you’ll be aware of all the work that’s going on under the surface. She hasn’t shown all her working. It’s wonderful that you have people who are capable of bringing their incredible knowledge, their lifetime of study of philosophy, and applying it in ways that make sense, but also explaining it in ways that people can understand. It’s good thinking in action, which we don’t see enough of, unfortunately.
I agree. There is a real need for public philosophy and public philosophers. What tends to happen is that one comes to the fore and dominates the airwaves. So we’ve had Michael Sandel for a while: he’s been the philosopher who people will go to if they want a comment on public issues. But there should be several different voices at least. We should have a diversity of viewpoints and people who draw in different ways on different traditions, on different kinds of philosophy. There’s a real risk that by having a single voice speaking for philosophy in the public realm, that people imagine that whatever that philosopher says, is what all philosophers think, which is very, very far from the case, usually. Onora O’Neill hasn’t dominated in that way. But she has been a prominent speaker, both as a member of the House of Lords, giving the Reith lectures, and appearing on radio, and television regularly. She’s stood up to the plate.
Indeed, and a lot of her valuable work has also not necessarily got a lot of public attention. She’s chaired at least one major commission; she’s advised on government reports, and she has been an active member in the Uk’s House of Lords, where not every member is very active.
Mary Warnock was another fantastic example. She said of herself that as a philosopher, she was second or third eleven (using a cricketing analogy). That was very modest, but in a way was right, in the sense that her original contributions to philosophy weren’t many. But she did something that was even more important, which was that she chaired two major commissions on ethical issues for society: around special needs education and embryo research. She brought her philosophical expertise, brought people together, came up with these reports, which shaped policy. I think that that’s much more important work than certain people’s original contributions to the philosophical literature, which may be original, but will be footnotes to footnotes.
Let’s move on to the next book, Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy and Cultural Difference by Thomas P. Kasulis, which I don’t know. You’d better tell me what it’s about.
This is the kind of book that I always bore people with, telling them, ‘This is great! You should read it!’
That’s exactly the kind of book recommendations we want on Five Books. Through some of the interviews I’ve done, I’ve come across some real finds. Hopefully this is another one!
Tom Kasulis is a comparative philosopher. In other words, he works in more than one tradition and his real expertise has been in Japanese philosophy, which he’s written books on. This book came out of a series of lectures, the Gilbert Ryle lectures. Now, you can’t overgeneralize about Eastern and Western philosophy. He makes his point really strongly, that whenever you’re looking at cultural differences, it’s never binary, ‘the West is like this, the East is like that.’ But there are differences in what is foregrounded or backgrounded. He argues that what is foregrounded in one culture or tradition is backgrounded in the other, and vice versa. So these differences are real.
He says that the most important difference at the moment is the ‘intimacy’ and ‘integrity’ of the title, which are actually unfortunate words, since they don’t evoke what they mean. What he means by the ‘integrity’ approach is a way of looking at the world, in which you see the individual components as being primary. What is society? It’s comprised of individuals, individuals are primary, society is the collection. What is a table? Well, the atoms and then they come together. So you can see how this way of thinking is associated a lot with reductionist science. It has been very, very fruitful, it’s worked well. He’s not denigrating or idealizing either. It’s one way of looking at the world, and it has its benefits.
The other way of looking at the world is one in which you don’t focus on the elements in isolation as primary, what you’re looking at is relations, if you like. This is what the ‘intimacy’ refers to. We all know everything is related. But when you see the world primarily through the relations, it’s like a gestalt shift. You see things very differently.
Typically the western individualistic, liberal tradition, encourages us to see human beings primarily as individuals. The alternative way of looking at it is to see ourselves as essentially socially situated, you can’t make sense of who you are unless you understand the culture you came from, your family members, your peers, etc.
These are two different ways of thinking, and what he shows is that these different orientations manifest themselves in the way we think about all sorts of different things. I really want to stress the point is not to say that one is right and one is wrong. They both generate their insights. But if you end up thinking too much through the lens of one, we miss out things you see from the other. It’s one of those books where people say, ‘This book will change the way you think forever.’ This is a book that could do that.
There is a kind of originality in philosophy which amounts to giving you a new framework. Some of the greatest philosophy simply presents another way of seeing the world.
It’s really powerful. He explains it very well. He is an academic, I don’t think I’m being rude by saying it doesn’t have that popular style to it. But it’s very clear. And it’s so interesting. If you are unfamiliar with non-Western thought, to me, this would be almost the first book I’d suggest you read, heaven forbid, even before my own.
Yes, your book, How the World Thinks, is about understanding non-Western philosophy, in large part.
Yes, and of all the stuff I came across researching my book, this is the one that was most important for me. It really was. It nailed it. It’s really nice when you read a book and you think it’s nailed something because philosophy is slippery, and people don’t often nail things. I think one of Dennett’s books did that too, his first book on free will, Elbow Room. It really got that idea that when people talk about free will, there are different conceptions out there and you’ve got to identify which one you’re talking about. If you do that, you’ll recognize that the kind of free will which people routinely say we don’t have, it doesn’t matter that we don’t have it, because there are other kinds of free will which are the ones worth having. That book is also one of my wife’s favourites. When I had a chance to meet Dennett once I took her copy and got him to sign it. As he was signing it, he said something like, ‘I’m fond of this book because I think with this one, I think I really did nail something.’ I think he’s right.
Your final choice is something a bit different. It’s called Daily Rituals by Mason Currey.
You’ve got to have a curveball! Daily Rituals is one of those books where you wish you had the idea. He looks at thinkers, artists, writers, philosophers, scientists and asks how they work.
You mean, how they say they work.
Well, no, not necessarily, because he’s not interviewing them. A lot of them are dead. It’s based on people’s accounts, so some of them might be relying on their own testimony, but a lot of the time, there’s evidence of what people did. It’d be less interesting if he’d just interviewed a lot of people, and they said how they work because then you would probably get a lot of self-mythologizing of a negative or a positive aspect. Today I was listening to a radio program with a couple of writers talking about how they procrastinate so much, and they just feel sick at the sight of the keyboard. And I think, ‘You’re exaggerating, because you’ve written loads of stuff, and you also write to deadlines.’
This book highlights that when we think about how to think, we often think about the mechanics of it, or even the virtues of it. What we don’t think so much about is the social situation of it, the conditions of it. I don’t have a chapter in my book about how to lay out your office, or how to make sure you get a good night’s sleep, but, I do mention those briefly, actually, because people’s ability to think well depends a lot on those things.
Now, there are certain things it depends on which are not the subject of this book, for example, around having certain material conditions, not having to look after a child 24 hours a day, and so on. That’s not part of it. But he talks about people’s habits. Of course, everybody’s different and there is lots of variety, but after a while, you do discern certain patterns. There are outliers, but the majority of these people work between three to five hours a day. And they have built into their days times where they are doing something that’s nothing to do with their work. That might be having lunches with their friends, it might be going for long walks. That makes perfect sense to me. If you’re going to do anything that involves your mind and thinking well, there’s only a limited amount of space you can give to that. In order to think well, you need to then make sure the times when you’re not doing it are giving you the opportunity to let things stew, to work away in your unconscious, in the background of your mind, or give you the rest and relaxation so when you come back, you’re rejuvenated.
The advice for people who want to think well which isn’t given so much is: think about what, for you, creates the conditions where your mind is most productive and interested. It’s going to vary for different people, but one thing we have to fight against is the temptation to constantly be trying to stuff our heads. I know a lot of people who if they are traveling will always listen to a podcast or an audiobook. Now, it may work for them. They may be the kind of people who are just infinitely capable of absorbing information without limit. Lucky them. But I suspect for some of them, this is a mistake. They are trying to teach themselves things all the time and they don’t give their mind the downtime to process and think or make connections. Everyone’s different and has to work this out for themselves, but I think this is something people should be thinking about as well.
What’s your ideal day, as a philosopher thinking about writing something philosophical?
I do have an ideal routine, I just don’t manage to stick to it a lot of the time. I’d wake up at sevenish, I would have a coffee and I would be doing some kind of work almost straight away. I would then have breakfast a bit later and do a bit more work. Then, by mid to late morning, I’m running out of steam. I’ll go for a walk or have a coffee. I would then come back and work a bit more before lunch. For me, the afternoon is generally quite crap. First thing in the afternoon, I’d probably want to switch off completely, and then probably do a little bit more later in the afternoon. In the evenings—I learned this the hard way—I shouldn’t work. Reading is okay but if I try to work after dinner, all it means is the next morning, I’m not as fresh. I’m not as productive. So that’s the kind of routine. I discovered it many years ago. For bizarre circumstantial reasons I won’t get into, I ended up in Salamanca working on my first proper book. I didn’t know anyone in Salamanca, it was winter, and I had no distractions. I worked in the morning, I went for a swim and then being Spain, of course, I had a long lunch. I was incredibly productive.
That’s actually not dissimilar to my ideal, except I can work late at night sometimes, and on trains and in cafés.
Exactly. People have different rhythms. Now, an old neighbour of mine who is a different kind of writer, a playwright and a poet, is a lifetime night owl. He won’t even start work till 9 or 10 and then works until 3 or 4. He gets up really late, but he’s not lazy. That’s just when he works. Going back to the theme of the Daily Rituals, the number of hours per day he was working is not the eight-hour working day. This is the kind of book you dip into, it’s not something you read from cover to cover in one sitting. You could keep it in your lavatory, if you’re the kind of person who does that.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.