Before we get into the books, can you give me the elevator pitch that you use to tell teenagers and high school students why they should study philosophy?

Studying philosophy develops clear thinking and the ability both to scrutinise and put forward arguments. It’s a subject in which you’re trying to work out the truth but at the same time working on yourself and working out who you are.

There’s a line I like to steal from Richard Blackmur, a literary critic. He actually said this about poetry, but I think it’s true of philosophy as well, that it “adds to and enlarges the stock of reality.” That’s what I like about philosophy. You study something and then suddenly you can see a whole extra dimension of reality that you would never really have thought about before and it can affect how you live. It can affect your political views or just how you understand your place in the context of the history of ideas.

Let’s move on to the books. The first is Metaphysical Horror by Kołakowski. He starts the book—rather off-puttingly, you might think—by saying that philosophy hasn’t solved any problem satisfactorily since Socrates. That isn’t perhaps the greatest encouragement for an enthusiastic teen philosopher to finish the book. Why have you chosen this one?

For one, it is nice and short, so people are more likely to read it. I think he’s got a very dry sense of humour, too. But beyond that, we live in an age where common sense is very much empiricist, utilitarian and scientistic. Not scientific but scientistic. All of that produces an impatience for metaphysics, and I think that’s unfortunate.

One of the book’s virtues is that, in a short space, he both gives you a history of metaphysics and develops an argument as to why we should engage in metaphysical questions even if we can’t solve them. We can admit that no traditional metaphysical questions are soluble while still rejecting that as a reason to dismiss them simply as meaningless. He defends the idea that tackling a question to which there is no answer is not meaningless; the action of thinking about it is valuable.

And how would you define metaphysics? I have a vague idea, but I don’t think I could give you a very good answer.

In a basic sense, it addresses questions about the fundamental nature of reality. So if you were to go on a metaphysics course in university, you might study things like causation, or time, or how something can remain the same thing and yet change over time. Some of the pre-Socratics, for example, were concerned with discerning the fundamental constituents of the world. But the question of whether or not there is a God is also a fundamental metaphysical question.

What are the range of metaphysical questions that Kołakowski is particularly focused on in the book?

Well, the metaphysical horror he’s referring to in the title is the idea that the absolute, ultimate level of reality is nothing, and nothing, then, is the ultimate nature of reality—that there is some kind of abyss or void at the centre of existence. That’s a pretty tricky idea to get your head around.

Then, he looks at what philosophers have said about the ultimate nature of reality. So the Platonic forms and the idea of a God, both in the Aristotelian sense of a detached thinking substance and the God of the Abrahamic religions, where God is creative and active. He says that latter idea is probably inconsistent, but very difficult to dismiss.

I chose it to give a flavour to teens interested in philosophy of the very insoluble nature of metaphysics he’s talking about and because I think Kołakowski deserves to be more widely read.

Let’s move on to Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel. He treats a series of subjects as various as the absurd, moral luck, sexual perversions, war and massacre, ruthlessness in public life . . . Why have you chosen this one?

Nagel is one of the great English-speaking philosophers still working today. He’s an interesting contrast to Kołakowski, who deals with these very abstract ideas. Many of the ideas Nagel deals with are quite concrete, and he’s very clear in his writing style.

There are some classic papers in here. The one in which he asks what it’s like to be a bat is an amazing canonical paper about the subjective nature of experience and how forms of reductionism can’t deal with it. That’s still very much a live issue.

His essay on sexual perversion is brilliant and has been very influential. ‘Moral Luck’ and ‘The Fragmentation of Value’ raise fundamental questions in ethics. The nice thing about this book, particularly for teenagers, is that you can pick it up in any order, just read ten pages of a chapter, and then you’re done. The essays are short and accessible, and you can take them in bite-sized chunks.

What is Nagel’s particular area of expertise, and what sort of philosophical toolkit does he bring to dealing with all these issues?

He’s one of those annoying people who seems to make brilliant contributions to any topic you try to think about. He’s done stuff on the philosophy of consciousness (that’s very important); he’s done work recently on whether you can reduce everything to materialism, saying no, you can’t; he’s done work on ethics, and ‘moral luck’ is a whole mini-industry in the academy now. He wrote one of germinal papers in that area.

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The preface of this book contains a lot of philosophical wisdom. He talks about his approach and sums it up by saying he thinks you should trust problems over solutions. We have a strong tendency to want a neat system that will give us solutions and answers, whereas actually a lot of the time the niggling worries and intuitions we have leftover are very valuable. We risk pushing these out or ignoring them if we have a tidy system. And I think the other thing that’s really nice is that he says in philosophy you have to tolerate not being able to have an opinion for a long time, which is quite difficult to do.

Excellent. Now, moving on to your next choice by Alasdair MacIntyre. His most famous work is After Virtue, but you’ve chosen A Short History of Ethics. Why did you choose this philosophy book in particular as a good one for teens?

Well, I thought if you’re a teen doing philosophy at school, it’s probably a little bit easier to deal with than After Virtue. After Virtue is very famous and important, but it’s a big, sustained argument, and therefore can be quite difficult, whereas you can dip in and out of The Short History of Ethics.

There’s no need to read the different chapters in order. I think his summaries of philosophers are very reliable on the whole. Another thing that’s nice about this is that it gradually adds up to a cumulative argument about the importance of the relationship between history and philosophy.

One of the ways in which philosophy is sometimes taught is as if it’s a series of ideas or theories that you can detach from their context. MacIntyre shows that, in moral philosophy in particular, that’s a bad mistake. So I think it’s useful background. There’s lots of good stuff in there about the difference between the modern situation and the pre-modern situation as well.

Which brings us on to Modernism as a Philosophical Problem by Robert B Pippin. The book is largely focused on German philosophy, starting with Kant and ending with Nietzsche and Heidegger. First, could you spell out what we mean by modernism? And second, why should teens interested in philosophy read this book?

I tend to agree with people like Pippin and Brandom that modernity is one of the biggest shifts in human civilization. It is, to put it crudely and focus on the philosophical dimension, the shift from grounding truth, politics and the self in tradition and religion, to the attempt to ground them in a self-standing form of reason.

Roughly speaking, modernism is an attempt to say the subject has to agree to things in order for them to be true. So we can’t just take it as read that because it’s in the tradition, or because it’s come from religion, it must be true, and we can’t assume we have access to objective reality. We have to understand how we think about reality, too.

“German idealism can be extraordinarily difficult and horrendous to read—yet it’s also the most important movement in philosophy ever, on par with the birth of philosophy in Ancient Greece”

Now, because that’s a very easy caricature, it’s easy to imagine some kind of completely self-sufficient, omniscient subject. But that’s not actually what the great modern philosophers like Kant and Hegel were describing. One of the aims of this book is to show that much of postmodern criticism of modern philosophy is attacking a straw man. That’s a very important message.

It’s also the case that German idealism can be extraordinarily difficult, complicated and horrendous to read—Kant and Hagel especially—yet it’s also the most important movement in philosophy ever, on par with the birth of philosophy in Ancient Greece.

So for someone to give you a reliable guide through Kant and Hegel, and then the implications of their thought for Nietzsche and Heidegger, is a really useful thing. This book does that, and it’s very good at not overwhelming you with detail, but just saying, ‘Look, here are the big issues; here’s the kind of general map of what’s going on.’

What is German idealism, in this context?

German idealism is a philosophical movement that begins with Kant and then moves through Fichte and Hegel and Schelling. (Those are the big four at the start, and we’re still dealing with the aftermath of them now.) Basically, it’s an engagement with Kant’s critical philosophy, which argues that in a sense everything passes through the subject. Kant’s critical philosophy, his ‘Copernican Turn’, is to posit that when it comes to knowledge of the external world, rather than trying to get our ideas to correspond with what’s out there, we find that objects correspond with our ideas. Our minds contribute to our understanding of the world.

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So the categories of causation—of unity, plurality, multiplicity, things like that—are actually categories of our mind, and the only way that we could ever have an experience of anything is if our minds contribute those categories. Even space and time come from our minds, according to Kant.

You can make a similar case with morality, where you say in order to be autonomous, the subject has to give the law to himself, rather than just receive it from some other source outside of himself. That is the modern revolution.

German idealism is trying to understand how we can we make this work. Fichte, Schelling and Hegel are not entirely happy with the way Kant achieves this, but they are agreed that he’s hit on a genuine problem.

Finally on to John Cottingham The Spiritual Dimension. Is it about right to say this book making a place for theology in the study of philosophy?

To a certain extent, that’s true. I think his main objective in writing the book is to say that the way we typically do philosophy of religion is perhaps not wrong, but it can be somewhat unproductive and a bit sterile. He wants to say that when it comes to understanding religion, praxis comes first. From that, we can then begin to analyse.

“There’s a more receptive way to read, which often takes place when we read fiction or religious texts”

It’s not that we can’t use rationality. On the contrary, rationality and consistency are criteria for religion; but there are some things you can only fully understand by doing them and experiencing them, and religion is one of those. So the form of rationality we use should not be narrowly analytical. Religion is about making sense in the broadest possible way, so the sort of sense-making we use in art, history, literature, experience, morality, even the logic of the emotions, are all part of making sense of religion.

I was talking to a colleague recently about the evidence for the claim that reading fiction increases empathy. It turns out that those who don’t read fiction, only nonfiction, tend to be less empathetic. I think there’s a similar theme in this book. There’s a very kind of controlling way to read that we often use when we’re seeking information, in which we criticise and analyse arguments. But there’s a more receptive way to read, which often takes place when we read fiction or religious texts. This mode of reading has a different feel. Perhaps it’s a different mode of accessing a kind of truth that’s closed off when we’re a bit more hardened and controlling.

Why have you specifically included this book among your five books of philosophy for teens?

I thought it was a nice contrast and gave us a nice spread of topics. I also thought if a teen is studying religion or philosophy at school (or both), this would be quite a different approach to the one they would have met already—different than simply studying the theistic proofs.

He also does a pretty good job of tackling many of the big problems that anyone who wants to believe responsibly in religion in the twenty-first century has to deal with, such as science, the problem of evil, the idea of heteronomy (which is that religion makes us in some way childish or not fully autonomous). He talks about religious language and the place of the emotions in religion. He deals with modernism, and post-modernism, and so on.

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It’s quite an impressively broad spectrum of major topics, but it’s not too jargon-heavy. I think it’s relatively accessible. And again, it is the sort of book that, although it is a cumulative argument, if a teen were particularly interested in just one of those philosophical topics, you could just read a chapter and come away with a lot from it.

Interview by Benedict King

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Andrew Brower Latz

Dr Andrew Brower Latz is Head of Religion and Philosophy at Manchester Grammar School. He is the author of The Social Philosophy of Gillian Rose as well as various articles.