Out of the academy and into the public forum

Angie Hobbs
Angie Hobbs
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Why do we need a professor for the public understanding of philosophy? Sheena Hastings talks to Angie Hobbs, the first British academic in the role.

WHEN Angie Hobbs take up her post at Sheffield University this autumn as the UK’s first professor for the public understanding of philosophy, she’ll have carte blanche to do it her way – taking her subject beyond the ivory towers into the community. She’ll be out there enthusing tots, teens, nonagenarians and everyone in between that philosophy is not some airy-fairy world apart from the realities of our daily lives; she’ll be fighting her corner with arguments as to why the world would be a much better place if we all had a better grip of the kind of thinking that made the Ancient Greeks so very civilised.

Hobbs is lukewarm about the comparison with Prof Richard Dawkins, but her task will be to do for philosophy what he very ably did while he was Oxford’s professor for the public understanding of science, and what the likes of Brian Cox and Marcus du Sautoy have done for physics and maths respectively.

Think what you might of Dawkins and his more recent pronouncements on religion; it’s down to him that evolution (and other biological concepts) have permeated the public consciousness – thanks to a bulldog-like ability to grab headlines by tearing at the trouser legs of his adversaries.

Prof Hobbs is not cut from the same cloth at all. She’ll simply get people onto the philosophical bandwagon by sheer force of enthusiasm, reason and the enormous gift of speaking clear and plain English – as well as Ancient Greek and Latin.

As the longest serving guest on Melvyn Bragg’s Radio 4 show In Our Time (in which experts in their fields explain everything from particle physics to ancient dynasties), she has earned a ringing endorsement in her new role from Lord B himself: “...Her ability to explain philosophy is remarkable. She can explain it to the lay person both succinctly and comprehensively while never letting go of the complexity and weight of the issue involved. It’s quite an extraordinary gift.”

Currently an associate professor of philosophy at Warwick University, Hobbs is already in her stride as a communicator via public lectures, articles, TV and social media. She’s also involved in helping to develop educational policy relating to philosophy in schools. Her arrival in Sheffield fits in perfectly with the university’s longstanding commitment to programmes such as Philosophy in the City – which involving over 100 student volunteers, taking philosophy out to local primary and secondary schools.

She has already helped to persuade the DfEE to include in its National Curriculum Interim Report the idea that locally head teachers might want to add philosophy to their offerings. Hobbs is honorary patron of The Philosophy Foundation, a charity whose aim is to bring philosophy to schools and the wider community. Its main concern is to improve educational opportunities for the disadvantaged – because philosophical enquiry develops speaking and listening skills vital for literacy and emotional development, helps children who find it difficult to access other classes, and encourages critical and creative thinking essential in the 21st Century, says Hobbs. It’s no coincidence that so many of those who lead our society, including successive generations of prominent politicians, have had degrees in PPE – Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

“Training in philosophy is a great skill for life,” says Prof Hobbs. “Plato set up an academy mainly to train political leaders to be philosophically informed and to use that knowledge in a very practical sense in their everyday life. It’s only in more recent times that it has become a university discipline and placed in an ivory tower. But the great philosophers have always been embroiled in real issues in society – for example John Stuart Mill and his campaigning for rights for women and freedom of expression. But there are those, particularly in American culture, who are nervous and disdainful of philosophy.”

Hobbs is in demand for advice about ethical argument among doctors, scientists, industrialists and politicians (David Willetts, minister for universities and science, is a fan, but she is discreet about which other politicians have sought her counsel). Among other interesting recent opportunities is a trip to Colorado, where she will be lecturing students and staff at the training centre for the American Air Force on the ethics of war and on concepts of heroism. Whoever said that a career in philosophy meant being trapped in a darkened room with men who are thousands of years old?

Angie Hobbs says she “didn’t particularly plan to be an academic”. After grammar school in Surrey, the girl from what she calls “a free-thinking household” studied Classics at Cambridge. “I always felt comfortable with ideas and discussion,” she says. While an undergraduate she was fired up by the teaching of Prof MM McCabe.

“Like so many people I was inspired by one particular teacher. I do think that it’s important that women have at least one really feisty female teacher. She was fun, she had a family, and she was a leader in her field. However I did rebel against a PhD for a while and taught English in Italy for a while. I call it my ‘year of living dangerously’. I was then contacted by Prof McCabe, who told me that another eminent academic, who had previously said he was not taking on any more doctoral students, had told her he would be willing to supervise me. I was pleased and flattered and came back to do it.”

But why should philosophy matter to the rest of us? Prof Hobbs jumps at the opportunity to explain.

“First of all, it deals with interesting, brilliant (and sometimes mad) ideas, and we need to keep them in currency. For example Plato’s ideas around money, which are as important and valid today as ever. Secondly, study of philosophy brings clarity of argument, whether you’re pondering the minimum wage in India or the ethics of the health service here; and thirdly, philosophy is very social: it’s best done in dialogue and gives social discipline, so it’s brilliant for kids to learn from.”

Why, as Hobbs has said in the past, is the quality of discourse in the House of Commons more at the level of a bear pit than an Ancient Greek forum?

“The intellectual grammar there is juvenile and gladiatorial and that’s a turn-off to many people. I think the public would accept and would like to see more thoughtful and philosophical debate. They (MPs) seem to feel the need to dumb down the debate, but I think they need to know it’s okay to have a more intelligent argument. And the more the general public understands philosophical ideas such as the ethics of fairness then more people might demand that politicians talk more intelligently about such ideas. The House of Lords is better, but we should all let our MPs know that we expect them to make their case more thoughtfully than they do.”

Angie Hobbs on ethics and money

“The first thing to do when considering the role of money in our life is to work out how much we need to pay the basic bills. The second is to work out how much we want. (In a number of philosophical systems such as that of Epicurus, the goal is to match our wants to our basic needs.) But these two tasks are complicated by the fact that in our culture money is not just a means of purchasing goods and services but also possesses considerable symbolic value. So a key question is: when I buy something, what is it that I ultimately want to obtain?

“For example, I may want to buy a bicycle because I want to get fitter or to reduce my carbon footprint (or both). I may want to invest in gold because I think it will provide me with financial security, or because the investment will make me feel that I am successful (or both). I may want to buy a sports car because I would love the physical sensation of driving it or because I want others to admire or envy me, or because I think it will make me seem more attractive (or all of the above!).

“The next question, therefore, is : how important are these ultimate aims to me? Then, if they really are important, is money the only or the best means of achieving them? If I really still feel that a) my ultimate aim is important and that b) spending money on this particular product is the only or best means of obtaining it, then I finally need to ask myself whether, even so, buying the product or service would in fact satisfy my need or want. Is this particular need insatiable or satiable?...”