What does a philosopher do?

Question: When did philosophy spark your interest?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: Before I was a month or two old, my father had announced to the world that I would either be a doctor and go to Cambridge, or a philosopher and go to Harvard. So apparently my father knew something that I didn’t.

I only discovered this later on looking through press cuttings. I don’t remember this from my childhood.

And as it happens, I did study medicine at Cambridge, and I did teach philosophy at Harvard, so it’s sort of interesting.

I don’t remember the first time I realized that I was really interested in philosophy. I think two things happened. One is I happened to go to a school where there were other people of my age – 15, 16, 17 – who got interested in it. And they were interesting and smart people, and I hung out with them and we read philosophy together, partly influenced by a couple of teachers – one a chaplain and the other an atheist.

It’s hard to believe this, especially if you’ve read “Language Truth and Logic”; but I found a book called “Language Truth and Logic” in the bookroom at our school, the place where you can buy books. And I found it extremely exciting. This was sort of a positivist manifesto. I’m not any kind of positivist really, but the idea that you could think rigorously about these important questions, and that you could break through the sort of encrusted assumptions of your society or of societies in general, and see through to a clearer vision of what the world was really like, and what was important. And so that struck me, I think, as very exciting.

I was going through a religious crisis at the time. I was evangelical 15, 16 year-old, and I suppose I was in the process of losing my faith. I wouldn’t have known that at the time.

But I was very interested in theological questions, and again the kind of rigor with which philosophical argument could address these questions which were addressed, I thought, quite less interestingly perhaps by in the sort of Sunday school or religious setting. I think that was part of what excited me.

I have to say that while that’s what sort of brought me to the subject, I don’t find myself terribly interested now in those questions. In the United States where the vast majority of people claim some sort of religious belief haven’t thought much about what that means. They haven’t thought about what it means not it in terms of what they should do, but in terms of how they should think.

And in particular people are very vague, I think, about what they mean when they say they think there is a god. And one of the things I found helpful in philosophy as a 16, 17 year old was attempts by philosophers; most of them were quite devout and religious, but they were nevertheless people who wanted to be more rigorous about what that meant than most people. I’m using this word “rigor”; Aristotle said you should adopt the level of the precision that’s appropriate to the subject; and he was right.

Recorded on: July 31 2007 


Philosophers ask the big questions.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Douglas Rushkoff – It’s not the technology’s fault

It's up to us humans to re-humanize our world. An economy that prioritizes growth and profits over humanity has led to digital platforms that "strip the topsoil" of human behavior, whole industries, and the planet, giving less and less back. And only we can save us.

Think Again Podcasts
  • It's an all-hands-on-deck moment in the arc of civilization.
  • Everyone has a choice: Do you want to try to earn enough money to insulate yourself from the world you're creating— or do you want to make the world a place you don't have to insulate yourself from?
Keep reading Show less

Physicists puzzled by strange numbers that could explain reality

Eight-dimensional octonions may hold the clues to solve fundamental mysteries.

Surprising Science
  • Physicists discover complex numbers called octonions that work in 8 dimensions.
  • The numbers have been found linked to fundamental forces of reality.
  • Understanding octonions can lead to a new model of physics.
Keep reading Show less

Why 'upgrading' humanity is a transhumanist myth

Upload your mind? Here's a reality check on the Singularity.

  • Though computer engineers claim to know what human consciousness is, many neuroscientists say that we're nowhere close to understanding what it is, or its source.
  • Scientists are currently trying to upload human minds to silicon chips, or re-create consciousness with algorithms, but this may be hubristic because we still know so little about what it means to be human.
  • Is transhumanism a journey forward or an escape from reality?
Keep reading Show less