Simon Blackburn interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 21st April 2009

0:09:07 Born near Bristol in 1944; remember both sets of grandparents; mother's parents lived in the Pennines, near Barnard Castle; my grandfather had worked in the lead mines up in Weardale, but then had worked with horses as a groom; mother's mother was a school teacher and had intellectual ambitions for her daughter, her only child; there was a strong non-conformist element although my mother was not religious; on my father's side, my grandfather was the Managing Director of the Sunderland and South Shields Water Company and was a civil engineer; he was clearly very clever as shown by the prize books he won; my father also became a civil engineer and worked for the same company; my mother was ambitious but my father was not; he was a gentle man and mildly dyslexic; his spelling was absolutely appalling; it was one of the things that gave him a forgiving attitude to life and people adored him; mother saw intellectual achievement as a way of advancing socially; she was pleased to get out of the rural backwater; she met my father when he came up to work on the Burnham Dam which was built in the Pennines just north of where she lived; she was keen that her children progress becoming professional people; I had a sister and younger brother

5:19:05 Have no real memory of pre-school years except of a green car; I believe my father had such a car until about 1948-9; I can distinctly remember going to school at the age of five and being singled out for being able to spell the word 'beautiful'; by then my parents had moved back to the north-east; my father had previously worked with the West Gloucester Water Company but then got a job as distribution engineer in his father's company; the prep school was called Tunstall School, a day school, and stayed there until I went on to Clifton College; I remember one traumatic event which has blighted my life ever since, being told not to join in singing 'The Bells of Aberdovey' because I had such a terrible voice; looking back, I now think that was not the way to treat a child who needed help; it has always been a matter of regret to me that I never became very musical; also remember being utterly bored by Latin and that probably contributed to not being a very good linguist; on the science side it was all positive; we had a wonderful mathematics teacher, Mr Cheshire, the brother of Leonard; he was a commanding presence and a gifted teacher; I used to play a lot with a boy of my own age on his father's farm, but was never taught to observe the countryside around me; I was pretty hopeless at games; I did not like football but quite enjoyed cricket; when I went away to school we played rugby and I enjoyed that much more than either of them; I do enjoy listening to classical music but it has never influenced my work; I am fond of painting and get enormous pleasure from looking at it, particularly the European tradition

14:27:10 My sister is older than me and she had been sent to Clifton High School for Girls when my parents still lived in Bristol; somehow that gave them an affinity with Clifton and they put me in for a scholarship at eleven; I was lucky enough to get one; it was a very good school, it treated me well, and I enjoyed my time there; some of the teaching was excellent; they did nothing very much to rectify my linguistic incapacities but the science side was good, and I specialized in maths, physics and chemistry; there was a man called Davies who was a wonderful chemistry teacher despite the dullness of the syllabus; physics is generally very badly taught now, and I am sure it was then; the big questions were never answered satisfactorily; it contributed in me to a gradual drift away from the hard sciences into the arts; I discovered an aptitude for shooting and won competitions at Bisley; I never had the ambition to act; had a friend who had a technical gift, made radios and a tape recorder, but I realized this gift was beyond me; it was part of the uncertainty I had about the hard sciences so when I took the Cambridge entrance I was determined to leave them

20:58:02 At Clifton I did have a vaguely religious year when I first went there; I was moderately homesick and a bit unhappy to begin with so the consolations of religion have some appeal; the school had a chapel so a friend and I decided that we would get confirmed and started going to classes run by the school chaplain, Rev. Hon. Oliver Twistleton-Wickham-Fiennes, whom I didn't much like; at the first class he asked us where we had been baptised; I didn't know that I had been baptised, in fact I hadn't as my parents had no religious belief at all; my friend had been baptised in a little church in the foothills of the Himalaya where his father was a District Officer; the chaplain thought this a ridiculous answer and was angry; after this flagrant injustice we gave up the idea; didn't take long for this rather superficial interest to dissipate; by the time I was fifteen I was a committed atheist and I have not changed since; I am a rather strange atheist because I don't really believe in religious belief, and I don't really believe in religious experiences either

25:18:09 Clifton was very Cambridge-orientated, especially for scientists, so I was sent to Trinity; failed to get a scholarship but was offered a place; in the sixth form at Clifton we had a token reading hour for scientist; for one term, a very good master, Martin Scott, who later went to Winchester, took us through Moore's 'Principia Ethica' which was a book he thought we ought to know about; I rather liked it and had a sense that I might like philosophy, but when I came to the admissions interview I had intended to change to English; Dr Vivian, an historian, who conducted the interview, a fearsome character, asked why I wanted to change from natural sciences; he said I would not like English but that I should read moral sciences; I asked him what it was and he said they would send me a reading list; they did and I found it exactly the right thing for me; the questions that I never got answered such as "what is energy"? I learnt were seriously asked by philosophers, so it seemed the best bits of science without the drudgery; whether Vivian was just lucky or had got an insight, I don't know, but it was  right for me

30:28:04 At Cambridge the great influence on all of us in Trinity was Casimir Lewy; he was a Polish Jew who had left Germany just in time before the Second World War; he lost either all or nearly all of his family; he was a charismatic teacher with an enormous influence on a whole generation of philosophy students in Trinity - Ian  Hacking, Edward Craig and myself, Crispin Wright - many of us became academics; he had the great gift of knowing how to dangle standards just in front of your nose so you would go away feeling that you had done well but could do better; I have always thought that a great gift - he was not discouraging, but never left you complacent either; he got a lot of work out of us but it was a pleasure; the moral sciences faculty as it was then called - not until Bernard Williams came here that it changed to philosophy - was a little bit of a mad house; John Wisdom and Richard Braithwaite were the two Chairs, C.D. Broad was still a presence at Trinity and I got to meet him quite a lot as I was on his staircase; Wisdom was extraordinary - a little, rather wizened man, with a sepulchral voice, and a completely unconventional teaching style; looking back I think he was probably disillusioned with philosophy so he didn't have any ambition to teach a syllabus; he would come in and ask bizarre questions and there was a certain amount of theatre about it; Edward Craig swears he was in a class when Wisdom came in and slumped on the dais and groaned about it being far too difficult, then flapped his hands against his forehead and supposed he was a poacher with a silent dog whistle and asked how you would tell the difference between a malfunctioning dog whistle and a disobedient dog; at least it was a lecture that was remembered, which can't be said for many of our lectures; Richard Braithwaite was pretty eccentric; I remember one meeting with the Moral Sciences Club where his wife was sitting in the front row, Jonathan Bennett, one of the lecturers, was behind her, and the speaker was a saintly man, William Kneale from Oxford; he was talking about the logical problem of negative existentials - how can you say that something doesn't exist because the word used to refer to it has no meaning with nothing to refer to; Kneale chose as an example the non-existence of witches; every time he mentioned this, Jonathan Bennett pointed down at Mrs Braithwaite, Margaret Masterman, in front of him; another, less than dignified episode; I never had much to do with her but she lured people into some slightly dotty Christian sect that met in a caravan; Braithwaite was still pretty hale and hearty by the time I left; he retired about 1966-7 when Bernard Williams came; in 1969 I started my job in Oxford; Dorothy Emmett looked after the Braithwaites until they died; I was still here when Bernard arrived; I came up to Cambridge in 1962, graduated in 1965, I was then a research student for a couple of years and in 1967 got a fellowship at Churchill College where I stayed for a year and a half, then went to Oxford; Bernard was remarkable and a breath of fresh air to Cambridge; he was very smart; I think there was quite a deep pessimism in him and had no very exalted ambitions either for philosophy or the human race; although he was probably best known as a moral philosopher he had no illusions about what could be achieved by it; I think he thought that political philosophy was important, as was reflection; he had the most cutting tongue and would tell scurrilous stories about people that were incredibly funny; in spite of the pessimism he was also absolutely exhilarating to be with; I also think that he had a kindly streak which wasn't always apparent; after I had been in Oxford for a couple of years I was invited back to the Moral Sciences Club and gave a paper; Elizabeth Anscombe had not long been in Cambridge and she was being absolutely appalling; she arrived late with an entourage, and one of her daughters rather ostentatiously stroked her mother's hair all the time the talk was going on, and there would be little muttered whispers - an awful kind of one-upmanship; by the end I was rather despondent as I had done nothing to offend her, but Bernard immediately took me back to the Provost's lodge and opened a bottle of whiskey and spent an hour detailing Miss Anscombe's infirmities and faults, which cheered me up

44:12:24 Went to start a PhD; supervisor was mostly Casimir Lewy though I think it was rather unhealthy; he was very protective of his Trinity people and liked to keep them; it was partly because he had running feuds with his other colleagues so he didn't like the idea of any of them corrupting us; because of the topic of my thesis I saw quite a lot of Richard Braithwaite - the topic was the so-called problem of induction, the Humean question, on why we feel entitled to extrapolate uniformities of nature beyond the regions of space and time; it is a problem about the reliability of natural laws; there are various approaches to it, one of them was probabilistic, and Braithwaite was the man for probability theory; he was very helpful although it was not one of his central interests; Casimir Lewy always had useful things to say even if it was not his own topic of interest which was in logic and the philosophy of language; think it was part of the climate of the time that Cambridge was very introverted; the only one of us who broke out and went to Oxford for his PhD was Crispin Wright; I think that was the right thing to do; in America it is almost compulsory to go somewhere else to graduate school, and it is very unlikely that the institution will then give you a job when you finish your PhD; I think Cambridge is less so now; Cambridge in the 1960s was partly coasting on the reputation of Wittgenstein, Moore and Russell; with hindsight I should have been packed off to where there were serious philosophers of science - Chicago, Minnesota or Pittsburgh; I did not go to America until I had been in Oxford for some years

49:03:01 I came to Hume through working on the problem of induction as he gave the classic exposition of it; I graduated without ever having read a book which was written before the nineteenth century; logic was the be all and end all, sometimes called analytical philosophy carried forward by Russell and Moore at Cambridge; the problem of induction was a strange choice for a Cambridge PhD; when I went back and read Hume I found him a wonderful writer, partly because I have always had a sensitivity to the writing of philosophy as well as what is said; over the years I have made deeper acquaintance with Hume and have never had cause to reverse my initial admiration; Hume was looked down on in those days because he was thought to have a naive philosophy of language; he has come back in, partly because logic and philosophy of language have lost some of their prestige, partly because Hume is seen as the first great naturalist in British philosophy, resolute in seeing the human being as just another animal, and seeing the intellectual and cognitive processes as natural events following patterns and rules; that is now the dominant tone in psychology, cognitive science and physiology these days; he gives marvellous quasi-anthropological reconstructions in game theory, in things like the emergence of cooperation and convention, and seen as absolutely pioneering now; Wittgenstein never read Hume and more or less dismissed him, Elizabeth Anscombe completely dismissed him, but I think that would be impossible now; later on in my career I started working on moral philosophy although it had been an interest before I left Cambridge because I remember discussing it with Braithwaite; the nature moral philosophy has since become something I have written about extensively

54:21:11 The fact that Hume was sceptical about whether God existed chimed with me; Hume is cunning, an economical thinker who never tries to prove more than he needs; I think on the question of religion it is famous that he never described himself as an atheist and in some writings he appears to disown the term; this puzzles people because 'The Dialogues', especially concerning natural religion, which he only allowed to be published after his death, and perhaps the greatest sceptical tract in British philosophy; 'The Dialogues' has three main protagonists, Demea, representative of a mystical wing of philosophy - God that is infinite, perfect, eternal, beyond space and time, Cleanthes who wants a much more anthropomorphic concept of the deity, one who designs things and makes things happen, and has emotions, so the God of popular religion, then there is Philo who is completely sceptical about religion who is undoubtedly Hume himself; what Philo does for much of 'The Dialogues' is to set Demea and Cleanthes at each other's throat because basically you can't have both the God of the philosophers, perfect, and somebody directing the sun and blowing walls down for Joshua; at various points in 'The Dialogues' Cleanthes says to Demea that he cannot distinguish his mystical god from atheism, and Demea tells Cleanthes that he can't distinguish his anthropomorphic god from atheism either; Philo just sits back and watches them; when it comes to his own views you can see very clearly why he doesn't have to call himself an atheist; if you call yourself a theist or an atheist you think there is a question; at the end of 'The Dialogue' Philo contrives it that these two have lost the question, there is no question because they have got an 'it' about which nothing can be said; agreeing with either suggests you are collaborating with people that know they have got something that they are talking about, and Hume has destroyed that because the 'it' turns out to have no consequences, so it is left inert; that is I think where Hume stands - he does not have to express belief or disbelief without calling himself an atheist which would suggest there was a discussable question; it is an extremely clever book; professional philosophers like myself tear our hair out when we see the way these things are debated in the press - new atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens, defenders of the faith, like a bunch of theologians