A C Grayling: wonderful on his subject.

What is a philosopher? The Ancients used the word as a catch-all for mathematicians or scientists, but what does it mean now? Leaving aside that someone once told me that she’d like to be a philosopher so that she could spend hours in the bath, working, or the great Tom Lehrer’s observation that they go round giving helpful advice to those who are happier than they are, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition can be paraphrased as one who studies wisdom. A loose definition, to be sure.

Ay, there’s the rub! That definition’s looseness puts it perilously close to ‘Intellectual’, a class of person whose ideas can do, and have done, untold damage to societies. One reason is that too often they pay no price when events prove them wrong. Thomas Sowell published a book on the subject in which, among other things, he observed that usually these people have an exalted and deserved reputation in a particular narrow speciality; but once they step outside its confines they can neglect to apply equivalent rigour to their other opinions. This makes those opinions about as valid as those of any stranger in a pub, but held by Society to be Holy Writ, having been uttered by a known genius.

His examples include Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, G.B.Shaw, J.M.Keynes. We can easily add Richard Wagner, or more recently Paul Nurse or Brian Cox.

A.C.Grayling (philosopher) recently swam into my ken when a series of his hilariously foolish Tweets on the subject of Brexit were being gleefully retweeted, much as I imagine teachers communally giggle over their pupils’ howlers in the staff room. I was interested to know whether he followed the above pattern. What was he like on the speciality that had forged his reputation? I went and found a speech.

This is at the 2015 Festival of Dangerous Ideas, held annually at Sydney Opera House. He is speaking about Bad Education which, as epistemology is one of his specialities, is straight down the centre of his disciplinary fairway. He is introduced by Julia Baird, and begins speaking at 2:15.

He is really very good indeed. This is shot throughout from the hip. There appear to be autocue screens facing upstage from where footlights would be, but their image is stationary. His diction is lovely: crystal clear without being over-enunciated. He structures his material very well, though if I were super-picky I might suggest making chapter divisions slightly clearer. He has an excellent reservoir of ‘Nice-to-Know’ material with which he tactically leavens the flow of ‘Need-to-Know’ information that pours out of him – I’m referring to humorous anecdotes and so on. Either through research, instinct or both he pitches the talk very precisely at the level of his audience, something we can tell by how well they respond to his use of humour for instance. Most importantly this talk is wonderfully uplifting. It is a delight to have experienced.

His use of English is excellent, but when he steps outside its confines he sort-of makes Thomas Sowell’s point. In quoting just two sentences in French he commits a pronunciation schoolboy howler. Just how picky can I be!

Well I can get pickier. I’m not sure he addressed his brief. ‘Bad Education’ is on the title of that video. He spoke about what education is, what it isn’t, etymology of the word, and so on. He spoke about what he feels education is for, and spent some time on the importance of humanities. All excellent, but where and wherefore the ‘Bad Education’ in the title?

Just asking.