In Our Time: Philosophy

BBC Radio 4

From Altruism to Wittgenstein, philosophers, theories and key themes.

  • 58 minutes 12 seconds
    Philippa Foot

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the most significant philosophers of the twentieth century, Philippa Foot (1920 - 2010). Her central question was, “Why be moral?” Drawing on Aristotle and Aquinas, Foot spent her life working through her instinct that there was something lacking in the prevailing philosophy of the 1950s and 1960s which held that values could only be subjective. Could there really be no objective response to the horrors of the concentration camps that she had seen on newsreels, no way of saying that such acts were morally wrong? Foot developed an ethics based on virtues, in which humans needed virtues to flourish as surely as plants needed light and water. While working through her ideas she explored applied ethics and the difference between doing something and letting it happen, an idea she illustrated with what became The Trolley Problem.


    Anil Gomes Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Trinity College, University of Oxford

    Sophie Grace Chappell Professor of Philosophy at the Open University


    Rachael Wiseman Reader in Philosophy at the University of Liverpool

    Producer: Simon Tillotson In Our Time is a BBC Studios Audio Production

    Reading list:

    Philippa Foot, Virtues and Vices (Oxford University Press, 1978)

    Philippa Foot, Moral Dilemmas (Oxford University Press, 2002)

    Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford University Press, 2001)

    John Hacker-Wright, Philippa Foot's Moral Thought (Bloomsbury, 2013)

    Benjamin Lipscomb, The Women Are Up To Something (Oxford University Press, 2021)

    Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman, Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life (Chatto, 2022)

    Dan Russell (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics (Cambridge University Press), especially ‘Virtue Ethics in the Twentieth Century’ by Timothy (now Sophie Grace) Chappell

    13 June 2024, 9:15 am
  • 53 minutes 59 seconds

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the idea that some kind of consciousness is present not just in our human brains but throughout the universe, right down to cells or even electrons. This is panpsychism and its proponents argue it offers a compelling alternative to those who say we are nothing but matter, like machines, and to those who say we are both matter and something else we might call soul. It is a third way. Critics argue panpsychism is implausible, an example of how not to approach this problem, yet interest has been growing widely in recent decades partly for the idea itself and partly in the broader context of understanding how consciousness arises.


    Tim Crane Professor of Philosophy and Pro-Rector at the Central European University Director of Research, FWF Cluster of Excellence, Knowledge in Crisis

    Joanna Leidenhag, Associate Professor in Theology and Philosophy at the University of Leeds


    Philip Goff Professor of Philosophy at Durham University

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

    Reading list:

    Anthony Freeman (ed.), Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism? (Imprint Academic, 2006), especially 'Realistic Monism' by Galen Strawson

    Philip Goff, Galileo's Error: Foundations for A New Science of Consciousness (Pantheon, 2019)

    Philip Goff, Why? The Purpose of the Universe (Oxford University Press, 2023)

    David Ray Griffin, Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom and the Mind-Body Problem (Wipf & Stock, 2008)

    Joanna Leidenhag, Minding Creation: Theological Panpsychism and the Doctrine of Creation (Bloomsbury, 2021)

    Joanna Leidenhag, ‘Panpsychism and God’ (Philosophy Compass Vol 17, Is 12, e12889)

    Hedda Hassel Mørch, Non-physicalist Theories of Consciousness (Cambridge University Press, 2024)

    Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge University Press, 2012), especially the chapter 'Panpsychism'

    David Skrbina, Panpsychism in the West (MIT Press, 2007) James van Cleve, 'Mind-Dust or Magic? Panpsychism versus Emergence' (Philosophical Perspectives Vol. 4, Action Theory and Philosophy of Mind, Ridgeview Publishing Company, 1990)

    22 February 2024, 10:15 am
  • 50 minutes 31 seconds

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-94), known as the Last of the Philosophes, the intellectuals in the French Enlightenment who sought to apply their learning to solving the problems of their world. He became a passionate believer in the progress of society, an advocate for equal rights for women and the abolition of the slave trade and for representative government. The French Revolution gave him a chance to advance those ideas and, while the Terror brought his life to an end, his wife Sophie de Grouchy 91764-1822) ensured his influence into the next century and beyond.


    Rachel Hammersley Professor of Intellectual History at Newcastle University

    Richard Whatmore Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Co-Director of the St Andrews Institute of Intellectual History


    Tom Hopkins Senior Teaching Associate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Selwyn College

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

    Reading list:

    Keith Michael Baker, Condorcet: From Natural Philosophy to Social Mathematics (University of Chicago Press, 1974)

    Keith Michael Baker, ‘On Condorcet’s Sketch’ (Daedalus, summer 2004)

    Lorraine Daston, ‘Condorcet and the Meaning of Enlightenment’ (Proceedings of the British Academy, 2009)

    Dan Edelstein, The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (Chicago University Press, 2010)

    Mark Goldie and Robert Wokler (eds), The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2006), especially ‘Ideology and the Origins of Social Science’ by Robert Wokler

    Gary Kates, The Cercle Social, the Girondins, and the French Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1985)

    Steven Lukes and Nadia Urbinati (eds.), Condorcet: Political Writings (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

    Kathleen McCrudden Illert, A Republic of Sympathy: Sophie de Grouchy's Politics and Philosophy, 1785-1815 (Cambridge University Press, 2024)

    Iain McLean and Fiona Hewitt (eds.), Condorcet: Foundations of Social Choice and Political Theory (Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd, 1994)

    Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet and the Enlightenment, (Harvard University Press, 2001)

    Richard Whatmore, The End of Enlightenment (Allen Lane, 2023)

    David Williams, Condorcet and Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

    8 February 2024, 10:15 am
  • 55 minutes 32 seconds
    The Theory of the Leisure Class

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the most influential work of Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929). In 1899, during America’s Gilded Age, Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class as a reminder that all that glisters is not gold. He picked on traits of the waning landed class of Americans and showed how the new moneyed class was adopting these in ways that led to greater waste throughout society. He called these conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption and he developed a critique of a system that favoured profits for owners without regard to social good. The Theory of the Leisure Class was a best seller and funded Veblen for the rest of his life, and his ideas influenced the New Deal of the 1930s. Since then, an item that becomes more desirable as it becomes more expensive is known as a Veblen good.


    Matthew Watson Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick

    Bill Waller Professor of Economics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York


    Mary Wrenn Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of the West of England

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

    Reading list:

    Charles Camic, Veblen: The Making of an Economist who Unmade Economics (Harvard University Press, 2021)

    John P. Diggins, Thorstein Veblen: Theorist of the Leisure Class (Princeton University Press, 1999)

    John P. Diggins, The Bard of Savagery: Thorstein Veblen and Modern Social Theory (Seabury Press, 1978)

    John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (Penguin, 1999) Robert Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (Penguin, 2000), particularly the chapter ‘The Savage Society of Thorstein Veblen’

    Ken McCormick, Veblen in Plain English: A Complete Introduction to Thorstein Veblen’s Economics (Cambria Press, 2006)

    Sidney Plotkin and Rick Tilman, The Political Ideas of Thorstein Veblen (Yale University Press, 2012)

    Juliet B. Schor, The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need (William Morrow & Company, 1999)

    Juliet B. Schor, Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (Simon & Schuster Ltd, 2005)

    Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (first published 1899; Oxford University Press, 2009)

    Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of Business Enterprise (first published 1904; Legare Street Press, 2022)

    Thorstein Veblen, The Higher Learning in America (first published 2018; Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015)

    Thorstein Veblen, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times: The Case of America (first published 1923; Routledge, 2017)

    Thorstein Veblen, Conspicuous Consumption (Penguin, 2005)

    Thorstein Veblen, The Complete Works (Musaicum Books, 2017)

    Charles J. Whalen (ed.), Institutional Economics: Perspective and Methods in Pursuit of a Better World (Routledge, 2021)

    14 December 2023, 10:15 am
  • 52 minutes 1 second
    Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Aristotle's ideas on what happiness means and how to live a good life. Aristotle (384-322BC) explored these almost two and a half thousand years ago in what became known as his Nicomachean Ethics. His audience then were the elite in Athens as, he argued, if they knew how to live their lives well then they could better rule the lives of others. While circumstances and values have changed across the centuries, Aristotle's approach to answering those questions has fascinated philosophers ever since and continues to do so.


    Angie Hobbs Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield

    Roger Crisp Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Professor of Moral Philosophy and Tutor in Philosophy at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford


    Sophia Connell Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

    Reading list:

    J.L. Ackrill, Aristotle the Philosopher (Oxford University Press, 1981)

    Aristotle (ed. and trans. Roger Crisp), Nicomachean Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2000)

    Aristotle (trans. Terence Irwin), Nicomachean Ethics (Hackett Publishing Co., 2019) Aristotle (trans. H. Rackham), Nicomachean Ethics: Loeb Classical Library (William Heinemann Ltd, 1962)

    Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle: Past Masters series (Oxford University Press, 1982)

    Gerard J. Hughes, Routledge Guidebook to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Routledge, 2013)

    Richard Kraut (ed.), The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005)

    Michael Pakaluk, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

    A. Rorty (ed.), Essays on Aristotle's Ethics (University of California Press, 1981)

    Nancy Sherman, The Fabric of Character: Aristotle's Theory of Virtue (Clarendon Press, 1989)

    J.O. Urmson, Aristotle’s Ethics (John Wiley & Sons, 1988)

    30 November 2023, 10:15 am
  • 54 minutes 45 seconds
    Elizabeth Anscombe

    In 1956 Oxford University awarded an honorary degree to the former US president Harry S. Truman for his role in ending the Second World War. One philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe (1919 – 2001), objected strongly.

    She argued that although dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have ended the fighting, it amounted to the murder of tens of thousands of innocent civilians. It was therefore an irredeemably immoral act. And there was something fundamentally wrong with a moral philosophy that didn’t see that.

    This was the starting point for a body of work that changed the terms in which philosophers discussed moral and ethical questions in the second half of the twentieth century.

    A leading student of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Anscombe combined his insights with rejuvenated interpretations of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas that made these ancient figures speak to modern issues and concerns. Anscombe was also instrumental in making action, and the question of what it means to intend to do something, a leading area of philosophical work.


    Rachael Wiseman, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Liverpool

    Constantine Sandis, Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire, and Director of Lex Academic

    Roger Teichmann, Lecturer in Philosophy at St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford

    Producer: Luke Mulhall

    20 July 2023, 9:15 am
  • 51 minutes 20 seconds
    Solon the Lawgiver

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Solon, who was elected archon or chief magistrate of Athens in 594 BC: some see him as the father of Athenian democracy.

    In the first years of the 6th century BC, the city state of Athens was in crisis. The lower orders of society were ravaged by debt, to the point where some were being forced into slavery. An oppressive law code mandated the death penalty for everything from murder to petty theft. There was a real danger that the city could fall into either tyranny or civil war.

    Solon instituted a programme of reforms that transformed Athens’ political and legal systems, its society and economy, so that later generations referred to him as Solon the Lawgiver.


    Melissa Lane Class of 1943 Professor of Politics at Princeton University

    Hans van Wees Grote Professor of Ancient History at University College London

    and William Allan Professor of Greek and McConnell Laing Tutorial Fellow in Greek and Latin Languages and Literature at University College, University of Oxford

    Producer Luke Mulhall

    20 April 2023, 9:15 am
  • 57 minutes 33 seconds

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how, between the 16th and 18th centuries, Europe was dominated by an economic way of thinking called mercantilism. The key idea was that exports should be as high as possible and imports minimised.

    For more than 300 years, almost every ruler and political thinker was a mercantilist. Eventually, economists including Adam Smith, in his ground-breaking work of 1776 The Wealth of Nations, declared that mercantilism was a flawed concept and it became discredited. However, a mercantilist economic approach can still be found in modern times and today’s politicians sometimes still use rhetoric related to mercantilism.


    D’Maris Coffman Professor in Economics and Finance of the Built Environment at University College London Craig Muldrew Professor of Social and Economic History at the University of Cambridge and a Member of Queens’ College


    Helen Paul, Lecturer in Economics and Economic History at the University of Southampton.

    Producer Luke Mulhall

    13 April 2023, 9:15 am
  • 53 minutes 35 seconds
    Tycho Brahe

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the pioneering Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601) whose charts offered an unprecedented level of accuracy.

    In 1572 Brahe's observations of a new star challenged the idea, inherited from Aristotle, that the heavens were unchanging. He went on to create his own observatory complex on the Danish island of Hven, and there, working before the invention of the telescope, he developed innovative instruments and gathered a team of assistants, taking a highly systematic approach to observation. A second, smaller source of renown was his metal prosthetic nose, which he needed after a serious injury sustained in a duel.

    The image above shows Brahe aged 40, from the Atlas Major by Johann Blaeu.


    Ole Grell Emeritus Professor in Early Modern History at the Open University

    Adam Mosley Associate Professor of History at Swansea University


    Emma Perkins Affiliate Scholar in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.

    2 March 2023, 10:15 am
  • 1 hour 39 seconds
    Rawls' Theory of Justice

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss A Theory of Justice by John Rawls (1921 - 2002) which has been called the most influential book in twentieth century political philosophy. It was first published in 1971. Rawls (pictured above) drew on his own experience in WW2 and saw the chance in its aftermath to build a new society, one founded on personal liberty and fair equality of opportunity. While in that just society there could be inequalities, Rawls’ radical idea was that those inequalities must be to the greatest advantage not to the richest but to the worst off.


    Fabienne Peter Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick

    Martin O’Neill Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of York


    Jonathan Wolff The Alfred Landecker Professor of Values and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford and Fellow of Wolfson College

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

    16 February 2023, 10:15 am
  • 54 minutes 15 seconds
    Plato's Atlantis

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Plato's account of the once great island of Atlantis out to the west, beyond the world known to his fellow Athenians, and why it disappeared many thousands of years before his time. There are no sources for this story other than Plato, and he tells it across two of his works, the Timaeus and the Critias, tantalizing his readers with evidence that it is true and clues that it is a fantasy. Atlantis, for Plato, is a way to explore what an ideal republic really is, and whether Athens could be (or ever was) one; to European travellers in the Renaissance, though, his story reflected their own encounters with distant lands, previously unknown to them, spurring generations of explorers to scour the oceans and in the hope of finding a lost world.

    The image above is from an engraving of the legendary island of Atlantis after a description by Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680).


    Edith Hall Professor of Classics at Durham University

    Christopher Gill Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter


    Angie Hobbs Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

    20 October 2022, 9:15 am
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