In Plato’s Dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates is discussing a speech by the rhetorician Lysias with Lysias’s self-confessed fanboy Phaedrus. They meet each other by chance while out walking beyond the city wall, and there Phaedrus reprises Lysias’s speech about love and seduction, using a transcript of the speech. Socrates, who as far as we know, never wrote his ideas down, argues that spoken philosophy is superior to written philosophy. Written philosophy, he believes, should be treated as a kind of reminder of what a thinker believed – something useful in forgetful old age. Spoken philosophy, in contrast, is agile and alive and can be adapted to the needs of the listener.
When you try to learn more from a piece of writing, Socrates goes on, it’s much the same as with a painting: your desire to understand is met with precisely the same words each time you go back to it. Writing, he says, trundles around the world, repeating the same message over and over. It doesn’t know who to speak to and has no idea about when it would be better to be silent. When people treat writing badly, by misinterpreting or distorting it, then it needs its father (the philosopher-writer) to come to its defence.
There’s some irony here, of course, in that this whole dialogue is a written one, and yet it seems to achieve what Socrates says cannot be done in writing. One reading of this is that Plato, its author, is here demonstrating with some subtlety that there are ways of getting around Socrates’ concern that the written word is no good for encouraging understanding and thought. Perhaps Socrates was too ready to say that a text always replies in the same way when interrogated – more plausibly, some of its meanings change over time, and it gives different responses to readers in different epochs.
Socrates’ main concerns were that writing was one-way communication, and that it didn’t adapt to its readership. It turns out, though, that these aspects were contingent features of writing in Socrates’ day, but that writing in our day need not be either asynchronous or one-way. We can interact across the world with one another in real time and in writing using texts, or other forms of chat, with portable technology that most of us carry in our pockets. Written communication can be adapted to the recipient.
A few days ago, I had a spontaneous and lively conversation in real time about dangerous sports and the limits of individual freedom. My interlocutor was on a train two hundred miles away, and we communicated via Twitter DMs. We could as easily have communicated asynchronously using email or other written media. These sorts of medium-paced critical written conversations are at the heart of many philosophers’ creative processes. The philosopher Derek Parfit, for instance, was famous for seeking out engagement with his ideas online, in constant personal dialogue with a substantial network of trusted colleagues about ideas he had presented in different drafts for what came to be the book On What Matters. That sort of exchange of ideas was commonplace using letters in the past, but the process was a good deal slower and more laborious.
We also live in an age when the voice in philosophy is regaining its power precisely because of new equipment which allows us to speak with one another at a distance
…listen to others speaking with one another, see one another as we converse, and even combine the written and spoken word as we interact. For Socrates the way to learn philosophy was through dialectic (spoken philosophical conversation), and that remains the best way to become an independent thinker. Face-to-face conversations, seminars, and tutorials are still the core of most university teaching, together with reading and writing in essay form, but podcasting and Zoom conversations are enriching and changing how we communicate and understand one another. Not everyone ends up with a Socrates as their teacher, of course. But recorded conversations with the best thinkers of our day can go a long way. We can at least sit in on a class or conversation at a distance and hear how a brilliant thinker thinks.
Unlike Socrates, I don’t want to disparage philosophical writing. The long history of philosophy is constructed from the written traces that philosophers have left us. There are a few notable exceptions, such as the brilliant frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan that pictures his ideas, but they are rare. It is through the process of writing that thinkers get their ideas clear (if they do). Most of us don’t have an introspective monologue that we then dictate to the page or screen, but rather discover what we think as we write and rewrite, perhaps involving trusted readers in the editing process, perhaps stimulated by conversations with fellow philosophers while getting our ideas into focus. And as readers we still read, re-read, mull over and react to other philosophers’ writing. Books and essays are catalysts for original thought because they allow us to have a kind of imagined conversation with others, honing our own ideas in the process. René Descartes put this well:
Reading good books is like engaging in conversation with the most cultivated minds of past centuries who had composed them, or rather, taking part in a well-conducted dialogue in which such minds reveal to us only the best of their thoughts. (Discourse on Method)
I want to celebrate and draw attention to some of the ways in which the voice is coming back into philosophy. Digital technology and the Internet have not only made it easy to connect with one another wherever we are in real time, but also to share audio and video recordings. The pandemic accelerated these changes as most professional philosophers learnt how to teach at a distance, swiftly converting home offices into sophisticated recording and broadcasting studios which allowed them to hold tutorials, lecture classes, and seminars, and attend and contribute to virtual conferences. Importantly too, much of this has been recorded and made available beyond the academy, so that, as I’ve argued elsewhere, this is now a golden age for autodidacts in philosophy because of the quality and quantity of recordings and online courses freely available to anyone with an internet connection and a desire to learn.
Podcasting only took off in 2004, but since then many thousands of new recordings of interviews with philosophers have been released, and most of these are available free online. One imaginative lecturer, Rani Lill Anjum, teaches an introductory course in philosophy which uses podcast episodes in place of a reading list. David Edmonds and I started the series Philosophy Bites in 2007 and have released over three hundred short episodes. Since then, many more interview-based series have been launched, including A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, and Hifi Philosophy.
As an interviewer I have been struck by how much more is conveyed in the tone of voice, or by a pause or a hesitation than in the written word. Some interviewees resort to pre-rehearsed chunks of speech, but usually they don’t, and I believe it is possible to hear them thinking just as it is possible to hear when someone is smiling when they speak. As listeners we make very subtle judgments all the time and we can readily detect sincerity, energy, boredom and many other qualities in the voice that are disguised by the written word. This produces a very different quality of interaction from a speech given from a scrip
As listeners we make very subtle judgments all the time and we can readily detect sincerity, energy, boredom and many other qualities in the voice that are disguised by the written word.
This produces a very different quality of interaction from a speech given from a script.
These thinkers show the sort of flexibility that Socrates praised in the spoken word, responding to me as someone who is to some extent playing Everyman, asking questions people listening might want to ask. Our interviewees explain their ideas clearly and well. But I believe the popularity of the series (Philosophy Bites has had over 46 million unique episode downloads to date) is in part due to the human qualities that the voice conveys. With the best interviewees, their passion for ideas becomes contagious. Many listeners use headphones, and this makes the voice particularly intimate. Although the listeners aren’t active participants in these conversations, to them it can feel as if they are present. They are silent participants in a sense.
Of course, podcasters didn’t invent the interview. Radio was the trailblazer. In the UK, the BBC had a long tradition of including philosophers on discussion panels, and allowing them to deliver talks to the public. Many recordings have been lost, but some of these are being rediscovered and released online. Bertrand Russell’s 1948 Reith lectures, originally broadcast on BBC radio, for example, are now available to download, liberated from the vault by digital technology.
Digital technology has also unlocked and made available a substantial amount of audio from the past that was decaying on old tape reels in archives or private collections. As a teenager, I watched some of Bryan Magee’s interviews with philosophers on television. I absorbed these in less-than-ideal conditions with my father often arguing back at the (unresponsive) television set, making it impossible to hear what was being said. Nevertheless, these programmes piqued my interest in philosophy. They were not easily repeatable as most of us didn’t have access to video recorders. If you missed them when they were broadcast, they were gone. Now I can retrieve them very easily on YouTube and watch and rewatch them as many times as I like. They don’t achieve Socrates’ ideal of synchronous interactivity, and some sound a little rehearsed, but they are records of other people’s synchronous interactivity and valuable because they record not just what people believed but to some extent how they thought and what kind of a person they were.
I studied philosophy at university without ever hearing the voice of Bertrand Russell or of Simone de Beauvoir. Hearing them speak relatively recently has changed how I think about them. Russell’s clipped accent in a 1952 interview, his considered way of speaking, and his genial manner are part of who he was as a philosopher. The fact that he often seemed to smile when he spoke is important too, and when I now read his popular essays, I can hear that voice in the written word. Simone de Beauvoir’s clear intelligent manner of speaking, her moral seriousness, and the way she refused to be led where she didn’t want to go by the interviewer in a recently re-released 40-minute conversation recorded in 1959 for Canadian television has given me a new sense of who she was, and when I now read her words I have a stronger sense of the thinker behind them and her passion for what she believed in.
Jean-Paul Sartre once made an interesting point about how different it is to look at a photograph of someone you know from looking at a photograph of a stranger.
When you see a photograph of a friend you perceive your friend in the picture, your thoughts are taken beyond the picture. I think something similar happens when you read words written by someone you know or whom you have a sense of from recordings, and particularly from hearing their voice. If I’m right, listening to the voices of philosophers won’t just achieve some of the things that Socrates hoped for from philosophy, but should also make us more sensitive to the human context of a thinkers’ ideas, more aware of their style. Through listening to philosophers’ voices we gain a better sense of who is communicating with us about some of the most important questions we can ask.
Nigel Warburton is a writer, philosopher and podcaster. He is interviewer for the popular Philosophy Bites podcast. His books include A Little History of Philosophy, The Art Question and Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction.