UNC philosopher seeks to make profound thoughts understandable

November 30, 1999

CHAPEL HILL -- Little irritates philosopher Simon Blackburn more than people who think that a profound idea must be, by necessity, unintelligible. That's why the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor and author has written the first simple-language introduction to philosophy since Bertrand Russell's "The Problems of Philosophy" in 1912.

"One of the main misconceptions is that philosophy is incredibly difficult and elusive," Blackburn said. "Philosophy is actually about making things clear, not obscure. That's important because when people admire obscurity, all kinds of things can go wrong. There can be a willingness to let double talk just go by - it becomes normal, as in politics, and that can be dangerous."

Blackburn, Edna J. Koury distinguished professor in UNC-CH's philosophy department, which the Philosophical Gourmet Report recently ranked in the nation's top 10, is a man with a mission when it comes to popular understanding of the basic function of his subject.

"Philosophy arises when people start to reflect on concepts that they normally just use without much thought," he said. "Philosophy starts when we begin to reflect on how we came by those concepts, what they mean and how we can defend them. It's important because if people can't control those concepts, they can't argue sensibly about them or use them and then things go badly wrong. Ideologies with poor connections to reality begin popping up. I believe this is a main cause of human conflict."

In his new book, "Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy" (1999, Oxford University Press), Blackburn attempts to fill a void in literature on the subject.

"Probably the last book that tried to do what I did is a vanity to mention, because it's Bertrand Russell's 'Problems of Philosophy.' He's a magnificent stylist, and I wouldn't be in his league. But since that was 1912, I thought there was room for an update with a more modern approach to some problems."

The book grew out of Blackburn's teaching experiences.

"Every other year or so, I give a large introductory class," he said. "I thought hard about what I wanted to teach and what I expected of the students. Oxford University Press saw more in my ideas than just class preparation. They thought a lot of people might be interested in a book on the subject."

In the small, hardcover book, Blackburn examines several big life issues and includes chapters on God and free will.

He describes the chapter on God as a "skeptical approach to religious themes." He presents the classical arguments for the existence and role of God and discusses how philosophers have found them lacking.

"I talk about how we should react to stories of miracles and prophecies, borrowing from 18th century philosopher David Hume, who asks why people believe things that are obviously impossible," he said. "Then I raise doubts about the role of faith not guided by reason."

In a "slightly more constructive" chapter, he deals with issues of free will. "This chapter looks at how we think of ourselves as responsible and free agents when we're just rather large mammals in a fairly deterministic world. I defend a kind of compatibility between freedom and the scientific image of man. This is an area that bothers people so I thought a little guidance might be valuable."

Blackburn, a British scholar who wrote the "Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy" (1994, Oxford University Press), taught at Oxford for 20 years before joining the "brain drain" and came to UNC-CH in 1990. His decision to pursue a career in philosophy, which turned out to be absolutely his calling, came about accidentally when he took the advice of a Trinity College, Cambridge, admissions counselor as he fretted over his major.

At UNC-CH, where philosophy is a popular subject with both undergraduates and graduate students, Blackburn teaches courses in modern philosophy, the philosophical mind, philosophical language and more recently, value theory or the theory of ethics. He smiles when asked -- no doubt for the umpteenth time -- about career opportunities for philosophers.

"Students in graduate school generally intend to become academics," he said. "Undergraduates who major in philosophy go on to do the whole spectrum of things in modern society - from law to accounting. The skills we help with are particularly relevant to law since we study law, responsibility, the nature of the Constitution. The cast of mind of analytical philosophers meeting and thinking about ambiguities are also needed in a good lawyer."
-end-
Note: Blackburn can be reached at 919-962-3315. Contact: David Williamson, 919-962-8596.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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