A prolific writer and champion of accessible philosophy, Simon Blackburn was honoured this year by the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences for his significant contributions to academia. His esteemed career has taken him full circle - from his arrival at Trinity College to study Moral Sciences as an undergraduate in 1962, to his return to the same college as Professor of Philosophy in 2001.

Part of what makes an honest philosopher as opposed to someone who’s going through the motions is preparedness to try it out and go back to the drawing board if it doesn’t work.

Professor Simon Blackburn

Simon Blackburn divides his time between teaching, writing and wrestling with problems of objectivity and truth, particularly in the theory of ethics. He is perhaps best known among his peers for his development of a ‘quasi-realistic’ method for seeking to understand the nature of ethical attitudes. Although he asserts that his contribution ‘was to make myself a nuisance to everyone’, the work provided substantial progress in the area and has influenced the way many philosophers think about the properties of ethics and moral judgements.

Throughout his career, Professor Blackburn has achieved a remarkable balance between ‘ivory-tower’ philosophy and accessible, ‘democratic’ philosophy. His delivery is understandable to an audience wider than his peer group. Tackling a variety of topics within the philosophy of morality – from ethics to truth, lust to being good – he does so with a celebrated combination of humour and first-rate academia. Lust, for instance, he describes as ‘furtive, headlong, always sizing up opportunities. It is a trail of clothing in the hallway, the trashy cousin of love.’

Among his extensive and influential contributions to teaching and research, Professor Blackburn has written the only single-authored dictionary of philosophy (The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy) – comprising some 2500 entries – and in August he published his latest book: How to Read Hume. A fitting book for him to write, given the debt he acknowledges to this 18th-century British philosopher: ‘David Hume’s philosophy has influenced my research enormously – you could say that a great deal of what I’ve done has been a rediscovery of it, an updating of it for our own time.’

Who or what inspires you?

The great philosophers George Berkeley, Ludwig Wittgenstein and of course David Hume. My wife also is a constant inspiration. It is her exacting standards of writing, borne out of a career in the publishing industry, that have encouraged me with my own efforts. As to what inspires me: poetry and art.

Have you ever had a Eureka moment?

I would say that my first Eureka moment was coming to Cambridge as an undergraduate and finding that philosophy was something I could do and be really interested in. I remember feeling as if I was walking on air for the whole of my first and second term! My second Eureka moment was when I felt I’d discovered the way through something called Goodman’s Paradox – it’s a set of propositions that seem to be true but can’t all be true all together.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Don’t complain! I remember once I was getting very hot under the collar about what I regarded as a piece of plagiarism and an older, wiser friend said ‘let it go – you’ll hurt yourself more than you’ll hurt anyone else.’ Good advice, as it turned out. In general I’d say I pretty much take life as it comes.

If you could wake up tomorrow with a new skill, what would it be?

Music – singing, playing, even just enjoying listening to it more than I do. Other people clearly get an enormous amount of pleasure out of music and I’d love to be able to share in this delight.

What motivates you to go to work each day?

A sense of duty? No not really, but it’s true that if I wasn’t coming to work every day I’d be thinking about philosophy. I need no motivation to do that – it’s just something I find myself doing. I have a very democratic view about philosophy and I think more people could enjoy it if they stopped being afraid of it, stopped worrying about coming up against dead-ends – so I take a lot of pleasure in helping people learn to do that. I think that’s why I’ve never stopped enjoying teaching in 40 years. As regards writing, it is a craft skill, so I suppose I do it for the sheer joy of it.

What is your favourite research tool?

Time and leisure! Take my current research interests – I’d like to develop a pragmatist approach to the theory of truth, about how truth and success in action relate to each other. But it’s expensive in terms of time – I need to read what others have said about pragmatism, marshal my own thoughts, present them to my peers to see if I can bear what I’m saying and then write it all down. Part of what makes an honest philosopher as opposed to someone who’s going through the motions is preparedness to try it out and go back to the drawing board if it doesn’t work. In that sense we are experimental but, unlike empirical scientists, our experimental materials are ourselves and our audience.

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