Thought For The Day

In this post, BL reflects on Nigel Warburton‘s thoughts on Thought for the Day.  JL’s comments helped improve this post, though he is not responsible for it. 


The philosopher Nigel Warburton has suggested that the Thought For The Day (TFTD) slot on the BBC Radio4 Today programme should be converted into a philosophy slot. He has made a career of presenting philosophy to audiences who don’t have to pass exams in it, so I take his judgment on this seriously. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s a good option for philosophy, for three reasons: the format, the frame and the established conventions. For similar reasons, I wonder whether it is good for religion too—but that is a question for others.

I want to pursue this because it is an opportunity to explore the conditions for successful philosophical practice. If the Today Programme is a bad place to do philosophy, are our classrooms, philosophy societies, cafés philosophiques, podcasts, blogs, etc. good in the corresponding dimensions?

The format

TFTD is a monologue of two minutes and forty-five seconds. One reason for wondering whether it’s possible to do any philosophy in this format is that philosophy is dialogical (philosophy isn’t alone in this). Philosophy usually starts with some sort of tension, contradiction or disagreement, and while it might in principle be possible to carry out the whole business inside one person’s consciousness, really there needs to be the possibility of back-and-forth between several voices. All philosophers are in dialogue with others (or the books of others), even those like Hume and Wittgenstein who rarely referred to their sources. Even Boethius in his prison cell was thinking in terms drawn from books he had read. A brief moment of philosophical talk is rarely worth much unless one has a) access to some of the history of the discussion of which it is part and b) some opportunity to interrogate it. TFTD certainly fails on b), as there is no opportunity for listeners to engage critically with the contents of TFTD, either on air or online. This then is point one: TFTD is a monologue; philosophy is a dialogue.

Point one needs some elaboration, however, because even dialogue-writing Plato seems to have progressively abandoned the conversational format in his later works, for good reason. While earlier works have conversation all the way through, in Timeus (a late-period work), the conversation is just a preliminary set-up to introduce a long lecture on cosmology by one expert voice. Plato had to do this, because in the conversational model, no single thought ever gets developed in any depth. In the early dialogues, someone presents a naïve thought, Socrates chews on it for a while until it loses its plausibility, and then the chat moves on. This is unsatisfactory in part because it prevents Plato from doing justice to his opponents. He can’t present them properly if his semi-fictional Socrates harries them constantly. So if monologues were good enough for the mature Plato, perhaps they are good enough for TFTD?

This brings us to the brevity of the TFTD slot. Plato abandoned the conversational format in order to give his speakers a good long go at developing their positions. It takes time to present an alternative to the common-sense of the day. On first hearing, an alternative view just sounds weird and easy to dismiss—there must be time to overcome the sense of weirdness and the initial objections. I wonder whether two minutes and forty seconds is long enough. In James Connelly’s post, we met Collingwood’s view that philosophical discussions are only worthwhile when the discussants know each other well. Part of the reason for this (though perhaps not Collingwood’s reason) is that misunderstandings are rife in philosophy. You have to talk for quite a long time before everyone in a discussion has a firm grip on its more abstract terms. It’s notable that the TFTD speakers who are most successful at overcoming the limitations of the format are the regulars with well known doctrinal positions who can use their two minutes and forty seconds to add to what they have said on previous occasions.

The frame

TFTD is broadcast at around 07:45 in the BBC’s talk-radio news and current affairs programme, on Radio 4, its ‘serious’ channel. The content of this programme is part of a connected web of current affairs that extends beyond the BBC into Parliament and beyond. It is the first element in the British national daily news cycle, and political managers try to use it to set the day’s media agenda. This makes the programme itself part of the news—its interviews and reports may have consequences. It also makes the programme rather cynical as the interviewers try to circumvent the media training and planned messaging of the interviewees. Much of it therefore consists of verbal wrestling between people who believe themselves to be quite important. On weekdays, this starts at 06:00.

Then, at 07:45, there is a quick burst of religion. As noted, this is a monologue, so it has none of the back-and-forth life of the rest of the programme, and its content lacks the credibility that comes from having survived interrogation by an interviewer. Worse, it has no consequences. The Today presenters never refer to it after they pick up the programme from the TFTD speaker. TFTD is as isolated from the great ongoing play of wealth and power that makes up most of the Today programme as the sports reports. Even if the speaker succeeds in casting a fresh light on a news story, it makes no difference to the subsequent reporting and discussion of that story.

The effective implication is that religion makes no difference to the conduct of the business and politics that fill most of the airtime. The isolated framing of TFTD tacitly presents religion as something high-minded that can be safely ignored. Philosophy should not be in a hurry to gain that title for itself.

The conventions

As noted, there is no feedback function for TFTD (except for the BBC’s general feedback channels). In an age where every opinion piece on the internet has a comment section, this lack of feedback is outdated and gives the TFTD slot a patrician air (which some of the contributors don’t deserve). This is not an accident. TFTD is the successor to a wartime innovation called ‘Lift Up Your Hearts’. It dates back to the days when national culture and broadcasting were in the hands of a tiny educated elite. As an indicator, the rate of participation in higher education in the UK in 1950 was 3.4% of the population. The remit of the BBC at that time was to make the cultural riches of that elite available to the whole country. That aim was laudable, but it depended on a culture of deference among the 96.6% of the population on the receiving end. That deference has, thankfully, gone. Consider the fate of another mid-century BBC broadcast, The Brains Trust. This was an immensely popular radio show in the 1940s, and then a television show in the 1950s. A panel of distinguished brains took questions on any subject, without prior notice, and the pleasure lay in watching them cook up and bicker about their answers. There was a brief attempt to revive it at the start of this century, but it failed, because, I think, people no longer accept that a degree from an ancient university and a plummy voice entitle a person to a hearing on any and every subject. I’m sure the speakers would reject this, but to my ear, TFTD is a survival of that earlier time. The tone and content of TFTD still depend on the notion that some people are especially qualified to offer edification to everyone else, while the social order on which this notion depended has gone. This change matters for philosophy, too. In a post on philosophical performances, we linked to a Beyond The Fringe spoof of mid-century Oxford philosophy. Part of the joke there was the spectacle of philosophy professors talking about ordinariness and ordinary language—using a version of the English language spoken by almost no-one else in the world.

Aside from the Reithian heritage, TFTD suffers from the obligation to comment on a headline or current anecdote from a religious point of view. This junction between the temporal and the eternal is often rather tenuous. A report by Ekklesia found that “for as many as a third of the scripts studied, the religious link enters like a rather forced afterthought, tagged on in order to legitimise or ‘baptise’ the opinions and comments upon which the Thought is grounded.” There is no reason to think that philosophers will do any better at finding the relevance of their tradition in the rush of current affairs. Indeed, I would expect most academic philosophers to be worse at it than religious leaders, who try to make these links all the time. It takes great skill to say, “these recent events put me in mind of the books I have been reading daily since my youth” without sounding like a stopped clock.

We have been here before. Hegel, in the preface to the Philosophy of Right, explains that philosophy is concerned with the general rational order of things, but becomes ridiculous if it meddles with what are, for philosophy, inessential details on which philosophers have no special expertise:

Plato might have omitted his recommendation to nurses to keep on the move with infants and to rock them continually in their arms. And Fichte too need not have carried… his passport regulations to such a pitch of perfection as to require suspects not merely to sign their passports but to have their likenesses painted on them.

(Tr. TM Knox p. 11)

Hegel’s conception of philosophy is not widely shared nowadays, but some version of this point holds up, I think, for most contemporary philosophical projects. Philosophers seeking to demonstrate their relevance to the world by bringing their understanding of epistemology or modal logic to bear on the day’s headlines run a severe risk of looking as silly as Fichte did when he set about designing passports.

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These, then, are the shortcomings of TFTD as a vehicle for philosophy. Perhaps I am wrong about this. After all, some of these difficulties are fixable; the format could be altered to allow the continuity and feedback of a dialogue and the de-haut-en-bas Reithian heritage might be consciously rejected. Perhaps Nigel and others will find ways to use this slot to do real philosophical work. I hope so. My concern here is to use Nigel’s proposal to think more generally about the conditions conducive to good philosophy, and not just on the radio.

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