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In Our Time: Philosophy

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

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Epicureanism

Angie Hobbs, David Sedley and James Warren join Melvyn Bragg to discuss Epicureanism, the system of philosophy based on the teachings of Epicurus and founded in Athens in the fourth century BC. Epicurus outlined a comprehensive philosophical system based on the idea that everything in the Universe is constructed from two phenomena: atoms and void. At the centre of his philosophy is the idea that the goal of human life is pleasure, by which he meant not luxury but the avoidance of pain. His followers were suspicious of marriage and politics but placed great emphasis on friendship. Epicureanism became influential in the Roman world, particularly through Lucretius's great poem De Rerum Natura, which was rediscovered and widely admired in the Renaissance.With:Angie HobbsProfessor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of SheffieldDavid SedleyLaurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the University of CambridgeJames WarrenReader in Ancient Philosophy at the University of CambridgeProducer: Thomas Morris.

42mins

7 Feb 2013

Rank #1

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Wittgenstein

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life, work and legacy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. There is little doubt that he was a towering figure of the twentieth century; on his return to Cambridge in 1929 Maynard Keynes wrote, “Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5:15 train”.Wittgenstein is credited with being the greatest philosopher of the modern age, a thinker who left not one but two philosophies for his descendents to argue over: The early Wittgenstein said, “the limits of my mind mean the limits of my world”; the later Wittgenstein replied, “If God looked into our minds he would not have been able to see there whom we were speaking of”. Language was at the heart of both. Wittgenstein stated that his purpose was to finally free humanity from the pointless and neurotic philosophical questing that plagues us all. As he put it, “To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle”.How did he think language could solve all the problems of philosophy? How have his ideas influenced contemporary culture? And could his thought ever achieve the release for us that he hoped it would?With Ray Monk, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton and author of Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius; Barry Smith, Lecturer in Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London; Marie McGinn, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of York.

42mins

4 Dec 2003

Rank #2

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Marx

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Karl Marx. "Workers of the World Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains", "Religion is the opium of the people", and "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs". That should be enough for most of you to work out whom Radio 4 listeners have voted as their favourite philosopher: the winner of the In Our Time Greatest Philosopher Vote, chosen from 20 philosophers nominated by listeners and carried through on an electoral tidal wave of 28% of our 'first-past-the-post' vote is the communist theoretician, Karl Marx.So, when you strip away the Marxist-Leninism, the Soviet era and later Marxist theory, who was Karl Marx? Where does he stand in the history of philosophy? He wrote in his Theses on Feuerbach, "Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point, however, is to change it" - which begs the question, is he really a philosopher at all?With Anthony Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London; Francis Wheen, journalist and author of a biography of Karl Marx; Gareth Stedman Jones, Professor of Political Science at Cambridge University.

42mins

14 Jul 2005

Rank #3

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Democracy

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the origins of democracy. In the Gettysburg Address Abraham Lincoln called it “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”, but the word democracy appears nowhere in the American Constitution; the French Revolution was fought for Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité and the most that Churchill claimed for it was that it was “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The Athenian city state famously practised participatory democracy, but neither Plato nor Socrates approved, the Romans turned their back on the idea of ‘mob rule’ and it is not until the nineteenth century that it becomes even moderately respectable to call oneself a democrat.So how did democracy rise to become the most cherished form of government in the world? In this programme we hope to trace the history of an idea across the cultures and centuries of Europe and the Middle East. And at a time when ideals of democracy are being thrown into stark relief by world events, we hope to gain a greater understanding of where democratic ideals have come from.With Melissa Lane, University Lecturer in the History of Political Thought; David Wootton, Professor of Intellectual History at Queen Mary College, London; Tim Winter, Assistant Muslim Chaplain at Cambridge University where he is Lecturer in Islamic Studies.

28mins

18 Oct 2001

Rank #4

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Consciousness

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the problems of consciousness, one of the greatest mysteries facing science and philosophy today. The frustrations, the stubborn facts and the curiosities of today’s thinkers, philosophers, physicists and psychologists, demonstrate the elusiveness, and the utter impenetrability of consciousness. Can we explain our perception of colour, smell or what it is like to be in love in purely physical terms? Can memory, conviction and reason be explained primarily in terms of neural firing sequences in the brain? Three centuries ago Descartes famously believed that the problem was best solved by being ignored. Was he right? Could it be that the human mind is just not built to understand its own basis?With Ted Honderich, philosopher and former Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic, University College, London; Sir Roger Penrose eminent physicist, mathematician and author of The Large, The Small, and the Human Mind.

27mins

25 Nov 1999

Rank #5

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Utopia

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the concept of Utopia. Both the idea of, and the longing for a perfect society have been in our imagination for centuries, even millennia. Utopian dreams have driven fantasy, Fascism and fine feeling.Utopias, by definition, do not exist. The literal meaning of the Greek is “nowhere”. And yet, we are still enthralled by its allure. Why do some of us still believe in it - after the devastation wreaked this century by the utopian ideals that gave rise to Fascism and Communism? And what do utopias in fiction tell about the present - and even future?With Dr Anthony Grayling, human rights campaigner, lecturer in philosophy at Birkbeck College, London and Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford; John Carey, distinguished critic, journalist, broadcaster, Merton Professor of English, Oxford University and editor of, The Faber Book of Utopias.

28mins

7 Oct 1999

Rank #6

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Originality

Melvyn Bragg and guests explore the creative force of originality. How far is it to do with origins, how far with the combination of the discoveries of others, which were themselves based on the thoughts of others, into an ever-receding and replicating past? Is invention original? Is original important? Is tradition more interesting and the reworking of what is traditional of greater value than the search for idiosyncrasy? And did our notion of the original genius come as much out of a commercial imperative for individual copyright in the eighteenth century, as a romantic view of human nature which came in, perhaps not co-incidentally, at the same time? In 1800, in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth wrote "Every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished". But did the notion of originality begin with the Romantics in the 18th century, or has society always valued originality? Should we consider Shakespeare an innovator or a plagiarist?To what extent is originality about perception rather than conception and is originality a concept without meaning today?With John Deathridge, King Edward Professor of Music at King’s College London; Jonathan Rée, philosopher and author of Philosophical Tales; Professor Catherine Belsey, Chair of the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at Cardiff University

41mins

20 Mar 2003

Rank #7

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Bertrand Russell

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the influential British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Born in 1872 into an aristocratic family, Russell is widely regarded as one of the founders of Analytic philosophy, which is today the dominant philosophical tradition in the English-speaking world. In his important book The Principles of Mathematics, he sought to reduce mathematics to logic. Its revolutionary ideas include Russell's Paradox, a problem which inspired Ludwig Wittgenstein to pursue philosophy. Russell's most significant and famous idea, the theory of descriptions, had profound consequences for the discipline.In addition to his academic work, Russell played an active role in many social and political campaigns. He supported women's suffrage, was imprisoned for his pacifism during World War I and was a founder of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He wrote a number of books aimed at the general public, including The History of Western Philosophy which became enormously popular, and in 1950 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Russell's many appearances on the BBC also helped to promote the public understanding of ideas.With: AC GraylingMaster of the New College of the Humanities and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne's College, OxfordMike Beaney Professor of Philosophy at the University of York Hilary GreavesLecturer in Philosophy and Fellow of Somerville College, Oxford Producer: Victoria Brignell.

42mins

6 Dec 2012

Rank #8

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The Individual

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of the concept of the individual. The Renaissance gave birth to the concept of the individual. Shakespeare defined this individual in language which accepted the primacy of the male gender: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a God!” According to Michel Foucault, French philosopher, polar opposite of Shakespeare and backed as he thought by Marx and Freud, our century killed the individual off. But has it? Was the individual born a mere six hundred years ago and has the century tolled its bell? And what is the individual?With Richard Wollheim, Professor of Philosophy, University of California in Berkeley; Jonathan Dollimore, Professor of English, York University.

28mins

21 Oct 1999

Rank #9

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The Ontological Argument

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Ontological Argument. In the eleventh century St Anselm of Canterbury proposed that it was possible to prove the existence of God using reason alone. His argument was ridiculed by some of his contemporaries, but was analysed and improved by later thinkers including Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. Other philosophers have been less kind, with the Enlightenment thinker David Hume offering one possible refutation. But the debate continued, fuelled by interventions from such heavyweights as Immanuel Kant and Kurt Gödel; and it remains one of the most discussed problems in philosophy.With:John HaldaneProfessor of Philosophy at the University of St AndrewsPeter MillicanProfessor of Philosophy at the University of OxfordClare CarlisleLecturer in Philosophy of Religion at King's College LondonProducer: Thomas Morris.

42mins

27 Sep 2012

Rank #10

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Pascal

Melvyn Bragg and his guests begin a new series of the programme with a discussion of the French polymath Blaise Pascal. Born in 1623, Pascal was a brilliant mathematician and scientist, inventing one of the first mechanical calculators and making important discoveries about fluids and vacuums while still a young man. In his thirties he experienced a religious conversion, after which he devoted most of his attention to philosophy and theology. Although he died in his late thirties, Pascal left a formidable legacy as a scientist and pioneer of probability theory, and as one of seventeenth century Europe's greatest writers. With:David WoottonAnniversary Professor of History at the University of YorkMichael MoriartyDrapers Professor of French at the University of CambridgeMichela MassimiSenior Lecturer in the Philosophy of Science at the University of Edinburgh.Producer: Thomas Morris.

41mins

19 Sep 2013

Rank #11

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Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morality

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Nietzsche's On The Genealogy of Morality - A Polemic, which he published in 1887 towards the end of his working life and in which he considered the price humans have paid, and were still paying, to become civilised. In three essays, he argued that having a guilty conscience was the price of living in society with other humans. He suggested that Christian morality, with its consideration for others, grew as an act of revenge by the weak against their masters, 'the blond beasts of prey', as he calls them, and the price for that slaves' revolt was endless self-loathing. These and other ideas were picked up by later thinkers, perhaps most significantly by Sigmund Freud who further explored the tensions between civilisation and the individual.WithStephen MulhallProfessor of Philosophy and a Fellow and Tutor at New College, University of OxfordFiona HughesSenior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of EssexAndKeith Ansell-PearsonProfessor of Philosophy at the University of WarwickProducer: Simon Tillotson.

48mins

12 Jan 2017

Rank #12

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Beauty

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss beauty and its qualities."Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."That was John Keats' emphatic finale to his Ode on a Grecian Urn. It seems to express Plato's theory of aesthetics, his idea that an apprehension of beauty is an apprehension of perfection and that all things in our shadowy realm are botched representations of perfect 'forms' that exist elsewhere. Beauty is goodness and, for Plato, the ultimate of all the forms is 'The Good'.But does beauty really have a moral quality? And is it inherent in things, or in the mind of the observer? How much influence have Plato's ideas had on the history of aesthetics and what has been said to counter or develop them?With Angie Hobbs, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Warwick; Susan James, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London; Julian Baggini, Editor of The Philosophers' Magazine.

28mins

19 May 2005

Rank #13

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Mill

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the great nineteenth century political philosopher John Stuart Mill. He believed that, 'The true philosophy is the marriage of poetry and logic'. He was one of the first thinkers to argue that a social theory must engage with ideas of culture and the internal life. He used Wordsworth to inform his social theory, he was a proto feminist and his treatise On Liberty is one of the sacred texts of liberalism. J S Mill believed that action was the natural articulation of thought. He battled throughout his life for social reform and individual freedom and was hugely influential in the extension of the vote. Few modern discussions on race, birth control, the state and human rights have not been influenced by Mill's theories. How did Mill's utilitarian background shape his political ideas? Why did he think Romantic literature was significant to the rational structure of society? On what grounds did he argue for women's equality? And how did his notions of the individual become central to modern social theory? With A C Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London; Janet Radcliffe Richards, Reader in Bioethics at University College London; Alan Ryan, Professor of Politics at Oxford University.

42mins

18 May 2006

Rank #14

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Kant's Categorical Imperative

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how, in the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) sought to define the difference between right and wrong by applying reason, looking at the intention behind actions rather than at consequences. He was inspired to find moral laws by natural philosophers such as Newton and Leibniz, who had used reason rather than emotion to analyse the world around them and had identified laws of nature. Kant argued that when someone was doing the right thing, that person was doing what was the universal law for everyone, a formulation that has been influential on moral philosophy ever since and is known as the Categorical Imperative. Arguably even more influential was one of his reformulations, echoed in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which he asserted that humanity has a value of an entirely different kind from that placed on commodities. Kant argued that simply existing as a human being was valuable in itself, so that every human owed moral responsibilities to other humans and was owed responsibilities in turn.With Alison HillsProfessor of Philosophy at St John's College, OxfordDavid OderbergProfessor of Philosophy at the University of ReadingandJohn CallananSenior Lecturer in Philosophy at King's College, LondonProducer: Simon Tillotson.

49mins

21 Sep 2017

Rank #15

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Good and Evil

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss whether religion can still be seen as a way of interpreting and judging good and evil in modern western civilisation and examines what the discoveries of Darwin and our knowledge of the true physiological nature and history of man has done for us in terms understanding our concepts of good and evil. As we entered the 20th century Nietzsche announced that God is dead. Was his hatred of Christianity a natural consequence of his belief in the unlimited possibility of mankind’s self creation? If we have enough basic self confidence in our own selves, do we need God?Leszek Kolakowski and Galen Strawson map the current terrain of morality as perceived through philosophy, politics and Darwin and Christ.With Leszek Kolakowski, author and Professor of Philosophy, Oxford University; Galen Strawson, author and Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy, Jesus College, Oxford.

28mins

1 Apr 1999

Rank #16

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Just War

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the idea of a just war. There were theories about a justified or noble war before the birth of Christ, but it was his reported teachings and a powerful influence, particularly on the Emperor Constantine, which set the standard which had to be kept or bluntly modified. “I say unto you, love your own image,” Matthew writes, “bless them that curse you, be good to them that hate you and persecute you”. In the fifth century, the mighty St Augustus prised the Christian church away from Christ’s reported teachings and the idea of a Just War took root to be formalised and given power by St Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, and by other Christian commentators even up to this day. But after a century, our century, of almost unimaginably violent conflict, does the term a Just War have any meaning at all? The historian AJP Taylor wrote that "the medieval pursuit of the just war is a pursuit as elusive as the Holy Grail. For it is almost universally true that in war each side thinks itself in the right, and there is no arbiter except victory to decide between them". So is the Christian idea of the Just War simply a way of justifying aggression or is it a moral position to take?With Professor John Keane, Professor of Politics, University of Westminster and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy; Dr Niall Ferguson, Fellow and Tutor in Modern History, Jesus College, Oxford and author of The Pity of War.

28mins

3 Jun 1999

Rank #17

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Anarchism

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Anarchism and why its political ideas became synonymous with chaos and disorder. Pierre Joseph Proudhon famously declared “property is theft”. And perhaps more surprisingly that “Anarchy is order”. Speaking in 1840, he was the first self-proclaimed anarchist. Anarchy comes from the Greek word “anarchos”, meaning “without rulers”, and the movement draws on the ideas of philosophers like William Godwin and John Locke. It is also prominent in Taoism, Buddhism and other religions. In Christianity, for example, St Paul said there is no authority except God. The anarchist rejection of a ruling class inspired communist thinkers too. Peter Kropotkin, a Russian prince and leading anarcho-communist, led this rousing cry in 1897: “Either the State for ever, crushing individual and local life... Or the destruction of States and new life starting again.. on the principles of the lively initiative of the individual and groups and that of free agreement. The choice lies with you!” In the Spanish Civil War, anarchists embarked on the largest experiment to date in organising society along anarchist principles. Although it ultimately failed, it was not without successes along the way.So why has anarchism become synonymous with chaos and disorder? What factors came together to make the 19th century and early 20th century the high point for its ideas? How has its philosophy influenced other movements from The Diggers and Ranters to communism, feminism and eco-warriors?With John Keane, Professor of Politics at Westminster University; Ruth Kinna, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Loughborough University; Peter Marshall, philosopher and historian.

42mins

7 Dec 2006

Rank #18

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Jung

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the extraordinary mind of the psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. In 1907 Sigmund Freud met a young man and fell into a conversation that is reputed to have lasted for 13 hours. That man was the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. Freud is celebrated as the great pioneer of the 20th century mind, but the idea that personality types can be 'introverted' or 'extroverted', that certain archetypal images and stories repeat themselves constantly across the collective history of mankind, and that personal individuation is the goal of life, all belong to Jung: "Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart... Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens", he declared. And he also said "Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you".Who was Jung? What is the essence and influence of his thought? And how did he become such a controversial and, for many, such a beguiling figure?With Brett Kahr, Senior Clinical Research Fellow in Psychotherapy and Mental Health at the Centre for Child Mental Health in London and a practising Freudian; Ronald Hayman, writer and biographer of Jung; Andrew Samuels, Professor of Analytical Psychology at the University of Essex and a Jungian analyst in clinical practice.

28mins

2 Dec 2004

Rank #19

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Hobbes

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the great 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes who argued: "During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man". For Hobbes, the difference between order and disorder was stark. In the state of nature, ungoverned man lived life in "continual fear, and danger of violent death". The only way out of this "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" existence, he said, was to relinquish all your freedom and submit yourself to one all powerful absolute sovereign. Hobbes' proposal, contained in his controversial and now classic text, Leviathan, was written just as England was readjusting to life after the Civil War and the rule of Oliver Cromwell. In fact, in his long life Hobbes’ allegiance switched from Charles I to Cromwell and back to Charles II. But how did the son of a poor clergyman end up as the most radical thinker of his day? Why did so many of Hobbes' ideas run counter to the prevailing fondness for constitutionalism with a limited monarchy? And why is he regarded by so many political philosophers as an important theorist when so few find his ideas convincing? With Quentin Skinner, Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge; David Wootton, Professor of History at the University of York; Annabel Brett, Senior Lecturer in Political Thought and Intellectual History at Cambridge University.

28mins

1 Dec 2005

Rank #20