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The Editor’s Bit

by Rick Lewis

Issue 1 of Philosophy Now aroused a great deal of interest. Although it was on sale in only a few shops, many of those sold out rapidly. A favourable review appeared in the Times and I was interviewed on Radio 2. Hundreds of people wrote in to purchase copies of the magazine. The initial evidence suggests that people liked Issue 1, and that there is considerable goodwill towards the whole idea of a popular philosophy magazine.

Once or twice I came across a curious reaction to Philosophy Now, which stuck in my mind for the simple reason that I didn’t quite understand it. Perhaps I can give you an example. One day about a month ago, I was preparing to leave Philosophy Now’s elegant offices in the suburbs of Ipswich when the doorbell sounded. Two Jehovah’s Witnesses were outside, offering to talk to me about God, and to sell me one of their publications. Until a couple of years ago, a different pair of Witnesses had appeared here almost every month, and I had had some interesting discussions with them. It therefore seemed a bit uncharitable to tell these new arrivals to clear off because I was going out. I apologised for having to leave and in a vague gesture of conciliation, I thrust a copy of Philosophy Now towards one of them. “No charge”, I murmured – it was almost the only occasion on which I have uttered those words. I was quite surprised when she shrank away from the magazine, unwilling to take it. Her companion warned me rather sternly that as the world’s problems had been created by Man, they could only be put right by God.

The only explanation I can think of for this rather disconcerting response is that they assumed that the magazine was the vehicle for the views of some sect – perhaps an atheistic one. After all, most magazines concerned with ideas have some sort of editorial slant, even if it is a fairly mild and tolerant slant. Philosophy Now should have no such bias, and shouldn’t favour any particular school of philosophy over the rest – it should be a Speakers’ Corner of ideas, open to all comers.

Yet perhaps the magazine does have some editorial values, after all, for its stated aim is to make philosophy accessible to a wider public than before. In common with most of the contributors, I believe that it would be a ‘good thing’ if this came about, and the way I edit the magazine is influenced by that belief. John Mann attacks this bias in an article in this issue. He claims that the reflective and the unreflective people in society are like two tribes, each with different set of values. He says that the articles in Issue 1 attempt to promote the tribal values of the reflective people, but that there is no good reason for preferring these values to those of the unreflective.

I suspect that his article will stir up a considerable response, but intend to take advantage of editorial privilege to answer him first.

Firstly, I deny that there is any such creature as the completely unreflective person. There are no unreflective people today because those who might have existed in the past shortsightedly wandered off cliffs or were trodden on by woolly mammoths, and hence left no descendants. The ability and desire to reflect on our surroundings and ourselves, and to make theories and hence predictions with at least some basic level of competence is such a fundamental necessity for survival that it is hard to imagine that anyone today is wholly devoid of it. My contention is that philosophy and our forms of logic in general have grown out of our evolutionary need to understand the world around us.

This evolutionary pressure to be reflective continues today. Certainly, people are reflective to differing degrees and have different attitudes towards intellectual activity, but everyone is forced to confront difficult decisions at some stage in their lives – questions such as “what career should I follow?”, “should I sleep with my girlfriend?”, or “who shall I vote for?”. It is possible to blunder through these periods of life in a completely unreflective fashion. To do so can even have ‘street cred’ in some quarters, and is intellectually restful. However, unless the agent is very lucky, it generally results in his or her making poorer decisions than would otherwise be the case, and being less happy in the long run.

John Mann considers and demolishes various possible reasons for preferring the more reflective approach to life. I would argue that he has ignored the most obvious and forceful reason of the lot – that being reflective helps us to make better decisions on a personal and public level. Applied philosophy is useful because it helps us in this. The more abstract forms of philosophy are necessary because they make the applied forms possible. And all of the forms of philosophy can be very enjoyable. What more justification could be wanted?

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