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Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is a former professor of medical law and now a popular novelist. Patricia Cleveland-Peck asks him about his interest in philosophy.

When did your interest in philosophy begin?

I began to be interested in philosophy when I was studying law as an undergraduate. I found jurisprudence – the philosophy of law – a very stimulating subject, and that was when I began to read more widely in philosophy.

Did you make a formal study of the subject, or did your interest arise in another way?

My study was formal to an extent, in that my PhD thesis was a joint criminal law/philosophy of action thesis. Thereafter my study of the subject was undertaken at my own pace, and was probably not very systematic as a result.

You were for many years Professor of Medical Law and served on bioethical bodies. Did this involve you in ethical questions?

Yes. I developed a strong interest in bioethics and I was very fortunate in being able to serve on various bodies, both national and international. This meant that I was able to involve myself in matters of applied ethics.

Do people ever seek your advice? Do you ever get caught up with the sort of problems with which Isabel deals?

In the past, when I was Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh, I found that my advice was sought on a number of issues that had some sort of ethical dimension to them. I acted as chairman of the British Medical Journal Ethics Committee, for example, and that involved giving a fair amount of advice. These days I occasionally get letters in which people discuss their problems with me. I am very careful about offering advice, though, as that brings considerable responsibility with it.

Do you have a favourite philosopher, or one who has influenced you personally?

I have been very impressed with the work of Roger Scruton, in particular with his work in the area of aesthetics and the philosophy of music. I have also very much enjoyed reading the American philosopher, John Kekes, who writes very clear works on matters of general philosophical interest.

Scotland has contributed some fine figures to the philosophical pantheon, including ‘the good David’. Do they interest you particularly?

I am interested in Hume, and I plan to look more closely at the work of Adam Smith in the not too distant future. Scottish philosophers interest me because I am interested in the Scottish influences that have had a bearing on their work.

Isabel loves W.H. Auden and often quotes him. Do you find a philosophical content in his work? Do poetry and philosophy overlap?

I think that Auden produced a great deal of work which is of philosophical interest. He was extremely interested in responsibility and choice – something in which I have a strong interest too. If you look at his poem, ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’, for example, you will see that there are some extremely interesting issues discussed there. He also makes reference to philosophical issues as asides – for example, in his poem ‘On the Circuit’, we are taken immediately into the realm of theology with the opening line, “Among Pelagian travellers… I sit.”

In Paris there are dozens of café philosophiques, in which for the price of a coffee anyone can join in a discussion. In London there are several pubs which fill the same role – and a group even goes for philosophical walks. Edinburgh used to have a Café Philo at the Institut Français some years ago but it has now closed. Do you think the people of Edinburgh would consider discussing the ‘big questions’ in public an unseemly thing to do?

It is a great pity that Café Philo at the French Institute is no longer. I don’t think that there would be any feeling in Edinburgh that it would be unseemly to discuss politics in a café. It is possible, of course, that there may be some inhibition in Edinburgh, but I think not.

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