Nigel Warburton, virtual philosopher

When I worked at the Open University, Nigel Warburton was one of my most inspiring colleagues. Among other things, he co-founded Philosophy Bites, an admirable site which publishes interviews with philosophers whose podcasts have been downloaded zillions of times. As such, he’s probably done more than any living philosopher to bring his subject to the wider public.

But then, a couple of years ago, he decided to give up his university job to go freelance. As someone who admires people who live by their wits (as opposed to living on an institutional salary), I’m lost in admiration. So too is The Philosophers Magazine, which carries an interview with Nigel in which he is asked why he took this leap into the unknown.

His answer is interesting:

“It’s complicated,” he says. “On the positive side, this is a wonderful time to explore new ways of communicating with a global audience free from the constraints and obligations of academic life. I’ve seen plenty of philosophy lecturers get increasingly bitter about higher education, and I don’t want to end up like them.

“Far better to have a go at following my own direction than stagnate. It might not work out, but at least I’ll be able to say I had a go. It feels exciting at the moment, and I wanted to see if it is possible to live as a writer and podcaster. I’ve always found lot of academic philosophy rather dry, but I love philosophy at its best. Through Philosophy Bites I’ve met some of the top living philosophers, and I’ve been inspired by them.

“But I feel weighed down by the short sightedness, the petty bureaucracy, and the often pointless activities that are creeping into higher education. These things eat time and, more importantly, sap energy. Meanwhile the sand sifts through the hourglass. At the Open University I’d always hoped that we’d be able to offer a named undergraduate degree in philosophy, but actually the subject has, if anything, become marginalised, with fewer courses available than when I joined nineteen years ago, and with much higher fees. This at a time when philosophy is becoming increasingly popular. There had also been suggestions that I might be able to take on an official role promoting the public understanding of philosophy, but that didn’t materialise either.

“The easy option would have been to sit it out and keep taking the salary, but I respond better to interesting challenges than pay cheques. I knew I’d made the right decision when I felt exhilarated rather than scared after handing in my notice, and already I’ve had numerous offers of paid work of one kind or another, including some interesting journalism and plenty of invitations to speak in schools. Interview me again in ten years to see if I was crazy.”

“Crazy or not”, comments the interviewer, “it’s a worrying sign for philosophy in the academy. Someone who’s very good at conveying complex philosophical ideas in plain English– a good teacher, in other words – has come to the conclusion that a university is not the best place for him to be”.

Yep. It is worrying.