Peter Fosl and Julian Baggini make complex and abstract philosophical work accessible to the uninitiated with their outstanding books The Philosopher’s Toolkit and The Ethics Toolkit. In this interview, Peter Fosl talks about what philosophy did for him, and why he is motivated to share what he calls one of “the extremely good things” he has discovered in life.
The Philosopher’s Eye: Why did you decide to write The Philosopher’s Toolkit and The Ethics Toolkit?
Peter Fosl: I wrote them for two reasons, really. First, I took up work on the toolkits to advance my project of bringing philosophy to as many people as possible. The second reason I became involved with the Toolkit projects was Julian Baggini. I had come to know Julian and his work through writing for The Philosophers’ Magazine (which he co-founded and edits). Julian has proven himself stunningly effective at bringing philosophy to a wide audience and doing so in a way that doesn’t dumb the material down. I’d learned a great deal from him on that score, and the prospect of working with Julian on a long-term basis was simply irresistible.
PE: What’s the central concern of the book, and why is it important?
PF: Philosophy is, let’s face it, complex and abstract stuff. It includes some of the most subtle and daunting texts ever produced. But philosophy also offers, I’m convinced, some of the most important accomplishments of the human mind. I wanted to help people gain access to those accomplishments and to acquire the means of engaging in philosophical thought themselves. Philosophy, you see, isn’t simply a body of doctrines, theories and beliefs; philosophy also comprises a set of what Julian and I call ‘tools’, ways of thinking that philosophers have worked out over the course of centuries with which gaining some facility can be extremely rewarding. I sat down and thought to myself, “Right, what is it that my students really need to know to engage philosophy properly? What has been crucial for me in my own thinking to understand? What have I found as a teacher over the last 15 (now nearly 20–gasp!) years that I think absolutely necessary to convey? Finally, I thought, how can it all be conveyed in a manner that’s both accessible and interesting, without being too pedantic and recondite?” The toolkits were the result.
PE: And what is it that draws you to this topic?
PF: Well, I suppose I’d come to see as a teacher at a liberal arts college working with undergraduates who’ve had little exposure to philosophy both how terribly difficult and how terribly important it is to bring philosophy to non-professionals. Personally, discovering philosophy was revolutionary for me. When I began reading philosophy I felt as though a whole new world– the universe at large –had opened up to me. It was a giddy and wonderful thing–and in retrospect, a good thing. As it is for many of us, I suppose, I want to share the extremely good things I’ve discovered in life, and philosophy has without question been a principal among them. I have also come to think that American society in particular, more than that of the UK, needs more philosophy. For a variety of reasons, far fewer Americans spend time reading and thinking about philosophy. Answering that need motivates me as well.
PE: What sort of reaction do you hope it will get?
PF: Well, I hope that the toolkits help turn a lot of people onto philosophy and that they help those already interested in philosophy pursue it in deeper and more sophisticated ways. The Philosopher’s Toolkit is in seven languages now, including English, and it pleases me a great deal to think that people are finding the book helpful and attractive in their philosophical thinking.
PE: What sort of audience did you have in mind when you wrote it?
PF: That’s something really important about the toolkits. Although Julian and I have been pleased that the books have been adopted for university classes, our target audience is actually much broader. We hope the toolkits prove accessible to any generally literate reader. You know, the toolkit idea was turned down by publishers at first. It seemed, I think, and perhaps rightly so, an odd bird. Not really a dictionary, not an encyclopaedia, not exactly a normal kind of text book. But somehow it’s found a niche and sold well. I think people like the way the book gets straight to the heart of things, the substance of the topic, but does so without stodgy academic prose.
PE: Is there another book you wish you could claim credit for?
PF: You mean something other than an historical masterpiece like Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, Plato’s Republic, or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov? Well, it would take a long time to explain, but among recent books I wish I could have written is Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of Walden or Disowning Knowledge. They are gorgeous and rich texts. As far as fiction goes, I have remained in absolute awe of Coetzee’s, In the Heart of the Country. I read it in one sitting, unable to pause even to sleep and finishing in the wee hours of the morning. When I finished the book I was spent and shaken.
PE: What’s your current project? What’s next?
PF: I’ve got two projects in the works now. I’m working on another toolkit–this one The Critical Thinking Toolkit with Robert Arp for Wiley-Blackwell. I’d like to see the toolkit format, as it were, extended into more particular branches of philosophy and reflective thinking generally, and I’m pursuing that. But I’m also working on a more standard scholarly volume aimed principally at professionals. It’s concerned with Hume’s scepticism. I’m trying in an historical and critical way to characterise Hume’s thought in light of the traditions of Academic and Pyrrhonian scepticism, traditions to which Hume himself appeals. More philosophically, I’m trying to work out a coherent and interesting way of rendering naturalism consistent with scepticism. You might say I’m trying to develop a sceptical naturalism using Humean insights.
PE: I understand there’s something unusual about they way you’ve worked with with Julian on the toolkits. How is that?
PF: Yes, well, as odd as it might seem, Julian and I wrote the first toolkit via e-mail before ever having actually met one another face-to-face. My work with the magazine and our correspondence was entirely through the Internet. Julian then lived in London. I lived at that time first in Virginia and then in Kentucky. The way e-mail and the Internet has opened doors for me and made it possible to collaborate with Julian and with others around the world was utterly unanticipated and, frankly, astonishing. It continues to astonish me. David Cooper and I, too, completed our work on our Philosophy: The Classic Readings that way.