Stephen Boulter is a Senior Lecturer and Field Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Oxford Brookes University. Having completed his PhD at the University of Glasgow, he is now both a published author (see Metaphysics from a Biological Point of View and The Rediscovery of Common Sense Philosophy) and a respected member of Oxford’s philosophical milieu. Boulter has also been contracted to the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum (SCCC) as a Development Officer and National Trainer of Scotland’s philosophy A-level. His research interests include the philosophy of language, the philosophy of evolutionary biology, perception, metaphysics, virtue ethics, Aristotle, and medieval philosophy. We at The Oxford Philosopher interrupted these interests for a moment to ask Boulter a few questions about his own experience of philosophy as an academic discipline.
What was the first piece of philosophical literature you read from beginning to end, and have you revisited it since?
My first piece of philosophical literature read from beginning to end was Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. It was part of a course that included Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley and Hume. I’ve reread the work many times since. Part of my current research focuses on the continuities between scholasticism and early modern philosophy – the theme of the so-called ‘long middle ages’ – so there is a sense in which I’ve never stopped reading it.
Is there a single philosophical figure who most encouraged you to pursue philosophy professionally?
My PhD supervisors at the University of Glasgow – Jim Edwards, Chris Martin and Alexander Broadie – were particularly encouraging. My PhD thesis on the realist dispute in the philosophy of science was an attempt to show the continuing relevance of scholastic thought to contemporary debates. Such a project was not particularly commonplace at the time, and without the encouragement of my supervisory team I might have decided it was too quixotic to pursue.
Had this encouragement not been present, what would you have studied in philosophy’s place?
Had I not studied philosophy I would most likely have gone into one of the areas I find myself increasingly drawn to now. I can easily imagine myself having studied biology, economics, or international relations. Much of my childhood was divided between years spent in Canada, Scotland and what was then Zaire (now The Democratic Republic of Congo). I got a good sense of the disparities in living standards between the developed and developing parts of the world, and the different political and social climates of North America, Europe and Africa. A desire to understand the causes of poverty and wealth, war and peace, and their relations to wider systems of belief has been a constant for me. Had I not gone into philosophy I would most likely have pursued a career as a diplomat or development economist.
As a teacher of philosophy, do you believe the discipline can be classified in the way of other subjects? Is it a science, an art, or should it be counted among the humanities?
This is a difficult question. Philosophy is not a science, if we take the special sciences to be the empirical investigation of some aspect of the natural or social order. Nor is philosophy an art, the arts not being truth-directed in way I take philosophy to be. I routinely ask first year students to consider the role of philosophy within the general intellectual economy. And I usually offer the suggestion that it falls to philosophy as a discipline to consider the tensions and contradictions which arise between the first-order disciplines. It is because the various sciences do not sing from the same hymn sheet that there is a call for the second-order reflection on the basic concepts and the implicit metaphysical assumptions that are taken for granted by the other disciplines. This second-order activity, undertaken with a view to coordinating the disparate reports from the special sciences into a coherent understanding of the natural and social orders, is distinctly philosophical.
Have you succeeded in applying philosophy to everyday life?
If by ‘everyday life’ we mean activities like taking part in political discussions, thinking about social, political and economic policies, raising your children, giving practical advice on moral dilemmas, making sense of things in such a way as to allow one to get on with life in a reasonably orderly fashion, then yes. In fact, I might go so far as to say that my own everyday life would be unrecognisable if my philosophical background were somehow surgically removed. Of course, none of this would easily register on any current models of ‘impact.’
In what respect do you believe philosophy to be most valuable?
Philosophy is a key ingredient of a eudaimon life because it is a deeply satisfying activity. An hour of concentrated philosophical reflection is always an hour well spent.
Less obvious is the value of philosophy to society at large. If an army marches on its stomach, a society marches on its (implicit) philosophy. Every society has at least three basic elements or estates: the political, the economic, and the cognitive/legitimative. Every society must ensure that these elements are individually viable and collectively compatible. Inevitably the viability and compatibility of the three estates is always less than ideal. Improving upon and coordinating these disparate estates into a coherent whole is part of the philosophical enterprise (to continue a point hinted at in 4 above). Since we all rely on the continued functioning of the social order, we all rely on a philosophical framework to some extent, whether we know it or not. We’d best make it a good one.