In Our Time Greatest Philosopher Vote

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 1 June 2005

Yesterday the Guardian published a scathing attack by John Harris on a project that some of my team are involved in - to produce a vote for the In Our Time programme to determine the 'Greatest Philosopher'.

Harris starts his article with an attack on the perceived populism of Greg Dyke. Whilst it is generally held to be true that you don't see the television programmes a Director General has influenced until a couple of years into their term of office, I'm not convinced by the Harris argument that the In Our Time vote smacks of Dyke-ism just because it is interactive.

Promoting the vote, the In Our Time site points out that:

A vote is also an opportunity to bring together resources and information on philosophy in one place. With that in mind, over the next few weeks we will be putting biographies and reading lists of the philosophers who have received the highest numbers of your nominations onto this site; there'll also be links to their major works.

and goes on to say that:

Each of the twenty philosophers with the most nominations from the first round will have a specialist advocate, an expert academic who will put the case for voting for that particular philosopher. You will be able to listen to these advocates on this site, and then vote for the philosopher who most appeals to you.

It seems to me that the actual outcome of the vote, leading to a special edition of the show profiling the winner, is almost incidental to the purpose of providing bitesize online introductions to the work of some great thinkers.

That is why I take issue with some of the points in the article. Notably, John Harris writes:

This isn't meant to sound haughty; it's just that whereas albums, war films and even novels might lend themselves to the national-poll-followed-by-pub-debate model, philosophy doesn't. If you want to reduce the history of western thought to a few names, the list should be pretty much self-evident.

Well, it might be "pretty much self-evident" to John Harris, and perhaps to the majority of the In Our Time listeners, and even to me. But I don't however believe that list is self-evident to people coming to the ideas of philosophy for the first time - it certainly wasn't to me as a started my 'A' Level module on the history of philosophical thought many moons ago.

John Harris opens his article bemoaning that:

the idea that TV or radio has not done its job until untold millions have picked up their phones or pressed their red buttons - is here to stay

For me he is missing a trick here - it isn't the vote that is key value here - but that the interactive web content will outlive the programme (even if you download the podcast of it). I think having an online resource gathering together academic argument on the significant contributions to thought of the twenty leading nominees is a useful thing for the BBC to be doing. The significance of the result of the vote will quickly fade, but the archived web pages with their expert academic introductions to these great philosophers will remain.

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