A History of Ideas

A History of Ideas

United Kingdom

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the work of key philosophers and their theories.

Episodes

Neuropsychologist Paul Broks on Wittgenstein  

Paul Broks looks at the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the problem of "other minds". How do I know you are not a zombie who behaves like a human but actually has no consciousness? Even if you are conscious, how can I tell that what I experience as red, you do not experience as blue? I know what's going on in my own mind, but I can never have direct access to what's going on in yours. Such questions have troubled philosophers for centuries, but Wittgenstein thought that most of these tough problems were caused by nothing more than a "bewitchment by language". He didn't claim to be able to solve them; rather, he invented a method which he thought of as a kind of philosophical therapy that would cause the problems to melt away. The aim, he said, was to "show the way out of the fly bottle". In the case of the "other minds" problem, he imagined trying to invent a "private language" to describe one's own private mental states, and then showed (he thought) that such an idea was incoherent. Is the fly out of the fly bottle? Paul Broks suspects not, and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey argues that philosophy took a disastrous turn in the 20th century when it started focusing on language. Humphrey argues that the privacy of our individual minds is a stark and unpalatable fact about human existence which has driven much of our culture. Presenter: Paul Broks Producer: Jolyon Jenkins.

Philosopher Clare Carlisle on Reality and Perception  

If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? That's the kind of head-scratching question that's popularly believed to occupy the time and brains of philosophers. It relates to the ideas of immaterialism proposed by Bishop George Berkeley who asserted that the only things that exist are minds and ideas in those minds. He said that matter didn't really exist and that, in any case, it was unnecessary to complicate things with such a concept. For Berkeley, "to be perceived is to be". But what happens to "things" when they are not being perceived? Did Bishop Berkeley really believe that his bed disappeared when he gets up in the morning and left the room? The answer is no, because there is the over-arching mind of God and God is always perceiving all things even when we are not. When Berkeley leaves the room God is still perceiving the bed so it doesn't pop out of existence. To try and get to grips with this Clare Carlisle talks to Dr John Callanan, a lecturer in philosophy from Kings College London and hears a neat limerick on the subject by Robert Knox. She also talks to the filmmaker Carol Morley whose documentary, Dreams of a Life, explored the story of a 38 year old woman, Joyce Vincent, whose body was found in her flat amongst half wrapped Christmas presents, the tv switched on. She had been dead for 3 years and nobody had noticed she wasn't there. The reader is Peter Marinker. Producer: Natalie Steed.

Physicist Tara Shears on Falsification  

Science is based on fact, right? Cold, unchanging, unarguable facts. Perhaps not, says physicist Tara Shears. Tara is more inclined to follow the principles of the Anglo-Austrian philosopher, Karl Popper. He believed that human knowledge progresses through 'falsification'. A theory or idea shouldn't be described as scientific unless it could, in principle, be proven false. Raised in a Vienna in thrall to Marxism and Freudianism, Popper bristled against these 'sciences' which could adapt and survive to prevailing political and social conditions. They could not be proven false and so they were not science. The ideas of Einstein, by contrast, could be tested scientifically and might one day be proven false. An interesting principle certainly, but potentially demoralising for a scientist who could see her life's work dissolve in front of her eyes. Tara joins her colleagues at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva to ponder the implications of Popper's work. She also meets Popper's former student, John Worrall and string theoretician David Tong. This is part of a week of programmes asking how we can know anything at all.

Lawyer Harry Potter on Eyewitness Testimony  

Barrister Harry Potter asks whether we can believe the evidence of our own eyes. It's a vital question for the justice system today and Harry traces it back to the work of 18th century Philosopher David Hume. Hume, a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, wrote about miracles, arguing they were most likely the product of wishful thinking and faulty perception. His arguments are still important for barristers, judges and juries still reliant on eye witness testimony to decide guilt or innocence. To find out how our eyes deceive us, Harry meets professor Amina Menon, expert in eye witness evidence at Royal Holloway, University of London. And Harry visits professor of philosophy Peter Millican at Oxford University to ask whether Hume's methods can help us overcome our inbuilt biases. Producer: Melvin Rickarby.

How Can I Know Anything at All?  

A history of ideas. Presented by Melvyn Bragg but told in many voices. Each week Melvyn is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. This week he's asking 'How can I know anything at all?' Helping him answer it are physicist Tara Shears, lawyer Harry Potter, philosopher Clare Carlisle and neuropsychologist Paul Broks. For the rest of the week Tara, Harry, Clare and Paul will take us further into the history of this idea with programmes of their own. Between them they will examine: David Hume's debunking of miracles; Wittgenstein's attempt to prove that other people have minds; Karl Popper's idea of falsification, which underpins the scientific method; and George Berkeley's approach to a famous philosophical problem - If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Producer: Melvin Rickarby.

Writer Lisa Appignanesi on the Love of Children  

How should we love our children? Can we build on the feelings we experience when we see them for the first time, raise them by instinct and personal principles or should we consult the childcare gurus of the internet and the bookshelves? Lisa Appignanesi, the novelist, biographer and author of 'All About Love' suggests that we should turn to the first childcare expert of them all, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The father of the Romantic movement was one of the first philosophers to consider the importance of the initial bond between mother and child, strongly opposing the fashionable habit of farming newborn babies out to wet nurses. Rousseau failed to follow his own advice, abandoning his five children to the Paris orphanage, but his writing belatedly raised our children to a status worthy of philosophical debate. Lisa is joined in her ruminations by psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, Rousseau expert Christopher Brooke and her own son and grandson. This is part of a week of progammes asking, 'What is love?'.

Psychotherapist Mark Vernon on Freud  

What is love? Psychotherapist Mark Vernon looks at Freud's ideas on the Greek god Eros, which he saw as a kind of life force running through us, shaping our desires and passions Freud is often thought of as reducing everything to sex, but in his view, for humans even sex isn't even really about sex. Although he started off thinking that sex was about biological release of pressure - like a steam engine - he quickly realised, from working with patients, that it was more about fantasy and imagination. Humans want far more from sex than just reproduction or physical stimulation. Freud used the Greek god Eros as a metaphor for the unconscious forces that motivate us. He thought of Eros as a something like a force field of love, going beyond the simple one-to-one sexual attraction to a broader desire to get more out of life. Eventually he saw Eros as a desire for unification with the whole of humanity that is built into the dynamic of life itself - the yearning that wants to pass life on in children, the passion for creativity and discovery, Presenter: Mark Vernon Producer: Jolyon Jenkins.

Theologian Giles Fraser on Altruism  

Giles Fraser discusses gene theory versus altruism with playwright Tom Stoppard whose play The Hard Problem explores the extent to which our genes dictate human acts of love and kindness, and Armand Leroi, the evolutionary biologist who says we are merely programmed to carry out altruistic acts. Producer: Maggie Ayre.

Classicist Edith Hall on Aristophanes in Plato  

In 416BC the Greek playwright Aristophanes went to a drinking party. The guests included many famous Athenians, including Socrates, and all of them delivered a speech about love. Aristophanes' speech, says presenter Edith Hall, is 'quite simply the most charming account of why humans need a love partner, another half, in world literature.' In the beginning, he says, humans had two bodies - four legs, four arms. These early humans wheeled around the planet doing cartwheels and were blissfully happy. Then they offended the gods who split them in two. This explains why we are always looking for our other half. This speech appears in Plato's Symposium. Edith's programme also features matchmaker Mary Balfour who shares some of her own experience about the search for love; while Edith explains her belief that the absence of love begins with the primal separation of mother and child.

What Is Love?  

A history of ideas. Presented by Melvyn Bragg but told in many voices. Each week Melvyn is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. This week he's asking 'What is Love?'. Helping him answer it are theologian Giles Fraser, writer Lisa Appignanesi, classicist Edith Hall and psychotherapist Mark Vernon. For the rest of the week Giles, Lisa, Edith and Mark will take us further into the history of ideas about love with programmes of their own. Between them they will examine Freud's ideas on erotic love, Jesus and altruism, the first guidance on how to be a loving parent, by Rousseau and Aristophanes' speech which explains how love was born. Producer: Melvin Rickarby.

Philosopher Timothy Secret on Ancestor Worship  

If we're to live well together we must first learn to live well with the dead, says Timothy Secret. At traditional Chinese funerals money, and sometimes paper effigies of goods like washing machines and aeroplanes are burned so that the dead might be adequately equipped in the afterlife. To the Western onlooker this can feel strange but Timothy Secret believes we have something to learn. For Confucius, the Chinese teacher and thinker, respect for and obedience to your parents is one of the most important rules to follow in life and Frances Wood, an expert in Chinese history and society explains why this applies even after their death: observing proper mourning rituals and then honouring your ancestors through twice yearly grave tending. Darian Leader, a psychoanalyst, sets out how Western attitudes towards mourning and the dead have become disrupted veering between the two extremes of determined "closure" and "moving on" on the one hand and excessive obsession with the dead on the other. Producer: Natalie Steed.

Philosopher Angie Hobbs on Plato's Philosopher Kings  

Professor Angie Hobbs asks if the key to harmonious living could be found in Plato's Republic where he proposes that the ideal state be run by philosophers and not by those who seek power for their own ends. Producer: Maggie Ayre.

Economist Kate Barker on the Free Market  

Is a Free Market the vital foundation of a fair, dynamic and creative society? The father of economics, Adam Smith certainly thought so. Since the publication of 'The Wealth of Nations' in 1776 Smith's thoughts on trade and money-making have come to be seen as the theoretical foundations of a rational and rather uncaring form of pure capitalism. Economist, Dame Kate Barker is keen to put the soul back into Smith, revealing the staunch moral principles that underlined his view of a fair and just capitalist society. She wants to measure today's markets against the standards set by the sage of the Scottish Enlightenment. Would Britain's markets in groceries, homes or financial services bring a smile to Smith's stern visage? Kate is joined in her quest by Smith's latest biographer Jesse Norman, by housing market analyst Yolande Barnes and by Christine Tacon, the government's grocery market regulator. This is part of a week of programmes examining how we should live together.

Historian Justin Champion on Toleration  

Professor Justin Champion examines Locke's theory of Toleration through the inhabitants of Spitalfields past and present. He goes to Brick Lane whose famous mosque was built as a Huguenot Church and became a synagogue before becoming the centre of Bengali life in London. He meets the Bishop of London, himself of Huguenot descent and local politician Abdal Ullah to discuss religious tolerance then and now Producer: Maggie Ayre.

How Should We Live Together?  

A history of ideas. Presented by Melvyn Bragg but told in many voices. Each week Melvyn is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. This week he's asking 'How should we live together?'. Helping him answer it are economist Kate Barker, historian Justin Champion and the philosophers Timothy Secret and Angie Hobbs. For the rest of the week Kate, Justin, Timothy and Angie will take us further into the history of ideas around this question with programmes of their own. Between them they will examine: Adam Smith's idea of the free market; John Locke's prescription for cohesion in a diverse society - Toleration; ideas of ancestor worship as practiced by followers of Confucius; and Plato's idea of the Philosopher Kings - government by the wise. Producer: Melvin Rickarby.

Philosopher Barry Smith on Descartes and Consciousness  

Rene Descartes, one of the most influential philosophers ever, thought the mind was like an open book that could be read by the light of reason. So there was nothing that we could not access or examine in our own minds. In fact Descartes argued that consciousness was the mind - there was nothing beyond it. Now we see the mind as a labyrinthine cellar full of bric-a-brac and untapped rooms of which consciousness is merely one - and a small one at that. Barry Smith charts this change and explains some of the contemporary thinking about consciousness.

Philosopher Jules Evans on Jung and the Mind  

Philosopher Jules Evans explores Jung and the shadow inside all of us. With archive contributions from Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud; plus fantasy writer Juliet McKenna and Mark Vernon, author of Carl Jung: How to Believe.

Writer AL Kennedy on Sartre and the Individual  

Writer AL Kennedy on Existentialist ideas about the individual. Jean Paul Sartre argued that, for humans, 'existence preceded essence'. This means that there is no blueprint or template from which to work - humans are free to make themselves up as they go along. Being an individual comes from the way you negotiate this freedom and the choices you make in the face of it.

Paul Broks on John Locke and Personal Identity  

Neuropsychologist Paul Broks asks how we can be sure we're the same person as we were yesterday. The philosopher John Locke thought it depended on what we could remember: if we could remember something happening to us, then we were the same person as the person it happened to. But is that true? What if our memories could be downloaded and then uploaded into another body? Would that new person be the same as us? And if so, how much would we care if the body we now inhabit was destroyed? These sci-fi philosophical thought experiments can make us rethink our concept of personal identity and maybe even our attitudes towards death. In the end, is there really a self at all, or are we just a bundle of mental states and events? Presenter: Paul Broks Producer: Jolyon Jenkins.

What Does It Mean to Be Me?  

A new history of ideas presented by Melvyn Bragg but told in many voices. Each week Melvyn is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. This week he's asking 'What does it mean to be me?' Helping him answer the question are philosopher Barry Smith, neuropsychologist Paul Broks, writer A L Kennedy and philosopher Jules Evans. For the rest of the week Jules, Paul, Alison and Barry take us further into the history of ideas about the self with programmes of their own. Between them they will examine Descartes idea 'I think therefore I am', ask what role memory plays in ideas of the self, discover how stories and myths burrow into our unconscious, and ask whether there's more to existentialism than wearing black and pondering deep thoughts. Producer: Melvin Rickarby.

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