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Editor Interview: Stephen Leach

We caught up with Stephen Leach to discuss his book, Consciousness and the Great Philosophers. Read on for our exclusive interview to find out what inspired Stephen to write the book.

My first encounter with philosophy was at the age of fourteen when I watched Bryan Magee’s series ‘Men of Ideas’ on BBC 2 (January-April 1978). Fortunately nowadays such a series would not have such a sexist title; but nor would the content be so unadorned and rich in content. The series consisted of little more than Bryan Magee and a contemporary philosopher in discussion in the tv studio – just two ‘talking heads’. I found it fascinating. I should really have studied philosophy after leaving school but I didn’t. I studied history and archaeology but I left before taking a degree and then did a succession of different jobs, including a lot of work on archaeological excavations, before eventually finding my way back to academia via a degree in humanities at the Open University.

I first went to Keele University, to study for a PhD, in 2002. I specialised in R.G. Collingwood’s philosophy of history. Having had experience of the world of archaeology I thought this would help me make up my mind about what I agreed with and what I disagreed with in Collingwood’s philosophy.

It did, and I believe Collingwood would have approved. He believed that philosophers should have firsthand experience of what they philosophise about, whether it be archaeology, history or natural science. Collingwood himself had such experience, being in his time not only a professor of philosophy but also the foremost authority on Roman Britain. However, in his time mastery of several disciplines had already become rare; now it is even more unusual.

I would not myself claim to be a master of several disciplines but I am grateful that I have known the archaeological world as well as the philosophical world. In 2015 I published a book on Russian archaeological theory and its similarities and contrasts to archaeological theory in the west [A Russian Perspective on Theoretical Archaeology] and I am interested in building some sort of bridge, or mutual awareness, between archaeological theory and the philosophy of history.

Philosophy remains my first love, but I am easily distracted. Recently I have started writing articles on the history of art, in particular the eighteenth century artist Joseph Wright of Derby. But it’s not just a case of distraction, I remain convinced that it is good for a philosopher to have knowledge of other disciplines.

The ongoing work on the Great Philosophers series is a real labour of love. My essay on Collingwood in the Consciousness book was the product of (on and off) fourteen years of thought on Collingwood and the mind-body problem and it was a very interesting exercise to summarise my ideas in under 4,000 words. The entire exercise reminds me of some advice I received while studying for my MA at Sheffield. A philosopher – I don’t think I ever knew his name – advised me that if I had trouble getting my thoughts straight, I should try to summarise them in symbolic form on a post-it note. That was good advice.

Now on to the Meaning of Life!

What led you to this particular field of study?

There is widespread agreement that the mind-body problem – the mystery of consciousness – is ‘the big one’ in contemporary philosophy. James and I think that the contemporary mind-body debate is missing out on the innumerable insights to be found within philosophy’s long, diverse and rich history. 

What is the most significant idea which formed the book? Is there anything controversial about it?

It’s often said that philosophy is a never-ending conversation. The conversation continues in part because of the relationship philosophy has with its own history. There are various ways that philosophy can approach its history. We can simply trace influences – understanding how one thinker came to influence another; or we can ask what were the problems that preoccupied past thinkers (what questions were they trying to answer); or we can ask, in an imaginative exercise, what past philosophers would have had to say about present day problems. We have concentrated on the latter question, hence the book’s subtitle ‘what would they have said about our mind-body problem?’ But that is not to say that other approaches are not also interesting and useful.  

Some of our contributors seem quite confident that they know what their chosen philosopher would have said about the problem. Others have used the ideas of their philosopher simply as an inspiration and a springboard. But all the essays are to some extent imaginative exercises.

There is nothing inherently controversial about the approach of the book, but it is, we think, unique. In fact, we’re rather surprised that we seem to be the first ones to have created such a book. ‘What would they have said about our mind-body problem?’ – it’s such an obvious idea. 

Was there anything that you found surprising when researching the book? If so, what?

Some of the very biggest names in philosophy have surprisingly little known theories of consciousness. A prime example is Plato. Moreover, without much shoehorning, philosophers such as Aquinas have theories of consciousness that can be couched in terms that contemporary philosophers of mind should find very interesting. They may also find their views surprisingly difficult to knock down. 

What do you think readers will find surprising about your book? 

I think even the most erudite readers will find surprising views in this book, views which they previously knew nothing about. I’ve already mentioned the essays on Plato and Aquinas in this respect, but we’ve tried not to be exclusively orientated towards the west, so we have also included essays on Vasubhandhu, Xuanzang and Dharmakīrti. 

Readers will also be surprised at how accessible the chapters are. We asked every contributor to write no more than 4,000 words, each writing under the same heading ‘X [great philosopher] and the Problem of Consciousness’. This is of course a very restrictive word limit. But the tight word limit, in combination with every contributor doing their best to persuade us that ‘their’ great philosopher has something illuminating to say, has – we believe – resulted in a book of thirty-two very readable essays that are also of the highest philosophical standard. 


Do you have a favourite chapter of the book?

 My own of course (ha, ha). On R.G. Collingwood. An immodest answer, but also diplomatic!  

What was the most challenging part of your research?

Personally, I found the editing of the book to be rewarding and easy as compared to writing my own chapter. Writing philosophy is usually – not always – hard work.

How do you think your book influences research today in your field of study?  

An array of alternatives are presented to contemporary physicalist approaches to the problem. Whether it will actually change contemporary approaches remains to be seen, but we hope it will. I think it will play a part. The endorsement that the book received from Michael Tye, which we proudly put on the back cover, was most encouraging and suggests that the book may well have some sort of impact. 

Can you gives us a fun fact about your field of study?

I’m not sure about a fun fact but it is a curious fact that the turn to physicalism in philosophy of mind can be to some extent be traced back to the pioneering work of U.T. Place in the 1950s, and that he was inspired by religious experiences! 

What is your next project?  

We are already in the midst of our next project, The Meaning of Life and the Great Philosophers, 35 essays from leading academics about how the great philosophers of the past might inspire us to answer the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’ Again, just the same format, each essay is under 4,000 words. This will be published next year (2018). We’re hoping it becomes a standard textbook.

What would be your top tips for an aspiring academic author?  

Considering how I spent my twenties, I’m not sure that I’m the best person to answer that. I would just say: have faith in your work but not at the expense of all humility. Remember that, directly or indirectly, you can always learn from other people – worth doing, even if it doesn’t lead to another publication!  

About the book

Consciousness and the Great Philosophers

Consiousness and the Great Philosophers

Edited By Stephen Leach and James Tartagila

Consciousness and the Great Philosophers addresses the question of how the great philosophers of the past might have reacted to the contemporary problem of consciousness. Each of the thirty-two chapters within this edited collection focuses on a major philosophical figure from the history of philosophy, from Anscombe to Xuanzang, and imaginatively engages with the problem from their perspective. 

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