Simon Glendinning is Professor of European Philosophy in the European Institute at the London School of Economics. In addition to that, he is the Director of the Forum for European Philosophy, an educational charity which organises a programme of philosophy and interdisciplinary events in the UK. In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of topics from basketball to his favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is Being and Time by Martin Heidegger. It has been a joy to interview Simon and we hope you enjoy reading it.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: I think I have three answers, which I will work through in some order or other depending on how interested in dialogue the “someone” is who asked me. One answer, which is both my favourite and the least frequently first given answer is that I am a philosopher. It’s a ridiculous thing to say. A friend of mine who works in a literature and language department once said he was envious of the philosophers for having such a striking name for their work. Philosophy is an enigmatic word, and being a philosopher carries that mystery with it. It is both the name for an occupation among others – a doctor, a lawyer, a footballer, a baker, a tailor, etc. – but it is also quite unlike any other since it has some kind of other-worldly or non-worldly or practically useless connotation. It’s also ridiculous because it makes you sound like you are an ancient Greek, or have some special insight into the meaning of life. It’s also an elevated title: when we speak of philosophers we usually mean the great philosophers. Well, I’m not an ancient Greek, I have no special insight into the meaning of life, and I am not one of the great philosophers. But because I am a philosopher, I can say, and I sometimes say, and sometimes say first, I am a philosopher. It is quite a conversation starter – or stopper!
Philosophy is an enigmatic word, and being a philosopher carries that mystery with it.
Another answer, and one I am more likely, to begin with, is that I work at the European Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science. That also carries a bit of a mystery with it. People are familiar with disciplinary titles for academic departments: I work in the Maths Department, the Department of Economics, the Geography Department, the English Department, and so on. They are all regular academic divisions and will be familiar as such to most people. But the European Institute? I think most people will wonder if that is an academic department at all, and they might wonder what it has to do with the LSE. “It’s a multi-disciplinary department for the study of Europe”, I tell them. “Ah – that must be interesting at the moment! So are you an economist?” “No, I am a philosopher…” The third answer, which will lead relatively quickly to the other two is that I am an academic. Funnily enough, that is the one I feel least close to in some ways, and it is reserved mostly for form-filling under “Occupation” rather than dinner party chat. For reasons that will become clearer as we go on I feel less at home with that title than the other two.
Q: Could you tell us about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: My father was an academic, or, as my mother might say still, a don. A Professor of Spanish. Professor Glendinning. When that title became mine, I heard only the title of my father, someone who I regard as properly suited to it. Because academics tend to move around a bit in their careers, and the world tended then to move more unquestionably around the careers of men, my family moved around with my dad too. I was born in Southampton, where he had his first Chair at the university there when he was still quite young. While I was still very young we moved to Dublin, when he got a Chair at Trinity. And then, when I was still in primary school, to London, when he got a Chair at Queen Mary – where he stayed until he retired. I would say I grew up in London. I went to the local comprehensive school and lived a decidedly urban life. I think my spoken voice is a bit of a mash-up because of all those moves, but mostly because I had a London voice for school and a slightly modified, more refined, home voice. There wasn’t anything very refined about me, though.
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: I didn’t excel at any subjects in school, at least relatively speaking – especially in relation to my brothers. I am the youngest of four boys, and the other three pretty much excelled at everything in school. I let them get on with it, and I got on with a life that did not have too much to do with school work. Like my brothers I did enjoy sport at school, and had some excelling there: I was captain of the school basketball team and cricket team, and I played in goal for the football team, was on the swimming team, and did some cross-country running and high hurdles. School dinners and school sport were what school was mostly about for me. I did enough work to pass my exams, but I didn’t get an “A” grade at anything ever until I went to university, and I only just got into university – through clearing, to do a subject I knew almost nothing about, but which had the lowest entry grades of any subject I thought I could stand doing. It had an odd name, and it seemed somehow promising or at least possible for me: Philosophy.
Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
A: No. I was most interested in what the PE report said, and sometimes that was really nice.
Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: No. Or sort of. I wanted to do Law and could see myself being a barrister. But I didn’t even nearly make the grades to get in to do Law. When my results came my dad said to me, very kindly, “You don’t have to go to university.” I have never forgotten that, but I couldn’t really hear it then. All my brothers had gone, and I couldn’t see myself – or face myself – not going too. So I went into clearing with my not very good grades, and I had a choice in the end between offers to do Classics or Philosophy. The first one sounded a bit stuffy, the second a bit weird, and I went with the weird.
Q: Can you remember the point at which you fell in love with your subject?
A: I’ve written about this at some length elsewhere, and would be happy for anyone interested to read it. (Here.) But the short answer is that what I fell in love with – or at least got hooked on – was not my subject, but Wittgenstein, and especially his posthumously published text Philosophical Investigations. As I say in the piece I have linked to, much to everyone’s surprise – not least my own – in the time I spent with that book I became a philosopher (whatever that means). There was no specific time or point at which I fell in love with reading Wittgenstein. But it opened a world to me that I found incredibly compelling. First, I saw that philosophy really could be quite weird (“This book is really an album” – what!). But there is a second thing that I have come to think recently made it possible for me to make this journey. The most strikingly characteristic feature of my experience reading Wittgenstein was not understanding it. Now the equally striking characteristic feature of me as a reader up to that time was that I didn’t spend too long with things I didn’t understand: I put them behind me. But Wittgenstein’s text remained ahead of me – as something still to be read, and to be read again and again, all the while not really understanding it, but nevertheless being provoked by it, and for some reason trusting it to be worth staying with. I think my life prepared me for this in a way I am only now coming to understand. I began a little book I wrote several years ago, called The Idea of Continental Philosophy, with a scene of overhearing two of my brothers talking confidently about something I didn’t understand, and the book was about me now making an effort to understand it. That’s a rather concrete way of describing something more general: I had lived most of my life not really understanding anything very well, and if that gave me anything, it gave me the capacity to feel comfortable about that, to be at home there. Another concrete image of this, one which made one of my brothers feel physically sick observing, is an occasion where I spent a whole evening untangling the knots in the strings of a stunt kite. I can go into a space where there doesn’t seem to be an end, and stay there. It is like holding your breath for a long time. You have to bear in mind that I would still not say that I understand Wittgenstein’s text. And he has been joined by a very small group of authors who obsess and guide me in the same way. Heidegger and Derrida came next, and then Nietzsche too, and now perhaps another kind of text: Europe. I write whatever I want to write. I’m not a scholar. I’m not an academic as I understood Professor Glendinning, my father, to have been, or as I understand Professor Glendinning, my eldest brother (a mathematician), to be. I believe that the Professor Glendinning that is me deserves that title. I have had a hell of a battle obtaining it. But it is a title that I wear with a sense that the one who wears it remains a child among the grown-ups. I like that.
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: The University of York, through clearing.
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: BA Hons Philosophy. I think “select” is too strong a word. I plumped for it. And it gave me my life and the chance to select things later.
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: At York, it was Marie McGinn. She was reading and teaching Wittgenstein. She did everything to encourage me to go on. She also gave me my first ever “A” grade, for an essay on A.J. Ayer in my second year. At the end of the essay, she wrote “Super lucid discussion”. Nothing else. I almost died. By the time I had got to the end of my degree programme I think everyone expected me to get a First, including me. Thankfully, I did.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: After I got my degree result Marie McGinn said (I think) that I must or should apply to Oxford to do the BPhil in Philosophy. I don’t think I needed any other motivation than her suggestion. I certainly didn’t want to get a proper job.
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: The University of Oxford. First, for two years, on the BPhil – which is really a passport to teaching at a UK university – and then the DPhil, for four years – although I had already got my first academic position, at the University of Kent before I had completed it. I must be one of the last people in the world to have got a full-time lectureship without a PhD. I was Mr Glendinning for the first year and a half. I should note here that there is a long story about my struggle to get onto the DPhil programme at Oxford in the first place, even after having successfully passed the BPhil. It was a sort of Ur-event for all my difficulties progressing in academia. Initially, my application to transfer to the DPhil was rejected. But I appealed the decision, hung in there, and eventually got accepted with generous support from some members of the Philosophy Sub-Faculty at Oxford. When I was promoted to Professor at LSE I asked my Head of Department how he thought I had managed to get it: tenacity, he said. I really can hold my breath for a long time.
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: “Scepticism and Subjectivity”. It’s about “the problem of other minds”: the question of what, if anything, we can know about the inner lives of other people. My findings? Mostly: the work of Derrida. As an undergraduate I found Wittgenstein, as a postgraduate doing the BPhil I found Heidegger, and as a postgraduate doing the DPhil, I found Derrida. Those findings made me who I am.
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: I am still a student, and still doing it differently.
Q: Tell us about your current research focus?
A: In 2004 I joined the European Institute at the LSE. The incoming Head of Department asked me in the interview what I would teach. The only answer I had at the time was: European Philosophy, which I did for two years. But it became clear to me very early on that if I was to have a future at the European Institute, where everyone else in the department is basically a social scientist of some kind using their disciplinary methods to explore Europe-things, I would have to switch from European Philosophy to something that hardly exists: the Philosophy of Europe. And that is what I am doing/inventing now. The “research question” is: what, if anything, can philosophy contribute to an understanding of Europe today? I was almost completely in the dark about that when I started out, but now have a lot to say. I have just written it all down in a two-volume book called Europe’s Promise, and hopefully, OUP will publish the first volume in 2017.
Q: What do you believe is your single most important piece of research?
A: The last thing I wrote. Each time.
Q: Within your area of study, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: Refuting me.
Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be researching in 2116?
A: Whether Britain will leave the European Union.
Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: “He bridged the gulf between so-called analytic philosophy and so-called Continental philosophy.” Which is probably the least interesting thing about anything I have done.
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: At the same time as I moved to the LSE, I became the Director of the Forum for European Philosophy, an educational charity dedicated to taking philosophy beyond the university, and to organise philosophy events for the wider general public. So a certain “extra-curricular” ambition has been a central part of my working life for years now. Recently, however, as my work on Europe has had little outings in blogs and essays, I have been invited to talk in public, both in the UK and abroad, on contemporary Europe. I spoke as often as I could before the referendum, arguing for the virtues of an international union, and I am being asked to speak and write about Brexit quite a lot at the moment too. It would be exciting if it wasn’t (in my view) such a disaster.
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: I would repeat, as advice, a personal recollection from my mother’s second husband, the Irish writer Terence de Vere White, who said (enigmatically) that he always tried to live by “the romantic imperative”.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: Jump through the hoops you have to jump through by doing things you want to do anyway.
Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: Apart from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Heidegger’s Being and Time, and Derrida’s Of Grammatology, the book that has stayed with me longest is Winnie the Pooh.
Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: Since it is more or less the only book in my field, I would recommend mine – but it is not out yet. So while they are waiting I would recommend the essays on Europe in Paul Valéry’s History and Politics.
Q: Why do you think being a freethinker is important?
A: Nietzsche contrasts “we very free spirits” with those who call themselves “freethinkers”. I think it is important and urgent to think in a very disciplined way, and for a long time, about that contrast. I’m still trying.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: “Another one of these, please.”
If you’d like to find out more about Professor Simon Glendinning you can check out his academic profile, Wikipedia profile and Twitter page.