Online Philosophy resources as an aid to A-level success

February 22, 2021
A-Levels

Reasons to consult online A-level Philosophy resources

Any students of A-level Philosophy or Religious Studies (Ethics/Philosophy of Religion) who, dissatisfied with the notes provided by their schoolteachers, set out to supplement them find their needs well catered for. There are numerous custom-made guides targeting all the relevant syllabuses, including some which bear the imprimatur of the boards in question. Indeed, several professional philosophers have turned themselves into full-time vulgarisateurs, specialising in the production of money-spinning tomes designed to make the subject accessible to A-level students. Nigel Warburton and Julian Baggini spring to mind as particularly notable cases in point.

In addition, for those reluctant to invest in study-guides of this kind, there is, of course, the internet. If you feed a Philosophy or Religious Studies topic into google, you will be confronted by a welter of tabulated or bullet-pointed notes supplied both by teachers of the subjects and by your fellow A-level students.

Naturally, these vary in quality and reliability, but it is usually fairly easy to judge how far they can be trusted and how useful they are likely to be. If anyone in doubt cares to contact me, I can offer recommendations, but I dare say that the people for whom this blog is intended are well practised in conducting google-searches and therefore dab hands too at the separation of wheat from chaff.

It is not with written online resources that the present observations are concerned, however, but with YouTube videos addressing arguments and ideas of relevance to the A-level curriculum. Since these are likely to be of particular interest to students who, not merely book-averse, have taken that antipathy a stage further by repudiating all printed sources in favour of more modern media, there immediately arises the seemingly defeating irony that I may be addressing my target audience in a format of just the kind that they are liable to overlook.

I am encouraged to persist, though, by the suspicion that there exists a large number of pupils who, though less extreme in their rejection of written material, do prefer, where possible, to watch a video rather than read an article, no matter how user-friendly the latter’s layout.

Students belonging in this category have probably already looked at YouTube for themselves and found some material serving their purposes, but I strongly suspect there may be a second swathe of resources which they have neglected (or discovered but too soon rejected) and to which I can helpfully direct their attention. I am thinking of Philosophy videos, not made by YouTubers with an eye on the A-level market, but produced for altogether different reasons. The following notes will pick out a few examples of what I have in mind and briefly indicate the senses in which, initial appearances notwithstanding, they may be highly relevant to the A-level Philosopher.

Conversations with Bryan Magee YouTube Philosophy videos

In the late ’70s and then again almost a decade later, Bryan Magee, a former student of Philosophy at Oxford and sometime Labour MP, produced two series of Philosophy programmes for the BBC designed to introduce the subject to the public at large. Eschewing eye-catching gimmicks of the kind which might be regarded as a necessary accompaniment to any similar enterprise in our own era, Men of Ideas and The Great Philosophers exploited the plainest of formulae.

Magee and his chosen guest, a specialist on the subject to be discussed, would simply sit at opposite ends of a rather drab sofa and engage in conversation on the designated topic. It fell to Magee to direct the course of the conversation, so as to ensure that it preserved a sense of purposeful directedness and remained within the realms of general intelligibility, and he proved remarkably adept at periodically re-casting the specialists’ statements so as to enhance their clarity. Indeed, so manifestly conversant was Magee with every subject under discussion that one was sometimes inclined to feel that an alternative, even simpler format could have been employed: namely, that of Magee’s simply talking to the camera himself.

Nor, it seems, did this possibility escape the man himself, for, when introducing his discussion of Schopenhauer with Frederick Copleston – the same Copleston, by the way, whom A-level students will know on account of his radio debate with Russell on the provability of God’s existence – Magee, who had recently published a study of the German philosopher, cheekily allowed himself to wonder whether he might dispense with his guest’s services and instead discuss Schopenhauer with himself for an hour.

There is much about these videos which will seem strange to their latter-day viewers. Anyone in their teens consulting programmes from either series will be struck, not just by the unembellished simplicity of the format, but also by the clothes worn by the participants (kipper ties, wide lapels, loud checks), by the accents they speak in (invariably plummy, in the case of the British contributors) and even by some of the behavioural conventions they observe (most obviously, the tolerance of smoking, in an unbroken chain in Freddie Ayer’s case).

For me, these are period features which add to the programmes’ charm. Less endearing, though, is their near-total exclusion of women. Each series called upon only one female guest (Iris Murdoch, in the first series, and Martha Nussbaum, in the second), and the presence of Miss Murdoch among those interviewed did not stand in the way of the first series’ being entitled Men of Ideas. Regrettable though this imbalance is, however, it is not entirely the programmes’ fault: one wishes Magee (or perhaps his producers) had called upon more than one member of the so-called Oxford Four (Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Mary Midgley), but, in his (or their) defence, the programmes’ partiality reflects a more widespread gender-bias afflicting the subject in general at the time.

I have several reasons for thinking these conversations an excellent resource to be plundered by A-level students. First, and in a general sense, Magee assembles a remarkable roster of contemporary philosophers, all of whom share the ability to talk off the cuff with great fluency and insight about complicated issues. (Actually, Nussbaum is an exception here, insofar as she relies on a not especially well-concealed set of notes resting on her lap, much, one senses, to Magee’s chagrin.)

Accordingly, to listen to them with close attention, even when they address subjects beyond the scope of the A-level syllabus, is a highly enjoyable and educative experience, and a good way of broadening one’s understanding of the subject. Imagine how impressive you will look at a university interview if you are capable of talking intelligently about Heidegger, a philosopher never touched by A-level syllabuses, and think how little effort you are required to make in order to put yourself in just such a position: forty minutes spent listening to Magee in conversation with William Barrett (in the first series) or Hubert Dreyfus (in the second) are all it takes.

But there are also more specific benefits to be derived from dipping into the extensive collection of Magee interviews available on YouTube. Sometimes his interlocutors are actually philosophers whom you are called upon to study at A level. This is the case, for example, with Ayer and Nussbaum.

Both Philosophy and Religious Studies syllabuses require one to investigate the former’s critique of religious language from a verificationist perspective, whilst the latter’s reading of Aristotle (and especially her distinction between thin and thick definitions of the virtues in Aristotle) constitutes an important development in Modern Virtue Ethics to which one might appeal (alongside a treatment of Geach, Anscombe and MacIntyre, say) in meeting the requirement to investigate Aristotle’s legacy as an ethicist.

A third philosopher whom Magee talks to, R.M. Hare, is also another conspicuous presence in A-level Philosophy. Indeed, he sometimes seems as ubiquitous as parsley, with his influential versions of Utilitarianism (Preference Utilitarianism and Two-level Utilitarianism), his important meta-ethical theory (Prescriptivism), and his striking contribution to debates concerning the nature of religious language (the notion of the blik).

I refrain from listing him alongside Ayer and Nussbaum, however, because, for the time being at least, his conversation with Magee is not among those to be found online. (Tantalisingly, it has been uploaded but in a version with a foreign-language voiceover which makes it unintelligible to English-speakers.)

If these few cases of his engaging with philosophers who actually appear on our modern A-level syllabuses make Magee’s two TV series especially worth seeking out, their interest is not confined to such specific overlaps. In many other instances, Magee interrogates modern philosophers who, although not mentioned by name on any syllabus, offer interpretations of named figures from earlier eras.

The conversations with John Passmore on Hume, Myles Burnyeat on Plato, Bernard Williams on Descartes, and Anthony Kenny on Medieval philosophy (incl. Anselm and Aquinas) are all valuable in this sense. Especially of note perhaps is that with Geoffrey Warnock on Kant, since the latter appears on the A-level syllabus in so many different guises and on so many different accounts: for his attempted reconciliation of the competing claims of rationalism and empiricism as providers of foundations for knowledge, for his deontological theory of ethics, for his moral argument for the existence of God, and for his devastating criticisms of Anselm’s ontological argument.

So richly stocked a cornucopia do the Magee uploads to YouTube amount to that one is sometimes spoilt for choice. Take the case of Wittgenstein, for example. In the late ’seventies Magee discusses the two Wittgensteins – the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus and the later one of Philosophical Investigations – with Anthony Quinton; and then a decade later he covers the same ground again, this time in the company of John Searle. It is well worth watching both videos and asking yourself which you find the more illuminating, since it is important to have a sound understanding of Wittgenstein II, in particular, for the sake of being able to handle questions on the status of religious language.

My own preference is for the Quinton (just), although this perhaps has to do not only with his general perspicacity but also, perversely, with a localised failure in that regard, a moment in the discussion when Quinton loses the thread of his argument (and charmingly comments, ‘I’ve foozled it!’) at once confirmatory of the live (or at least single-take) nature of the broadcasts, and oddly reassuring, to the extent that it makes one feel less troubled by the tendency of one’s own thoughts sometimes to break down or become tangled.

Richard Hare in Hong Kong: A YouTube Philosophy video

My next entry is really just an addendum to the foregoing. As noted above, a disappointing omission from the set of Magee conversations available on YouTube is that in which he discusses moral philosophy with R.M. Hare. While one waits for someone to fill in this gap, however, it is not necessary to go without any exposure to Hare on video. The discussion of his which I advise you to look up occurs at the University of Hong Kong. In conversation with Tim Moore, a teacher of Philosophy at the host institution, Hare begins by defending his famous distinction between archangels and proles, goes on to criticise the artificiality of Bernard Williams’ example of a crashing plane (from which one can only save one person, either one’s nearest and dearest or a skilled surgeon who will be capable of attending to the crash victims), and eventually touches upon most of the issues in relation to which he appears on the A-level syllabus.

Logic Lane Philosophy videos

Another group of films well worth investigating goes under the name of ‘Logic Lane’. Produced in the 1970s by Michael Chanan, now a lecturer at UWE but then a graduate student at Oxford, the six films in question, all available on YouTube, attempt to give an insight into Oxford philosophy from the 1920s onwards. The first of them invites Freddie Ayer to introduce the subject and gives a lucid overview of Philosophy’s development over a fifty-year span, albeit somewhat vitiated by an uneasy division between two narrative voices, Ayer’s and a superimposed one.

Later contributions to the series favour a conversational format, bringing together several hugely significant figures whom we rarely get a chance to see. I especially recommend the conversations between Stuart Hampshire and Isaiah Berlin (mostly concerned with J.L. Austin but also touching on several other modern philosophers more germane to A level Philosophy), Peter Strawson and Gareth Evans (on the subject of truth), and Gilbert Ryle and J.O. Urmson (the former of whom A-level Philosophy students will know as a proponent of that interesting but problematical version of monism known as logical behaviourism).

Hitchens and other anti-theists in debate with Christian apologists and evangelists: Various videos featuring philosophical debate

All the videos mentioned so far have one thing in common: although they typically comprise recorded conversations, these exchanges are not at all adversarial or disputatious. The participants in the discussion do not espouse and defend opposing viewpoints: rather, they share observations and recollections on a given topic. My final recommendation is altogether different.

When he published his anti-theistic diatribe, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens decided to conduct a book tour with a difference. Instead of giving readings at the usual venues before audiences sympathetic to his liberal views, Hitchens took part in a series of formal debates with Christian apologists at universities and colleges in the Bible Belt. Several videos of these events have been uploaded to YouTube and the best of them offer the A-level student a rare chance to see intelligent disputants with antithetical views engaging in fierce argument on topics which he or she will have covered in class, including the cosmological argument for God’s existence, the design argument and the moral argument.

(Interestingly, none of the apologists tries to renovate the ontological argument, with the apparent implication that they accept the irrefragable nature of Kant’s criticisms of it and do not regard the patched-up versions of Plantinga and Malcolm as successfully rescuing it.) Probably the best place to start is with Hitchens’ tussle with William Lane Craig at Biola University, but his two debates with Frank Turek are also worth a look.

Following Hitchens’ lead, several other anti-theistic thinkers have also participated in similar events and generated further YouTube videos which repay close attention. Those who have become known as the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism (Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, along with Hitchens) are probably the cream of this crop, but I can also recommend Matt Dillahunty and Tracie Harris, the hosts of a YouTube phone-in show called The Atheist Experience.

The combative approach to the God debate adopted by all those mentioned has additionally provoked a series of responses from Christians (and others) who regard their arguments as reductive. Terry Eagleton, the Marxist literary critic, is a particularly distinguished contributor to this counter-trend.

Always a witty lecturer, no matter what the subject, he injects humour into his handling of the alleged shortcomings of the New Atheism by engaging with a composite figure whom he names Ditchkins (perhaps on the model of Roy Campbell’s MacSpaunday as a name for a typical ’thirties poet combining attributes of Auden, MacNeice, Spender and Day Lewis). Several of his lectures on this theme have been posted on YouTube.

Your own likely discovery of further online A-level Philosophy materials

I could easily expand on this set of videos but, knowing how way leads on to way (as Frost once said), I’ll stop there, and simply trust that other goodies will come to light in the list of suggested follow-ups which google can be relied on to generate.

I don’t want anyone to go away with the impression that I regard the films I have recommended as taking the place of conventional study, but, treated as a helpful supplement to reading, they can undoubtedly make a valuable contribution to the progress of the fledgling philosopher and equip him or her with new arguments to be deployed in an A-level essay.

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Alex Dyer

Alex is the founder and director of Tutor House and has a degree in Psychology. He has worked in the educational industry for 14 years; teaching Psychology for 8 years at a school in London. He now runs Tutor House, after setting it up in 2012. Alex still tutors every week, he writes for the Huffington Post and has appeared on the BBC and ITV to discuss educational topics. Alex is an educational consultant and UCAS expert, he’s worked with hundreds of students over the years. He’s obsessed with squash, but is distinctly average.

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