Radio 4 to broadcast major new series, A History Of Ideas

I’m delighted to be bringing this new format to Radio 4 listeners, taking in a range of voices and perspectives on 12 of the biggest questions that have occupied the best minds for thousands of years.Gwyneth Williams, Controller, BBC Radio 4
Date: 22.10.2014     Last updated: 04.11.2014 at 17.44
Category: Radio 4
Radio 4 will offer listeners a fresh take on some of the big questions that have preoccupied thinkers down the ages in a major new 60-part series, A History Of Ideas.

Featuring a range of voices from different walks of life, A History Of Ideas will take the listener into some of the most significant ideas in history that still have purchase on our lives today, with topics ranging from beauty and freedom to technology and morality.

Along the way listeners will be introduced to historic thinkers such as David Hume, Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant and Plato to see how their ideas play out in unexpected places – from split second decision making on the battlefield to the sense of inner freedom belonging to Jain Monks; from the personal hell of drug addiction to asking whether wine critics really make better judgments than the rest of us (David Hume thought they did).

Airing on weekdays in three-week instalments, the series will hear from lawyers, philosophers, neuroscientists, theologians and others, all with distinctive takes on the question under consideration. Each week will begin with four thinkers, pre-eminent in their respective fields, discussing one specific question – such as ‘how do I live a good life?’ or ‘what does it mean to be me?’ – with Melvyn Bragg presiding over the exchange of views. The contributors will then have a chance to develop further their arguments in their own authored programmes from Tuesday to Friday.

Gwyneth Williams, Controller, BBC Radio 4, says: “I’m delighted to be bringing this new format to Radio 4 listeners, taking in a range of voices and perspectives on 12 of the biggest questions that have occupied the best minds for thousands of years. And who better to guide us than our very own Melvyn Bragg. ”

Among the voices featured in the first three weeks are:

  • Philosopher Angie Hobbs
  • Historian Simon Schaffer
  • Lawyer Harry Potter
  • Mathematician Vicky Neale
  • Neuropsychologist Paul Broks
  • Theologian Giles Fraser

Forty-eight animated films have been commissioned for the Radio 4 website to complement the series. Made by Cognitive, the brains behind RSA Animate and a number of animated TED talks, the films will be around 90 seconds in length and will help viewers get to grips with important concepts in the history of ideas. The animations were scripted by philosopher and writer Nigel Warburton.

Week 1: What does it mean to be free?

Tuesday: Angie Hobbes will talk about two kinds of freedom. Negative freedom involves getting things out of your way – be it the state, the police or your parents. It sees freedom as an absence of impositions. Positive freedom is the ability to take command of your own self, to prevent your desires from becoming addictions or your whims dominating your reason. Angie feels that we live in a time of negative freedoms but that we have forgotten the benefits of this other tradition that goes all the way back to the Greek philosopher Plato.

Wednesday: Harry Potter is a criminal barrister and is interested in the relationship between the individual and the state – something he thinks a lot about as he is defending and prosecuting people. His key thinker is John Stewart Mill, the 19th century British philosopher who argued that the state should have as minimal a role as possible in the lives of its citizens.

Thursday: Theologian Giles Fraser thinks freedom is overrated. Or at least that freedom has become a kind of tyranny or obsession. He is interested in the tradition of religious thinking that understands that true liberation sometimes comes from accepting constraints and boundaries on life. His key thinker is the medieval philosopher and Franciscan monk William of Ockham. Giles also talks to Brother Sam, a contemporary Franciscan monk, about the way in which his giving up of various things has led him to feel free.

Friday: Neuropsychologist Paul Broks tackles the age-old philosophical question of whether humans have free will or whether all events are pre-determined. As a neuroscientist he is interested in how our brains work but he also goes back to the 18th century French thinker Pierre-Simon Laplace who argued that the universe was entirely mechanistic and that therefore all events in it are pre-ordained. What value human freedom in a universe like that?

Week 2: Why are things beautiful?

Philosopher Angie Hobbs is interested in Plato’s idea that there is a relationship between beauty and morality. The idea that goodness is beautiful and evil things are ugly is written deep into our culture. But Plato’s ideas also suggest that beautiful things could not be appreciated by evil people. Can that idea really survive the image of a Nazi Camp Commandment listening to classical music?

Mathematician Vicky Neale is keen to explain why mathematics is beautiful but also to work out whether beauty can itself be explained mathematically. There is a rich tradition of thought here going all the way back to the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, whose understanding of mathematical relationships underpins western music.

Historian of science Simon Schaffer is interested in the purpose of beauty within evolutionary explanations. Taking the ideas of Charles Darwin as his starting point, he is interested to know how and why the capacity to see beauty evolved and whether this most fleeting and apparently useless of attributes can really have an evolutionary explanation.

Philosopher Barry Smith focuses on the Scottish philosopher David Hume and his theory of taste. Hume argued that the appreciation of beauty was not easily arrived at – it required dedication, knowledge, expertise. In that sense he is the godfather of the critic and the patron saint of the connoisseur.

A History Of Ideas begins on Monday 10 November. The series is co-produced with The Open University.