Episode 12: John Cottingham

Cottingham PHOTO


Guest: John Cottingham
Location: Erasmus University Rotterdam
Duration: 72 mins.
Keywords: Descartes, Early Modern Philosophy, Moral Philosophy, Oxford, Religion, Classical antiquity, Translation, Militant atheism.


<Download MP3: Episode 12: John Cottingham>

John Cottingham is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Reading and an Honorary Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford. His main research areas include philosophy of religion, moral philosophy, and early-modern philosophy. He is perhaps best known for his translation and commentary of René Descartes – in particular as co-editor and translator of the three-volume standard Cambridge edition of The Philosophical Writings of Descartes.

In our conversation, we talk about his early training in Latin and Greek, his experiences with all aspects of student life at Oxford in the 60s and the seminal figures during those days (in particular Anthony Kenny and Bernard Williams), the differences between philosophy then and now, and his increasing emphasis on the importance of spirituality. 

Background Information and links related to this episode:

  • As always, you will get most out of this episode if you at least know a little bit about Cottinhgam. For starters, have a look at his Wikipedia entry and personal home page.
  • John Cottingham on Scientific Rationality and Human Understanding:

Cite this Episode:

  • Søraker, J.H. (Producer). (2015, August 31). Episode 12: John Cottingham (audio podcast). SuchThatCast. Podcast retrieved from http://suchthatcast.com/cottingham
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6 thoughts on “Episode 12: John Cottingham”

  1. OK, a little more substantial then. I like this episode; John seems incredibly balanced in talking about the views he holds, and he presents a valuable view on religious life that highlights its strengths and value without dismissing any opposing views out of hand.

    Opposing views such as my own, of course, which is where I think something more can be said on the matter.

    John declares himself a virtue ethicist, yet a christian at the same time. While I recognise the virtue aspect of this (e.g. in the jesus-as-exemplar “what would jesus do” view), at base it seems to me that the christian worldview is deeply deontological, unless you are pantheist of a kind. But John cannot be, as he states that christianity has as one of its appealing features that it offers “one of the most stable” frameworks for a stable, moral society, which seems to imply a more normative interpretation of god than pantheism seems to want to offer; it also makes a quite instrumental argument for religious life.

    I am doubtful about John’s explanation that most christians do not invoke god as an explanatory hypothesis. This may only be true contingent on the fact that laypeople do not have the inclination or time to philosophise about such matters. When prodded on their beliefs “why the judo-christian god rather than shiva”, I don’t think the majority will respond with “matter of taste” but rather something along the lines of “truth about the world”. This, combined with common interpretations of scripture, makes fairly strong claims about the world we live in, claims which have implications that at the very least *should* be treated as an explanatory hypothesis.

    That lay believers do not treat it as Dawkins’ “god hypothesis” is entirely plausible from my point of view. But the morality that grounds itself in the belief in god and claims that this morality is not just a personal-mission virtue-ethics morality (like e.g. the more reasonable interpretations of buddhism find in siddharta) but universally normative, as god provides an objective base (and this “truth about the world” response really isn’t as uncommon in lay believers as John would have us believe in my experience), also claims that anything that follows this must hold, including the explanatory theses that follow from it. So in my view persons who claim access to objective morality through god and common readings of scripture must accept that it entails an explanatory hypothesis about the world, subject to the standards we set for those.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think Cottingham comes close to Gould’s notion of “Non-overlapping magisteria” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-overlapping_magisteria). As Dawkins says about that approach, it is dubious since “a universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without”. I think that’s not necessarily the case, however, since it is at least conceivable that a god just puts things in motion and never intervenes again (meaning that miracles, “working in mysterious ways” or even “responding” to prayer can’t have a role). This does indeed become a very abstract, Spinozian kind of “god or nature”, which I agree doesn’t square well with most organized religions.

      1. I am sympathetic to Gould, but it rules out, in my view, any convincing argument for a form of god that stuck around after setting things in motion. I have no grounded objection to the set-in-motion-bye! kind of god; the only reason I deem it implausible is because of my materialist bias, and in any case, by any common use of the word, what happened before the coming about of space-time is super-natural (as it cannot be studied by the natural sciences as we currently understand them).

        In any case, this would make christianity just one of a huge number of cultural habits that we use to structure and stabilise our society — on a par with any other established worldview, including other religions and political systems such as social democracy. I can assure you that the lay believer *does not* endorse the view that christianity is essentially the same as a political system (even though it is, natch.

        There is of course also the argument that it is meaning-giving, but that I reject. Not because it cannot be used as a means of establishing meaning in one’s life (I think it is evident that it can) or that is is without value in doing so (I think it is eminently valuable to establish meaning in one’s life), but because in my view it is not the *source* of value, it doesn’t *give* value. I am with Camus on this one — you create the meaning in your life, the source of which is absurd when scrutinised closely, and living honestly requires biting that bullet. This is compatible with Gould, James or even Kierkegaard as I understand them — I have objections to their conclusions only on deeply irrational grounds, and those objection should thus be rejected. As should Dawkins (mentioned in the video) on the whole; he has become the caricature of analytic philosophy, and bad analytic philosophy at that. All the joie de vivre and concern for lived experience of analytic philosophy, with all the rigour of continental philosophy, that guy.

        Don’t get me wrong, I like John’s argument (including the one he makes in the linked video), I just think the lay believer by-and-large is happy to violate the non-overlapping-magesteria when their beliefs are prodded rather than profess that these are separate domains where no sensible claims can be made about the other. If people by-and-large believed like John would, or like a certain sort-of-Russian acquaintance of ours, I’d have no beef with them.

        1. I agree. The question is really, as Cottingham indicates, when do you turn to science for answers and when do you turn to religion. I wouldn’t agree with basing morality on religion (too many bad examples of how that can go wrong; and I’m too much of a Kantian), but someone might as well turn to religion for questions of meaning and purpose, since these can’t really be answered by science and the “answers” may then be entirely consistent with science and at least somewhat detached from morality (that said, I’m on Camus’ side as well when it comes to the absurdity of life and the corresponding need to imagine Sisyphus happy)

Questions, comments suggestions?