Blackburn, Simon 1944–

views updated

Blackburn, Simon 1944–


Born July, 1944, in England; son of Cuthbert Walter and Edna Blackburn; married Angela Margaret Bowles (an editor), 1968; children: Gwendolen, James. Education: Attended Clifton College, Bristol, 1957-62; Trinity College, Cambridge, B.A., 1963; Churchill College, Cambridge, Ph.D., 1969. Politics: "Middle." Hobbies and other interests: Mountaineering, photography, sailing.


Office—Faculty of Philosophy, University of Cambridge, Sidgwick Ave., Cambridge CB3 9DA, England.


Oxford University, Pembroke College, Oxford, England, fellow and tutor in philosophy, 1969-90; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Edna J. Koury Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, 1990-2001, visiting professor, 2008—; University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England, professor of philosophy, 2001—. Adjunct professor, Australian National University, Canberra, 1993-2003. Visiting appointments at the University of Melbourne, the University of British Columbia, Oberlin College, Princeton University, Ohio State University, and the Universidad Autonomia de Mexico. Churchill College junior research fellow, 1967-69; Pembroke College fellow, 1969-90; Trinity College fellow; British Academy fellow, 2001—.


American Psychological Association, National Association for Mental Health.


Reason and Prediction, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1973.

(Editor) Meaning, Reference, and Necessity, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1975.

Spreading the Word: Groundings in the Philosophy of Language, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1984.

Knowledge, Truth, and Reliability, Longwood (New York, NY), 1986.

Essays in Quasi-realism, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1993.

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1994, 2nd edition, 2005.

Ruling Passions: A Theory of Practical Reasoning, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1998.

(Editor, with Keith Simmons) Truth, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1999.

Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1999.

Being Good: An Introduction to Ethics, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2001.

Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2003.

Lust (part of "The Seven Deadly Sins" series), Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2004.

Liberalism, Religion, and the Sources of Value ("Lindley Lecture" series), Department of Philosophy, University of Kansas (Lawrence, KS), 2005.

Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2005.

Plato's Republic: A Biography, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 2007.

Editor, Mind, 1984-90. Contributor to periodicals, including New Republic and New York Times Book Review.


Simon Blackburn's The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy has been praised by numerous reviewers as an engrossing book to read, as well as a valuable and notably thorough reference work for students of philosophy and anyone else interested in general intellectual movements. The author, a professor of philosophy, "operates in the Anglo-American analytic philosophical tradition, as opposed to the existentialist or phenomenological traditions of Europe," noted a Booklist reviewer.

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy contains nearly 3,000 entries, including mini-biographies of some 500 notable individuals from Plato and Thomas Aquinas to more modern individuals such as Nietzsche and Albert Einstein. Baffling philosophical terms such as "the Dirty Hands Argument" and "Wittgenstein's Beetle in the Box" are also illuminated in a "concise, focused" manner, according to the Booklist contributor. The origins of Eastern and Western philosophy are thoroughly discussed, as are more unusual topics such as philosophical insights or approaches to dreams, love, and biology. "Blackburn writes in an interesting and easy-to-follow style," concluded the reviewer.

Blackburn has also authored the philosophy primer Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy. In it, Blackburn familiarizes readers with famous figures in philosophy and their ideas about knowledge, truth, morality, destiny, logic, free will, religion, sensory perception, identity, and goodness, among other topics. He explains philosophical concepts by offering readers simple analogies. Booklist contributor Gilbert Taylor felt that Think is "unintimidating" and "written with exemplary concision and with conviction that philosophy needn't be an ethereal subject, alienated from practical concerns." Library Journal contributor Leon H. Brody observed: "To read this book is to sit down with an engaging, highly learned conversationalist."

In a contribution to the Oxford University Press series "The Seven Deadly Sins," Blackburn argues in his book Lust that sexual lust has been historically misrepresented as a sin. For this error, Blackburn blames historical Christian figures for associating lust with guilt, as well as psychologist Sigmund Freud and philosopher Jean Paul Sartre for creating a false understanding of lust. Blackburn feels that lust is essential and enjoyable, and he concludes by categorizing it as a virtue rather than a sin.

In a review of Lust for the Library Journal, Gary P. Gillum wrote that Blackburn "amuses us with his provocative defense of lust," commenting, "While religious conservatives could regard Blackburn's Lust as outrageous, it thoughtfully balances the other books in the series." Indeed, some religious-minded readers found the book to be invalid. W. Jay Wood, contributor to Books & Culture, praised the author as "a prolific writer …, an outstanding essayist, and an insightful reviewer of books whose sparkling prose customarily displays philosophical skill and evident wit." However, Wood felt that while "Lust doesn't lack in stylistic grace and wit … its ground note is a smirking satisfaction with its own provocations." Wood went on to warn that "Christians … need to think carefully to determine when healthy sexual desires and amorous inclinations veer off into unhealthiness and sin. Unfortunately, they'll get little or no help … [from] Blackburn's Lust." On the other hand, a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote: "Because lust is broadly condoned in our culture, most readers will find that Blackburn's condescension comes across quite sympathetically." The reviewer depicted Blackburn as a "witty writer," praising the author for being "particularly adept at pitting temporally disparate thinkers … against each other."

Published in 2005, Blackburn's book Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed examines the scientific, reason-based definitions of truth, tracing the history of its philosophy since ancient times and contesting many theories of some of the world's most revered philosophers. He encourages readers to look not to philosophical figures such as Nietzsche for the truth, but instead to seek truth in the personal judgments and assessments that facilitate everyday life. Blackburn does not disavow absolutist and relativist philosophies, but rather finds a common ground between the two, a place where truth emerges out of individual actions. While New Statesman contributor Edward Skidelsky agreed with the author that "we must not let our confidence be sapped by the ‘après-truth chit-chat’ of coffee-house intellectuals," Skidelsky further commented that the author is "overoptimistic … in his assumption that our intellectual practices are in themselves perfectly healthy, that the virus of doubt enters only from without." Nonetheless, one Publishers Weekly contributor commented: "Blackburn considers truth ‘the most exciting and engaging issue in the whole of philosophy,’ and with wit and erudition, he succeeds in proving that point."

In the collection Essays in Quasi-realism, Blackburn advocates an approach to philosophy that bridges the divide between philosophical realism (basically, the idea that philosophical concepts exist independently of our ability to articulate them) and projectivism or antirealism (the idea that our decisions are defined primarily by our reaction to philosophical dilemmas). "The realist," explained Michael Tooley in the Review of Metaphysics, "holds that ethical properties exist, and that they enter into states of affairs that are objective, and independent of us. Such states of affairs, in turn, both make various ethical beliefs either true or false, and explain, at least in part, the possibility of ethical knowledge." "The antirealist, on the other hand," Tooley concluded, "is normally taken as denying all of this." Quasi-realism bridges the gap between the two; it suggests that while we project our morals and ethics on situations, we nonetheless understand them as real on their own terms. As the leading advocate of quasi-realism, Blackburn has earned a worldwide reputation as a scholar of the process by means of which moral decisions are made. "His essays," stated Allan Gibbard in Mind, "are vivid and eloquent. They evince a deep passion to probe to the roots of philosophical issues. Blackburn is dissatisfied with easy dichotomies, and his philosophical judgment is of the highest calibre."

Being Good: An Introduction to Ethics applies quasi-realism specifically to the problem of ethics. In it, Blackburn examines different ideas about how people make ethical decisions and concludes that they all fall short of the goal of providing a philosophical system of morals and ethics in the twenty-first century. The author, stated Jenny Teichman in Quadrant, "argues in Being Good (and elsewhere) that perspectivism (‘quasi-realism’) can provide an answer to ethical relativism (‘subjectivism’)." Blackburn suggests, according to a Publishers Weekly critic, that "ethical principles are those that would be agreed in any reasonable cooperative procedure for coming to one mind about our conduct." In other words, Blackburn's point of view can help the modern world negotiate between the extreme moral positions that morals and ethics do not exist (that they are imposed by individuals on objective reality) and that morals and ethics are absolute (and that therefore those who disagree with them are by definition immoral, unethical, and—in some cases—evil).

In Plato's Republic: A Biography, Blackburn examines the implications of the most famous work of one of the original realist philosophers—the ancient Greek thinker Plato. In an interview with Alex Koppelman of, Blackburn pointed out that Plato has been misunderstood by a variety of modern philosophers, including the twentieth-century thinkers Karl Popper and Leo Strauss. The Republic, Blackburn told Koppelman, is "the first great text on political theory and moral theory, relating them, in the Western tradition. What Plato does is confront a variety of skeptics, people like Thrasymachus who say that morality is bunkum, that it's all power." Blackburn continued: "Socrates"—the teacher whom Plato quotes in the book—"seeks to show that these views are wrong, and he does this by drawing an elaborate analogy between the state of your soul and the state of the body politic.… [He] says that a disordered soul is as bad for you as a disordered polis, a disordered city, and the kind of disorder represented by Thrasymachus or Glaucon would eventually lead to catastrophe." Plato's Republic: A Biography, stated Francisca Goldsmith in Library Journal, is "balanced and popular in tone but does not gloss over nuances important to the understanding of the ideas." A Kirkus Reviews writer described it as "rigorous and humble, admiring and dismissive—a clear and accessible introduction to philosophy's first superstar."



Biography, spring, 2007, Mark Kingwell, review of Plato's Republic: A Biography.

Booklist, January 15, 1995, review of The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 962; October 1, 1999, Gilbert Taylor, review of Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy, p. 309; February 1, 2004, Ray Olson, review of Lust, p. 936; June 1, 2007, Gilbert Taylor, review of Plato's Republic, p. 11.

Books & Culture, May-June, 2005, W. Jay Wood, "The ‘Virtue’ of Lust?," pp. 18-19.

Bookseller, February 4, 2005, review of Truth, p. 37.

Cambridge Quarterly, December, 2001, Michael Bell, review of Ruling Passions: A Theory of Practical Reasoning, pp. 363-366.

Ethics, April, 1995, Arthur Fine, review of Essays in Quasi-realism, p. 646; July, 2001, Russell Shafer-Landau, review of Ruling Passions, p. 799.

Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), May 20, 2000, G.J. Dalcourt, review of Think, p. D5; June 23, 2001, review of Being Good: An Introduction to Ethics, p. D2; February 14, 2004, "Lust Horizons," p. D4; July 30, 2005, "That's So True … Isn't It?," p. D6.

Harper's, January, 2005, Arthur Krystal, "The Pages of Sin: Indulging in the Seven Deadlies," review of Lust, pp. 96-101.

International Philosophical Quarterly, September, 2000, Corey W. Beals, review of Ruling Passions, p. 402; June, 2002, Timothy Chappell, review of Being Good, pp. 262-265.

Journal of American Culture, September, 2004, Marshall Fishwick, review of Lust, pp. 344-345.

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2001, review of Being Good, p. 718; December 1, 2003, review of Lust, p. 1400; March 15, 2007, review of Plato's Republic.

Library Journal, September 15, 1999, Leon H. Brody, review of Think, p. 86; February 15, 2004, Gary P. Gillum, review of Lust, p. 131; May 15, 2005, Leon H. Brody, review of Truth, p. 121; May 1, 2007, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Plato's Republic, p. 82.

Mind, April, 1996, Allan Gibbard, review of Essays in Quasi-realism, p. 331; April, 2001, Mark Sainsbury, review of Think, pp. 430-432; December, 2001, Max Kolbel, review of Ruling Passions, pp. 373-380.

New Scientist, December 15, 2001, review of Think, p. 51.

New Statesman, May 23, 2005, Edward Skidelsky, "Why Practice Doesn't Make Perfect," review of Truth, pp. 48-49.

New Yorker, August 13, 2001, review of Being Good, p. 78.

New York Times Book Review, July 24, 2005, Anthony Gottlieb, "The Truth Wars," review of Truth, p. 20.

Philosophical Quarterly, January, 1997, Nick Zangwill, review of Essays on Quasi-realism, p. 96; January, 2001, Bruce Russell, review of Ruling Passions, pp. 110-114.

Philosophical Review, January, 1995, James C. Klagge, review of Essays in Quasi-realism, p. 139; October, 2000, Michael E. Bratman, review of Ruling Passions, p. 586.

Philosophy, July, 2000, Piers Benn, review of Ruling Passions, pp. 454-458.

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, March, 1990, "Quasi-quasi-realism," p. 583; July, 2002, "Can Arboreal Knotwork Help Blackburn out of Frege's Abyss?," p. 144.

Publishers Weekly, June 11, 2001, review of Being Good, p. 73; January 19, 2004, review of Lust, p. 65; May 16, 2005, review of Truth, p. 48; April 2, 2007, review of Plato's Republic, p. 45.

Quadrant, October, 2001, Jenny Teichman, "Being No Good," p. 25.

Religious Studies Review, October, 1999, review of Ruling Passions, p. 394.

Res Publica, spring, 2000, Phillip Stratton-Lake, review of Ruling Passions, pp. 117-125.

Review of Metaphysics, March, 1995, Michael Tooley, review of Essays in Quasi-realism, p. 643.

Skeptical Inquirer, September-October, 2005, review of Truth, p. 54.

Time, October 4, 1999, Walter Isaacson, review of Think, p. 108.

Times Higher Education Supplement, February 19, 1999, Alex Klaushofer, review of Ruling Passions, p. 38; September 14, 2001, Mary Midgely, review of Being Good, p. 27; September 15, 2006, "Mightier than the Sword," p. 22.

Times Literary Supplement, January 21, 1994, Huw Price, review of Essays in Quasi-realism, p. 27; June 25, 1999, Samuel Scheffler, review of Ruling Passions, p. 6; April 27, 2001, Maximillian De Gaynesford, review of Think, p. 31; July 6, 2001, Adam Morton, review of Being Good, pp. 3-4.

ONLINE, (November 19, 2007), Alex Koppelman, "That Hot New Neoconservative Philosopher Named Plato."

University of Cambridge, Department of Philosophy Web site, (November 19, 2007), author profile.

University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill Web site, (November 19, 2007), author biography.

About this article

Blackburn, Simon 1944–

Updated About content Print Article