There is a prominent visual dimension to the teaching of philosophy and I distinguish between illustrative and performative uses of images and artworks. The former are where images are used to illustrate and communicate a philosophical idea or argument. In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave a group of prisoners have been chained to the wall of a cave, watching the shadows of things passing behind them projected onto the cave wall. Plato’s allegory lends itself to artistic representation. Robert Motherwell painted a series of abstract expressionist paintings of Plato’s Cave, with thick layers of black, white, and various shades of grey creating a deep space within which—we imagine—the denizens of the cave are chained. I have painted my own series of works that chart Descartes’ Meditations in which he overcomes his sceptical doubts and comes to acquire certain knowledge of his existence, God and the world around him. (See www.lowwintersun.org) My ‘Empiricism’ series is performative, in that the act of creation communicates the philosophical idea of abstraction. I find myself in interesting territory—on the border between teaching and art, illustration and performance. It is, though, a precarious position: become too self-conscious of the artistic dimension and teaching could become distorted. The aim is to communicate a philosophical idea, but also to capture the kind of aesthetic pulse that one receives as one glances at a chaotic blackboard at the end of class. Future collaboration between philosophers, art historians and artists should be encouraged, with artworks—from the history of art, contemporary artists, and perhaps those created by students and teachers—becoming catalysts for artistic-philosophical investigation, thus revitalizing the idea of universities embodying ongoing and open-ended conversations.
I am Reader in Philosophy at Oxford Brookes University and visiting professor at San Rafaelle University, Milan. I have written and edited over 10 philosophy books, including Teleology and Modernity (Routledge) and Hume’s Critique of Religious Belief (Springer), and over 40 articles in prestigious journals including Synthese, The Philosophical Quarterly, Philosophia and the Pacific Philosophical Quarterly. My Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (Polity) has been translated into Korean, Portuguese and Arabic (forthcoming). Hume on Testimony (Routledge) and Hume and the Self (Palgrave) are forthcoming. I have also published on the history of art (Caravaggio; cubism), literature and religion. I am the epistemology editor for The Philosophers’ Magazine and a member of the editorial board of The Humanities Bulletin. As founder and organizer of the Oxford Hume Forum, organizer of the Oxford Branch of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, and research lead for two recently funded projects, I have been the sole organizer of 10+ international conferences, 30+ workshops, and 20+ talks and guest lectures. I have also given keynotes and invited and refereed papers at over 70 international conferences.