Professor A C Grayling

On Friday 5th December, Professor A C Grayling of philosophy fame visited Tonbridge Grammar School to question ‘What is Knowledge’ with year 12 students- all of whom are taking Theory of Knowledge as part of the international Baccalaureate- and Year 13 philosophy students.

Grayling explored his question with reference to the senses, looking at the lectern in the hall, and asking rhetorically how we can know that it is there. The lecture tackled the age old question of ‘if a tree falls down in the woods, but there is nobody there to hear it, does it still make a sound?’ Rather controversially, Grayling stated that no, it doesn’t make a sound as it is humans and other animals that actually create and hear the sound through the vibrations. Sounds don’t exist unless there is something there to hear them- but sound waves do. Essentially, the way that we perceive reality is different from how the world actually is, so how can we be certain that what we gain from the senses is true? Also, when we look at something, all the information we receive through our eyes is processed in our brains, meaning that we actually see things from inside our heads, not with our eyes. This created quite a stir within the students.

In his talk, Grayling also mentioned René Descartes, who is studied in the philosophy course at TGS. Descartes tried to find a foundation for certainty in attempting to set aside his former beliefs. He did this by casting doubt upon them with the use of a thought experiment, where he imagined an evil demon to be deceiving him in everything. Descartes came to the conclusion that the only thing that he could be certain of was that he existed given that he was thinking (Cogito, ergo sum: I think, therefore I am). Due to his expertise in Descartes having written “Descartes: The life and times of a genius”, Grayling explored this thinking.

Another question raised during Grayling’s lecture was how we can be certain of anything happening in the past. An example given was that of Elizabeth I having had an affair with Sir Walter Raleigh. However as there is no evidence in letters or other documents to support this claim, one cannot know that this is true, although one may strongly believe it. This leads to the question: Can we ever be sure of things that happened in the past? If there is nothing to prove that something happened and everyone has forgotten about it, did it truly happen?

This was all very interesting and thought provoking, raising many questions- just as any good philosophy lecture should. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the talk and so had a quick chat with Professor Grayling afterwards, as well as asking for a cheeky autograph. It was also an eye-opener hearing about the New College of Humanities, as its curriculum is quite similar to that of the iB. The university was founded by Grayling in 2011.

Suzy Palmer