A History of Ideas: Animated Videos Explain Theories of Simone de Beauvoir, Edmund Burke & Other Philosophers

The UK’s Open University has become a dependable source of very short, online video introductions to all sorts of things, from weighty subjects like religion, economics, and literary theory to lighter, but no less interesting fare like the art and science of bike design. With breezy tone and serious intent, their animated “60-Second Adventures” make seemingly arcane academic ideas accessible to laypeople with no prior background. Now they’ve teamed up with writer and BBC broadcaster Melvyn Bragg of In Our Time fame for a series of video shorts that run just a little over 60 seconds each, with animations by Andrew Park of Cogni+ive, and narration by comedic actor Harry Shearer from Spinal Tap, The Simpsons, and, most recently, Nixon’s the One.

Drawn from Bragg’s BBC 4 radio program “A History of Ideas,” the shorts introduce exactly that—each one a précis of a longstanding philosophical problem like Free Will vs. Determinism (top) or the Problem of Evil (above). Unlike some similarly rapid outlines, these videos—like the tie-in Bragg radio program—don’t simply sketch out the issues in abstract; they draw from specific approaches from fields as diverse as neuroscience, moral philosophy, theology, and feminist theory. In the video on free will at the top, for example, Shearer introduces us to the Libet experiments, performed in the 1980s by neurologist Benjamin Libet to test our ability to make voluntary, conscious decisions. The “Free Will Defense” video above references—at least visually—Bertrand Russell’s notorious teapot in its rather skeptical presentation of this theological bugbear.

Some of the videos get even more specific, focusing in on the work of one thinker whose contributions are central to our understanding of certain concepts. Just above in “Feminine Beauty,” we have an introduction to existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s argument that feminine beauty, and gender presentation more generally, is socially constructed by prevailing patriarchal norms—a concept central to the feminist work of later thinkers like Judith Butler. And below, we have the 18th century concept of the “Sublime,” a supposedly higher, more threatening and ineffable aesthetic mode, as discussed in the work of conservative political philosopher Edmund Burke (also a subject dear to Immanuel Kant, who had his own take on the idea).

See more “A History of Ideas” short, animated videos—including “Diotima’s Ladder,” “The Golden Ratio,” and “The Harm Principle”—on Youtube or the BBC Radio 4 site. The scripts for the clips, we should add, were written by Nigel Warburton, whose Philosophy Bites podcast you should never miss.

And for much more extensive discussions of these age-old philosophical questions with real living “philosophers, theologians, lawyers, neuroscientists, historians and mathematicians,” download episodes of Melvyn Bragg’s “A History of Ideas” show here or on iTunes.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • Emily says:

    very interesting little videos. One thing: both natural and man made evil are elegantly explained in the ancient yoga texts such as Bhagavad Gita, a favorite of Gandhi. If a bad (or good) deed is done it elicits a karmic reaction, a seed if you will, which can fructify at any time, even in the form of a natural disaster. Natural disasters can address the karma of many simultaneously. Karma is the perfect system of justice in the material world.

  • James Palmer says:

    The mention of seatbelts was intriguing and, especially as reflected on by Harry Potter led me to wonder if the decision to introduce a law requiring seatbelt use was taken almost subconsciously because at the time the assumption was that the majority of dirvers (and probably breadwinners) were male. Hence the protection of the one for the benefit of the many. One must not forget that the ‘many’ here may have included not only the family but also the taxpayer/inland revenue/institutions etc.
    The series should have been better publicised; we have all missed out!

  • Dan Delger says:

    Natural evil and to a degree Human evil is a cause and effect relationship.There are mechanical energies that create mechanical events that produce what we call “Evil” or judged by us “bad” effects. No choices involved hence ,to my way of thinking, no evil. With human events we choose to do or not do an act. Freed from compulsion we become, more or less rational actors. Humanity errs and is imperfect in information and mental proccess hence a human evil by this defitition ,I would think.Not putting deity or higher agents into the equation. I try to keep discussion of higher agents out of the equation.
    Humanity tends to blame others for all ills. The blaming of others negates any possibility of choice or responsibility.Weather you believe in choice or non choice you are locked in your defined framework aren’t you?
    The real point of contention is if there is no choice or feelings about choices then the choice question is pointless.On the contrary there is endemic in most “non psycopathic” individuals a moral or aesthetic sense that demands certain acts above other acts. This is the domain we call Ethics weather based on some any or all philosophies we have “This elephant in the room”
    .
    Arguments of good and evil outside of individual choice make no sense.And chaos could should and would ensue. OOps isn’t that is what is happening in real time? Governments armies ideologies are at odds with reason and this is because they are not people and no one dare point to their being responsible in the end they are superconstructs ideas.They are Rogues by this very fact.

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