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.