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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

120+ Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

“Hei­deg­ger in the Kitchen”: Alain de Botton’s Video Essay Explains the Philosopher’s Con­cept of Being

8‑Bit Phi­los­o­phy: Pla­to, Sartre, Der­ri­da & Oth­er Thinkers Explained With Vin­tage Video Games

The His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy With­out Any Gaps – Peter Adamson’s Pod­cast Still Going Strong

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

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Comments (3)
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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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