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Dr Mike Coxhead

Where were you before coming to King’s?

I’ve been at King’s for a while now, but in different guises. I did an MA and my PhD in the Department of Philosophy and have more recently been a Visiting Research Fellow. As a VRF, I’ve been running a programme of philosophy courses in London prisons, for which King’s has provided the lion’s share of funding. This year I’ve also been working as an Associate Tutor at Birkbeck. Before all this, I studied an MPhil in history and philosophy of science and a BA in chemical engineering at the University of Cambridge. I also worked as a teaching assistant in engineering and materials science at Queen Mary University of London.

What will you be teaching this year?

I’m officially in two Departments at King’s (Philosophy and Classics), so I’m running courses in both. In Philosophy, I’m teaching Greek Philosophy I – a first-year module that introduces students to ancient Greek philosophy. We’ll be studying a fairly broad range of thinkers: some Presocratics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and a number of neo-Pythagorean women philosophers. I’m also co-convening Political and Economic Philosophy, a first-year course primarily for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics students. For this, I’m teaching 5 weeks of contemporary political philosophy. We’ll be getting to grips with several key political ideals, such as justice, liberty, equality, and democracy. In Classics, I’m teaching Introduction to Ancient Philosophy (another introduction to ancient Greek and Roman philosophy), as well as a third-year module on ancient Greek political philosophy. Most of this is devoted to Plato’s Republic and its reception, but we’ll also be considering earlier political thought in the epic poets (Homer and Hesiod), the historians (Herodotus and Thucydides), and Athenian politicians such as Solon and Pericles.

How did you get into philosophy?

Slowly. I was introduced to philosophy at high school by a religious studies teacher who tended to emphasise the philosophical puzzles at the heart of the subject. Lots of our classes consisted of discussion, which really brought things to life for me. But it wasn’t until after studying chemical engineering that I started reading philosophy again, as an MPhil student in history and philosophy of science. Here I did a little philosophy of science and mind, but was really fascinated by ancient Greek science and mathematics. Somewhat circuitously, and encouraged by my supervisor at the time, I started reading more ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle. I really enjoyed the mixture of philosophy, textual interpretation, and history that’s involved in ancient Greek philosophy. I eventually came to the Department of Philosophy at King’s to properly convert to philosophy and was lucky enough to do my PhD here as well. Both my identity as a philosopher and my sense of what it means to do philosophy was really formed at King’s, where I met and was supported by a great community of graduates and staff.

Your doctorate focused on Aristotle’s epistemology. Can you give us the 2 minute elevator pitch summarizing your contribution.

My doctoral research focused on motivating and explaining two ideas. The first is that Aristotle’s epistemology is value-driven, in so far as Aristotle is principally interested in accounting for epistemic states that are ideal. So, for example, when he gives an account of knowledge (epistêmê) in the Posterior Analytics, he is giving an account of an ideal form of knowledge. As such, whether or not Aristotle provides a satisfactory account will depend primarily on whether he describes an epistemic state that is in fact valuable. The second idea is that Aristotle explains such value with recourse to virtue: ideal epistemic states are valuable in part because they are intellectual virtues (an idea prominent in the Nicomachean Ethics). But then we’re left with the further question: why are intellectual virtues valuable? What makes them worth pursuing?

Focusing in particular on the virtue of theoretical wisdom (sophia), I argue that intellectual virtue is valuable because of its transformative nature: in order to have the virtue of theoretical wisdom, it is necessary to understand the goodness of the proper objects of theoretical wisdom (theoretical truths) such that one develops a love for the proper activity of theoretical wisdom (contemplation). This love is in turn required for contemplation to be a constitutive part of the wise person’s flourishing (eudaimonia). Theoretical wisdom thus transforms contemplation and its proper objects into something good for the wise person.

This, it seems to me, is a strange view: Aristotle not only thinks that some theoretical truths are good, but also that they are good for us to know! Nonetheless, I do think it is Aristotle’s view. I also argue that some recent neo-Aristotelian virtue epistemologies end up in a mess when they try to explain epistemic value, because they abandon these peculiar aspects of Aristotle’s account. Indeed, it’s precisely the goodness of certain truths that ultimately grounds the value of theoretical intellectual virtue on Aristotle’s view. So, one of my main take home messages is that, if you want to be an Aristotelian virtue epistemologist, you might have to buy into some of his more peculiar ideas!

How do you balance the intellectual with the practicalities of daily life?

I’m not sure whether I do! My habit is to write to-do list upon to-do list, and set loud reminders on my phone to make sure I don’t forget anything essential. To be honest, though, none of this works particularly well. I tend to do all of the practical things I have to do in a frantic rush, just before I really have no more time to do them!

You won an award for your contribution to the ‘philosophy in prisons’ project. How did you get into that and are you still involved in delivering programmes?

I started work on the prisons project back in 2015. I was on a period of interruption from my PhD, in part because I was feeling pessimistic about the worth of academic philosophy. MM McCabe suggested that I try teaching philosophy in prison (I think she had recently met people working on the excellent Princeton Teaching Initiative). If I remember right, the rough idea was to try to rediscover the worth of philosophy by doing it in what was (for me) a new and radically different context. I was immediately really excited about this and, with MM and Bill Brewer’s support, started contacting prisons. We ended up having a particularly warm reception from staff at HMP Belmarsh, so I extended my interruption to a full year and set about preparing a 10-week pilot course. Since then, the project has really blossomed.

With my two main collaborators – Andy West and Andrea Fassolas – we’ve delivered a host of courses at several London prisons. The last courses were back in 2019, at Belmarsh and Wandsworth. We also delivered one at Downview, our first at a women’s prison, which was funded by Philosophy in Prison – a charity established by King’s philosophers MM McCabe and Bill Brewer, along with their colleague, Tom Harrison. I had been planning three new courses with the charity for summer 2020, all of which had to be indefinitely postponed in the wake of the pandemic. Face-to-face education in prisons halted in March 2020, with prisoners spending the vast majority of time in their cells. Unfortunately, prison regimes are still severely limited and it’s not possible for external educational providers to come into prisons at the moment. In response, I’ve been working with Philosophy in Prison and a number of philosophers on a series of videos in lieu of in person teaching, all of which can be freely accessed and broadcast by prisons. I’m also co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Prison Education and Reentry on philosophy education in the prison context, with Kirstine Szifris (MMU).

Working in prison is extremely rewarding and enriching. In addition to getting to know lots of really interesting people and have engaging philosophical conversations, my experiences have also been philosophically enriching, making me think harder, for example, about the nature and value of epistemic virtues such as open-mindedness. Our students also report a whole variety of benefits, from being empowered with the confidence to re-engage in formal learning and education, to a richer understanding of both themselves and other people, to a sense of community amongst peers that they otherwise lacked in prison. On the other hand, this project has also given me some understanding of the very real, problematic, and damaging aspects of our prisons. In spite of the hard work of many prison managers and staff, our prisons often have people living in incredibly poor conditions, where prisoners are frequently unsafe and have little opportunity to craft and live meaningful lives. This is so much the case that the mere task of teaching in prison, let alone being imprisoned there, can often be upsetting and unsettling.

What is the puzzle that keeps you awake at night?

I’m stuck on a particular puzzle about the value of knowledge. Aristotle draws an apparently strict divide between theoretical and practical knowledge. What’s more, he sometimes claims that theoretical knowledge is useless. One way of thinking about this is that theoretical knowledge has no practical value. This raises an obvious question: what’s the value of theoretical knowledge, if it’s practically useless? Note that we need not buy into Aristotle’s particular characterisation of theoretical knowledge for this puzzle to get off the ground. All we need is the idea that there is some type of knowledge that has value independent of its practical usefulness, e.g. knowledge of astrophysics, which clearly has practical pay-offs but plausibly has value independent of such utility. So, what is that value, exactly? Is it a peculiarly epistemic value, e.g. in so far as grasping truth is of epistemic value? This seems likely right to me, but I don’t think it goes far enough. I don’t think it’s sufficient to explain, for example, the fact that people build whole lives around theoretical pursuits. Alternatively, might we think that theoretical knowledge has some kind of non-practical, prudential value? For example, is attaining this kind of knowledge somehow related to human flourishing? Perhaps, but it’s really unclear how we should spell this out – that’s what I’m puzzling over at the moment!

If not philosophy, then what?

That’s a difficult question. If I’m not doing philosophy, I tend to gravitate as far from cerebral activities as possible. I really enjoy how sport absorbs my focus – running, climbing, cycling, and hiking are favourites. I also took up skateboarding during lockdown, though I’m not sure that will last; I don’t think I’ve got the nerve for it, plus I bruise way easier than I used to! I also enjoy the usual things: music, cooking, video games and the like. If I stopped being a career-philosopher, then I don’t know what I’d do. I have the occasional fantasy of brewing beer – perhaps I could recollect my past life as a chemical engineer!