Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time. An enduring series of digestible academia for the aspiring polymath too busy with career and kids to spend time in the Varsity. Alexei Sayle has scoffed at the middle class chatterboxes religiously tuning in to the programme each week, and claiming sudden specialist expertise only for it to evaporate without trace by the time of the next episode.
Bragg, England’s most hyperactive and eclectic public intellectual, is aware of his own limitations, but impatient with those of his interlocutors. Each session indeed begins with a peremptory ‘hello’ followed by a breathless synopsis of the chosen theme. He disdains verbiage and tangents; ‘I know, I know,’ would be a typical interjection, ‘but before we get to that I really want us to nail this thing down….’ If you listen to the programme as podcast, there is a ‘bonus’ segment where you get a slightly (only slightly) more relaxed review of what they could have but didn’t discuss, and they take a breather, may be have a giggle, talk all at once for a few seconds. But very soon the scholarly jousting resumes.
In one such bookend, the epilogue to the one on Kant’s Categorical Imperative, one of Melvyn’s keen eggheads did the equivalent of continuing a sprint after passing the finishing line. Here was John Callanan of King’s College, University of London going for Gold:
Kant is attempting a scientific analysis of morality, he thinks he knows what it is to to be scientifically rational, it’s to find universal laws that dictate what must happen. And he thinks he can apply that to the realm of human behaviour and what ought to happen. That very project is one that is controversial in itself. Perhaps reason is a more diverse phenomenon that what we think. It’s not simply a scientific model that might work for physics but does it work in the same way for human beings? Kant sometimes seems constrained by his appeal to universality – finding universal laws all the time. He tries to bend all the the moral phenomena into an analysis in those terms. And perhaps it points at the end of the day, if that project is impossible then perhaps the very idea of giving a scientific analysis is itself misguided.
Bragg: I think the producer is here.
Enter faintly a new, non-academic voice: Would anyone like tea or coffee?
Thus the heroic cerebral exertions of the Englishman attain their perennial reward.