Educational Assessment, Religious Pluralism, Synthetic Phonics and Other Educational Issues


Interview by Richard Marshall


'High stakes testing should be abandoned, yes. The obstacles facing any kind of fair comparability involving criterion-referenced assessments are intractable, as are the teaching and learning distortions associated with assessment for accountability.'

'Modest religious pluralism, as I have understood it should be adopted by all faiths. It involves any one faith adopting an attitude of humility in regard to the status of others.'

'Even if Synthetic Phonics could be demonstrated to have a significant effect size, this would not in any way justify forcing teachers to use such a method with all their pupils.' 

'Classifying someone with a learning disability involves a way of being a person. Those classified interact with the classifying process. Forces at work include online ‘scientific’accounts of particular disorders, health diagnoses and treatments, support groups, charities, advice for parents, and dietary advice. Those classified in a particular way, together with the relevant label applications themselves, may well undergo significant changes as a result. So Hacking’s looping effects associated with interactive kinds means that at least some learning disorder labels are ‘moving targets’.'

'Skemp talks poignantly of the anxiety felt by those whose maths understanding is mostly instrumental. My experiences as a maths teacher both of young children and many generations of adults tells me that the better the relational understanding, the more the subject is enjoyed and certainly the lower are anxiety levels.'

Andrew Davis's career includes eight years in primary schools, six at Cambridge University and over twenty at Durham University where he is a Research Fellow. He has worked for the Quality Assurance Agency as a Subject Specialist Reviewer and directed Argument Matters, a strand of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth Durham summer school for four years. He is Assistant Editor of the Journal of Philosophy of Education and secretary of the Durham Branch of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain. Here he discusses educational assessment and Gipps, high stakes, reliability and validity in assessment, why high stakes testing should be abandoned, religious education, modest religious pluralism, teaching reading by phonics, synthetic phonics and its problems, teaching methods and evidence, whether neuroscience can help us understand how we learn, science and learning, Ian Hacking, dyslexia, social justice, and how to teach maths.

3:16: What made you become a philosopher?

Andrew Davis: It began at my secondary school. There was a great focus on‘parsing’- analysing the syntax of a piece of text. A major outbreak of grammar lessons occurred when I was around 14. I enjoyed such exercises, especially when I began to think that you can analyse the grammar of certain sentences in more than one way. My teachers thought otherwise. Of course, at this stage I had no idea that such issues might have anything to do with philosophy. But looking back, I think they had.

 Later on.. I think in Year 10, I found a book in the school library by an author new to me, David Hume. I read a few pages of his ‘Enquiries’, in which (or so I thought) he was claiming that all knowledge comes from sense experience. “Nonsense,”I thought. I was “cross”! Looking back, I believe that it was from that time onwards that I was irrevocably addicted to Philosophy. 

 As an undergraduate I was taught by Robert Kirk.. at that time a young and fiery tutor fascinated by philosophy of mind. He was already pondering the themes that eventually turned into the famous ‘zombie’debate, a long-standing analytic philosophy meme that generated an associated huge literature for which he had significant responsibility. He infected me with much of his enthusiasm. I began my PhD with Ronald Hepburn, a wise and courteous man from whom I failed to learn as much as I should have done, being still in love at that time with the wrong kind of analytical ‘rigour’. Later, I resumed research with Richard Swinburne, with whom I disagreed about nearly everything. For instance, he held that it was a waste of time to read novels. However, he was a brilliant supervisor, having formidable mastery of not only philosophy of religion for which he is mainly known, but philosophy of science, of language, space and time and many other topics. He modelled lucidity, conceptual subtlety, patience with the fine detail of argument, and sustained focus. During that time I met and learned from David Bakhurst, Jonathan Dancy and David McNaughton, picking up a great deal about the ‘Davidsonic boom’, moral realism and moral particularism. We used to meet at Jonathan’s house for endless discussions, dimly aware of the background in which his horribly clever young children pursued their joyful activities.

My first philosophy teaching job at Cambridge allowed me to work with Terry McLaughlin, Charles Bailey, Paul Hirst, David Bridges and Michael Bonnet. It is hard to imagine better company in which to try to develop and refine philosophical thinking and research about education.

3:16: You’re a leading figure in philosophy of education and assessment is a large part of your interests. In the last thirty or so years assessment has become a thorny issue. Gipps claims that what we’ve seen is a paradigm shift from what assessment used to be about. So can you set the scene for us and sketch what this change has involved?

AD: As I understand Gipps, she focuses on assessment for learning. This covers assessments designed to reveal what pupils know and understand. Teachers want this information so that they can make the best choices about pedagogy and feedback and sometimes because it exposes pupil difficulties and misconceptions.

 The TGAT Report, 1986 provided the framework for the Education Reform Act and the National Curriculum. It held that two key assessment functions could be combined, namely assessment for learning with assessment for accountability, often referred to as high stakes assessment. Even at this time, many educators knew that such a marriage of assessment purposes would be impossible. As time passed after the Reform Act, it became clearer by the day that the high stakes role of the National Curriculum Tests was suffocating other assessment functions. Ofsted’s school inspections increasingly focused on test data.

The National Curriculum practical assessments were soon abandoned as being time consuming and costly. Yet these might have been useful to teachers, given their diagnostic potential. The remaining paper and pencil versions were unhelpful, partly because they had led to widespread and destructive teaching to the test, and also because of their timing. For instance, even had the Key Stage 2 assessments afforded teachers any information that might support their teaching, pupils moved to their secondary schools before this could happen. Some secondary schools took account at least of the levels pupils achieved at the end of their primary phase (but no detailed information was available to them.) Most of the others ignored the results.

3:16: So what makes the shift so contentious for some?

AD: Many teachers and others in education are well aware of Campbell’s law.. “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor." Those who were fully aware of the power of assessment for learning were especially afraid of how Campbell’s law would affect schools as the high stakes assessment regime tightened its grip.


3:16:  Are assessments more high stakes than before and has this added to the controversies around assessments ?

AD: I lack evidence for whether the high stakes character of assessment has intensified in the last few decades. It certainly feels as though it has, especially in the UK, where we have more examinations and tests than much of the Developed World. Others have linked this trend with the increasing power of the ‘audit culture’(Michael Power) and the decline of trust (Onora O’Neill) Many have long urged that these draconian assessment regimes distort teaching and learning. Teachers learn to maximise pupil performances considered desirable by examiners regardless of whether such performances manifest the understanding needed for the use and application of knowledge in contexts other than test conditions. I have called the latter kind of understanding ‘rich’, and linked it with Richard Skemp’s ‘relational understanding.’I say more about this later.

Moreover, schools concentrate on what is tested, often meaning that subjects such as the arts are sidelined. Of course, in the UK Ofsted inspections have focused strongly on test results for decades, thus contributing to the pressure on schools to drive up their results. It is only recently that Ofsted has retreated from this policy (or so they claim), and concentrated on examining school ‘curriculum intentions’instead.

3:16: You have argued that that there’s a fundamental conceptual difficulty with the use of assessment to gauge the effectiveness of schools and teachers on the grounds that no criterion-based assessment system can achieve both reliability and validity. What’s your thinking here?

AD: Some policy makers and assessment specialists believed that criterion referencing promised achievement descriptions enabling the comparison of pupils and schools on the basis of their performance in appropriately designed assessments. This in turn would enable us to compare the effectiveness of ‘similar’schools and teachers. I have argued that this vision faces a fundamental obstacle.

 It needs, among other things, test questions and tasks amenable to consistent descriptions and consistent verdicts from large numbers of assessors, teachers and examiners. The related achievement descriptions (criteria) should be unambiguous, so not open to interpretation. Such consistency requires closely detailed marking guidelines, lest examiners’verdicts diverge. Hence, tests with high levels of reliability cannot assess any ‘constructs’relating to rich knowledge and understanding. For tight prescription of responses only allows for one type of knowledge manifestation, yet ‘richly’understood knowledge is manifestable in unlimited ways. It is this ‘rich’knowledge that is needed by adults, even if we confine our educational aims to the strictly utilitarian kind relating to future employment. So validity and achievement descriptions relating to rich knowledge is what we need, yet they cannot be obtained in an assessment system demanding high levels of reliability.

Moreover, achievements relating to the arts, and indeed any subject where interpretation is at the heart of legitimate verdicts about them are sidelined. For the consistency of interpretations cannot be forced. There is no one legitimate interpretation of how the First World War came about or of the poem The Waste Land even if there are plenty of silly ones. There is no one informed and valuable interpretation of Mozart’s Magic Flute or Stravinski’s Rite of Spring even if asserting that the latter expresses the humour of a stand-up performance is a little astray.

3:16: So are you saying that comparability should be abandoned, along with all high stakes testing in schools?

AD: High stakes testing should be abandoned, yes. The obstacles facing any kind of fair comparability involving criterion-referenced assessments are intractable, as are the teaching and learning distortions associated with assessment for accountability. I do not oppose assessment for a range of other purposes: the latter include job applications and entry to Further and Higher Education courses. Nevertheless, those wishing to use tests in these ways need to be fully aware of their imperfections.

3:16: You’ve been accused of running a covert project of educational nihilism by Christopher Winch and others. What do you say to these accusations?

AD: I have great respect for Christopher Winch. I suspect that these accusations are based on a misunderstanding. Suppose test results were the only way of holding schools and teachers to account. Then anyone opposing testing might be held to favour educational nihilism, whatever that is supposed to mean precisely. How schools should be held to account is a challenging problem. However, to condemn testing for this purpose does not amount to excusing schools from accountability. We should hold schools to account but not by their test results. Perhaps objectors to my position think there is only the one form of educational accountability. 

3:16: It’s been a dispute that has been happening for a long time. Is there any shared common ground emerging from this dispute or is the polarization here to stay for some time yet? And are all educational systems across the globe facing the challenges you’ve identified in the UK and US systems?

AD: There is very little shared common ground. I can’t pronounce confidently on whether education systems across the globe face the same challenges as those in the UK and US, though I suspect that many do. When visiting South Africa for the first time in 1996 I was asked by a number of educators there why England had implemented so much high stakes assessment. “How do we stop it coming here?”they asked. I did not know, and suspect that they have been unable to halt the deluge.

 3:16: You’ve written about religious education in a socially diverse and religiously diverse society. What would you say are the big issues facing religious education in such a context, one familiar to us here in the UK for example?

AD: It appears to be politically impossible to abolish Faith Schools in the UK at the present time. While they still exist, some are likely to continue inculcating particular faiths as if they imply the falsity of others. This exclusivist diet challenges key features of a healthy flourishing democracy. Religious exclusivism is in tension with a genuine respect for everyone in our society, whatever their religion, culture or ethnicity.

3:16: You argue for a modest form of religious pluralism as the basis for religious education don’t you. Can you sketch for us what this looks like and why you think this option preferable to its main rivals?

AD: Modest religious pluralism, as I have understood it should be adopted by all faiths. It involves any one faith adopting an attitude of humility in regard to the status of others. 

In support of this view, I appeal to the inherent character of thought and discourse about the transcendent. A modest religious pluralism denies that the variety of concepts, descriptions and references to God mean that different faiths necessarily worship ‘different’gods. So any one faith is always open to the possibility that other religions also have a route to God. However, modest religious pluralism does not embrace the opposite extreme and assert confidently that everyone worships the same God. A woolly all-embracing pluralism has earned it a bad press. My less extreme version pleads for the importance of an open mind. But this argument only has traction in the context of faiths involving some kind of God or Absolute.

3:16: Why opt for any religious education at all in schools? Why not leave it to the churches, mosques and temples to do it and let schools get on with a purely secular curriculum –teaching perhaps only the fact that there are religions with certain core histories and so on? After all many people agree to tolerate religion but that’s because they don’t respect it.

AD: The political and moral arguments for a modest religious pluralism are so important that they should be taught even in a ‘purely secular curriculum’. This would need to incorporate information about at least some of the major World Faiths, including their history, key beliefs, teaching and practices. If, after all, you think that my proposals should be called ‘religious education’then -fine- religious education should be retained in all state schools.

3:16: Another area you’ve worked on is another controversial area, that of teaching reading and the claims made for phonics. You think there are problems with teaching reading through phonics –synthetic phonics in particular - don’t you? First, what are the options for teaching reading as you see them?

AD: Let me posit three options, two at each end of a spectrum, and the other is, so to speak, in the middle. At one end is ‘whole language’or the ‘look and say’approach. Pupils are taught to recognise the text representations of words as wholes. At the other end is Synthetic Phonics, in which pupils learn to associate sounds with letters and to blend them to create potential speech representations of words. In the middle we have ‘multi-cuing’, where pupils use a range of cues to work out what words are represented by text, including phonics, grammar, context, pictures where available, and so on. 

3:16: So why is the phonics option problematic? Do effect do you think that the phonics approach is having on children’s reading?

AD: I used phonics myself as a primary teacher. Much of my time was spent with young pupils who were learning to read. Note at least two ‘problematic’aspects of the phonics option in current education policy in England: the first is the attempt to compel all Y1 teachers to use Synthetic Phonics with every pupil: the second is the frequently repeated claim that this approach is backed by empirical research. My more general concerns about the very possibility of quantitative empirical research into teaching methods also applies to Synthetic Phonics in particular. I say more about this in my answer later. And even if Synthetic Phonics could be demonstrated to have a significant effect size, this would not in any way justify forcing teachers to use such a method with all their pupils. 

 Moreover, I have argued that Synthetic Phonics advocacy is often based on a flawed conception of reading itself, namely the Simple View of Reading, and even on confusions about the very notion of a word. Words are abstract, having both text and spoken representations, but can also be captured in sign language, Braille and so on.

However, some phonics enthusiasts identify them with written text or speech.

I have recently looked in some depth at David Kaplan’s treatment of word identity to inform my critique of some phonics conceptions of ‘word’. In Kaplan’s treatment, words are abstractions, whose identities over time resemble that of stories over time. This is very far removed from words construed as the composite sounds that result from the blending of letter sounds. Phonics people also re-define reading itself so that any route to the meaning of text that does not include blending letter sounds counts as ‘guessing’. This is a baseless stipulative definition.

On the face of it, the kind limited understanding of what we are trying to teach that I have just identified limits teaching effectiveness. However, there are empirical questions here that philosophy alone cannot settle.

3:16: You’ve also argued that popular teaching methods are supported by shaky evidence. What are these methods and what is the evidence saying? Should they be abandoned and if so, is there a better supported approach?

AD: I’d like to modify this description of the argument. I explore whether quantitative empirical research can establish the efficacy of a whole range of teaching methods. Although Systematic Synthetic Phonics is one of my targets, I am not offering evidence for and against this method or that. Instead, I delve more deeply into the very possibility of research-informed pedagogies. 

There is a dilemma here. If a given teaching method is tightly specified, it will virtually amount to a recipe or script. As such, it seems to be amenable to quantitative research. It is easily recognised by any observer. Nothing is left to their powers of interpretation. On the other hand, a method might be described in quite abstract and general terms, as is Englemann’s version of Direct Instruction or the Rosenshine teaching principles. The latter include ‘Present new material in small steps’, ‘Ask a large number of questions (and to all students)’, ‘Provide models and worked examples’‘Practise using the new material‘and ‘Check for understanding frequently and correct errors.’ Many teachers find these very sensible, but they have to interpret and apply them in their particular school and classroom contexts. They are emphatically not recipes or scripts. As open to multiple interpretations, a specific application for a particular context must be spelled out before it can be subjected to quantitative research. ‘Present new material in small steps’ will look very different in the context of teaching counting in a reception class from a lesson on Newtonian physics for an A level group. If the counting lesson outlined in detail is researched for effectiveness, it is difficult to see how any results would relate to the physics lesson.

3:16:  Could neuroscience help us work out how to teach by working out how we learn?

AD: Bluntly, no.. at least, not on its own. Let me draw on something I wrote in 2004 (adapted):

 A research group comprising neurophysiologists, cognitive psychologists, anthropologists and social scientists could work together on learning. If the resulting inquiries were genuinely interdisciplinary and if the team really listened to each other and respected the specialist contribution each had to make then real progress might be made. At some point, such a group might wish to recommend approaches to learning, whether in schools or elsewhere. Dialogue with philosophers might help here too and also at earlier points where people were probably talking past each other. In fact, philosophy would have rather more to contribute than this limited role implies, but the latter is crucial. It would be very far removed from the current ‘scientistic’ fashion for brain-based learning. 

A detailed argument for my negative response to your question would take me way beyond the scope of this interview. An abbreviated conclusion runs as follows: ‘Learning aint (just) in the head’, as Hilary Putnam might have put it. The reasoning involves grains of truth in the contested thesis of social externalism. What ‘makes true’claims about most psychological episodes, including those involved in learning, is not only what takes place inside a person. What must be added to the mix are salient features of the social and cultural worlds in which that person is embedded, together with their relationship with these features. This is why neuroscience on its own is toothless when it comes to working out how we learn.

3:16:  You argue that science cannot deliver a definitive taxonomy of learner categories, and that this has important implications for teachers and policy makers. You draw on Ian Hacking to make this argument –can you take us through how it works?

AD: Hacking distinguishes between indifferent, human, biologized and interactive kinds. Paradigm cases of indifferent kinds are chemical elements unaware of being classified (hence ‘indifferent’). Nothing about how they are classified can alter their inherent properties. Hacking’s ‘human kinds’are types of people eg working class, child abusers, pregnant teenagers and the unemployed, studied by the human sciences. 

 Sometimes human kinds become biologized, becoming reinforced by a biological ‘base’. Thus schizophrenia has been biologized by associating it with neural features. Hacking comments that there is an “old and powerful idea that we acquire knowledge of humanity by replacing human kinds by physiological or mechanical or neuroelectrical or biomechanical ones.”(Hacking 1995)

Of Interactive kinds, he comments that people can be affected by how they are categorised. In turn, people influence how they are categorised.“We think of these kinds of people as given, as definite classes defined by definite properties….But …they are moving targets because our investigations interact with the targets themselves, and change them…That is the looping effect. Sometimes our sciences create kinds of people that in a certain sense did not exist before. That is making up people.”(Hacking, 2006) 

Hacking thinks that ‘high functioning autism’ has been made up. It has become a way of being a person, a way of experiencing and of being in society. The interactions involved in making up this way of being embrace institutions, patterns of behaviour on the part of relevant professionals and much else. ‘Making up’might seem to suggest a fiction –an invention without a basis in reality. But Hacking tries to avoid the crude dichotomies which might underly such thinking. Once made up, categories acquire a kind of reality.

 In the light of Hacking’s interactive kinds theories, we realise that classifying someone with a learning disability involves a way of being a person. Those classified interact with the classifying process. Forces at work include online ‘scientific’accounts of particular disorders, health diagnoses and treatments, support groups, charities, advice for parents, and dietary advice. Those classified in a particular way, together with the relevant label applications themselves, may well undergo significant changes as a result. So Hacking’s looping effects associated with interactive kinds means that at least some learning disorder labels are ‘moving targets’.

3:16: This has obvious importance when we look at dyslexia and other learning difficulties in education. Julian Elliott and Rod Nicolson have discussed a range of views regarding dyslexia that you have subjected to philosophical scrutiny. For the uninitiated, can you sketch out the different positions these two take regarding the debate regarding dyslexia as they cover most of the salient ground.

AD: They agree that some students experience significant challenges when learning to read and to perform other language-rich tasks. Elliott acknowledges ‘a long and detailed history of accounts of people who have struggled with literacy’and that there are many different understandings of dyslexia, arguing that none of these survives scientific scrutiny. 

Contrary to Elliott, Nicolson holds that dyslexics do differ from other poor readers. He distinguishes between dyslexia as a specific learning difficulty and its ‘behavioural manifestation in the reading domain’. He dubs the latter a ‘reading disability’. He devotes significant attention to the brains of dyslexics, urging that neurological features distinguish them from non-dyslexics. 

He refers to the ‘strong heritability’ of dyslexia. That is the kind of point often made by those emphasizing the biological basis of a condition. However, given his attention to social and emotional factors in his treatment of dyslexia as a reading disability, he should not be credited with any simplistic ‘biologizing’. He writes poignantly about stress, anxiety and learning, claiming that these can lead to ‘learned helplessness’, this in turn giving rise to ‘impairments’ at the brain level.

His ‘Delayed Neural Commitment’ hypothesis in connection with dyslexia as a specific learning difficulty points to delays in brain developments needed for reading. Nevertheless, he is clear that appropriate provision for very young children can help to build ‘the skills and neural circuitry needed to underpin classroom readiness and reading readiness’. 

Elliott also accepts that ‘we can identify certain areas and functions of the brain that are associated with reading disability’, but denies that this can guide us on differentiating interventions between dyslexics and others with decoding problems. 

3:16:  So what do your philosophical investigations illuminate about their claims and this debate as a whole issues that empirical investigations alone can’t and what difference do they make for practice?

AD: Their apparent disagreements about the ‘existence’of Dyslexia are bedevilled by conceptual complexities. Biology or neuroscience cannot supply models to clarify existence claims in this context . Moreover, ‘dysfunction’ideas, often linked to Dyslexia discourse, are value and culture relative. So teachers should concentrate on supporting all pupils with language and reading-related problems, without seeking specific diagnoses of Dyslexia in the hope that science will offer specific interventions.

 At the heart of these debates are social justice concerns. Suppose we just cannot pin down Dyslexia as a specific disorder with a biological explanation that marks off those with this label from others. If we continue to employ the Dyslexia label at all, we are left with a pragmatic choice - to use it as a word indicating the severity levels of observable difficulties with reading and language-based tasks. This would be a matter of degree, and the precise point at which the label begins to be applied will be conventional and arbitrary. In this situation, teaching and resources should be targeted to reflect this situation. There would no longer be the slightest justification for policy directed to a subgroup with a label, distinguished from the rest by various kinds of special treatment.

3:16:  You’re also an expert in maths teaching in schools. I was one of those hoards who didn’t enjoy my maths at school. What do you say should happen with maths teaching to stop this happening?

AD: I am answering your question as a maths educator rather than as a philosopher, though I hope the latter enriches the former. I have been strongly influenced by the psychologist Richard Skemp’s distinction between instrumental and relational understanding. He appealed to an analogy:

 Picture two people, Smith and Jones, travelling to a wedding in an unfamiliar town. Smith has directions –turn right, under the railway bridge, past Sainsbury’s, turn left by the War Memorial, etc. until he reaches the church. 

If Smith follows the directions he will arrive on time. If he gets lost, he has no way of constructing a new route. He is likely to be late. 

Jones has the same directions. He has a map of the town and can read it. If he loses his way, he can look at the map and recover the sequence, or even create a new route. 

A student’s understanding modelled on Smith’s position in the strange town is restricted to the instrumental variety. At best, she has knowledge and skills that are not interrelated –they are not, so to speak, on her ‘cognitive map’and are in consequence, isolated from each other. She will only be able to do one thing with them –produce them on demand in a test or similar. 

Many say their maths education gave them little more. They acquired rules without understanding or reason. The traditional long division algorithm was an infamous example. Those caught in its web might be heard muttering under their breath phrases such as “Bring down a zero..”

Contrast all this with the fortunate student whose understanding echoes Jones’s and his map. Her knowledge has locations on her cognitive maps. She knows, so to speak, where any one of her knowledge items is in relation to many others. She grasps connections between them. Her maps enable her to ‘travel’in different ways between them. It enables her to transfer her learning from contexts in which she originally acquired it to an indefinite variety of others. 

Learning suitably located on a cognitive map is necessary for applying the learning in new contexts.Of course, map detail, and the nature and number of the routes between knowledge items is a matter of degree. And the way we have described all this is deeply metaphorical. 

Skemp talks poignantly of the anxiety felt by those whose maths understanding is mostly instrumental. My experiences as a maths teacher both of young children and many generations of adults tells me that the better the relational understanding, the more the subject is enjoyed and certainly the lower are anxiety levels. So we should aim to maximise relational understanding at all levels of schooling. 

Whether maths teachers should concentrate on instilling instrumental understanding in the hope that relational understanding will gradually emerge is still disputed. Many adult students have told me they ‘filled in the gaps’later.. which was their way of noting that relational understanding built up following the achievement of earlier instrumental understanding. However, not everyone said this, and my experience as a teacher of children suggested that a significant proportion could not move on without a good measure of relational understanding already in place. 

My comments here are, of course personal and anecdotal: there are empirical claims at issue here that philosophy cannot deal with.

3:16:  Finally, are there five books you could recommend that would take us further into your philosophical world.

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I learned from this a vast store of philosophical insights - I only highlight two here: first the dangers of language going on holiday, which it frequently does in psychology, educational research and (sadly) some contemporary philosophical writing; second the crucial importance of cashing abstractions by means of an appropriate range of examples. 

 

Ian Hacking’s ‘The Social Construction of What?’ taught me some of the complexities involved in claims that X is ‘merely constructed’. Hacking is a devil for detail, showing us how some entities and categories are indeed merely constructed, while others are not, with the consequences that we sometimes ‘make up’people categories which can change over time.

 

John Searle's ‘The Construction of Social Reality’ shows us how social entities, practices and institutions depend upon human intentions.. how, in fact we continually engage in constructing these things even if our constructions are not always to be dubbed ‘mere’constructions.

 

I still remember the excitement with which I first read Saul Kripke's Naming and Necessity (long ago, of course!), where he subverted some of the distinctions at the heart of analytic philosophy, pointing to the possibility of a posteriori necessity and making huge contributions to the ‘new’theories of Direct Reference. I made much use of what still survives of the ‘new’theory of direct reference in my recent defences of religious pluralism. My treatment is informed by how alternatives to descriptive theories of reference may help us understand how religious language might succeed in referring to a transcendent deity. 

 

Jonathan Dancy’s “Ethics without Principles” takes us into moral particularism, the theory for which he has become so well-known over the years. For me, this accurately captures the nature of our moral thinking, for so many years blighted by obsessions with rule-bound ethics.


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