Spotlight Series

Each month, we sit down with a member of our research team to learn more about their areas of expertise, what the turning points have been in their career, and what inspires them in their daily lives…

William Lyons

Fellow Emeritus, Philosophy, Trinity College Dublin

William Lyons was formerly head of the Department of Philosophy (1985-1995) and Professor of Moral Philosophy (1985-2004) in the School of Mental and Moral Science, Trinity College Dublin. He is now an Emeritus Fellow of Trinity College Dublin and a Member of the Royal Irish Academy.

What is your current area of research?

Like someone competing in The Long Jump at an athletics meeting, I'm going to take a long run at it.

My area of regular academic research in philosophy has almost always been in philosophy of mind and philosophical psychology (the latter being philosophy of mind that merges with the findings of psychology and the brain sciences).  So major themes in my research have been about the nature of emotion, introspection, intentionality and that strange hybrid "mind-and-body". But my research has spilt over from time to time into moral philosophy and aesthetics, and occasionally into the history of philosophy and the history of psychology.

When I began my studies in philosophy some sixty plus years ago, I was initially confronted by the fact that philosophy of mind was dominated by "ordinary language" philosophy and psychology by Behaviorism. I did not care for either approach and, being always given to non-conformity and being resistant to orthodoxies, I went in another direction. This involved always trying to gather first the available relevant facts, from the sciences, especially from psychology and the brain sciences, and then trying to produce something like a clear and well-argued theory or definite stand point, something that was then considered louche and de trop by "ordinary language" philosophers.

I also tried from the outset to write in clear and easily understandable English and as far as possible to avoid technical jargon of any sort. This in turn led me to produce something very risqué, an introduction to philosophy of mind that had a chronology of philosophy of mind and cognate disciplines and, horror heaped upon horror, copious illustrations. It was my attempt to make discussions in philosophy of mind available to a wider audience. Some of the mandarins of the philosophical world have never quite recovered their poise.

This brings me to where and what I'm at now. In the twenty years since my official "retirement" at the "official retirement age of sixty-five", I have set out along a new path of "philosophical outreach" (my apologies for the jargon). I have written the occasional academic paper. The most recent is 'The Brain is not a Digital Computer', for The Turing Conversation, a blog of The Turing Centre, the ETH, Zurich.

But mostly I've been engaged in "theatre of thought". I've been writing playscripts with philosophical themes. The first one was 'Socrates and his Clouds' (with admiration for and gratitude to Aristophanes), 'Wittgenstein - The Crooked Roads' and 'All The Hours' (about philosophy of religion). These have all had professional productions in England and Australia and their texts have been published. Unproduced, though it has won two open-entry and blind-reviewed international competitions, is a play about that famous/infamous love affair between Martin Heidegger and his onetime student Hannah Arendt. It is called 'The Fir Tree and the Ivy'.

Another unproduced play is in the form of classical "Old Comedy" with a bit of Blackadder as sauce. It is called 'The Oracle at Delphi' and is about how hard it is to tell the truth and be on the receiving end of it (Topical Mr Trump?). My latest play, a maverick fusion of Aristophanes, Brecht and Panto, is 'One Woman and her Dog'. It is about being homeless in a big city and about the indigence and indignities that accompany it. It is to have a brief production in Scotland in November 2024.

As a Parthian shot, I should mention that no one in Ireland (except for the UCD philosophy students) has ever offered to produce any of these plays. One can only speculate.

What question or challenge were you setting out to address when you started this work?

How can I introduce challenging and relevant philosophical questions to people who normally would never come across them, much less engage with them?

Share a turning point or defining moment in your work as a philosophical researcher?

Reading Gilbert Ryle's 'The Concept of Mind', while an undergraduate student, turned me on to philosophy of mind. While I find it too close to behavourism of some kind, it is beautifully written and a very clever and provocative book.

Briefly, what excites you about your research?

Challenging the orthodoxies.

What do you like to do when you aren`t working?

One big thing used to be playing tennis. But I'm now like one of those old Mexican boxers who still have a good punch but the legs have gone, and are now hired "just to make up the card". While my awkward first serve survived, as well as my delight in producing now and again a successful top-spin backhand lob, my legs gave way after a hip-replacement and cartilage operations on both knees.

What are you currently reading?

My bath-time book is 'BBC - Italian Grammar'. (Showers are an uncivilized abomination invented by some ancient Greeks. But I forgive them because they also invented philosophy as we know it in the West, drama, democracy, trial by jury, a workable alphabet, wine, and much else.)

Do you have a favourite movie?

Two: 'The Lives of Others' and 'Hotel du Lac'.

What would people be surprised to find out about you?

That I'm still alive.

January 2024