Rudy Fara is a maker of philosophy videos. Before I say any more, let’s just get a few ideas out of our heads. Forget earnest Open University dons talking straight to camera about how Plato is “our contemporary”. Forget Hollywood pitchers imploring, “it’s gonna be like Woody Allen meets Die Hard”. And forget B-list comedians undertaking a round of interviews with top “egg-heads” in a state of faux-bemusement. What Fara is doing is far more serious and valuable than any of these ideas “video-philosophy” calls to mind.
The story of how these videos came to be made does, however, have something of a movie story feel to it. Rudolf Fara was born in Scotland, to an Irish mother and a Polish father, who during World War II had, as Fara ironically puts it, “spent a sojourn in Siberia as a guest of Stalin” and whose family could count among its number Italian aristocrats and the last Prime Minister of Poland. Raised and educated among Jesuits in Pennsylvania from the age of 11, Fara came to Britain in 1967 to study for an MPhil, “where I tried to apply a Darwinian analysis, rather loosely, to Marx’s theory of alienation.”
What happened next epitomises Fara’s disregard for standard practice and his can-do attitude. “I had a choice. Did I want to pursue an academic career or should I pursue something else? Frankly, I just couldn’t stand living on a student budget any longer. I think I was good enough to go on and do it, but my heart really wasn’t in it, so I was one of 2500 candidates that applied for the two positions as staff writers on the first BBC co-production, with Time-Life from the United States. The job was one of the biggest prizes in journalism at that time that one could win.” Did he have a background in journalism? “None at all. How I got the job is really very interesting. I had done a course called “Masterworks of Western Civilization” as part of a university literature course in the U.S. I wrote a term-paper on a renaissance artist called Giotto, and in order to qualify for the Time Life/BBC job you were given a set of spreads which you had to write captions for and a little feature article within a couple of days and send them back. I was given a set of spreads on Giotto.”
It’s the kind of break most people would kill for. But Fara could not be contained. “I worked for just over a year, but it was too slow to me. By that stage computers were beginning to hit the headlines. I was fascinated by the potential of these things.” So he produced a series on computers, statistics and operations research for use in universities as teaching resources and on the back of that, set himself up as a freelance, moved to California in 1976, and became very successful.
Once again in an enviable position, once again restless. “By 1987 I had become disenchanted and for various personal reasons I decided to get out of it.” Having spent a lot of time to-ing and fro-ing between the States and Britain, Fara began to talk to some of his philosopher friends, notably Tim O’Hagan, and the late Martin Hollis at the University of East Anglia, about the possibility of producing “something audio-visual and educational for philosophy. The emphasis was always pedagogical for me. It wasn’t doing feature films, feature TV and so on. Martin and Tim were very supportive, and thought that it might be possible, but they were sceptical as to whether anything pedagogically substantial could be produced. While these ideas were developing, Fara was offered the job of executive director of Philosophy in Britain, an organisation aimed at improving philosophy’s public relations and image. And to gain further background for his work, Fara enrolled for an MPhil in Philosophy at King’s College, London. From this base, Fara’s first philosophy video emerged.
“As it so happened I met Mark Sainsbury (Kings College, London), whom I had known some twenty years before in Oxford. We quickly became good friends and he was extremely supportive. It just so happened that a very interesting thing had occurred. There was an organisation called the Sino-British Summer School in Philosophy, which annually ran six-week intensive courses in philosophy in China, supported by the British Academy. AJ Ayer had been the previous British co-president, and Peter Strawson took over when A J Ayer died. The idea was to create a little video which would be a thumbnail sketch of Peter Strawson’s philosophy for the Chinese philosophy community. I was invited, because I had experience in producing this kind of thing, to direct it, and I did so. That was in 1993. We had hardly any budget for it whatsoever, no professional studio, and we produced what I think is a very reasonable one-hour programme in which Strawson is interviewed by Martin Davies and Mark Sainsbury on his major philosophical theses. It was shown at the Joint Session of Mind and The Aristotelian Society at Reading in 1993.
“The room was absolutely packed. I was told to expect perhaps 50 people turning up. There were about 200 people squashed into this theatre. It provoked a lot of discussion. Christopher Peacocke and Quassim Cassam then wrote reviews of the programme and I felt that the effort had been very worthwhile. My sights were now set on something significantly more than that. I reasoned that it wasn’t possible to expect someone like Strawson, or people I had in mind such as Quine and Davidson to squeeze into an hour anything like their developed thoughts about where they would now stand on the issues raised by their lives’ work. So I approached Quine and he agreed to be the first subject of a proper archive.
The term “archive” is crucial to understanding Fara’s goals. What he is interested in producing is not some public-information film, but a real resource that will serve the study of philosophy for generations. “What’s the point of producing an archive? One could argue that there’s enough written material about any major philosopher for people to get on with, from Aristotle right up to the present. However, I thought that what was not being captured was the all-important dialectic between the interlocutor and the subject in the way in which philosophy develops. Much of philosophy develops through theses presented by major philosophers in the key journals. In time people respond. Sometimes the criticisms of the responses that emerge are not responded to anymore, they’re just left. So you don’t know whether the progenitor of the original thesis still holds it. Another question is, ‘How clearly does the thesis of a particular philosopher, as it’s presented second hand, accurately capture that thesis?’ I thought this was where telecommunications, namely video, might help. The medium is perfectly suited for a dialogue between the subject and discussant; where criticisms of the major theses are brought up, the subject responds and in the end, hopefully, you will get a clear presentation of what the major doctrines were, a clear presentation of the contra-opinions and where the particular subject happens to stand on these issues. This dialectical process, in the best Socratic tradition, not only serves to elucidate the subject’s lifetime of work, but also sheds light on the thinking and work of other important contemporary thinkers.”
One can see therefore, how Fara’s videos differ from perhaps their only precedent, Bryan Magee’s two eighties series. “Bryan Magee did something totally different from what I had in mind. I think that what he did in his two series is absolutely brilliant. I know that a lot of people have used his material. I’m told that bootleg copies from the TV programmes are worn through from use in the classrooms, and that was a further reason for me to do what I was doing because I thought that good as it was, it was inadequate as pedagogical material.”
In 1994, work began on putting the Quine series “‘in the can’ as cheaply as possible while not compromising the broadcast standard level one would shoot for. Through the summer, we [Fara and Martin Davies] contacted virtually everybody who we thought would be a good panellist in the series of discussions which we had in mind. I was going to be the chair; Martin Davies and Paul Horwich co-anchor persons; Quine himself and then we had the idea of having another guest panellist for each of six programmes. In addition, I would do a personal interview which would give a non-technical, biographical overview of his life and philosophy and which could be presented to a wider audience.
During the recording of these films, it became clear that Fara’s belief that the videos would be of real value to scholars was completely vindicated.
“The first question to answer is, “Were there any new, really novel things that came up. I think in the case of Quine, a number of things came up, but I think that the most interesting pedagogical contribution is clarification of the Quinean theses.
“People attribute to Quine pragmatism and declare: ‘Quine is a pragmatist in the great American tradition of Dewey, Pierce and James.’ For many Americans it’s cosily seen that Quine carries on that tradition. But when this is presented to Quine himself, he says he respects Pierce for quite a number of things, but he has never viewed himself as a pragmatist and has never even been clear about what is meant by pragmatism. He declares himself to be an empiricist.
“Another thing that came out of it extremely clearly was on the question of where he stands on the issue of logical empiricism (positivism). Since ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’, the paper that is widely cited as ringing the death knell for logical empiricism, Quine has often been regarded as the destroyer of that movement. Van [Quine] doesn’t see it that way at all. He retains much of his logical empiricism and says that he saw himself as a revisionist of the movement. He felt very much that he was carrying on from Carnap and that he was presenting and clarifying the views of logical positivism, while revising and cleansing it. So you see that also runs contrary, in fact, to many ways in which Quine is actually taught, and that comes out very clearly in the panel discussions.”
At the same time as work was beginning on the Quine series, the project was given another boost by Nancy Cartwright’s invitation to provide a base for Philosophy in Britain at the newly established Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the LSE. For Fara, having a base in such a major hub of international philosophy has proved invaluable. “I cannot overstate the thanks that are due to Nancy’s generous support,” he is keen to stress.
After the Quine series, which was very well received and was the first (and as yet only) video to be comprehensively reviewed in the heavyweight journal Mind, came the even more extensive Davidson series. This comprised nineteen videos, in the same format, which Fara finally completed last summer, after a hiccup induced by the sudden loss of all available studio space in London to the international news media, following the death of Diana. More are due to follow. “I’ve invited various persons to submit themselves to being the subject of an archive and I’ve had acceptances from Chomsky, Dummett, Dworkin, Putnam, Rorty and Searle. But I will need to get funding.”
And there’s the rub. Cash.
“Philosophy International [the name of the video archive project], doesn’t yet cover its costs [Fara hasn’t had a pay cheque since he began the venture in 1994!]. The initial view I had was that it would eventually become self-sufficient. I don’t see that as being possible. There are two problems. One is that if you produce something of professional quality it is effectively based on TV broadcast, and so, on TV budget standards. Unsurprisingly, then, it costs an awful lot to produce an archival project. Secondly, it’s not possible for me to price the series by simply dividing the costs of production by the number of series I might sell. The numbers I can possibly sell won’t be very large, so the cost of a series would be high, considerably higher than philosophy departments, or humanities libraries in universities can afford.
“My hope then is that with two archival successes and the Strawson as background, I won’t be simply be presenting some grand idea to a potential sponsor or funding body. I’ll be able to show some living testimonial to what can be accomplished and to suggest that they should help with the costs of production, so that the resulting broadcast-quality resources – archives of some of our greatest living thinkers, after all—will become available in perpetuity at affordable prices to individual students and institutions worldwide. I am cautiously optimistic that a philanthropic foundation, or even a corporate sponsor, will see the merit of preserving this important facet of the world’s intellectual history.
“Why don’t I produce it using the audio-visual department within a university? Because frankly I want to create an archive that will exist 500 years from now, so I want it to be created to the highest possible standard.”
It’s taken a rare combination of self-belief, determination and sheer chutzpah to get this far. Let’s hope his heroic solo services to philosophy get the backing and recognition they richly deserve.