A reporter from the US Chronicle of Higher Education contacted me to see if I was willing to be interviewed about Ray Tallis. Apparently the Chronicle is running a big spread about Tallis to mark the American launch of his new book Aping Mankind. I was more than happy to offer my views. I have long thought of Tallis as one of the hidden treasures of British culture, to set alongside the likes of the Horniman Museum, Little Atoms and Richard Overton’s forgotten masterpiece An Arrow Against All Tyrants.
Of course, anyone who has appeared on Desert Island Discs – and been chosen by Kirsty Young as her luxury to take to her desert island – could hardly be said any more to be hidden. After decades of burrowing away, writing poetry and philosophy at the crack of dawn before settling down to his day job as Professor of Gerontology and Project Director of Neurosciences in Greater Manchester hospitals, Tallis has, over the past few years, finally found an audience. He has also found a place on Prospect’s list of 100 top British intellectuals, been named as one of the Economist‘s top 20 polymaths in the world, become a fixture on the literary festival circuit, and pops up regularly on shows such as Start the Week, Night Waves, Late Review and A Good Read.
In a culture such as ours that rarely breeds public intellectuals, a figure such as Ray Tallis, who is as lucid talking about Parmenides as about potassium uptake, as eloquent discussing Heidegger as human evolution, while also getting his hands dirty running a large chunk of the NHS, is both unusual and exciting. ‘If there were a statue of the Unknown Polymath’, the journalist Andrew Brown once observed, ‘it should look like Raymond Tallis: rangy, bearded, wide-eyed with disciplined wonder.’
Tallis’ philosophical work stretches back over more than thirty years. And it’s been quite a journey. Much of his early work was rooted in criticism of postmodernism and poststructuralism. Much of his current work is a critique of what he calls ‘neuromania’ and ‘Darwinitis’ – that is, the forms of unreflective naturalism that have become increasingly fashionable. What links the different strands in Tallis’s work is a defence of reason, not in an abstract fashion, but as a condition of human life. It is a defence of the human, not simply as an object, whether natural or cultural, but also as a subject. A defence, that is of humans as conscious agents, who through that agency are able to create the rational tools through which to apprehend the world and discover truths, empirical and otherwise.
What is perhaps most valuable about Tallis is his refusal to be pigeon-holed and his insistence on thinking for himself. He is a diehard atheist who is willing to question too-easy naturalistic explanations, a materialist who puts human consciousness and agency at the centre of his work, and at the centre of human life. Certainly, there are issues on which I disagree with him. Talis’ argument can sometimes seem scattergun, highly sophisticated criticism mixed with relatively crude ones. I have far more time for Daniel Dennett’s work than Tallis does, and far less for Heidegger’s. I am less skeptical than he is about the ability of either evolutionary psychology or neuroscience to tell us something significant about the human condition. I have, however, learnt an immense amount from Tallis, from his embrace of humanism, his defence of reason, his critique of cultural pessimism, his dismissal of ready-made fashionable answers. And so will have anyone else who has had to think deeply about what it is to be human – and about how one should approach that question.
In an age, and in a culture, that can laud a philosopher like John Gray, Tallis is more than indispensible. Gray in many ways is the intellectual and philosophical anti-matter to Tallis’ matter: deeply pessimistic, deprecatory of human reason, agency and consciousness, hostile to ideas of progress, cynical about secularism. The rapture with which Gray’s books are often received tells us much about the character of our culture. It also tells us why we need people like Ray Tallis.