My first university degree was an MA in European History and Philosophy at Edinburgh, which I subsequently took to honours in British History. While at St Andrews studying for my PhD, I started the student Philosophical Society, and entertained some of the great minds of UK Philosophy as they came up to speak. I met personally with Sir Karl Popper, Sir Gilbert Ryle, HLA Hart, PF Strawson, Sir Isaiah Berlin, FA Hayek, and others.
My thesis was Trial & Error and the Idea of Progress (later published by Open Court 1978), taking the view that our scientific knowledge is acquired by the Popperian method, but does not describe reality, but a model system whose rules we follow in order to enable us to predict what we shall observe.
After graduation I went to the US, where I was for four years (1975-78) Distinguished Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Hillsdale, Michigan. My classes included History of Western Philosophy, Representative Thinkers of Modern Europe, The Great Codes of Law, Philosophy of History, and The British Empiricists. The most popular class was my Introduction to Logic, and the most popular element of it was the section on logical fallacies. After I returned to the UK to found the Adam Smith Institute, my work on logical fallacies became Book of the Fallacy (published by Routledge 1985). This treated 76 types of logical fallacy in what I hoped was a readable and light-hearted way. It was revised with a few newly identified fallacies, and became How to Win Every Argument (published by Continuum 2007).
Following its success I conceived the idea of a condensed account of philosophy, one accessible to intelligent lay people who might have heard the great names, and would welcome a shorthand account of what they stood for. I kept within the Western tradition, beginning with the ancient Greeks, and taking it right up to the modern era, with one of my subjects still living. The aim was to cover what they said, what was innovative and important about it, some criticism, and something of the flavour of their lives – all in about 400 words for each of them!
The result was 101 Great Thinkers – Makers of Modern Thought (published by Continuum 2009). Controversially I felt free to include “anyone whose thought has changed the way we think about ourselves, our societies or our world,” and my 101 include such thinkers as Galileo, Newton and Darwin, among the more conventional philosophers. Stephen Poole in the Guardian described it as “surprisingly readable,” so I obviously achieved one of my objectives.