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Writer & philosopher. PhD philosophy. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. Next book Hello, Stranger (Granta 2021). Twitter @willbuckingham

PAST IS PROLOGUE

If we want to work better, first we need to think better

We spend much of our lives working. And much of the time we are not working, we spend talking about work, recovering from work, fretting about work, or wondering if we should work more or work less.

But less often do we stop to think more deeply about work. What, after all, is work? Why does it loom so large in our lives? And when it comes to questions like these, philosophy can help throw more light on what work is and why it matters.

What is work?

In his book on the philosophy of work, Lars Svendsen says that work, at the…


Writing fiction is like making bread. You need to know when to knead it, and when to just let it rise.

The other day, I took a break from my writing desk and went into the kitchen to make bread. There’s something therapeutic about the process of mixing flour and yeast and water, combining it, then turning it out onto the table to knead it into shape.

When I write, sometimes words and ideas start to slip away from me. Things become intangible. At times like this, it is good to roll up my sleeves, head into the kitchen and chuck a bit of flour around. There’s something about making dough, combining it, turning it out, and kneading it into shape…


In a world obsessed with conversation, physical books bring us solitude and freedom.

Several years ago, I attended a talk by the Canadian poet Erín Moure. She talked about poetry and translation and writing. It was a talk so full of brilliant insights that, as I jotted things down in my notebook, I struggled to keep up. But after the talk, as I looked back at my hastily scribbled notes, one line stood out:

Books are emigrants. They belong where they end up. — Erín Moure

In a couple of short sentences, Moure managed to conjure something of the essence of why books matter to me, something about the solitariness and freedom this…


Myanmar helped me come to terms with grief. Now I am grieving for Myanmar.

I arrived in Yangon for the first time in January 2017, my life broken into pieces. The previous year had been punishing. In August, Elee, my partner of thirteen years, died of breast cancer. Before her death, we talked about what I would do after. I said I didn’t know. ‘You should get away,’ Elee said. ‘Once everything has settled down, you should get away.’

And because Elee’s advice was always good, that’s what I did. The week after Elee died, I saw a job advertised in Myanmar. I had never been to Myanmar before, and knew very little about…


PAST IS PROLOGUE

Philosophy is the love of wisdom. But sometimes, wisdom requires that we embrace our foolishness.

Philosophy is literally “the love of wisdom.” And because of this, you might think that philosophy has no time for wisdom’s opposite: foolishness. But the relationship between wisdom and foolishness is, in fact, complicated and vexed.

Throughout the history of philosophy, wisdom and foolishness have gotten tangled up in all kinds of interesting ways. Many philosophers have argued that there is a kind of wisdom in foolishness—and a kind of foolishness in what passes for wisdom.

Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was a self-confessed know-nothing. Over in China, the ancient Daoist text, the Zhuangzi, counsels us that we should give up…


The Chinese philosopher Xunzi argued that human nature is bad. But recognizing our badness is the beginning of goodness.

The Chinese philosopher Xunzi (c. 310–235 BCE) is famed for his claim that we are bad by nature. You might think that this is a bad thing. But for the Confucian Xunzi, the recognition of our innate badness offers us the hope that the world can become a better place.

We don’t know much about Xunzi’s life. But it seems that, like Confucius before him, he was an itinerant advisor to kings and rulers. He is said to have had some success in this, and was appointed to several high positions. …


If you don’t listen, you close yourself down to what the world is saying.

This piece in memory of my late partner, Dr Elee Kirk, was first published in the journal Museum & Society back in 2018. I’m republishing it here to coincide with the fifth anniversary of Elee’s death.

There is a tuna skeleton in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. It is beautifully displayed in a wood and glass case. Its jaws gape, and whenever I see it, I am reminded of quite how big tuna are.

But there is something else about the skeleton that is strange and wonderful. Because if you stand in front of it, and if you…


Plato’s theory of forms, and the pursuit of the ideal

What makes an ideal, or perfect, cat? What makes an ideal, or perfect, political state? Is there such a thing in the world as perfect justice? For that matter, what makes anything ideal? These questions have preoccupied philosophers since the earliest times. And one answer to these questions was provided by the great Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427 — c. 347 BCE), and his ‘theory of forms.’

Plato’s theory of forms is one of the most enduringly strange parts of his philosophy. It is also one of the main centres of gravity around which Plato’s work turns. But it is…


The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi argues our obsession with making ourselves useful risks ruining us

We all want to be useful in some way or other. We want to do useful work. We want our lives to have some kind of useful meaning and purpose. But, according to the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou, our obsession with usefulness makes us our own worst enemies.

Zhuang Zhou is a shadowy figure. Often called Zhuangzi (sometimes written Chuang Tzu) or Master Zhuang, Zhuang Zhou lived in China sometime between 369 and 286 BCE. …


The philosophers of the Aztec world teach us how to thrive in a world in motion

This afternoon, unmindfully making my way down the street, I stumbled over an uneven flagstone. Momentarily, I lost my balance, then I righted myself again. No harm done, I continued on my way. But sometimes I haven’t been so lucky. I’ve fallen into holes and sewers, stumbled over stones and rocks and bits of low-lying street furniture. I’m naturally clumsy, prone to tripping, stumbling, falling over, and losing my footing.

So when I first stumbled across the fundamental insight of Aztec philosophy—the insight that the world itself is slippery, that losing your footing is all-too-easy—I felt as if this was…

Will Buckingham

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