On Philosophy, Prison, Freedom and Shame

An interview with philosopher Andy West

Will Buckingham
8 min readDec 9, 2021

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Van Gogh, Prisoners Exercising (1890), Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Andy West is Philosopher in Residence at HMP Pentonville, and the author of the frankly brilliant The Life Inside: A Memoir of Prison, Family and Philosophy, which is due out from Picador in February 2022.

Q: One of the reasons I’m interested in doing these interviews is I want to get a sense of what it means to do philosophy. So my first question is this: how did you get into philosophy? And what drives you as a philosopher?

When I was a kid and my brother was inside, it was painful to experience how flattening the narratives were around people in prison. I think experiencing stigma so intimately installed this fundamental sense that things are always more complex than they appear. I think that might have been my first taste of the philosophical instinct. I think it’s still the main thing that drives me today: the idea that the more space we make for complexity, the less space there will be for shame.

Q: Your book, The Life Inside, is incredibly rich. It is part memoir, part account of teaching in prisons, and part meditation on freedom, confinement, prison, guilt, contingency, and philosophy itself. If you could pin down the book’s central philosophical, or even existential, preoccupation, what would it be?

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Will Buckingham

Writer & philosopher. PhD. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. HELLO, STRANGER (Granta 2021): BBC R4 Book of the Week. Twitter @willbuckingham