I was born on 7 November 1962. I was due to have been born on my father’s birthday, 26 October, at the very height of the Cuban Missile crisis, but I was, understandably, hesitant to join such a dangerous and stress-filled world.
I was brought up in the village of Barnby Dun, which lies on the river Don near Doncaster, in South Yorkshire, England. The region is a low-lying inland one of marshes and farmland, intersected with canals, dykes, and railway lines. In my childhood it was still a coal-mining area. Barnby Dun is evocatively described in this Granta essay by the writer Colin Grant. The Michael Swann mentioned in the essay was my best friend as a young child.
My ancestors were farm labourers, railway workers, tradesmen, and their exhausted, frequently pregnant spouses. They were mostly chapel people; they worked hard, earned little, brought up large families, and, when required, fought in their country’s wars. Most came from South Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, though my paternal grandfather came from York, and I still feel an affinity with that city.
My father, Arthur, was a fitter at the local Rockware Glass plant. He was a quiet, thoughtful, sensitive man, with an engineer’s mind (he could fix most things) and a love of gardening and nature. He knew how to nurture things, and everyone who knew him loved him.
Dad was a talented cricketer, who kept wicket for the village team (a strong side, which at the time included the former England leg spinner Johnny Wardle), and he gave me a love of the cricket and a (sometimes strained) commitment to Yorkshire CCC. Dad taught me to bat (in orthodox style, with impeccable forward defensive) and would take me down to the ground on Friday evenings to help prepare the wicket and give me catching practice. The happiest times of my childhood were spent at village cricket grounds around South Yorkshire. While Dad played and Mum kept score (she was a cricket-lover too), I would run wild with the other kids.
Dad also gave me a love of aviation. As a boy during the war, he’d been a keen plane spotter, and he did his National Service in the RAF in the late ’40s, working on the last generation of piston aero engines. He would help me make model aircraft, bought from Cutriss’s model shop in Doncaster, and take me to open days at the nearby Finningley RAF base, where nuclear-armed Vulcan bombers waited for the order to attack (the growling grey deltas were a common presence in the skies of my childhood). I dreamed of being a pilot.
My mother, Eileen, had been a clerk at Rockware, but during my childhood she was a full-time homemaker and carer. She was (and remains in her 80s) an energetic, optimistic, and caring person, who shares with me a quirky and surrealistic sense of humour. It was Mum who cultivated my love of books. Some of my earliest memories are of going with her to the local library in Stainforth to choose books for her to read to me. We went on her bike — we had no car — with me on a child seat Dad had made. Mum read to me every day after meals, introducing me to Paddington, Jennings, Biggles, the Lone Pine Club, and, later, the world of Dickens. She was a talented, expressive reader, and I am deeply grateful for the love of literature she gave me.
My parents liked hiking, and on weekends and bank holidays we would take the train into the Peak District and do long walks through the valleys and across the windswept boggy uplands.
I was an only child, anxious, and somewhat lonely. My elderly grandmother, who was born in 1895, lived with us, and I enjoyed spending time with her, sitting by the coal fire in her room and listening to her stories of village life in the early years of the last century. In some ways I felt more at home in the past than the present.
I was also a questioning child and felt anxious if I couldn’t understand something fully. I would badger my parents and teachers, pressing them to explain why the maths rule I’d been taught was correct or why a certain sentence should be interpreted one way rather than another. I guess I’ve never grown out of this annoying habit.
I didn’t make strong friendships, but I played with other village kids. We would go down to the railway line and watch the trains, make dens in the wood behind the cricket field, or take long bike rides through the countryside. My aunt and uncle had a farm in the neighbouring village of Kirk Bramwith, and we would often go over there to climb the haystack, roam the fields, and shoot at apples with my uncle’s air file.
In my early teens, I developed a strong interest in nature and wildlife, and, influenced by James Herriot and Gerald Durrell, I decided that I wanted to work with animals as a vet. Gerald Durrell’s books also sparked a life-long love of Greece.
After the local primary school, I attended Hayfield Comprehensive School and then, for a period, Doncaster Grammar School (now Hall Cross Academy). I did well and enjoyed the lessons, especially maths and chemistry, but I was not happy at school. In my mid-teens I fell seriously ill, and my education and plans to be a vet were cut short.
Having left formal education, I started to educate myself. I spent many hours reading, working through the classics with the dedication of an audodidact. The Penguin Classics and Penguin English Library were my staples (the books are still there in Barnby Dun), but I ranged widely, reading poetry, science, history, psychology, and, for the first time, philosophy. My parents encouraged me — they also loved books — and we would make frequent trips to second-hand bookshops in the region (many now closed, alas). I also became interested in the classics and learned Latin and Ancient Greek, taking A levels in both as an external student.
Later, in my 20s, I studied for an Arts degree with The Open University, taking courses in literature, ancient history, and philosophy. I enjoyed all the subjects, but philosophy was attracting me more and more. It promised to pull together many of my interests, which crossed the sciences and humanities, and it was a subject where I could give full reign to my questioning nature — and even be rewarded for it. By this time I had also developed a fascination with psychology, so I naturally came to focus on philosophy of mind.
In the 1990s, I went on to do postgraduate work at the University of Sheffield, which ran a strong MA programme in mind, meaning, and intentionality. I took a taught Masters degree there, writing my concluding thesis on Dennett’s belief/opinion distinction. I continued at Sheffield as a doctoral student, supported by a British Academy studentship. My PhD thesis, which was supervised by Peter Carruthers and Chris Hookway, distinguished two types of belief and proposed a two-level framework for folk psychology.
While at Sheffield I also held a Temporary Lectureship in the Philosophy Department, teaching courses in mind, language, and action — an experience I greatly enjoyed. I was also closely involved in the work of the Hang Seng Centre for Cognitive Studies and became a strong believer in the value of interdisciplinary collaboration.
While at Sheffield I met Maria Kasmirli, a fellow philosopher who had come to Sheffield to do postgraduate work after taking her first degree at Keele. She was one of the cleverest, kindest, and most capable people I had ever met.
In 1999, I returned to The Open University, this time as a Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at the University’s main campus in Milton Keynes. A large part of the job involved designing courses and writing teaching materials for them — a stimulating and rewarding task. I worked on several courses throughout the 2000s. I helped to design the course A207: From Enlightenment to Romanticism c.1789-1830, prepared a block on folk psychology for the University’s MA in Philosophy, and wrote a book on consciousness for the third-level course AA308: Thought and Experience: Themes in the Philosophy of Mind. I also chaired various course teams and taught at residential schools.
In the early 2000s, I was also a Senior Member of Robinson College, Cambridge, and in my spare time I acted as a Director of Studies for the college, overseeing the work of the college’s cohort of philosophy students.
Maria and I were married in December 2002. The philosopher Nigel Warburton was our best man.
During this time, I continued to pursue my research, first building on my earlier work on folk psychology, and later developing further interests in the philosophy of cognitive science, consciousness, and the philosophy of psychopathology. I also had the chance to promote interdisciplinary collaboration, organizing a major conference on dual-process theories in 2006 and directing the OU’s Mind, Meaning, and Rationality research group. The OU promoted me to Senior Lecturer in 2008.
Later in 2008, I moved to Crete, Greece — a move made for family reasons. In 2008-9 I was a Visiting Researcher in the Department of Philosophy and Social Studies at the University of Crete, and from 2010 I have had an honorary position as Adjunct Professor with the University’s Brain and Mind Program, which is hosted by the Faculty of Medicine. I remain associated with The Open University, as a Visiting Senior Research Fellow. In recent years I have also renewed my connection with the University of Sheffield. In 2017 the Philosophy Department there awarded me the title of Honorary Reader, and in 2022 that of Honorary Professor. In these roles I contribute to the department’s activities on a pro bono basis.
I currently live in Heraklion, a busy coastal city flanked by high mountains. Maria and I have three children. In 2021 I took Greek citizenship.
Aside from family life, my interests include movies (especially those of Bergman, Powell and Pressburger, Jean Renoir, and the French New Wave), the history of Crete, and cricket. My favourite writers include Thomas Browne, Laurence Sterne, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, and James Joyce. I still love cricket, aviation, and the Greek islands. My unfulfilled ambitions include learning to fly, meeting Bob Dylan, and getting together a Cretan cricket XI.