At 9.30am promptly, AC Grayling begins a two-hour Introduction to Philosophy lecture for year one students in an airy conservatory at the back of his new private college. For anyone whose attention is straying, there are views on to a yard with plane trees, a white stucco mews house and the blackened brick of the smart Bloomsbury townhouse where the New College of the Humanities is based. None of the 19 students is gazing out of the window, however. They are focused on the lecture, which centres on René Descartes, but considers along the way the nature of knowledge and how we obtain it.
“You all know, because you were reading a biography of him last night in the bath no doubt, that Descartes was born in 1596 and died in 1650, a period of great advance in science and philosophy,” Grayling begins in a melodious voice. The students make dutiful notes on A4 pads, or straight on to their laptops. The lecture is fascinating; 45 minutes pass happily, and I have to force myself to stop paying attention so I can look at the students: 15 male, four female, all white, dress code quite preppy, not much piercing.