In this interview, Alex Rosenberg, R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University, talks about being a stateless refugee and red diaper baby, the assassination of JFK, trying to understand the nature of reality via physics, becoming preoccupied with Kant and Hume, auditing classes with Danto, Vietnam and the draft, smoking, drinking, and sex in NYC, how Alston drove him away from grad school in Michigan (and they latter reconnected), working on his dissertation at Johns Hopkins and creating the field of philosophy of economics, studying microbiology, how his work in economics has affected his work in politics, the flatness of philosophy, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, returning to economics after the financial crisis of 2008, the role of purpose in economic and biological explanations, the Atheist’s Guide to Reality, finding an agent, writing fiction, the philosophical origins of the Girl from Krakow, the agenda of Autumn in Oxford, how his writing process has evolved as technology has evolved, Peter van Inwagen, Philip Roth, hanging with David Chalmers on election night, Casablanca, Mad Men, and his last meal...


Where did you grow up? What did your parents do for a living?

I was born a stateless refugee in Austria soon after world war two and arrived in New York as a child of 3 and ½ in 1949. My parents were from Poland. My mother had survived the war on false identity—it's a story so dramatic I actually had to water it down a bit in my first novel, The Girl from Krakow. My father escaped and served as a medical officer for a time in the Soviet Army. After we came to the US he became a psychiatrist. My mother did graduate work in social work and eventually became a professor at Columbia University.  But before we settled on the Upper West Side of Manhattan my family lived in West Virginia (culture shock for my parents) and rural New Jersey.

Religious household?

In the long shadow of the holocaust my parents had no religious belief, but didn't impose atheism on their children.

As a little kid, what were you interested in?

Table talk in my parent’s home was politics and history, so very early I became a reader of history and biography, a fascination that has stayed with me. History was the school subject that came easiest to me. It was too much fun to make a career of, I supposed. I loved to draw and so was early sent to local art schools, and finally the Art Students League. But I grew up in the Sputnik era during which there were strong incentives to take an interest in science. For me that meant physics. It led me to choose a science education at Stuyvesant instead of the High School of Music and Art. Growing up with American “red diaper babies” I became one too, joining SDS in high school, campaigning for nuclear disarmament, and for insurgent Democratic party candidates, civil rights, and by the time I was in university protesting the Viet Nam war. I was probably the only Yankee fan in my SDS chapter however.

JFK was assassinated around this time, right? Do you remember where you were?

I remember everything about that day… where I was when I learned, who I was with, what we said, how I spent that entire weekend, including Jack Ruby’s murder. First I had to explain the constitutional consequences to my German teacher, who had just arrived from Britain, then I walked home, a long way from Harlem to the upper west side. I was outraged that the NFL didn’t cancel its schedule. I spent that week end pretty much alone all the way down to John Kennedy Jr. salute the gun carriage with the coffin. It was a terrible weekend. I thought it would be the saddest day of my life…but then came similarly sobering experiences in 1968, the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, followed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August…then, not much later, Nixon being elected!

Did you start thinking about what you were going to do for a living in high school?

By the time I was in high school I knew I wanted to be a physics professor. But what I didn't know was how to study. Or rather I didn't have the maturity or perspective or intelligence to will the means to my ends. I was a mediocre student, lazy with low standards for myself and easily distracted. I almost failed Spanish just because I couldn't make myself study something I wasn't interested in. So I mistook sloth for inability (turned out I was good at language and now speak a couple pretty well).  Going to university was axiomatic in my subculture and staying in it was required to keep that draft deferment. My father told me I could attend any university I was admitted to, so long as it was free. That made attending the City College of New York inevitable.

What would your teenage self-make of your current self? If you could give yourself advice back then, what would it be?

The advice I’d have given myself is obvious: work harder, you indolent slob. I’ve often wished I could do high school again. Stuyvesant was the most challenging part of my education (including grad school) and I hadn’t been grown up enough to give it my best. My teenage self would have been very surprised at the critical attitude I now harbor towards him.

What were you looking for in physics?

What I wanted from physics of course was to understand the nature of reality. But I made a conceptual mistake about physical explanation and that led me into philosophy.

What was the mistake? It sounds like you started taking your studies more seriously!

Supposing that a fully adequate answer to the question of what the nature of reality is would have to make that reality rationally intelligible by showing it to be necessarily arranged in only one way. It took reading David Hume to make me see the mistake I had made about causality and scientific explanation. By the time I saw the mistake it was too late to go back to physics. Besides I was better at philosophy. Perhaps this was because I had grown up and now knew how really to work at something. Or was it the reverse—had I gotten serious about working at philosophy because it was so absorbing? I never figured that out. Moreover I had also discovered another subject that interested me greatly: economics. As person of the left I had no time for mainstream neoclassical economics (I think we called it bourgeois economics back then). But B.A. degree requirements forced me to enroll in an econ class. I postpone doing so till the last possible moment, second semester of senior year. That’s when I discovered this really interesting discipline. I might have switched majors if I had discovered it sooner. But I was already bound for grad school in philosophy.

What did your parents make of the decision to pursue philosophy?

My parents were not pleased about my studying philosophy. But as they weren’t paying for my education or even really supporting me (back then you could ‘work your way through college’), they didn't have much say. I don't think my father was reconciled to my career choice until I became a full prof. What was really important back then was not so much what you studied as staying in university and then going to grad school to avoid securing a “McNamara Fellowship”—a year or more in Vietnam, all expenses paid. Grad school would be no hardship for me as I had always wanted to be a professor.


Both at City and at Columbia parties meant politics. The word ‘party’ described your ideological stance and when you went to what we’d now call a party, there was a basket to put contributions in, not for beer, but for a cause—first civil rights, later anti-war, finally the student organizations that swept east from Berkeley and Ann Arbor. There was smoking and drinking and sex, but it was all for the cause.

Favorite classes?

When my mother became a professor at Columbia a tuition waiver enabled me to transfer but by that time was too intellectually comfortable in the CCNY philosophy department. Most of my last couple of years was spent on the Columbia campus, working and studying in the libraries, auditing Arthur Danto’s classes. I took Robert Paul Wolff’s class in Kant when he taught it one semester at City. So I had a bit of both worlds.

What was Danto like?

Arthur Danto influenced me mightily even though we only spoke a few times. He made me realize how powerful analytic philosophy could be, addressing questions beyond its rather narrow domain of origin in metaphysics and epistemology, e.g. in the philosophy of action, in history and art. I don’t think he ever knew my name however. His classes were large and I was an auditor.

What attracted you to Kant?

I suppose I became interested in Kant because of a residual resistance to Hume and a hope that transcendental arguments, whatever they were, might provide the intelligibility and necessity that I had been looking for in physical explanations of the nature of reality.

What was the process of applying to graduate school like? How did you make decisions about where to apply, what writing sample to use, that kind of thing?

In 1966 Ph.D. programs in philosophy and other disciplines had been ranked for the first time, in the Cartter Report that identified the U of Michigan as the top program. So I applied there, along with literally hundreds of others, vying for perhaps 20 places—Ann Arbor’s need for TAs was formidable, and there was vast (post Sputnik) funding from the federal government as well in those years, including NDEA (National Defense Education Act) Title IV fellowships, NSF fellowships. My Honors thesis wasn't ready for prime time, so I sent a paper on Russell’s “neutral monism” about the mind/body problem. I also applied to Johns Hopkins because the application was only 2 pages and there was no application fee. I visited Ann Arbor (along with 4 friends all applying to various programs at U of Michigan), arriving the day grad admissions decisions were to be sent out. I presented myself before a secretary who informed me that there was no record of my application in the dept. files. In despair I went to the grad school (the Rackham Building—I still remember every detail) where my application file was found lying on top of a filing cabinet. Owing to this error the chair of the department, Richard Brandt invited me to meet with the director of grad studies to see if my application could be reconsidered. It turned out I was missing a reference, from the CCNY prof I had taken 5 classes with! I was asked to supply the reference, so I called him “long distance” that evening. No answer. It was a Tuesday evening and I knew he was to be found at McSorley’s Old Ale House (no women allowed) in the East Village on Tuesday evenings. So I called him there “person to person.” He agreed to supply the needed reference immediately. Next day I met with, Bill Alston, the director of grad studies. He made such an unfavorable impression on me I decided pretty much then and there I could not put my fate in this person’s hands. When I got home there was an invitation to visit Johns Hopkins to discuss admission and some financial aid (grad tuition alone at Hopkins that year was an astronomical $2000, so financial aid was imperative). Eventually I was admitted to Michigan but owing to my experience with its director of grad studies and my agreeable visit to Hopkins I enrolled there.

You ever figure out what was going on with Alston?

14 years later I was a tenured full prof at Syracuse. My colleagues saw the opportunity to appoint Bill Alston. I demurred, explaining that I had met him many years before at a formative and vulnerable moment in my life and he had not made a favorable impression. My suspicions were assuaged by my friends, especially Jonathan Bennett and Peter van Inwagen. I was told that I had encountered Alston at a difficult time in his own life. I relented, Bill was appointed, and he was a kind and good friend to me for many years thereafter. I always suspected someone told him the story of our initial acquaintance.   

What was John Hopkins like? Favorite teachers in grad school?

Johns Hopkins was then and now, a small department, then even smaller than now, and much smaller than Hopkins will be a few years from now. I went there expecting to work with Maurice Mandelbaum, a specialist in the history of philosophy and the philosophy of social science, but he was gone so much I never had any classes with him.

Why did you stop working on Kant?

I read someone else’s thesis, written at Ann Arbor, Bob Howell’s, on the subject, didn’t think I could do better and more important, concluded that Kant hadn’t succeeded either. Second, a couple of Aussies—Graham Nerlich and Max Deutscher--who visited Hopkins in my second year really convinced me that Hume had things right. That’s why eventually I wrote Hume and the Problem of Causation with Tom Beauchamp, still the best thing I’ve ever done in philosophy. I gravitated to the orbit of Peter Achinstein and even more Stephen Barker. Tom Beauchamp and I had lunch with Stephen Barker every day for almost three years. It was an informal but influential education in being careful and cogent. We dedicated our Hume book to him. But Stephen Barker was by no means a charismatic teacher. When I returned 40 years later, I found a copy of our Hume book in the Hopkins library. On the dedication page, some undergrad had written, under his name, “Not our Stephen Barker?”

haha…what was your dissertation on?

Eventually I decided to write my thesis on the philosophy of science for economics. There were several reasons. My discovery of the subject late in my undergrad education, the fact that Hopkins had a great economics department with several household names in the field, and most important the subject didn’t exist in philosophy. It was a green field in which I would have no literature to review, no competing theories to refute, no agenda of problems except my own. Choosing that subject was certainly the smartest thing I ever did. But Steve Barker refused to supervise the thesis owing, he said, to a complete ignorance of economics. That was no obstacle for Peter Achinstein. It’s perhaps ironical that 25 years later Peter and I shared the Lakatos Award (he for a book in the philosophy of physics and me for one in the philosophy of economics—the prize jury had no idea we were teacher and student). Largely owing to the “green field” character of my dissertation topic I was able to complete it quickly, despite exorbitant length, and left grad school after 3 years.

Finished in 3 years. What was your hurry? Did you feel pressure to publish? Advice?

One reason I was eager to leave was that Tom was finishing too and I didn’t relish grad school without his company. Another reason was a job offer in Canada, at Dalhousie University in Halifax Nova Scotia where one of the faculty was the most important philosopher then working in my field, David Braybrooke. He was my first great role model and mentor, teaching me how hard one needed to work and how much one needed to edit one’s own work. Three of my first papers were written jointly with him and he encouraged me to publish several others in the philosophy of economics. These were accepted at good journals, probably owing to the absence of qualified knowledgeable referees and no serious competition. But this good fortune and Braybrooke’s mentorship made getting tenure easy, so easy I’ve given it up several times, moving to other jobs and taking my chances on getting it again. This is no longer a strategy I would advise.

Still friends with anybody from grad school?

The two best things about Hopkins were my fellow students: besides Tom Beauchamp, there was Helen Longino, Charles (Chuck) Morton Young and for a brief time Lynne Rudder Baker, plus a few other brilliant students who disappeared from the profession for one reason or another; and then there were the two Aussies, Graham Nerlich and Max Deutscher, who came for a term each and treated us grad students like friends and colleagues. I’ve been a fan of philosophers from Oz ever since!

Love Longino! What is she like?

What was she like? I haven’t spent much time with her for…almost 50 years! Helen was brilliant and distant. She and Vickie Spellman kept company politically and to some extent philosophically back then. I seem to remember her smoking unfiltered cigarettes, perhaps even Gitanes or Gauloises, but perhaps I am simply filling out the image of continental mystique and unapproachability she exuded back then. Everyone admired her from afar. She’s far more approachable nowadays.

Run into any trouble teaching your first time out?

My first classes were philosophy of science, especially philosophy of psychology, a course I taught jointly with a well-known operant behaviorist, the late Werner Honig (we used a book I found by some guy named Fodor, Psychological Explanation it was called), and a yearlong course on Hume and Kant. I gave up the Kant teaching after deciding I really couldn’t make head or tail of “the transcendental deduction in A.” Lucky I hadn’t written my thesis on the subject.

Did you get along with your colleagues at your first gig?

I loved my colleagues at Dalhousie, and still maintain an acquaintance with a couple, after nearly 50 years. We all played billiards at a pool table in the common room till the dean took it away. With nothing to do we began publishing papers instead. The first time I was ever invited to give a talk, it was by Tom Beauchamp, in his first (and only) job, at Georgetown. I figured it was the only one I’d ever be invited to give. Tom and I have remained close friends now for over 50 years!

How has the philosophy of economics changed? You must have a unique perspective!

I worked on the philosophy of economics for the first decade or so of my career. As I said, it was a smart move academically. In those first few years there was interest and no competition. Then Dan Hausman wrote a great dissertation, won the Bancroft Prize and published it as a book. Suddenly there were other voices in the field, better ones. The result was my mind was changed, several times, about some of the fundamental questions regarding the scientific adequacy of mainstream economics. Within 15 years or so there were dozens of books, two journals and a whole learned society devoted to the subject. And I was the philosophical first mover in the field. For years when I gave talks people said, “You can’t be him. You’re too young.” Ouch, am I that old? It’s strange, having skipped a grade in school, and finished my PhD in three years, I was always the youngest in my department—youngest faculty member, youngest associate professor, youngest full professor…not any longer alas. But one great thing about our profession is how flat and un-hierarchical it is. I still think it’s the best job any one can have.

What do you mean when you say “philosophy is flat”?

I never experienced any hierarchy or rank-pulling in philosophy. You had a good argument, or you didn't. Of course, there are a few (very few) philosophers who attach importance to pedigree and a few who, in the words of another colleague and friend, John Martin Fischer, act like they are “the chosen people,” but by and large you can’t pull rank in philosophy and there are super-smart people everywhere.

How has your work on economics affected your perspective on politics?

The longer I’ve thought about mainstream economics, the more committed to the agenda of the left I have become. Almost all the arguments for the allocative efficiency of the market (the main thing it’s uncontroversially supposed to be good for) are arguments for governmental interference in the market, especially in the interests of equality. Differences in ability and ambition will always confer market (and then political) power and so eventually deform the most competitive market into serious market-failure. Every generation or so, some kind of redistribution (to reduce market-failure-producing-market power) is required if the market is to do what its defenders claim it can do—allocate efficiently. The unsolved problem for us on the left is to figure out how to confiscate and redistribute without giving perverse incentives to people to wastefully consume and depriving them of incentives to invest productively for the whole economy.

What were you doing when the Berlin Wall fell?

I always thought that the arrival of extraterrestrials was more probable than the collapse of the Berlin Wall. And if anyone had ever asked me what historical event would I have liked to live through, I would have said, the liberation of Paris in August of 1944. Well the week end the wall came down was just that sort of event. And where was I? In Florence, Italy, only a night train’s ride away, giving lectures at the Institute and Museum of the History of Science. Sitting in the pensione on the Arno I asked myself why I hadn’t just upped and caught a train for Berlin. I regret to this day that my sense of obligation kept me there giving those damn talks.

If it is any consolation, I agree. You made a huge mistake! How and why did you get into philosophy of biology?

The trouble with doing philosophy of economics was that few economists cared a fig about what we philosophers thought about their discipline, and some like Deidre (then Don) McCloskey were abusive about it. None of this was true about biologist’s attitudes towards philosophers of science. By the mid 1970s I stopped doing the philosophy of economics and was teaching the philosophy of biology. By the end of the 70’s my research moved entirely into that area. Not only did biologists care about what philosophers thought, but the discipline—both evolutionary and molecular—was much more exciting than economics, and raising interesting problems we could help with. It was the age of The Selfish Gene and Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, and there were great people working in the area, Elliot Sober, Philip Kitcher, my eventual colleague Robert Brandon, and wonderful senior scholars, generous and supportive, like David Hull and in his own gruff way, Michael Ruse. And the students I’ve had in the phil bio were wonderful and have gone on vastly to outshine me: Samir Okasha, Grant Ramsey, Frédéric Bouchard, Marion Hourdequin, Russell Powell, and Stefan Linquist. Though I published another book on philosophy of economics in 1992, I was fully preoccupied by the relationship between biochemistry and Darwinian theory from the early ‘80s, when I used a Guggenheim and an ACLS grant to study molecular biology.

I know Ruse. I know what you mean. Explain for readers!

Michael likes to shock. I’ve seen him do it on two continents and in four or five countries. He relishes taking strong positions and being a bomb thrower (even more than me). He has no tolerance for hypocrisy or for poseurs (and he thinks almost everyone has a little of the poseur in him or her).

You’re into politics. What was your reaction to the September 11th attacks?

Almost immediately I thought this is a police matter, not a casus belli. And my regret over the 2000 decision by the Republican party in judicial robes deepened greatly.

So, why did you return to philosophy of economics?

The financial crisis of 2008. At that point economists, or at least consumers of economics, had begun to take an interest in the philosophy of economics (in 2008 even the Queen asked why the economists had missed the sub-prime mortgage bubble). So, I have been doing a bit of philosophy of economics in the last few years, as well as teaching the subject to fairly large classes of students who no longer accept what their economics professors teach without qualm or question. And there is so much more good stuff to teach on the subject, starting with columns by Krugman in the New York Times.

What were you thinking during the financial crisis in 2008?

The hope that, as Rahm Emmanuel said, a good crisis not go to waste.

What’s the connection between biology and economics, you think?

The connection between the domains of biology and economics, between the disciplines that study them, and the philosophical appreciation of them, is a reflection of the overwhelming importance in all the biological, social and human sciences of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the light it sheds on the appearance of purpose in nature and in human affairs.

Speaking of which, what’s the story behind The Atheist’s Guide to Reality?

Most naturalists following Dan Dennett as far back as Content and Consciousness in 1965 and Larry Wright in Teleological Explanations have adopted some version of the “selected effects” account to tame purpose for causal inquiry. I have been among the minority dissenters who hold that the Darwinian approach doesn’t naturalize purpose, doesn’t make it safe for causal inquiry and empirical science. It banishes purpose from nature. It reveals the complete absence of real goals, ends, aims, etc. from everywhere in nature, including human behavior and its neural causes. Once I came to that conclusion a lot of the ‘Scientism’ that I advocate became compelling for me.

I dig it.

The times were propitious for advocacy. Dawkins had written The God Delusion, Dan wrote Breaking the Spell, Hitchens and Harris had weighed in. So, it wasn’t hard to find an agent and sell a trade book idea to Norton. That’s how The Atheist’s Guide to Reality came to be—disenchanted naturalism. My working title had been “Reality—The Rough Guide.” Copyright restrictions precluded that title and my agent and editor insisted we cash in on the atheism craze.

Could you describe that process, finding an agent and selling a book, for those who are unfamiliar?

It’s a great shame that in contemporary trade publishing agents are a necessity. No editor will look at anything that comes in from authors directly. This filter between authors and editors doesn't yet exist in the academic presses. Let us hope it never arrives. Anyway, both for my non-fiction and my fiction I needed to find agents, who then flogged my manuscripts to editors. It takes longer to get an agent than for the agent to find an editor and land a contract. It took a year and 105 inquiries to land my fiction editor. A good agent is of course your first and perhaps most important editor and only foolish authors flout their agents’ advice.

Any criticisms of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality you find particularly troubling?

The criticism of that book I take seriously focuses on challenges to my scientism from our knowledge of mathematics—this is a serious problem for all naturalistic epistemologies, and the self-referential problems facing the defense of eliminativism about the intentional.

So how did you end up writing the girl from Krakow? Autumn in Oxford?

The Atheist’s Guide to Reality made two claims, the first—that science answers most of the perennial questions of philosophy, was widely rejected. The second—that narrative explanations are worthless in history, biography, politics and everywhere people tell stories, that thesis was not even understood. I realized that the only way to communicate my attack on narrative was to write a narrative. So, I began writing what turned out to be The Girl from Krakow. I don’t think history has any value except for the pleasure its stories provide and I set out to tell a pleasurable or at least absorbing story that revealed the worthlessness of storytelling to the understanding of what befalls us, or at least befell my heroine in the 10 or so years surrounding the Second World War. Alas, my agent and my editors between them stripped 3/4ths of the philosophy from the 120,000 words with the result that the book has sold about 400,000 copies with no one any the wiser about the emptiness of narrative. Writing the novel was fun, more fun than philosophy, hard, but not as hard as philosophy. And since I had other arguments to push I wrote another novel, this time history masquerading as mystery, Autumn in Oxford which is thinly disguised attack on American racism and the McCarthyist use of communism as a stick with which to beat the 1950s civil rights movement. Now I’m writing another one on the betrayal in 1930 of the Labour government by its prime minister, disguised as a narrative about a young woman member of parliament, Jennie Lee. All three of my novels are fictions about real people, but with an “agenda.”

Cool! What's your writing process nowadays? How has it changed since grad school?

I write every morning, and was an early adopted of word processing, slavishly aping the innovations of another great philosopher and great friend, Jonathan Bennett, who gave up his IMB selectrics (two of them—office and home) for desktop computers in the early ‘80s. Like David Braybrooke before him, he was a great role model to me. He knew early on and made us all see that the computer removed every impediment to editing, revision, improvement, the cultivation of elegance and clarity of expression that had been imposed by the long queue for fair copy manuscript typing by departmental secretaries. Philosophers younger than 50 can’t even remember those by-gone ages.

Interesting upcoming philosophical projects?

Writing (intentional) fiction hasn’t stopped me from writing more philosophy. In the last few years my interests in biology have narrowed to philosophy of neuroscience, which I have parlayed into a new book, combining philosophy of mind with a critique of narrative. MIT is going to publish the book, How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories in the fall. It reports how three Nobel prize-winning breakthroughs in neuroscience should have an impact on the credibility of storytelling. I think neuroscience is in general going to have a profound impact on the agenda of philosophy in the next century. But then I would think that, wouldn’t I?

haha right right!

The question is whether the truths neuroscience teaches us will seep out into the broader culture and have an impact on our institutions. I suspect that the philosophers I respect most, like Dan Dennett, are anxious about this. Better to be anxious about it than just averting your eyes from it, as other household names in our profession are prepared to do.

Given your suspicions of narrative, it must be a little weird to do this interview!

No. Stories are entertainments, diversions, and sometimes they even provoke useful or at least creatively productive emotions. Perhaps some of the stories I’ve told here will have a good effect or at least distract and absorb readers.

Who is the best philosopher with whom you disagree most? 

A well-known British historian, A.J.P. Taylor, once admitted to having a large number of extreme views, all lightly held. I’d like to think that is the case for my own opinions. I know that there are much smarter philosophers who profoundly disagree with me. Among the smartest is one of my closest friends: Peter van Inwagen. We’ve been close enough for long enough to be best men at one another’s’ weddings. But he believes we have free will and I don’t, He is a Christian and I am not. He believes that there are only simples and organisms, and I don’t. As he is the smartest philosopher I know, and we disagree so much, I can’t be very confident about my views.

Beautiful! Interviewing him right now. How did you meet your wife? Kids?

I met my wife, Martha, while teaching at Oxford in the mid-90s. She’s an American who had moved to Britain and was living in Oxford. It’s my second marriage. During my first one I’d come to the conclusion that if I remarried it would be to another philosopher, so we’d appreciate each other’s arguments. But love overpowers reason and it didn’t end up that way. Martha finished a Ph.D there while working full time and has written a couple of books about women in business. Now she’s the director of the markets and management studies program at Duke. We have two grown kids.

Favorite works of fiction?

My favorite contemporary author is Phillip Roth. A second favorite is Alan Furst. It probably shows in my fiction. I also read le Carré assiduously but mainly I read history and biography. Among the ones I’ve enjoyed most lately is Gaddis’ George Kennan and Ray Monk’s biography of Oppenheimer. His Wittgenstein: The Duties of Genius taught me more about Wittgenstein than most philosophical works.

It’s a great book. What was your election night like in 2008?

I was at David Chalmers’s home in Canberra. It was morning there, and all I could think of was what Wordsworth said about the arrival of the French Revolution:

Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!

For mighty were the auxiliary which then stood

Upon our side, we who were strong in love!

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven!


What did the great French statesman say about the loss of Alsace-Loraine: “Think of it always, speak of it never.” After the Second Gulf War started, I had stopped listening to NPR news altogether, just to retain my equanimity. I didn’t start again until 2008. I stopped for the second time in November of 2016.

Favorite movies? Favorite TV show? Favorite website?

Casablanca, Casablanca, and Casablanca. Mad Men. NY Times.

Going to retire?

Why retire when you don’t work for a living?

Love it. Last meal?

La cuisine française—escargot, frogs legs, tarte tantin, sancerre, armagnac.

Thanks for your time, Alex!