In this interview, Brian Leiter, Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago Law School, founder and Director of Chicago's Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values, creator of the Philosophical Gourmet Report as well as Leiter Reports, talks about growing up in NYC, playing basketball, and breaking into basements in the 60’s and 70’s, moving to the suburbs as a teenager, thinking about death, girls, and getting into theater, figuring out what philosophy program was right for him (before the Gourmet Report), taking classes with Rorty, Harman, and debating Dinesh D’Souza at Princeton in the 80’s, practicing law, meeting his wife, getting back into philosophy (which was a lot less lucrative than law), why the world would be a better place if we all knew how to sue each other, how his interests in Nietzsche and philosophy of law are related, studying philosophy at Michigan, which he thought was somewhat brutal, but also a bit beautiful, working with Railton, creating the Philosophical Gourmet Report, the wissenschaftlich ideal and the slave revolt in philosophy, starting Leiter Reports, his fight with the Texas Taliban, and moving to Austin, the diversity problem in philosophy and how he thinks we can fix it, the low point of his career (it’s not what you might think), new projects on Nietzsche, Marx, and religion, the New Infantilism, Walking Dead, and his thoughts on Donald Trump.
I understand you're a New Yorker. What part of New York did you grow up in?
I was born in Manhattan in 1963, and grew up in Park West Village, an apartment complex on Central Park West between 97th and 99th. This was before the utter gentrification of the Upper West Side—Park West Village was popular with school teachers, as both my parents were. It was the last “outpost” of middle class housing on the Upper West side then. The kids who lived north—“the poor folk”—would periodically come to steal our basketballs or mug us (they were usually White, by the way, some Hispanic White). Park West Village itself was quite integrated, so much so that I didn’t realize that some of my friends were “Black people” until I moved to the suburbs in 1972, and encountered open racism and stereotyping. But as a kid, being Black or White didn’t mean anything, very unusual in retrospect.
As a kid, what did you do for fun?
Our major activity for fun was basketball, which we played non-stop in the playgrounds at the center of Park West Village. The Park West Village police, when they were off-duty, would play with us. We’d form teams that would be size/age-matched: each team had one off-duty cop, one teenager, and one kid, like me, in the 7-9 age range. One gets quite good at basketball under circumstances like this. My best move was to steal the ball from the cops, by running through their legs (these guys were tall). My best friend was probably Andre, son of the Superintendent, he was from Argentina. We engaged in a lot of malfeasance together, including breaking in to basement storage areas in the Park West buildings to set up encampments as well as “rescuing” and trying to hide stray dogs in the buildings. In our least successful episode, we found a stray dog and parked him in the stairwell on the 20th floor of our building (the top floor). The dog’s howling well into the evening forced me to confess to my parents, and sheepishly go to retrieve the beast and set it free. (The stairwell was full of concerned adults with flashlights; I walked right by them, saying I knew the ‘owner’.) So basketball and mischief loomed very large. So too did thievery, which was briefly my career plan (after my mother nixed bus driving, which was the only career I could actually identify as accomplishing something at the age of 7). I successfully shoplifted some bubblegum from a local convenience store, and even lifted $4 from my friend Sharon’s bedroom safe which she left open—though I quickly confessed and returned it. I, myself, was the victim of a few attempted and successful muggings—in which I lost one basketball (later recovered by the Park West Village cops) and some chips and candy that I bought from the nearby Woolworth’s. As a fairly young child, from the ages of 7-9, I basically traversed large parts of Manhattan on my own—from Central Park, to the Museum of Natural History, to the various decrepit brownstones a few blocks West, where we would go in search of stray dogs and cats. Philosophy, I should add, played no role in my life during this time. I moved to the suburbs in 1972, at age 9, and things did begin to change.
Sounds like a Wes Anderson film. I also had felonious tendencies as a kid. What were your parents like? How did they react to your hijinks?
My parents were, in retrospect, quite tolerant of the mischief, not that I didn’t get in trouble at home but in the sense that they didn’t ship me off to reform school! I guess it was infrequent enough, and I had other redeeming virtues. Both my parents were teachers, as I mentioned, in the public schools, though my mother stopped teaching for a long time when my brother (born in 1970) and I were young. She earned a PhD in English (a dissertation on Thomas Carlyle) during this time, and then returned to public school teaching, mostly elementary school, in Queens later in life. My father taught at various places in New York, including the New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, which will be familiar to readers of a certain age as the school featured in the opening clips of the old TV series “Welcome Back Kotter.” But he also worked for the United Federation of Teachers, initially as a district representative for the union in Brooklyn (including Bensonhurst, lots of mafia families there!) and then for the central UFT organization in Manhattan. He had done graduate work in English at NYU prior to my arrival on the planet, and might have pursued a career in academia or poetry, though I bolloxed up those plans! As a kid, I went to the Calhoun School, a relatively new “progressive” school: since they were “progressive “ they didn’t really teach the kids very much given all the “freedom” accorded us. As a result, my mother is the one who actually taught me to read, not the school! My mother, who was passionate about opera, also tried less successfully to interest me in that; I am quite sure I attended more performances at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York than most teenagers. We would study the libretto in advance, so that I understood the plots. Met productions were spectacular, but I have to say the plots struck me as mostly preposterous melodramas (which they largely were!), and my interest in the music was uneven. My mother also sang in a Gilbert & Sullivan group, and she was a very good singer; I have very fond memories of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. She made me switch, alas, from guitar to piano when I was young, thus depriving the world of a potentially great figure in rock ‘n’ roll. (One day my “basement tapes”—4-track recordings with me on vocals and guitar and my super talented friend Tommy Williams playing guitars, keyboards, bass, drums etc.—will be released, I’m sure.) My parents divorced in the 1970s, and it was not, shall we say, “amicable.” Since I’m basically a very private person, you’ll forgive me for not going into great detail. My father was always the most important influence on me, and that was even more true after the divorce. He was the one person I could always count on, no matter what. It’s been one of the good fortunes in my life that he now lives near us here in Chicago, where he also gets to see his grandchildren quite regularly.
When you moved to the suburbs and started high school, how did you adjust?
I moved to the ‘burbs in 1972, when I was 9, having spent my “Freudian years,” as I like to say, in Manhattan. In the suburbs, I encountered for the first time both racism and anti-semitism, but I also made lots of new friends, some of whom I am in touch with to this day. My “sports career” ended with the lack of interest in basketball in the burbs and then my failed attempt at baseball. By middle school, I was gravitating towards “verbal stuff”: I served on the school magazine, Rebound, and began to take an interest in theater, which continued into high school. Among other dramatic ‘achievements’, I was the “Gentleman Caller” in a production of the Glass Menagerie. My friends were a mix of intellectual and theatrical types. I started a humor magazine with my friend Robert Hutter, now a lawyer in Rochester, it was called Pseudo—we circulated it in mimeograph form among high school friends and my friends at theater camp at Usdan on Long Island.
What was on your mind as a teenager? Did you start thinking about what you were going to do in college?
Girls, certainly, but also death and politics—reading the biography of A. Phililp Randolph made a deep impression on me. Reading Sartre in French AP also had a big effect. Based on my reading of Sartre, I decided to apply “early action” to what I had heard (this is 1979, God knows how I “heard” this—maybe the “Gourman Report”) was the school with the best philosophy department, Princeton. Little did I know that only one faculty member there, Walter Kaufmann, really thought Sartre was an important philosopher. I got into Princeton, and never applied anywhere else. Ironically, Kaufmann died a week before my freshman year started. And I went to college with the plan to be a lawyer on behalf of civil rights—Randolph was not a lawyer, to be sure, but reading his biography made me realize that lawyers can do important things.
That's interesting...why was death on your mind?
How can death not be on your mind once you realize the abyss of nothingness that awaits? I’m not sure that’s a particularly good explanation but 35 years hence, I may not be able to do much better.
In high school, for a month, I carried Kaufman's "The Portable Nietzsche" around like some Baptists carry around the Bible. What was the philosophy department like at Princeton post-Kaufman?
The Philosophy Department at Princeton from 1980-1984 was representative of its peak position in the profession. I took both Aristotle and Plato with Michael Frede—I got an A+ from him on a paper on the Crito. I used that as my writing sample when I applied to grad schools. I took “Systematic Ethics” with Gil Harman, who was not a dynamic lecturer, but allowed us to rewrite papers after getting comments for a higher grade. I learned a lot from that, and admire his dedication to students in giving them that opportunity. My first philosophy course in fall 1980 was a basic logic course, which I took not knowing any better—it certainly didn’t improve my reasoning, but it was useful to know the basics when it came to philosophy of language (with Scott Soames) and other courses. Rudiger Bittner taught a course on 20th-century Continental philosophy—he was not a good teacher, alas. I had Richard Rorty his last term at Princeton in Spring 1982, for a course called “Kant to 1900”: we read Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and William James! It was a crazy course in some ways (Raymond Geuss abolished it when he arrived in 1983), but Rorty had a story to tell, one about reactions to Kant: the crazy reactions (Fichte, Hegel), and the good “pragmatist” reactions, namely, Marx, Nietzsche, and James. He was an excellent undergraduate lecturer. It was the first time I read Nietzsche, which, shall we say, had an impact on me, even though, in retrospect, it’s clear Rorty’s take on Nietzsche was idiosyncratic. Chris McMahon taught a nice course on social philosophy, in which I first read Marx seriously and benefitted from his analytically rigorous approach to the text. Raymond Geuss returned to Princeton in 1983, and offered a good course on Marx, Nietzsche, Freud—he offered a very attractive model for engaging Continental figures, though even then Geuss was a parody of a neurotic academic. Tim Scanlon advised my senior thesis, kindly and constructively—that was right before he left for Harvard. Perhaps the absolutely strangest part of my undergraduate education was a junior seminar for majors on “Decision Theory” with Richard Jeffrey. I had no idea what I was getting into. The class included Homer White, the only summa graduate our year, now a mathematician; and Mark Crimmins, now tenured at Stanford. I was out of my depth, but remarkably I ended up getting an A+ in the class, my only A+ in a philosophy class at Princeton. How did I do it? David Lewis had a famous paper arguing that the Prisoner’s Dilemma is really just a Newcomb Problem. I demonstrated that the problems are crucially disanalogous, and thus that Lewis was wrong. Seriously. Dick Jeffrey and the other students looked dumbfounded; I was dumbfounded, I have no idea how I came up with it. And, ironically, I no longer remember what the argument was and I can’t even find the notes. But Dick Jeffrey wrote me what I imagine was a supportive letter for grad school.
Did you continue to participate in the artistic aspect of "the verbal stuff"?
I did a lot of theater my first two years at Princeton, and got to know Harold Langsam, now a philosopher at UVA, partly through that. Harold, even then, was passionate about philosophy; I still recall a discussion section in Harman’s Ethics course in which Harold was really getting furious at the stupid comments of another student. This led Harman to memorably remark: “Don’t get so excited, it’s only philosophy.”
Find an outlet for your political interests at Princeton?
I wrote for various student newspapers, where my far left views got me some fans, but lots of hate. I was such a notorious “leftist” that my senior year, I debated Dinesh D’Souza, then fresh out of Dartmouth and editing the alumni magazine created by right-wing Princetonians, in front of two hundred students at the Whig-Cliosophic Society. One of my first philosophy TAs, Christia Mercer, now at Columbia, introduced me to the local grad student reps of the Sparatacus Youth League whom I met with (they were looking for undergrads), though they didn’t make a particularly positive impression on me. I worked for “Focus on Youth” radio, a Princeton program, for which I interviewed Mickey Rooney, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Vernon Jordan, and the Socialist Worker candidate for President in 1984.
When did you realize you wanted to do philosophy for a living?
Certainly by sophomore year, especially after reading Nietzsche, and having taken several philosophy courses, I knew I really liked philosophy. But in senior year, even then the job market looked grim, so after parental consultation, I decided to apply to both law schools and philosophy departments. I took the LSAT with little preparation and on very little sleep. I still remember yelling at the two idiots talking outside my window at 2 am in the morning! I scored in the 94th percentile, as I remember. That got me rejected almost immediately from Penn Law--which subsequently offered me a tenured positions 15 years later! I got into Michigan Law, where I was also admitted to Philosophy. Michigan had, on paper, a JD/PhD program, and back then (1984), everyone seemed to think it was Harvard, Yale, Michigan when it came to law schools, so off I went to Ann Arbor. As with Princeton, I was in for lots of surprises.
Surprises? Explain! Who did you work with at Michigan?
Surprises? Let’s start with the fact that when applying in the fall of 1983, I got a brochure that listed Richard Brandt who had retired two years before! This was before the PGR, before the Internet, students were quite hostage to what departments sent out. But the other surprise was that the JD/PhD program that existed on paper did not exist in reality—there was no meaningful interaction between the units, no guidance, and, indeed, a PhD student was not eligible for the best forms of financial aid if he or she was also doing the JD. The other surprise was that, on paper, Michigan looked reasonably friendly to the Continental traditions in philosophy; the reality on the ground was different.
Anyway, I decided to do the JD first, and take philosophy courses, both in the law school and in the philosophy department to the extent I could. I was lucky my time at Michigan Law overlapped with the relatively brief tenure of Fred Schauer, who taught a course in the fall of 1985 on “Legal Realism and the Critical Legal Studies Movement” which was quite important for me, and Schauer subsequently let me sign up for an independent study developing my research on American Legal Realism and legal indeterminacy—my “second dissertation” I usually call it. I finished the law degree, and took a job with a law firm in New York, with an eye to learning about real-life lawyering and saving some money to return to graduate school. In another stroke of luck, the last living name partner of the firm I worked at, Milton Handler, an emeritus professor at Columbia, was a junior colleague of the Legal Realists in the 1930s, and I learned a huge amount from him and we remained friends until his death in 1998 (he was 95).
At what point did you realize your primary interest was in philosophy of law rather than practicing?
My time in law practice was very fruitful—I learned that the Legal Realists were right about courts, and that the mainstream Anglophone tradition in legal philosophy badly misunderstood their insights. It was fruitful in profoundly personal ways too. During my time in New York in the late 1980s, I also met my wife, at a party full of Columbia grads. My “pick-up” line to the beautiful, tall redhead sitting on a sofa at the party: “Are you a deconstructionist?” She thought that was funny, but still blew me off later that evening! But we met again at other Columbia parties, and, luckily for me, she eventually asked me out. Three lovely children and 25+ years later, that worked out better than I deserved. I still remember sitting in a bar near Columbia explaining to my wife-to-be that I was going to quit my high-paying law job to study for a PhD in philosophy in Ann Arbor that fall. She took it very well, offering her full support. The main partner at the law firm I worked for (not Handler) said to me: “You’re crazy.” It’s probably true I will retire with several million less than he did. I have no regrets.
So, what did you dislike about practicing law?
I did not dislike practicing law (apart from the lack of autonomy), but I did not like it as much as philosophy, scholarship, and teaching. My hope even before I started practicing law was to return to graduate school and, happily, that worked out. Coming out of law, and especially in New York, I probably did not find the combative atmosphere in Philosophy at Michigan as unpleasant as some others did. Litigation, maybe especially in New York, is combative and aggressive! Some fellow PhD students at Michigan subsequently used to joke that if you had a problem with service at a restaurant, you wanted me to be there! I did sue one landlord in Ann Arbor, and threatened to sue one restaurant that gave food poisoning to me and three others—they settled.
That reminds me…maybe I have low self-esteem, but for me, it doesn't seem like it's worth my time and energy to retaliate legally, even when I’ve been wronged. You seem to be eager to litigate when you feel like you've been wronged? Is that a fair characterization? What explains that? Where does that impulse come from? Is it a desire for vengeance? Justice?
You don’t lack the energy, you lack the ability! When it comes to legal redress for wrongdoing, it’s what anyone who knew what counts as legal wrongdoing and how to seek redress for it would do. People behave in awful ways all the time, and some of that awfulness is unlawful: as when landlords try to steal security deposits, or restaurants poison their customers, or employers renege on their contractual commitments to pay certain compensation, or people make false statements of fact that disparage someone. Once in awhile I let this stuff pass, but mostly my policy for my whole adult life has been to hold wrongdoers to account. There’d be less such behavior if legal services were more affordable and most people could do the same.
Do you see your interest in philosophy of law as related to your interest in Nietzsche? What do you find appealing about Nietzsche? Law?
As to my slightly oddball mix of interests, well I guess the unifiying theme is an attraction to contrarian thinkers, Nietzsche on the one hand, the American Legal Realists on the other. And both were, in some broad sense, naturalistic revolutionaries in their theoretical domains. Both were more right than wrong in my view, the mainstream of philosophy notwithstanding. I hope my scholarly work on them has helped to make that case.
So, what was the atmosphere like at Michigan, academically?
I attended Michigan in the “bad ‘ole days” as it were, it was a ferocious and combative philosophical environment, though one I found very enjoyable. Paul Boghossian and David Velleman, junior faculty then, were slaughtering visiting speakers and sometimes students. Larry Sklar, in disgust at at job candidate’s answer during a job talk in the library, turned around and pulled a book off the shelf behind him and started reading it. Allan Gibbard and Peter Railton, who were the two clear intellectual giants, were generally much more gentle, though equally direct. In retrospect, it was a great intellectual environment, at least for me. All these scholars represented the wissenschaftlich ideal that made so-called “analytic” philosophy unique in the humanities. That ideal is now dying, a real tragedy.
When you say Boghossian and Velleman were slaughtering visiting speakers and students, what do you mean? Can you give an example? Your dissertation advisor was Peter Railton, what was that like?
There were grad students who burst into tears in seminars under withering questioning—that’s how extreme Michigan was at times! Boghossian once got a visiting speaker to write on the board a series of propositions based on his talk that the speaker endorsed, all of which forced him to refute his own paper! I remember there was a lot of hesitation among the faculty about inviting Charles Taylor as a “Nelson” visitor—a distinguished philosopher who came for a week or so. The hesitation was that most faculty thought he was not a very good or careful philosopher, certainly not by Michigan standards. I don’t disagree with that assessment, but he was an enjoyable Nelson visitor. Michigan was a severe place! Peter Railton, who was my primary advisor, was intellectually severe in a good way, but always professional and pleasant. Stephen Darwall, the Chair during much of the time I was there, was also a constructive influence. I was grateful that he took my suggestion to invite Michael Forster, then a young assistant professor at the University of Chicago, to visit and teach a course on Hegel. Forster also gave me excellent advice on my Nietzsche work. Some 20 years later, I have the privilege of regularly teaching with Forster here at Chicago.
I'm assuming you started teaching at this point. Did you enjoy it?
I did TA at Michigan, and was quite successful at it, which was gratifying. I can recall TA-ing Bioethics for David Velleman, and an intro to modern philosophy course for Louis Loeb. They were both very enjoyable and interesting lecturers, though often a bit too difficult for the undergrads, but this gave me as the TA a purpose, namely, to help the undergrads understand both the texts and the lectures. Teaching is wonderful, and I’ve been super, super lucky to teach really smart students, who have enriched my understanding of my subjects, starting in graduate school.
You started the PGR in grad school, right? Could you tell me a little bit about creation of the Philosophical Gourmet Report and what the motive was there? From a purely technological point of view, was it difficult putting it together? How did you distribute it?
I did start the PGR while a grad student, through a series of accidents. I had done a lot of research on PhD programs, beginning when I was an undergraduate. At Michigan, I would meet with the Undergraduate Philosophy Club to talk about grad school. In response to interest from the undergrads, I drafted a five or six page document about the best programs overall, and in a few different areas—this was 1989. I put a copy on reserve in the Tanner Philosophy Library at Michigan, so students could access it. But then my fellow grad students asked if they could copy it and send it to their friends who were still undergrads. That made clear to me how much need there was for something better than the nonsensical “Gourman Report” (now moribund) or the various fabrications departments put out. It circulated for years by photocopy, until NYU put it on the internet in 1996, and then Blackwell picked it up the following year. Four years later, crazy Richard Heck had his tantrum about it—since students were turning down Harvard in droves for places like NYU and Rutgers (heavens!)—but it carried on.
What did Heck say about PGR? What do you consider the most annoying criticism of the PGR? What’s the most fair criticism of PGR? How did you decide on a methodology?
I really don’t remember the details of what Heck said—he used the word “harm” a lot, but that’s about the only thing I recall! The irony, of course, was he did nothing to help prospective students after his tantrum. I do remember I responded at the time, so anyone interested in the actual arguments can consult that. The whole sorry affair was illustrative of something that everyone outside academic philosophy knows, namely, very able technical philosophers are often damn fools in all other respects. All the best suggestions for improving the PGR have come, without exception, from those who contributed to it over the years. Almost all the other criticisms were on the spectrum from self-serving to silly. The PGR was a fabulous resource, unlike anything else in any field, that let prospective students in on the secret sociology of the hierarchy in the profession. I hope it can continue, but the “slave revolt” in philosophy exacerbated by the Internet is now a real obstacle.
Could you explain the term "slave revolt" for folks unfamiliar with Nietzsche?
By “slave revolt,” I’m alluding to Nietzsche’s idea that our Judeo-Christian morality arose from an inversion of previous values, an inversion that was self-interested, but in the interest of the “slaves,” literal and otherwise. I do think what’s happened in the last few years is that people who aren’t very good at philosophy and/or feel otherwise marginalized in the profession have taken to the Internet, and under various high-minded sounding moralized banners—equality, fairness, inclusiveness and so on—have launched an attack on the idea of philosophical excellence and smarts. In its dumbest form, it amounts to saying that “excellent” philosophy is just work by upper class white men in the Judeo-Christian West…it’s a sign of some progress that those revolting don’t accuse good philosophy of being “Jewish” anymore! The PGR has always been primarily a sociological document: it exposes the hierarchy of the profession to view by students. It’s a bit disgraceful that some academics want to deprive students of this information about a sociological reality. But putting that aside, it seemed to me that the hierarchy actually tracked some intellectual virtues, ones absent from the “slaves,” virtues like clarity and discursive and scholarly rigor. Read some Simon Critchley or Kelly Oliver if you want an idea what the alternative looks like. That may be less true now, I fear, for Weberian reasons: the demand for specialization has forced philosophical work in the Anglophone world into a fair bit of scholastic nonsense lately. The return of armchair metaphysics, unhinged from the sciences, has been a particular disaster. There’s no doubt the PGR still tracks the sociology of the profession quite well, but even I have more doubts about how well that sociology tracks worthwhile philosophy. But that’s a separate issue from the “slave revolt”: the Internet has given a forum to the mediocre and resentful to exact their revenge on the hierarchy the PGR has long recorded. The viciousness and dishonesty of the opponents means anyone running the PGR has to be prepared for endless rounds of character assassination, but I am confident that Brit Brogaard will carry it on.
You still friends with any of your grad school cohorts?
I had wonderful compatriots in graduate school, the three most important (to my intellectual development) were John Doris, now a preeminent figure in philosophy & cognitive science at Washington University, St. Louis; Jose Zalabardo, a philosopher of language and epistemologist at University College London; and Alexander Miller, who holds the Chair in Philosphy at the University of Otago. Zalabardo and Miller both came to Ann Arbor because of Crispin Wright, who taught there in the late 1980s and early 1990s—my good luck. But I was also deeply impressed by the more senior grad students at that time, like Don Loeb, Connie Rosati, and Sigrun Svavavrsdottir. I also lived in New York (where my wife had a job), and spent time at Columbia, where I was very lucky to meet Scott Shapiro, then a PhD student there, and he and I talked a lot, it was great.
What was the market like when you finished the dissertation? Where did you land you first job? What was the department like?
I went on the teaching market for the first time in 1992-93, in both academic law and in philosophy—two markets was pretty stressful. That was not a great year on the teaching market, though better than recent years for sure! I got a bunch of interviews and one tenure-track offer, from the University of San Diego School of Law, so that’s where I went. Lovely city, and a law school serious about philosophy. We would have stayed if the law school had been at UC San Diego, but UCSD had no law school. Not being at a research university was a drawback for me.
How did you end up in Austin?
In 1994, I was lucky to get some other offers—first, a tenure-track offer from Philosophy at the University of Arizona (Joel Feinberg had just retired, they were interested in philosophy of law, and Nietzsche was a bonus), with some kind of “courtesy” appointment in the law school there; and then second, a tenure-track offer from Rutgers University, in the law school at Camden, but with a courtesy appointment and regular teaching in Philosophy at New Brunswick. I was sorely tempted by Arizona, what a lovely and terrific department, but for personal reasons (family, tenure-track, salary), I thought we were heading to Rutgers, until the University of Texas at Austin arrived on the scene, making me a tenure-track offer in law (and then a courtesy appointment in philosophy). This was 1995, before the state of Texas became the national poster child for insane Republicans! The Law School at Texas was first-rate, and it was a research university with a PhD program and many students interested in European philosophy. So off to Austin we went.
When did you start Leiter Reports? What was the motivation there?
The blog began in August 2003, by accident (a bit like the PGR). Some of our IT people at Texas asked me whether I wanted to try out a blog platform they created; I declined. But a week or so later, I said I would give it a try, since I thought, “Gee, this is a good way to update the PGR on-line.” Soon I was embroiled in battles with the Texas Taliban over textbooks for students. Now, of course, it’s an institution, and there are a huge number of other philosophy blogs, and blogs in every other field.
Was Austin as hip as it is now back then?
When we moved to Austin in 1995, longtimers were complaining about the traffic and how overgrown it had become! Lots of people had bumper stickers that said, “Keep Austin Weird.” Back then, Austin had 250,000 or 300,000 people. Nowadays, it is nearing 900,000! Austin is lovely and hip, it is just in the wrong state!
What was UT Austin like when you were there? How did it change?
Back then, the law school was one of the best law schools in the United States. It still is, though it’s suffered some in the interim. I was actually hired to teach jurisprudence, which was a rarity. The law students were very good. Texas was the best law school within a thousand-mile radius, and the best students were extremely smart and serious. Philosophy at UT Austin gave me a courtesy appointment, and I was quite active over there. Indeed, I am happy to claim credit for UT Philosophy’s “top 20” status now (it was more idiosyncratic back in the 1990s). I recall the lunch I had with an adjunct professor in the law school back in 2000, who was a close friend of the distinguished philosopher Mark Sainsbury, then at King’s College, London and the editor of Mind. He told me that Mark Sainsbury loved Austin! I then lobbied the outgoing Dean to give some money to Philosophy for a senior appointment, which allowed us to recruit Sainsbury, a big boon for the department’s reputation. The other significant event came when we hired David Sosa in the late 1990s, who has since been Chair of the Department for a number of years now. In the 1990s, the UT department had a lot of philosophers with a formalism fetish: anyone who could do more logic than they could seemed brilliant! We were doing a junior search, and it came down to a “technical” philosopher (that no one will have heard of) and David (who was clearly the better candidate in my view). My formalist fetish colleagues liked David, correctly, but liked the “technical” philosopher a bit better. I pointed out, unbeknownst to them, that David was Cuban-American. This allowed us to release “target of opportunity” funds, and we were able to make offers to both. David came to Texas, and the “technical” philosopher did not. The rest is “history,” as they say. David’s view of philosophy turned out to be, by my lights, disappointingly narrow, but there’s no doubt he was the better hire and has been a great mentor for students. And under his leadership, Texas has done quite well in faculty recruitment. I’d love to be colleagues with some of the folks he has recruited recently, like Galen Strawson and Matt Evans, a brilliant PhD student at Texas when I was there.
What were your colleagues like?
In the law school at Texas, I had terrific colleagues, who educated me about law and about jurisprudence: Scot Powe, Bill Powers, Mark Gergen, Sandy Levinson, Douglas Laycock, Jane Cohen, Larry Sager, among others. In philosophy, I had a wonderful philosophy reading group for several years with Dan Bonevac, Rob Koons, and Cory Juhl. I also learned a lot from Paul Woodruff, and, later, John Deigh.
Sounds great! Why did you leave UT Austin?
In 2001, I was lucky to get an offer from Penn, but decided to stay put. We were happy professionally and personally in Austin, but our children were quite young then. My wife decided to go to law school after we moved to Austin, and she had just started practicing law. Texas became crazier in the 2000s, and the inadequacy of the public schools became clearer to us. When Chicago made the offer, we were quite unhappy with the school situation, and quite happy with the huge tuition benefits Chicago offered. Chicago was also clearly one of the five law schools in America that could plausibly claim to be the best, but the decisive factors were the better schools, the fabulous tuition benefits, and the opportunity to live in Chicago, which has been great, personally and professionally for my wife especially. My law school colleagues here are terrific, and the level of intellectual intensity at Chicago is really unique (for example, we have weekly work-in-progress luncheons about 48 weeks of the year, which are very well-attended, even in summer). The Chicago law students have been a pleasure to teach, and the philosophy graduate students at Chicago are also extraordinary, as good as the best students I had at Texas. The weather sucks, but the weather has sucked everywhere since I left San Diego!
At Texas, you had an appointment in philosophy. You don’t appear to have an appointment in philosophy at Chicago, though you said you enjoy working with the PhD students there. What gives?
The Philosophy Department at the University of Chicago does not have “zero-time” or “secondary” appointments, the way the department at Texas did. I’m not entirely sure why—one story I was told was that the department eliminated them decades ago in order to keep the Straussians out! So I would have had to ask for a regular voting appointment, complete with committee assignments, and faculty meeting--those folks meet once a week! I certainly didn’t want that, but I also knew even asking would create trouble, since long before coming to Chicago (going back to the 1990s) I had criticized in print several times the work of one member of the department and he had even gone to the Provost and threatened to resign from the university if the Law School was allowed to appoint me! Needless to say, he didn’t resign. This was unfortunate, but academic vanity is what it is. Two years ago, the graduate students, unbeknownst to me, voted to ask their grad reps to raise the issue of my status with the faculty; when I found out, I thanked them, but suggested we leave well enough alone, since it has worked out fine. What my colleague Martha Nussbaum told me before I came has certainly proven to be true: the graduate students are very independent-minded, and also of very high quality, and I’ve been fortunate to work with many of them. As the lone philosophical naturalist and Humean in Hyde Park, a lot of students come my way when they want a different take on philosophical issues, which is good for them and enjoyable for me. The Department here also has a really nice practice of requiring grad students transitioning to dissertation writing to have a series of “chats” with their whole committee about work related to the dissertation. I have been impressed by how helpful these chats are, and have really enjoyed the philosophy faculty I’ve gotten to know through them, folks like Dan Brudney, Agnes Callard, David Finkelstein, and Candace Vogler. I had a great time teaching the Law & Philosophy Workshop a couple of years ago with Ben Laurence too. A very congenial and engaging group of philosophers.
In philosophy, what do you think is the cause of our diversity problem, and how do we deal with it?
I wish I knew for sure! I’m fairly confident the earlier permissive culture of sexual harassment has been a major obstacle for female students for a long time. Martha Nussbaum has written about this, but in retrospect, it was clearly a problem at Michigan, though they finally forced out some offenders. It was also clearly a problem at Texas, though the extent of the problem was not apparent to me until shortly before I left (as the Texas department became more narrow in its philosophical interests, I disengaged from daily life). The new legal climate, in which universities are being very active on these fronts, will help change things, though as with any backlash, it has involved some clear injustices and overreaching (e.g., the Barnett firing at Colorado). On the gender front, I think we have turned the corner generationally. Just think of how many women are among the “hotshots” at major U.S. departments these days—just off the top of my head: Sharon Street, Anja Jauering, Delia Graff Fara, Anna-Sara Malmgren, Jennifer Lackey, Pamela Hieronymi, Laurie Paul, Rachel Zuckert, Nomy Arpaly, Agnes Callard. I mean, WOW! That’s a lot of scholarly and philosophical talent, recognized as such. And that’s just the U.S.! Any department in the U.S. would be fortunate to recruit Amanda Greene or Amia Srinivasan from the UK, for example. I am optimistic that continued vigilance about sexual harassment will insure that over the next generation women enter academic philosophy in appropriate numbers.
Racial and ethnic diversity presents other issues. The fact is that the numbers are so small, that it is very hard to identify causes of underrepresentation. I would encourage every senior member of the profession to go out of their way to be alert for talented young people who are not Caucasian and to support and encourage those students. Becoming a PhD student is hard, especially if you don’t come from a middle-class background. Faculty should be alert to this and offer extra support and encouragement to those from non-traditional backgrounds. The cosmopolitan ideal, which has always been philosophy’s animating ideal in modernity, demands it.
I can also say, and I expect this is partly what you are asking about, is that the one way we should not deal with the “diversity problem” is by using it opportunistically as a way to push ideological agendas. Linda Alcoff is the embodiment of this duplicity, using the demand for fair opportunity for women and minorities as an opportunity to push her preferred philosophical programs. Alcoff is, admittedly, an extreme case.
Low point of your career? If you could go back in time and give yourself advice then, what would it be?
I had to think about the ‘low point’ for awhile, since I’ve mostly had a pretty charmed existence in academia, despite my sins. But the “low point” was actually the point which would have ended my academic career! I quit my job at a New York law firm in 1988, rented a truck, packed my stuff, and set off at the crack of dawn to drive to Ann Arbor, a good 9 to 10 hours of driving, to start the PhD program. I slept badly (nerves?), but off we went, myself and Sheila, then my girlfriend. The drive went pretty well, until we made the “right turn at Toledo” to get to Ann Arbor. It was now getting dark, and the worse fog I’ve ever seen in my life set in. I kid you not, we could barely see the hood of the truck. We should have just pulled over, but what did we know? So we’re driving along at 25 miles per hour in the fog, hoping not to hit anything. Remarkably we did not (the stress was unbelievable), we got to Ann Arbor, unloaded the basics from the truck and collapsed in utter exhaustion. And then we were awoken early the next morning by the person upstairs who was walking around and playing music. Maybe we slept a few hours? I’m not sure, but for me it was the second night in a row with inadequate sleep. This was the landlord I subsequently sued for renting a place in which “quiet use and enjoyment” was impossible. Unable to sleep, we got up and took a walk around Ann Arbor. I was so tired and thus depressed, I said to Sheila this was obviously all a mistake, and we should just go back to New York and I should go back to the law firm. Sheila pointed out to me that this was my fatigue talking, and that this would all pass. And she was right. So what would I tell my earlier self? Pretty simple: always listen to Sheila and never make decisions when you’re exhausted! Good advice that I really do follow to this day.
Didn’t being asked to resign from PGR bug you? People really piled on...
Sorry I gave the wrong answer to the last question! But I don’t think of the PGR, let alone last year’s nonsense, as part of my “career.” The PGR was always my hobby, and one that was for a long time fun, but became increasingly a burden (as I alluded to earlier). If I had felt strongly about it, I wouldn’t have agreed to pass it on last year, but my priority was to make sure the three years of work I’d already put into the 2014 PGR didn’t go to waste because of mass hysteria. To be sure, last fall a handful of people engaged in what looks to be tortious misconduct, and I am, indeed, annoyed with them, but I will deal with them as I always have with miscreants.
Harsh words! High point of your career?
I guess I think of a few. Getting an offer from the University of Arizona in 1994, and with the support of people like Julia Annas, Joel Feinberg, Alvin Goldman, and Jean Hampton, well that was extremely gratifying. The reception of my book on Nietzsche, which is the piece of work I still like the most, that has been really nice: I would not have guessed how influential it would become. And moving to Chicago would be a third, not really because of the professional recognition, but because it came at such a good time for my family: we were unhappy with the schools in Austin, and now the kids could go to the Lab School at Chicago, and Sheila had a whole new set of professional opportunities. Professionally it was great for me too, but it was a highlight for my “career” to be able to bring the whole family to a place that was great for everyone.
Any interesting projects on the horizon?
I’ve got three “big” writing projects that I’d like to complete in the next five years, more or less. First is a set of interconnected papers on issues in ethics and moral psychology related to Nietzsche. This will be for OUP, and will be a mix of some previously published work, some new essays, and some postscripts to older papers. Routledge brought out a second edition of my 2002 book Nietzsche on Morality earlier this year, but this new collection will be more for specialists, and dig more deeply into a range of philosophical and empirical psychological issues. My interest in Nietzsche has never been antiquarian, rather it seems to me he is often right, or close to right, and that’s what this book will be about.
Second, I’m going to co-author a book on Marx for my Routledge Philosophers series. I’ll write this with Jaime Edwards, who is finishing up a PhD here with what will be an important, and interdisciplinary, dissertation on “The Concept of Ideology.” I’ve taught Marx at the graduate level off and on for many years, so have lots of very detailed notes, which will find their way into this volume. But Jaime has been more deeply engaged with more of Marx’s texts and with the secondary literature, so he will very much be the lead author. The last really good serious “introductory” book on Marx was Jonathan Wolff’s Why Read Marx Today? more than a decade ago. Ours will be a bit more comprehensive and a bit more interdisciplinary (not just economics, but psychology and cognitive science, for example, where Jaime has been doing some very interesting research), so I’m hopeful it will fill a niche for teachers, students, and scholars who want a philosophical take on Marx.
Third, and finally, I’m hoping to do a book on free speech, one that integrates philosophical perspectives from both the liberal and Marxian traditions. The tentative title is The Case Against Free Speech. That will go alongside my book Why Tolerate Religion? (As one of my colleagues quipped, after that I will write a book called Against Baseball and Apple Pie.)
Are any of those projects “interesting”? I don’t know, but they’re interesting to me. I imagine I will get sidetracked by various other things. For example, the debate about “theoretical disagreements” in jurisprudence has been really heating up since my 2009 paper, and I’m working on a response to critics. And in a paper a few years ago in Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, I argued that the fact that law is an “artifact” should make us dubious of the prospects for discovering law’s “essence.” I didn’t really engage the literature on the metaphysics of artifacts (some of which is relevant, some less so), but now a lot of jurisprudential writers have begun exploring this, and OUP will bring out a volume of essays on it, to which I plan to contribute. It’s without a doubt the most fabulous thing about this kind of job that the opportunity exists to explore new and unexpected topics.
How do you see the future of philosophy culturally? That is, culturally, do you think what has been called the ‘New Consensus‘ or what you have called the ‘New Infantilism’ is going to become prevalent, or do you think there is going to be a backlash at some point?
That’s a funny way to put the question, since only one person I’ve ever heard of has used the phrase “new consensus” with a straight face, almost everyone else I’ve encountered uses it derisively, as a way of ridiculing yet another bit of sanctimonious jackassery in cyberspace. I’m not even sure anymore what the non-derisive meaning was supposed to be: maybe something like, “Everybody should be very nice, even when criticizing buffoons and ignoramuses.” Of course there is no consensus about that, since polemical writing is a staple not only of philosophy, but all worthwhile literary, intellectual and journalistic genres. Now I think I do know what “New Infantilism” means, and it has gotten a huge amount of media attention under various labels. The New Infantilism is essentially the illiberal view that speech should be curtailed or suppressed insofar as it is hurtful or offensive to certain groups: children, the “vulnerable,” the “marginalized” and so on—and these folks are very good at taking offense, needless to say. My own views on the liberal conception of free speech are a bit complicated, but philosophical complications aside, I am struck by the fact that most of the New Infantilist pet projects for speech suppression are pernicious and would diminish philosophical and intellectual life on behalf of what any Millian would deem mere “offense”. Take, as just one example, the recent outpouring of moral indignation because Leslie Green, the Professor of Philosophy of Law at Oxford, a serious and important writer on the philosophy of sexuality and gender, and a gay man (which in certain circles gives him some epistemic credentials, as I understand it), offered an argument that the feminist Germaine Greer was correct that transgender women are not women, based on consideration of the idea that gender is a social construct. A professed New Infantilist linked to one part of Green’s discussion (unrelated to its main thesis even!), and was promptly denounced by the other New Infantilists who deemed Green’s view so morally beyond the pale that one could not even link to it or discuss it. Those engaged in this utterly pathetic thought policing are full of rationalizations for why they want to suppress reasonable thought and expression—they’re trained philosophers after all, they can rationalize anything—and that’s hardly surprising. What’s really disgusting is that in doing so they wrap themselves in the robes of moral rectitude, when in fact they are quite clearly the forces of reaction and ignorance.
I have no crystal ball, so I can’t tell you whether there will be a backlash, and a return to the core values of robust expression and debate which are essential for academic life, as even Herbert Marcuse realized in his famous polemic against “Repressive Tolerance.” There is some portion of the younger generation of professional philosophers (grad students and assistant professors) who consistently have the wrong views on these questions. They may well take over the discipline, that I cannot predict. It’s ironic, because other humanities fields, like English, went through this totalitarian catastrophe in the 1980s while philosophy remained a paragon of wissenschaftlich seriousness. The real threats to philosophy as a profession do not come, of course, primarily from benighted youngsters who are victims of group polarization; they come from institutional and economic forces that are basically indifferent to intellectual merit. That’s the real battle that needs to be fought, though I fear we academics are not well-equipped to fight it.
You edited that anthology 'Future for Philosophy'...how do you see the future of philosophy? Does it wrap up at a certain point because we've answered all of the questions we can answer, or does it go on forever and ever?
“Philosophy” will certainly go on as long as people have the material luxury to engage in reflection on or rationalization of their practices and lives. The ambition of The Future for Philosophy volume I edited a decade ago was more modest, looking at philosophical practice in the professionalized Anglophone world at the start of the 21st century. I love several of the essays in that volume, but I’m not sure how it fares by way of crystal ball. We know that the Western historical canon arises from countries that were major economic and military powers, from the Greeks and Romans, to, in the modern era, Europe, especially Germany and Britain, and then America. Assuming human beings do not annihilate themselves, there is certainly evidence to think the center of economic and military power will shift away from Europe and, given its level of political dysfunction, America. Of course, to the extent that the scientific revolution of the last five hundred years continues to define the central facts about human sustenance and flourishing, then we can expect the naturalistic revolution in philosophy to continue to be influential, though how that will be understood in China or Brazil is an open question I cannot possibly answer. But I do welcome it: parts of Anglophone philosophy have become increasingly irrelevant, whether its armchair metaphysics or ethics as bourgeois etiquette manuals. I hope that other emerging economic powers invest in their universities and facilitate thereby a revolution in what those who self-identify as philosophers do. Philosophers, contra Plato, have no special epistemic capacities or proprietary methods; but philosophers have, in many historical and cultural contexts, offered critical insight and even inspiration.
What does Brian Leiter do on a lazy day?
I enjoy a nice early afternoon nap—the siesta was a brilliant idea! Reading a biographical or historical work not directly related to my research (they’re all indirectly related!), watching a film with the kids, going out to dinner somewhere fun with the family, those are all good “lazy day” activities.
Favorite movies or TV shows?
Hard to say whether there are “favorites.” I watch TV erratically. With one of my kids, I watched a lot of the “Walking Dead” series, which as another brilliant former student Jessica Berry quite aptly pointed out to me recently, is a great Hobbesian drama: the real threat isn’t the zombies (you just shoot them in the head), it’s the other people! A decade or so ago, I probably watched all the “Law & Order” episodes, partly for reasons of New York nostalgia. I’m not sure I have any favorite movies; my tastes run “low brow” rather than “high brow” in movies, I can say that! Everyone loves The Professional, right?
It’s an amazing movie. Favorite curse word?
“Fuck,” the most versatile word in the English language, since it can serve as verb (“Hey Trump, go fuck yourself”), adjective (“Trump is a fucking moron”), adverb (“Everything Trump says is fucking ridiculous”) and noun (“Donald Trump is such a pathetic fuck”). I have to admit that had to learn to temper my language, however, after one of my kids, age two, began screaming “fucking moron” at the supermarket!