In this interview, Dan Kaufman, Professor of Philosophy at Missouri State University, and co-creator of Electric Agora. In this interview, we talk about Dungeons and Dragons, Slayer, Megadeth, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Phantom Tollbooth, George Orwell, Bret Easton Ellis, growing up in a Zionist household, University of Michigan, busloads of young women, bull sessions, Crispin Wright, Pharisees, shanty towns and political correctness, drinking beer and smoking weed in Central Park in the 90’s, editing The Philosophical Forum, writing for National Review, taking classes with Jerry Fodor, deciding to focus on Aesthetics, Montaigne, Shakespeare, box wine, indexicals, heavy hitters, the Linguistic Turn, raising Jewish children in the buckle of the Bible Belt, becoming a Wittgensteinian, why he is disenchanted with academic philosophy, Hunter S. Thompson, why philosophy is so liberal, Hypatia, starting Sophia and The Electric Agora, working with Massimo Pigliucci, Dr. Who, Public Enemy, voting for Hillary, and his last meal…
So, when were you born? Where did you grow up?
I was born in 1968 and grew up in Roslyn, NY, which is on the north shore of Long Island.
What did your parents do for a living?
My mother was a homemaker. My father owned a display and exhibit company for most of my childhood. Sometime in the 1980's, while I was in High School, he sold the business and went into commercial real estate, where he stayed until this day. He will be 90 this June and is still working.
Wow! What did you do for fun as a kid?
A lot! I had a pretty eclectic set of enthusiasms and talents, so I belonged to more than one social group. I was an athlete and played tennis competitively, both Varsity as well as the USTA Junior circuit, so I was friends with some of the jock types. But I also was really into science fiction and fantasy, and played Dungeons and Dragons, when it first came out and through high school, so I had friends among the geeks and nerds as well. I listened to a lot of metal and hardcore punk, so I had friends among the goths, greasers, punks, and new wave kids too. I was what at the time was called a "floater," i.e. someone who didn't belong to just one clique.
I also had a kind of second life in Israel. My parents came to the US from Israel in the 1950s, and most of my relatives lived (and still live) there. So, I was spending a month to two months every year of my childhood and adolescence in Israel, where I had a whole other set of friends through my cousins. Those months are some of my fondest memories.
Throughout, I always enjoyed exercising my imagination, through play, drawing, and especially writing. Probably has something to do with having a very creative and talented father -- one of his earliest jobs, just after the Israeli War of Independence, was as a political cartoonist -- as well as being an only child and having to amuse myself much of the time.
My musical tastes growing up were as varied as my interests. I developed a love for classical music at a very early age that then receded during my adolescence but returned stronger as an adult. My first love in popular music was for progressive rock, especially Yes, Genesis, ELP, and King Crimson. As I hit Junior High, I began to get into classic heavy metal, especially Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, and later, in my twenties, I would add thrash metal like Slayer and Megadeth to my library. (I had many memorable experiences going to thrash shows with one of my graduate school friends, Michael Menser, who nowadays is a professor at Brooklyn College.) Towards my later high school years, I started getting into punk, post-punk, and New Wave, and those three genres comprise the bulk of my non-classical music listening today. I even wrote an essay on being a middle-aged punk for my magazine, The Electric Agora.
Great essay! I love Watchmen, by the way. Favorite books back then?
Childhood and young-adult favorites included Madeleine L’Engle’s "A Wrinkle in Time," "A Wind in the Door," and "The Young Unicorns"; C.S. Lewis’s "The Chronicles of Narnia"; Louise Fitzhugh’s "Harriet the Spy"; E.L. Konigsburg’s, "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler", E.B. White’s "Stuart Little"; Roald Dahl’s "Fantastic Mr. Fox"; and Norton Juster’s "The Phantom Tollbooth." Also very dear to me were Robert Heinlein’s juvenile novels, especially "Podkayne of Mars," "Have Spacesuit will Travel," and "Time for the Stars." And, of course, there was Tolkien.
As an adult, I return to these old favorites often, but especially those belonging to my earlier youth, which retain a special significance. In terms of adult fiction, my favorite authors are Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess, George Orwell, Franz Kafka, Joan Didion, Philip K. Dick, and Bret Easton Ellis.
I grew up in a very Jewish, secular, Zionist household. Neither my parents nor I harbor any belief in the supernatural, but Jewish and Israeli culture and manners pervaded our home and had a tremendous influence on the development of my personality, and character.
What do you mean by that?
You know, it’s a somewhat intangible thing in a way. I would maintain that there is a distinctively Jewish affect and sense of humor. There were also the holidays, which we practiced. There was my Bar-Mitzvah, which meant a lot to me, as I had it in the same synagogue in Tel Aviv, in which my father had been Bar-Mitzvahed.
In terms of the Zionist/Israel component, you have to understand that my parents came to Israel by way of the Holocaust. My father’s family fled Germany to then-Palestine in 1933, and my mother came to Israel, after the war, as a refugee, from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. My father was part of Israel’s founding generation and was in the Haganah as a teenager, after which he fought in the War of Independence. So, beyond the Jewishness, there is a very strong Israeli character to my family, which has a somewhat different inflection from purely diasporic Jewishness. My parents aren’t Sabras, but all the following generations are, with the exception of one small branch of the family that lives in the US.
I went to the University of Michigan in 1986, intending to go to law school and perhaps pursue a career in politics. Once there I double-majored in history and political science. About halfway through, I decided I hated political science and didn’t want to be a lawyer or a politician. I had taken an introductory-level philosophy course and loved it, so I dropped the political science major and added a philosophy major to my history major, which I kept. I also wound up taking almost enough literature courses for a third major in English.
Who taught the intro course?
You know, I wish I could remember. He was a graduate student.
Oh man, you should figure it out and e-mail him this! Did you party?
This period was probably the most experientially and intellectually exciting time of my life. It’s when my mind really awoke; when I became fully conscious of just how interested I was in so many things. Although I was already quite social in high school, my social life really blossomed in college, and yes, partying was a part of it. I was in a fraternity, when fraternities were overwhelmingly still wet, which meant that literally busloads of girls would come to your house to party with you, and that’s quite nice when you’re 19 or 20 years old. But the best parts, by far, were the late night talking sessions with my closest friends, when we would listen to music and revel in our mutual interests and enthusiasms. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my earliest development as an intellectual began with these late-night bull sessions.
What was the philosophy department like? When did you start really digging into philosophy?
Michigan then was every bit as much a philosophical powerhouse as it is today. I was extraordinarily lucky in the professors I had, but especially significant was Crispin Wright, who was doing a visiting gig at Michigan while I was there. He was gracious enough to do a sprawling, nearly book-length independent study with me, spanning epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of mind, and it was one of two of the first really serious intellectual pieces of work I did.
Any other influences?
The other great influence was Peter Machinist, a professor of Near Eastern studies, who went on, afterwards, to Harvard. I took an incredible, two-semester course with him on the history of Ancient Israel, and wrote a major paper on the attitudes of the Pharisees, Qumranians, and early Christians towards the Second Temple, which was my other early foray into serious intellectual work.
How did your world view change?
My political orientation has undergone several transformations over the course of my life. In high school I was a solid liberal, even to some degree, a leftist. College saw me begin turning to the political right, mostly as a result of my being rather disgusted by the prevailing campus activism of the time – it was just the beginning of what would come to be called “political correctness,” and there was what then seemed like an orgy of infantile political stunts. Especially memorable was what I can only call a “shanty war,” on Michigan’s “diag.” First anti-Apartheid activists built a wooden shanty covered in slogans on the diag. Then, Palestinian activists added their own shanty, with their own slogans. Then, a Zionist group built a wooden model of a blown-up bus to counter the Palestinian shanty. Then one group would tear down the other group’s shanty, which meant that the offended group would retaliate the next day. And so on and so forth. It drove me nuts, and, as I said, in the direction of the political right.
This continued on into graduate school in New York, and it was in my mid-twenties that my affiliation with the political right peaked. I started writing for National Review, and I was a founding member of CUNY’s chapter of the National Association of Scholars, a conservative academic organization.
I went to Ithaca College, which was super PC. They had ‘die-ins’ in the Starbucks during the second war in Iraq. It made me suspicious of grandstanding, but it didn’t make me conservative. Why do you think the politically correct culture of Michigan pushed you toward conservativism?
I was never socially conservative, in the sense that I never held conservative views on abortion or gays and lesbians or women. But I found campus activism extremely grating. I can’t put my finger on exactly why: it was almost a kind of aesthetic revulsion. I also was and remain somewhat conservative intellectually and culturally. You could say I was conservative roughly in the manner of an Allan Bloom. My conservativism was based in my love for the traditional Western canon of arts and letters, and directed in good measure against the academic left’s efforts to dismantle the sort of humanistic learning that is grounded in that canon, which largely remains true of me even today.
So, why did you go to grad school?
What ultimately made me decide to be a professor was my love of university and university life. I realized that if I could have my way, I’d stay on campus forever, and an academic career was the way to do just that. And though I loved history and still do, philosophy became my main passion, so I decided to pursue an academic career in philosophy.
When did you start?
I started at the CUNY Graduate Center in 1991. I wouldn’t actually get my doctorate until 1999.
Why did it take you so long?
For one thing, I was in no hurry – being a graduate student in New York City in the ‘90s was pretty amazing, and I wanted to milk it as long as I could. New York had cleaned up substantially from the low point it had hit in the 1970’s, but it hadn’t yet become so clean and sanitized as to become joyless, as it seems to me now. You could still smoke in bars. You could hang out in the Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park and have benevolent folks sell you beer and small bags of weed. There were still seedy neighborhoods where you could afford to live, without being an investment banker. They were the last years in which New York was a place I had any interest in spending any substantial amount of time in.
For another, I was too interested in other things to pursue my graduate studies so single-mindedly as to finish quickly. I started teaching my own classes just two years into graduate school, so by the time I went out onto the job market, I had a very substantial teaching resume. I was Managing Editor of "The Philosophical Forum." I worked as an assistant to the Dean of the undergraduate college of the Jewish Theological Seminary. I wrote for National Review. I started the CUNY Association of Scholars chapter. I started a Bible reading group. I waited tables and bartended. I worked in summer theater, as a stage manager. I was hungry for as wide a range of experience as possible, and never focused on my graduate studies to the point at which I couldn’t do all of these other things.
Finally, my interests and orientation within the program changed substantially over the course of my education. At that time, the Graduate Center was still located across the street from Bryant Park, on 42nd street, and the philosophy program was a powerhouse, as the behemoth that is the NYU Ph.D. program did not yet exist. I was taking classes from Jerry Fodor, Stephen Schiffer, Hartry Field, Jerry Katz, David Rosenthal, and other big hitters. Duly impressed, I chose an education that was heavily weighted in the direction of the philosophy of language and mind.
What was Fodor like?
Funny you should ask that, as I had a little dust-up over at Daily Nous not long ago, with an old graduate-school friend, Samir Chopra, on the subject of Fodor, in a discussion thread about him, after he’d just died. It turns out that one thing I really liked about Fodor was what Chopra disliked the most about him, namely his (in my view) hilarious argumentative affect and manner. Some of the shit he would do in class and at colloquia was just legendary. One thing I remember was a philosophy of mind class, where a really wacko student – you know, the guy who everyone silently prays isn’t going to talk or ask a question – just said something completely bizarre – I think it was that material objects are “waves of probability” or something like that – and Fodor, looking tormented, staggered over to the wall, drew a square on it with a black marker, and began banging his head in the center of it, going “No, no, no….” I almost pissed myself, it was so hilarious. And the square stayed there long after, so you’d be in some other class, and people would ask, “Why is there a square drawn on the wall in marker?” and you’d get to tell the story and crack up all over again.
Now Samir takes this sort of thing as evidence of just how what a meanie Fodor was and as representative of a kind of meanie philosophy that too many philosophers engage in, and he lamented how it “alienated” him. It was all very much in the mode of the current sensitivity-culture everyone seems to be in the grip of, which I just find humorless and precious and representative of everything about the current cultural moment that I can’t stand.
I feel you, man. How’d you end up writing a dissertation on Aesthetics?
Two things caused me to take a 180 degree turn, midway through the program and to write my dissertation in Aesthetics.
The first consideration was strategic. Well into my education, I realized that it would be very difficult for me to make any sort of serious impact in either the philosophy of language or mind. Not only did I lack the technical skills in logic and science that seemed necessary, the fields were just so oversaturated with heavy hitters that I saw no way to make my mark. I decided that it would be better to be a big fish in a small pond than plankton in the ocean, so I sought an area within philosophy that was much smaller and in which fewer luminaries were working.
Makes sense. The second reason?
The second consideration had to do with the fact that increasingly, I was finding myself disenchanted with technical, analytic philosophy. In a sense, this was destined to happen. I came to philosophy from the humanities and not from mathematics or the sciences, so it was surprising that the technical parts of the analytic tradition held my interest for as long as they did. But what really moved me in a different direction was the fact that I began to teach interdisciplinary humanities courses at Lehman College, as part of their then-Freshman Year Initiative. Suddenly, I found myself teaching art history, literature, theology, musicology, alongside philosophy, and the technical, analytic stuff just seemed to shrink and diminish, in that none of it seemed very important. How could I sustain my interest in questions regarding the reference of an indexical or whether one should give a sententialist account of “that-clauses,” when I could be exploring the differences between Northern and Italian humanism in philosophy, religion, and the visual arts or the emergence of the modern Self in Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Descartes, instead?
So, ultimately, I did my dissertation in Aesthetics, but this shift was also part of what contributed to the length of time I took in completing my Ph.D.
It’s funny that you say that. I love Shakespeare and Montaigne, but couldn’t one argue that even though that stuff is interesting, it’s sort of idiosyncratic—located in a particular time and place, and mostly relevant to the people from that time and place, less relevant today—compared to the more abstract logic stuff, that seems more universal, like mathematics (maybe)?
I’m afraid I can’t agree with this characterization at all. These are some of the most important architects of modernity.
Fair enough! Was your grad school experience as cool as your undergrad experience?
Was very much like what I experienced in college, but even more so. I developed a core group of friends, at the heart of which were Joseph Biehl, David Shein, Mark Sheehan, Martin Harvey, Brad Garb, and as already mentioned, Michael Menser and Samir Chopra. We took classes together, socialized together, and even lived together, in one combination or another. I can’t express how much my relationships with these people meant to me at the time and how much they contributed to and enriched my education. One of the saddest, bitterest things about growing older and getting married and having children and moving on is how it makes the maintaining of these kinds of relationships difficult to near impossible. I miss what I had with these people very much.
How’d you develop as a philosopher?
In graduate school, I was very much a cipher for my influences, though my style and “tone” were always a strong presence in everything I did. I really didn’t begin to develop my own independent views until I was working in the profession.
How would you describe your style and tone?
Expressive. Playful. Combative. Dexterous. Hyperbolic. Depends a lot on what I’m writing and in what context. I care a lot about how the sentences I write sound. The music of it. Literary values are as important to me as content.
What was the job market like back then?
Was terrible then, but compared to now, it was a paradise.
Why do you think the 'heavy hitters' are attracted to mind and language?
Well, the last century did see the “linguistic turn” in philosophy, which created a new frame of reference within which both to examine traditional philosophical problems and to develop new ones. Beyond this, some really remarkable work was done, for example by Wittgenstein and Quine, which unsurprisingly required – and continues to require – time to work through. Especially given the possibility of wrong turns, of which I think there have been many since the landmark work of these two philosophers dropped. Several of those wrong turns have had a big impact in the philosophy of mind. Indeed, I think much of what passes for philosophy of mind today is little more than a series of rabbit holes that everyone is busy diving down.
This really isn’t the place to go into this sort of thing in any kind of detail. But impressionistically, all of the stuff I’m talking about in some way violates Wilfrid Sellars’ warning that one should never try and replace, piecemeal, bits of the Manifest Image, with bits of the Scientific Image. And an awful lot of philosophy of mind and cognitive science involves essentially doing just that. Most of it, today, in fact.
You met your wife around this time?
I met my wife at the very end of my graduate school experience. She was a law firm manager by day and took classes at Baruch College, CUNY at night, one of which was my Introduction to Philosophy class. We started dating right after the class ended, and my biggest anxiety regarding the job search was whether I’d be able to get a job in a place that she’d be willing to live.
Job market horror stories?
The market itself was bad, but not as bad as today. At the time, all the interviewing action was at the Eastern APA conventions, and my friends and I went together, so there was plenty of partying and carousing to go along with the job hunt pressures. I just never found any of it particularly harrowing or horrifying, but then again, I never found philosophers (or academics, more generally) intimidating in any way, so even when they were obnoxious pricks, as some of them were in interviews, it was just something to laugh about while having drinks later. I wasn’t going to be homeless or starve if things didn’t work out. I wasn’t going to have to dig ditches or unplug toilets for a living. Throughout my life I’d worked hard, dirty, ground-level jobs in order to make money, whether in supermarkets or restaurants or what have you, so I knew that there were much tougher, less rewarding lives people had to endure than anything that would happen to me, with a Ph.D. in philosophy. I guess one could say that I had a sober perspective, and it helped a lot in not overestimating how bad the philosophy job hunting scene was, as people seem wont to do.
I did have one memorable disaster, which involved my interviewing at a prestigious, small liberal arts college in the South. On the lengthy ride from the airport, my driver stopped at a liquor store, and I discovered that the College was in a dry county and one had to go miles and miles to get to a place that sold booze. This was disheartening to say the least, but I found myself even more dismayed, when my host proceeded to load up the shopping cart with box wine. A philosophy department in a dry county, run by a philistine. Things looked grim.
They got worse at the party at the department head’s house. Some English-only Proposition had passed in California or was up for consideration in California or something like that and there was a loud discussion about how terrible this was and how racist everyone is and the like. One of the faculty was French Canadian, and I asked if he felt the same way about the French only laws in Quebec, the reaction to which was quite negative. A fight ensued. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. But even if I had, I wouldn’t have taken it. The college was tiny, the town was tiny (and dry), the nearest airport was hours away, and at least some of the department seemed to consist of hypocritical, self-important twits. My then-fiance would have dropped me like a hot rock.
Regarding advice, I don’t advise anyone to go into philosophy today as a profession, though I am willing to write references and help the small handful of people who decide to try anyway.
What’s wrong with philosophy?
We have an absurd surplus of philosophers right now, given the current job market. It’s flat-out unethical to just keep cranking out more. Indeed, I think the only proper thing to do in this environment is put a moratorium on graduate admissions for the foreseeable future. Of course, that’s never going to happen.
I know people who “held out” for jobs at more prestigious places or in better locations, but almost always it turned out to be a career-ending mistake. Ours is simply not the sort of profession where one can do that and get a job, at least in most cases. And as things turned out, I’m really glad I didn’t take a job in a highly prestigious department. I have a kind of freedom with respect to teaching and writing that I would not have at a high-powered place, and I’ve long gotten over the prestige-fantasies that still dominates the consciousness of much of the profession.
As for surprises, there is little that isn’t surprising, when you move from New York City to the Buckle of the Bible Belt, which is what Springfield is. Most shocking was the local brand of fundamentalist Protestantism and the extent to which it completely pervades the public environment. We have a daughter, who is almost sixteen, now, and we’ve found it a real challenge raising a Jewish child here.
How would you describe Missouri to somebody who has never been?
It’s a tough thing. On the one hand, this area represents pretty much everything I dislike and reject culturally, politically, aesthetically, but it also is the place my daughter was born and grew up, where I spent my career, where my wife got to start an entirely new career teaching high school, which she would not have been able to do if we’d stayed in New York or moved to some other high-priced big metro area. We both think that we’ve been able to do work with students here and make a real difference in a way that we likely would not in New York or LA or the Bay Area. So my feelings about Springfield include both antipathy and love.
Are you still conservative?
My conservatism did not survive my move to southwestern Missouri. when I saw what being a political rightist meant in the lower Midwest – the gay hating, the anti-abortion madness, the anti-immigrantism – I simply couldn’t identify with it anymore. But I couldn’t go back to my earlier leftism either, as I found that it had turned into something I also found somewhat repugnant (and has gotten steadily worse in recent years), so I settled into what is essentially a classical liberal political orientation, which has held now for ten years or so.
Choose one: a) An America as liberal as U of M, or b) as conservative as SW Missouri.
If those are the only two possible choices? (a), without hesitation. Not even close.
You post some relatively conservative stuff on Daily Nous. I consider myself very liberal and I often find myself agreeing with you. Your comments get a lot of likes!
Philosophy, like much of the liberal arts and humanities, as well as some of the social sciences, is overwhelmingly populated by people on the left and far-left side of the political spectrum. This was true even when I was in graduate school back in the 90’s, but it’s even more true – and more extreme – now. I think most of what I say would fall in the area of classical liberalism. That this is viewed today as conservative tells you everything.
Do you think challenging liberal orthodoxy has had an effect on your career?
When I was in graduate school, I was politically conservative – that’s the period when I wrote for National Review, founded a chapter of the National Association of Scholars and the like. The left wing bent of the profession didn’t really affect me, but this was because I hid it. One of two politically conservative professors in the department at the time warned me that I should keep my mouth shut about my politics, and I did. You have to remember that back then, one didn’t have the kind of online profile that one does now. You could actually hide something like that and people wouldn’t find out, unless someone ratted on you. Of course, if any of my professors or fellow students had actually read National Review, they would have found me, but none of them did, and it was relatively safe to assume none would. And the fact that most of my course work was in technical analytic philosophy and my dissertation was in aesthetics meant that none of my schoolwork revealed my politics either.
So the leftwing bent of the profession didn’t have any particularly negative effects on me, when I was in graduate school, beyond my having to hide my politics. Our discipline has become more extremely and aggressively leftwing than it was back in the 90s. This has manifested itself in an increasing obsession with identity politics on the part of a significant portion of our profession, as well as with its core institutions – just look at the sorts of projects the APA funds nowadays – and with an inclination towards purity-purges of those on the left who are insufficiently leftist, as we saw with the bizarre and shamefully unprofessional affair involving the journal, Hypatia and the young scholar Rebecca Tuvel.
Again, none of this has much effect on me, personally, but I think it’s terrible for the profession. For one thing, philosophy, of all disciplines, should never embrace dogmas – it is supposed to be the quintessentially critical subject – and yet now we’re full to the brim with them. You cannot criticize or even question the current orthodoxies regarding race, gender, or sexual orientation within the institutional framework of academic philosophy. (Hell, I’ve found myself unable to find a single venue that will publish a paper I’ve done criticizing ethical veganism. Maybe the paper is shit, but it’s funny that all the rejections have focused on things like citations and “tone,” rather than the actual arguments.) For another, it has led to philosophy being grouped together with sociology and anthropology and area-studies as one of the “politicized” parts of the academy, in the minds of much of the public, and is partly to blame for some of philosophy’s poorer fortunes, in terms of attracting majors and minors, especially in parts of the country like mine. Hideous right-wing propaganda like the God is Not Dead film comes out and has an enormous impact on evangelicals living in places like southern Missouri, but then our efforts to counter it – to say, no, this is not what we’re about – are undermined by the survey data that shows our discipline is overwhelmingly leftwing and by high profile cases like the Tuvel affair, which was snatched up by right wing media as an example of philosophy’s being politically compromised.
Career highlights so far?
There have been many. Most importantly, I have become one of the more popular professors on campus, and spots in my classes are highly sought. Not only has it never been the case that one of my classes failed to make, but they almost always fill to capacity or near-capacity. This and the relationship with students that it implies is what I am most proud of. When I was in graduate school and first starting out, I had fully bought into the idea that success in this profession means publishing scores upon scores of articles in top journals and obtaining tenure and full rank at a top Ph.D. granting program. I am now experienced enough and wise enough to know not only that this is not the case and that it is little more than an exercise in self-delusion. Success in this profession means having the greatest possible impact on the lives of the greatest number of people and that happens by way of one’s teaching. Some of my dearest and closest friends today are former students of mine.
I largely share your sentiments, but don’t you still want to participate in some of the philosophical conversations going on in the literature between your peers? Like, I get so annoyed that certain views are accepted as gospel and some views are largely ignored. Even though my job has research expectations (it’s not tenure track), seeing this makes me try to make time to do research, to have some sort of influence on the direction of that conversation.
Oh, absolutely. I’m not denigrating philosophical research. Rather, I think that (a) there is far too much of it and (b) its importance relative to teaching has been distorted and needs to be re-evaluated.
In terms of scholarly work, I think I have written and presented some really good philosophy over the course of my career. For five or six years, towards the beginning, I presented papers at the annual meetings of the British Society of Aesthetics in Oxford, which not only allowed me to fully develop my views in this area, but introduced me to people who would become lifelong friends and colleagues, especially Ian Ground, who is one of the finest philosophers I have had the pleasure to meet and has had more influence on my philosophical thinking than anyone other than a handful of memorable teachers. (It is because of him that I am now, in good part, a Wittgensteinian.) I also did work in epistemology and metaphysics that I’m very proud of, and published an essay on the broad character of philosophy – “Knowledge, Wisdom, and the Philosopher” – in which I really stretched myself and made use of the full span of my education, acculturation, and writing ability. I’m very proud of the academic papers I’ve presented and published.
Love Wittgenstein. What do you mean when you say you’re a Wittgensteinian?
God, I can’t answer a question like this, in this sort of context, especially since he really isn’t identified with positions. Part of it has to do with the sort of philosophy and philosophical ideas that his later work – i.e. the Investigations – is against. Part of it has to do with the literary style and method. Indeed, I’ve been experimenting with that style myself, in the Electric Agora, as it’s not the sort of thing any journal will publish today.
What are the limits of academic philosophy?
The research/publishing component of professional philosophy is seriously broken, to the point that I wonder whether it is fixable, as much of the problem has to do with what I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of what philosophy should really be about. And it is part of the reason why our discipline is becoming increasingly marginalized, both in the academy and with the broader public. (The other reason is political, which I’ll get to in a moment.) Of course, this really isn’t the place for a detailed analysis of what ails professional philosophy, so I’ll only outline my greatest dissatisfactions here:
1. Philosophers publish way too much.
2. Too much philosophy is concerned with trivia and minutia. It’s become horribly pedantic.
3. Far too much citation is required.
4. Not only are literary values not appreciated, they are frowned upon.
5. It is almost impossible to have an actual effect on the course of the discipline, unless one is already famous.
6. One is only read by a handful of other academics and has no effect whatsoever on the larger society.
My disenchantment with professional, academic philosophy is a good part of what led to my shifting focus to public intellectual work, in the form of an online philosophy show, as well as a webzine, publishing essays in philosophy, literary and cultural criticism, history, popular culture, and politics.
Is jumping ship really the only solution?
Who’s jumping ship? I’m not. At least, not yet. But yes, I think our current disciplinary model is broken and won’t survive the ongoing transformation of the university. Those who don’t jump ship will sink with it.
Got it. So, favorite course to teach?
I have taught everything from Intro to upper-division aesthetics to hardcore, technical analytic philosophy. My favorite course, however, has been my Philosophical Ideas in Literature class, in which we read novels philosophically. The course has undergone several iterations, the most recent of which was about the American Dream and included Nathanael West, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Philip K. Dick, and Bret Easton Ellis. Some of the best classroom discussions I’ve had with students over the entire course of my career have been in this class.
You know, I love Hunter S. Thompson, but it doesn’t really strike me as philosophy! Like I love Nine Inch Nails, but it’s art. Compelling, moving, but there aren’t really arguments in there...
I beg to differ. Philosophy needn’t necessarily involve arguments. It can proceed by way of raising compelling questions. Or by making intellectually provocative statements that then invite compelling questions. All the texts we read in the course do those kinds of things very well. In one class we filled the entire period with a discussion of the significance of the line “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles” that is repeated again and again in Less Than Zero. At one point in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson asks whether one can be a criminal in a nation run by criminals. Joan Didion challenges the idea that our lives are productively seen as narratives. These books are a treasure-trove for philosophical conversation of the highest and most significant order.
Fair enough! How has your teaching style changed?
My teaching style hasn’t changed much at all. My greatest gifts are as a speaker and lecturer, and I am one of the few professors whose lectures students love to listen to. I view it as a performance, and fill my lectures with humor and style, as well as serious philosophical content. I also am quite adept at running more Socratic style discussions, but this is difficult to do in classes with high enrollments, and virtually all of our classes are high enrollment. There are no undergraduate seminar style classes, and we have no graduate students.
What has changed the most is my attitude towards assessment. I used to be a real hard-ass and tended to confuse toughness with seriousness. The trouble is that grading and grades and class ranks and all the rest have all been so corrupted over the decades that there no longer is any real relationship between that kind of hard-assery and quality.
All my efforts go into curriculum, lectures, and discussions. Everything to be gotten out of the course is there, and those who really want to learn something will, just by showing up and participating. Those who don’t won’t, and no manner of assignment or test will ever change that fact. Consequently, assessment means very little to me and is there only because I am required to do it. Tests are simply designed to see if students understand what I’ve taught them. No more and no less.
Tell me a bit about the origin of Sophia.
Sophia is a interview/dialogue style program on philosophy and related subjects that I host on BloggingHeads.TV, an online network founded by Robert Wright and Mickey Kaus. BloggingHeads originally was devoted primarily to political and public affairs style programming, but it soon grew to include quite a bit of science and religion programming as well. As a longtime regular commentator, I pitched the idea of doing a show, which was accepted. Not long after, Robert Wright decided to start a sister website, devoted entirely to religious, philosophical, and cultural programming, called MeaningofLife.TV, and Sophia was the inaugural program for the new site.
Most of the dialogues are with Massimo Pigliucci, of the City University of New York, though other guests also appear. My partnership with Massimo was born of the fact that I was also a regular commentator on his now-retired webzine, Scientia Salon. When Robert Wright expressed interest in my doing a philosophy program for BHTV, I invited Massimo to do it with me.
And The Electric Agora?
I became friendly with Dan Tippens, during the year that Massimo ran Scientia Salon. Dan was Massimo’s Managing Editor and was the one charged with communicating with commentators, so he and I spoke quite a bit. He had finished a philosophy degree at NYU and was taking a few years off before applying to graduate programs in philosophy. He’s now a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Miami.
When Massimo shut down Scientia Salon, Dan and I decided to create a webzine of our own, though not one that would carry on or otherwise replicate the mission of Scientia, which was focused on the intersection of philosophy and science. We also decided to go with a stable of writers, rather than publish submissions, as that model was part of what drove Massimo to close down the site – he said it was just too difficult to get people to contribute.
Luckily there were a number of very smart people, from a diverse set of backgrounds, who were very good writers, regularly commenting at Scientia. Dan and I discussed whom we thought were the best and approached each individually to write for us. Since then, we’ve had a few personnel changes, but for the most part, our core group of writers remains the same.
Do the writers get paid?
No, they do not. If the site gets sufficiently large to monetize, then some sort of profit-sharing will happen.
Interesting projects on the horizon?
The Electric Agora is still in its building phase. Even with almost no advertising, save a small box on Leiter now and then, we have grown in the last two years to almost 100,000 views and over 30,000 unique visitors a year, from dozens of countries around the world. So one upcoming project is to cultivate an even larger audience, introduce more features, bring on new writers and develop the webzine until it is a major online player.
With the success of Massimo’s recent book, How to Be a Stoic, he has invited Skye Cleary and me to co-edit a new book on “philosophies of life,” with each of us contributing a chapter, and the rest written by contributors whom we have solicited. It looks to be an exciting and potentially quite successful project, and at this point is well underway.
I am in the process of expanding the Sophia program to include other regular interlocutors, the first of whom has been Crispin Sartwell, a fantastic, unique, not-part-of-the-social justice-herd philosopher, with whom I have already filmed three dialogues.
Finally, I eventually want to leave academia entirely and become a full-time writer, of both essays and fiction. I have already completed the first drafts of a novella and a novel, but I will need a lot more free time than I currently have, in order to get them in the sort of shape necessary to approach agents and publishers. My daughter has two years left in high school, after which she will go to university. At that point, my wife and I are planning to retire from our jobs – she is a high school English teacher – and move back to the East coast, where I will devote myself to these projects and my writing, full time.
Favorite TV shows?
John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused), Francois Truffaut (L’Argent de Poche), William Friedkin (Live and Die in LA), Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits, Brazil), Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas), Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey).
Hard to beat 2001. Music?
Wire, Magazine, The Damned, The Stranglers, X, Adolescents, TSOL, Circle Jerks, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Judas Priest, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, NWA, William Byrd, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Jean Sibelius.
What was your election night like?
I voted for Hilary Clinton, but I knew that Trump would win, months before the election. Indeed, I made a bet with a very overconfident leftist, who is a regular commenter at BHTV. He thought it impossible that a vulgar creep like Trump could become president and gave me 8-1 odds, betting $20. I made him donate my winnings to a rural health clinic in the most Right-Wing county in West Virginia that I could find.
You’re king of the world, what’s your first move?
Give the job to somebody else.
Definitely not a philosophy professor.
[interviewer: Cliff Sosis]