In this interview, Daniel Bonevac, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, talks about growing up in Pittsburgh, the Pirates, Madden, religion, Beethoven, the Doors, Marx, Nietzsche, Free Will, why he choose Haverford College over Yale, vectors, volunteering for the McGovern campaign, Pascal’s wager, gossip in philosophy, working with Sellars at University of Pittsburgh, Hempel and the five Confucian virtues, emulating his favorite teachers, eating peanut M&M’s at the APA, the cons of tenure, being chair, finding his philosophical grove in his 50’s, the similarities between Western and ‘non-Western’ philosophy, how students have changed in the past 30 years, how he became a conservative and a Trump supporter, the lack of political diversity in philosophy, Haidt, why there aren’t a lot of theists in philosophy, Plantinga, logical empiricism, propaganda, insinuation, and his favorite restaurants in Austin…
[9/14/2017, photo credit: Callie Richmond, University of Texas at Austin]
So, where are you from?
I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I grew up in the South Hills, in a neighborhood on the north edge of Baldwin Borough. My grandfather’s plumbing workshop was about a mile away in Carrick.
When I was eight my family moved to Richmond, Virginia. When I was fifteen we moved to West Hartford, Connecticut.
What was your family like?
In Pittsburgh, we lived very close to my grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, second cousins, etc. The log cabin where my grandfather was raised, on a farm on Willett Road, is now on display at the Baldwin Municipal Building, and when I visited a few years ago, the people who happened to be there turned out to be relatives of mine. It was a very close, very warm, very loving family.
Were your parents 'philosophical’?
Heh! No. They were practical people. Even when I was small they thought I had no common sense.
In two ways, however, they did provide some impetus for my study of philosophy. My father worked during the day and went to college full-time at night when I was young. I didn’t see much of him. But he was a former Catholic, now Presbyterian, going to a Catholic university, Duquesne, taking required theology courses. So, I remember dinner table conversations about the roles of faith and reason, predestination, and other theological topics. That got me thinking philosophically at a young age.
Also, there weren’t books in our house, except for my father’s college textbooks. As soon as I was able—I learned to read at three so I could read the accounts of Pirate games in the Pittsburgh Press!—I started reading those textbooks. My favorites were two on logic.
What did they do?
My mom worked as a comptometer operator for Jones and Laughlin Steel until I was born; then she stayed at home to raise my brother and me. My father worked in the mail room at J&L. They met at work. He was drafted near the end of the Korean War—he got the notice upon return from their honeymoon!—and was in his final days as a corporal in the Army when I was born. He returned to J&L and put himself through college at night, eventually becoming an accountant. After our move to Virginia he worked for Reynolds Metals, first in accounting and then overseeing property development.
As a kid, what did you do for fun?
Baseball. I followed the Pirates religiously. I read books on the history of baseball. I played baseball. I invented imaginary baseball leagues in which my stuffed animals were key players. (Even today, my head is full of baseball statistics.) Highlights from my childhood are the times I got to go to games at Forbes Field. I saw a lot of greats play: Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Bill Mazeroski, Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Don Drysdale, Frank Howard, Maury Wills, Ken Boyer, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Dick Allen, the Alou brothers—the list goes on and on. When I was in graduate school in the late 1970s I saw dozens of games each year at Three Rivers Stadium, including the three World Series games played in Pittsburgh in 1979. I still have the baseball fouled into the stands by Dave Parker in the first inning of game 5.
Cool! As a teen, were you religious?
Yes, I’ve always been religious. I went to church faithfully, except for my college years, when there wasn’t a Presbyterian church nearby.
Get into trouble?
Not really. I was a good kid, and too introverted to get into much trouble.
You and your brother get along?
Yes. He is almost seven years younger than I am, but we always played together a lot. He started out much smaller than I was, of course, but he overtook me when he was in junior high. He’s now 6’4”. When we get together we play a lot of Madden.
You met your wife back then, right?
My wife and I were high school sweethearts. We have been together since our mid-teens.
Sweet! Favorite book or books in high school?
I loved English Literature, especially Shakespeare and Wordsworth. By the time I was in high school I had read my father’s two college English Literature textbooks, but that only made me thirsty for more. My English Lit teacher my junior year was constantly hung over, it seemed, and was nearing retirement; he’d just tell us to open the book to a certain page and start reading. I loved it. My senior English teacher was also great, and introduced me to many authors I hadn’t encountered before, including Conrad, Faulkner, Albee, Bellow, Malamud, and others. Saul Bellow remains a favorite of mine.
What music were you into?
I was always interested in classical music—my mother was a classically trained pianist—so I was acquainted with Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and others at a young age. The first record I ever bought was the New York Philharmonic playing Smetana and Dvorak. My mother also loved R&B and rock and roll, though, so I grew up listening to that too. We were too poor to have a piano when I was young, but at twelve I started studying piano and organ, and quickly fell in love with Bach. It wasn’t until my last two years of high school that I started listening to the Doors, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and basically any other groups that featured keyboards prominently.
Loved the Doors, and Beethoven! Any indication you were going to be a philosopher?
When I was twelve I sat in on a course on World Religions. In tenth grade I had a friend who started me reading Marx and Nietzsche. And I had long had an interest in theology. In high school I sat in on a course on Free Will at Trinity College. So, there were definite indications.
Early thoughts on free will?
I was raised as a Calvinist, and am not too far away from that position now. The major change has been my attitude about free will. When I was young I was a hard determinist. Age has made me much more libertarian in my thinking. I’ve moved away from Calvin toward Anselm.
Did you start thinking about what you were going to study in college?
I had ideas, but they kept changing. My best and favorite subject in school was always math, so interest in majoring in math was a constant. Philosophy was always high on the list too. Studying Latin got me interested in linguistics; my first-year Latin teacher loaned me a lot of books on historical linguistics. When I joined the debate team I got very interested in the possibility of majoring in political science; later, English, psychology, and economics were all possibilities. So, when I got to college I had at least six possible majors in mind.
Did you consider not going to college?
Only for a moment, when I realized how expensive it was. In retrospect, $3,000 a year wasn’t bad at all.
Right. Where did you end up going?
I then went to Haverford College in Philadelphia. I had always wanted to go to Yale, and when I got in my mom said, “That’s great! You can live at home!” I could have—by then we had moved to Connecticut—but I didn’t want to. I had only applied to Yale, Haverford, Swarthmore, and Williams, and all were great, but Haverford felt like the best fit.
You turned down going to Yale? Explain your thinking there if you don't mind.
Partly, I didn’t want to live at home, and we did live close enough that I could have. But the major reason was that I thought a small college would give me a better education. I feared that at Yale or another Ivy League school the faculty wouldn’t be that committed to teaching and I’d be interacting mostly with TAs, at least for the first two years. I wanted small classes and close relationships with professors, and Haverford provided that.
Was Haverford what you expected?
Yes and no. The faculty were, in general, wonderful, and I learned a lot. But I didn’t find most of my fellow students very interesting. My best friend from Virginia was at Haverford, too, and we hung out together a lot. But I didn’t make very many other close friends.
Least favorite classes?
Economics. I expected to love it, and didn’t, at all. Ironically, I was also baffled by my first logic course. I skipped the first one and took Advanced Logic, taught by a physics professor. He taught the entire course in reverse Polish notation. Luckily I didn’t let it turn me off from the subject itself!
Religion in Modern Culture was fantastic—everything I had hoped college would be. I took terrific classes on Kant, Nietzsche, Sartre, Aristotle, and Locke and Hume. And I loved Music Theory. I really enjoyed the courses in math and physics that I took as well.
Gerhard Spiegler, the Provost and my advisor, who left after my first year to become Provost at Temple
and Richard Bernstein, who taught me intro philosophy as well as Kant and Analytic Philosophy. Spiegler and Bernstein were flashy—brilliant lecturers and discussion leaders with deep philosophical insights. Both had a lot of charisma. And both had accents—Spiegler’s was German, and Bernstein’s was Brooklyn. They were immensely popular, and for the best reasons.
Aryeh Kosman, an Aristotle scholar, was one of the people I’ve modeled my own teaching after—engaging, clear-headed, witty, and kind. I think I learned more in his classes than in any others—not only about philosophy, but about how to do philosophy: how to read philosophical texts carefully, treat the arguments and positions they advance respectfully but critically, and, in general, think like a philosopher.
You majored in philosophy. Did you consider doing anything else?
When I started I was entertaining all sorts of options. Economics and Psychology, however, didn’t excite me; English was fun but not that inspiring; Math was great except for vectors, which to this day puzzle and annoy me. Religion interested me only to the extent that it was philosophical. I started realizing that in every subject I was interested primarily in the philosophical issues that arose there.
Were you into politics?
Being on the high school debate team made me somewhat interested—I volunteered for the McGovern campaign in 1972—but in college I wasn’t politically involved at all.
Did you party?
Heh! I didn’t have time. I graduated in three years, without entering with much AP credit. My first semester I took six courses—the norm was four—including Advanced Calculus and two senior seminars (one on James Joyce, and one on Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics). I took six some other semesters as well. My idea of a fun Saturday night was hanging out with a friend reading, and occasionally reading aloud to each other the best passages from what we were reading. If we felt really wild we might have some pizza.
Overall how would you say college changed your worldview?
I wouldn’t say it changed it so much as deepened it. Haverford’s small classes were great for probing questioning and thinking things through.
How did your worldview become deeper in college?
In high school, I was captain of the debate team (and also of our State championship math team). I loved intellectual inquiry, discussion, and debate. But I think I was often more interested in making a clever point than in getting things right. In college I realized it’s not about impressing people. It’s not about winning. It’s about getting at the truth.
When did you decide you wanted to go to grad school?
When I was four. That sounds ridiculous, I know, but on the day before I was to start kindergarten I asked my mother whether it was just for one day. “No,” she said, “you have to go all year.” “Then I’ll be done?” “No, after that there’s first grade, second grade, and all the way up to twelfth grade. Then you go to college, which takes four years. And then you go to graduate school and get your PhD.” Nobody in our neighborhood had gone to college; my dad by then had started night school, but no one in the family had ever graduated from college either. So it’s remarkable that she said what she did. But from that time on I assumed I would get a PhD. The only question was what field it would be in.
Who guided you through the process of applying to grad school?
No one. I had brief conversations with a couple of philosophy professors about it, and read the National Council on Graduate Education rankings, but that was it.
Were the rankings helpful?
Yes, somewhat, though in retrospect I had very little information. Haverford prepared me well philosophically in some ways, teaching me to read, think, and write carefully and clearly. The curriculum was mostly historical. I didn’t understand the overall shape of the profession. A glaring example: the writing sample I sent to Princeton was on Hegel! (No, I didn’t get in.)
Any doubts about your religious views?
No, not at all. I have doubts about many theological issues, including free will, but not about the basic doctrines of Christianity.
Really? Zero doubts?
Pretty much. I’ll grant that it’s epistemically possible that God doesn’t exist. But it’s also epistemically possible that I’m a brain in a vat or that an evil deceiver is tricking me. None of those lead to serious doubt.
I find Pascal’s wager helpful as a defense against doubt, whatever its demerits as a positive argument in favor of belief might be. What if God doesn’t exist? There’s nothing to be gained by following that line of thinking.
Where did you go to grad school?
I went to Pittsburgh. At the time Princeton and Pittsburgh were tied for #1, with Harvard barely a notch behind.
Was it a friendly environment? Did you find like-minded individuals? Did you feel prepared?
I loved it. Like almost every graduate student, I had a crisis of confidence and commitment halfway through my first year. But otherwise, graduate school was wonderful. I loved being able to concentrate on the things I cared about most. The Pittsburgh department was a wonderful match for my interests. I had close friends—most of whom left philosophy to go to law school—and found my classes, with one or two exceptions, fantastic, better than anything I had experienced as an undergraduate. Even though I didn’t know much about philosophy as a profession, I felt well prepared to do philosophy. And I purposely stayed away from the gossip side of things.
In you first-year crisis, what were you thinking about doing besides philosophy?
I thought about going to law school. That’s what almost all my fellow philosophy majors at Haverford had done, and I had enough acquaintance with law from doing debate that I had a fair amount of interest in it. I didn’t care about it the way I cared about philosophy, however. In retrospect, I must say, it might have been a better fit for my intellectual abilities. I have a very good memory, which would have been more useful in law than it has been in philosophy. But I don’t think I would have enjoyed it nearly as much.
How was life outside of class?
My graduate school experience was shaped in part by the fact that Pittsburgh was my home town. I was attending classes less than a mile from where I was born. I was able to see grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., frequently. My last year, my brother was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon, so I saw a lot of him. And, I married my high school sweetheart. So, my life was good outside of academia too.
What do you mean by gossip?
A lot of philosophers are very concerned with what other philosophers are doing, who’s talking about whom, whom University X is thinking of hiring, etc. Social media has made all this worse; who is saying what about whom? I’ve always tried to ignore this kind of thing and focus on philosophy itself, not the people who are doing it.
What was trending philosophically?
The courses I took that were most memorable were ones taught by Wilfrid Sellars (Pre-Kantian Philosophy—i.e., Descartes to Hume—and Theory of Knowledge), Carl Hempel (Philosophy of Science), Gerald Massey (Logic), Allan Gibbard (Social Choice Theory), and an amazing group of ancient philosophers—John Cooper, Alexander Nehamas, and Myles Burnyeat. Courses I audited were also superb: Robert Kraut on Metaphysics was amazing, exposing us to Kripke, Hintikka, Dummett, and others, and after finishing my course work I attended every logic seminar that was taught by Nuel Belnap. I also audited Ermanno Bencivenga’s seminar on free logic, which was wonderful, and Ken Manders’s course on Model Theory. I also did courses on aspects of the philosophy of mathematics with Carl Posy, Charles Parsons, and Leslie Tharp. That maybe gives you some idea what hot topics were at the time.
Sellars and Hempel were not only superb philosophers but outstanding teachers. Along with Kosman, they’ve been the teachers who have most inspired my own teaching style.
What was your dissertation on?
I found the toughest part of graduate school settling on a dissertation topic. I sketched out eight different ideas! I thought of working on everything from Freud to modal metaphysics to the axiomatic method to social choice theory. I asked a friend what I should do, and he said, “If I were you, with your interests and talents, I’d write on the philosophy of mathematics.” So I did.
Who was your dissertation director?
Sellars was my dissertation director, and I also worked closely with Hempel and Massey.
What was Sellars like?
Wilfrid Sellars was a brilliant teacher. His diagrams on the board were a key part of his technique. His writing is notoriously difficult—the Philosophical Lexicon has an entry:
• wilfrid (adj.)— Said of a theory one presumes to be true but finds incomprehensible; "You physicists all seem to agree, but it's wilfrid to me." "I'm sorry, your Holiness, but every time you explain the Trinity to me it goes all wilfrid in my mind." Also, said of a person, bewilfrid.
I find reading him much easier than most people do, partly because I got lessons from the master himself, but partly because, as I read, I imagine the words in his voice, with the diagrams he would have drawn to illustrate the points he was making. He was a visual thinker, and the words on the page, without the diagrams, present challenges that dissolved in class.
What made the classes so remarkable is that Sellars provided an abstract framework within which to understand philosophical texts and debates. It cast everything in a new light. None of us would have recovered that framework from our own reading. Taking a course with Sellars was like having a familiar landscape suddenly appear in ultraviolet; you saw patterns that had been hidden but that you immediately realized had been there all along.
At the undergraduate level Sellars did most of the talking. He always urged students to ask questions and discuss, but his train of thought was so intricate, and so brilliant, that people rarely did.
At the graduate level he taught on the German model. The first couple of classes were his lectures to set the stage. After that things were organized around student presentations. He did some stage-setting then, but mostly the class was a dialogue between the student and Sellars, with occasional questions from others. I recall doing my presentation on Locke’s Essay. It was like being grilled by Socrates. Many of the students found the experience terrifying, and said little in response to his comments. I got into a big debate with him about the relationship between empiricism and phenomenalism. It was my first semester in graduate school; I was twenty, too young, I think, to be intimidated in the way most of the older students were.
Every dissertation student who worked with Sellars had a different experience with him. We talked extensively about what I wrote, going through it page by page. He never wrote comments; he would just talk me through issues as they were prompted by what he had read. We never discussed anything outside philosophy; it was strictly a professional discussion. One student I know talked to him extensively about his dissertation material but also about all sorts of other things, including baseball. (I didn’t realize that he was such a baseball fan—I would have loved to talk to him about that, since I spent much of the time I wasn’t doing philosophy watching the Pirates.) Another hardly spoke to him at all. One found Sellars giving him nothing but high-level, oracular pronouncements he didn’t understand. So, every relationship was unique.
Fascinating. What was it like working with Hempel?
Carl Hempel was very different. He was absolutely straightforward; what you saw was what you got. He was remarkably kind, patient even with the most misguided question, generous with his time, and completely honest. His mind was crystalline—a model of clarity—and his teaching was inspiring because he took complicated matters and made them so clear that they became impossible not to understand. I took his graduate Philosophy of Science seminar, which he also taught on the German model, structuring it around student presentations. I then sat in on his undergraduate Philosophy of Science course, which was more of a lecture class. It was a delight, brilliant in its clarity and made even more wonderful by his sense of humor, which came through more in that setting than in the graduate seminar.
Hempel was on my dissertation committee, and gave me extensive written comments, page by page, as well as illuminating conversations about the work. More than anyone else, perhaps, Hempel has been my model, not only of how to do philosophy, but of how to live.
How to live?
Yes, Hempel was not only a model philosopher but a model human being. He saw the best in everyone and every situation. When I think of him I think of the five basic Confucian virtues—sincerity, kindness, generosity, seriousness, and diligence—all of which he exemplified to the highest degree.
Did your philosophical views in graduate school continue to deepen, or did they change?
They changed a great deal, as did my interests. I went to Pittsburgh not being sure at all what I wanted to study, but convinced it would have something to do with Kant. In the end, my work on the philosophy of mathematics had nothing to do with Kant at all.
What was the job market like when you finished?
Terrible. It was awful throughout the later 1970s. There were about 100 philosophy jobs advertised in the fall of 1979, including one as a Colorado deputy. (The sheriff had a PhD in philosophy and wanted someone to talk to.) I knew that going in. But I wasn’t too worried. I was just 24 in the fall of 1979, so I had time to do something else if the philosophy thing didn’t work out.
Where did you land your first gig? Were you relieved? Excited? Scared?
My first job was at the University of Texas at Austin. I’m still there, 37 years later. I was terrified at the APA—for three days I was too nervous to eat anything but peanut M&Ms, until a friend finally made me eat a roast beef sandwich—though I felt good about and actually enjoyed the interviews. I was hoping to get invited for campus visits, and had a practice job talk scheduled at Pitt, but there was no time. Less than a week after my interview in New York, Texas called and offered me the job. I can’t describe how relieved I was. I didn’t know much about Texas—I had never been closer than Steubenville, Ohio—but my other options (a) couldn’t act nearly that fast and (b) were all at least as far north as Pittsburgh. So, I accepted the job sight unseen.
When you started, how did you approach teaching?
In part, I sought to imitate the great teachers I had studied with. I’ve always directed my teaching at the top quarter of the class. I try to inspire the others to rise to that level.
At Texas, when I first arrived, that took conscious effort. UT students then were much more varied in their talents and motivation level than they are today. Texas is one of the very best universities in a large geographical region, so we’ve always gotten more than our share of brilliant students. But in the 1980s we also got a lot of students who weren’t all that good or that interested. And I had to teach a lot of required courses.
So, I developed my abilities as a salesman as well as a philosopher. I love philosophy, and love teaching it, so I didn’t find it hard to sell. In fact, I liked the challenge of teaching students who didn’t see the point of taking the course at the outset. By the end, they usually ended up loving it. I’ve always tried to use interesting, real-world, and preferably funny examples. In the 1990s I began using The Simpsons to illustrate philosophical points. I still do.
I’m different from most people who teach at research universities, I suspect, in that I got into this for the teaching. I enjoy research; I enjoy writing. It’s wonderful that people actually want to publish and sometimes even read what I write. But that’s the gravy. Teaching is what I love.
I feel you man. A lot has happened in the past 30 years! Highlights?
One highlight was my affiliation with the Cognitive Science Center at UT, which was thriving in the early 1980s. I got a chance to work closely with Nicholas Asher, Hans Kamp, Stan Peters, Lauri Karttunen, Carlota Smith, Phil Gough, Richard Larson, Richie Kayne, Irene Heim, and others. It was fantastic.
How did it feel to finally get tenure?
I got tenure early, at age twenty-nine. That let me stop worrying. But it also caused a bit of an intellectual crisis. Before that, I was jumping through hoops someone else had put there. After that, it was up to me to put the hoops where I wanted them. That was scary.
You were chair at one point, right? As a chair, what was your aim?
In 1991 I became Chair of the Department of Philosophy. We had been ranked as high as 12 in the late 1960s, but had fallen to 28 in the early 1980s and 26 in the early 1990s. My goal was to reverse that decline. The recession of the early 1990s made that difficult, but I insisted that we try to hire the best available philosopher any time we had a position. (I modeled it on the “best available athlete” strategy the Pittsburgh Steelers use to build championship teams.) I remained Chair for ten years, during which time we had only one senior-level position. By the next ranking, nevertheless, we were rated 11.
After being chair, what was it like going back to teaching and researching full-time?
It took some adjustment. Dorothy Parker once said, “They sicken of the calm, that know the storm,” and that’s the way I felt for a year or two. But then I think I did the best philosophical work I’ve done in my career, publishing papers in the Journal of Philosophy, Philosophical Review, Mind, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, and Nous. Around age fifty I found that all sorts of things that had seemed difficult before became easy. My colleague Stephen Phillips, who specializes in Indian philosophy, found the same thing. Before fifty, he was translating Sanskrit. After fifty, he was just reading it. It became natural to him. I had a similar experience with both Latin and logic. They suddenly got much easier.
Speaking of Indian philosophy, how did you get into ‘non-Western’ philosophy?
I was teaching a Plan II honors course in 1988 when a student asked why there was no non-western philosophy on the syllabus. I answered honestly—“Because I don’t know anything about it.” I thought that was an intellectual limitation of mine, and realized that I had had very few opportunities to study non-western thought in college and graduate school, and had missed the few I had. So, upon taking a semester off after the birth of our first child, I threw myself into reading non-western philosophy. I had some colleagues to help me—Steve Phillips on Indian philosophy and Tom Seung on Chinese philosophy—and I started sitting in on some of their classes on non-western material. Later Phillips and I team-taught some courses we created covering both western and non-western material: World Philosophy; Ethics and Enlightenment; Argumentation East and West; and Natural Theology East and West. I think I enjoyed teaching those more than any other courses I’ve ever taught.
How are Western and ‘non-Western’ philosophy similar?
It’s striking. Philosophers in traditions all over the world ask much the same questions. Who am I? What’s the world made of? How do I know? What should I do? Those questions are really universal, inherent in the human condition.
People propose radically different answers to those questions. Idealism, for example, emerges only late in the West, but appears very early in Indian and Chinese philosophy. The same is true of externalism in epistemology. There’s also a significant difference in emphasis. Skepticism plays a much larger role in Indian philosophy than in other traditions. Chinese thinkers pay more attention to ethics and less to epistemology than Western philosophers.
How have students changed over the past 30 years, you think?
It’s hard to say, in general. At UT they‘ve become much better. Our median SAT score went from 1020 in 1980 to over 1255 a few years ago. (I’m not sure what it is now.) Students have become better writers and clearer thinkers. But they don’t necessarily know more. In fact I’m often shocked at how little history and literature they know. Who were the Romantic poets? Who were our chief allies and enemies in World War I? I think a higher percentage of students would have known the answers in 1980 than today.
I’ve always loved teaching at UT, partly because of the range of backgrounds and views the students have, and partly because they’re willing to talk about issues openly and frankly. They’re willing to delve into questions, propose alternative answers, debate their merits, suggest new options, and so on—in short, they’re eager to participate in intellectual inquiry and debate.
In the past year or two, however, that’s been changing. It’s still there on most topics. But get near anything politically controversial and they get quiet fast. They’re afraid of saying something wrong. I teach mostly first-year students, so this isn’t something the University is doing to them—it’s something they bring to campus with them.
On a related note, you are one of a few philosophers who recently admitted to supporting Trump. How long have you been interested in politics, and how have your political views changed over the years?
I was raised as a moderate, Eisenhower-type Republican. In college, and through the influence of my best friend’s father—Richard Lodge, a brilliant and charismatic man who was Dean of the School of Social Work at VCU and then President of the National Council on Social Work Education—I moved fairly far to the left. I read extensively in Marx and other leftist thinkers. I volunteered for the McGovern campaign. But the failures of the Carter Presidency, the Polish Revolution, and reading the Wall Street Journal—required reading for my wife in her MBA program, where she specialized in economics and finance—as well as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and nouveau philosophes such as Bernard Henri-Levy moved me back to the right. Ever since then I’ve considered myself a Reagan Republican.
Was it odd, being invited to explain yourself to the philosophical community?
Yes, it was strange. And I’ve now been on Fox Business News, Fox News, and MSNBC, as well as ABC Australia, Irish National Radio, and Russia Today. I have a blog on Newsmax. Not many philosophers make appearances on national TV. But philosophy is actually fairly good training for it.
I didn’t start out as a Trump supporter; I backed Ted Cruz, whom I’ve known for more than fifteen years and whom I admire tremendously. At first I thought Trump was running as a publicity stunt. But then I watched one of his rallies on CSPAN. I intended to watch for a few minutes; I ended up watching for over an hour. He was like no politician I’d ever seen, and I immediately realized that he was tapping into something real and relating to people in a dramatically new way, talking candidly about issues they cared about deeply.
Don’t you feel like Trump did Cruz wrong, with the comments about his wife and father?
How do you feel about Trump's performance thus far? Is this what you expected?
I’m very pleased with his performance. I wish he’d get the White House in better order, and whip the Republicans in Congress into shape. Neither problem is surprising; there’s often a shakeup in White House staff during the first year of an administration, because campaigning and governing are two different things, and for Trump, an outsider to politics, this was bound to be worse than usual. And his outsider status meant that relations with Republicans in Congress were bound to be an issue. But otherwise I’m happy. He’s appointing judges who will follow the law rather than make it up. He’s getting rid of regulations that produce more harm than good. He’s heeding his oath of office by enforcing the law, and already employment, wages, the stock market, and consumer confidence are up. We’re regaining our credibility on the world stage. He’s doing well. But it’s still early.
I think the most important thing is that Trump is returning political decision-making to the legislative branch, where it belongs. The Obama administration relied heavily on executive branch edicts and judicial decisions. Whether you like what it did or not—I consider its actions, on the whole, disastrous—it ruled in an undemocratic, authoritarian fashion. That’s the essence of progressivism: rule by an unelected elite, unfettered by Constitutional checks and balances. I support Trump because I think he understands that and intends to reverse it.
I disagree as do many people who are reading this, I imagine. Is the lack of political diversity in philosophy what inspired you to write Today's Moral Issues?
We used to have close to 1500 students a semester taking Contemporary Moral Problems at UT, and we didn’t have many faculty members who were interested in teaching it. So, Nick Asher and I volunteered to do it. We team-taught; he would present arguments from the left on each issue, and I would present arguments on the right. We were close friends, and collaborating on work in the philosophy of language, so this was easy and fun for us.
We weren’t happy with any of the available books, however. Partly that was because they weren’t very balanced; they tilted heavily to the left, and even on that side of things, they tilted heavily toward the radical. We wanted something that represented views across the spectrum, including mainstream liberal and conservative views, more fairly. We wanted readings from various contributors to public debate, not just philosophers. And we wanted to do real philosophy. We thought it was impossible to teach an effective course on applied ethics without giving the students some background in ethics and political philosophy. They needed to read Aristotle, Kant, and Mill, as well as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. I suggested that we collaborate on a book that would accomplish all of that. Nicholas had too many other projects going on, so I did it myself.
Why do you think philosophers are so liberal, politically?
I don’t know. It hasn’t always been true. And the profession has moved significantly to the left since I entered it.
I didn’t make a big deal of my conservative views when I was an assistant professor, but I didn’t hide them, either, and I didn’t feel any need to. Now I know quite a few conservative graduate students and assistant professors who feel that they have to keep their views a closely guarded secret.
I think one factor in the change has been a shift on the left itself. A generation of liberals in the Roosevelt-Kennedy-Johnson mold has been replaced by leftists in a postmodern mold. The former believed in objectivity, freedom of expression, and intellectual debate. The latter, not so much.
Do you think that’s a fair characterization of the whole entire left?
No, of course not. There are still a lot of liberals around. And there were postmodern radicals on faculties in the 1960s and 1970s. But the proportions have changed. The number of faculty members who would vote against hiring someone because of their political views has increased significantly. The number who would defend freedom of expression has shrunk.
I’m encouraged by people like Jonathan Haidt, a liberal who has pointed out the dangers of a politically monolithic intellectual culture and has started the Heterodox Academy.
Love Haidt. I’m not a theist. Why do you think most philosophers are atheists or agnostics?
Again, this hasn’t always been true. Philosophers, like other groups, however, are herd animals. At some point religious belief went out of fashion.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed a lot of intellectual assaults on religious belief, from the “higher criticism” of the Bible to Marx and Nietzsche to the anthropological/sociological/psychological attacks of Durkheim, Malinowski, Freud, Eliade, etc. And what is avant garde at one point tends to become orthodoxy about a century later—while still considering itself edgy and avant garde!
I’ve taught a course at my church on these attacks on religious belief, and, going back to the sources, it’s striking how unscientific it all is. The evidence is thin. The arguments are terrible when they exist at all. But the attitude persists that a scientifically minded person can’t believe in God.
Inspired by Alvin Plantinga, among others, more Christians are studying philosophy and becoming philosophers. So, I think this attitude’s days may be numbered.
Planning any interesting future philosophical projects?
Right now I’m writing a book, Light of the Mind: Transcendental Arguments for a Transcendent God, trying to revive arguments from intelligibility, as I call them, a style of argument exemplified by Augustine’s argument from truth. That kind of argument has received remarkably little attention since then.
I’m also working on a variety of other topics: the logic of reasons, which is still relatively unexplored; the logic of infinitivals, which is similarly unexplored, even though it’s crucial to central philosophical issues such as necessity, possibility, desire, obligation, and reasons; and the logic of distinctions that can be taken to apply to themselves. For example: Is the distinction between the a priori and the a posteriori itself a priori or a posteriori?
How do you see the future of philosophy in general?
I’m an optimist, at heart, so I think philosophy’s future in bright. I’m not sure at all, however, about institutions of higher education as they are now conceived. I think higher education may look very different in a generation or two. And philosophy may correspondingly look different and be conducted in different settings. I’ve done a massively open online course, Ideas of the Twentieth Century, through EdX, which has enrolled 50,000 students, and I put a lot of my classes on YouTube. My channel has nearly a million views. So, there are some interesting possibilities.
Awesome! Do you find any philosophical trends exciting?
Philosophers seem to me to be breaking out of the mold into which logical empiricism poured us. We all owe Saul Kripke a gigantic debt of thanks for that. It’s taken a while for people to start asking deep questions about human existence that didn’t fit neatly into the categories of twentieth-century thought. But I see it happening everywhere now, and I’m encouraged by it.
More specifically, I see philosophers exploring topics even within areas they’ve been investigating whose philosophical implications haven’t been examined that carefully before: Multi-agent, multi-modal logics, for example. Game theory. Dynamic logics. Nonmonotonic logics. Continuous models of phenomena such as vagueness. All that is great.
Do you find any trends disconcerting?
I think the political uniformity of philosophy is starting to have some negative effects on work on applied ethics, for example, and even on the philosophy of language. Recent attention to propaganda and insinuation is responding to real phenomena but lends itself readily to politicization. Theoretical constructs in that area strike me as unconstrained, allowing a high degree of indeterminacy and proceeding largely in ignorance of how people on another side of a political question actually think. As one of the few conservatives reading these articles or listening to these talks, I find myself thinking, “You’re right that this statement is communicating something beyond what it explicitly states. But it’s not at all what you think it is.” Advertisers know that the same statement might be communicating different messages to different audiences. So, there might not even be such a thing as the message being sent.
I also worry about the effects of social media on the field—not only in encouraging the kind of gossip I mentioned earlier, but also in encouraging people to think in soundbites. That doesn’t lend itself to good philosophy. It encourages unfortunate intellectual habits.
Favorite restaurants in Austin?
This is a terrific restaurant town. There are many great Mexican restaurants—Fonda San Miguel deserves special mention—and Texas barbecue places (The Salt Lick! Franklins!). There are also excellent farm-to-table restaurants, like Jack Allen’s Kitchen, where my wife and I just celebrated our forty-first anniversary with our kids and their significant others.
Nice. What does your wife do?
She worked for many years as a forecaster and rates analyst in the utility industry. She is retired now.
Metropolitan, a Whit Stillman movie about the decline of the urban haute bourgeoisie; The Lives of Others, about life in East Germany; and old baseball movies like It Happens Every Spring. I also love Krzysztof Kieslowski’s color trilogy and Louis Malle’s My Dinner with André.
What are you listening to, watching, and reading nowadays?
Listening to—contemporary Christian music, especially Audrey Assad, Laura Story, and Lauren Daigle; choral music, especially Eric Whitacre, Morten Lauridsen, and Ora; and whatever my daughters are listening to (at the moment, mostly Ed Sheeran). But my default is baroque music, especially Bach and Couperin.
Watching—I watch The Tucker Carlson Show faithfully, and otherwise watch a few TV series: Father Brown, Suits, Elementary, The Blacklist, Jane the Virgin, The Good Place, and The Big Bang Theory. I don’t go to movies much, but I like watching older films on TCM, AMC, or Netflix. Most recently, I’ve watched The Thin Man series of films with William Powell and Myrna Loy; Gaslight; and Angels in the Outfield (the 1951 original, filmed at my old haunt Forbes Field in Pittsburgh).
Reading—I’ve just finished Justin Snedegar, Contrastive Reasons, and am starting Brad Skow, Reasons Why. Outside philosophy, I’ve been reading The Prayers and Hymns of Thomas Aquinas; Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things; Fred Siegel, The Revolt Against the Masses; and Mark Helprin, The Pacific and Other Stories. I’ve also been slowly working my way through Dmitri Tymoczko, A Geometry of Music.
In general what do you do for fun?
I write and play music. For the past eleven years I’ve played bass in the band at my church’s contemporary service. I’m also in charge of picking the music we do at each service. It’s been an amazing experience. Three of Austin’s finest jazz musicians are in the band. So, it gives me an opportunity to play with people far above my level of ability.
My daughter Melanie is also our lead vocalist, so that adds a wonderful dimension. I write and arrange quite a bit of our music. You can hear it on my daughter’s debut album, Transfiguration, which just came out.
I learned to play the bass when I was in graduate school. My actual musical training was in organ. I’ve been a guest organist at a couple of churches, and have played piano and harpsichord with some baroque groups. For a while we had a contemplative church service at which we would improvise over baroque grounds. Improvising with some of Austin’s best baroque musicians was fantastic. The harpsichord requires a very different technique from organ or piano, so that required some adjustment!
I love music theory, and enjoy analyzing anything from pop songs and jazz standards to classical works.
Cool. My wife is an organist. We have a harpsichord in our apartment!
If you could ask God one question, what would it be?
What’s the answer to the question I really ought to be asking you?
Tell me a joke!
The answer to that question would probably be something like, ‘YES!’
I don’t get it, but thanks for your time, Dan!