In this interview Eric Schwitzgebel, professor of philosophy at University of California Riverside, and I discuss his father’s collaboration with Timothy Leary, his uncle who invented ankle monitors, pretending to be a mannequin for his father’s class, Christmas with an electric blue Buddha, his mother’s anti-theist views, being a chambermaid and skiing, writing plays, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, T.S. Eliot, Stephen Jay Gould, Stanford and Kuhn, Feyerabend and Zhuangzi, disliking analytic philosophy, moving from Deleuze and Derrida to Hume and Dretske, living in a hippy co-op, wearing a dress as a political statement, memorizing Sylvia Plath, cops, John Dupré, the Gourmet Report, working with Elisabeth Lloyd and John Searle, the allegations against Searle, the grad culture at Berkeley, love and death, the Bay Area Philosophy of Science reading group, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Stanford School philosophy of science, Bayes or Bust?, sneaking into György Gergely’s class, Alison Gopnik’s generosity, meeting his wife via a classified ad, the job market in 97, landing a job at U.C. Riverside where he is to this day, how the department has changed and he has changed as a teacher, his class on Evil, his work on the moral behavior of ethics professors, The Splintered Mind and philosophy on the internet, his theory of jerks, Brian Weatherson, experimental philosophy, our philosophical blind spots, his writing routine and process, work-life balance, My Dinner with Andre, election night 2008 versus election night 2016, and his last meal…
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Boston and lived in nearby Waltham until age seven. My father was a soft money researcher and adjunct faculty member in Psychology at Harvard and at Massachusetts General Hospital, and my mother taught physics at Pine Manor College. When I was seven, we moved to beautiful suburban Thousand Oaks, California, so my father could take a tenure-track position at California Lutheran University, while my mother taught math and chemistry at Oxnard Community College.
I noticed your dad’s last name is an abridged version of your name?
Yes, he was born Schwitzgebel and shortened it to “Gable” so that it would be easier to pronounce and spell. (He also ditched his given name “Ralph” for “Kirkland”, because Ralph is the guy who drinks too much then barfs down the back of your TV set.)
Did the move to Thousand Oaks have an effect on your family?
My father had always envisioned transforming society through psychology and technology. He had been a graduate student and collaborator of Timothy Leary’s during the LSD experimentation days. He was friendly with B.F. Skinner and absorbed some of Skinner’s utopian idealism. He and his twin brother invented the location monitoring device that people now commonly wear around the ankle as an alternative to prison. They had originally used it on juvenile delinquents as a way of keeping them out of prison, which my dad and uncle thought was very hard on teenage boys. He was involved in mental health reforms in Massachusetts, including instituting regular review for institutionalized patients so that they would not be held indefinitely. He imagined repurposing electronic location monitoring devices for ride sharing among people with common interests. (Uber, take note, you haven’t quite caught up with my dad yet!)
After we moved to Thousand Oaks, my father lost the social environment that had enabled him to bring his creative psycho-technological ideas to fruition. He often spent hours in the evening in his study working on his ideas, writing them out in lengthy “inventor’s notebooks” but none of them ever worked out. Still, that early 1960s blue-sky optimism never left him, and through him it had a big impact on me.
Did you ever see your dad lecture?
My dad used to take me to work sometimes, especially during his developmental psychology classes in intro to psych. He’d sit me on the desk in the front of the class like a mannequin and have me “give the lecture” on child development by moving my mouth while he hid behind me and did the actual talking. So I guess that was my first lecturing experience!
Your dad sounds like a funny guy. What were holidays like?
The “Christmas tree” was always a surprise. I can’t recall ever having a normal tree. One year my father found a huge tumbleweed, then he went to a Christmas tree retailer and had it “flocked” (that is, covered with fake snow). We brought it back and decorated it like you would a regular tree, with tinsel and ornaments and all that. Another year, he painted a six-foot ladder green and we decorated that. Another year, he found a life-size cardboard sitting Buddha, cut holes in its eyes through which he poked blue Christmas lights, then surrounded it with electric candles and we laid ornaments and garlands on the floor around it.
It doesn’t sound like a traditionally religious household…
My dad was a kind of mushy new-age theist who would sample various churches around town (sometimes with me) but never stick with one. Eventually, he also became interested in Buddhism. My mom described herself as an “anti-theist”, by which she meant that if God existed she would be furious at him. Her mother and sister were both Christian Scientists and both died of breast cancer in the 1960s, after refusing to seek treatment.
What was your mom like?
My mom was a ski maniac, and every winter break and spring break we’d take ski vacations (sometimes with my younger sister but never with my father), and we’d often also ski on weekends in the local mountains. Mom was stingy about spending money on skiing. We used old second-hand equipment and she would serve as volunteer ski patrol to get free lift tickets. On some of our longer trips, we would stay as “employee guests” at the base of the mountain in Alta, Utah. We’d get free room and board if we did three hours of labor for the lodge every day. We’d wake up at six, do chambermaid work for 90 minutes, be waiting for the lifts to open at eight, ski all day nonstop usually without breaking for lunch (eating candy bars and sandwiches out of our fanny packs), then come back in the evening to wash and fold laundry and run up and down the stairs from the basement to restock the chambermaid closets on the floors above. Then into the hard-earned hot tub around 8 pm. We stayed skinny despite eating a lot of candy bars.
What was the school year like?
My parents both worked hard, and they pretty much left me alone to do my thing.
What was your thing?
I read a lot of books, especially fantasy, science fiction, and adventure, and I rode my BMX dirt bike all over town and on the steep footpaths in the nearby wilderness parks.
Around sixth grade I decided I wanted to write plays. I would sit in our hot garage during the summer with an old manual typewriter and write page after page of adventure scripts, often involving people lost on islands and dying one by one. One time we took a rare family trip to the beach in a camper, and I didn’t bother to go to the beach, just sat in the camper typing out plays. The first draft was always good enough.
Favorite plays back then?
Oddly, though I loved writing plays and acting in them, I disliked most plays. I always felt like they should be better – weirder, more creative, less formulaic. I couldn’t turn off the critic – except Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I really loved that one.
Insert joke about armchair philosophy here. As a teenager, did you get into any trouble?
I loved to go on long walks at night, often from midnight til two in the morning, looking at the stars, thinking about life, and thinking about the girl I had a crush on but was too shy to approach, sometimes writing poetry. Thousand Oaks had a curfew for minors, so the police would sometimes write me up and tell me to go home, then I’d be out again the next night.
I remember one time a police officer insisted on driving me home in his car and talking to my mom. I woke her up, and she came out in her nightgown. The officer asked if she knew there was a curfew in Thousand Oaks. She said, “Curfew? What is this, Bulgaria?”
I was super into the Beats in my teenage years. Favorite poetry from back then?
I loved T.S. Eliot and memorized “Prufrock” and the first canto of “The Waste Land”. Starting in eleventh grade I titled every essay I wrote with some obscure Eliot reference which the teacher would never get. Sylvia Plath was my second-favorite poet.
Love Eliot. Favorite subjects in high school?
I liked every subject except P.E. and the laboratory work in science. I was the star student in every class and won armsful of awards in Mock Trial, Academic Decathlon, math, creative writing, Spanish-language poetry recitation (Lorca!), etc. – which gave my sister a very difficult act to follow. She ended up going to a different high school to get away from me.
Your poor sister! What does she do for a living?
She does the accounting, office management, and software for a couple of psychologists who… well, you know what? I’d better not say. Sorry to be mysterious!
haha no problem! Extracurriculars?
I learned improvisational jazz piano with the great Matt Dennis. (No one could make a fantastically weird chord sound more natural than he.) I also regularly acted in school plays, and I did a lot of computer programming on an Apple II, including text-based adventure games.
I played and modded and wrote a bunch of the old “Eamon” adventure games. What nerdy fun! Unfortunately, without access to the Internet, I couldn’t share my creations beyond a few of my friends. It was always trouble when the output line read, “You are at death’s door, knocking loudly.”
What would your teenage self make of your current self?
(1.) “I get to write philosophy for a living? Cool!”
(2.) “Wait, how did I become the establishment?”
If you could give yourself advice back then, what would it be?
Let Mindy kiss you. You have a huge crush on her! How can you run away when she writes you such cute love notes and says such sweet things?
Did you start thinking about what you wanted to do in college, if college was even on the table?
I knew I wanted to be a professor like my parents. The only question was in what subject. I loved reading Stephen Jay Gould and Loren Eiseley. I liked the thought of being a scientist who was also a great writer.
What were you reading by Stephen Jay Gould?
I liked Gould’s popular essays, in collections like Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes.
Where did you apply?
I applied to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Pomona College, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz.
You went to Stanford. Was college what you expected?
I don’t know what exactly I expected – late night talking with other nerds about big ideas, maybe? There was a fair bit of that at Stanford. For classes my plan was this: Ignore all requirements. Take whatever seemed interesting. Start with eight classes every term then cut it down to the three or four that I liked best. I knew I wanted to be a professor of something, I just didn’t know of what. I figured that by senior year I’d notice that I’d been taking a lot of Subject X, then I’d finish up the requirements and go to grad school in that.
Good idea. Most influential class?
Peter Galison’s class on the history and philosophy of science. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions gave me a new perspective on science as a flawed human activity, and it appealed to the part of me that wanted to rebel against intellectual authority.
Yes! How did you get bitten by the philosophy bug (I can't believe I said that)?
Some of the most wonderful rebels against intellectual authority are philosophers. I’d discovered Unamuno and Nietzsche as a high school student, then Feyerabend and Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) in college. I read them mostly independently, unconnected with any of my classes.
Somehow, I’d conceived a dislike of “analytic philosophy” – maybe because it seemed to be the dominant paradigm. So I decided I wanted to write an honors thesis on Nietzsche and Unamuno as a Modern Thought and Literature major. The only professor game enough to supervise me was Robert Harrison in Italian Studies, who kept directing me to Continental readings of Nietzsche, especially Heidegger, Deleuze, and Derrida.
Meanwhile, I was sometimes taking classes in analytic Anglophone philosophy. Mid-way through senior year, I decided that Hume and Dretske actually made quite a bit more sense to me than Heidegger, Deleuze, and Derrida, so I declared Philosophy, and to complete the major I took nothing but solid analytic philosophy classes for the rest of my time at Stanford, completing after the first quarter of my fifth year.
There’s something very seductive about Feyerabend. What did you do for fun?
I enjoyed staying up late talking, going on long walks at night, and playing jazz piano in the common rooms.
What was campus life like?
Partway through my second year, I transferred out of my ordinary dorm to Synergy House, an environmentally-themed hippie co-op up on a hill behind campus. Some of my fellow Synergites were pretty far out! I remember two guys who decided to carry with them, at all times, backpacks in which they kept every piece of non-recyclable, non-compostable trash that they produced for an entire ten-week quarter (and this was back before plastic was recyclable). We decided everything by consensus, including who got to sleep in which room (and some of the rooms were much more desirable than others, including some single-person rooms without roommates). Imagine that! It was nuts. I remember one guy arguing that he needed a single room because he masturbated so regularly and loudly that no roommate could possibly tolerate him. (Based on such events, in some years we wisely decided, by consensus, to choose by lottery.) I’d finally found some people weirder than me. It was a fun relief to be a voice of moderation for a change.
haha that actually sounds really delightful to me…did y’all cause any trouble?
Let me tell you how I found my wallet. This was maybe my third year. There were three of us men at Synergy who would regularly wear women’s skirts. We were all straight (I think) and not generally transvestites, but we liked the idea of tweaking people’s gender expectations by wearing long, flowing, patterned skirts. This is in the 1980s, during the peak of the AIDS crisis and anti-gay sentiment. I didn’t wear skirts every day, because it took emotional energy to do it. It was hard to resist feeling like people were staring at me and judging me negatively based on assumptions about my social attributes (which was both novel for me and interestingly stressful). One sunny Sunday afternoon, I was walking around campus in my skirt memorizing a poem – Sylvia Plath’s “Fever 103”, which starts like this: “Pure, what does it mean? / The tongues of hell / are dull, dull as the triple / Tongues of dull, fat Cerberus / who wheezes at the gate…”. I was reciting it aloud, practicing it as a dramatic reading for a poetry class.
Fuck, that’s a great poem! I’m sorry, go on…
Now this was during the protests against South African apartheid, and on the White Plaza lawn near the center of campus there had been a display of crosses with the names of people killed by the South African government. The crosses had been cast aside, evidently discarded. I decided to pick up one of the crosses to take it back to Synergy as a token continuation of the protest. As I’m walking innocently down Campus Drive in my skirt, reciting “Fever 103”, and carrying the cross absent-mindedly over my shoulder, a police car rolls by and pulls into a driveway in front of me. I turn around and start walking the other way. The police officer jumps out of his car and jogs toward me. He calls out and asks why I had turned around. I say something like “I just think nothing good comes out of running across a police officer.” He says, “no, that’s not true! I’m here to help. A lady called up the department. She said she thought you might be sick.” I say, “no, I’m not sick.” He asks for my I.D. I say, “actually I don’t have my I.D. Friday night I left my wallet in the library at the copy machine. I tried calling the police department to see if anyone had turned it in, but no one would answer the phone. I figured you guys would be open all the time, but I guess not.” The officer says, “no, they should have answered the phone. I’ll call now. Are you a student here?”
I tell him that I live in Synergy, and I see his face change. Now everything makes sense. Just one of those weirdo hippie kids! He chats briefly on his walkie-talkie and tells me that my wallet is at the station and I can get it any time. “And Eric,” he adds, “never again say that nothing good ever comes out of running across a police officer.”
Happy ending! Were you friends with the other majors? Dating?
I didn’t know any of the other Philosophy majors really, since I declared so late. Synergy was my social life. Nor was I very good at the romance thing. I tended to nurse crushes on unattainable women – friends of mine who I wished would be more than just friends. I must say that they were truly amazing women. I just needed to be more realistic.
Who helped you through the process of applying to grad school? Did you consult Gourmet Report?
Fred Dretske, John Dupré, P.J. Ivanhoe, and Robert Harrison all agreed to write letters. I more or less just applied to the places that Fred Dretske recommended as a good fit for me. This was 1991, and the Gourmet Report wasn’t well known. When I visited Michigan as a prospective student, I met Brian Leiter, who was a grad student there, and admired his report, which was just some typed pages on a print-out, based on Brian’s sense of the field from gossiping with as many people as possible. I remember Steve Stich at Rutgers was excited about the Gourmet Report because it rightly recognized Rutgers’ strength in a way that other measures did not.
What was Dretske like?
He was so down-to-earth – almost shy, even when he knew more about a topic than anyone else in the room. One time I was in his office and he dropped his pen and it rolled out of sight somewhere. We both ended up crawling around on our hands and knees on his office floor. There was something strangely humble and equalizing about that.
This is going to seem naive maybe, but somehow despite all my reading, by age nineteen I seem to have still been stuck with this picture of philosophers as grizzled, scrawny, ascetic sages who dress badly and never laugh. My first philosophy class was with Dupré, who was and is still the manifest delightful opposite of that.
He’s debonair! What was your writing sample on?
I didn’t use my honors thesis on Nietzsche on Truth. Instead, I sent a paper on causation and function which I’d written simultaneously for a philosophy of science graduate seminar with John Dupré and for an undergrad seminar on causation with Fred Dretske.
Where did you end up?
Was grad school what you expected? Friendly? Competitive?
Our entering class of grad students got along very well, hardly competitive at all as I recall. Elisabeth Lloyd and John Searle co-taught our first-year seminar, attended by all and only the first-year grad students. Every week we had to write brief response papers to the assigned reading, and two students would be arbitrarily called on to read their papers aloud, then have them critiqued and dissected on the spot. Terrifying, at first! Lisa and John tried to be gentle, but still, it was very intimidating, especially with Searle who was at the peak of his fame.
So the eight of us would meet to strategize the night before the seminar. We would run our ideas past each other. We’d also figure out what points we wanted to raise about the target article, and how we might disagree with each other; and we’d decide what reading we wanted to suggest for the next week. Our shadow seminar transformed the “real” seminar almost into a planned performance. I’m not sure Lisa or John ever figured out how deep our conspiracy went!
What was it like working with Searle?
I don’t know if I ever had a conversation longer than ten minutes with him. He would read a chapter and then send me a cassette tape with comments. The tapes would always start with some version of “Don’t forget to return this tape, because I’m always losing them and they add up.” Then I’d hear a click, and he’d say something like, “Okay, I’m on page 3. Your set-up here is terrific.” Click. “Page 5. ‘Sophisticate’ is not a verb.” Click. “Page 8. Wasn’t all of this refuted in 1957? Yeah, that was exactly the year.” Etc. Then I’d go to his office wanting to discuss his comments, and after about five minutes, it seemed like a little timer went off in his head and he’d stand up and say, kind of shooing me out, “Well, good stuff. Just keep working. Just keep working.”
Searle would read my chapters quickly and uncharitably, which at first felt frustrating, but which I later came to appreciate, in a way. Most philosophers read most philosophy quickly and uncharitably!
Infuriating and true.
Hearing Searle’s reactions helped me learn how to write for real readers. It helped me learn that you can’t trust the reader to remember the difference between proposition 3 and proposition 3a two pages later; that unless you make really explicit what the differences are, the reader will box your view into one of their pre-existing categories (e.g., behaviorism, which was refuted in exactly 1957); that readers tend not understand a point unless you elaborate it several ways in plain language; and that you need clear, catchy titles and labels.
Although I disagreed with him on some issues, especially concerning the nature of belief, Searle took it with good grace and was very supportive in the end, writing me (I’ve been told) a strong letter when I went on the job market.
What do you make of the allegations against Searle?
Searle has been accused of sexual harassment and of surrounding himself with young women assistants with whom he had, or at least was hoping to have, sexual relations. I’ve heard it said that “everybody knew” that this was going on. Speaking just for myself, I didn’t know.
Most of the time when I visited him in his office, his long-time assistant was there. He thought very highly of her philosophical ability. (I seem to recall him once saying that “she knows more philosophy than half of the tenured faculty in this department.”) Maybe I was naive, but I didn’t suspect that anything sexual was going on. In retrospect, I don’t feel like I’m in a position to know exactly what the situation was. It may well have changed over time or been different with different assistants.
I feel like in a lot of grad programs, the lounge is an important place for philosophy grad students. What was the lounge like at U.C. Berkeley?
Circa 1994: Josh Dever would be sitting on a couch in the philosophy graduate student lounge. I would propose to him a definition of "dessert" (e.g.: "a sweet food eaten after the main meal is complete"). He would shoot it down (e.g.: "but then it would be a priori that you couldn't eat dessert first!"). Later he would propose a definition to me, which I would shoot down. Over time, the definitions became ever more baroque. Other graduate students participated too. Eventually Josh decided that he would define a dessert as anything served on a dessert plate. Asked what a dessert plate is, he would say it was intuitively obvious. Presented with an objection ("So you couldn't eat Oreos right out of the bag for dessert?") he would simply state that he was willing to "bite the bullet" and accept a certain amount of revision of our pre-theoretical opinions. At the time it seemed like cheating. In retrospect, I think Josh saw right to the core.
Awesome. Any other good friends? Were grad students treated well?
My best friend from early grad school was Kim Kempton, one of the other first-year students, and the only woman in our entering class of eight – also my first serious lover. Kim enjoyed weird colorful clothes (a favorite standby was camouflage pants and a Day-Glo pink top with an illegal switchblade knife sticking from a pocket), and she enjoyed adventurous sports like scuba and motorcycle, which I was usually too chicken to try. We’d drive to Reno, smoking cigars in her old beater car, pitch a tent somewhere in the desert – stuff like that.
Kim was basically discouraged from continuing the program by the person she had wanted to be her advisor. At the time, some (most?) of the faculty at Berkeley seemed to think it was a mercy to the weaker graduate students to discourage them early so that they would quit philosophy and get on with their lives. Two of us eight, Steve and Scott, were explicitly discouraged by being told that, despite promises of teaching-assistantships in their admissions offers, they weren’t good enough to serve as TAs. Steve left after the first year. We rallied around Scott, who wanted to stay – it kind of felt like professors vs. grad students – and eventually the faculty relented. Scott never did finish his PhD, though. This was also during the TA strikes that eventually led to the unionization of U.C. TAs. At one point, I stood with a picket sign alone in the road in front of an oncoming delivery truck, until one of the other students on the sidewalk wisely urged me to relent.
What happened to Kim?
Kim was never denied TAship, but she nonetheless felt that the faculty she had wanted to work with thought she wasn’t worth supervising. She ended up leaving philosophy to study law, then joined Chevron and skyrocketed up the ranks, eventually becoming their specialist in figuring out the baffling network of tax laws involved when you extract oil from Country X, then pipe it through Country Y onto a vessel from Country Z to sell it in Countries A, B, and C. A few years ago, she died in a motorcycle accident.
I am so sorry, man.
What was trending philosophically at the time? What were you thinking about?
I’d originally thought maybe I’d study epistemology, but I’d connected much better with Lisa Lloyd than with the epistemologist Barry Stroud and of course I also loved philosophy of science from having been taught at Stanford by Peter Galison and John Dupré.
How did you evolve, philosophically?
Lisa invited me to join the Bay Area Philosophy of Science reading group, which was a truly amazing experience and probably the most formative influence on my philosophical thinking. The group would meet every month either in Stanford or Berkeley, and we would discuss one recent or forthcoming article or chapter by a philosopher of science. Nancy Cartwright had just left for London School of Economics, so unfortunately I didn’t overlap with her, though the shadow of her presence was still large; and Peter Galison had also just left for Harvard. Some of the best-known core attendees were Lisa Lloyd, John Dupré, the eminent philosopher of physics Paul Teller from U.C. Davis, and Peter Godfrey-Smith (who was then starting as an Assistant Professor at Stanford but is now very famous). Less famous, but also really wonderful contributors were Jim Griesemer from Davis, Martin Jones from Berkeley, Rick Otte from UC Santa Cruz, Barbara Scholz from San Jose State, and David Stump from University of San Francisco. Among the other graduate student attendees were Jordi Cat, Mathias Frisch, Bojana Mladenovic, and Ina Roy. So it was quite a group!
One of the wonderful dynamics I remember is this: Usually either John Dupré or Paul Teller would hate some aspect of the assigned reading and launch into a good-natured grumpy critique. And then others would jump in to try to defend the author, and we’d argue back and forth a while; then eventually Lisa Lloyd, or maybe Jim Griesemer or David Stump, would come in with some moderate, charitable view that we might be able to attribute to the author, and often Paul or John or whoever was grumpiest would cave or half-cave. It was a wonderful model of philosophical debate, where people would try out simple or extreme positions, get some pushback, then shift or moderate their view, all in an atmosphere of collaborative, friendly disagreement. Never since have I seen philosophical discussion done so well.
One of the main ideas of “Stanford School” philosophy of science, which remains central to my thinking, is that the world is intractably complex and all of our beautiful scientific (and philosophical) models can only be approximations of the chaos. Since they’re all only approximations anyway, different, inconsistent models can be useful for different purposes and can be chosen among on broadly pragmatic grounds; and there will always be fun lovely wonderful in-between mixed-up cases that destroy whatever crisp thing you think you’ve finally figured out. This is still how I think of all psychological models of the mind.
So I decided to become a philosopher of science. We had read John Earman’s seminal book Bayes or Bust? in draft, and I’d thought maybe I wanted to work on formal epistemology; but also I thought that to be a proper philosopher of science I should really master a “target science.” Since Lisa worked on philosophy of biology, I started teaching myself the basics of biology by reading textbooks… and had trouble getting excited about it. (Yes, I know, reading textbooks on your own isn’t probably the most likely way to get excited about an academic discipline.)
So how did you get into the psychology stuff, exactly?
I decided to start auditing an upper-division undergraduate course in cognitive developmental psychology. This was in the summer term of 1993. The course happened to be taught by a Visiting Associate Professor named György Gergely. Gergely is now one of the best known developmental psychologists in the world, but at the time he was just some more-or-less random adjunct hired to teach summer classes at Berkeley. I was stunned from day one. On the first day of class, Gergely asked us: How does the baby know where its body ends and the crib begins? How does the baby know what’s human among the things it sees, and what is merely an inanimate object? Wow, what interesting questions! The classroom was packed, standing room only. At the end of class on that first day he said that the class was overfull and that he wouldn’t accept any adds or any auditors, but I just knew I had to stay. This was a gold mine! At the time, almost no philosophers knew any developmental psychology. Philosophy of mind was much more a priori back then – and what wasn’t a priori was Fodor/Dennett-style cognitive science. Also, “philosophy of science” meant either general philosophy of science or philosophy of physics or biology. I decided I wanted to be a new thing that didn’t exist yet: a philosopher of science who took developmental psychology as the target science. So I hid silently in the back of the classroom, never asked any questions, never introduced myself, was terrified that he’d boot me out. Over the term, we looked at developmental psychological evidence about questions like how do children learn that objects can continue to exist even when they aren’t being perceived? When children or primates learn to recognize themselves in a mirror, what does that imply about their understanding of the self? Might three-year-olds not really understand that other people can have false beliefs? It was a geyser of fascinating questions of huge philosophical importance that no one in philosophy at the time knew anything about! I’ve still never met Gergely face to face. I’d love to introduce myself and thank him (and apologize for breaking his adamant no-auditors rule).
To my great good fortune, Alison Gopnik was then an Associate Professor in the Psychology Department at Berkeley – and she was another amazingly philosophical developmental psychologist. So with her permission, I started attending her weekly lab meetings. Jonas Langer also kindly let me take his introductory graduate seminar on cognitive development, and I was basically a developmental psychology graduate student for the rest of my time at Berkeley, probably more than I was a philosophy graduate student.
Love that stuff. You should send him this interview! So your dissertation was on…
My dissertation should have been titled “cool stuff from developmental psychology that philosophers ought to know about.” Lisa didn’t have expertise on the topics, but she was very supportive and gave me what feedback she could.
Room for romance?
In 1995, I placed a personal ad in the free local weekly arts and politics rag, the East Bay Express. “Blue-jeaned grad student… [something something something]… Meet once or forever.” This fascinating woman named Pauline answered it – and it turned out that she was a grad student in Psychology at UC Berkeley, though we hadn’t met. We had great fun together, but it took us a long time to figure out that we loved each other.
What was the market like when you were finished?
The job market in 1997 was mediocre but not awful. It seems like the real bump in hiring didn’t start until the year after. There was an impressive cohort of philosophers of mind who hit the market in 1997 alongside me, including Jesse Prinz, Brie Gertler, Amy Kind, and Brian Keeley. (I marketed myself mostly as a philosopher of mind, since philosophy of developmental psychology wasn’t really a thing that hiring committees could know they wanted.) I had four APA interviews and two on-campus interviews. Fortunately, my APA interview with U.C. Riverside went well, and so did my campus visit. I loved the look and atmosphere, and even oddly the smell of the UCR campus – somehow it brought up fond nostalgia for Cal Lutheran – something about the smallish (at the time) suburban southern California campus, I guess, and the wildflowers of semi-arid California in February after the rains. So that was my first job straight out of grad school in 1997, and here I still am in 2018. I was incredibly lucky to find such a wonderful place to be an Assistant Professor!
What happened with Pauline?
Pauline was clear that she wouldn’t follow me to Riverside unless we were getting married, and we couldn’t decide about marriage. So in summer of 1997 I went by myself to Riverside to look at apartments. After a couple of days, I called Pauline, excited about an old free-standing in-law house that had originally been a butterfly museum and that had huge wood-floored rooms designed for exhibit tables. I told her that I thought she’d love the place. Pauline said, “Is this a marriage proposal?” I said, “I guess it is!”
Do you and Pauline have kids?
We have two children, David, born in 1999, and Kate, adopted in 2008 when she was thirteen months old.
Does having kids inform your philosophizing? Does philosophizing inform your parenting?
Children remind me how tentative, temporary, and socially constructed our worldviews are. I especially love the weird, confused, creatively theorizing minds of four-year-olds. One winter day when Davy was about four, he asked me how the cold was able to come through the window glass. Instead of answering, I asked him what he thought. He held his hand up near the window, then he said maybe tiny invisible ice cubes from outside wiggle through tiny holes in the glass. What a fine theory! Another time we were driving to a toy store and Davy recognized the sign on the storefront. “Toys R Us,” he said. Then he turned to me with a somber expression and asked, “Are they us?”
I want to help preserve and nourish that wonderful unconventional creative thinking in my children, and in myself as a philosopher.
Nice. When you got tenure, were you happy?
Do I even know whether I am happy now? Ask Pauline?
I felt confident that I would be tenured. UC Riverside Philosophy was, and I hope still is, very supportive of its junior faculty, with straightforward and achievable expectations for tenure.
How has UC Riverside changed in the past 20 years?
UCR grew from about 7,000 undergraduates to about 20,000. From the time I arrived in 1997 until the recession in 2008 was a boom time for the campus, with massive faculty hiring and lots of buildings sprouting up. However, the Philosophy Department changed less than you might expect over this period, retaining its core strengths in philosophy of action and the history of German philosophy, as well as keeping a broadly pluralist, tolerant approach to what counts as valuable philosophy, which was very fortunate for me.
How have you evolved as a teacher?
I think my upper-division and graduate-level teaching hasn’t changed much, which maybe is a bad sign?
My lower-division teaching has changed radically. Early on, I taught a big “Introduction to Philosophy” class focused on the mind-body problem, personal identity, and the existence or non-existence of God. But despite the (to me) fascinating issues, I felt like most students had trouble finding much value in it. So I introduced a new lower-division course, “Evil”, which starts with Southern lynching and the Holocaust, and with the question of whether human nature is good or evil as articulated by Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rousseau; then explores social and clinical psychology, cinema, primatology, Nietzsche, and theology. The first reading in the course is lynching photography, with White people smiling proudly for the camera in front of the corpse of a Black person they have just murdered, usually for some minor crime, often with torture and a festive atmosphere and their children present. Students don’t need to be convinced that this phenomenon is worth trying to understand. The class fills with hundreds of attendees, and students regularly come back to tell me it was one of their most memorable experiences at UCR.
At its best, I think, philosophy blooms forth naturally from issues people already care passionately about. Otherwise, what is it – a kind of sterile history of ideas?
Agreed. How have your interests shifted?
Sadly, I haven’t kept up my expertise in cognitive development, though I still read it on the side. Developmental psychology led me into issues concerning introspective self-knowledge and the nature of belief, which have been central foci of my research for most of my career; and these issues in turn led me into debates about philosophical methodology, skepticism, and the nature of consciousness; and then those issues have recently rekindled my interest in science fiction as a philosophical tool. Also, my longstanding interest in Chinese philosophy and the history of evil led me into moral psychology and especially the (seemingly weak) relationship between philosophical moral reflection and real-world moral behavior. Sometimes I worry that I’ve spread myself too thin, working on too many different topics, rather than properly focusing my energies on just a few. But I can’t resist! My research keeps opening into new issues which I feel compelled to figure out and write about. I look fearfully at some philosophers (whom I won’t name) who decide that they can write about pretty much anything without spending the time to learn the existing literature on those topics, and I hope that I can stop short of becoming too much like them.
What projects are you most proud of?
My lower-division class on Evil. My blog. A few of my favorite research articles on belief, introspection, and skepticism. My theory of jerks. A couple of my science fiction stories (see this and this). My series of articles on the moral behavior of ethics professors.
What was the inspiration for your theory of jerks?
A friend of mine was complaining about his boss. Imagining the world through his boss’s eyes, he said something like “I’m so important, and I’m surrounded by idiots!” Isn’t that just how the world looks to a certain sort of jerk? It’s the phenomenology of jerkitude! We had a good laugh pretending to see the world through his boss’s eyes for a while, condemning everything and helping ourselves to all the goodies because we deserved it. Later that week, waiting in a long line at the post office, I had some impatient thoughts about the people in front of me – thoughts that seemed a lot like thoughts our cartoon boss would have had. It struck me, uh-oh, I’m seeing the world through jerk goggles. Can I take these goggles off and try to better see the value and importance of the people around me?
Do you think any projects were ultimately a waste of time in retrospect?
Evidently, I have no discernment. All of my projects have felt fruitful, though to varying degrees.
When and why did you start Splintered Mind? I love it! You give a nice and cool analysis of hot-button issues which is really rare nowadays. It's very refreshing!
I started it in 2006, a few years after the first wave of philosophy bloggers like Brian Leiter and Brian Weatherson. The immediate precipitating cause was science journalist Jay Ingram, who said somewhere that he liked to dip into my work for ideas. I thought that I might as well throw my reflections out there in a more public way for him and others to pick up if they wanted. Soon I realized that the blog was a great vent for my half-baked thoughts. I am always bursting with opinions about all sorts of topics in philosophy and psychology, and there’s no way that I could do responsible journal-article-length treatments of all of them. Through my blog, I can at least get the thoughts out there. More slowly, I discovered that blogging is a wonderful philosophical discipline: If I can’t express my ideas clearly for a broad audience, in a way that reveals what’s interesting in them, then I feel that something has gone wrong – that somehow I’m tangled in side-issues and technicalities and haven’t seen clearly to the core of things.
Is it time-consuming?
I spend anywhere from five to twenty hours a week on my blog and related activities. My colleagues (most of them?) have generously agreed that this counts as “service to the profession”, and so far I’ve been able to use my blogging as an excuse not to accept other highly demanding academic service jobs like departmental chairing.
Did you ever consider quitting? Asking for a friend.
I hope I don’t quit! Not only is it a valuable discipline, as I mentioned, but it’s a crucial source of feedback. Since my research interests spread so widely, it is immensely useful to hear feedback from others: objections, things I should read, distinctions I’ve ignored, further connections I might make.
What do you make of philosophy on the internet in general?
In my (highly biased!) opinion, blogging is the ideal form for philosophy. The human mind isn’t very good at stringing together long, detailed arguments that work from beginning to end without going badly wrong somewhere along the way. We’re much better off with what Nancy Cartwright calls “short, fat, tangled arguments” – finding a few interlocking considerations that support a single, simple conclusion. A thousand words is about the right size: long enough to articulate and defend a substantial idea, but also short enough that readers can keep the whole thing more or less in mind at once. And then, if those thousand words are on the internet, you have the opportunity to hear reactions from others – ideally, both from professional philosophers with expertise in the area and from non-specialists who can challenge assumptions that are widely shared within your subfield and which might therefore be semi-invisible to you. Also, you can change your mind, update the post, continue the conversation through multiple backs-and-forths. What’s not to love? It’s how philosophy ought to be done!
Okay, I shouldn’t be so imperial about it. Journal articles and books are good too. And short stories. And TV shows. And podcast interviews. And dialogues. And….
Most important philosophical developments of the last 20 years?
The improved connection between philosophy and empirical psychology. This is maybe most obvious in “experimental philosophy” (which involves philosophers actually running psychology experiments), but it is a general trend in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, ethics, epistemology, aesthetics – really across the discipline.
My theory is that philosophy and psychology needed, sociologically, to have an amicable divorce in the early twentieth century, so that they could become different departments and disciplines. This involved philosophers tending to turn away from empirical issues (those are for psychologists!) and mainstream research psychologists tending to turn away from philosophical issues (including being reluctant to make the ethical claims about good and evil that are necessary to fully engage with human moral psychology and being reluctant to explore the psychological influences on people’s philosophical opinions). In the 21st century, both disciplines have finally come back to more fully engage each other.
Makes sense. Do you think the philosophical community has any blind spots?
Recently, I have come to more fully appreciate the huge influence of changing technology on human life. (Right, hi Dad. Just like you always said.) Philosophers have not devoted as much thought as they should to issues like human enhancement, artificial intelligence, and social media. (Of course there are some wonderful exceptions to this generalization.) We should be taking the lead in thinking through the social and ethical implications. Instead, science fiction is taking the lead, for example in shows like Black Mirror. Come on, folks!
What's your writing routine?
Writing is what I love most. I’m still that kid on the typewriter spending my summer vacation drafting plays. To me, it is immensely frustrating how much time I spend on teaching, email, meetings – though some of it is very worthwhile and rewarding, like teaching Evil and chatting with my graduate students about their cool projects. The rest of the time that I’m at work, I’m writing or revising or I’m reading with the aim of understanding something that I need to understand in order to keep up with my research and writing.
What’s your process?
For the projects I care about most, when I’m not under deadline, I write each piece from beginning to end with no outline, letting my thoughts follow each other naturally. Then when I’m done, I set it aside and draft it anew, beginning to end again, this time with a clearer understanding of what I think and where I’m going – though sometimes I surprise myself and end up in a different place. I repeat this process until draft N and draft N+1 come out about the same.
I try to draw firm lines between academic life and home life. I work an intense nine-hour day on campus five days a week, and then evenings and weekends I’m at home with family, trying to avoid academic tasks except insofar as my mind is always kind of wandering off into the philosophy and psychology of everything.
Best philosopher you disagree with most?
Kant? Nietzsche? I’m kind of love-hate with both of them – though with Kant it’s more like I love to hate him and with Nietzsche it’s more like I hate that I love him.
Most underrated philosopher?
Sadly, I too have failed to appreciate this amazing person!
hahaha but seriously...
Do you find any trends in philosophy exciting? Disconcerting?
Oddly, my problem is more that I find almost everything in philosophy interesting, so it’s kind of a relief when I find a subarea that doesn’t excite me and which I feel I can get away with ignoring. But if I say which subareas those are, I’m going to jinx it! Someone will say, “No, no, Eric, here’s why you should totally be interested in what’s going on there,” and they’ll be right.
What do you do in your spare time?
Hang out with family, walk and hike, play piano, read speculative fiction and popular non-fiction (esp. history, psychology, technology, and cosmology).
My taste in music is incredibly bad. I shouldn’t even say or I’ll lose all credibility with readers who have any actual taste.
What was your election night like in 2008?
I was in Canberra in the run-up to the election in 2008, then in Sydney for election night itself. The Australians were obsessed with the election. If I recall correctly, a picture of one of the Obamas or McCain or Palin was on the front page of the Australian newspapers almost every day for a couple of weeks beforehand. On campus at University of Sydney, there was a giant outdoor TV that was posting the state-by-state results and the students cheered every time a state went blue. The U.S. networks called the election for Obama maybe an hour before I was scheduled to deliver a colloquium talk to the Sydney Philosophy Department, and I think I cried. I remember walking into the room to speak and it seemed like the whole audience was just beaming with delight and relief. I encouraged them to try to misattribute their pleasure to the quality of my talk, but I don’t think I succeeded. Does anyone remember what I said? I sure don’t.
2016 wasn’t quite as cheery.
Meaning of life?
Love and meaningful work.
What makes work meaningful?
When you apply your unique abilities to something you regard as worthwhile – especially if you know that no one else would have done it in quite the same way.
Wait. Can I have 40 more years to work on my answer?
Sure, okay, 40 years! Last meal?
Not yet, please. You just promised me 40 years.