In this interview, Jonathan Dancy, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, talks about cricket, ping pong, and squash, teaching English in French Cameroon, a shaky start in philosophy, considering a career as a musician, the stranglehold Hare had on ethics, the relationship between confidence and ambition, why he didn’t publish much for a decade, doing music part time, how his career suddenly took off, how computers changed his writing style, differences between academic life in the states and the UK, the low point in his career, luck, the resurgence of Anscombe, how he ended up on the Late Late Show, Austin nightlife, what philosophers want, and the future of philosophy.
Where did you grow up? What did your parents do?
I was born in Oxford UK just after the war. My father was teaching Classics at Wadham College while finishing a degree interrupted by the war. Most of the men on either side of my family taught in public schools (that is UK-speak for private schools). My father could certainly have been a successful academic but he abandoned that option in favour of going into teaching in such schools. He moved up the career ladder rapidly and ended as Headmaster of one of the most important ones in the UK, Marlborough College. My mother worked in Youth Clubs and became Chair of the National Association of Youth Clubs.
As a kid, what did you do for fun?
As a kid, I was a bit bookish but quite good at games, which I think I enjoyed more than schoolwork, though I was good at that too.
What games were you good at?
As for games, I played cricket for the school and amused myself with ping pong and squash (UK version).
Were you into school? Where did you go to college? Did you know you were going to do philosophy?
I was clever but not nerdish, I would say. Basically I was an obedient kid who learnt up what he was told to learn up. I started Latin at the age of 4 and French at 5. At 12 I won a Scholarship to Winchester College, one of the great schools in the UK, founded in the 1380s. This is probably the cleverest thing I ever did; the standard was amazingly high. Other philosophers who went there included Frank Ramsey, Michael Dummett and Galen Strawson. I had a reasonably happy time at Winchester, playing a lot of games, but always feeling that the other scholars were cleverer than I was. There was, I would say, absolutely no sign of how I was in fact going to end up. I imagined that I would be a schoolmaster, without any special enthusiasm.
After a year in French Cameroun teaching English in French in the jungle I went up to Oxford to read Greats (i.e. classics, ancient history and philosophy), and there all of a sudden things changed, in the sense that I realized, in the second week, the excitement of the intellectual – why one should read all this stuff – which up till then had been entirely hidden from me. This was a life-changing experience.
Wait a minute! How did you end up in French Cameroon?
I ended up in Cameroun because I did VSO – Voluntary Service Overseas – our version of the Peace Corps. It was great. I taught English and football - the latter because being English I was ‘obviously’ going to be able to do it, but it went well despite my incapacities, since one of the teams I coached won the national championship and the other came second at their level.
O.K. so, how exactly did you get into philosophy at Oxford?
Greats was what one did at Oxford if one was a classicist, and it contained quite a bit of philosophy towards the end, whether one liked it or not. And that is where I got caught. I was pretty bad at it at the beginning; my tutor said of me in an end-of-term report that ‘Mr. Dancy and I meet to discuss philosophy for an hour a week, but no idea passes in either direction’. This remark was true; I simply could not make sense of philosophy as a subject matter. Luckily things suddenly improved in this respect in the middle of my final year, enabling me to end up with a good First Class degree somehow and go on to do the BPhil (a very competitive 2-year graduate degree which was intended to give one entry into the profession). Even then my tutors told me I had been lucky and I should not expect even to pass the BPhil, let alone get a position in academic life. When doing the BPhil I still expected to end up as a schoolmaster or perhaps a civil servant – or else a double bass player.
Who were your biggest influences at Oxford?
At Oxford I loved my tutor J. O. Urmson, and I think what I really wanted to do was to be as much like him as possible, have the same sort of life. Peter Strawson was very impressive and calm and urbane, a beautiful intellect, but not the sort of person one might emulate without a lot of self-deception.
What was your thesis on?
My 30,000 word thesis for the BPhil was on categories. I was deeply ashamed of it at the time and never mentioned it; though in fact I did publish excerpts from it recently, having been persuaded by listening to a talk by Ofra Magidor that there was something in it that was worth saying, even if it had been more worth saying when I first thought it up. I now think I did not believe in myself enough.
Why not ethics?
At that stage I did not see myself as a moral philosopher; the papers I took in the BPhil were on philosophical logic, metaphysics and Plato. I was hired as a philosophical logician. I only turned to moral philosophy once I got to Keele. I think that the subject as I encountered it at Oxford, dominated by Hare, had little life in it. It was only when that dominance began to fade in the mid-70s that things became interesting again.
Earlier, you mentioned double bass. When did your interest in music start?
I had piano lessons from an early age, but was not much enthused. When I got to Winchester at age 13 I was already 6ft tall and so they said I should play the bass – so I did. But I was not really engaged with it until I got to Oxford where I found that anyone with a bass, no matter how unskilful, was welcome in quite distinguished company. After my first year I bought myself a wonderful instrument with a small legacy and taught myself from then on until I got professional lessons in London in my second year of the BPhil.By then I had become very good at the bass (classical), to the extent that I was probably the best amateur in Britain. And I now think that that is what I would have done if I had not found myself offered a post at Keele in 1971. I was semi-professional from then on, playing in such orchestras as the CBSO and the RLPO.
Still friends with anyone from back then?
I don’t retain any friends from that era, either philosophical or musical, other than a very few contemporaries from my college Corpus Christi who were doing Greats with me. I am however driving up to Yorkshire this weekend to see someone I knew very well then but haven’t seen since, who is now the UK’s leading composer of music for brass band.
You were at Keele for 25 years. How did you evolve philosophically?
I evolved philosophically on the job, I would say. Things were, still are, different in the UK. There was no issue about tenure once one had a permanent job, and so there was plenty of time to look around one, learn the subject while teaching it (the best way) and develop one’s talents slowly. I had no ambition because I didn’t think I had any talent, despite having done so well at Oxford (with a double distinction in the BPhil, which was very smart). I was just happy to be in a lifetime job that was reasonably paid and enabled me to read interesting stuff and talk about it to interesting people. What actually emerged at the end was completely unexpected.
Yeah, you didn’t publish much…
In my first 10 years in post at Keele, I published one 3-page article. Thereafter I published much faster. I had been learning the subject, I suppose.
I think many young American philosophers feel like if they aren't publishing in the first 5 or 10 years of their careers they aren't really philosophers, like their ideas aren't worthy of consideration. Any words of wisdom for those folks?
I was not even trying to publish, for the reason that any ideas I had were not worth it; I had not been taught to think of my not publishing as itself a failure. If someone isn’t trying to publish nowadays, they are probably not going to stay in the profession very long. If they are trying but failing, there are still the vagaries of the refereeing system between them and any thought that their ideas are unworthy. But as for words of wisdom, I think that would be impertinent given the fortunate position I started from.
You met your wife at Keele? How did you meet? What does she do? Kids? What do they do?
At the end of my first year at Keele I met my wife-to-be, but not at Keele; her father had come to work at the school that my father was running, in a very senior position, and brought this lovely 18yr-old with him, a gift from the gods. We were married in 1973, and have three children, a son who lives in NYC and is an actor (and yes, married to Claire Danes; they have one son), another son who lives with his French wife and two sons in Burgundy in France and runs a travel company, and a daughter who works for UNESCO in Paris with her journalist husband and one daughter. My wife Sarah did a degree at Keele in her late 30s, got a double First and since then has worked as an editor for academic presses, doing mainly philosophy.
At Keele, you wrote the Blackwell Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology. You've also said you would never do a second edition. Why?
I wrote my epistemology textbook because my lectures on the subject at Keele had ceased to change; so I thought I should either publish them and stop giving them, or just stop giving them. I must have sold something close to 100000 copies over the years. But I never wanted to change it – so no second edition. My interests had moved on.
Moral Particularism wasn't a terribly popular position when you started writing about it. What inspired you to defend it, you think?
It was really an elaborate development of some hints dropped by John McDowell in his earliest papers on ethics. As a position it didn’t exist. The new realism/objectivism/anti-non-cognitivism seemed to me (and to others in the UK) best developed in that direction.
You had many visiting positions while at Keele. Which do you remember most fondly?
My philosophical life took off when I got a 1-year visiting position at Pittsburgh, then the top department in the US if not the world. This happened because of my connection with John McDowell; they were looking for someone to replace the two Baiers. Being there really made me think that I might be capable of doing something. I was already writing Moral Reasons, and giving that material in a grad class with McDowell and Gauthier sitting in was a game-changer for me. I had never experienced, nor thought myself capable of dealing with, such pressure. At Keele I was not challenged very much; it was usually me doing the challenging.
Moral Reasons was pretty successful…
I wouldn’t say that Moral Reasons had an enormous success; and indeed I am now not terribly proud of it; I think it is really two books masquerading as one, the first on particularism and the second on objective reasons. However it was part of a wave of new moral theory, sometimes called British Moral Realism, or the New Intuitionism; the great names in that wave were Nagel, McDowell, and Wiggins. I think of my book as an expression of the new approach, but not as a primary driver.
I much prefer my Practical Reality, which I think was the best book I have written – shorter, better focused and better conceived.
Did the book have an effect on the development of your ideas?
Moral Reasons came out just before I went to Oxford to spend a year at All Souls as Visiting Fellow – an enormous privilege. I had intended to spend the whole year developing the particularistic thoughts that were in Moral Reasons into what I hoped would be a narrative theory of moral judgement and reasoning. But it began to look as if it was going to be a year thrown away, since I simply could not find any way of progressing on that front; I was, as it were, trapped within the confines of my previous book. Luckily, however, I had an idea on a different front that occurred to me while reading Michael Smith (a common occurrence for me), which developed into a paper written towards the end of that year at All Souls and then into Practical Reality. So I escaped into the philosophy of action.
Why did you decide to leave Keele? Was this a hard decision?
Leaving Keele was not a hard decision. We had spent 25 years, there, quite long enough, and we wanted to move south for family reasons. I was offered the position at Reading out of the blue, unadvertised (very rare in those days, in fact nearly illegal), and jumped at it.
What is Reading like?
The Department when I joined it was in great shape, due largely to the skill with which John Cottingham had put it together and was running it. There were a lot of capable people there and everyone was willing to do more than their share. In that respect, I have been very lucky, since neither of the two Departments in which I spent my UK career were ridden by the sort of strife that can tear Departments apart. I have only known collegiality and mutual support.
As a town, however, Reading was not really a place that we enjoyed living in, and in 2003 we moved to Oxford, to a house only 300 yards from where I was born.
Wow! Still playing bass?
When we moved to Oxford, I gave up playing bass for three reasons: by moving south I lost all my professional contacts in the North Midlands, I had severe pain in my shoulder because I taught myself wrong, and my philosophical career took off suddenly and I was no longer able to accept bookings except at very short notice.
How did your career take off? At Reading, which accomplishments are you most proud of?
At Reading I wrote Practical Reality and later Ethics without Principles; One is supposed to be proud of such things. I was also very proud (in an impersonal sense) of the amazingly high ranking the Reading Department got in the 2004 RAE rankings in the UK. This was a huge triumph and it was great to have been part of it. Sadly the University failed to allow us to capitalize on it – a classic error in academic politics. I was also happy to watch the gradual emergence of particularism as a new position in moral theory which people felt they needed to have a response to.
In the course of your career, how have your writing habits changed? Advice?
I never had any trouble writing; the problem was to avoid writing rubbish. I wrote my first book in pencil, and my wife typed it onto the university mainframe from a dumb terminal in the Dept. I did not like mess; so I worked it all out very carefully before putting pencil to paper, and there was almost nothing by way of erasure. When I first started on a computer (an Apple 2c) I wrote rubbish for a year and I think the reason was that there is no mess on a computer, so my personal rubbish filter ceased to work. I had to learn a new one.
Nowadays I still write outlines on paper; I generally know pretty much how to start and have a few moves worked out, and then I see if I can find a way to end it off effectively. If I can, the writing out takes me very little time.
The trouble about giving advice is that the way I started is now irrelevant, and the way it is for me now is also irrelevant to the needs of those starting out, because at my stage there is no problem about publication, other than the original one of not writing rubbish. I am trying to publish less, not more.
Since taking on the half time position at UT Austin, have you noticed differences between academic life in the states and academic life in the UK?
There are huge differences between academic life in the US and the UK, at least if one contrasts large US departments and their successful graduate programmes with medium-sized departments in the UK. At Reading we did have a very successful graduate programme; so that element was constant in my case. The main difference, however, is that in the UK the academics carry most of the administrative load; in the US there is very substantial administrative support which takes that load away, leaving one to concentrate on what one is really paid to do (and better at, quite often). You would not believe the trivial duties imposed on academics in the UK.
Generally, what's your approach to teaching?
I don’t have one approach to teaching; it all depends on the class. But at the graduate level, I try to show people the benefits of very close reading. I have always read much less than many of my colleagues, but I hope that what I do read I get the maximum benefit from, by going very slowly.
Lowest point in your career?
I would say it was the evening in 1993 when I gave a paper at the Oxford Philosophical Society, (which was then the main Faculty colloquium, in US terms). My paper was called ‘Arguments from Illusion’. I had asked for Tim Williamson to reply to it – a brave choice, even though he was quite junior then, and not the figurehead he is now. Anyhow he gave really good, helpful, interesting and challenging comments, to which I had good replies, as it seemed to me. So all that was fine. But in the discussion, with questions by Bernard Williams, Michael Dummett, Peter Strawson et al., I more or less blanked out, and this was a truly terrible experience. I just could not connect. I felt afterwards that I had missed the only chance I would ever get to make an impact in such august company. It was nerves, of course.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice then, what would it be?
Believe in yourself. Given my own trajectory, one might also say ‘trust to luck’. And indeed there have been several hinge moments for me in which luck has played a considerable part. For instance, in 1987 my wife suggested to me that I try to put together a tour around the US giving papers in places as I passed through. The thought was that, though we could not ourselves afford the airfare to the US, still if I could get enough invitations from places that would fly me in from wherever I was before, the honoraria would together add up to pay for the transatlantic fare. I didn’t have many philosophical contacts in the US then, but I wrote to those people that I did know, and it worked. I got about 4 or 5 invitations – enough for the purpose. And then I was writing to John McDowell about something else, testimony I think, and wondered whether I dared suggest stopping in at Pittsburgh to give a talk on my way back from California to the UK. Pittsburgh was then the leading department in the US, a considerable step up, and I definitely did not want to damage my relationship with John by asking something of him that he would prefer me not to have asked. But I summoned up my courage and made the suggestion. Then a week later I was at home one evening discussing Hegel in a small reading group, when the phone rang and it was Joe Camp, the then Chair at Pitt, calling to say yes would I come to give a talk and how about staying for a whole year. This was the beginning of better things for me.
Greatest living philosophers, in your opinion?
The ones from whom I have learnt the most are John McDowell and David Wiggins.
Any interesting projects on the horizon?
I am just finishing up a book to be called Practical Shape, in which I try to construct and defend a neo-Aristotelian conception of practical reasoning. It is proving much harder than I had hoped.
How do you see the future of philosophy more generally? Do you find any trends exciting?
I like the way Anscombe’s work is coming back into fashion.
Do you think all philosophers will acknowledge your view, moral particularism, is true one day, or will there always be disagreement here?
There will always be disagreement. It would be horrible just to be right. Indeed, I think that what most philosophers want is not to be right but to make a difference to the agenda. And this, I think, I have done. Anyway, nobody in philosophy should think they are right. I am not even sure they should believe what they say. I prefer the expression ‘my view is that p’ to ‘I believe that p’.
So does philosophy go on forever and ever or do we figure it all out one day?
There is no such thing as figuring it all out in any area of enquiry.
How did you end up on the Late Late Show?
My daughter in law Claire Danes was on the show, talking about filming Temple Grandin in Austin. When asked how she liked Austin, she reeled off a list of family connections to the city. Her grandfather was on the faculty, her father was born there and her father-in-law taught there now. Ferguson asked what I taught and she related some of my views, which intrigued him and he asked whether I might agree to come on the show. She said ‘Ask him’ – so they did, which I think was very brave of them. But originally I refused, because it seemed wrong to fly across the US just to appear on a TV show (for environmental reasons). I then realized that I was coming over anyway, to go to the APA; so I told them that if it could be on April 1, I would do it. And so it happened. What most philosophers don’t know is that the person on before me was Robin Williams – a hard act to follow. I have never been more nervous in my life. But at least I did not blank out.
What do you make of the states, culturally and/or politically?
This is a dangerous question, especially at the moment. In the part of Austin in which I live, I feel culturally at home in almost all respects, from musical to political. This has been a great surprise and a great pleasure. But I do not like the guns.
What are you listening to in Austin? It's a great place!
In Austin I like local Texan music best; we enjoy going to Elephant Room and to the local dance hall, the Broken Spoke. The restaurant we go to the most is Texas French Bread, originally started by a friend of ours and now run by her son.
Do you still play ping pong or squash?
I don’t do any of these things any more. I finally gave up squash because it aggravated my shoulder injury (got from playing the bass wrongly).
Woodwork has taken the place of music in my life, but I can only really do that in France where I have all my tools. The rest of the year I am reduced to walking with my wife. But this is not much of a reduction.
I must say I've been doing this for over a year now and you are probably the most punctual subject I've had the pleasure to interview!
I like to get things done and out of the way if they are not too difficult.