Justin Weinberg is Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of South Carolina and creator and editor of Daily Nous, a philosophy news website. In this interview, Justin Weinberg talks about frisbee and puking in college, converting from a libertarian/anarchist to a liberal, falling in love with philosophy, being rejected from every grad school he applied to, calling Harvard to ask why he didn’t get in…and their surprise answer, feeling unprepared, writing his dissertation at Georgetown, having a kid in grad school, and then another right before he moved to a one year position, adjusting to life and teaching in the South, his motivation behind starting up Daily Nous, being criticized for being too radical, being misunderstood, his thoughts on the September Statement and on Brian Leiter, what he has to say to philosophers who suggest people are too sensitive nowadays, the death of philosophy and, of course, his favorite curse word...
So, what type of things were you interested in as a kid?
As a kid I was into music, reading, art, the beach, ice cream, clowning around, and being as argumentative as I could be without getting into too much trouble. So, not much has changed.
What were you reading?
I was an avid reader of fiction. In elementary school I wrote to some of the authors whose works I had read to share my thoughts with them. These ranged from Mort Walker, creator of the Beetle Bailey comic, to, improbably, Herman Wouk, author of the well-known-and-not-fully-comprehensible-to-a-fourth-grader World War II epic, The Winds of War. Both of them, and several others, took the time to write back. I read all of the Hardy Boys books, which was normal for a young boy, and all of the Stephen King novels available at the time, which wasn't (I recall my parents having a talk with a worried librarian the import of which was: let the boy check out any book in the library).
What did your parents do?
My mother was an art teacher and my father was a school administrator--eventually superintendent.
Were you involved in music or the arts?
Between my mom’s interest in art and my dad’s interest in classical music there were a lot of arts in my upbringing. I grew up in the suburbs around New York City and we would often head into the city to go to museums, see shows and performances, walk around, eat, and visit relatives.
I took piano lessons for several years, starting when I was six, but never became a serious classical player. I played in the high school jazz band, and with some friends formed a classic rock cover band, the highlight of which was probably playing Roadhouse Blues while the audience -- which was much of the rest of the high school -- sung along. I also played the clarinet in the school "symphonic band" and the competitive marching band. There were some very talented student musicians in my school, a couple of years ahead of me, and hanging out with them reinforced my appreciation for music.
I was not into sports at all as a child, though I participated in little league baseball for several years. I had a hockey stick -- for street hockey -- but it spent more time serving as part of the skeleton for a kind of mannequin I made that served as decoration in my room. It also had a hat and sunglasses. I will admit in retrospect that that was kind of weird.
I had a Jewish upbringing. It was reformed Judaism, which pretty much comes down to being picky about bagels. In that sense, and only that sense, I am still religious. There were family celebrations of Jewish holidays, though, and I did learn enough Hebrew and attend enough temple to get bar mitzvah'd. I don't remember ever believing in a deity. If there was a god, it was the sun, who my family worshiped by making a pilgrimage to Long Beach Island for several weeks each summer (until we moved from New Jersey to Long Island). I still love the beach: the sand, the sound of water, the glorious nothing to do.
So, in high school, did you have any idea what you wanted to do in college?
When I was in high school, I thought I was going to end up as a lawyer. Though I did not know anything about his practice, my grandfather had been a lawyer, so the idea was always there. And like everyone else, I had a highly unrealistic view of how interesting and fun it is to be a lawyer from watching lawyer shows on television; the courtroom seemed like an appropriate workplace for someone who liked to argue. At the time I figured that in college I would study political science or history or literature, take a couple of music courses on the side, and then head off to law school.
Where did you go to college?
After I had narrowed my college choices down to just two, I ended up attending SUNY Binghamton---instead of Rutgers.
Was college what you expected?
I don't know if college was what I expected, because I don't remember what I expected it would be like. When I look back, it seems to have had all of the paradigmatic elements: friendship, love, sex, learning, frisbee, drinking, puking, and so on.
Frisbee and puking? No need to resort to ugly stereotypes! You ever regret that choice, going to SUNY Binghamton instead of Rutgers?
In retrospect, that seems like a funny choice to have made, but at the end of high school philosophy wasn't exactly on my radar (despite having taken a summer course in logic between 8th and 9th grade). At the time, Binghamton's philosophy department was dominated by its "Philosophy, Interpretation, and Culture" graduate program and was a largely Continental department, with some exceptions. And while I took the standard major fare, I ended up spending a lot of time with those exceptions, mainly Abisi Sharakiya, who was a mentor to me, and John Arthur, both of whom introduced me to analytic political and moral philosophy (the areas in which I am most at home, philosophically). I sometimes wonder if I would have been better off, as a philosopher, had I gone to Rutgers. I am skeptical, mainly because I'm not sure I would have majored in philosophy if I had.
How did you get into philosophy?
My education at Binghamton was able to combine different aspects of philosophy in a way that made me want to study it more than other subjects. I took a philosophy course my first semester at Binghamton. In fact, it was my first course on my first day of college---philosophy of religion with Sid Thomas, a former preacher-turned-philosopher. The course started off with the typical arguments for and against the existence of God, which I found fun, but then it veered off into weirdness. We read Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents -- fine. But then we looked at Wilhelm Reich on sexual energy, and ultimately spent a lot of time reading a book by Lloyd DeMause called Reagan's America, which provided explanations of Reagan's policy choices that consisted in psychoanalytic explorations of events in Reagan's youth. Even in my ignorance it seemed a little off for a philosophy of religion course but it was fascinating. And so I took another philosophy course, and another, and another, and while most of them were not so strange, enough of them, in virtue of being Continental in orientation, combined theoretical ambition and linguistic unfamiliarity in such a way that I thought understanding---of something big---was just around the corner. I wonder if I would have been as moved to pursue philosophy, as an undergraduate, had most of my classes been analytic in orientation.
Did you ever achieve that understanding?
I don’t know. I made progress. In my senior year I completed a thesis project, under Sharakiya, on G.A. Cohen's criticisms of Nozick's libertarianism. I think that experience was important for my philosophical development in a couple of ways. First off, I had been a kind of libertarian (I even had co-founded a libertarian, quasi-anarchist newspaper at college, called Guillotine), and I just had to give up a lot of that in the face of Cohen's arguments. Doing so was, perhaps ironically, liberating---now I could just follow the arguments wherever they led, without worrying about whether doing so would end up contradicting views I felt compelled to defend. Second, Sharakiya was a great mentor; extraordinarily rigorous, unflinchingly honest, intimidatingly tall, and, though I could tell he liked me, very critical. And so my skills for taking criticism well, and of keeping track of the distinction between a philosophical criticism and a personal insult---so crucial for the practice of philosophy---were honed.
Did you mingle with any of your professors outside of class?
Sometimes. In my senior year, I received permission to take a graduate seminar on Nietzsche with Martin Dillon. The course was challenging, but at the end of it Dillon invited us all to his house, which he had built, way out in the countryside, for a night of food, wine, and philosophical discussion by firelight. It was magical. We talked way into the late hours of the night (I think we all just ended up sleeping there), and the beauty of a philosophical life came into view.
What did your parents make of your decision to go into philosophy?
My parents were very supportive of my decision and never had any qualms about me pursuing a career in philosophy.
Did you go right into grad school, or did you take some time off? Where did you apply? What were you going to do if you didn't get in anywhere?
When I was a senior in college, I applied to graduate school in philosophy. At this time, apart from posters listing faculty and areas of research that would get mailed around, there was very little detailed information readily available about philosophy departments. No rankings of departments had yet made their way in front of the eyes of my professors or fellow students in upstate New York; online information was fairly basic. I wasn't personally very knowledgeable about what was going on at most other schools, and I was a bit too stupidly stubborn to ask for much help. But I had heard of some schools that seemed good, or were the schools of philosophers whose work I read, and so I applied to a handful of them.
Where did you get in?
I was rejected by every single last one of them.
Man, that must have been devastating.
In retrospect it is not at all surprising. But at the time I did not understand, and I was disappointed--puzzled, even. So I did what any reasonably confident but largely ignorant person would do: ask for an explanation. And that is when I made what was probably the most important phone call of my life. I dialed up the Department of Philosophy at Harvard and basically asked, "Why didn't I get in?"
Wait…what? You called Harvard? What did they say?
The departmental secretary took my name and the details of my inquiry. Shortly, I received a call back. If I remember correctly, it was Tim Scanlon. And he gave me the best answer to "Why didn't I get in?" He said: "Come for the year."
Holy smokes! I bet Harvard is going to get a few more phone calls from here on out. Do you think the Philosophical Gourmet Report would have been useful when you applied to graduate school?
It might have spurred me to apply to a broader array of schools, and I suppose that if I had applied to more schools I might have gotten into some of them, but then I probably would have never bothered calling Harvard…but I was lucky -- lucky to have been raised to be impertinent enough to call, and lucky that they responded graciously and with interest. I've been pretty happy with how things turned out, so I'm not sure it would have been better for me.
I mean, do you think that would have been a useful tool for a typical undergraduate back then?
Generally, sure. Nowadays, there's tons of information and opinions on philosophy programs that are easily accessible, but that was certainly not the case in the mid-to-late 90s.
Were you prepared for the coursework at Harvard?
I was admitted as a non-degree graduate student and a few days into the first semester it was clear that for some of the courses, the answer was “not really.” I simply knew very little compared to the people who had been admitted into the PhD program--at least about many of the kinds of things that seemed important to many of the philosophers there. While I had a good background in political philosophy and some normative and applied ethics, I did not know much about contemporary analytic epistemology, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and metaethics. I had to work very hard just to understand the conversations people around me were having, let alone contribute to them. It was the most difficult but most exciting year of my education. I learned a lot, and it was thrilling to be in classes with Scanlon, Derek Parfit, Hilary Putnam, Robert Nozick, and Amartya Sen. Rawls had gotten seriously ill just before I got there, so I never got to take a class with him. Scanlon and Parfit were very kind to me that year.
You still in touch with those folks?
I am still friendly with some of the people from that period, but time and distance do their work. That said, social media does its work now, too, and that has helped me keep in touch with some people.
What were you doing in your spare time?
I did not have a fellowship from Harvard, and though my parents were helping me out, I was working several jobs to make ends meet. I was a telemarketer on some mornings, and a waiter on some evenings. Occasionally I would work late at a firm which tracked the media mentions of various companies; their office was open 24 hours, so I could go in at anytime and watch a recent broadcast of the local news, or listen to a radio show, and fill out forms about which companies were discussed and how.
Did you stick around?
Toward the end of the fall semester I applied to graduate programs again. My main interest was in political philosophy, and so I applied not just to philosophy departments but also to a few political science programs. I also applied to law schools, as a back-up plan. I wasn't that much of an improved applicant yet, except that now I was coming from Harvard, with letters from folks there. These factors helped, and I got into a few programs and several law schools.
How did you decide between philosophy, political science and law?
Having learned more about law school (my girlfriend and future wife was in law school at the time) I realized the law option did not appeal to me as much, so I put it aside. That left philosophy and poli sci. Though there are differences in how the questions of political philosophy tend to be pursued in philosophy departments and how they tend to be pursued by political theorists in political science departments, my model political philosopher throughout my undergraduate education was Will Kymlicka, whose Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction was like a bible to me, and whose professional home is a political science department. So I met with Michael Sandel and asked him for advice. He said it came down to "what else" besides the questions of political philosophy I was interested in. Did I want to take courses on administration, international relations, and comparative legislative bodies? Or did I want to take courses in metaphysics, epistemology, free will, and the like? That helped me realize what I really wanted to do. Philosophy it was.
Where did you end up? Did you feel more prepared? How did your philosophical interests evolve?
I ended up going to Georgetown, and I loved it. The year working like crazy to keep up at Harvard served me well, and by the time I got to Georgetown I knew more about many central issues in philosophy, and that helped me feel prepared for my coursework there. Georgetown's is a large department, truly pluralistic, which was a good fit for me given my previous time at two very different kinds of philosophy departments. There really were a mix of people with radically different approaches there--for just one example, I took the epistemology seminar with Wayne Davis, and then later sat in on Mark Lance's version of the course, and I don't recall there being any overlap between the two--but, from what I could tell as a grad student, everyone was mutually respectful and got along well. I've always felt like it was a model department. I learned a lot as a graduate student. I was pretty sure I was going to end up writing on political philosophy, so I made sure to take or sit in on as many courses in that and related areas like ethics as I could. At one point I thought I was going to switch areas and go into metaphysics instead, but it turns out that was just a phase.
Did you teach?
There were plenty of teaching opportunities at Georgetown. We were all teaching assistants to start, and my first TA experience at Georgetown was a bit outside my comfort zone: it was an intro philosophy class centered around Jaspers, Hegel, economics, and Lacan (as I said: pluralistic department!). A few years into the program we were allowed to teach our own courses, and we were largely at liberty to create new courses, which was a real privilege. It was there that I first started teaching a version of "Philosophy and the Future," which I occasionally teach now at South Carolina at the introductory level.
Who was your dissertation director? What was your working relationship like?
Henry Richardson. I like Henry a whole lot but when we first started working together I was very intimidated. He is a very thoughtful person, and when we would meet to discuss my work the pace of conversation threw me off, because it was full of these pauses during which he was thinking about what I said and how to respond to it. It took me a while to understand not to take those silences as a signal to talk more (an important lesson!). Eventually I slowed down and learned to wait a few seconds and then, typically, he would produce some extraordinarily well-crafted reinterpretation of what I just said that made it clearer to me what I was trying to do, or some question that was exactly what needed answering in order for the project to move forward.
Was writing the dissertation an easy process?
At first I had some trouble narrowing down the topic. Jerry Cohen had come out with his "Where the Action Is" article around then, which was related to what I was thinking about working on. I went to a conference at Wake Forest in honor of Harry Frankfurt that Cohen was speaking at, and I approached him to see if he would be willing to talk to me about my dissertation ideas. He suggested a stroll around the grounds. We walked, and I put my ideas to him, and he was critical, getting at a lot of distinctions I had overlooked. At the end of our walk, I thanked him, and he said something like, "I feel bad for graduate students nowadays. It is so hard to come up with a good dissertation topic." Ouch--but it was a helpful conversation, nonetheless. Generally, I found the dissertation writing difficult. I think my problems were fairly typical. There is a kind of formlessness to one's work schedule that the typical graduate student encounters for the first time, when coursework is over, and I wasn't a particularly good manager of that time. There was quite a bit of procrastination, and even when writing I was a pretty slow writer. But every once in a while I would get these bursts and spend most of several days in a row just writing.
What were you doing for fun?
When I wasn't writing, there was reading and, of course, teaching, which I liked and put a lot of effort into--too much, probably. And of course there was socializing. DC is a wonderful city to live in, and my wife (who by then was working as an attorney) and I tried to take advantage of it; we ate out a lot, had dinner parties, went to concerts, and went roaming around the Virginia countryside. We acquired a dog, and then a second dog. I also spent too much time perusing used book and music stores, eating ice cream, and hanging out. For a couple of seasons I was part of a racing sailboat crew. I did some running, but it did not become a thing I enjoyed until quite a bit later. The year before I finished we had our first child, and so that kept us pretty busy.
When did you finish and what was the market like? Where did you get your first gig?
I went on the market in the fall of 2004, just before defending my dissertation. When my cohort started at Georgetown we were told that the median number of interviews a person had their first year on the market was zero. I don't know if that was true when I was told it, or true when I went on the market, but the sense then was that the market was very bad. Compared to now, though, it was practically a golden era. I had several interviews but I did not get a tenure-track job that year. I did land a visiting position at William and Mary, though, which I was very happy to take.
It must be extremely stressful to be up in the air in a one year position with a family. How did you and your family cope with that? Did you have a plan B if you didn't land a job?
There was certainly some stress. My second son was born just a week before we moved down to Williamsburg, which was crazy bad timing. My wife was taking leave from her job to be a stay-at-home mom with the boys and I just had this temporary appointment. That said, I was somewhat optimistic. In virtue of now having defended my dissertation and gotten an appointment—albeit temporary—at a good school, I thought I was better positioned for the job market. Plus, I got the sense early on that I could stay at William & Mary for another year, if need be. Worse comes to worst, I could switch careers, go to law school, and my wife could go back to work. So I guess the short answer is “optimism and back-up plans.”
The following year I went on the market again and it was better. I knew people who were turning down APA interviews because they had more than they could fit into their entire time at the conference. I was not one of those people, but I did have plenty of interviews, several flyouts at a wide range of institutions, and ultimately two offers. I chose the University of South Carolina.
Learn anything in that process?
The interviewing and traveling I did as part of my job search, and the exposure to philosophers that it involved, really reinforced my awareness that there are amazing philosophers at all sorts of schools. I was very lucky to go on the market when I did, and consider myself very lucky to have gotten my job.
How was it adjusting to life in the south?
The Confederate flag flies from a pole right in front of the Statehouse. To have a racist symbol so prominently displayed in the city is disgusting and I find the defenses of it disingenuous or ignorant. I think if it were up to the people in Columbia, it would vanish—the city, with the large presence of the university, is relatively cosmopolitan—but the flag is a matter for the whole state legislature.
When I visited Columbia for my interview, the chair showed me what he called “the true home of southern religion”: the football stadium. It’s a big deal down here. The team name is "the Gamecocks," or, as they are unabashedly and frequently--really unceasingly--referred to throughout the state, by people young and old, "the Cocks." Getting used to that took a bit of adjustment. In Columbia, if you get invited to something called "Cockfest," it is probably a sports-related event and the title is not meant to be a clever play on maleness in athletics. It might even be held in a "Cockaboose," the googling of which I'll leave as a decision for the readers.
Another thing to get used to about the south is that people are friendlier. This makes everyday existence more pleasant, but on the downside it is harder to tell if people like you.
Bless your heart! Any unique challenges teaching at USC?
USC is a large state school and like any such school there are a wide range of students. While the Honors College here siphons off some of the better students, there are still in most ordinary classes some very talented and motivated students sitting alongside some students for which the hows and whys of their admissions will forever remain mysterious. So that is one challenge.
I think some people might say that a challenge of teaching in the south is that some students have grown up with a kind of political and religious orthodoxy that they have never questioned. This makes some students close-minded, and some just get turned off by or suspicious of the questioning nature of philosophy. But generally it makes teaching philosophy, especially at the lower levels, more Socratic—not in the formal or superficial senses, but in the belief-busting sense—which makes it more fun.
Sometimes people are happy when they get tenure, but it seems, in some cases they are disappointed because they aren’t elated. How did you feel when you got tenure at USC?
The years leading up to my tenure decision were, as is common, very stressful, for me and my family, and I did not feel like my case was a particularly strong one. So when I was granted tenure it was an enormous relief and I was really very happy. I still am! Getting tenure has made no difference to the amount of stuff I have to get done, in fact, I am doing more now (again, this is very common), but it has made a big difference to how I feel about work. I feel a lot less stressed out, and the security that comes with tenure has made me more comfortable with certain choices I’ve made about work since.
You work on issues related to well-being; does this influence the way you see things like love and regret, or are your views on love and regret inspired by your personal experiences? How?
I think that is a very difficult question to answer. I have been trained to think like a philosopher, and my personal experiences often come to me through an interior analytical filter, informed by philosophical methods of thought (e.g., distinction-making, questioning) and sometimes substantive philosophical views (e.g., pluralism about the good, epistemic modesty). So, yes, sometimes my work influences the way I see the things in my life. At the same time, I have taken up certain questions because of personal experiences, and sometimes the view I’m defending (or a premise in the argument for it) is one I initially came to through introspection about my own life. In any event, it is not philosophy-as-autobiography; I try to take up questions that any person might ask, and, as with any other philosophical topic, bring reasons and arguments to bear on them.
Did having kids change your perspectives on justice and well-being?
My kids have helped make me more patient, more tolerant, more aware of my limits, but having them has not, as far as I can tell, affected my philosophical views.
Would you encourage your kids to go into philosophy?
If they wanted to, sure. It’s a good gig, if you make it, allowing for a fair amount of autonomy and creativity. But I don’t imagine I will have any say whatsoever in which careers my children pursue. And that is fine by me.
Why did you start Daily Nous?
Soon after I got started, Brian Leiter asked me this same question. I said to him, “I’m a guy who has opened up a taco cart on the sidewalk in front of the Mexican restaurant that just received a bad health inspection. People were looking for a new place to eat.” There was one main source of news for the philosophy profession. It became clear that people were seeking an alternative. Previous alternatives had failed to take off or be what enough people were looking for, and I thought I could do it reasonably well. I was willing to put my name on it for accountability, I had job security so I could take any heat that might be directed at me for the venture, and I had a sufficiently wide professional network that I thought it stood a chance of success. Plus, I was having kind of a bad week and was looking for a distraction. I guess I got a bit more than I bargained for!
You and Brian Leiter have talked privately about Daily Nous?
We corresponded quite a bit at the start.
What did you guys talk about?
Among other things, he thought that I was stealing material from his site and on a couple of occasions intimated that I could be subject to legal action from him for “misappropriation of ‘hot news.’” But he was mistaken about the facts, and the attorneys I consulted were, let’s just say, highly skeptical that the “misappropriation of ‘hot news’” doctrine could apply to this kind of dispute anyway.
Why do you think people were looking for an alternative?
There was an extraordinary concentration of power in the philosophy profession, with the very same person in charge of both the primary news source and the ranking of graduate programs. Such concentration of power is something that any thoughtful person should be concerned about in general. In this specific instance, there were several issues. One was about hostile rhetoric, the way it reinforced an unnecessary and obnoxious combativeness to which philosophy is already prone, the professional harm it could inflict, and the fear it instilled, particularly in junior members of the profession. Another had to do with the dominance of a possibly too-narrow view of what constitutes good philosophy.
In your opinion, how does your site fix this problem?
Daily Nous offered the philosophy profession a way to break out from under that concentration of power. That it has succeeded I take to be evidence that many people had been longing for change. The support I’ve gotten from so much of the profession along the way suggests that people think this has been a change for the better. I am happy to have been able to provide this service.
How is Daily Nous different from the Leiter Reports?
One difference is that Daily Nous has been in existence for a little over 1 year. Leiter Reports has been in existence for about 12. Another difference is that Daily Nous is not named after me, and that’s for a few reasons. First off, “Weinberg Reports” would be a terrible name for a website. But also, Daily Nous is a lot less about me than Leiter Reports is about Brian. Daily Nous aims to be a community resource for the philosophy profession, a place for the sharing and discussion of news and issues important to academic philosophers. While my opinion on matters comes through now and again, and my sensibilities (philosophical, professional, aesthetic, etc.) inform the site, I usually don’t post about me, my views, my work, or my life. Do you remember those old Chips Ahoy cookie commercials—“betcha bite a chip!”? That’s what Leiter Reports is like. There’s some Leiter in every bite. God those cookies were awful. One other difference worth mentioning: I don’t use Daily Nous as a platform for humiliating people or hurling insults at them.
As the editor of Daily Nous, have you received any criticism? If so, which have been the least fair, in your estimation?
The latest charge is that I am the “leading cyber-cheerleader for the new infantilism.” I have resisted addressing this because it is so silly, but since you asked, here is my response, distilled down to three points:
What people think is acceptable tends to be based on what they think of as normal, and their understanding of normal is informed by their own experiences and the dominant narratives to which they’ve been exposed in their culture—that is, by a small proportion of the total actual range. People often go nonstop from seeing something as “weird!” to declaring it “unacceptable”! This is one of the ways in which humans are stupid. Resisting this tendency, and instead being open to the idea that other people’s experience of the world could be importantly different from yours and still reasonable, could, I suppose, be called “the new infantilism.” Instead, I call it a kind of “humility.”
People like traditions. This is one of the reasons cruelty persists. The thought is that what happened to me, and how I was treated, should set the template for what happens to you, and how you are treated. One thinks, “I turned out okay, you see? So, if I had to deal with some hardship, young person, you should have to, too. And to relieve you of that hardship would be unnecessary, or worse—to coddle you. Note, by the way, that by sheer coincidence my life contained the optimum amount of hardship; any more would be cruel, and any less would be spoiling.” When we recognize the availability heuristic, self-serving bias, and status quo bias operating like this, rationalizing our callousness, and we then try to block their influence on our judgments and actions, we could, I suppose, call that “the new infantilism.” Instead, I call it a species of “kindness.”
It can be fun to make other people feel bad, especially when one is largely insulated from the consequences of doing so, perhaps through anonymity, or perhaps through power. So, we can imagine a boss who gets a rush from yelling at his employees, or a bathroom stall scribbler who—for a good time—impugns the character of a colleague, or a public spokesperson of philosophy who plumps himself up by blogging that a junior member of the profession is not smart enough to be a philosopher, or who enjoys feeling cocky enough to send an email to a stranger in the profession calling her an asshole. Reining in one’s impulses towards such behavior, objecting to it in others, and pushing for norms against it, could, I’m sure, be called “the new infantilism.” Instead, I just call it part of “professionalism.”
So, I’m for humility, kindness, and professionalism in philosophy. And I take philosophy to centrally involve rigorous criticism and relentless questioning, so I’m all for that, too. It is not impossible to combine these things.
Have any criticisms seemed legitimate to you?
When I redesigned the site back in October I received a number of helpful criticisms and suggestions. Also, back in August I put up an ill-considered post about philosophy topics that would be especially appealing to women that I received an enormous amount of criticism on, much of which I think I deserved.
That seems like it was a misunderstanding. Anything major?
No, I think they have all been rather off. One was that I was too heavy-handed with the moderation. The truth is that I reject very few comments and that (as Jon Cogburn discovered) some people’s comments were being removed as spam before I even saw them. Another is that I’m a radical leftwing feminist ideologue, which anyone who knows me laughs at. To be honest, I don't exactly know what a "radical leftwing feminist ideologue" believes…
Why would anyone who knows you laugh at the idea that you are a 'radical leftwing feminist ideologue'? I mean, you strike me as a liberal guy, at least…
I'm a Millian, in the sense that I have a great hope for the synthesis of individual liberty and overall maximal welfare, and this disposes me to favor policy solutions to social problems that are enabling rather than restrictive, and to be worried about homogenization and the influence of large social groups. I'm a Hayekian, in the sense that I have an appreciation for the good created by specialized, diversified, local knowledge that resists systematization. I'm a Rawlsian, in that I think desert is a non-starter and that people's life prospects should not be determined by factors arbitrary from a moral point of view. I'm a Brandeisian in the sense that I think we should be very cautious of large institutions and concentrations of power. I'm what I call a "pluralist about the agency of justice," by which I mean that government is just one agent of justice among many others, including individuals, civic groups, NGOs, even businesses. I don't think material equality is intrinsically valuable or even all that important. I think diversity is very important. I'm probably much more a fan of markets and capitalism than the typical philosophy professor.
That's a picture of some of my political views, ones that come out in conversation and in some of my writing. I consider myself a feminist, but is the above a description of a radical leftwing feminist ideologue? I don't think so, but maybe I'm wrong. I'm sure I agree with them on certain issues, perhaps the ones that come up most frequently in discussions about the philosophy profession, and maybe that is how this political profile of me arose. In any event, I have to say I don't really mind being painted that way. It puts me in some good company.
So you say Daily Nous isn’t really about you, but you acknowledge that sometimes your opinions come through, like in the “New Consensus” post. Any criticism there?
I did get some pushback on the “New Consensus” post, but I don’t think I was saying anything too controversial there, just that we have more of an awareness and less of a willingness to ignore various forms of problems in the profession.
Do you have anything to say about the September Statement you didn’t say in the “New Consensus” post?
I’m not sure what to add. I suppose my only problem with it is that it was so narrowly focused on Brian’s remarks to Carrie, because, really, they were just the latest in a series of hostile remarks he has made that stretches back years. Of course, Brian is free to say whatever he wants to say, but if we get tired of it or embarrassed by it or disgusted by it, then we are free to stop engaging in the kinds of activities that contribute to his power and prop up his status in the profession.
Still, are any criticisms of Leiter unfair?
I think some people have tried to make the case that Brian is anti-progressive, particularly when it comes to diversifying the philosophy profession. I don’t think that is true. I think Brian has a certain view about quality in philosophy—a fairly common view—and he seems to think that we needn’t sacrifice that quality for the sake of inclusiveness; were we to do so, that would be bad for the profession and condescending to the putative beneficiaries. There are disagreements between him and others over what counts as a sacrifice of quality, and his threshold for that may be lower than others, but I don’t think this view makes him anti-progressive, anti-feminist, or anti-diversity.
In your opinion, as a discipline, what's the best way to handle our diversity problem?
I don’t know what the best way is, but here are three things I think would help.
First, philosophy needs a better public relations campaign, one that engages with youth cultures and makes young people aware of philosophy (in the U.S., most students’ first encounter with philosophy is in college). Philosophy isn’t even on their radar, so it is not something they come to college primed to be interested in, or know anything about. Philosophers should not overestimate their ability to successfully run this campaign. We need to engage the services of professional marketers and lobbyists.
Second, what often makes the difference in a student’s future is encouragement from a professor. I think that philosophy professors should make concerted efforts to engage, one-on-one, with promising students, particularly those from underrepresented groups. I know that sounds like a small-scale approach, but the philosophy community is relatively small, and such efforts, if successful, could make a big difference.
Third, I think we need to be more welcoming of a variety of approaches to philosophy. This is not to abandon qualitative judgments, but it is to have a certain kind of modesty in our judgments about what counts as a worthwhile philosophical question or a worthwhile philosophical method. I mean, it seems silly to think that finally, after a couple of thousand years, we, the dominant Anglo-American analytic philosophers, have, in the last century, finally hit upon the correct set of questions and the correct method of philosophy. I happily admit that those are my questions and my method, but nonetheless I think I have to be open to the idea that it may be limited in important respects. If we all were better about this, we might succeed, as a profession, in being open to voices that did not have a say in drafting the current blueprints for the enterprise.
Sometimes with social media--Twitter, Facebook, blogs--it seems like everybody is outraged all of the time, and it seems like we're reveling in our indignation. Nowadays, is there anything philosophers are outraged by that they shouldn't be outraged by?
Yes: people in philosophy being outraged.
haha…well, I’ve heard philosophers who are concerned with the same issues you are concerned with—such as the diversity problem— who have suggested similar solutions to our problems as a discipline, but also argue that we need to toughen up a bit. Is that a mistake, you think?
Where is this lack of toughness? Consider the restaurant diner who sends back his overcooked steak, the person in line who speaks up when another person tries to cut in front, and the neighbor who threatens to call the cops because a party is too noisy. Do these people need to toughen up? We usually do not think so. Rather, these people show they are sufficiently "tough" by complaining out loud about the problem. The diner breaks social norms about congeniality at dinner, the person in line confronts the cutter, the neighbor risks the hostility of the party's hosts--and we say: good for them. So I find it strange that when people complain out loud about sexism or racism or unprofessionalism or hostility or public mockery or whatever, this is taken as a lack of toughness, rather than evidence of toughness. And further, if we take such complaints as a lack of toughness, why, then, isn't complaining about this lack of toughness itself evidence of a lack of toughness? I mean, these people who are constantly complaining about infantilism and snowflakes and oversensitivity--what wusses! Why can't they handle hearing such complaints? Is it that interacting in a mutually respectful way with a diverse set of people is too hard for them? Would it require them to change too much? Maybe they need to toughen up.
So the only people who are too sensitive are people who suggest we are too sensitive?
There is a distinction being overlooked in these discussions, between "sensitivity" and what we can call "perceptiveness." When someone reacts badly to "business as usual" it could be because they are more sensitive than others to the same stimulus, that is, they feel it to a greater degree. Or, it could be because they are more perceptive about the existence and variety of problems with "business as usual," that is, they are able to see different kinds of problems. It is not clear to me why either of these is particularly objectionable, or that we should tell either of these kinds of people to "toughen up."
Take the unusually sensitive. When you avoidably hurt someone--even when you didn't know at the time that was what you were doing--do you think the appropriate response is to say "toughen up"? If so, I have news for you: you're being a jerk. Many of us have probably done this at some point--I know I have. But we know better. When we say "toughen up" to such people, we are saying that having them change their personality is a better option than having us change our behavior. We rarely see that made explicit, let alone seriously considered and defended.
Now look at the unusually perceptive. Here, toughness is beside the point. They are pointing out problems to us that we might not have noticed. Shouldn't we be paying attention to what they're saying and trying to learn from it rather than complaining about it?
None of this is to say that people can't be overly sensitive (in the sense that it would be unreasonable for them to demand accommodation), or mistaken in their complaints. But when I hear the sensitive being told to "toughen up" or those pointing out new problems being waved away, I don't see the work being done to support these dismissals. What I see is laziness and status quo bias, not to mention a wholly unwarranted and self-serving epistemic overconfidence.
Useful distinction, but is that last claim fair? Some of these philosophers certainly seem concerned with the same issues you are concerned with, actively trying to fix them, and they believe that we should also toughen up a bit for our own good.
What I'm curious about is what these paternalistic critics have in mind. Do we expect people to will themselves into a new person? Take drugs? Go to therapy? How easy is it to change one's personality? I doubt that the critics have thought this through, and I think what they have in mind by "toughen up" amounts to little more than "stop complaining." So suppose they stop complaining. There may be some professional benefits to that, no doubt. But they get to still feel bad, and the rest of us don't have to hear about it or do anything about it. That's one reason I'm skeptical of the claim that they should toughen up for their own good.
How do you see the future of philosophy? Does it come to an end?
Leaving aside external factors like the destruction of all intelligence, I think the answer depends on what philosophy is. Is philosophy fundamentally a truth-seeking activity, or is it merely what might be called a “therapeutic” activity, one that fulfills certain psychological needs we have for something like self-expression or self-understanding?
Most “analytic” philosophers see it as the former. And if it is the former, and if there are a finite number of extensionally unique basic philosophical questions, and if we in fact make progress answering such questions (perhaps with the assistance of artificial intelligence), then, if we’re around long enough, at some point philosophy could, in principle, end.
If it is the latter, then there would be nothing odd about it going on as long as we’re around. But we might change (via pharmaceuticals, technology, evolution) and cease to have the itch that philosophy scratches, in which case, philosophy would end.
So what do you think? Do we philosophers seek the truth, or is this a therapeutic activity?
I’m in the first camp, and I accept all of the “ifs” in it except, perhaps, the last one: we may destroy ourselves before we “solve” philosophy. I’m not saying that we now know what all of the basic philosophical questions are, or have a clear sense of which philosophical developments to date count as progress, or even that we have glommed on to particularly good tools for answering these questions. But I do think that philosophy is the kind of thing that we can make progress in, and possibly enough progress to satisfactorily answer its questions. That would be really weird, but it doesn’t strike me as false.
Do you find any trends in philosophy exciting? Disconcerting?
The exciting ones are the disconcerting ones! What I am most appreciating these days is the empirical research documenting the arational influences on our thinking, and the way philosophers are beginning to take this seriously. From cognitive biases to situational influences to bacteria in our guts and parasites in our brains, we are learning just how far humans are from the ideal thinker and agent that philosophers have long held up as our species’ distinct potential.
Do you have any interesting upcoming projects?
I have two book projects on my agenda. The one I’m working on first is in moral philosophy. I aim for it to be relatively accessible for an academic book. To my non-philosopher friends, I say that, in broad strokes, it’s very much about the stuff of everyday life—love, regret, dependency, communication, self-control, humor, etc.—and how we can answer some questions about them by appreciating the importance of certain similarities among and differences between people. To moral philosophers, I say that it is about value pluralism and how its truth affects your personal life; such pluralism gets attention in metaethics and in political philosophy, but not much has been said about how it should affect our view of ourselves and others, and of what we do and should do. The other book is on questions regarding realism and idealization in political philosophy, and is an elaboration of the ideas I set out in “The Practicality of Political Philosophy.”
What's your weirdest belief, a belief that few if any rational people believe, that you think is in large part justified?
Some people have one true love.
What's your favorite curse word?
Something that takes a really long time for me to cook.