In this interview, Ken Taylor, Professor of philosophy at Stanford University and co-host of Philosophy Talk, talks about growing up poor, Rocky and Bullwinkle and Music Man, race, feeling alienated from his peers, tracking, Dune, how a trip to Brazil changed his perspective, doing a presentation on idealism, going to Notre Dame, studying engineering and then, the Great and the Dead, drugs, flirting with religion, helping the underprivileged in South Bend, how his father reacted to his decision to go to graduate school for philosophy, and how he came around, University of Chicago, working with Leonard Linsky, the election of Ronald Reagan, Court House Restaurant, Prospect Point, a harsh funding situation for graduate students, meeting his wife, getting into the ‘New Theory of Reference’ and philosophy of language, hero worship, briefly considering a career in Chicago politics, dealing with a difficult member of his dissertation committee, affirmative action, parenting, slurs, landing his current job at Stanford, starting Philosophy Talk with John Perry, the arduous voyage finding an outlet, the ongoing struggle to fund the project which might shut down in the near future, a priori sandcastles, the importance of doing philosophy connected with real life, the tragicomedy of important debates about professional norms, the philosophical tension between tackling urgent issues quickly and comprehending them fully, the future of philosophy and society in general, his last meal, and what he would ask an omniscient being…
Where did you grow up?
As a little kid, what did you do for fun?
When I was little, we played around the neighborhood a lot. We played a lot of pickup baseball, football and basketball. We played cops and robbers, cowboys and ‘Indians’, war games, also hide and go seek. Every Christmas my parents would buy various board games. And my three siblings and my parents and I would play them a lot, until we lost track of the pieces. As we got older there was less and less of that going on.
What was your family like?
Boisterous, flat broke for most of my youth. I had three siblings, I was the third of four.
I’m sorry to hear that, Ken. What did your parents do for a living?
My father was a factory worker who was born a dirt-poor sharecropper in the Jim Crow South. Worked for Ford Motor Company most of his life. My mother had various jobs when I was young. Her first job was as a stock clerk in department store. When I was in the 7th grade she went back to school to become a practical nurse. When I was in high school she went back to school again to become a registered nurse. She worked as an RN until she retired.
Deeply religious household. Though I am a fallen away atheist my parents and siblings are among the most religious people I know.
No. I had no idea about philosophy until I went off to college at Notre Dame. And even then I had no thought of becoming a philosopher until my senior year in college.
Favorite games, cartoons, movies, that type of thing?
Favorite cartoons Rocky and Bullwinkle. Bugs Bunny. When I was little we went to the movies all the time. My mother used to take my sister and me. We loved musicals. For the longest time I thought that when you finally fell in love you would hear an orchestra playing in the sky and you would spontaneously break into song. I love the movie the Music Man…it was what first made me want to play Trombone.
What were you scared of?
Rats. I was always afraid of rats, from earlier on. Partly because we once had rats in our house and it scared the heck out of me. Once when I was about three or four years old, I was riding my tricycle at night down the street from our house, I saw what turned out to be my shadow but it scared me to death and I rode home screaming to my parents that something was chasing me. Somehow they figured out that I was running from my own shadow. My older brothers teased me relentlessly.
As a teenager, what were you interested in?
As a teenager, I did all sorts of things. I ran track and cross country (mediocrely) to keep in shape for wrestling (which I participated in from 7th grade through my sophomore year in college) also played a little baseball but wasn’t much good at it. I played baseball. Wrestling was by far my main sport…the one I won tournaments and medals and honors in and pursued until the beginning of my junior year in college, when I finally quit.
I played trombone in the band and violin in the orchestra. Also played briefly in a rock and roll band modeled on the band Chicago (it was a bunch of guys from the band). Played in something called the Hobo Band for a summer job at Cedar Point, a big amusement park near where I grew up. Worst decision of my life was to give up the violin senior year in high school. After I quit, I had dreams about my violin, which I had played and practiced religiously since I was like nine or ten years old. Briefly sang in various choirs, including state and local chapters of Up With People, which, much to my surprise, is still going. I sang a regular solo with our local chapter, “What Color is God’s Skin?” I also acted in the High School drama club. I fancied myself a pretty good actor. So I was very much into the performing arts as well as sports. If I hadn’t wanted to be an engineer more at the time, I would have tried to get into some conservatory somewhere.
I was in “accelerated” class...there were few AP classes in my school in those days, but I was in the ones that were offered. I was like today’s hard-charging students before that was a thing. Except I didn’t do it out of any sort of pressure to get ahead. I just did it because I thought so many things were cool and worth trying and learning about.
Did you fit in?
I never saw myself as fitting completely comfortably in any of the circles in which I operated, though. For one thing, hardly any of the black kids that I knew from my neighborhood were involved in the same activities as me. And for the most part, I wasn’t all that close to most of the white kids who dominated the various non-sports activities I was involved in. The people I was closest to in high school were actually socially awkward brainy loner types. I was brainy too, but I wasn’t a loner like many of my closest friends, and I don’t think I was socially awkward…I just felt out of place in most places.
Was race something you thought about a lot as a kid?
Well, the America of my youth was pretty much obsessed with race, so it would have been hard not to, at least as I became more aware of the wider world.
When I was very young, before I went to school, I was probably mostly oblivious to race. Almost all the people I knew were black. Indeed, I can’t remember knowing personally a single white person until I started school. I may have but none sticks out in my mind now. In early elementary school, my schoolmates were a mix of black and white people. So were my school friends, though not my neighborhood friends. At some point during my school career, students were heavily tracked. I think that started in 5th or 6th grade. Certainly by junior high we were definitely heavily tracked. I was put in the accelerated classes and from then on was, for the most part, the only black kid in many of my classes. I can’t remember any more than one other black kid being in any of them from junior high on. I eventually came to see the over-use of tracking in my school system as a way of segregating the schools without having to have separate facilities.
Absolutely. Happened in my school. How did this effect you?
It increased my sense of not really belonging anywhere in particular. Many black kids accused me of “trying to be white,” Many white kids were cool to me. Only a few were outright hostile to my face, though. At first, I deeply resented both black kids who thought of me as ‘trying to be white’ and white kids who were cool to me apparently because of my race. I just wanted to be me and to be accepted or rejected because of my particularity. I didn’t want to be either pigeonholed or restricted by race. I think that made rebelliously and deeply anti-racial, in a sense, in a highly racialized environment. Of course, figuring out just who I really was given the mismatch between my own rejection of race as a central defining feature of myself and the apparent obsession with race in just about every nook and cranny of the social world around me, led to many intense inner struggles. I think that’s one thing that made be drawn to quirky people, who were in general hard to pigeonhole, as my closest friends.
I eventually reached a point where I stopped caring very much at all what other people, with their racial hang-ups, thought about me, and learned to just pursue my own passions without worrying about whether that was what I was “supposed” to be doing.
I dig it. So, as a kid, did you get into any trouble?
I was considered a model student. Made Outstanding Teenagers of America and Who’s Who among American Teenagers. I wanted my parents to be proud of me, partly because my two older brothers had caused them so much pain and had given them a lot of trouble. I yearned to be their problem free child. And pretty much I was.
What were your brothers up to?
Let’s just say they had very troubled youths, much different from my own. One of my two brothers experienced just about everything bad you could imagine, school dropout, drug addiction, crime, prison. He was a great guy, in many ways, but his life was troubled in so many ways.
What do you siblings do nowadays?
My younger sister is a therapist by training. But she doesn’t see patients much these days. She directs a mental health agency in Ohio. She is one of the strongest people I know and is one of my heroes. She was a single mom, from the age of 16. She was completely unprepared for that at her tender age, as most girls are. But she endured and prospered eventually. Unfortunately, she recently lost her only son, who died suddenly and unexpectedly. That was deeply sad for us all.
The brother referred to above is deceased. He died many years ago from the consequences of his very troubled life. I miss him dearly. As I said, he was a great guy, despite his struggles. Despite our radically different live paths, I was very close to him. He was actually the best man at my wedding. Always wished that I could have saved him. Again, that’s part of what drove me, from a very early age. His troubles were especially heartbreaking to my parents, as you can imagine, who were endlessly devoted to us all, but could not protect us from all the crap that world hurled at us.
My other brother is best described as an independent serial entrepreneur. He has had his hands in many different things, some of them good, some of them less good. He too lived through some very dark times. He had a serious struggle with mental illness in his youth, which landed him in a mental hospital for a while, during the time when a person could be committed and hospitalized against their will. That was a hard time for my family. Thankfully, my brother eventually emerged from that darkness. He is a dreamer and is tenacious. He is still striving to realize his dreams. In many ways, he is an extraordinarily gifted man. He definitely has the gift of gab and persuasion.
Brutal and sad stuff man.
So then, it sounds like you enjoyed high school overall?
Parts of it. I enjoyed all the different activities I was part of. I liked learning stuff. But wasn’t always the most focused student. I had so many different things going on and it sometimes got in the way of my studies. Mostly I lived off my wits in High School. I would often not do the homework and cram for exams. But my grades seldom suffered for it. What I didn’t like was feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere in particular. It took a year of college for me to learn that I could no longer just live off my wits. That’s one of the reasons I was less “active” in college than I had been in high school.
Least favourite subject in high school?
I don’t think I had a least favorite subject. Just about everything fascinated me to some degree. Some teachers were terrible. But that wasn’t about the subject. Freshman year, I thought I was bad at math. I couldn’t make head or tails of my freshman algebra teacher. But after freshman year, I had GREAT math teachers and realized that I actually loved mathematics.
I liked them all. I liked science and mathematics the most, though. I was thinking about lots of different things. I wanted to learn everything there was to learn. I wanted to know how everything worked. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to speak many different languages.
My two favorite and most inspiring teachers were my French Teacher Mr. Schum and my Mr. Danke, who taught me Algebra 2, Trig, and Calculus. Both were awesome.
I was an AFS student in Brazil. Being an exchange student in Brazil deeply affected my outlook on things. It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I loved much about Brazil. I especially adored my boisterous Brazilian host family, who were very kind to me, and opened up a whole new world to me. Unfortunately, over the years we gradually lost touch, as my Portuguese faded because of disuse and I could no longer respond fluently to their letters. Too bad social media and google translate weren’t around in those days.
I should say that as much as I loved Brazil, parts of the experience shocked me. The crushing poverty of the poorest Brazilians, for example, was something that up to then I had never really seen the likes of up close and personal. I mean my family was basically broke during much of my youth, but we weren’t destitute. I never was or even saw an emaciated child begging on the streets. But it wasn't just the crushing poverty that affected me, it was the apparent indifference to it of so many of the better off Brazilians that I met and got to know. Though this was in the days of Nixon administration, the US of my youth had not yet executed a full-scale retreat from Johnson's declaration of a "War on Poverty." Indeed, the idea that fighting poverty was a worthy aspiration of a great, wealthy and compassionate nation had a big place in my youthful idealism. Brazil, which seemed at the time to have nothing like that as a shared national aspiration, was a shock to my young system.
So you had zero exposure to philosophy?
I did a presentation on idealism for a class in High School once. I don’t remember all that much about it. I do remember the teacher being impressed. Not sure what the assignment was that led me to doing a presentation on idealism. I must have read about it in an encyclopedia. I don’t recall reading any original texts on the topic. It was my junior year in High School for an American Studies class...which was sort of an educational innovation. Instead of traditional History and English my school allowed you to take this two period American Studies course junior year. It was project and presentation based. Not really a fixed curriculum or text book. My main project for the year was a cartoon version of the Odyssey. I teamed up with three of my friends in the class to make it. The class was a lot of fun, in lots of ways. It involved lots of discussion, argument and debate, hands on projects. In the end, I’m not sure what I learned from that course except that I did like to argue about and discuss things.
You said earlier you developed an interest in engineering. You seemed like a curious kid, too. So, I’m assuming you wanted to go to college…
I always wanted to go to college. My parents, neither of whom had a college education, put a great emphasis on the importance of education as a secret to upward mobility. When I was in the third grade, there was a big snow storm, but the schools weren’t closed. My mom said that we could skip school nonetheless, if we wanted to. My three siblings were delighted. I turned down my Mom’s invitation to stay at home and play saying. “I’ve got to go get my education.” And I trudged off in the snow to school.
Where did you apply and why?
Case Western Reserve ‘cause it was near home and lots of my nerdy friends were going there. Several of them ended up there. Notre Dame because they had this five year program called Arts and Letters Engineering which enabled you to get both an engineering degree and an Arts and Letter degree in five years. I wanted to be an engineer at the time but in keeping with my interest in practically everything, I wanted to be a well-rounded engineer. I also applied to various in state schools, to MIT and I was intending to apply to the University of Chicago and Harvey Mudd…but my mom threw my applications away when I got into Case Western Reserve because she thought that I would definitely go to Case since I had been planning on going to Case since I was like a freshman. But I ended up not wanting to go there ‘cause I actually wanted to get away from my nerdy friends many of whom were going there.
Go to college, learn a lot of new things, make some new friends, let life take you where it would carry you. Mostly I had a thirst for new adventures.
How did it feel to get your acceptance letter(s)?
I don’t remember it being like with students these days. I knew I would go somewhere. In those days, it wasn’t really about chasing prestige or dreams of this or that future. For example, Notre Dame, where I ended up going was just a place I applied to on a lark, because they sent me this cool brochure that said “join our community of scholars.” I thought that sounded cool and I was especially interested in the Arts and Letters Engineering program. I never visited and I didn’t even realize that it had only gone co-ed just two years earlier. I vaguely knew it was a football school and was Catholic.
Ha! Other surprises at Notre Dame? How would you describe? Did you feel prepared?
Tons of surprises. I spent my entire Freshman year, thinking that I had made a terrible mistake going to Notre Dame. I looked seriously into transferring. I had been used to feeling like a fish out of water, but I felt more fish out of water that year than I had ever felt in my life.
I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming Catholic-ness and whiteness of the place. Many of my classmates had gone to private Catholic School and had never attended school with a black person (since not many black kids in those days went to suburban or even urban Catholic schools).
But it wasn’t just the racial composition of the place. It was the religious composition of the place. Now I had been raised in a religious household, so it wasn’t religion per se that got in my way. Notre Dame was like 97% Catholic. Catholicism came at you from every pore of the University. From the rectors in the dorms, from many professors, from students. Many were not just casual Catholics but intensely committed Catholics. Again, I had Catholic friends and acquaintances in High School. But here I was surrounded. Immersed in a frankly alien culture. At first I was miserable.
So no, I wasn’t prepared for Notre Dame. Eventually, though, I came to actually love the place. It had a very profound effect on my intellectual, moral, and social development as a person, an effect that endures even today.
Why did you move away from engineering?
I started out as a double major in Electrical Engineering (with a Computer Engineering emphasis), since there was no Computer Science major anywhere when I went to college…and Psychology. I regarded Psychology as my “second” major. Remember, I went to Notre Dame to be a well-rounded engineer. Sophomore year, I dropped psychology and picked up the Program of Liberal Studies as my second major. Junior year, a dropped EE and picked up Math as my primary major. I got some less than stellar grades in advanced math courses during junior year. That made me believe that I although I was decent enough at mathematics, I did not have what it takes to get a PhD in mathematics, which was my ambition at that point. By senior year I had come to regard the Program of Liberal Studies as my primary major.
Describe the Liberal Studies program. How did you get into philosophy, exactly?
It was an interdisciplinary Great Books Program. I love just about everything about the Program. It’s actually the thing that kept me at Notre Dame. If I had not discovered it, I surely would have transferred. Every single class was great. But it wasn’t a philosophy major. It was much broader than a philosophy major, though we did study lots of philosophy as part of this major. And though I loved it all, I particularly loved the philosophy texts that we read. I remember my first reading of Hume’s Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, I think it was during second semester sophomore Great Books seminar or maybe first semester junior year. I could not get the problem of induction out of my mind. It was the most fascinating problem I had ever thought about until then.
Hey, I still can’t get it out of my mind! Inspirational teachers?
When did you decide to study philosophy at the graduate level?
At the last possible minute. After I abandoned engineering, and then graduate school in mathematics, I really didn’t know what I would do after college. I considered signing up for a two-year stint doing missionary worth in Africa with a Catholic missionary group called, of all things, the White Fathers.
I didn’t in the end. I applied for a Rhodes Scholarship. Was a finalist, but wasn’t chosen, in the end. If I had been chosen I would have studied PPE. At least that was my declared plan. I thought about applying to Law School. But on my birthday in November of my senior year, decided that I didn’t really want to be a lawyer and tore up may LSAT admission slip which was scheduled for some time just after my birthday in act of defiant self-definition. I had long conversations with a number of my teachers about my future. Katherine Tillman encouraged me to think about Graduate School in philosophy, because I had done particularly well in the philosophy component of PLS. She also encouraged me to apply for a Danforth Fellowship… which I did and got. And one thing led to another and I ended up in graduate school at the University of Chicago, once again, sort of on a lark, without at all being sure that it was the right thing for me.
What did your parents make of this decision?
My Dad, especially, was not pleased. My Mom supported almost everything I ever did. She believed in me and affirmed me from early on, in almost all of my choices. After my senior year, I was working back in Sandusky. Around the beginning of August, my dad and I talked
Dad: So Ken, what are you going to be doing in the fall, again?
Me: Don’t you remember, Dad, I’m going to graduate school at the University of Chicago?
Dad: And what are you going to be studying there?
Me: Don’t you remember, I’m going to get a PhD in Philosophy.
Dad: You’re going to do what? I thought you were going to be an engineer.
Me: Dad, I gave up engineering my junior year. You remember that don’t you dad?”
Dad: Yeah, I remember. You dropped engineering and you picked up that Great Books major. I told your mother we shouldn’t let you do that. But she said, he has to make his own choice. But you told me at the time when I asked you what you would do with that that maybe you’d go to law school. What happened to law school?
Me: I don’t want to be a lawyer Dad. I want to be a philosopher.
Dad: What do philosophers even do? Stand on a street corner and philosophize?
Me: No dad… they teach, they write. It’s what I love to do.
Dad: What am going to tell my friends?
Me: Tell ‘em the truth.
Dad: What do you want me to say, “My son, the Philosopher.” How’s that going to sound?
Now in fairness to my Dad, he eventually came around. I think because that he saw that that’s were my true passion really was. At my wedding, during my fifth year in graduate school, after the best man and maid of honor had given their toasts, Dad rose up, totally unexpectedly and out of the blue to say, “I want to give a toast to my son, too.” And he said something like, “Son, you’ve always pursued your own path. And sometimes I didn’t understand or agree with your choices. But I have to tell you and everybody here how proud I am of you. Of your determination not to let other people tell you who to be or what to do. I hope you have a wonderful life pursuing your dream of doing philosophy.” He brought me to tears, brought my wife to tears. It was a special moment.
Beautiful! What did you do for fun at Notre Dame? Drinking? Sports? Music? Sex?
Drank a lot. Wrestled my first two years. In the midst of trying to double major! Went to lots of rock concerts. Sex was a challenge at Notre Dame. Not only did our dorms have parietal hours, during which members of the opposite sex could not be in your dorm room, but it was the official policy of the university that “sex outside the context of a Christian marriage is inimical to the values of this community” and you could be suspended or expelled for being caught in the act. And lots of the intensely Catholic students rejected premarital sex as immoral anyway. But there was a small sexually active underground counterculture that I did my level best to be part of at times. But I was more into intense romance than casual sex. I viewed sex as a way to be deeply intimate with another human being.
As far as drugs, Notre Dame, as a bastion of Irish Catholicism, was mostly a beer drinking culture in those days. And I certainly did my part to be part of that culture. But there also was a small but intense subculture of marijuana smoking rebels. Especially freshman and sophomore years, I participated in that subculture. A lot of the marijuana subculture involved people who were really into music, both as listeners and performers. I remember many late-night weekend jam sessions in which people would smoke and play and listen.
Were you still into performing?
I wrote a lot of poetry and did some acting there. Those were my artistic outlets.
Any other extracurriculars?
I also participated in something called Neighborhood Study Help. We tutored underprivileged children in South Bend Schools. I did that for all four years of my time in school. It was deeply rewarding. By senior year, I was head of the local chapter.
Overall, how did you grow as a person?
Though I started out hating Notre Dame, those four years were a transformative experience for me. They revealed to me my deep passion for philosophy. They challenged me spiritually and morally. Here’s the thing about Notre Dame, as an educational institution. Because of its devotion to not just the life of the mind, but also the religious life, and the life of the spirit more broadly, it kind of harangues students at every turn about the good, about their values, about what their lives are for. Especially when you combine that intense general atmosphere with an intense major like the Program of Liberal Studies, that takes you on a whirlwind tour of the Great Books over the course of three years, you end up reflecting and thinking a lot about all sorts of things. That kind of sustained and deep reflection about all things human with amazing teachers who are dedicated to engaging students, changes you, in deep and lasting ways. Secular Universities don’t do nearly enough of that sort of thing these days, in my opinion. Now if I had been gay, for example, I might have found Notre Dame stifling. But I actually found it deeply liberating and empowering, at least once I found the right major and the right set of teachers. I’m sure I would not have felt the same about the place had I not found the program of Liberal Studies. That program was also the source of deep and lasting friendship. My cohort was only 33 people. And for three years, we took 4 classes per semester together in the same major. All of our classes were discussion based. We had the same set of teachers. We got to know each other really, really well. And for the most part, we regarded each other as partners in our exploration of these awesome issues that we were encountering in our seminars and tutorials together.
How'd you lose your religion?
Notre Dame actually strengthened my religion. I even seriously contemplated becoming Catholic for awhile. That was partly because I fell in love with a woman who I regarded as a luminously good person. Her very deep faith seemed to me an important source of her goodness. And I wanted share in the thing that I believed helped her to be such a luminously good person. Not only was she luminously good. She was beautiful and brilliant and fun. I adored her. I wanted to understand the role of her faith in her life. We talked and talked about all sorts of things, including faith. I tried to believe as she believed. I could not bring myself to do it, though. And I never took that final plunge or leap or whatever. But it wasn’t until after Notre Dame that my desire to believe began to fade. Eventually, I came to regard that period in my life as sort of an artifact of being in this intensely religious environment and utterly in love with an intensely religious woman, but as something I neither could nor wanted to try to sustain. Still, though I count myself a card-carrying atheist, I’m not at all hostile to religion as people like, say, Dawkins are. I think religion answers to something deep in many seeking people, whom I still deeply respect. But I reject that answer for myself.
Where did you apply to graduate school and why?
I applied mostly to where my teachers and advisors told me to apply. I recall Texas, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Princeton, Berkeley. Chicago was my top choice because there were lot of people doing both logic and the history of philosophy there at that time. I hadn’t read a single 20th century author in the Program of Liberal study, but mostly old dead greats. So that’s what I wanted to study. I also had done a lot of math, so the idea of studying logic appealed to me. But I didn’t put a lot of thought into any of this because applying to graduate school was kind of lark for me, something I decided to do really at the last possible minute, just before applications were due.
Given your lack of experience with contemporary analytic philosophy, did you feel prepared for University of Chicago?
I was prepared for some of it. A lot of people at Chicago were interested in history at the time. Manley Thompson taught classes on Kant, Alan Gewirth taught an amazing class on Aristotle and Hobbes and one on Locke and Leibniz. Alan Donegan taught seminars on Descartes, Warner Wick taught Plato, Ian Mueller taught Aristotle and the then young Dan Garber was gradually moving into History. During the early days of my graduate career, I think I took a course in the history of philosophy every single quarter. Though this was pretty familiar territory to me from my undergraduate days, I still wouldn’t quite say that I felt right at home in these courses, mainly because there was much more focus on fine points of interpretation and mastering the accompanying secondary literature than I was used to as an undergraduate.
I had not taken any logic courses at all as an undergraduate. But I had taken a ton of mathematics. And logic appealed to the mathematical side of my brain. As to courses in contemporary analytic philosophy, I took Leonard Linsky’s 2 quarter sequence on Frege, Linksky’s names and description, Donald Davidson’s seminars. David Malament’s intermediate logic course. Josef Stern’s first seminar on Demonstratives. These weren’t familiar topics. And I guess I did find some of it less inspiring, at least at first, than I did the Old Dead Greats. But eventually, I think I came to see the deep continuity between the philosophers of the past and contemporary philosophy. In the end, philosophy is philosophy. It is not like the great thinkers of the past were working on stuff that was entirely disconnected to the preoccupations of contemporary analytic philosophy. Sure, there are differences of style. And with the development of multivariate predicate logic, there are tools available to contemporary philosophers that earlier philosophers did not have. But I found that aspect of it cool.
What was Davidson like?
Not put too fine a point on it, but he seemed to me a complete shit, at the time, at least as far as most of us graduate students were concerned. During my time there only two students, as I recall, Carol Rovane and Akeel Bilgrami, worked at all closely with him. And I don't think either of them found him entirely smooth sailing, though each grew extremely close to him over the years. Akeel, who was a man of shall we say extreme self-confidence even then, is rumored to have told Davidson to his face, as like a young first or second year graduate student, how much of a shit he could be to people. The lore among us was that that singular act of chutzpah somehow cemented Akeel and Davidson’s relationship, apparently for life. Few of us dared to repeat that maneuver though. But we were definitely in awe of Akeel’s close relationship with Davidson. Davidson wasn’t exactly loved by many of the faculty at the time either.
What was going on with Davidson, you think?
I gather from people I know that things were different for him when he left Chicago for Berkeley. Several graduate students I know from his Berkeley days who worked with him absolutely adore the man. I chalk it up partly to the fact that Davidson was in a deeply unhappy place during his time at Chicago. I think his first wife had only recently died either just before or shortly after he first came to Chicago. He was said to have been deeply saddened by her passing. Depression and grief are powerful things that powerfully affect people’s psyches and behavior. I wouldn’t want to judge him merely on the basis of that period of his life alone. I also think he must have found the flood of graduate students at Chicago...there were so many of us and many of us came there in hopes of studying with him...a bit overwhelming. He certainly did his level best to ward off what he seemed to regard as the least deserving of his many, many would be suitors.
Did you interact much with Davidson personally?
He never had much time for me. But at first, I didn’t really seek him out. Not only was his reputation firmly established as that of a major shit, when I first arrived, but with my obsession with history and logic, I wasn’t all that interested in his work in the first place. Why take courses with a known shit whose work is not even in areas in which you are interested? I knew that he did appeal to Tarski in his work, but his appeal to logic didn’t seem to run very deep from where I stood. My nascent interest in logic was elsewhere. I was busy trying to master set theory and model theory and recursive function theory. Stuff like that. Between that and all the history courses I was taking, Davidson seemed pretty remote and irrelevant. And besides, I couldn’t get over his reputation, not entirely undeserved, of actively displaying anger and contempt in seminars for graduate students.
In retrospect, since I did end up doing the philosophy of language and since Davidson was still at the time regarded as one of the most important philosophers of language ever, not studying more with him did become for a while an enduring source of self-doubt and regret. I came to believe that I had squandered the chance to have the great and powerful Donald Davidson smile on my work, the way he had done with Akeel and Carol. I’m pretty sure that would have made some difference in my early career struggles to find a job.
Unfortunately, as my interests eventually turned to the philosophy of language, it was beginning to be clear that he was probably not long for Chicago anyway. Still, even at that late stage, once my interests shifted, I would regularly audit his seminars and occasionally even take them for credit. But I also spent hours on my own pouring over and trying to get to the bottom of his corpus, which I have to admit I found maddeningly elusive. I still do. Ironically, the first paper I ever published was about him and his work, “Davidson’s Theory of Meaning: Some Questions.”
Some of it is enigmatic. Did you see Davidson post grad school?
When I would encounter Davidson later in life, it always seemed that he thought he really should know me but couldn’t quite place me. Once, during the time when I was chairman of the department here at Stanford, the Pacific APA put on some event in his honor. As I recall Tyler Burge and Barry Stroud and maybe John McDowell gave talks. But I’m not completely sure of the line-up. I seem to remember that Davidson responded. I don’t remember exactly what the occasion was. Could have been his retirement from Berkeley or something. Or maybe it was the occasion of his 80th birthday. Anyway, Anita Silvers asked me if I would tell some stories of Davidson’s Stanford days. He had spent part of his early career here – like 18 years, I think. I agreed. I dutifully gathered anecdotes from those of my Stanford colleagues who either personally remembered Davidson or who knew various second-hand stories about him. It was quite a collection. Let’s just say that not all of them were appropriate for retelling in an honorific setting, but a good number definitely were. I bundled them up in a gracious way that put Davidson’s time at Stanford in the best possible light. I didn’t add a word about Chicago days, where I experienced Davidson up close and personal. He was very moved. So was his wife Marcia. They both came up to me and thanked me profusely. “That was a wonderful presentation, Professor Taylor,” Donald said. Akeel, who had been just ahead of me at Chicago and was, as I said earlier, Davidson’s main Chicago protégé, says to him, “Why Donald, you remember Ken from Chicago days, right.” Davidson replies, “Ah, right, Ken! Good to see you again. How have you been?” It was a weird moment that made me feel small again, just like back in graduate school, even though I was by then both a department chair and the holder of an endowed chair.
So, overall, was Chicago a friendly environment? Competitive?
Though I count many philosophers and others from those days as among my dearest friends, for graduate students, the philosophy department at the time was highly and perversely competitive. In those days Chicago was not a normal graduate program. To give you a sense of what I mean, my entering cohort at Chicago was 25 students, I think 7 or 8 of us had relatively normal funding situations. Chicago was a brutal place to be a graduate student, especially if you were not among the privileged few. A fair number of my good friends were not among the well-funded privileged few. At the end of each year, the department would reconsider all its “discretionary” funding decisions. It would reward some students who had no funding with funding--mostly inadequate funding--and take away funding from others. It was a precarious funding situation, a very stress-inducing model.
Any idea why things were set up that way at Chicago?
Some departments would admit a huge first year cohort and would use second-year funding decisions as a way of winnowing down the cohort to a more normal size. Philosophy didn’t do that exactly. Even if a student was receiving no funding from the department or the university or from outside source, many hung on and either audited classes or took out loans in the hopes of eventually gaining funding. I later learned from a current colleague of mine who used to teach at Chicago that those excess graduate students were called “Tuition Paying Units.” Each department had an allotment of tuition paying units that it was encouraged to admit. That enabled the University to function, in essence, as a graduate school with a small college attached. For most universities it’s the other way around.
It was an insane way to run a graduate program. And it could not possibly last. Just as I was leaving there was something called the Baker Commission, chaired by the historian Keith Baker, who was then at Chicago but is now a dear, wise and valued colleague here at Stanford, that recommended far reaching changes in the way Chicago did graduate education. So I think since the 90’s or so, Chicago has been a normal graduate program, with multiyear funding packages, TA-ships, normal-sized cohorts. Things like that.
Fortunately, I had an outside fellowship from the Danforth Foundation. I also had a University Fellowship that was not subject to the department’s annual reallocation. But as soon as the University found out that I had outside funding, they took my University funding away. I also won two dissertation fellowships (but was allowed to keep only one). So as far as funding was concerned my experience was relatively normal.
Did you like the city?
I eventually came to love Chicago and to love Hyde Park. It was an adjustment at first. I was a small-town guy. So, learning to navigate this big sprawling boisterous in places dangerous city was an adventure.
What was going on in the world in general, around then? How did it effect you?
Well the election of Ronald Reagan was a shock to me. Happened in graduate school, on my birthday. My housemates were having a party in my honor. We stopped to take a break at like 9:00. And there Jimmy Carter was conceding to Reagan and the polls in California hadn’t even closed. It put quite a damper on our evening.
Who did you hang with?
All sorts of people. That was the best thing about going to graduate school at Chicago. Because of the funding model and all the tuition paying units that were admitted, there were zillions of graduate students around. We were often stressed out. We compensated by having a good time together. After my first year, I had the great good fortune of living in a group house, a sort of graduate fraternity, actually — with rotating cast of 14 other graduate students, from many different departments. We were physicists, philosophers, classicists, anthropologists, economists, chemists, an occasional med student, astronomers, historians, sociologists, a librarian or two. You name it. I also knew lots of people from my days working first as a busboy, then as a waiter, and then as a host at the Court House Restaurant, a once relatively famous, but long closed Hyde Park restaurant. In its day, the restaurant was widely regarded in the city as the only truly great gourmet restaurant on Chicago’s entire South Side. Many of the waitstaff consisted of brainy UC graduates and undergraduates. A fair number were also just young working stiffs trying to make a living. Thanks to working there, I knew lots of people that I otherwise would not have known. One of my two regular poker games during graduate school was with a group of busboys and cooks who worked there. It was also quite a hard-partying group at times.
I’ve actually thought about writing a book about my Chicago days, centered partly on my group house, partly on the Philosophy Department, and partly on the Courthouse crew. It would be about our loves and our lust (which were on display in abundance). It would be about the trials and tribulations of being a graduate student in Chicago in the late 70's into the early 80's, when, as I said earlier, that great university was still mostly a grad school yet saw fit to treat its grad students like utter disposable crap, for the most part, and caused us all to be filled with constant anxiety and self-doubt. So many memories, good and bad, so many people whose lives intertwined. It would be about our youth, our passion for ideas, our dreams for our mostly completely uncertain futures, the steps we took in turn to both prepare for the future and avoid having to face the future, our many disappointments, our occasional triumphs. It was quite a time. There is a welter of stories to tell, some very sad, some uplifting, some hilarious, but all moving. I think it would be a good read. Names would of course be changed to protect the not so innocent.
haha…I’d buy it! What did you do to unwind?
Partied...an awful lot. I already mentioned that the Court House crew was a hard partying bunch. We’d sometimes party for hours in the restaurant itself after closing. The manager of the restaurant was about my age and she was friends with a lot of us. And for team building spirit, she’d throw one heck of a party in the restaurant itself now and then. My group house also put on amazing parties. We used to do an annual Halloween Party. Those particular parties came to be legendary. They drew many, many graduate students from all over campus. We would party until 4 or 5 in the morning. We would often end the night at either a late night diner or skinny dipping in Lake Michigan off of a place called the Point. We had some fantastically wild times. Played co-ed 16-inch softball, which is a distinctively Chicago sport. We did this with great passion and dedication. The year after I left, my long-term team finally won the championship after 5 years of trying and coming up just short. Played in two different poker games on a regular basis: one with a bunch of friends from graduate school; the other, as I mentioned above, with the busboys and cooks from the restaurant. Explored many different nooks of Chicago with my girlfriend, who became my wife and our cadre of friends. Every now and then, Claire (my wife) and I would treat ourselves to a very expensive meal at one of Chicago’s finer restaurants. We couldn’t afford to do it more than a few times a year. But when we did, we would splurge and have a really good meal. We still remember many of those evenings very fondly.
What does your wife do?
She’s a librarian by training, worked as a reference librarian in various medical libraries for awhile. But then switched to being a “systems librarian” which eventually led her into the software industry where she now works for a firm that specializes in library automation.
Who did you end up working with and why?
Leonard Linsky was my main advisor. I ended up working with Linsky but only late in the game. My first ambition was to write a dissertation on Kant. I had written my senior thesis on Kant in college. Had written my second-year essay (which, in typical Chicago fashion, I didn’t finish until my 4th year in graduate school) on Kant too. Manley Thompson, who was my advisor for my second-year essay and who really liked it thought it had the beginnings of a very fine dissertation. But by the time I finally finished the thing in my fourth year of graduate school, I had grown tired of saying “Kant says that p” as my major contribution to philosophy. I wanted to find something of my own to say. At that point, I didn’t really have any idea. So I kind of started over. Thanks to my Danforth fellowship, I could afford to take more classes. And I started taking more courses in systematic philosophy. Particularly influential was Linsky’s seminar on modality in which we read a lot of Quine and a lot of Kripke. I wrote a paper that he liked and he asked me what I was planning to do my dissertation on. Frankly, I didn’t have any real idea. At first, I thought it would be about counterfactuals. I thought for awhile that I had a new theory that was a significant improvement on Lewis’s theory, but I was naive and all over the place.
What was your dissertation on?
It ended up being called "Direct Reference and the Theory of Meaning.” It was about how, if you were going to be a direct reference theorist, in the manner of Kripke or Kaplan, you should think about linguistic meaning.
How did graduate school hone your abilities, as a philosopher?
That’s hard to say. In the end I think I got a pretty decent philosophical education in graduate school, given that I basically started out doing mostly history and had a serious flirtation with logic until I met my match there. I switched to doing the philosophy of language only very late in the game, after deciding that I didn’t want to spend my life interpreting others but creating “new” philosophy.
How did your conception of philosophy change?
Graduate school eventually helped me to see that philosophy is a living discipline that is devoted to trying to settle what is still unsettled and not just about studying the ideas of the Mighty Dead. I still have a great respect for the Mighty Dead and believe they are worth interrogating, but it was in graduate school that I first got beyond “hero worship” of the Mighty Dead. The one thing that never took from graduate school is that as an undergraduate I never really encountered philosophy in isolation from other fields of inquiry. In graduate school, we were often reading philosophy in isolation. That aspect of contemporary analytic philosophy never did and still doesn’t appeal to me.
We’ll talk more about what you think now later! How did your expectations change?
Thanks mostly to my Great Books background, I went to graduate school thinking of Philosophy as sort of a Romantic Quest for the deepest possible understanding of all manner of things. I left thinking it was something far less than that…more about tidying up concepts here and there, more about writing tightly constrained papers on tightly constrained topics. I’ve gotten away from that approach to philosophy in my advancing age. The benefit of tenure and endowed professorship.
Did you teach back then?
For the most part, Chicago would not let its graduate students near its undergraduates. Pre-Baker report, there were no regular TA ships in the graduate school. You could get an occasional gig teaching summer school and a maybe a teaching gig at one of the Universities or colleges around town. I did that. I taught logic once in summer school and taught a class at Roosevelt University one year. I even TA’d one semester at University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. But other than that, there was no teaching. Again, it was not a normal graduate school experience.
Did you consider doing anything else?
I had a very dear friend, one of my housemates, who was pursuing a PhD in sociology. She was very ambivalent about the whole graduate school thing and kept considering whether she should drop out and go to law school. We talked about that a lot. Her ambivalence sometimes affected me. She even dragged me with her to some session that I think was put on by Kaplan or one of those organizations about strategies for applying to and getting into law school. So I can’t say the thought of dropping out of graduate school and pursuing some other path never occurred to me. Indeed, in 1983, my last year in Chicago, I almost switched my whole life around. I worked on the Harold Washington Mayoral Campaign. Chicago was intensely racially polarized during that campaign. Lots of ugly stuff happened. My buddy Steve and I, two smart ass PhD students from the University of Chicago, showed up at Washington headquarters to volunteer one day. Somehow we impressed them, and they gave us some really cool assignments. We even got interviewed by the local TV station as a result of one of them. Washington won, and they actually offered me a job in the new administration. I contemplated it briefly. But decided I wanted to finish my degree and try to get a job in philosophy and that I didn’t really want to become a Chicago pol. But that did give me a deeper appreciation of nitty gritty politics.
What was the market like when you finished?
Awful. Positively 100% awful. But my entering cohort was the cohort to whom the APA decided to write to warn us off going to graduate school because of the terrible market. And they weren’t lying to us. There were no jobs.
Get any good advice?
I received very little advice. I think my advisors had mostly gotten jobs back in the good old days when jobs were plentiful. Linsky used to tell the story of how he got his first job. He was working the library at Berkeley and his dissertation advisor comes in looking for him. “Linsky,” he says, "I think I have a job for you.” And that was that. He got his first job without ever having to be on the market, thanks to the old boys’ network. Nothing like that was possible in my day. I don’t think my advisors were really prepared for the brave new world of placement. I remember asking Leonard if I should try to publish something before going on the market, to increase my chances. His advice was that I should not, that I should just work of making my dissertation better. In those days premature publication was one of the gravest mistakes you could make according to the old, wise ones. So I took his advice and didn’t try to publish anything before going out my first time on the market. He would write me a strong letter and that should be enough.
Job market horror stories?
Here’s a placement story that’s sort of funny. I am standing talking to some graduate school friends about how an interview I had just finished went. A guy comes up to me and ask very excitedly in a thick Southern accent, “Are you interviewing here at the Convention?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m interviewing.” He says, “That’s awesome. We’d like to take a look at your vita and maybe think about interviewing you. We’ve been looking for black candidates and haven’t been able to find any.” I’m taken a little bit aback, but I am also looking for a job. So I am intrigued. We start talking. He asks me what I do, what school I’m from. I tell him a little about my work. Tell him that he can get my entire dossier from our placement officer. He then asks me, “Do you know any more black candidates?” I’m now more taken aback. I say, “I can’t say that I do. But your job is advertised, right? And the market being what it is, I’m sure that people would apply if they were interested.” But again, I’m looking for a job at this point, any job, so we talk a little more. He invites me to come by the smoker that evening and meet some of his colleagues. I do. They turn out to be a lively bunch. We set up an interview for the next day. Basically, we we’re starting from scratch. They know nothing about me. I know nothing about them. I ask them what they each work on. My alarm bells go up because each of them says to me, “I wrote my dissertation on…” which signaled to me that this was not an institution where you could get a lot of research done. By the time the interview ends, as we are walking out the door, the chair--the guy who had first approached me--makes it clear that they had already decided to invite me for a campus visit. I couldn’t believe it. He was even talking salary. Mentioned a figure of like 16,000 (shows you how long ago this was).
I tell Linksy, my advisor, about this...all the details from how they first approached me, to how the interview went, the whole works. He says, “You better be careful about this one, Ken. They’ll get you down there and try to make you the basketball coach or something.”
Warily, I do go for a visit. I have a meeting with the Provost. She hands me a contract. It specifies a salary of 19,000 — significantly more than the chair had mentioned. But she says, “I don’t know what it will take to get you to come here. If it’s another 1,000 or 2,000 I’ll find it. You’re going places. We’re going places. We want you here.” In the end, I decided to turn that offer down...even though it was tenure line offer. In fairness to them, it turned out, as I later was informed, that they were under a consent decree. They had been found to have engaged in racially discriminatory practices in the past. (it was an old Southern University). As part of their consent decree, they had agreed to aggressively seek minority candidates. That was a good thing, no doubt. But it felt a little odd, to say the least, to be on the receiving end of that aggression. Plus at the time, their teaching loads were enormous — 4-4 — and I thought I might never be able to write my way out of that place. I should also say, though, that the chair was a little ham-fisted, shall we say, in how he first approached me, I actually found the rest of the colleagues to be decent, interesting and smart people. I actually kept in touch with a number of them over the years. And the one junior person who was there at the time, has gone on to become quite a prominent philosopher and is someone I actually deeply admire. It would probably have been fun to be colleagues.
What are your thoughts on affirmative action policies in general?
Depends on what you mean by that exactly. Some approaches to affirmative action I favor. Others I recognize to be politically untenable. Affirmative action has evolved considerably over the years, thanks mostly to the courts and also to our losing focus on affirmative action as a means of correcting the effects of historical patterns of discrimination and refocusing it on increasing diversity, more broadly conceived. There’s good and bad in that. As currently practiced affirmative action really doesn’t bear much resemblance to the original practice from back in the 70’s and into the 80’s. I’m not a legal scholar but I doubt the courts are done weighing in on the subject. What finally emerges when the Courts have had their last say is likely in my opinion to be pretty ineffective at either righting past wrongs or increasing diversity in various ways. But I do suspect these issues will continue to be politically contentious in broader society. I am glad, though, to be at a university that seems truly dedicated to doing all that it possibly can, within the rather severe constraints of current law, to increasing diversity, both among students and among faculty, I mean we do a lot of different things here from incremental diversity fellowships in graduate admissions, to incremental faculty lines, to a really amazing financial aid package for undergraduates that has enabled us to admit more financially needy students from a wide array of backgrounds. I endorse all of these efforts.
Got it. So, in grad school, during the process of applying for jobs, were your mentors and colleagues supportive?
My friends were mostly supportive, but in pretty much the same boat. I left graduate school feeling almost completely debilitated and deflated. It was partly the rigors of the job market, but it was also my experiences writing my dissertation. Linksy was kind enough to me, but he didn’t really believe what I was writing, I think. He was pretty much a committed Fregean and I was defending an anti-Fregean direct reference approach and claiming that we have to change our understanding of the nature of linguistic meaning more or less root and branch. I don’t think he believed a word of it and I didn’t feel like he was deeply engaged by my ideas as a consequence. But he was awfully nice about it nonetheless, because Leonard was an extraordinarily kind man.
A second advisor seemed basically indifferent to my ideas, could hardly be bothered to even read my stuff, actually.
My third advisor was deeply engaged by my ideas. But it seemed to me at times that they offended him or something. He used to rake me over the coals every time I gave him something to read. We used to have pitched battles about my work, with him frequently yelling at me in frustration. Once I was sitting in his office after a three hour back and forth apparently looking completely deflated. And he said to me, “Ken, you look so down. What’s wrong.” I said, “Obviously, you hate my work.” He said, “No, I don’t hate your work. I’m just trying to help you make it better.” It sure didn’t feel that way.
So, where did you land your first gig?
I ended up taking a two-year job at Middlebury College.
Shortly after I arrived at Middlebury College, I became even more convinced the third advisor had no real respect for my work. When I left Chicago to take up the job at Middlebury, I had handed in a complete draft of my dissertation. And I said to my advisors that if they accepted it, I was done. Well about 6 weeks later, I get this letter from Leonard with 30 pages of typed single-spaced comments from the aforementioned advisor included. Leonard’s letter said, “Dear Ken, X, thinks that you finished this in a bit of a hurry and that before it would be acceptable, you would need to respond to the enclosed comments.”
You can imagine how I felt. Here I was at a temporary 2-year job, planning to go on the market again in just a couple of months, thinking that at least I would have my dissertation in hand this time around, but then I get this massive set of critical comments, taking my dissertation completely apart. I was devastated and embarrassed. I felt about an inch tall and like a complete failure at philosophy.
Nonetheless, I was nothing if not determined. So, I basically spent my first-year teaching at Middlebury completely rewriting my dissertation. It did end up being a much better dissertation than it would otherwise have been, I must admit. And I am grateful in retrospect for the great care that my hard-assed advisor took with my dissertation. I mean, I don’t think I myself have ever commented that closely on a student’s dissertation myself. At the time, however, I felt no positive feelings toward any of my advisors and felt deep hostility toward the one who gave me all those comments.
Eventually it all worked out. I landed a really good job at Wesleyan, my second time out a couple of years later, eventually I moved from there to Maryland, then Rutgers and then Stanford. I often tell my students that my own experience teaches me that that there are many, many paths to a good academic career and that the race doesn't always go to the swift. The path is admittedly sometimes brutal. I remember, for example, crying in the shower my first year on the market about how my advisors were so ineffectual and uncaring.
It’s a stressful thing! Did you eventually end up publishing parts of your dissertation?
I published one chapter of my dissertation without changing a word of it. A number of my early publications, and even a few of my less early ones did grow out of my dissertation work, though. The story behind the one chapter of my dissertation that was published says something about how things have changed since my graduate school days. By the time I went on the market again in a serious way, I thought I had better try to have something published. I sent out several different chapters of my dissertation. Three, I think it was. One of them – the one I mentioned about Davidson earlier – was accepted, without comment. I actually think it’s the only paper that I have ever submitted for blind refereeing in my entire career that was immediately accepted for publication, without a single comment from the referees. I mention that fact because of if one my own students had a dissertation chapter that I thought would receive that kind of treatment from a journal, I would strongly encourage the student to submit it. But that didn’t even occur to my advisors in those days. Again, pre-mature publication of even good stuff was considered a cardinal sin. That probably kept a lot of publishable stuff out of the journals, but it also probably kept a lot of less worthy stuff out too. I won’t say whether that’s on balance a good or bad thing.
From 85 to 95, you had 4 positions. Two body problem?
It mostly always worked out. Now my wife telecommutes and has been doing that for like 24 years. She can do her job from anywhere basically.
How does one get work accomplished while applying to jobs, moving around?
It helped that my wife and I were childless for the first 15 years of our marriage — though not entirely by choice, after the first few years. Even after we decided to try and have kids, it didn’t happen immediately — which was a source of stress in and of itself. Eventually after three miscarriages, we adopted. It also helped that we were both basically workaholics. Also, after a while, I didn’t so much apply for jobs, people were trying to recruit me. That’s how I got to each of Maryland, Rutgers, and Stanford. That’s stressful in its own way. But it’s a lot different from being on the open market and not knowing whether you’re going to land a decent job at all.
How does philosophy influence your parenting? How does your parenting influence your philosophy?
Not sure there is much connection between parenting and philosophy. Main thing I learned from being a parent is that your kid is liable to be a completely different person from you with his or her own talents, desires, aspirations. I suppose this is easier when you become a parent through adoption, as we did. I think that makes it far less likely to project yourself into your child. As I see it, the role of the parent is to support, encourage, empower, inspire, and sometimes discipline the kid, but not with an eye toward molding them into another you, but more with an eye toward helping them to discover who and what they want to be in the world. I guess I also learned what it is like to love and cherish another human being from the very depths of your soul. I believe human beings need that sort of focused and deep love as they are growing and developing. I suppose that does raise a deep philosophical issue. On the one hand there is deep, particularized love for and loyalty to, those who are near and dear. Such loyalties and loves are often among the most important sources of meaning and identity in a well-lived human life. But such loyalties also divide and should not be the basis for thumbing one’s nose, or so it seems to me, at humanity at large. How to balance these two competing pulls seems to me an important question. I don’t, however claim to know the answer, and rather doubt the capacity of philosophy and philosophers to provide a decisive and convincing answer to it or to much else about “ethical life,” to be frank.
I think it’s important to distinguish ethical life from ethical theory. Philosophers are pretty good, and only pretty good, at spinning theories about ethical life. But ethical life strikes me as in fact far more complicated than any of the standard philosophical theories about ethical life. Frankly, almost all forms of consequentialism look comically simplistic to me when measured against the concrete realities of ethical life. I have more sympathy for deontological theories in the spirit of Kant. But I doubt even they fare all that well, in the end, when measured against the concrete realities of ethical life. I actually try to spell out of this last point, about the limits of Kantianism and also consequentialism, in a nascent paper, “Morality and the Self.” In that paper, I argue that morality can only get its hold on us through our exercise of what I call our powers of normative self-configuration. And I claim that a morality that is not generated through our powers of self-configuration, especially if that morality purports to issue commands to the self that are not somehow rooted in the self’s own powers of self-configuration, would command a kind of self-alienation. Kantians are sort of, half alive to this kind of worry, I think. Some consequentialist are too perhaps, but most seem to me clueless on this score. But even Kantians mostly take the easy way out. And this has far reaching consequences for both the question of whence the power of morality to “command” the will might come from and the limits of morality’s potential to command the will. By the way, this is also a theme in my big book in progress A Natural History of Normative Consciousness. The people I have come to believe are most clear-eyed about these kind of issues about morality and the self are the existentialists. But admittedly trying to get anything close to absolute or objective or categorically binding morality out of existentialist principles is pretty hopeless.
Anyway, my main point for right now is that I would no more want to build an ethical theory on the basis of philosophers’ peculiar intuitions about ethical life than I would want to base a theory of matter on philosophers’ peculiar intuitions about matter. If I had to guess, I’d conservatively estimate that moral philosophers collectively probably have no more than a dozen or so distinct intuitions, though admittedly with certain subtle variations here and there that can make the total seem a lot larger than that. And they trot out these hackneyed intuitions and their variants out over and over again to each other in their endlessly stalemated arguments with each other. That’s really a paltry data set.
I’m just joking...sort of! But I am serious when I say that ethical life is vastly more complex than most philosophers imagine it to be. And I do think it’s an occupational hazard of philosophers in general and of moral philosophers in particular that they take their own intuitions far too seriously as indicators of the true nature of ethical reality. In the end, their moral intuitions are just the intuitions of particular people located at particular places and times in a particular cultural settings with particular allegiances and affinities. As such they are of rather limited evidentiary value except, perhaps, as guides to what people situated like this in this place in this time and in this context happen to feel or believe or take to be true or obvious.
How did you keep up with research once you were no longer a student?
Mostly my research is and has always been connected to things I am writing and teaching. I wouldn’t say I am a voracious reader, in the sense that I read everything out there possibly connected with a topic I am working on. I used to be a much more voracious reader when I was younger and had fewer ideas of my own that I was trying to work out and develop. For my first few years out of graduate school I actually made a habit of spending every Friday doing nothing but reading certain journals religiously. Somewhere along the line I gave up that practice.
My strategy before tenure was always to be writing something. I would try to have one paper that was ready to send out, one that was being worked up, and one that was maybe being revised and resubmitted. It was sort of an assembly line approach. I was moderately successful at it — though I could line my walls with rejection letters. But I think in the end only two or three of the papers that I have written failed to see the light of publication anywhere at all.
I also made and make a point of teaching things I wanted to learn about. This was especially true once I finally got a job where I could teach graduate students regularly. The way I first learned about connectionism, for example, was by teaching a graduate seminar on the topic at the University of Maryland. I tried to do the same with undergraduate teaching when I was teaching only undergraduates, but it was a little harder. Fortunately, I’ve mostly had both really stellar graduate students and really stellar undergraduate students throughout much of my career. That has enabled me to get away with using my teaching at least as much for myself as for them. To be sure, I have had some less prepared undergrads such that it would have been pedagogical malpractice to subject them to things that I was teaching at least as much, if not more, for my own edification than for theirs. But thankfully, where I had such undergraduate students, I had the good fortune of having graduate students. They often welcomed my doing that.
It’s something I still do to this day. For example, I’ve recently decided to dig into the literature on slurs whole hog. So over the past couple of years have taught a course on the semantics and pragmatics of slurs. A forthcoming paper, “Derogation and Resistance,” is an outgrowth of these efforts.
How do you decide when and where to settle down? Stanford job, dream come true?
Stanford is a pretty nice place to settle. We were torn between here and Rutgers when Stanford made me an offer. We mainly came here because we thought we would keep trying to have a kid and that the bay area might be marginally more family-friendly. I love Stanford. But leaving Rutgers for Stanford was a hard decision. Both were great departments at the time. I didn’t feel like there was a bad choice. If we had given up on trying to have a kid, we would definitely have stayed in the east coast, probably we would have settled in NYC and I would have commuted out to Rutgers. NYC is one of my favorite places in the world. As soon as I step into it, I feel like really alive. I was recently back in NYC and spent an afternoon walking around Tribeca. There were kids everywhere. So maybe could have had our cake and eaten it too...that is, had both a kid friendly and an adult friendly environment simultaneously...if I had stayed at Rutgers. But really, I have no deep and enduring regrets on that score.
Nice. How has your conception of 'the philosophy profession' changed, since grad school?
Mostly my conception of the philosophy profession changed as my relation to it changed.
When I was in graduate school, during a time when there were almost no jobs, and then first on the market, I thought of the profession as this really elusive object of my deepest desires, an amazing club that I desperately wanted to be a part of, but perhaps never would be, in which you got to do really cool things like teach and write philosophy to your hearts content. And you would get paid for doing it.
When I finally did join the club. I felt at home in it — even though my early teaching, for which graduate school had done nothing to prepare me, was kind of disastrous and my early attempts to publish were way more often than I had anticipated met with rejection. I liked being a young untenured professor well enough. But it was damned stress inducing at times. At Wesleyan, for example, which fancied itself a “little university” and so had high expectations for young faculty on both the research and the teaching side, I used to hang around with a bunch of other untenured professors and their significant others. We would have fun together, but we would also stress out together. My wife used to think of the lot of us as kind of pathetic in that way.
Once I got tenure, my relation to the profession changed again. I loved the security and felt intellectually free and more adventuresome. But I did experience a new side of the profession. If you are a responsible, competent and moderately effective type, rather than an overgrown adolescent (which many academics unfortunately are), people don’t leave you alone to just do your work and teach your classes any more. Both of those are great jobs and I have always loved doing both. But they are not enough to make the university run. They want you to serve on committees, chair departments, run programs. Stuff like that. I’ve done an awful lot of that sort of stuff. I chaired my department at Stanford for six years. I’ve directed the Symbolic Systems program for the last 9 years. I was recruited for various deanships at other Universities at one point. But I realized that running things doesn’t make me happy. Doing and teaching philosophy (and performing it on the radio) does. So after my final stint as Director of Symbolic Systems, I’m done with that. But it does give you a different view of university life and what it takes to make these institutions work.
The biggest eye opener I have had about this profession over the years, though, is how much time you spend evaluating other people. And it's not just students, not by a long shot. It's hiring decisions either as the department doing the hiring or as a referee for somebody who is trying to get hired. It's internal tenure and promotion cases or acting as an outside referee on such cases; it's refereeing for journals; it's evaluating grant proposals. It just goes on and on. Sometimes it makes me want to scream. Common lore has it that academics get paid primarily to think and write and teach. Nobody ever mentions that constantly evaluating others can be a big part of the job too. And not the most fun part either!
Bouncing around, in retrospect, do you think you could have been happy or happier if you stuck with one of the places you left?
I actually really liked Wesleyan — which was my first tenure track job — and really could have seen myself staying there for my entire career. I definitely could have been happy at any of the places I taught. My wife, too. We actually really loved every place we were. I guess I didn’t like the start and stop aspect of the University of Maryland. It was enhancement one year, retrenchment the next. That got kind of old kind of fast. But I loved my chums at Maryland, especially Michael Devitt and Georges Rey, with whom I was always talking and arguing philosophy. And living in the DC area was a blast.
Overall, how have you evolved, philosophically? How have your interests shifted?
I am still evolving philosophically, even at my rapidly advancing age.
I think I have had five distinct philosophical educations. The first I got in the Program of Liberal Studies at Notre Dame. The second I got in graduate school. The third I got after graduate school from teaching a wider range of subjects to both graduate students and undergraduate students than I had mastered or focused on in graduate school. The fourth I got in the course of digging deeper and deeper into the subjects that gripped me enough to write about them. And the fifth I got from doing a radio show on philosophy for the last 15 years.
Because of the nature of my undergraduate education, I went to graduate school thinking I would be an interpreter of dead text mainly or possibly a logician. I came out intensely focused on the philosophy of language and, to a lesser extent, the philosophy of mind. In a way, I’m still deeply engaged with the problems I worried about in my dissertation. The main thing about what was then called the new theory of reference that got me going was that it had no obvious explanation of Frege’s problem about the possibility of informative identity statements, and certain other related problems, like problems about the semantics of propositional attitude statements.
Even when I first started thinking about these issues, late in my graduate school career, I didn’t really think of them as narrow technical problems in semantics, though. I thought that the key to making such apparent problems about the new theory of reference go away was to execute a kind of gestalt shift, to change our expectations about what a semantic theory should be expected to deliver and to change our understanding of the nature of linguistic meaning and the nature of linguistic competence. That eventually led me to lots of different places, including debates about internalism and externalism in the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind. I was obsessed with the distinction between wide vs narrow content and wrote a lot about that when I was younger. Eventually, though, I came to think that there is a much larger background question that wasn’t being adequately addressed by any of parties to all these many once hot debates in the philosophy of mind and language. The much larger question has to do with the nature of the rational mind and its rational powers. So I went from Frege’s problem and all that jazz to problems about the nature of the rational mind. And once I did that, I started to grope my way toward a much larger theory of all things normative. Before I retire, I hope finally to have finished my big book A Natural History of Normative Consciousness in which I spell this all out.
So summing up, I would say I came out of graduate school a piecemeal kind of thinker. In my advancing age I have become less piecemeal more of a system builder. I used to write papers that were short and sweet and to the point and tried to move the ball three yards down the field. I don’t much go in for that nowadays. For instance, my forthcoming book Meaning Diminished: Toward A Metaphysically Modest Semantics, started life as a rather unwieldy paper that got way too long for any journal…like 40,000 words…and eventually turned into a medium sized book.
So how did the radio show with you and John Perry, Philosophy Talk, get started? What was the inspiration? Was there anything like it at the time? What was the mission?
John Perry had the idea of doing a radio show devoted to philosophy long before I met him. His vision was that it would be sort of modeled on the program Car Talk. It would be him and a sidekick, taking philosophical questions from callers. He envisioned doing this just at KZSU, the student radio station here at Campus. His thought, I gather, was that people listen to Car Talk go on and on about cars and that philosophy is way more interesting than cars, and that he himself is at least as funny as either Click and Clack were.
Who isn’t? I’m sorry. Go on…
He thought if he could just find the right partner…why not? Problem was, he couldn’t find anyone willing to take the plunge with him. The people he mentioned it to as a possibility thought he was a little crazy for wanting to do it. Then I came along, many years later, and we became friends, and he realized I was sort of an out of the box kind of guy. So he told me about his long dormant idea for a radio show based on philosophy. I thought it was a TERRIFIC idea. And was all in.
But turning it into a reality...that was a much longer haul then either John or I ever dreamt of. Fortunately, there was a former student of John’s, a guy I’ll call Sam, who was head of something called Media Solutions — it no longer exists — here at Stanford. Their task was to take Stanford generated intellectual content and translate some of it into “media outreach.” We approached Sam about the possibility of making a radio show based on philosophy. He was moderately enthused, or at least he pretended to be. He assigned us a producer to make a pilot. We did. John Fischer and Chris Bobonich were our guests. The pilot was about the question “Would you want to live forever.” We produced the pilot and thought we’d take it to something called the PRC (the Public Radio Conference) which was this huge convention of public radio executives for all over the country that was put on by NPR. Everybody who was anybody in pubilc radio was there. So what better place to shop our pilot and potential series, right? But here’s the thing you have to know. We knew nothing whatsoever about public radio. Neither did our producer. Neither did his immediate superior at Media Solutions, who oversaw all this. For example, we didn’t know that public radio works on a pretty standard “clock.” We didn’t know that most public radio segments are just 8 minutes long. Our producer was actually not a radio guy at all. He was a videographer. And his main specialty was time lapsed photography of plants growing. He was an incredibly sweet man though.
Anyway, so here we are three guys from Stanford, two philosophy professors and a plant videographer, trying to bring our pilot to the attention of the big wigs in public radio. We were nothing if not bold. We shook a lot of hands, did a lot of self-promotion. Though being from Stanford seemed to carry some weight, most people gave us the cold-shoulder as soon as the word “philosophy” came out of our mouths.
One person seemed intrigued. An independent producer named Ben Manilla, who happened to have a shop in San Francisco, and was there marketing his own radio shows. He took our pilot, said he would give it a listen, and maybe set up lunch when we were all back in town. Jump a head a few weeks. Ben gives us a call, we go up to the city to have lunch to discuss our pilot and the prospect of turning it into a nationally syndicated radio show. The first words out of Ben’s mouth, though, are, “I’ve listened to your pilot and I’ve got one piece of advice for you, don’t ever play this pilot for anyone else.” Which we haven’t done, I don’t think, in all these years.
But Ben claimed to see potential in the concept, and in John and me, nonetheless. He thought he could groom us into radio personalities and that some of our ideas might survive in the process. We set out to make a new pilot, this time with a professional radio guy as our producer and with more serious backing from the university. The backing was thanks to John Etchemendy, who was then provost, and, thankfully, a philosopher and former student of John Perry’s. But he probably would not have backed us except for the strong pitch that Ben helped us make that Philosophy Talk had serious potential.
Happily ever after?
Even with two new pilots, much more professional in nature, getting Philosophy Talk on the air was a very long haul. Public Radio is not really hungry for content, especially risk-taking content. They are up to their ears in programming from both from the big three public radio networks, NPR, PRI, and APM and from the many local stations that produce programming of their own. So breaking into that scene was really, really hard. You have to remember that this was way before the days of podcasting (which we do now, of course), way before the time when you could just self-produce and self-distribute. There was and is no market research that shows that people are demanding more philosophy on the public radio airwaves. Plus, there is the essentially risk-averse nature of public radio. Finding an audience for our show was extremely daunting.
We tried KQED here in the Bay Area because that is one of the flag ship stations in the entire public radio system. The program director and general manager there gave the two pilots to here three top assistants and asked if they would put the show on their air if it was their decision to make. Each of them apparently said yes. She decided not to accept their recommendation. Not sure why, except that I once heard her say at one this big radio meetings that there is no room for experimentation on her air, since hers is the “public radio station of record” for millions of listeners in the Bay Area. Which meant I guess that there is no room for failure. By the way, that program director, Jo Ann Wallace, was once married to the philosopher John Wallace – who was a PhD student of Davidson’s, while he was here at Stanford. John Perry was actually a friend of John’s and knew Jo Ann a bit when they were still together. Small world, huh? Though they hadn’t seen each other in years by this time, for all I know, the fact that Jo Anne had once been married to a philosopher and that it ended in divorce may have played some unconscious role in her decision to reject Philosophy Talk.
So who bit? When was your big break?
KALW, also in SF, was willing to take a chance on us. They are the “second” public radio station in the Bay Area. They are more quirky and risk-taking and innovate. Without Nicole Sawaya, who was then general manager there, there would have been no Philosophy Talk. It also helped tremendously that OPB (Oregon Public Broadcasting) also had an innovative and risk-taking program director at the time. She too agreed to give us a chance. So that’s how we started, basically on three outlets. KALW, OPB, and a small station in Riverside California — which agreed to air us, thanks largely to the efforts of John Fischer, who remember was on our initial pilot and was an early member of our short-lived board.
So, does Stanford support the project? How is the show financed?
Stanford has supported to show throughout its run. The University has never paid the full freight, except in the early beginning, because that’s just not the way that Stanford runs. We are not a part of the core academic mission of the university and every dollar that goes to us is a dollar that doesn’t go to something else. We have to try our best to raise money from outside sources. Philosophy Talk is actually very expensive to produce and in recent years we have had to make some very tough decisions. The toughest was that we could no longer afford to pay Ben Manilla to be our producer. So we cut ties with him. That was very painful, since we had been together since the beginning trying to grow this thing. We are constantly applying for outside grants, mostly with limited success. We seek charitable donations from listeners and supporters, with some but not overwhelming success. And we try to sell things like subscriptions to our vast archive of episodes and hopefully, soon, merchandise of various sorts. Although lots of people seem to like and even love the show, nobody wants to pay us for anything.
I hear you, dude. Can’t you charge radio stations? Are grants an option?
As an independently produced show not tied to a major distributor, we have found it impossible to charge radio stations carriage fees. We were once warned that we’d probably lose 70% of our stations if we went that route. Partly because of Stanford imposed strictures, partly because of our non-profit status, and partly because of our relatively small footprint, we’ve found selling serious underwriting (we can’t sell advertising) a challenge. Add to that the fact people have been conditioned because of strategies first adopted by online content providers in the early days of the internet to believe that they really shouldn’t have to pay for content. By and large, with the exception of the Templeton Foundation, grant giving agencies have been standoffish. The NEH, for example, has turned us down like 10 times. I once railed online against their stupidity in doing so. Might not have been the best idea, but it sure felt good to get that off my chest. But we keep trying. The bottom line is that keeping Philosophy Talk going as a nationally syndicated radio show, produced to national radio standards, is SUPER challenging. It wouldn’t be possible without the support of the University. But the University is a double-edge sword. It makes people think that the University should just write us a big check and that we shouldn’t have to bother them for money. But Stanford just doesn’t work that way. I doubt that any University would just fork over the kind of money we’re talking about for the number of years we’re talking about as a public service or something.
Not that Stanford hasn’t gotten something out of the show. I mean the show is meant to serve the public good. It’s meant to enliven and deepen, at least in a small way, public discourse. It’s meant to demonstrate that philosophy matters, that thinking matters, that reasoned discoursed matters. And being associated with that kind of effort is a good thing for the University. And that’s why first Etchemendy and now our new administration have agreed to do their part. But we have to do our part too, by demonstrating that people care enough about what we do to chip in a bit.
Right. So what does the future look like for Philosophy Talk?
That’s a little hard to say. If we can’t find a financially viable model, the show will probably just end… perhaps within a year. But if we do survive, the one thing I really want, now that John Perry has officially retired from the program, is to find a female, part time cohost. My colleague Josh Landy and my colleague Debra Satz agreed to each be a part time cohost after John retired. Josh is still with me, and he is terrific. But Debra Satz has become Dean of H&S at Stanford. That’s a very big and important and demanding job. So unfortunately, she decided not to continue with Philosophy Talk. I really miss her. In her short time with us, she brought both a new voice and a new sensibility. I’m hoping to replace her with someone with a similar range of interests. But it’s hard. To help keep the administration fully invested, it would probably be best if the new person were also from Stanford. But so far, the likely prospects have all turned me down. Philosophy Talk definitely requires a non-trivial amount of time and commitment, as you can imagine. Not everybody is willing to do it. The future is very much up in the air.
I hope you figure it out. I hope this interview helps solve some of your problems! 5 favorite episodes of Philosophy Talk?
It would be hard to say what my favorite five episodes are. It’s not just that we’ve done so many shows and they all sort of blend together. It’s also that we do many different kinds of shows, each with a different set of ambitions. For example, we occasionally do episodes on Great Philosopher X, often, but not always a great dead philosopher, but we try to make sure that our dead are not all dead white males. For these episodes, our goal is just to provide an appetizer that will motivate them to dig deeper into some complicated corpus on their own. Three relatively recent examples are Heidegger, Fanon, and De Beauvoir. Other episodes focus on more immediately political, cultural or social issues that lend themselves to philosophical speculation, but may not necessarily be initially framed as philosophical at least not by your average educated person on the street. We measure the success of such episodes by how successfully we manage to communicate the relevance of philosophy to issues not necessarily initially framed as purely or even primarily philosophical. For example, we’ve done Trolling, Bullying and Flame Wars: Humility and Online Discourse, Queerness, or Driverless Cars at the Moral Crossroads. We ruminate a lot on science and its implications and limits, as in Science vs Pseudo-Science, Science and Gender, or Time, Space and Quantum Mechanics. And we don’t skimp on the evergreen topics of philosophy, like The Value of Truth or What is Beauty. We also do more magazine style, pre-recorded, more heavily edited shows a few times of year. Every year, for example, we do a Summer Reading Special this way, and we’ve recently revived our former tradition of doing a Dionysus Award Show, for the most philosophically compelling movies of the year. And lastly we do what we call the Examined Year at the end of the year. We’ve won various awards for these pre-edited magazine style shows.
The most fun and satisfying thing for me personally is when we perform in front of live audiences. We’ve gotten these live shows down to a true art form, I think. They are multi-modal radio and philosophy happenings. They’ve got live music, video, audience interaction, life performances by our on-air personalities and of course serious philosophical conversation. We edit them for later broadcast. Our most recently released effort was a show with Steve Pinker on Can Reason Save Us? We're about to release one we did about six weeks ago in NYC, called The Creative Life. We've done these live gigs all around the country: on college campuses, senior citizen homes, high schools, the halls of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution. We’ve performed at literary festivals, science festivals, festivals of ideas and a whole lot more. If any philosopher out there wants to invite us to their campus, we’re certainly game. It’s a little expensive for the hosting institutions – which needs to pay the freight, since we don't have a budget for this – but we promise to put on a heck of a live philosophy/radio happening in return.
How do you see the future of philosophy?
Philosophy is a very fragmented discipline. I see it becoming even more fragmented in the future. I am pretty much a nominalist about philosophy. Philosophy is what people who call themselves philosophers do. And people who call themselves philosophers do all manner of things. I doubt there is, has been, or ever will be any deep unity beneath the superficial diversity of philosophy.
Any trends in philosophy you find troubling?
I least admire philosophy that is cloistered and scholastic. I particularly hate it when a subfield of philosophy is colonized by those who share a set of perhaps idiosyncratic intuitions that fail to reflect the full complexity of the real phenomena about which they began to philosophize in the first place, when the colonizers mostly read each other, write for each other, cite each other and seldom take a fresh look at the world, that can lead to the growth and consolidation of a cloistered scholasticism that has lost touch with what is vital. That's why it's always important to turn again and again back to the world from which all philosophical mysteries, puzzles, and questions ultimately spring.
Any other disconcerting trends?
Unfortunately, there are lots of disturbing trends. I’m less disturbed by trends in “pure” philosophy (whatever that is) than I am by certain philosophers have chosen to behave in the public and private square. Pure philosophy will eventually take care of itself through the long-run give and take of argument. But certain “extracurricular” elements of the academic philosophy scene are taking on the character of something out of a David Lodge novel, these days, what with all the charges and counter charges, the airing of the dirtiest of laundry, lawsuits flying every which way. I would be impolitic to name names. Not only might that land me in one of those lawsuits that philosophers seem so fond of pursuing or at least threatening to pursue, these days, but it seems just a little bit, I don't know, gross, to join in on the fray, like the prospect of joining a bunch of muck loving animals, wallowing in the muck. No thanks! Metaphors aside, with all the charges and counter charges, rather than reasoned arguments, flying every which way, the whole scene is frankly more than a little depressing. Sometimes it makes me want to scream. Sometimes it makes me ashamed to admit that I too am a philosopher. There’s defamation and bullying. There’s shaming and silencing. There’s a disregard for due process. There’s the hyperbolic framing of free speech as some sort of dagger. It would be one thing if the quality of the “argument” back and forth were just normally decent or even normally bad, as measured by our usual standards. But the exchanges look more like shouting matchings between intemperate adolescents rather than good faith disputes among serious minded adults.
Just for amusement and a brief respite from the ugliness, one day after reading one of the latest ugly exchanges, I started thinking about what sorts of themes a Lodge-like novel might touch on. So many possibilities! My first thought was that it might start with an absurdist rumination on the law. What it is the law really for, who does it really protect, what does it really allow? I say this because in that particular exchange it became clear that far too many philosophers in the blog-o-sphere seem to trust their own moral intuitions about what the law SHOULD be, rather than educating themselves about what the law actually is.
My second thought was that rather than focusing on the law, the real absurdity has to do with high-minded philosophers having it out in such a low-minded way over the internet. Again, I don’t want to name names of point fingers. I’m sure everyone knows the kind of thing I’m talking about. To name one case, without naming any particular names or trying to shame any particular individual, there’s the whole ugly Hypatia thing as one big for instance. There we had endless moral chess thumping parading as “philosophy” meant to somehow “justify” some clearly outrageous behavior on the part of people who ought really to have known better. But that whole ugly affair is really just a symptom, though a pretty prominent one, of a deeper disease. The internet seems, at least for some, to short-circuit the ability to do philosophy slowly and carefully, especially when morally and politically fraught issues are at stake. Why philosophize, when you can browbeat and moralize instead?
If you step back and look at social media and, especially, the philosophical blog-o-sphere whole, you get this picture of a cloistered, self-important collective locked in an intense moral struggle over – over what exactly? Power and privilege and reputation?
Look, I do not mean to diminish the fact that the charges and counter charges are almost always over matters that are in and of themselves often deadly serious. My point is just that even pitched battles over deadly serious matters can devolve into absurdity when they are conducted by people who are just so...so what, exactly? That I can't put my finger on just yet. Just think about what we are revealing about our “true” selves via the fascinating dynamics of moral shaming and shunning via the power of the net. That we are desperate? valiant? Blind and misguided in our self-aggrandizing attempts to use the internet to either circumvent or supplement old means – like the slow, laborious, fuddy-duddy courts with their silly obsession for due process and the law – for settling scores?
Now, here’s a deep question -- one worthy of the best philosophical minds. Can mere brick and mortar courts really ever protect against the power of the net to shame and shun? Won't things like due process and the counterintuitive and compromised standards of the law eventually be overwhelmed by the power of the net to marshal and focus felt moral outrage?
But if we write an actual novel, we can’t just focus on deep and abstract question like that. We can’t let ourselves lose sight of the human psychodrama here. There are potential themes of thick skulls and thin skins -- or is it thin skulls and thick skins? There are moral compasses gone awry. There is pumped-up self-righteousness run amok. There is an intense contest over the status of victim. All carried out in public among people who are supposed to be partners in the dispassionate pursuit of truth or wisdom or whatever it is that we philosopher like to tell ourselves that we are after. Or maybe the predominant theme would be of false consciousness and self-delusion. Of a class of academics who really and truly care more about power and prestige and reputation than truth, whatever that is. Or have we all become postmodern relativists for whom truth is just another name for power? Please let that not be so! Please? What sort of story is this? A comedy? A tragedy? A farce? All of the above? Could even the great David Lodge do it full justice? It would be fun, in a sick sort of way, to see someone try, though. Or maybe not.
It’s tragicomic, man! Anyhoo…do you find any trends exciting?
I am mostly excited by things that de-silo the production of knowledge. Take epistemology, for example. Admittedly, epistemology comes in many varieties. I can’t for the life of me figure out how conceptual/linguistic analysis of the verb ‘knows’ came to be so dominant in epistemology. But there are other parts of the enterprise that do kind of sort see the point of. I really do. But I have to admit that way too much of it leaves me cold. Not sure exactly why, though I've been trying to diagnose whether the fault lies within me or lies elsewhere within the enterprise itself. In general, I have to admit to having a deep aversion to a priori castles in the air, that make no real connection to any real phenomenon on the ground. Just as ethical theorizing entirely divorced from the realities of ethical life leave me cold, so too any epistemology that makes no real contact with cognitive life.
Part of it is that I have come to believe that 'knowledge' is really just a compliment that “we” pay to cognition that “we” valorize. But if that is right, there is probably no context independent thing that knowledge is, that could be specified by de-contextualized, de-socialized philosophical analysis. What is called "knowledge" is always and everywhere caught up in the dynamics of who is doing the valorizing and with what authority they are doing it.
Now I grant that it is not entirely fair to say that all of epistemology is caught up in the as if from nowhere a priori analysis of ‘x knows that p’ sentences. Indeed, there is, I think, real potential for an epistemology that is deeply engaged with the hurly burly of cognitive life. And that sort of thing actually interests me a lot. It’s one sort of thing that I myself might be doing if I were ever to take up epistemology. Human cognitive life is rich, varied and complex. It would seem to provide ample opportunities for philosophical theory construction within epistemology. I suspect, but am in no position to decisively prove, that we philosophers have not exploited these opportunities nearly as much as we might have. So that's just a point of autobiographical information about my priors. But here's a genuine question: what is or should be the relation between epistemological theories and the complex and varied hurly burly of human cognitive life? To the extent that are epistemologists, I guess they would be applied epistemologists, trying to bring philosophical theorizing into contact with the hurly-burly of cognitive life, I say three cheers to that kind of thing.
Sounds good to me! Do you worry about unintended consequences?
There are certainly downside dangers in the kind of approach I advocate. I said earlier that I think it is important to distinguish ethical theory (which is the business of philosophy) from ethical life (which is the business of human beings generally.) Now there are lots of socially and morally urgent issues. As a philosopher, one might like to bring philosophy to bear on these urgent issues. And that is a really good de-siloing, de-cloistering impulse. But there's a deep problem with making good on that impulse. Philosophy, at what I regard as its best, is slow and laborious, holding every single move, assumption, argument up to the light of critical reflection. But as my answer about the blog-o-sphere suggests, I believe that when people are engaged in conversations about politically, socially and morally urgent matters, they often have no patience for the sort of slow and laborious mode of dialectic engagement that is characteristic of much of philosophy. Indeed, they often see this mode of engagement, this willingness to slow the discussion down, to always be prepared to start over again and re-examine our very starting points, in the manner of a Socrates, as a form of bad faith, or perniciousness, or as a way of way of serving oppressive structures, that must not be given any quarter, but must be confronted and overthrown. Even many philosophers are inclined to lose patience with this kind of dialectic when urgent matters are up for discussion.
The tendency toward what I think of as a kind of dialectical impatience and exhaustion – though, admittedly, in the first person what I am calling dialectical impatience and exhaustion will typically not be experienced as quite that, but as deep, engaged, clear eyed urgent commitment to what only the morally pernicious would seek to challenge – is completely understandable. But it is, I fear, a real threat to one important mode of philosophizing…the one that I myself happen most to admire.
I do not mean to deny that there are many ways of engaging in philosophy, each with its costs and benefits. But it does seem to me that what we are perhaps witnessing more and more among philosophers is a clash of two somewhat opposing philosophical styles and tendencies, a clash between philosophers that seek deep and effective engagement with the most urgent problems of the day and philosophers more inclined to slow the conversation down.
Yeah! But I think sometimes the people who want to slow things down are dissatisfied with superficial solutions to some of these pressing problems. They’re doing that not as an act of scholastic self-indulgence, but out of discipline. No?
I totally agree with you there. And that’s one thing that makes the kind of invective we see hurled at such people over the internet and social media so utterly depressing and distasteful to me. In the end, I think we have to invent new ways of doing philosophy that simultaneously answer to both the demands of deep dialectical engagement and deep social engagement. I don’t think we’ve succeeded in doing that quite yet, at least not satisfactorily.
Yes! How have students changed since you started teaching?
Well, mainly, they keep getting younger. And they are a LOT more stressed out and under a lot more pressure from parents and peers, especially students at elite colleges and universities like Stanford. Here’s something I said on Facebook awhile back, when some students from Yale got more attention in the media than they were prepared for. By the way, I should say that lots of people, including some prominent philosophers, said lots of really stupid things both in attacking and defending those students. What I had to say wasn’t meant as either an attack or defense of those students per se. It’s just meant to sum up a lot of what I think about student and their struggles these days, especially for the kinds of students I am privileged to teach. My students are a lot like those Yale students who were on the quad berating that professor.
“If you knew the students at elite colleges well, if you knew the multitude of pressures and anxieties that they all face and have internalized, not just the so-called marginalized among them, but also the so-called privileged among them too, and if you knew how much self-doubt and anxiety they could be prone to, how widespread the imposter syndrome is among them, if you understood how hard they have been pressed by parents and teachers and society to achieve and achieve and achieve, if you knew how hard they had run to get to where they have gotten, if you could hear the subtle undertones of exhaustion that sometimes creep into their voices, if you understood how much more academically challenging even the most successful among them could find a place like Yale or Stanford or Harvard to be once they had gotten there, even if they came from the very best high schools in the world, and if you realized that not all come from so-called elite high schools in the first place, but from high schools all over the world and all over the country, from the worst to the best, if you understood that some were superstars in mediocre or worse high school who once compared extraordinarily favorably to everyone they knew, if you knew how much they use the mental health services of their respective universities, many of them for the first time in their lives, if you knew that for all their many advantages, many of them have up to now led lives in which they hardly bumped up against all the differences and diversity and friction that the world has to offer, if you could see close up the gradual emergence of new coping mechanism that they might not have needed before, if you knew all this, if you could see it up close and personal, how would that change how you think about them and their struggles to find and define themselves – struggles which sometimes burst into the glaring light of the press and the internet and the watchful often disapproving eyes that see all, judge all, pontificate about all? You need not weep for them. They are highly fortunate people, with amazing opportunities before them, opportunities that few are ever offered. But try seeing them – all of them – in their full complexity."
Best living philosopher?
Most underrated philosopher?
Every philosopher I know of I would guess thinks of him or herself as most underrated. Perhaps each is right.
Best philosopher you disagree with most?
Well there are fruitful disagreements and fruitless ones, right? I’ll stick to the fruitful ones. Of the mighty dead, it’s probably Kant. Of the living, it’s probably Robert Brandom. I focus on them because I deeply agree with each up to a certain point, but then I want to swerve radically left when the swerve radically right. But I learn something deep from thinking hard about why they chose to swerve one way, while I choose to swerve in the opposite direction, given that we deeply agree up to a certain point.
There are tons of philosophers with whom I might have fruitless or at any rate less fruitful disagreements. Even so, it’s not as though I don’t engage with such philosophers. I do read and try to understand them, at least from time to time. I even teach them in my seminars and courses. We’ve even had a number of them on our radio show over the years. In teaching philosophers with whom I most disagree, I try very hard to be generous and charitable when I present their ideas to students. I always tell students that they are not allowed to argue against a philosopher with whom they are strongly initially inclined to disagree until they played what I call the believing game with that philosopher’s ideas. That’s the game of trying to find reasons, preferably good reasons, to believe what the philosopher is claiming. Only after they have played the believing game, are they free to play the disbelieving game, in which you are encouraged to spell out the reasons for disbelieving what the philosopher says. It works the other way around too. If you are strongly initially tempted to believe what a philosopher say, see how far you can get in the disbelieving game, before taking the plunge into belief.
Of course, life is short, and sometimes you just have to internally record disagreement, and move on, without making a big fuss about it. But I think that’s okay too, because I see philosophy as partly a competition among conjectures. As a philosophical naturalist, for example, I’m playing a distinctive set of conjectures. I am not trying to offer a priori arguments for my conjectures or even to offer knock down arguments against competing conjectures. We should each be free to play your conjecture and to let the long run give and take of decide which conjectures win out.
What was your election night like in 2008?
2008 was fun...although I was not and am not a huge fan of Obama, at least not qua president. I mean he is an extraordinarily decent man, with a certain cool and distant charisma. And I really, really miss have a president so decent, so charismatic, and so smart and disciplined. But bracketing the current farce of the president and just taking Obama on his own terms, he was a relatively weak president, who believed his own kumbaya rhetoric way too much, and was unprepared for serious battle with the mostly Republican forces of darkness. In many ways, he reminds me a lot of my favorite academic colleagues. A lot of them are really decent people. Some are quite charismatic personalities. And almost all have truly powerful intellects. But I doubt even the ones I most admire would make terribly effective presidents.
Oh wow so 2016 must have been…rough?
2016 was earth shattering. Drove me bonkers. My wife thinks the election of Trump “broke” something inside of me. More generally, my worldview has taken a rather dark turn over the past 20 years. Right now, for example, I am in Europe. Have been for the past couple of weeks. I am a huge believer in the project of Europe. I regard a united Europe as one of the great achievements of the post-world war 2 era. But Europe is unraveling for a wide variety of reasons. I do not think the outcome of that unraveling will be good. And the American Republic, which was never a reality but always only a dream, is on the verge of collapse.
Not much! Automation will eliminate in the near future the demand for much human labor. The internet is undermining democracy. The rise of populism is another very deep threat. I am a little obsessed with diagnosing the causes of the collapse of the American republic and trying to imagine possible ways forward. Thus, my nascent book, a book I am writing to work out my depression, Farewell to the Republic We Once Dreamt Of.
How have your views on race changed?
My current attitudes toward race probably reflect, to some extent, my early identity struggles. They represent some sort of equilibrium point in the dynamic landscape that is my unfolding self. Speaking only of and for myself, I regard my racial identity as one element in the total stew of my self. I wouldn’t call it the beef in that stew. Nor would I say it’s just the pepper or paprika in the stew of my self either. Somewhere in between the beef and the paprika. At the same time, I recognize that different people will configure themselves differently in this regard. When I say that different people will configure themselves differently with respect to race, it is not that I think that how we configure ourselves with regard to race is entirely a matter of just our own powers of self-configuration. The social world certainly has a say too. But I do tend to view race not so much as just a socially given fact, to which an individual must simply bow, to which she has no choice but to obediently acquiesce. The weight of race in what I call the total stew of an individual self is a thing about which a person does have a say, not the only say, but some say, and an important say at that. For some, race will be the beef in the stew of the self. For others, it is perhaps a mere spice. I say let billions of different configurations of selfhood try to blossom. I say “try” because the business of self-configuration is a very hard thing, partly because the “droning other” is always pushing back at your efforts at self-configuration, trying to be the arbiter of your identity. No one can constitute themselves from the bottom up, as if from nothing or in a social vacuum. One thing that I steadfastly refuse to do is to try to be the arbiter of racial identity. I have no views about how others ought to relate to their race. How could I? After all, it was the self-appointed arbiters of racial identity that caused me such inner turmoil in my youth. And my own path beyond the turmoil was to learn to shut them out and give their voices no role in my inner dialogue about who and what I really was.
Mostly I think of America and Americans as still locked in a tired, long-running, mostly non-productive and dysfunctional racial dialectic that America has been locked in since its founding. I don’t mean to say that things haven’t changed. Things are in many ways better than they were in my own youth or, certainly, in my father’s youth. Clearly we have much work to do.
It sometimes puzzles me, I have to admit, why we remain so wedded to this archaic racial dialectic. I cannot see that it serves the good or serves human flourishing in any way. I don’t mean to sound naive when iI say that there is no legitimate interest that our intense racial division serves. There are of course many ILLEGITIMATE interests. Time was when plantation owning whites had a deep and abiding economic interest in maintaining racial hierarchy and racial division. It served their interest well to turn poor whites against enslaved blacks. How else could they get poor, propertyless Southern Whites to march off and die by the hundreds of thousands in the name of a labor system that actually made them worse off? And how better for the capitalist class to maintain its hegemony over labor than to sow racial division among the workers of the world?
But none of that contributes to human flourishing or the realization of our human potential.
Hannah Arendt says, at least I think it was she who said, that you must fight the oppressor in terms set by the oppressor. And I suppose that means that we cannot just wish race away in a world beset with racial division and oppression. That would be naive. But once the oppressor is finally and fully defeated, if that day should ever come, perhaps we can finally transcend our dysfunctional racial dialectic and achieve a deeper solidarity base on our common humanity. At least that’s the world that I would like to see and the kind of world that I am willing to lend my energies to helping achieve.
I’m down. Favorite philosophy, or philosophy related, websites?
I mostly find the philosophy blog-o-sphere depressing. I love philosophy. Philosophy in the blog-o-sphere, not so much.
Favorite TV shows and movies? Read any good books lately?
Favorite movie used to be Days of Heaven. Haven’t re-watched it in a while, so don’t know if it holds up. More recently, I’m a fan of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. And I really liked Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. but thought the reaction by some to the so-called “redemption” of the racist cop, showed that people often just don’t know how to watch movies. I was thinking about writing something about this or at least doing a Philosophy Talk segment on it, but so far haven’t managed to get back to it.
A very long one, that takes an infinity to complete and savor.
If you could ask an omniscient being one question, what would it be?