In this interview, Manuel Vargas, professor in the Department of Philosophy at UC San Diego, and I discuss growing up in Bakersfield, ThunderCats, Dungeons and Dragons, X-Men, Ortega y Gasset, Nietzsche, Depeche Mode, community college, Aggies, Mustangs, Cows, Chauncey, working with Copp, perusing the typewritten Gourmet Report when thinking about grad school, a reassuring phone call from Dretske, Notre Dame, sun lamps, libertarianism and revisionism, van Inwagen, switching to Stanford, the importance of free food to graduate students, Silicon Valley, working with Bratman on his dissertation, meeting his wife, swing dancing, Richard Rorty on paper and in person, racquetball, sitting on a hotel bed waiting to be interviewed by a bunch of dudes, his thoughts on personal identity, being told he looks like an assassin and/or a drug dealer, landing a gig in San Francisco, the difference between Latin American philosophy and LatinX philosophy, Latina feminism, Chicano studies, Immigration studies, criticisms of ‘me studies’, Marxism, Thomism, his book Building Better Beings, compatibilism, the future of the free will debate, moving to San Diego, tequila, Mass Effect, Saga, Hi-Phi Nation, Deadmau5, Fallout 76, and his last meal…
Hey Manuel, thanks for agreeing to do this!
I think it is overdetermined that I have to say yes. I’m both a fan and frequent reader of your interviews and, well, maybe…determinism?
haha…great! Thanks! Let’s get started. Where’d you grow up?
I grew up in beautiful Bakersfield, California—Bako, as locals sometimes call it. It is home to carrots, cotton, oil, and high school sports teams with dubious names like “The Drillers” (as in oil drillers), “The Rebels” (as in, um, the Confederates), and “The Blades” (as in are we really going to give the sports teams at this predominantly Mexican-American high school that name? Really?). Bakersfield—and Kern County more generally—is also home to excellent Basque and Mexican food options, terrible air quality, a notable civil rights movement, lots of prisons, plenty of affordable housing, and good access to the southern Sierra Nevadas. It is not a part of California that people tend to have in mind when they think about California.
I have to say, the Blades is a badass name for a sport team. What did your parents do?
My parents were social workers. My father coordinated services for the developmentally disabled, and my mother was an elementary school counselor.
I had a younger brother and younger sister, although they are now both much older than I am, on account of my refusal to grow up. In addition to overlapping genetic code, my siblings and I share near-total certainty that disagreement with any of us is the sign of a confused mind. Although we were all bookworms, I seemed to have had more enthusiasm for school and a greater need for the approval of other nerds. The result is that they both enjoy jobs with way better parking options than I have at my job.
haha…so as a kid, what did you do for fun?
As a kid, I was principally interested in eating at McDonalds, watching ThunderCats, and coming up with Dungeons and Dragons scenarios I would never play. I was a barely functioning readaholic. I would read literally anything in a pinch. I read tons of fiction (all sorts), but also things like outdated science textbooks, the backs of cereal boxes, random history books, some religious-y things, the newspaper, and if necessary, the dictionary. Lots of words there, it turns out.
Who didn’t love ThunderCats? What religious stuff were you reading?
At some point I read Andrew Greely’s The American Catholic, which was probably the root of my lurking interest in the sociology of religion (and really, the sociology of everything). But the main thing was The Bible, albeit in comic book form. We actually had several comic book versions of the Good Book. There are religious traditions according to which pictorial depictions of this sort are heresy, but I’d wager that the comic book form holds its own for effectiveness.
Did you read non-religious comics?
Were you a philosophical kid?
Looking back, philosophy didn’t feel like much of a thing in the Vargas household. My father had a love of philosophy and theology, and would sometimes talk about it at the dinner table, but no more so than he would talk about, say, the legendary Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, or what life was like when he was growing up in a rural cattle-ranching family. I never felt called to pitch anything (apart from book projects) or to milk anything (besides bad jokes).
I did have the good fortune of having a high school teacher—George Mawson—who decided that American & British literature weren’t really that important in the grand scheme of things. So after about 3 weeks of the state-mandated curriculum, he would then turn the class into a philosophy class. So, I got to read some Plato, Ortega y Gasset, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer in high school.
Favorite philosopher in high school and why? Loved Nietzsche m’self!
Nietzsche, of course. It is probably an important developmental stage for the young male philosopher to fall in love with Nietzsche. As with comic books, Depeche Mode, video games, and everything else that I loved as a teenager, I now cast a more skeptical eye on those things. Not that I let that skepticism get in the way of my ongoing enjoyment.
Was college on your mind?
In high school, my teachers and parents seemed to think I should go to college, so I suppose I did too. My parents weren’t convinced that this should take me outside of Bakersfield, though. Folks from my high school didn’t tend to go away to college, or to college at all, and although I got in to several UC schools, at the time I couldn’t afford to go. So, I spent two years at the local community college (Go Renegades!), worked in a bakery, and plotted my escape. I was briefly an English major at the start of college (mainly because I needed to pick something, and I figured that maybe English would be like my high school English classes, i.e., filled with philosophy). Eventually, it occurred to me that I could study philosophy as a major.
Community college… a solid education?
I found plenty of dedicated teachers in my community college days. The needs of the wider student population at the school then meant that we did a lot of reading of excerpts rather than entire articles or complicated texts. At the same time, I’m firmly convinced that community colleges remain one of the great features of California’s higher education system. Over the years I’ve had a lot of good philosophy undergrads who came out the California community college system, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at some UC campuses, the majority of philosophy majors are community college transfers. UC faculty owe a big debt to our colleagues in the community college system, and I’m grateful for the important work they do under oftentimes challenging circumstances. I eventually transferred to UC Davis (Go Aggies! And Mustangs! And in those years, Cows! Don’t ask—the mascot/team name situation was surprisingly complex, and remains so.).
Hey, the mascot of my school is a chicken from a medieval fairy tale. It has teeth and fingers. It’s teal. I get it. Anyway, why UC Davis? What was the plan?
That’s an outstanding mascot! I decided to go to Davis in part because it was both far enough away from home to count as going away to school, but close enough to family that help wasn’t that far away if things went sideways for whatever reason. Plus, my mom had graduated from Davis, and we Vargai are staunchly committed to dogged perpetuation of family traditions. But there was no real plan, apart from the sense that I needed to go away and get a degree.
Inspirational teachers? Classes?
I say this earnestly: UC Davis exceeded all my unreasonable expectations for what life at a University was going to be like. The first indicator that things were going to be great was when I got my first B on a paper, courtesy of David Copp. I went to office hours to complain, and he patiently explained to me that it wasn’t enough to write reasonably well. The paper was pretty mediocre, he noted in the kindest possible way. The central argument wasn’t really that good, and that I would need to do better if I wanted a better grade. It was the best undergrad experience—ever! It began the slow process of making me take seriously my academic work. Admittedly, I’m still working on that, but Copp’s frank assessment of the shortcomings of my work was instrumental in getting me to think that I couldn’t coast in philosophy.
Yes. Still in touch with Copp?
We do sometimes cross paths at philosophy conferences. I think we’re both amused I turned out to be a philosopher.
Did you consider doing anything other than philosophy?
When I wasn’t taking philosophy, I was taking philosophy in disguise. I took an intellectual history sequence in the history department and wrote only about philosophy. I took the political science departments political theory sequence, and wrote about political philosophy. At the time, it didn’t feel like it was possible to take too much philosophy.
And it’s all related (sort of)! Crazy college stories?
At Davis, I met a lot of cool people, learned a ton, and it felt like I found a group of like-minded people who weren’t at all put off by unreasonable speculation about the Nature of Things. All of that was great. I was always pretty boring and conventional, though: more apt to surround myself with interesting people with amazing personal stories than I was prone to being the subject of any of those stories. I suppose I had a strong sense that I was supposed to do something with my life, even though I wasn’t quite sure what that thing was, or what would count as doing something.
When did you start thinking about grad school?
Somewhere along the way, Phil Clark and G.J. Mattey asked me if I had thought about going to graduate school in philosophy. I said I was pretty sure I couldn’t afford it, and anyway, I thought I was supposed to go to law school since that always seemed to impress people who asked me about my plans. They explained to me that I wouldn’t need to pay, at least not if I did it right. That sounded better than anything else I had going on, so I applied to a variety of graduate programs in philosophy.
Where did you apply to grad school and why? Any guidance on that front?
I thought I wanted to do something in ethics, either the history of ethics or metaethics. So, I asked my various undergrad teachers, and they made recommendations. I don’t know how I heard about it, but at some point I got a copy of the then-typewritten Gourmet Report, which was pretty useful to me because it helped me identify places that had strengths in areas I was interested in. Sure enough, there were things listed there that hadn’t occurred to my faculty advisors. So, I found it a helpful check against the accidents of places that sprang to mind when I asked for lists of places I should apply to.
Right. People forget what a jungle it was. So, what did you want to do with ethics at the time?
I wasn’t entirely sure. Either the history of ethics or metaethics seemed appealing.
Where did you apply? Where did you get in?
My heart was set on going to grad school at UC San Diego. Naturally, they rejected me. This was the start of a 25-year master plan to exact my revenge on them by getting hired there. Along the way, I got in to Notre Dame’s Ph.D. program, and they gave me a pretty sweet-at-that-time fellowship package.
During that admissions cycle, though, I had been wait-listed at Stanford. I didn’t actually know anything about Stanford, apart from the fact that it was supposed to be fancy. I remember the phone call from Fred Dretske when he assured me with understated confidence that I shouldn’t worry about being waitlisted. He told me that everyone who had ever been at my position on the wait list ended up getting an offer from Stanford. You can guess what happened. So off to South Bend I went.
Describe Notre Dame.
Three things stood out for me about Notre Dame. First, I had the invaluable and completely terrifying experience of taking a grad seminar from Peter van Inwagen on free will. This was the thing that got me thinking about free will in a serious way. Second, I walked away with a deep appreciation of Midwestern football culture. We don’t have anything remotely comparable in California. Third, I learned what winter can be. It took a while for me to piece together that my mood and philosophical work are solar-powered, and that I needed to get a sun lamp if I wasn’t going to be moody all the time. I was not my best self at that time. But things got better once some of those details got sorted out. It was a great experience, if a bit trying what with the poor tortillas per square mile problem they had.
What’s van Inwagen like?
Van Inwagen taught like he writes: very precise, very clear, and with great certainty about the lay of the land.
When you first approached the free will stuff, what views did you find attractive, intuitively? Incompatibilism? Compatibilism?
At the time, I suppose I was most drawn to some kind of incompatibilist libertarianism. Everything else just seemed crazy, and it wasn’t until I met lots of compatibilists that I started to wonder if something else was going on, and whether there had to be a better way forward than the conventional understandings of those positions. Unsurprising outcome: I think there is a better way. Revisionism FTW!
Did you feel prepared, academically?
Yes and no. Yes, in that it felt like I could, with effort, do philosophy.
No, in that it felt like I was still roughly a year behind where I felt I should be in terms of background knowledge in the discipline. Academic polish didn’t come naturally to me, and so there was a bit of a learning curve still in front of me. But I suspect that a big part of it was simply being a first-year graduate student, uncertain about whether I was up to the task. Tim Bayne and Michael Bowler, got me through some of the inevitable challenges of the first year of grad school. I met some really wonderful people and to this day some of my favorite people are folks I met there.
Never one to let a missed opportunity stay missed, I decided to apply to Stanford again. I was again wait-listed, but this time I got in. So I transferred grad programs after an important year at Notre Dame.
Nice. Were you ready to roll at Stanford? Good fit?
When I transferred, it felt like I was finally ready to be in a Ph.D. program. I hit the ground running, and on top of the usual philosophy Ph.D. requirements, I joined a cool joint-Ph.D. program where I also got to take a sequence of interdisciplinary courses with Ph.D. students in other fields. The whole setup felt like home, intellectually-speaking. Plus, the Bay Area is kinda awesome.
I really liked my time at Stanford. I don’t recall much competitiveness among the graduate students, and faculty were great about putting up with me and my pestering them on a regular basis during office hours. I feel very fortunate to have been there at that time.
There was a financially rough year or two there when the cost of housing in Silicon Valley got way out in front of what stipends were designed to cover. (But free food was always plentiful around campus at that time, so there was that.) Eventually, the university worked out some adequate solutions.
I started to miss some of the other things I had been exposed to in college—literature and various social sciences, mainly. I still loved philosophy, but it felt like some of the puzzles were empirical matters about which we should be talking to people doing empirical work. It also felt like there were interesting questions in literature and the humanities more generally that didn’t seem to be taken up by analytic philosophers, but that seemed like they ought to have been part of the conversation (questions about social categories and their history, questions about culture, questions about broadly existentialist-y themes).
Right. Pleasant surprises?
The best surprise in grad school was that I met Stephanie, my spouse. She was training to be a high school teacher, and we lived next door in university housing. We signed up for a swing dance lesson, missed the lesson but went to the dance afterwards. We had no idea what we were doing and had a good time anyway. Which sums up how we’ve approached most things since then.
Do you and your wife talk philosophy?
Not if we can help it.
What was your dissertation on?
It was an argument for revisionism about free will, or the idea that the nature of free will might be different than we tend to think about it.
Who did you work with?
Michael Bratman was my dissertation director, and he was great.
What was the process of writing the dissertation like?
Well, there was a year of mostly wasting time, avoiding working, playing soccer, and having a good time. Then there was the year where I did almost nothing else besides work on the dissertation. That required a lot of forcing myself to stay in until I got work done, which was a tough bit of self-disciplining to learn. Eventually, though, I got the hang of grinding through large quantities of not-always-pleasant work. Those skills continue to serve me well, especially in dealing with the daily email load of academic life.
I benefitted from a team of folks on my committee and beyond. Ken Taylor was hugely helpful in the give-and-take of arguments (I suspect I’ve spent a non-trivial part of my professional career reconstructing things that Ken was trying to teach me as a grad student). Agnieszka Jaworska was terrific, and did more than anyone else to teach me to be more disciplined in my scholarly writing. Beyond the committee, Lanier Anderson and Josh Landy were big inspirations. I learned a bunch about teaching and philosophy from sitting in on and TAing John Perry’s classes. Sitting in on classes taught by, respectively, Pat Suppes and Richard Rorty was really valuable, too, even though my grasp of their projects tended to be more tenuous. But in some sense this is all unfair: I can’t think of a class or instructor I had in grad school that I didn’t learn from.
What was a class with Rorty like?
It usually involved him holding forth about how Davidson and Gadamer were almost right, and would have been more so if they had just read more Dewey. What I found really striking about him was the difference between Reading Group Rorty, who was a sensitive and nuanced reader of historical texts, and Rorty the Writer, who systematically distorted historical texts in the service of the Great Project of revitalizing pragmatism. I could never quite reconcile the two Rortys.
Interesting! How did graduate school hone your abilities as a philosopher? How did your conception of philosophy change? How did your expectations change?
Gradually, I came to learn the importance of reading on one’s own, of going out and doing the difficult work of sustained thinking and reading without much scaffolding of classes and teachers. I like to think that I started to get better at listening to feedback and trying to be responsive to it. That bit remains a work in progress, of course. I also came to think of philosophy not as something static, but as something one can change by participating in it, making contributions, and shifting attention.
Right. So, did you get a chance to teach?
I did. I wanted to teach my own classes, and the department (and beyond) gave me several opportunities to do so. I taught a couple of classes in Latin American philosophy, a class on metaphilosophy, a class on methodology in metaethics, and a class on philosophy and film.
What did you do to unwind?
There was plenty of the usual sort of graduate student hanging with friends; I played some racquetball (ah, to have knees that could still do that); videos and video games. Sometimes I’d go see live music. At the time, San José was a hotspot for lots of great acts—Ozomatli, Orishas, Café Tacvba, ¡Cubanismo!, and so on came through.
When did you finish? What was the job market like?
I finished in spring 2001, and didn’t really go on the job market in a serious way until the fall of 2001. I think the general sense at the time was that we were in a down cycle when there weren’t a lot of jobs, although perhaps not like it is now. As it turned out, though, I got a good number of interviews, in no small part because most places looking at Latin American Phil or Phil Race tended to interview me. I had been hoping to get a job in a Ph.D.-granting institution, but no place like that made me an offer.
Every job candidate is miserable in his or her own way. I’m not sure how much I can offer as a general lesson. The nature of the job market has changed significantly since I went on it as a junior candidate. I can, however, provide tips about how to survive small talk with competitor compatriots when standing outside a bleak hotel corridor waiting for the opportunity to sit on a hotel bed surrounded by dudes interviewing you.
Erotic (in a bad way). Were your mentors and colleagues supportive?
They were. I didn’t have much sense of whether folks on my committee thought my work was good, promising, crap, or something else. And, I think West Coast schools were, especially in that era (but still so now), at a disadvantage in the politicking that would sometimes go on on behalf of candidates being interviewed at the Eastern APA. However, in the sense of supporting my ambitions and trying to get me to do work that was good enough to make possible those ambitions, I felt very supported.
One of the things I think the profession doesn’t quite acknowledge is how important early career mentors are. There is a period of time when one is done with one’s Ph.D., maybe away from that institution, but not fully ensconced in a career. Mentoring, frequently by people not at your Ph.D. institution, can play a big role in aiding and directing the shift to full professionalization. I benefited immensely from the efforts of John Martin Fischer and Eduardo Mendieta, and later, from the amazingly congenial group of philosophers that make up the free will/moral responsibility universe. In particular, I owe a shout-out to Dan Speak who has always been a stalwart companion and friend while we learned to navigate the various stages of professional life.
It’s a tight-knit community of friendly people who seem to fundamentally disagree. The model of a healthy philosophical community, in my mind. Job market horror stories?
There were some strange episodes, of course. In one case, while being driven into campus for a short-list interview, I discovered I was there as a candidate for a metaphysics job, despite having applied for their ethics job. They had unilaterally decided to reclassify my application, and no one alerted me. I only learned of it when the driver made an off-handed remark about how they had filled the ethics job already.
In another case, I was grilled for 20 minutes about my supposed dissertation on personal identity, even though I kept telling them that I didn’t really have thoughts about personal identity, and that I worked on other things.
And, you don’t really work on free will unless at some interview you get someone sufficiently angry about your view that they start shouting at you.
Oh, I also learned that if I didn’t want people telling me that I looked like a drug lord or a hit-man, I either needed to cut my hair or not wear dark clothes.
How do you deal when you’re confronted with that stuff? Confront? Ignore? Advice?
Well, when you are an assistant professor, confronting people with more social power feels like a mistake. But no, I don’t really have any advice on this front. Now, though, I think my students would welcome being taught by someone who looks like a hit man. Maybe I just needed to age into the look a bit more.
So, where’d you land your first gig?
I was hired at the University of San Francisco, and I worked there from 2002-2017. At first I didn’t expect to stay, and then I didn’t expect to leave. There is a lot to like about the university, and I feel fortunate to have been a 15-year member of that unusually broad-minded philosophy department. The school and the philosophy department were amazingly tolerant of my comings and goings (I spent several years visiting other places) and my participation in cross-disciplinary adventures at the University. As a whole, the institution and faculty are pretty dedicated to delivering a good education to their students.
The philosophy department was a particularly good place to be. It has an important place in the curriculum, it was well-regarded by the administration, and, it was better resourced than one might have thought. Over time I came to do a fair amount of my teaching in several of the interdisciplinary programs they have there, which was an especially good fit for my teaching interests. Eventually, I came to spend half my year teaching in the law school, and half the year teaching in Arts and Sciences. Cost of living aside, a tenure-line job at the University of San Francisco is one of the great University jobs out there.
If you could save only two or three things you accomplished at the University of San Francisco, what would they be and why?
Save from what? The encroachments of senility? From the heat death of the universe? For the former, I suppose I should say Building Better Beings, because I sometimes get asked about stuff in the book and it is embarrassing when I can’t remember the details. If we are talking total doom, though, then I guess I’d say the maintenance of a relatively happy and healthy existence for my family.
Fair enough! So, what drew you to UC San Diego (other than revenge)? Miss the Bay Area?
You mean, apart from the gorgeous weather, the view of the Pacific Ocean from my office, the excellent quality of life, and good proximity to world class beer and tequila offerings? Actually, there were two big draws. First, my colleagues. It is hard to imagine a department with more people working on stuff that overlaps with my interests. This is more evident now that I’m here than it was when I took the job. Second, the allure of having graduate students was something I wanted to try. It also felt like this might matter because there aren’t a lot of people in Ph.D.-granting institutions who’ve got interests in the Latin American and Latinx side of things, so this felt like an opportunity to make a modest kind of difference.
I do miss a number of things from the Bay Area. It was home for a long time. At the same time, I’ve never acclimated to a place as quickly as I’ve acclimated to San Diego. I am now back to resenting the wearing of long pants and the occasional need for collared shirts. I’d rather spend the rest of my life in t-shirts and shorts, but I’m not yet ready to teach in that uniform. Yet.
So, how did you get into Latinx philosophy? Even if you wanted to study this stuff, it seems relatively hard to find somebody to work with.
In grad school I got interested in the history of philosophy produced in Latin America, mainly because a grad advisor told me that there was no important philosophy that was written in Spanish, and that I couldn’t use Spanish for one of my foreign languages because it wasn’t one of the philosophical languages. None of that seemed right to me, so I set about trying to find out if I was mistaken. Along the way, I discovered that the community of scholars in the U.S. who worked on these things also tended to write about various issues concerning Latinxs. So, I picked up some things just from reading around in the secondary literature on Latin American philosophy.
What’s the difference between Latin American philosophy and Latinx philosophy? I mean, I understand the distinction perfectly. Asking for a friend.
Where Latin American philosophy is typically understood to pick out philosophy produced in Latin America, Latinx philosophy is best understood as philosophy substantively concerned with U.S. Latinxs, i.e., people in the U.S. of Latin American descent. So, as I think of it, Latin American philosophy is like European philosophy—philosophy from a region. Latinx philosophy is more like feminist philosophy in being animated by the particular significance and experiences of a group. Latinx is a term about which I’m mostly unhappy, but there are various reasons, some of which are pretty good, for its being in vogue as a replacement for ‘Latina/os’ ‘Latin@s’ and ‘Hispanics’.
There is, I suppose, an autobiographical piece to this. When I was very young, my father taught Mexican philosophy at the local community college. (I didn’t actually learn this until I was an adult already working on Latin American philosophy.) Also, my godfather and close family friend was involved in starting Chicano Studies at the local college. So, I suppose I got interested in Latinx philosophy the way I got interested in tacos—it was around a lot.
Nowadays, where would be a good place to do Latin American or Latinx philosophy?
In the mid-1990s it was pretty hard to find people working on these things in U.S. philosophy departments, so almost all of us were autodidacts back then. Things are a bit better now. I hear there is a place on the coast of California, near the border, where one could conceivably do a Ph.D. on these things and have multiple committee members interested in this stuff.
Differences between Latinx philosophy and 'anglo' philosophy? Similarities?
The biggest difference is that in Latinx philosophy, the authors are way more likely to have Spanish surnames.
Most work in Latinx philosophy is part of the larger world of Anglophone philosophy, in the same way that, say, lots of feminist philosophy is. This isn’t to say that important chunks of Latinx philosophy haven’t understood themselves to be distinct from and reading different figures than other parts of the Anglophone philosophy world. Latina feminism, for example, is its own subfield with a distinctive set of figures shaping the landscape. However, a number of philosophers working on, for example, immigration ethics are shaped by the familiar figures and debates in Anglophone political philosophy. Other parts of the subfield are thinking about social kinds and issues in the philosophy of race, and their work tends to be shaped by pretty diverse influences. A lot of work tends to understand itself as fundamentally concerned with liberation of various sorts.
And Latin American philosophy?
The comparison with Latin American philosophy is more complicated. There is a roughly 500-year history spanning a continent and half, so generalizations are almost always going to be misleading in one or another way. Beyond analytic and continental philosophy, you have some autochthonous traditions (e.g., the philosophy of liberation), various strands of Marxism and Thomism, lots of history of philosophy, and so on. That said, I suppose it is fair to say that philosophy in Latin American tends to be relatively quick to bury its past, which means that every generation or so has to start over again, oftentimes by importing movements from elsewhere. There are exceptions, of course, but the net result is that the history of Latin American philosophy, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, reads like an alternative version of the history of philosophy that dominated Europe and the United States with interesting offshoots that are oftentimes ignored in the very places that have produced them.
Do your students dig it?
They seem to think that this work matters in a way that doesn’t happen in a lot of my other classes.
What do you make of the criticism of this stuff as merely ‘me studies’, that is, as not as universal or general as other topics such as consciousness or free will?
I think there are two things here: a concern about particularity, and a concern about particularity tied to social identity. I’m not convinced that people have always and only dealt with “universal” topics in the context of philosophy. Anyway, reflections on the particular oftentimes have broader applications. Reflections on the city-state seemed to have legs despite the fact that almost no modern readers of philosophy live in city states. Analytic philosophy of law and philosophy of religion seem to get by reasonably well despite their focus on common law and Christian philosophical traditions. As for the concern about philosophical work about or tied to an identity, I’m not sure what it would look like to do serious work about social and cultural categories that ignores people’s identities. My current convictions about the cultural narcissisms of philosophy are still best expressed by this piece.
Good stuff. What do you find so compelling about the free will stuff, you think?
Topics in the overlap of stuff concerning individual agents and social norms are super interesting to me—moral responsibility, law, punishment, social identity, and culture more generally—but I don’t have a good explanation for why this is the flavor of ice cream that does it for me.
What's your view on free will and moral responsibility, in a nutshell?
My view about free will is roughly the following: (1) there is no one thing people have wanted from a theory of free will, but (2) inasmuch as we want some feature of agency that can ground practices of moralized praising and blaming, where (3) that feature of agency isn’t just a fantasy, then (4) our being able to recognize and respond to reasons is about as much as we can hope for. Unfortunately, (5) a lot of us want a feature of agency like unmoved mover-hood that is (6) on balance, pretty implausible, so I think (7) the best theory about free will—that reasons-responsiveness idea—is going to be a broadly revisionist one, and (8) when we get down to the details, a lot of the hard issues are going to turn on how our socially-oriented nature operates in particular environments.
How do your views on free will affect your personal life, or political views, and vice versa?
I’m not sure. I’ve spent a lot of time arguing with Dan Speak about whether one’s philosophical views can and should interact in these ways, and I’m not sure we’ve made any progress despite many years of going at it. I do think the direction of fit for my work on moral responsibility probably goes from personal life to philosophical theorizing, rather than the other way around. Building Better Beings is a shameless attempt to turn insights from child-rearing into a global theory of moral responsibility, with free will along for the ride. In general, I’m pretty sympathetic to the idea that motivated reasoning doing work in various places within philosophy (see my “The Runeberg Problem” for a version of how this seems to unfold in parts of the free will debate).
Yes! I’m extremely familiar with the free will stuff, and it really is highly polished, excellent philosophy, but the clarity is a double-edged sword: it makes it obvious, to me at least, that the deep philosophical disagreements, stuff not merely the result of reasoning errors, are a result of tastes and preferences. Some of the disputes, like the dispute between compatibilists and incompatibilists, seem intractable by rational means. Positivists might say there is no fact of the matter there. Short of brainwashing, only deeper cultural shifts will make the debates go away (if that is even a desirable outcome, it might not be). Not argumentation. I mean, this is probably true about a lot of areas in philosophy. I don’t know. I’m just a big stupid idiot, right?
You and me both. I don’t know how far reaching these deflationary explanations for philosophy go, but I’m very sympathetic to the idea that at least some of the more trenchant arguments reflect culture and psychological orientations rather than things that moveable by arguments in the shapes preferred by philosophers.
Do you think there will ever be a consensus on what free will is?
The best chance for consensus about free will is to be the last philosopher standing.
Fair enough! High points in your career so far?
High points: getting my first job; winning the APA Book Award; getting my current job; being able to mostly afford my mortgage.
What do you do in your spare time nowadays?
“Spare” time typically involves sitting in SoCal traffic listening to podcasts and audiobooks.
What podcasts are you listening to nowadays?
Very Bad Wizards is a good way to keep up on conversations in moral psych; Barry Lam’s Hi-Phi Nation is really cool, too. I’m sure there are lots of other things I should be listening to, but I only listen when commuting and my commute isn’t that long any more.
Favorite episode of Hi-Phi?
I really liked the Soldier Philosophers two-parter.
Do you still read comics?
Love Saga! Did you read Crumb's illustrated Book of Genesis by any chance? Good stuff!
Never! A terrible lacuna in my comic book-informed theology. Ordering it right now…
Do you still play videogames?
When I do play, it is now usually with one of my kids. I tend to like most of the big RPG-style releases—the Elder Scrolls series, the Fallout series, the Mass Effect series (until it fell into an abyss of terrible), the Witcher games, but for cooperative gaming, things like Civilization are best. Curiously, the Aztecs seem to win every time when I play.
Love Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect! Are you looking forward to Fallout 76?
I’m cautiously looking forward to Fallout 76. The beta version is pre-loaded on my computer, but I probably won’t have a chance to play until the holidays. I’m not yet sold on a non-solipsistic Fallout experience but I’m open to it not being terrible, and if could be great if they’ve somehow solved the problem of other people for those of us who don’t like having our sandcastles kicked over by twitchy teenagers.
Any interesting projects on the horizon?
Well, I’m doing a lot of thinking about the social dimensions of agency and whether and how culture fits into this. We’ll see where it goes.
Sounds interesting! Best and worst parts of philosophy conferences?
Best parts of conferences: seeing friends and colleagues, and learning stuff.
Worst parts: I hate planes, airports, and hotels.
Thoughts on philosophy blogs? Philosophy and the internet in general?
Without being a panacea, the internet made a big difference for those of us not in elite universities—it enabled us to have pretty good access to the state of play in a lot of fields. I surely benefited from that, including the too-brief flowering of substantive philosophy blogs like the Garden of Forking Paths and its successor, Flickers of Freedom. More generally, I suspect that my two decades in the Bay Area, and the tech booms and busts I witnessed while there, probably have had an outsize if subtle influence on various background beliefs I have about the world.
How do you see the future of philosophy? Disconcerting trends? Exciting trends?
Disconcerting trends: the world seems to be burning; less support for public education; the inevitable shuttering of many philosophy departments; the loss of traditional academic jobs and the proliferation of contingent academic labor; people with power are still doing bad, stupid stuff.
Exciting trends: We’re not dead yet?
Honestly, I’m pretty excited about the future of philosophy. I mean, assuming the world doesn’t just burn. There are a lot of smart people out there thinking interesting things and familiar with stuff I don’t know about. Bad stuff aside, what’s not to like about a future where people keep doing that and talking to each other about the results?
Best philosopher you disagree with most?
The average four-year old. They’ve got the whole “why?” thing down pat, and they tend to have poor taste in food, entertainment, and theories about the world, so it is hard to know how to move them on any important issues.
Do you talk philosophy with your kids?
Sometimes. Their interest in talking philosophy varies a lot by kid, and by whether or not they are in the mood to run the risk of me holding forth for too long. Still, I suspect some degree of the philosophical mindset has leaked into the day-to-day of home life.
What was your election night like in 2016?
It felt a little bit like that SNL skit with Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle.
Read any good non-philosophy books lately?
Yeah. Don Quixote rules. I read it this summer, and it is better than its considerable reputation. Other things I’ve enjoyed lately include Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti.
What music are you listening to nowadays?
Great stuff. Great stuff. Last meal?
Something that stays down as I’m dying. Barfing while dying would suck.
Truth. Thanks man, it’s been fun!