In this interview, Simon Critchley, Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, discusses growing up in Letchworth Garden City, working in factories, being an acolyte of the Liverpool Football Club, shoplifting and public urination, Subbuteo, Duck Soup, David Bowie, dropping out of school, doing drugs with Lemmy, getting into an industrial accident, immersing himself in poetry and literature, finding an academic home at Essex, being converted to Hegelianism in a few weeks by Jay Bernstein, Heidegger, anxiety, Phenomenology of Spirit, the threat of nuclear war, Thatcher and the Tories, drinking, the Labour Party, Derrida, moving to Nice to work on his PhD on Heidegger and Carnap with Dominique Janicaud, the ethical message in Derrida, Levinas, family, and philosophy, Aristotle versus Nietzsche, the art of dying, nihilism, the Smiths, the relationship between philosophy and comedy, the New School and New York City, 9/11, grad students, the Stone, working in Athens, Al Green, Stewart Lee, Maria Bamford, the International Necronautical Society, the deep divisions between analytic and continental philosophy, the ‘purpose’ of philosophy, and his last meal…
Where did you grow up?
I was born and grew up in a town called Letchworth Garden City, about 30 miles north of London, but my family were all from Liverpool and this was always considered home and very important to us. It still is. In England, there is huge cultural difference between the north and south. We had the Beatles, we had the best soccer team in the world, we thought we were the funniest people in the world, but we had no jobs, so my father went south to find work as a sheet metal worker.
What was your family like in general? Siblings?
Working-class, Irish Catholic on my mother’s side, Protestant on my father’s side. They were kind and funny and loving, very physically affectionate in a way that is not the case with the English middle-classes. I have an older sister, so I was the only son and a sort of golden child in my parents’ eyes.
Did you work as a kid?
I grew up around the factories my father worked in. He moved up the ladder from the shop-floor and ended up as a foreman and manager. He worked very hard, did well, but his sense of himself as northern and working-class was very strong. I worked in those factories every weekend from around 14, and I was around factories a lot as a kid. It taught me a lot. When I describe these experiences of factories to my students at the New School (which happens rarely), I feel like I’m a character from a Dickens novel. It’s odd. As people may or should know, class differences in England are profound, and a distrust and loathing of the English middle-classes and upper-class has never really left me. This is one of the main reasons why I left England in 2004 because academia is full of kids from very different backgrounds. Usually, posh, but in denial about it.
What did your mom do?
My mother worked in different shops her whole life, mostly in pharmacies, and cut peoples hair in her spare time. My mother was a hairdresser. My revenge against her was to go bald early. My sister was also a hairdresser. My parents left school at 14 and my sister at 15. I left at 16.
Culturally Catholic, I guess, but we never went to church. The closest I had to religious education was learning about football from dad and inculcating the complex rituals of being a fan of Liverpool Football Club.
Not at all. There were no books at home. Not even the Bible. All my parents read were tabloid newspapers and my mother read womens’ magazines every now and then. They could read, but not really write very well. My father only ever wrote in capital letters, like those caps-lock Trump tweets.
As a little kid, what did you do for fun? What were you scared of?
I don’t remember being scared much, apart from the usual school violence. We were expected to be pretty tough. Fun wasn’t a word in my vocabulary. What I did was play a lot of football and watch a lot of TV and I read a bit. My mum and dad always used to call me a serious child.
As a teenager, how were you most similar and most different from your family?
I was clearly a little different from my family from early on, more inward and awkward. We were like a little tribe in the early years, but my mum and dad divorced when I was 13 or so, and I had a lot of time on my own, which allowed me to develop behavioral tics and idiosyncrasies, of which I am not proud.
Did you get into any trouble?
Yeah, a bit. When I went to school, you could still be beaten, caned, things like that. This sharpened the mind and made students cunning. When I was a teenager, I got arrested for things like shoplifting and public urination. These things stick in the mind.
Favorite games, cartoons, movies, that type of thing?
Subbuteo was a passion, a little football game that I played obsessively with friends or on my own. I loved that game. Music became important quite early on, especially the Beatles, Motown, and my mother used to love big American musicals, like “South Pacific” and “West Side Story” and then discovering Bowie was I was 12 was a life-changer. I loved Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Howerd, Les Dawson, old fashioned English comedy. Later, Python became important. I saw all the Marx Brothers films when I was 13 and they made a huge impression, especially “Duck Soup.” I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
Love Python and Bowie! What effect did Bowie have on you?
The effect Bowie had on me was the same as he had on hundreds of thousands of ordinary British boys and girls. Listening to Suffragette City in 1972 was my first sexual experience. The effect was visceral and opened a whole world of possibility.
Awesome man. Awesome. Did you enjoy school?
When I was 10, I took an entrance exam for a grammar school. Back then, education in England was clearly divided into the 90 per cent who went to what was called a secondary modern school (who were being trained to be next subservient working class) and then 10 per cent who went to a grammar school. There were 100 kids in my year/grade at school and 10 of us got into the grammar school. I came 9th. We all knew where we were in the pecking order. But because of that, I received an old-fashioned academic education from 11 to 16, with tutors in black gowns. The whole thing. We were a little scared of them, but some of them were interesting and we learned a lot about history, science, maths and languages (French, Latin, Russian).
In my early years at grammar school, I did alright and was interested in ancient history. I had a history teacher called Mr. Parker. You might say he made me nosey. But he noticed that I was interested in the ancient civilizations of the near east and then ancient Greece. I remember reading a book called Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria and being fascinated. Then I read H.D.F. Kitto’s The Greeks and this fascinating with ancient civilization has never left me. However, I failed dramatically at school. I flunked my exams when I was 16 (they were called O Levels), failing them all, apart from geography. I left school, signed on the dole, had a very misspent youth.
So what did you do in lieu of school?
I was playing in bands by this time and was sure that I would become a rock star. It didn’t happen. I went to catering college for two years from 16-18 because it was easy and I didn’t care. I’m a trained chef and sommelier. Skills I have never used. By this time, punk had happened, London was the centre of the known universe and was just 30 minutes away by train. I have a lot of stories about the punk years. But I kept on playing in bands and writing songs.
The bands you were in...remember any band names?
Oh sure: The Fur Coughs (later known as The Bleach Boys), Panik (with a K to be really Germanic), Rusty Crumpet, The Social Class Five, and – my last band, we were not that awful, we were very funky – The Good Blokes.
Give me one punk era story. Just one!
There are a lot. The bands I was in were support acts for people like The Police, Siouxsie and Banshees, Gary Numan, all sorts. I did speed with Lemmy from Motorhead (at the time he was still in Hawkwind) in the Marquee Club. I saw the first Public Image gig at the Rainbow on Christmas Day, 1978. That was really something.
Amazing! Were you working?
I was also back working in factories by this time. Then, when I was 18, I had a very serious industrial accident when my left hand was effectively severed in a machine. I kept the hand, but am disabled in my left-hand, which is my writing hand. I had to relearn everything and couldn’t play guitar for a couple of years. I also lost a lot of memory in the accident, which often happens after a bad accident. Trauma stuff. But I think of the accident as a kind of year zero when I was able to reset myself and start again. After the accident, I wasted a lot of time, did a lot of drugs and played a lot of music. Then, around 20, things began to change.
I began to read obsessively, everything I could find: novels, plays and especially poetry, especially Eliot, Pound, and Joyce. I went back into education and did some remedial exams that I should have done when I was 16. This was at Stevenage College of Further Education. A proper shithole. But it had a library and I found a couple of teachers who were interesting. I educated myself in libraries, borrowing or often stealing books which was easy back then. I began A levels and then one day in 1981 another student said to me I should apply to university. The idea had never occurred to me. My parents were puzzled and thought I was being stupid and lazy.
What were you looking for in the literature and poetry you think? Was there a mission, or were you exploring? Simply enjoying yourself?
I was never enjoying myself. At least not explicitly. I was looking for the same thing in poetry that I had found in music and that I went on to find in philosophy. I was pretentious, obsessive and arrogant, but my ears were open and I soaked up everything I could read. Books were like secret treasures for me. I spent a lot of time in public libraries and—I’m ashamed to say—stole a few books. It was really easy back then.
Where’d you end up applying?
I applied to a number of ‘new’ campus universities in England and to my amazement, I got in to Warwick and Essex. I chose Essex because it was near the trailer park where my mother used to go in the summer and I liked the ugliness of the campus. So, I was 22 when I went to University, ostensibly to study English and European Literature. But then I did a philosophy course in my first year and things began to change.
Describe the Essex campus.
1960s brutalist modernism, with lots of concrete, plate glass windows and mustard and beige furniture. But it was home.
I find something very appealing about brutalistic architecture.
Yeah, I loved its harshness too and miss its dim concrete hues.
Did you feel out of place?
Because I was older, 22 at the time, I was a bit cooler than the 19 year olds because I’d done a lot of the things that they wanted to do. When I got to Essex, it was like paradise. I could just read and study and was left to myself. But I did feel out place, for reasons of social class and personal neuroses. I had a bad breakdown in my first year, but I pulled through, came top in my first-year exams and switched to philosophy. The Philosophy Department identified me early as someone who wanted to work hard and had a little ability and I was really looked after as a student.
Yeah, a lot. But my girlfriend lived in London and we were together for many, many years and I spent a lot of time with her in North and East London whenever I could.
Favorite classes and teachers?
Very many. I had fantastic teachers and the reason I switched from literature to philosophy was because I couldn’t believe how clever they were. And they had time for me. Office doors were open, and I spent a lot of time just talking or, mostly, listening to them. Jay Bernstein was my first undergraduate teacher, and he has been a colleague for my whole career. He turned me into a Hegelian in 8 weeks. Others were Michael Weston, Onora O’Neill, Frank Cioffi, and – most of all – Robert Bernasconi, who ended up as my PhD supervisor.
Particular books which had a big impact?
Heidegger’s ‘What is Metaphysics?’ was like a bomb going off, especially in its description of anxiety. The later Wittgenstein was very important, but the book that really got me going was Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’.
I dig late Wittgenstein. Why do you think guys like Hegel are so reviled by so many analytic philosophers?
Back in the 80s, it was largely a question of revulsion fueled by ignorance. Hegel was barely known, apart from Taylor’s book, the later Kant too, for example the Critique of Judgment and a fortiori for Heidegger, phenomenology, Frankfurt School critical theory and much else. A large part of what we were doing in the Philosophy Department at Essex was simply trying to make sure that these and other authors were read and taken seriously, expanding the canon.
So, as an upper level student, were you cognizant of the divide between analytic and continental philosophy?
Yes, very well aware of it from my first year as an undergrad. But to be clear, I did a good deal of analytic philosophy as an undergraduate and long after and many of my basic philosophical instincts are closer to later Wittgenstein and James, especially the late essays on radical empiricism.
Any major world events that had a significant impact on your life and worldview during this time?
The collapse or slow erosion of social democracy in the late 1970s and the rise of Thatcher and the Tories, who I hated and still hate with a cold intensity. The so-called Falklands War of 1982, the miners’ strike of 1984-85 and the rise of the new capitalism. I just remember 1980s as a time of darkness, with a lot of good music. I hid away and read book and learned to write.
Why did you decide to major in philosophy and not, literature or poetry?
At the end of my first year, I was moving towards philosophy and my friend William Large and I went to see Frank Cioffi for a chat. He talked about how watching cockroaches die from poison during his time teaching in Singapore had reawakened the problem of other minds for him. We were impressed and both changed to single honours philosophy.
What did your parents make of that decision?
I didn’t tell them. It was none of their business. They had no idea what degree I was taking, which suited me.
What was your intro class like?
Did the drugs and stuff continue at Essex?
No, but I did drink an awful lot.
In general, what were you doing in your spare time?
Like I said, drinking mainly.
Ha! Politically active?
I used to go to the Communist Students Association, as they had the best reading group, and it was there that I first read Derrida, Foucault, and Althusser, who was ubiquitous at the time on the left. I joined the Labour Party in 1984.
Overall, how did your interests and worldview evolve?
Being at university was a great liberation for someone from my background and I feel really lucky to have been there (for free) in those years.
When and why exactly did you decide to pursue an advanced degree in philosophy?
Towards the end of my third year at Essex, I decided to apply to the British Academy for a PhD grant. At that point, you didn’t need to do an MA. My devious plan was to get the money and then go and live in the South of France with my girlfriend and never come back. The plan worked. I got a first class honours degree, which was hard to get back then, I got money for a PhD and we left to go and live in Nice.
What was the dissertation on?
My plan was to write a dissertation on the use of transcendental argumentation in Derrida, with lots of Kant and Husserl. But then things changed. I learned French. I began to write everything in French and learned to do serious research and take notes. Taking good notes is the most important part of learning, I think. I had an extremely kind teacher in Nice called Dominique Janicaud, who was a big influence. He got me to write an M.Phil thesis on Heidegger and Carnap, which was really important as a learning experience. It was 200 pages in French. Ugh!
Janicaud was a scholar of Hegel and Heidegger, but – unusually for French Heideggerians – he was hugely interested in questions of the nature of rationality, the philosophy of science and the link between the latter and technology. He got me reading a lot of Popper, but also Whitehead. He also wrote and thought very clearly and was a very kind man. I have tried to write about his work in different places and made sure that his last book, which was an introduction to philosophy written for his daughter Sophie, was translated into English.
What was the jist of the Heidegger/Carnap thesis? Stand by it today?
Yes, I do. A version of argument found its way into Chapter 6 of my VSI to Continental Philosophy. Basically, my question is the status of the overcoming of metaphysics in logical positivism, especially early Carnap, and how Heidegger’s work can be seen as persistent polemic with Carnap or what Heidegger calls ‘Logistik’. I set out Heidegger’s and Carnap’s positions as clearly as I could, and then tried to use Wittgenstein’s work as a mediating third term between that opposition. The thesis ended up being a critique of both Heidegger and Carnap, and I see this – together with philosophers like Michael Friedman – debate as the key event in the parting of the ways between philosophical traditions in the 20th Century. In order to understand that division between tradition, you have to understand the Heidegger Carnap debate
How would you describe the 80’s in general?
For those who are younger, it is difficult to understand how much my generation were completely certain that a nuclear war would break out and that the UK – or Airstrip One, as Orwell called it – would be the first country to be fried. For me, there is one word that captures the 1980s: darkness. I just remember everything being dark, and cold and not having enough money. But I did get an education.
Why on earth did you leave Nice?
I did my BA, M.Phil and PhD in 6 years, I think. I don’t know how I did it. but I worked really hard at writing and using the mediation of French was incredibly useful in honing my ability to write clearly in English. I ended up with an academic job at 28, first at Cardiff and then back at Essex. I was paid to think. It is an immense privilege that I never take for granted. I hate academics who moan all the time. Having an academic position is an extraordinary luxury.
I was very determined to try and do good work. That’s all.
I would not have felt at home in Oxbridge and was convinced by the intellectual project we were trying to bring about at Essex, which led to journals like The European Journal of Philosophy. I was also politically and personally very close to Ernesto Laclau, who was a big influence on my work and there was a fascinating school of discourse analysis at Essex. He was terrific fun and I learned a lot from him, about how to think theoretically or systematically about social and political questions in a way that was sensitive to empirical research. He was also just interesting to be around. We used to fly to places like Poland and give talks together, drink whiskey and talk to the strangest people. I miss him very much. As I miss all my mentors.
This was when you started getting back into Derrida, right?
I read Derrida from my second-year undergrad and became deeply preoccupied with his work. For me, it felt like the real philosophical avant-garde and I wanted to understand what he was doing and argue that it was motivated by an ethical intention, provided that ethics is understood in the sense given to that word by Emmanuel Levinas.
What is ethics "in the sense given to that word by Emmanuel Levinas"?
Ethics is the name that Levinas gives to the relation of infinite responsibility to the other person. This moral personalism is the core of ethics for Levinas, and is not captured by any of the dominant moral theories of deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics. In terms of moral theory, Levinas is closest to Kant’s second version of the categorical imperative, respect for persons, but Levinas is much less of a rationalist than Kant.
Got, so what's going on in Derrida, ethically?
My claim is that Levinas’s concern with the other is at the heart of Derrida’s entire philosophical enterprise. There is a duty to the other at the core of deconstruction, which is its undeconstructable basis; this is what Derrida calls ‘justice’.
Does working on Derrida pose unique philosophical challenges?
Not really, as long as you are prepared to read a lot of his work and understand the primary texts he is working from.
Among analytic philosophers, he is notorious!
I know. I find it all rather sad and stems from ignorance of his texts and the tradition from which they emerge and with which they engage.
Tried to get into Derrida as an undergrad, but it seemed like a lot of word play. Couldn't get a handle on the substance.
It helps if you read French. It helps a lot. And you have to understand Heidegger, particularly Heidegger’s later work on the history of being before understanding what he is trying to do. And Hegel in the French context and Husserl and the debates around Saussurean linguistics, and Blanchot and 20th Century French literature. OK you need to know a lot.
That said, I'm sure I misunderstood it as I misunderstood, and misunderstand, many things!
Don’t we all, darling?
Truth. How would you sell Derrida to a skeptic or explain Derrida to an undergrad?
I wouldn’t try to sell him. Philosophy is not retail. And it is important to understand that Derrida was not a skeptic, but someone trying to understand the formal logic and philosophical systems and to show how those systems, at the maximum point of their coherence become incoherent and contradict themselves. And he did this by simply reading carefully. For me, Derrida was first and foremost a reader of texts.
So it seems like there's a tension between the idea that understanding continental philosophy requires a ton of study even for analytic philosophers like me to understand—like I need to read it in French and be familiar with 20th century French literature—and that it is for working class people...is that tension illusory?
It’s illusory and completely misunderstands the deep auto-didactic traditions of working-class life that have been well-documented, especially in the 19th Century. I remember Arthur Scargill, former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, the most powerful union in the UK at the time, talking about his father coming back from the pits every day, washing his hands and reading the dictionary. The ruling class has always been stupid. Education in areas like continental philosophy, political theory, economics, and literature is a weapon to use against them.
How did philosophical study change you, overall, as a person?
Philosophical study provided a focus for my basic existential anxiety and cleared my mind. Once I had realized that I wasn’t going to be a rock star (ha ha) or a great poet (ho ho), I devoted myself to reading, making notes (the most important thing one can do – it sounds silly. But it’s so important, particularly as many of the texts I was working with were not translated) and then writing. I guess I was a little calmer in the early 90s. But I went fast, maybe too fast, but I was allowed to develop quickly in a kind of greenhouse atmosphere at Essex where experimentation was encouraged, and the standard felt high. I felt constantly unable to perform at the level that was expected for me for around a decade. And when I felt comfortable, I did everything I could to leave for a new challenge. It took a while and I nearly went to Notre Dame (which was a deeply impressive place. I am a devotee of Alasdair MacIntyre), but then I went to New School. When I got there, surrounded by some amazing minds, I had to really raise my game.
You see, it surprises me that you are fan of MacIntyre. What's the appeal, for you?
His historical sensibility, his sense of the problem of nihilism, his marginal and indeed working-class status with regard to mainstream analytic philosophy, even his Catholicism. There are two paths through philosophical modernity: Aristotle or Nietzsche. One has to choose. He chose Aristotle. I choose Nietzsche. But maybe he’s right.
I can see that. Team Nietzsche, over here. What philosophical projects were you contemplating?
Thanks to a man called Stephan Chambers, I got a contract with Blackwell for my first book, The Ethics of Deconstruction, which came out in 1992, around the time of the Derrida affair in the UK, when he was initially denied an honorary doctorate at Cambridge. Stories about deconstruction as value-free nihilism were on the front page of newspapers. And then my book came out, arguing that there was an ethical demand in Derrida’s work and it got some attention. Then I was clear that I wanted to write something completely different, both more ambitious and weirder. That became Very Little…Almost Nothing.
Any room for romance?
I was in a steady relationship for all those years, which was really important.
Ah yes, you’ve mentioned this relationship before. Who was this relationship with? Do y’all have any kids?
It was with Anthea Le Cornu, and we have a 26 year-old son called Edward (pictured below). We broke up in 1994.
Does having a kid affect the way you do philosophy? Does philosophy affect the way you raise your kid?
Yes and yes. We had a son when I was thirty-two at exactly the same time as my first book came out. The former completely put the latter into perspective. He’s 26 now and we’re very close. He even studied some philosophy at university. Most of our conversations turn around football or soccer and our shared love of Liverpool Football Club. I tried to write about the father-son relationship in my little book on football.
But parenthood has been on my thoughts very much over the years and a large part of my attraction to work of Levinas is because he places the child at centre or as the culmination of his major philosophical work, Totality and Infinity.
The history of philosophy is a largely childless place or a place where children are firmly kept in place, as in Plato’s Republic. But if philosophy is an ars moriendi, an art of dying, then having a child is a refutation or utter complication of that selfish concern with one’s mortality. Children raise the question of the afterlife, namely the life that comes after your own.
Interesting stuff, man! I’m having a son. Going to have to read some Levinas! Words of wisdom for people trying to break into the book publishing game?
I have always had close working relationships with editors since I started and that continues on. I could name 5 to 7 people who have really fostered my work and to whom I owe a huge debt. In England, because it's smaller, it's easier to hang out with people in publishing. But I only work with people I really like, and everything I have written has been written for an editor who I know very well. That's my rule. I don't care about reputations, the importance of the press or any of that bullshit. Academics have a lot to learn about publishing, but the basic issue is having something to say and saying it clearly. It's easier said than done. writing is difficult and takes time, sometimes a lifetime to get right.
So, after your kid, and your first book, you wrote "Very Little...Almost Nothing"… the thesis?
I begin from the problem of religious disappointment, namely what might count as a meaning to life in the absence of any transcendent source of meaning, like God. This leads me to work through the history of the concept of nihilism, which I see as the central philosophical problem of modernity. I reject the Heideggeriean or Hegelian view that an affirmation of finitude can redeem the meaning of life. Instead, I argue that the ultimate mark of human finitude is that we cannot find meaning for the finite, which leaves us open and dependent creatures. Rather, an adequate response to nihilism consists in seeing meaninglessness as a task or achievement, what I call the achievement of the ordinary or the everyday. I develop this through readings of Blanchot, Cavell, German Romanticism, Wallace Stevens, and especially Samuel Beckett, whose work I consider to be of supreme philosophical importance.
Love it. And what were you doing for fun?
I went to the pub, I listened to the Smiths a lot, I watched and read a lot of comedy (which I still do), I was still a rather useless political activist for the Labour Party (until the early 90s and a series of crushing general election defeats), and I began the pointless activity of going to conference and traveling too much. Something I try not to do any more, as it is a waste of time.
Relationship between comedy and philosophy?
I wrote a book on humour that deals with that. It is very, very funny.
haha so humble! What’s the premise of the book?
I argue that humour is philosophy in practice.
Did the world get a little brighter as you closed in on the 90's?
I cleared my throat and found my voice and doors began to open. But I left some things and people behind which I regret very much.
Why did you end up at the New School?
I was getting bored at Essex, my work was getting stale, and I needed to raise my game, as you lot say, and just work harder. The New School embodied a tradition of historically informed philosophy that is at once very traditional (in terms of doing the big books) and very radical, socially and politically. I knew about the New School by legend when I was a student and knew many of the faculty when I moved there. I went to the New School in order to try and become a better thinker and writer. I don’t know whether it worked.
Culture shock, moving to the states?
Not really. I grew up in England, which was a colony of the former American empire. So, very little was unfamiliar.
Describe NYC for somebody who has never been.
It’s a place for people who want to be lucky. It can be a cruel city, but I have found it a glorious place to spend the last 15 years and what I like is that no one ever asks me where I’m from. But I am getting bored with New York. It can be a terribly provincial place.
Were you in NY on 9/11?
No, but my friend Jay Bernstein had just moved to NYC and I had other friends here.
Did the event change your perspective on things?
Not at all. I was surprised it hadn’t happened sooner. The day itself wasn’t a surprise at all. When you keep fucking up the world, someone is going to fuck you up before too long.
In general, any events (election of Bush, Iraq, Obama, Trump, Brexit) since you've been in the states that have had a significant impact on your world view?
Too many to mention. I am news junkie and soak up information all the time, so everything has had an effect. And I don’t want to talk about Trump.
What are some of the things you've done you think are most important, since you started at New School?
My main concern has been with trying to get our PhD students properly funded. We’ve had some success in that area. Teaching at a fees-driven, private school that sees itself as left-wing and doesn’t have a large endowment creates all sorts of bad situations. I have a very bad conscience about graduate students carrying significant quantities of debt.
Since you started, how have you evolved as a teacher?
Like I think I said, I had to raise my intellectual level when I got to the New School. When I got here I had colleagues like Dick and Jay Bernstein, Agnes Heller, and Yerri Yovel and we were always being visited by the brightest minds I had ever encountered. Also, I often teach 14 week lecture courses, which is a lot of work and you need to be in control of a lot of material. I hope I have got better as a teacher, but I don’t win prizes or anything and my evaluations are pretty average. But I do my best. I think I am a better writer than a speaker.
How’d you get involved with NYTimes and the Stone?
I wrote something called The Book of Dead Philosophers, which became an NYT bestseller in 2009, I think. Anyhow, the book got around a bit and came to the attention of David Shipley who was running NYT opinion at the time. He asked me to write an on-ep, which I did and it came out of April Fool's day 2009, which was appropriate. he then put me in touch with an editor working with him called Peter Catapano and we became good friends and thick as thieves. I wrote a number of things for Peter, which did well and then we were having a beer, Guinness I recall, in a bar on Smith Street in Brooklyn and had the idea for a philosophy column. That was early 2010. at that time, the online edition of the NYT didn't matter nearly as much as the print edition and we were given great freedom and Peter and I work together very well. So, we launch the column with a piece called 'What Is a Philosopher?', which was actually about the famous digression in Plato's Theaetetus. it caused quite a stir and we realized that we were onto something quite big.
When the newspaper began to move more and more online, we already had an audience, indeed a community of readers and knew the medium well, so we were able to survive in a very tough media environment. I am in contact with Peter every day and read submissions all the time. Most of them are bad, but every now and then you find a gem, a new voice, and that's really exciting. I'm very proud of the stone and the work that Peter and I have done. We have done our best to make philosophy accessible and jargon free without dumbing it down. I took a break from writing for the NYT for a year or so, but I am now writing a series of essays now called ‘Athens in Pieces’ and have been living in Athens for the last two months, which has been terrific fun to write, and a lot of hard work based on careful research. The point is to make it look easy. But it is not easy.
Any other interesting projects in the works right now?
A big new book on tragedy coming out in a few weeks, which is a statement, I hope, and an internal critique of the very enterprise of philosophical thinking through a return the Greek drama. After that, I don’t know. I never really know what I will do next.
What do you do in your spare time nowadays?
Here in Athens, I am going to a lot of archeological sites, reading widely about antiquity and soaking up as much theatre as I can. I am also eating a lot of excellent Greek food and getting as fat as a cat.
Nice! Favorite music nowadays?
Too many to mention. I am by definition a fan. Music matters enormously to me and I still try and make some in my spare time. Bowie has always been a big part of my life. The Birthday Party were the best band ever saw live. I know the words to all of Al Green’s hits. I could go on.
Still consuming comedy? TV?
Right now? Stewart Lee in the UK and Maria Bamford in the US. I watch a LOT of comedy, most recently a terrific series called ‘Flowers’, written by Will Sharpe. Oh, my partner and I love nature documentaries, especially about the ocean.
Bamford rules! I’ll check out ‘Flowers’. How do you see the future of philosophy? Exciting trends? Disconcerting trends?
When I was working very closely with the writer Tom McCarthy, with our organization called The International Necronautical Society, we wrote manifestoes against the idea of the future. I am still against the future. We need to cultivate the radical past in order to destabilize the present. Questions about the future of philosophy are largely vacuous in my view. They are just about the reproduction of ideology.
I dig the spirit of the Society, by the way. So let me ask you a different question: Is the divide between analytic and continental philosophy ever going to disappear entirely?
No, and the reasons are not really philosophical. In my naivete in the 90s, I believed that the division could be overcome and that if you were able to write clearly and compellingly about Continental philosophy, then bridges could be built. I spent a lot of energy trying to do that, with the Blackwell’s Companion to Continental Philosophy and the Very Short Introduction to CP that came out in 2001 and of which I am proud. And I think that in the UK and Ireland, progress was being made and the philosophical landscape was changing. But I no longer think that. What has to be understood in the US is the way in which Continental philosophy as a project in the UK was deeply allied to questions of social class. Most of my fellow students at Essex were from working-class or lower-middle class backgrounds, and we felt alienated by analytic philosophy as it was practiced at Oxford, Cambridge and the London colleges because the students and teachers from those places seem ‘posh’ and privileged. They spoke with a different accent, a very different idiolect. I just felt like a dirty punk. Something different but related can be found in philosophy in the US, where the ‘better’ schools have usually been overwhelmingly analytic and continental philosophy was confined to the ‘worse’ schools and the Catholic universities. The New School, where I teach now, represents an interesting kind of oddity, but we do a lot of analytic philosophy. So, the distinction between traditions is not so much even a philosophical issue, it’s a social and political one.
Purpose of philosophy?
Foucault, of whom I am not that fond, was fond of quoting the French poet Rene Char, ‘Develop your legitimate strangeness’. I think there needs to be a lot more of that. If you like, that’s the purpose of philosophy as I see it.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice as an undergrad, what would it be?
Don’t be such a fucking idiot, deal with your anxiety, avoid self-pity and look at things more closely. Observation is the key. I wish I were better at it.
You get to ask an omniscient being one question...shoot!
I have met thousands of omniscient beings, or beings who think they are omniscient in academia over the years. There is no point asking them anything.
Thanks for your time, Simon.
[interviewer: Cliff Sosis]