In this interview Simon Kirchin, Reader in Philosophy and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at University of Kent, and I discuss growing up in the Black Country, his Protestant Work Ethic, hymns, the Sinclair 48k, being teased for being a speccy swot, REM and college radio, meeting John Hick, getting into religious studies, doing comedy routines, Tim Williamson and a bag of coins, working with David Wiggins and Bill Child while performing at the Oxford Revue on the side, getting into moral realism light, dipping his toe into the world of civil service and then escaping to Sheffield where he met Jenny Saul and Keith Frankish, football and anagrams, getting immersed in debates about naturalism and moral realism with Joyce, doing 19 interviews before landing a job at Kent (with a stop at Bristol along the way, where he bumped into his wife Penny), how his teaching and his personal life inform his research, Thick Evaluation, getting into the administration game, playing the Dame, favorite children’s books, progress in, and the value of, philosophy, the relationship between ethics and metaethics, donating to the site, Bernard Williams, the meaning of disagreement, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Kristin Hersh, Yes Minister, Mozart, and his quintessentially English last meal…
Where did you grow up?
I was born in 1974 in the UK, more precisely Dudley in the West Midlands, just to the west of Birmingham. It's an area known as the Black Country, named because of the heavy concentration of industry with all the smog and smoke that goes with it. Although there was still a fair amount of motor industry when I grew up, it was and is an area that is best described as 'post-industrial'. Although I haven't lived there for years, I still identify with it keenly.
What was your family like?
My mum and dad were not academic at all. My mum left school when she was 15 and went straight to work for Barclays bank. She spent some time setting up the early computer network in the Midlands branches, and then became a cashier. My dad left school when he was 16 and worked for most of his career in the sales offices of foundries and factories. Despite little school qualifications, they were and are both as sharp as tacks, especially at mental arithmetic. (I nearly became an accountant.)
They were born and lived in terrace houses near to each other in a working-class part of Dudley. They moved out when they got married, to a slightly nicer part, on the cusp of the whole midlands conurbation surrounded on one side by fields. So growing up I had lots of greenery to look at and play in. I suppose you'd say that they were aspirational working class. We had very few books at home, but they were both encouraging of me at school and they instilled in me the cliched but true-to-life working-class, Protestant work ethic. My extended family is quite small. My dad was, like me, an only child. My mum had one older sister, who lived on the adjacent street. She had just one daughter, too, who is 16 years older than me.
Was it a religious household?
Yes and no. My mum and dad were both brought up to be religious: my dad was bred in the Church of England whilst my mum was and still is strongly Methodist. Dad wasn't too bothered by religion, really, aside from the music, so when I was growing up we attended various Methodist chapels. My mum did a lot of work in the church and is still a very strong believer. When I was a lot younger I didn't have that strong a faith, and now it's virtually non-existent. There were lots of things I liked about church and still do, the sense of community mainly. But some things I hated even as a child, mainly the cringe-worthy attempts to be cool by singing godawful, modern choruses instead of proper hymns.
haha…as a little kid, what did you do for fun?
I had plenty of school friends who used to come over to play, or go to the park to play football, but I was always happy on my own too. (That's just like now: I'm happy hanging out with my family, happy surrounded by lots of people, and happy with my own company.) When I was a kid I was crazy about Lego, as my son is. I used to play a lot of computer games; the Sinclair 48k was my favourite machine. I used to go and see Wolves play, my local football team. And I watched a lot of TV: mostly prime-time gameshows, football and cricket, murder mysteries (just like my daughter now), and pretty much any comedy show.
48k? Impressive! How were you most dissimilar from the rest of your family?
That's a hard one as there was a lot I had in common with my parents and the rest of my family. Certainly, I was more questioning and inquisitive then my parents, but that may just be because I was a child; I'm wary of reimagining my early life as one of 'philosopher-in-waiting'. I don't think I was any more questioning than anyone else my age. Where I may have been somewhat different is how observant I was and how I turned that into a constant stream of jokes, funny lines, and sarcasm. Writing and performing comedy starts from seeing and understand the world in a certain way, and the same is true of philosophy. That's quite a bland truism, I suppose, but truisms are normally true. Also, I always loved an audience. Visitors would frequently get bombarded with my latest puns and routines. Not much has changed really, as my wife will sadly attest. My long-suffering parents used to put up with it gamely.
Did you start thinking about what you were going to do when you grew up?
Like many children I went through a lot of different ideas. As a child my dream job would have been to be a designer for Lego. As I grew older I had a serious interest in becoming a chef. I spent a lot of my teenage years from when I was about 14 working in a local pub-restaurant, mainly doing the washing-up and cleaning, but I dabbled in some of the cooking as well when they'd let me. After a while, though, I realised that one must work dreadfully long hours in the catering industry in return for terrible pay... so I decided to become an academic instead!
haha…so, I’m guessing you enjoyed school?
I loved school and I went to three very good local state schools/colleges. Nothing really special or exciting. Fun with some great friends and teachers. My English and maths teachers especially were brilliant. My favourite secondary school teacher, Mrs. Hadlington, just used to let me write comedy and sketch scripts in class as she trusted me and the others to get on with the work at home. Most of my exercise books for GCSEs (the course for 14-16 year olds in England) were taken up with parodies of Macbeth, and Pride and Prejudice. Of course, I got teased for being the speccy swot [editor’s English to American translation: four-eyed nerd] who always did his homework on time. But it was great.
Were you reading a lot outside of class?
You said you were a ‘speccy swot’, but did you have any interest in sports?
I played a lot of football and cricket as a kid and teenager, but mostly on the local park. I wasn't that good.
Fair enough. Politics?
I used to argue a lot about politics; I have different politics from the rest of my family. I was always the first to volunteer to stand in school elections.
What topics would you argue with your folks about?
Mostly about politics – wealth and income distribution, fairness, and I distinctly remember one good-natured but heated debate about why the UK should give international aid to other countries. Remember I was born in 1974, so was 5 when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 and grew I up with her in power. That sort of affects you!
As a teen, what music did you listen to?
Were you still doing routines in your teens?
I started performing sketches and short routines at sixth-form college: at the start of the day there was still a morning assembly, although the religious element was interpreted very liberally if and when it was there at all. The religious studies students and others in our gang used to take the lead in putting something on every fortnight or so. I did a lot of the writing and performing for that.
So when did philosophy enter the picture, exactly?
When I went to sixth-form college to do my A-Levels, which people in England typically do when they are 16-18. I studied maths, economics and religious studies. The last had a substantial element of philosophy in it: lots of moral philosophy and philosophy of religion, as well as psychology of religion and new testament studies. We studied Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Hume, Mill, Freud, Jung, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Aristotle, Sartre and many more. I had two teachers for religious studies who are probably the biggest formative influence in my life outside my family. Again, they trusted us to do the work outside class. We just spent a lot of time talking about philosophy, about religion, about the wider world. One of them had done his PhD with John Hick at Birmingham on Wittgenstein and religion. They brought in a lot of controversial but highly interesting speakers to class. One of them had a fascination with crime and evil, so we had visits from people connected with a number of high-profile cases. They opened my eyes and horizons greatly. It was at sixth-form college that I discovered my inner bookworm: I ripped through Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Camus and Steinbeck, George Eliot, George Orwell, and others.
Love Dostoyevsky, hate the [spoiler alert] spiritual twist endings. Camus rules! Did you start thinking about what you wanted to focus on in college?
It was when I got to sixth-form college that I thought about academia. Quite honestly being a philosopher and earning money from it was something I really fancied doing from when I was about 17. I thank my lucky stars every day that I've managed to land my dream job, even with everything academics have to put up with.
Where did you apply to school?
I was very fortunate to have had many encouraging people round me, mainly my parents and my teachers. At the time when I was thinking about university my sixth-form college was trying to get a few people into Oxford and Cambridge. My two RS teachers were keen for three of us in the class to try our hand. If I'm being completely honest, I settled on applying for Oxford not for academic reasons but because I was such a fan of Inspector Morse, and Michael Palin and Terry Jones were my favourite Pythons. (At that time I was trying to get my head round Wittgenstein's later philosophy and reading Ray Monk's superlative biography, but classy murder mysteries and classic comedy trumped everything I'm afraid.) I applied for a few other places as well, all to study philosophy or philosophy with other subjects. Luckily I got into Oxford, to University College, and spent three happy years supposedly doing PPE, but mainly doing just P. I say 'luckily' because my entrance interview was a nightmare. I remember Tim Williamson asking me a series of questions about the rationality of placing bids on an unknown number of coins in a bag. With each answer that left my lips I could tell it was going badly! I must have done a lot better on the exam I had to sit.
So you got in! Parent’s reaction to your decision to pursue philosophy?
Not bad, actually. I think they were just proud that I'd got into university, even if they were a bit surprised that they had ended up producing a philosopher. I think it helped that I was going to study economics as well, but I think they always knew I was going to drop it after the first compulsory year. And I explained to them that it was far more abstract than they might think. My strongest memory of my first year's study of economics was all the time spent working out differential equations, and I told my parents that life's too short for that, which they accepted perfectly well.
One thing they did worry about were the costs. It was particularly hard for most of my time at Oxford as three weeks in my dad was made redundant, and he didn't get a job again until after I had left. My parents scrimped and saved and I did extra shifts at the local pub when I was back home in the vacation. I was one of the last generation that got proper university grants.
Was Oxford a good experience? What did you do for fun?
At Oxford I had many great tutors. Tim himself taught me logic, I had David Wiggins for ethics and Bill Child took me for later Wittgenstein. They were excellent. I also managed to make a lot of very good friends. There was a good mix of people in my year group across all the subjects. Quite a few of us were first generation university students, some from state schools and some who had won bursaries to selective schools. And I had a blast doing lots of other things. Playing football badly and cricket worse, socializing, and doing a lot more comedy with a group of friends. We performed every so often in the open mic sessions of the Oxford Revue, sketches mainly.
Could you describe Williamson a bit?
Tim was an excellent and patient teacher. In fact, with hindsight very patient, since I suspect many of us were very slow when he was trying to teach us first year logic. I also had him during my second year when he and Bill took us for tutorials on Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. I learnt a great deal from both of them in those sessions: the tutorials were great for cutting one's teeth on, not just the ideas themselves, but how to write and how to present. I was lucky to be paired with another student who was also very keen - he is now an economics prof. at Maryland - so I got a lot out of those sessions.
As an undergrad, what issues were you interested in?
I was studying for various papers for my final exams, including later Wittgenstein, ethics and some Aristotle. As I revised I started to think that there was a possibility of a position here that no one else had seen: realist-enough but one based on our social practices. I had a chat with David Wiggins, who had to disappoint me with the news that this was not virgin territory! Nevertheless, I got hooked, and I went back and reread a lot of his seminar notes with renewed interest. When I was doing my PhD I kept in that main groove, focusing a lot on McDowell, Dancy, Blackburn, Foot, etc.
Things took an odd turn, I suppose. Up until now you'd have thought, "there's someone who might want to apply for grad school". But I didn't, or at least not straightaway. I was getting good grades, but I thought it would be fun to take some time out from university and do something else before coming back. (Many people have that thought, but only with hindsight do you realise how hard it is to turn and go back. I'm always in awe of people who set out to do one thing, particularly a certain career path, and then a few years later jack it in and come back to study.)
Right. So what did you do?
I applied for a few things, including the Civil Service fast stream. (That's one of the main ways in which people get to work for central UK government departments.) I was particularly interested in being a clerk in parliament. Anyway, having jumped through about seven hoops in the process I got to the final board interview, but didn't get the one post they had going that year. I then panicked a bit and decided to do what anyone would do in those circumstances: I decided to become an accountant. So I landed a training post, and put it out of my mind for a while whilst I focused on my final exams. Well, those exams came and went, and accountancy loomed.
That doesn’t sound fun at all, dude (for you).
Unsurprisingly my mind turned towards studying philosophy straight away. The date had long since gone to stay on at Oxford. (This was now early August.) I had a good chat with Bill Child who gave me advice on applying to other places, one of which was Sheffield.
Which was where you ended up. Good times?
Great times! I have fond memories of the city itself. Oxford was lovely to live in, but I was there for just three lots of 8-9 weeks a year. I found it to be a bit of a pressure-cooker and I only had other students as friends. I lived in Sheffield pretty much all the time during the five years I was there, and I made a lot of friends both within and outside the university, which made a difference. I started to keep a garden, explore the local area, and so on. Sheffield is often described as the biggest village in England and it certainly felt that way in the mid-to-late 1990s.
What was the department like? What was trending, philosophically, there?
There were a number of things that made the dept. great. They had just made some new hires. (Jenny Saul and Chris Hookway started in my first year as a grad student.) They were keen to establish themselves as a good base for graduate study, and so they put a lot of time and energy into the grad community. They also had some luck, and a bit of money, to attract some students to work there. So the whole place was buzzing. There wasn't any major set of ideas that were dominant, although at the time it was known for the work in philosophy of mind, and plenty of people there and elsewhere were talking about naturalism v. non-naturalism (and varieties of that debate). What I do remember was a healthy respect for the variety of approaches and styles within philosophy and how one could do it. There was a good balance between the history of the subject and looking at questions and ideas ahistorically. And that suited me fine, and still does.
Jenny’s cool and Sheffield sounds grand! You picked up your work on metaethics again in grad school. I dig metaethics, too. Why do you find it so interesting?
What attracted me then and attracts me still to metaethics are three, interrelated points. First, I like the central questions themselves, particularly starting from the issue of the reality of value (I try to think about metaethics in general terms, not just confine myself to ethics). Second and following on, I like the fact that one can question what is or are the central questions in the first place: are they questions about reality and ontology, or about epistemology, or about language, or about psychology....or many or all of these things? Third, what I love is that one can bring into metaethics so many different concerns and areas of philosophy, as I've just indicated. That gives a certain vibrancy to the subject and to the central questions, whatever they are and however they are framed. So, on that third point, Richard Joyce (one of my PhD supervisors) told me that he started as a student interested in philosophy of language, and I think that really shows in his early work. My other supervisor, David Bell, was an expert on Frege, Husserl, and Kant, amongst others.
What was it like working with Joyce and Bell? Myth of Morality is a great book.
I learnt a great deal from both of them. I used to send Richard a draft paper a month and got a reply within a couple of days with many good and wise comments. He was working on the manuscript that would become The Myth of Morality, and I used to get a few ideas from his drafts every so often weaved into comments on my work. I was and still am no error theorist, so we had a few debates about Mackie. (We ended up editing a 'for and against' collection on Mackie's error theory a few years later.) With David I learnt - although I still fall short, I'm sad to say - the very important lesson of being utterly precise with one's terms and being clear as to why one is using the term one is using. He also gave me some of the best advice when I was applying for jobs - what to apply for, how to structure my cv, how to pitch my job talks, etc.
Care to share?
Well, not just from David but also from me having sat on many hiring committees: in your covering letter make sure you answer all the main parts of the job advert (in UK these will be the ‘essential criteria’), make sure you say how you can contribute to the dept. / university and make sure it is detailed, keep the cv clear and simple, keep the job talk the same and to time, in any talk show you have a spark about you and that there is a mind at work. For the interview do your homework on the dept. and university but wear that learning lightly. Show the committee your experience and potential so that they think what they would be missing if they didn’t hire you. I could go on, but that is probably enough!
That’s good advice. How did you hone your skills as a philosopher in grad school?
I suppose there is a boring, methodological answer: I talked to a lot of people, read, wrote, reread, rewrote, talked some more, etc. A more interesting answer is that I made sure I kept interested in many things. So, at Oxford, as well as studying ethics and Wittgenstein as I've already mentioned, I took papers in political philosophy, philosophy of religion, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. I was determined to continue that at Sheffield. In my MA year as well as getting to grips with moral realism, I wrote a paper for Bob Stern on Kierkegaard (which started off being about Hegel). My PhD was enough to hold my interest: I did a lot of work on minimalism about truth and the Frege-Geach problem, as well as reading modern work about properties and moral psychology. I focused a lot on the interplay between McDowell and Blackburn, and consequently that brings with it many different issues, both modern and historical. Also I was keen to do different things as a teacher: aesthetics, first year logic, epistemology, existentialism, political philosophy.
We are living in an era of specialization, but your interests seemed fairly broad!
I suppose it is something many of us say to grad students: as well as focusing on your grad studies, make sure you are interested in many things. There are a whole host of reasons for this. Some are instrumental: you look a more interesting prospect on the academic job market (and on the non-academic job market, perhaps), and you never know when something you learn might feed into your grad work unexpectedly. But, frankly, the most important reason is that it just makes you a more interesting person and thinker. One has a better chance of flourishing, and being a better philosopher, if one exposes oneself to a number of different questions and ways of looking at the world.
Other than your professors, who did you talk with most about philosophy?
I had a good group of friends amongst the grad students at Sheffield. Two of my best friends at the time dropped out of university philosophy after finishing, although one of them still teaches the subject at school. We organised the first few national postgrad philosophy conferences together. As well as chatting about philosophy, we talked a lot about football, religion and comedy. I suppose the person from my Sheffield days who is still in the profession that I talked most with is Keith Frankish. (He now lives in Crete and has honorary appointments at Sheffield and the Open University.) Keith and I lived in a shared house for about three years. We spent a lot of time talking about philosophy and each other's work, even though he specialized in philosophy of mind and me in ethics and metaethics. We also spent many happy hours making up crude limericks and using fridge magnets to create disrespectful anagrams of philosopher's names and books.
Well, this one isn’t crude but it sticks in my mind, mainly because of the rhythm of the words. Principia Mathematica is “Aim: tip a chimp in a crate”.
Good one. What else did you do for fun?
Aside from the limericks, a lot of football (the philosophy grads had a bad 6-a-side team that seemingly got whipped every week by engineering undergraduates) and visiting friends in London which reminded me with every visit how happy I was living in greener, slower-paced Sheffield.
How have your views changed?
There's another boring answer to that. If you look at my views in metaethics, my overall, general view didn't change. And it hasn't to this day. I have always been attracted to the soft-not-really-realist-or-is-it? moral realism position associated with McDowell, Wiggins and others. Of course, my view has deepened a hell of a lot, and I have had to fit it into a scientific (or scientistic) world view, articulate my views about nonnaturalism, about mind-dependence, and all the rest. And I am nowhere close to getting a satisfactory answer.
What was the market like when you finished?
The market wasn't great when I was finishing my PhD, although it wasn't terrible either. (A philosopher of a previous generation told me once that when he was on the job market it was a near-literal case of filling "dead men's shoes". And for a time, during the 1980s, there were no jobs in UK philosophy at all. Not one.) I supposed what characterized the time I finished, in 2000, was that there were some permanent lectureships going (I suppose the equivalent of tenure-track in the US, but without the large hoop of trying to get tenure), but not a vast amount. However, Humanities academia was moving more to a scientific research model and so a few people started winning big grants. Those grants created a few post-doc opportunities and also some short-term lecturing posts to cover folks who were bought out of their teaching to run large research projects. These added to the small stock of such jobs that always existed. Plus A-Level Philosophy was starting to attract students, and in turn we saw a rise in people applying to study philosophy at degree level, which had a knock-on effect with more philosophy jobs being created. So although it was competitive, the market was growing a bit. There was one other nice aspect to it. In the UK, unlike the US and perhaps some other places, one typically meets other applicants for the job. Through that I got to know a number of my contemporaries because I kept on seeing the same faces.
I think I hold the all-comer's record in the UK for number of interviews. (I am more than happy to be corrected, though!) Between 2000 and 2003 I was interviewed 19 times but didn't land a single job. I used to joke that I looked great on paper, but when people saw my face and heard me open my mouth it all turned sour. I came second at Bristol and second at Kent. Luckily the person who got the one-year job at Bristol ended up getting a permanent lectureship at Birmingham soon after he started and was allowed to leave. I got phoned to see if I wanted to do the second five months. At that time all funding had run out for me and I still had to finish my PhD. Plus, I had an offer to become a university administrator in London, which would have meant making the decision to leave philosophy. I jumped at the chance to go to Bristol and ended up staying three-and-a-half years.
I say all of this not only as a badge of honour. (Well, not just for that reason!) I'm aware that it can feel very lonely on the job market, and times can be tough: questioning whether it is worth it, wondering whether to jack it all in and do something else. It's important for people who are going through it to know that there are others out there who have been through all of this, and in my case failed many times. If I'm blessed enough to have ended up making a career in academia, then there is hope for many I reckon.
19 interviews. Holy hell. That must have fucked with your head (pardon my language). I mean, seriously, what were you thinking after failed interview #15?
I was certainly having to grit my teeth! Well, I suppose I was worrying in the way I indicated about whether I had a future in academia and whether I could carry on teaching and writing philosophy. It is hard to pick yourself up after that many rejections; I suppose I'm just (really) lucky that I had a pretty thick skin. I tried to learn from many of those occasions, but often there isn't too much to learn from. One is just sometimes unlucky on the day and with the competition. It is a cliché, but you just have to believe that you have something to say in your work and that you have something special to contribute to the discipline and to whichever university is lucky enough to hire you.
You landed your first gig in Bristol. What were your colleagues like?
Bristol was very good to me. Not only did the dept. rescue me from a career in university administration, it was a cracking place to start putting together courses and be a proper faculty member: lots of good people to work with and some smart people to teach. Although I focused on ethics and political philosophy, I taught some other stuff (Aristotle and Plato, philosophy of social science). I was also fortunate to have a number of comrades-in-arms who were temporary faculty across the three-and-a-half years with me: David Bain, Rachel Cooper, Patrick Greenough, Finn Spicer. We helped each other a lot. A number of the permanent faculty were also very kind, particularly the two Heads of Dept. I had, Chris Bertram and Keith Graham. (I ended up living with Chris and his family for the best part of a year.) There were some big debates about naturalism and nonnaturalism in the dept., and also within the whole Faculty of Arts about postmodernism and truth.
You started teaching, yes? How are your teaching and research related?
I got to create and put on my first metaethics course at Bristol. People often talk - at least in the UK - of research 'leading' or 'informing' teaching. One thing that I remember from those times was starting to craft and hone my lecture notes to try to make things really clear to students. Some of my best published work started from those lecture notes begun at Bristol and repeatedly polished at Kent: my teaching has informed my research as much as my research has informed my teaching.
When and how did you meet your wife?
We met whilst I was in Bristol. I had got friendly with grad students from across the Faculty of Arts, and one of them needed to find a new flat to live, as did I. She was also searching for an undergraduate friend of hers - my future wife - who was leaving London to come to train as a teacher in Bristol. So the three of us shared a flat for a year. Penny and I always say that we got together because the kitchen was so narrow. We couldn't help brushing against each other when we wanted to make a cup of tea.
haha…so, how did you end up at Kent?
There was a permanent lectureship, but the person they appointed ended up getting a post in his own dept. a few months later and they let him 'leave' even though he hadn't started. The then Head of Dept., Alan Thomas, called me in mid-August asking if I wanted to start on 1st September! Again, I got very lucky.
Since you started at Kent, what three professional accomplishments are you most proud of and why?
As a philosopher, here are my top three. First, the students I have taught. I am lucky to have taught many good students, both undergrad and postgrad, some of whom have gone on to do lovely things. I'm particularly proud of those that have managed to carve out professional careers as philosophers and have managed to publish their own work. Second, a number of courses that I have designed. One in particular stands out that we started a few years ago at Kent for first year undergrads that introduces them to different writing and reading styles in philosophy. That has made a real difference to some students' confidence in the subject and how we can teach them in later years. (Unfortunately, although I proposed the course and designed the outline, I have never taught it because I took on other roles!) Third, I'm proud of the fact that I finally published a book last year on thick concepts, Thick Evaluation. It's my (current) definitive statement on what I think not just about thick and thin concepts but about evaluative judgement more generally. (What I'm not proud of is that it took me far longer than I would have liked!)
How did you get into the administration game, that is, how did you end up Dean?
The short answer is ‘by accident’. Here’s the long answer. I was in charge of all the various parts of academic admin in my multi-subject School related to undergraduate education for three years. Later on I then did the same job at Faculty level, just for a year, and was one of three Associate Deans, but with no ambition to go further at the time. During that year the then Dean announced he was leaving. The University offered the post to two external people but both declined. The Faculty needed a Dean and I wasn’t quick enough to move out of the way. I was asked if I would be Acting Dean for a few months, which I did mainly because we were in a tight spot. When the post was advertised again a number of people around the Faculty encouraged me to apply….and here I am five years later.
Do you feel like you have done good as Dean?
It's harder to pick out particular things I'm proud of as Dean over the past five years, mainly because so much has happened and many things that I do I do with other people and they are slower-burn efforts. (Plus, much of my time is spent spotting problems and ensuring they don't become bigger headaches.) A couple of things to mention. I'm currently in the process of helping to refresh the entire portfolio of undergraduate programmes across the university, trying to do so in a way that works with the grain of what Schools and subjects want (and which don't threaten subjects' viability) whilst also making sure that we don't have programmes on the books that barely attract any students. I'm also proud of the fact that this year myself and the Deputy Dean have set up a network for all our academic probationers (I suppose in US-speak, people early along the tenure-track) to share concerns with each other and with us about career development, working out what makes the university tick, and so on.
Room for research nowadays?
'Nowadays' is a bit different from before I was Dean of the Faculty. I typically used to have one or one-and-a-half days during the working week even during term time to read, think and write. (I use to pack as much of my teaching, meeting and admin work into the rest of the week so I could carve out some dedicated research time.)
As Dean that is simply impossible to do at any time of the year, inside or outside of term. Not only is my working week crammed with meetings and projects, I don't have the headspace I'd like to really focus on philosophical ideas. So in any given year I just pick one or perhaps two very specific things to work on and say 'no' to lots of other things, both requests from other people and desires of my own. If I am trying to focus a lot on research, then I typically get up very early to make some progress rather than working late into the night. I'm definitely an early bird.
How do you spend your time outside of work?
Well, most weeks it will be some form of family time or reading a novel. It also depends on where we are in the year. For a number of months in the year you'll find me in the garden planting and weeding. (My daughter helps a lot with that.) As a family we also do a lot of amateur dramatics. We are heavily into pantomime and help with the village production every year. (It's a big thing: we play to around 700 people across five shows in late January.) My wife writes and occasionally stars, and the kids and I are also in it. For the last few years I've played the Dame which is the very best role. I get to dress up in outrageous frocks, heels and wigs, and ad lib with even more outrageous double entendres. My wife is normally writing during the Spring for the following January, fending off requests for particular songs and jokes from the rest of us, and we are into rehearsals and prop making from mid-September.
Drop the most outrageous double entendre you can muster!
I’d like to, but fitting something so large and offensive into a small space would be awkward.
Yes, Simon. Yes! You have kids, yes? Favorite children's books?
Yes, I've got two kids, a son who is coming up to 13 and a daughter who is 10. My wife and I have read an awful lot of books to and with them over the years. There are a lot of books we've read with them that have sentimental value and well as being quality books (books by e.g. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, Michael Rosen, Roald Dahl, Janet and Allan Ahlberg, and of course J. K. Rowling). My son loves Rick Riordan and my daughter is currently reading lots of murder mysteries. They've also enjoyed P. G Wodehouse when I've read Jeeves and Wooster to them.
Do you talk about philosophy with your kids?
Yes, my wife and I do talk philosophy with the kids, but not so much under that label. We talk about practical issues such as poverty and wealth, animals and food, immigration and the like. My wife is a historian and archaeologist, so they get even more from her about various periods and people from history. I've learnt as much as the kids.
Would you encourage them to go into philosophy?
I'd be happy for my kids to study philosophy, but happy for them to do anything they want so long as they get joy from it.
How would you say your ethical views are informed by your experiences?
If I allow myself to project back onto my pre-professional self, I think that my gut has always been particularist, so to speak. Situations that we find ourselves in are often so complex and I have always found myself noting that a feature that worked in a moral way over here, worked differently over there. The people I have met in my life who I have been most impressed with, morally, always seemed to appreciate the complexity and difference from situation to situation. My views in political philosophy have definitely shaped my first-order political views, and vice versa.
How has your overall conception of philosophy changed?
When I started as a grad student I suppose I thought that the main point of philosophy was to mount arguments for particular ideas and claims, and to try to have better arguments and more plausible claims than other people. As time went on I realised that although arguments and debates are the lifeblood of philosophy, the more important aspect of what we do centres on understanding. In hearing you articulate your ideas and arguments for them, I should (if things go well) see how you understand the world, or the aspect of it that we are discussing. Through that I should be able to think through better how I understand the world, especially when I see how you receive my ideas and arguments for them. We might still disagree, of course. But one would hope that some progress has been made, even if it is simply understanding how wide the gulf is between us and what that gulf consists in. Through these debates we can also call into question how I, you or we have framed the issue between us in the first place, and how we have phrased the questions.
With each passing year I feel this more and more keenly. So, I still think that arguments and debates are at the centre of what we do, but the purpose is to understand better our world and the lives we live in it. And, as a corollary to all of that, this is why it is vital to have lots of different perspectives and ideas in the mix in philosophy. Our understanding of life and our world is evolving, and it is better to have lots of different voices contributing to those discussions.
I agree. Do you worry about the lack of progress in philosophy?
I'm not sure there is a lack of progress in philosophy. Or, at least, I think there are definitely trends and fashions, and from such fashions definite changes have emerged, and some of these changes can be classed as positive. If you put those together it looks like a type of progress to me! (I do admit, though, that some of what happens seems to be mere fashion rather than progress.)
So, for example, I think that during the past 100 years or so in Anglo-American philosophy we have seen some interesting and important distinctions emerge in philosophy of language, in the analysis of knowledge, and in many other branches, plus lots of very distinctive voices and perspectives emerge. In my own specialism - metaethics - there has been a lot of rich and fundamental work done in the past century and certainly in the past 40 years or so. Just think about the emergence of error theory and of the varieties of noncognitivism, and the various arguments made and issues that have been pointed to. These have added to the range of good options and discussions available to us. There have also been developments that have enlarged what many count as being of philosophical concern. Think of recent work about epistemic justice and discussions about the concepts of gender and race.
One might argue that all of this is evidence that the positions and topics are increasing in number, becoming more complex, but still, we aren’t getting closer to solutions…
I suppose people worry when they talk about a 'lack of progress' that there are no definitive results. I am definitely an optimist and I think we are selling philosophy short if we give in to such challenges. I think there have been some advances that are as close to definitive as possible: e.g. the distinction between sense and reference, the staking out of philosophical positions that seem important and fundamental (such as my example just now of error theory, plus various positions in the philosophy of mind). In addition, one can undercut what may lie behind that challenge. By its very nature philosophy advances through debate and argumentation. So no new distinction or position or argument is as stable and definitive as it may at first seem, simply because ideas are always open to challenge. What any advance seems to consist in, I think, is bringing to the fore new perspectives or understandings about the world. Philosophy makes progress by showing us the variety of ways to think and live in the world. But, by their very nature, such ways of thinking and living are vulnerable to change and evolution because of the beings we are. Indeed, one could say that the evolution and change of philosophical ideas and argument is directly expressive of who we are. So, in short, we can advance and progress, but don't for a minute assume that where you advance to will remain as it is.
Interesting! What do you make of the claim that we don’t have an impact on the world?
Why think that philosophy has not affected the world? Possibly because what we do can seem abstract, otherworldly, and cooked up in some ivory tower by some bespectacled, pointy-headed wonk. But many things that philosophers work on, and the acumen that one gets as one studies philosophy, can really make a difference to the world. A few years ago I was spending some of my time working in medical ethics. I was deeply impressed that many of the debates in medical ethics and medical law had direct knock-on effects in decision-making in courtrooms. I know of philosophers whose work has influenced all manner of policy-makers in government and whose work has influenced ordinary people's view of art. So I reckon that philosophy has a lot to contribute to the world.
Two of my Kent colleagues are currently working with a body called NICE in the UK (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence), which provides advice and policy to improve health and social care. Another colleague works with various bodies in the EU to advise on protecting and improving democratic arrangements.
And that may be how we may make philosophy more relevant to others. Parts of our subject are abstruse to an outsider, but other parts are not and they have practical benefit. We have a lot to offer the world because ideas shape and change the world. (And, interestingly, what may seem abstruse may also have a fundamental connection to the stuff that is easier to grasp.) Philosophy also has clear intrinsic importance, which is also attractive to many. It has hung around so long because it is a fundamental expression of human beings' wonderment and questioning of the world they live in. Sometimes it can be pleasurable, sometimes not, but it is something that can grip many people. Whenever I go to give talks in local schools or community groups about philosophical topics (or just philosophy itself), inevitably people come away wanting to know more and getting hooked on some of the questions I express. I'm sure I can't be the only one who has that sort of experience.
So your personal experiences inform you ethical views, but do your metaethical views inform your ethical views? Like I'm sort of sympathetic to moral skepticism meta-ethically, but ethically, I'm attracted to utilitarianism, so I generally land on the side of utilitarians in ethical disputes, but find it hard to take my intuitions too seriously…
My gut instinct in my own work is to see metaethics and (normative) ethics as distinct. From the outside that may seem a little odd given the positions I am attracted to. In normative ethics I'm strongly inclined (a) to be a particularist and (b) to treat particularism as a type of position in normative ethics. Or, in other words (well, this is one, quick way of putting it), at the base of standard normative ethical positions there is a central claim that certain features (e.g. consequences of such-and-such type) have moral significance and they have either always positive valence or always negative valence, and particularism (at least many varieties) denies that claim: features can change their moral valence depending on the situation of which they are a part. So particularism is in play in normative ethics, I think, at least as a meta-normative ethical claim. The positive view is that one can decide what is morally right, and do so rationally, but one has to judge matters case by case and cultivate a certain sensibility (of such-and-such a type), that is rationality consists of something other than the application of rules and knowledge of which features work in which moral ways.
Anyway, to go back to metaethics and normative ethics, many of the modern writers who have influenced me are in the same general ballpark here, and some centrally in this park. But I think that one could adopt particularism, and any version of it, whilst being an error theorist, or a noncognitivist, or something else. And there are plenty of people who adopt different versions of moral realism who are utilitarians or deontologists. I've heard people put the view different from my gut instinct: that certain metaethical views imply certain normative ethical views, and vice versa. I'm impressed with such views, even though I'm inclined to think differently. To be honest, I haven't made enough serious time and headspace in my career to really settle my views about the matter and to work out, in detail, why one should prefer one or the other view. Perhaps next year...
Speaking of! Any interesting projects on the horizon?
A few. The next major project I am trying to start (Decanal duties permitting) has the working title 'agreement and disagreement', which is a joint project I've been working on with a friend of mine - Steve Pethick - in Kent's Law School. It comes out of a few points I made in Thick Evaluation. In our view the two notions – concepts, stances, activities, states – of agreement and disagreement have been underexplored. That's a surprising, perhaps silly thing to say: think of the number of people using 'disagreement' in titles of journal articles recently. But in our view a lot of people are writing as if we all know what a disagreement is, and then they focus on other matters that follow if there is a disagreement. In contrast, Steve and I are concerned with what it takes for something to be a disagreement in the first place. Furthermore, we think that the notion of agreement is just as philosophically interesting as disagreement. So, we ask: what are their nature and character? How exactly should one contrast agreement with disagreement, and how should one further contrast them with other notions such as coincidence and difference? (And just look at that list in the earlier sentence: concepts, stances…etc. Which to pick to frame the discussion?) The adage ‘some measure of agreement for some disagreement’ seems right, otherwise people will be ‘talking past one another’: if people don’t have some measure of agreement on what terms mean and what concepts they are using, then there will be equivocation in the discussion, that is no meeting of meaning and view despite surface appearances. But on what and by how much do people need to agree in order for them then to be in a disagreement? Asking that question in that way brings Steve and me to think about conceptual agreement and disagreement, and trying to give more detail to the concept-conception distinction. Other questions arise: to what extent is it credible to say that two people who are both unaware of the other can agree and disagree? How can we sensibly talk of whole belief systems, such as religions, agreeing or disagreeing with each other? How should one think of metaphorical uses, if they are metaphorical uses, of ‘agreement’ and ‘disagreement’ about lines, colours, sounds, shapes, etc.? From all of this Steve and I think about recent debates, such as the peer disagreement and the faultless disagreement debates. With regards to the former we argue that a far better understanding of agreement and disagreement is required in order to analyze properly what one should do if one disagrees with one’s epistemic peers. We also think about what one can learn from looking carefully at different areas such as ethics, aesthetics, the law, maths and sciences, and the everyday.
I find that issue absolutely fascinating, Simon. Anything else?
And if that wasn't enough to be going on with, I'm running a conference in summer 2018 on normativity and what future research on this important notion might look like. I'm particularly attracted to the following set of thoughts. Normativity - like 'disagreement'! - abounds as a touchstone term of reference in much modern writing. And it is clearly a notion that really does connect with how we think and act in everyday life. But how important and useful is it as a framing concept? (Go back twenty or so years and the word itself was nowhere near as prevalent as it is nowadays in philosophy journals.) How useful is it to group many issues and ideas - reasons, oughts, shoulds, duties, motivations, etc. - across a whole range of areas of philosophical concern under the one notion? And how easy or useful is it to put together the notion of normativity with the notion of evaluation? How useful is it to distinguish?
Dreaming further into the future, I've also always wanted to write about style in philosophy, both writing and lecturing/performing. There has been a great deal of good stuff written in the past decade or more about philosophical methodology, but there is a comparative desert when it comes to thinking about philosophical style. But the latter is at least as important as the former, I think, in forming one's views. In his introduction to Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Bernard Williams writes of style to some extent determining subject matter. (One has to read the introduction to appreciate the precise point that Williams is getting at.) There is something to this remark, I think. So I'd like to get some time to really think hard about this and perhaps run a conference on it. I know in my own philosophical life the lines have increasingly become blurred between how I used to perform comedy and my lecturing and speaking style.
And when I am old and grey I might get round to writing a philosophical book about money.
Nice. Do you find any trends in philosophy disconcerting?
The one trend I find most disconcerting in philosophy, and much of academia, is pressure on people to overly specialize and to do so too soon and for a long time. Don't get me wrong. Focus on a particular topic or closely related set of questions over a period of time is all to the good. It is how one can make progress in one's own thought, and how one can develop as a thinker and writer. And I am also a believer in a community of scholars specializing together. Having a group focus helps to sort out a number of issues and raise interesting questions.
My worry is that we have got the balance wrong. It is also really important for people to be interested in many different matters. There is a point to developing not just as an expert on, say, sensibility theory (to pick something I may have been guilty of), but also to be interested in a range of questions and puzzles in other areas of philosophy. One needs to develop not just an expert in X but also to develop as a philosopher. The two have to go together, in my view. In fact, I think we are broadly philosophers first, experts second.
I think the pressure to publish a fair bit early on contributes to this amount of specialization, since in those formative years invariably people publish in just one area, often narrowly defined. We need to find a way to allow people the time and space to develop interests that don't obviously and immediately feed into that first set of journal articles. I have seen various practical proposals, but none seem to hit the mark simply because it is a multi-faceted problem, and one across all academic disciplines.
Related to that I suppose I'm also struck by something else, which is not so much a trend as the status quo, namely: the fact that philosophers as a large group have quite sticky views about what counts as core questions and core areas of concern. (I'm generalizing, obviously.) We have to focus, as I've mentioned, and we also have traditions and standard starting questions to pass on. But it is important to delve into our history more, and to look to other disciplines, and to enable people with different perspectives to raise questions and for others to listen to what they have to say. This isn't an 'anything goes' philosophy. It is rather a plea for doing things differently.
What are you excited about, as far as the future of philosophy is concerned?
What I find exciting is the fact that these issues, and others like them, are being discussed openly. I'm excited by the range of topics and questions that are coming more to the fore in professional philosophy, and the various voices that are getting more exposure. We have sites such as yours where people are articulating in better ways than I have justifications for delving outside the standard range of questions and sources. (The recent interview at 3AM with Robert Pasnau is worth looking at, for example.) People are genuinely interested in pressures on people at different career stages, not just junior faculty as I've just picked out. It is of fundamental importance that we think about our philosophical cultures and institutional structures, and I'm glad many of us are doing that nowadays.
That’s part of the purpose of this project! Speaking of, you anonymously donated to the site, but I feel the need to thank you publicly. Favorite interview so far?
No problem. Well, I genuinely enjoyed the ones with Tim, Jenny, Jonathan Dancy and David McNaughton (the last examined my PhD thesis) but that may be because I know them! I know Jan Dowell a little as well. I thought her interview was very important and brave.
Agreed. David was on my dissertation committee! Favorite movies? Favorite TV shows nowadays? Music recommendations?
Goodness! I think it's impossible for me to make any definitive choices across all three of those. But here are just a few in each category that occur to me: (films) Kind Hearts and Coronets, Music Box, Godfather Parts I and II; (TV) I rarely watch TV at the moment, but of earlier programmes: Yes Minister, League of Gentlemen, The Thick of It, Father Ted, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers; (music) not including stuff I mentioned earlier, Kristin Hersh, Radiohead, That Petrol Emotion, and also, as Tom Lehrer nearly said, I like Mozart and others from that crowd.
King of the world, what's your first move?
So, assuming we have got world peace, universal healthcare and environmental stability already sewn up and we are looking at more mundane matters I would seriously look at school curricula in certain countries. In the UK we have seen an ever-tightening grip on what teachers can teach rather than trusting them to teach what they think is best within certain parameters. Plus, there has been a squeezing out of various subjects such as art, music and drama in many schools. Any decent school curricula have to have such subjects and has to encourage kids to think of them as linked to and sometimes continuous with other subjects such as literature, science and mathematics. A deep and narrow focus in maths at times is good, but so is an appreciation that subjects can come alive when you put them next to each other, at any level of education. Seeing the links between maths and music, say, really helps both disciplines and many school pupils.
And, obviously, whilst we're fixing school curricula we better make room for philosophy. Encouraging kids to question and challenge in a constructive way is all to the good.
Tell me a joke!
(Nicked from Tim Vine) I went down the local shop. “I want to make a complaint,” I said. “This vinegar you sold me yesterday has lumps in it.” The shopkeeper said, “Those are pickled onions, sir.”
Tough. Okay, here goes. Starter: a variety of late Spring vegetables, lightly grilled, perhaps with a nice creamy goat's cheese. (That's a memory of a dish I once had at a local restaurant.) Main: either that starter again or roast beef with all the trimmings. Pud: my wife's lemon cake utterly dripping with lemon syrup and covered with clotted cream. Plus: pears and plums from our garden with super dark Kent cherries. Peppermint tea. Many Bendicks bittermints.
To drink: nice wines chosen by someone who knows far more than me about that sort of thing.
Quintessentially English (not that there’s anything wrong with that)! If you could ask an honest omniscient being one question, what would it be?
Why can't I write short answers?
haha thank you for your time, Simon! It’s been fun.