In this interview, Timothy Williamson, Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford, and Fellow at New College, Oxford, talks about growing up in Edinburgh, and eventually, Oxford, exploring Scottish castles, arguing with his siblings, idolizing Odysseus, dabbling in archaeology, his early distaste for religion, listening to Bryan Magee’s radio interviews with philosophers, working as a programmer at a nuclear energy facility, Thatcher and student politics in the 70’s, eyeballing A.J. Ayer’s gig as a freshman, being inspired by Kripke, having trouble starting the dissertation, finding his footing, interviewing for his first job hungover, his teaching philosophy, the dialogue of Dublin, ambition, exploring Ireland and Italy, Jane Austen, returning to Oxford and filling Ayer’s old position, meeting his wife in Slovenia, the island of Korcula, the perils of pretentiousness, moralizing mobs in philosophy, Brexit, Trump, bullshit, Chrysippus, Barry Lyndon, the Maltese Falcon, Kurosawa, The Battle of Algiers, and the question he’d ask an omniscient being, if given the opportunity.
Where did you grow up? What was your family like?
I was born in 1955 in Uppsala, Sweden, where my parents were teaching English language at the university, having just completed their graduate studies at Oxford. Before I remember, we moved to Scotland because my father got a lectureship in English literature at Edinburgh University. He had long periods of ill health, during which my mother substituted for him. When I was nine, he became a fellow of Jesus College Oxford, so we moved to a village some miles outside the city. Later my mother became a fellow of St Hilda’s College, also in English literature. My adored uncle Jeff lectured in French literature at Birmingham University, and my also adored aunt Elaine, his wife, researched in that area too. So we were an academic family, though not in any way that felt oppressive. Books were a big part of our life, but associated with pleasure above duty.
As a little kid, what did you do for fun? Were you a 'philosophical' child?
When I was about four, my father took me to see the Olivier film version of Henry V; he wanted to see it and the only way was to bring me along. He didn’t expect me to last all through, but I was transfixed by the language and action—still am when I rewatch it. I can’t forgive Joan of Arc for undoing Henry V’s victories. What was surely lost on me was that, even though the film was made during World War II, Olivier included the scene the night before the battle of Agincourt, where an ordinary soldier questions the value of the war to a disguised Henry V, who gives no proper answer. Later, when we were to see a film, I would ask “Will there be love in it?”, hoping for the answer “No”. As far as I was concerned, love meant quiet, boring talk between a man and a woman, delaying the start of the fighting. Partly thanks to Henry V, we made many family expeditions to the heavy-duty castles in the Scottish borders, where I also learned to love going up lonely Scottish hills. I still do when I get the chance. Those hills and castles were what I missed most when we moved to flat Oxfordshire. I’m delighted that my daughter Alice now studies Scottish history at Edinburgh University. Apart from Henry V, my other main hero was Odysseus, because he triumphed through intelligence rather than strength. I was told off at school because, when we had to list good and bad adjectives, I put ‘cunning’ on the good side.
Do you have any siblings? Did you get along? What do they do?
I have a sister, Bridget, a year and a half younger than I am. There is a snap of her, aged about one, sitting surrounded by books she has pulled off their shelves, meditatively holding a copy of Piaget’s La naissance de l'intelligence chez l'enfant. As a toddler she liked to ‘publish’ people, which turned out to mean licking their navels. We spent much of our time together. She had to learn how to resist my manipulation of her desires, how not to be persuaded that she wanted that toy soldier in the shop window. If she wanted something that didn’t suit me, I would ask her why she wanted it, in order to argue that her aim could be better achieved by what suited me. She found it safest to meet all my exasperated insistence that “You must have a reason” with “I just want it”. Now she is a barrister. I also have a brother, Toby, nearly eight years younger. Playing with him was a refuge from the responsibilities of being a teenager. In line with a stereotype, my sister and I are Establishment-minded, while my brother is the rebel. He now works in research on mental health and mental capacity, practical and theoretical issues. He has published on the philosophy of psychiatric care. Both my brother and sister could have become academics, but chose not to.
Our parents never organized lots of improving activities for us, to fill our time. I’d have found such a life hellish. We were expected to amuse ourselves, invent our own games, and we did. It fosters the imagination. Children need time by themselves. I’ve known children whose life has been over-organized who keep asking “What can we do now?” They don’t know how to play. Doing philosophy or mathematics well involves the ability to play with ideas, in a self-motivated way.
Was religion a part of your life?
We were sometimes taken to church. My parents were vaguely Christian, though—as is typical of Anglicans—it was hard to identify any specific religious proposition they believed, or indeed any consolation they derived from religion. Later, they seamlessly became Quakers. What I heard at church about Jesus never impressed me at all (he was barely mentioned at school or home). If I’d known of Nietzsche’s criticisms of Christianity, they would have resonated with me, as they still do. I find meekness particularly irritating. I greatly preferred Athena. She was the noble goddess of wisdom, and had a civilized relationship with Odysseus. Aged about seven, I used to imagine the mark of baptism on my brow and try to rub it out, like Lady Macbeth, though not as far as I know in my sleep—after all, the guilt was my parents’. My friends and I sometimes played cannibals and missionaries. We were the cannibals, of course. Those are still my sympathies. Not just that it’s better to eat than be eaten: I disliked the imposition of soppy ideas on people made of sterner stuff. But there were no rows about religion in the family.
The prevailing attitude as I grew up took for granted liberal Christian ethics and was maximally evasive about Christian metaphysics. I rejected the ethics and found the refusal of clarity in metaphysics frustrating and intellectually dishonest. One teacher told us that it was unacceptable ever to call anyone’s religious beliefs false. Self-righteously she exempted her beliefs from criticism.
At thirteen-fourteen, I boarded in a Quaker public (in the British sense of private) school for boys, chosen by my parents as lacking the brutality and militarism of the other local public schools. Pacifism was de rigueur, Mahatma Gandhi the hero. I noticed that the teachers never explained how peaceful resistance would have worked against the Nazis. A book by Vera Brittain in the school library suggested that dropping pamphlets on Germany would do the trick. One teacher said that Quaker communities made decisions by choosing someone to take the spirit of the meeting, which might be contrary to the majority view; he seemed oblivious of any potential for covert authoritarianism. Every Thursday morning the school had a Quaker meeting, bored silence punctuated by occasional teachers moved by the spirit to say something bland, often the same thing each year. One Thursday a boy stood up to say he thought he was just a complicated machine, with no free will. Soon another boy stood up and said he felt sure he had free will. One after another boys contributed to an increasingly lively philosophical debate. I listened fascinated. Then a teacher stood up and said that in his view not all the previous speakers had been moved by the spirit. Crushed, the meeting relapsed into bored silence, not just that day but for the rest of term.
Were you mischievous?
In general, I was not disobedient. I preferred to show that what I was doing complied with the letter, if not the spirit, of the law. At prep school a friend and I made a crude voodoo doll; only we knew that it represented our sadistic headmaster. We kept it in the classroom so that we could torture it in plain sight whenever the occasion demanded. We called it ‘Scrabster’, the ugliest name we could find in the atlas.
That headmaster frequently beat boys, not very painfully, for minor offences (it was a boarding school for sixty 7-13 year old boys and his daughter). Somehow I managed never to get beaten. One boy I’ll just call Double-Barrelled Name was a bit overweight and walked in an oddly pompous manner, though he wasn’t really pompous. He was intelligent and friendly but an easy target for bullying. For instance, he unwisely mentioned that, when tickled, he sometimes wet himself. Needless to say he was then tickled; children are cruel. At lunch, we all sat at long tables, with a teacher at one end. One day the pudding was blancmange. The headmaster, standing up to serve it, slapped it idly with the back of the spoon, making it wobble slightly. He announced to the school “This is like beating Double-Barrelled Name”.
I did OK at school, without working particularly hard. Often I preferred writing stories and poems. When I started mathematics, I assumed I was bad at it until I realized I wasn’t.
Any sign you’d become a philosopher?
I was less of a ‘philosophical’ child than my younger son Arno, who has a darker temperament than mine. Aged three, he brooded on infinity, negation, and death. Perhaps unreasonably, I didn’t worry about them until a much later age. However, as a small child I talked to my great-uncle, Nathan Isaacs, who pursued philosophy and psychology in his spare time. He had had to leave school at the age of fifteen because he was the only one of his family, capable of making money—his mother was busy looking after his sisters and his father too preoccupied with dreams of being a philosopher. Nathan became a successful businessman, and during World War Two played a major role overseeing the supply of non-ferrous metals to Britain, but he also published articles in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, and an unsuccessful book arguing that philosophy of mind should pay more attention to developmental psychology, not a popular view at the time (1950). He played a role in the introduction of Piaget’s ideas to Britain. He was married to an educationist, Evelyn (née Lawrence), a leader of the Froebel tradition in Britain, and had been married before to a leading Kleinian child psychologist, Susan Isaacs, who died before I was born. They had a strong influence on my mother. When I was very small Evelyn reported to my parents coming across Nathan and me sitting in a field of wild daffodils, discussing philosophy. I remember the event but not what we said. Nathan had detected my philosophical leanings and was drawing me out.
What were you thinking about as a teenager?
From about the ages of ten to fourteen, my main interest was in ancient history and archaeology, especially of Assyria. I wanted to be an archaeologist, and still feel the fascination. When I read of the damage ISIS has done to Assyrian remains, it’s a knife to my heart—though Assyria in its heyday inflicted similar terror on surrounding cultures. But it slowly dawned on me that I wasn’t remotely fitted to be an archaeologist. That suspicion crystallized when as a teenager I worked on a dig in Oxford, where part of the medieval city had been demolished to make room for a car park. I didn’t mind scraping away for a week with a toothbrush on a rectangle of earth in a medieval rubbish dump. The plain copper pin I found was ample reward for that. But on the site was a wooden hut, packed from roof to floor with plastic bags full of featureless lumps of medieval pottery. The imagined task of trying to make something semi-coherent from all that mess made me feel sick with disgust—not physical but intellectual disgust. I thought the task should be done, of course, just not by me. Soon afterwards, my father mentioned that there was a new degree course at Oxford in mathematics and philosophy, and I thought “I’ll do that”.
This ISIS stuff killed me, too. Favorite books as a teenager?
When I was twelve I pored over Ancient Iraq by Georges Roux. Then someone gave me Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File, which started me reading spy stories and thrillers, more for their style, wit, cynicism, and hidden knowledge than for plot. Robert Louis Stephenson’s Kidnapped fed my longing for Scotland. George Orwell’s essays impressed me more than his fiction, though I pretentiously used ‘claustrophobic’ as a term of praise. I was too emotionally inexperienced to enjoy grown-up fiction about that bane of my childhood, love. But I felt the intense charge and resonance of Shakespeare’s words, in performance or on the page. I was Verges in a school production of Much Ado about Nothing; the minor part of a doddery sidekick to a self-important police chief came naturally enough, though I have only a tiny fraction of my older son Conrad’s talent for acting.
When I was fourteen, our class read D.H. Lawrence’s short story “Tickets, Please”. The teacher opened the discussion: “This story is about one of the deepest philosophical problems”. My ears pricked up. He continued: “the relations between men and women”. I was astounded. “What??” I thought, “How can you imagine for one moment that something contingent on an accident of terrestrial biology as trivial as sexual differentiation can be a deep philosophical problem? Have you any idea what a serious philosophical problem is like?” I didn’t have much idea myself, but my instinct was that it must be something utterly abstract, universal, and necessary.
At fifteen, I started reading transcripts in The Listener magazine of BBC radio interviews between Bryan Magee and philosophers such as A.J. Ayer, Peter Strawson, Bernard Williams, and Karl Popper (it was an all-male cast). They were quite serious discussions, later published as a book Modern British Philosophy. I immediately felt at home with the way of talking and thinking (far more than with D.H. Lawrence’s), though I was sure it could be done better.
Did you party?
For various reasons I kept moving school, which didn’t help my social life. I lost touch with my generation in our village. I later found out that my best friend at the local school had gone on to pursue a career in armed robbery, without success. In my last high school I was a couple of years younger than the others in my class. All in all, I didn’t party much. Later, as an undergraduate at Oxford, I went to parties and found them soul-destroying. I prefer conversation with a couple of close friends.
What music were you listening to, if any?
At home, there was lots of music on the radio or record-player, mostly medieval, Tudor, baroque, classical, or jazz. I enjoyed much of it, mainly instrumental, especially Vivaldi and Bach (J.S.), later Mozart, Beethoven, and others too. Not all the associations were good. As my father’s ill health worsened, Dowland’s “Lachrimae” increasingly suited his mood of (justified) self-pity. At school, we listened to pop. Some of it sticks in the memory, like Desmond Dekker and The Aces’ 1969 hit “Israelites”. I wasn’t one of those teenagers who spend long hours in their room, listening obsessively to music their parents hate. Now my Serbian wife Ana, a classical pianist, puts on for me the Western rock music she listened to growing up in Belgrade, which I ignored at the time.
Were you a rebellious teenager?
I was not rebellious. I never even tried a cigarette, through incuriosity. I respected but didn’t share the sentiments or pose of a fourteen-year old classmate, who said, after we had been shown a horrific anti-smoking propaganda film: “They don’t understand—we don’t want to live long”.
I was against the Vietnam war, but so were my parents; for someone of my background and generation it would have been more rebellious to be for it. At eighteen, I began my undergraduate studies in mathematics and philosophy at Balliol College Oxford. I had chosen Balliol for academic reasons but it turned out to be the most left-wing college in Oxford. However, I soon found that the radicals were obsessed with local issues, mainly the demand for a large Student Union building where they could raise the consciousness of the student masses. I despised their parochialism.
As an undergraduate in 1975/6, I witnessed a turning point in college politics, a microcosm of much larger changes. The JCR (Junior Common Room) committee, representing the students, called yet another rent strike, because the College had raised prices in line with inflation. Very unusually, a meeting of the whole College was called, including all Faculty and students, in the College Hall. For hours, would-be-conciliatory dons and would-be-rabble-rousing students spoke in alternation. Then a member of the JCR committee made a fatal mistake. No one had yet spoken more than once, but he stood up and began a second rant. A few students walked out, then a few more, then more and more. I did too. His conscript army deserted him in the midst of battle. At the JCR elections soon after, the radicals were swept away by frivolous public schoolboys. It was a straw in the wind. At the next General Election, in 1979, Mrs Thatcher came to power. The left was in retreat. Now radicals from that 1970 generation, preserved in aspic, are steering the British Labour party to electoral disaster, and depriving the country of an effective opposition when it’s most needed.
We’ll talk more politics later. So, as an undergrad, you were a computer programmer at some point?
It was before I started at Oxford. I was sixteen when I finished high school. I didn’t want to be much younger than all the other undergraduates, so I took a year out, and got a job as a trainee computer programmer at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, not very far from our village. I knew almost nothing about computers when I started. At that time (1972) they were still enormous. The programme was input on punched cards. We communicated with the computer by teletype or pressing buttons. I was handed a manual and told to read it. The manual presupposed most of what I needed to learn. When a huge programme failed to compile, it was hard to know why. Still, with some help from the scientists around, I learned to programme. Sometimes we used FORTRAN, sometimes for efficiency we programmed in assembly language, whose instructions correspond almost one-one with operations inside the computer. It was a good way to learn what computers do. The one I was programming was used to analyse data from a tandem generator. Harwell was supposed to be for peaceful research, but some of the scientists there also worked at Aldermaston on nuclear weapons research. I heard them discuss the ineffectiveness of a safety device meant to stop nuclear missiles firing in error.
Did you go to college knowing you wanted to be a professional philosopher?
With my background, an academic career looked natural. It was the family trade. I expected to be on the spectrum from mathematical logic to discursive philosophy, I wasn’t sure exactly where. As a first-year undergraduate, I started eyeing the job I now have, at lectures by A.J. Ayer, its then holder.
Who inspired you in the classroom?
The teacher who influenced me most was not an Oxford philosopher but Saul Kripke, whose John Locke lectures on reference and existence delighted me as an undergraduate in my first term. Of course I didn’t understand everything, but his combination of logical power and common sense, clarity and wit, immediately became my model. Other teachers were impressive in their own ways, such as Michael Dummett for his creativity, depth, and intellectual seriousness, but I didn’t treat them as models.
Were you a fan of Ayer?
His book Language, Truth and Logic was one of those on the reading list undergraduates-to-be were sent before starting at Oxford. I enjoyed its lucid irreverence. Ayer’s lectures were similarly lively and fun, in a knockabout way. He wasn’t taken very seriously; he hadn’t kept up with new developments in philosophy since his youth. Even so, many of the brightest graduate students crowded into his ‘Informal Instruction’ classes, because he created an atmosphere of free discussion, quick-fire but unthreatening. He hated Kripke’s ideas. Every year he delivered a paper ‘refuting’ Kripke’s arguments in Naming and Necessity that some necessary truths are knowable only a posteriori and some contingent truths are knowable only a priori. Ayer’s ‘refutation’ relied on exactly the confusions Kripke was exposing. The graduate students all understood Kripke’s point better than Ayer did and desperately explained it to him, but despite all their pleading he resolutely misunderstood. I didn’t want to be Ayer, I just wanted his job.
Was university what you expected?
Since both my parents taught at Oxford, I knew what to expect. In fact, becoming an undergraduate felt like a step down, because I was used to seeing undergraduates through my parents’ eyes, looking down—although they didn’t condescend to their students, they were obviously higher up the academic ladder. Suddenly I was down there too. What did disappoint me was that none of my contemporaries talked like Oscar Wilde, nor could any of the lecturers raise more than a couple of laughs per hour. However, I was impressed to find that, in a group of half-a-dozen students, I was the only one never to have tasted dog food. I’m quite incurious about large chunks of the world.
Did you have any second thoughts about pursuing a career in philosophy?
Never. I feel absurdly lucky; most people never get the chance to be paid good money to spend decades doing what they most love. Second thoughts would have been a wilfully over-complicated pose.
Did you hate any classes? What did you do in your spare time?
So taken with logic and philosophy, I neglected much of the mathematics course, and didn’t work as hard as I should have done on what seemed to lack special relevance to philosophy. I didn’t hate the classes; I just engaged with them rather superficially. My spare time I spent idly.
So I imagine there were few surprises in grad school?
That’s right. I stayed at Oxford to do my doctorate. As an undergraduate I already went to graduate classes and knew some of the graduate students, as well as having been taught by the professors. It would have been better for me if there had been more surprises. It would have meant that I was learning more. No one suggested moving to another university in Britain, let alone North America. Even if I’d gone somewhere less good, I might have learned more, in a different philosophical and cultural environment, taught by people with different assumptions and interests.
It wasn’t that Oxford imagined itself the centre of the philosophical universe. It didn’t. There was continual discussion of Quine, Kripke, Putnam, David Lewis, and Donald Davidson. Nor was I in sympathy with the prevailing philosophical atmosphere at Oxford. It was the time of the ‘Davidsonic boom’—I describe my experience of Oxford philosophy at that time in more detail here. People with a sketchy knowledge of the technical background recited Davidson’s half-baked arguments with superstitious awe. I heard a distinguished (but childless) philosopher of language describe native language learning as children being ‘drilled’ in their native language by their parents, as if Chomsky and others had never written.
I had a brief Davidson period. Why not study in the US?
I considered nowhere but Oxford. The trouble was that my focus was not on learning; it was on creating: writing philosophy, building theories. I thought, of course wrongly, that I was ready to do that. I didn’t even apply for the BPhil, Oxford’s two-year Master’s degree, which involved coursework. They didn’t like people skipping the BPhil, but they allowed it.
Was Oxford a competitive environment? Supportive?
We formed only a very loosely-knit community, as a result of the Oxford college system and the large number of Oxford philosophers, faculty and students (things are better now). One met only some of them. There was implicit competition, since we were rivals for scarce resources—scholarships, jobs—but it was often unclear who one’s rivals were. People in what was then the mainstream of Oxford philosophy felt that competition more intensely than I did. Supervision at that time was more hands-off than now. Nobody ever sat me down and talked to me about what I needed to do to get a job, how to write a publishable article or prepare for an interview. We were just expected to pick it up on our own initiative. Things are radically different, in a good way, now.
Still in touch with anybody from back then?
My best friend amongst the philosophers was Peter Lipton, late Professor of Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, who dropped dead shockingly prematurely in 2007. His book Inference to the Best Explanation developed out of his DPhil dissertation. Talking with him gave me resources from the philosophy of science that shaped my thinking about the methodology of philosophy. As graduate students, Peter, John Campbell—now at Berkeley—and I formed a discussion group. At the time we seemed rather marginal to the mainstream of Oxford philosophy. One of my closest friends then and now was a graduate student in literature, Ritchie Robertson, who holds the chair in German literature at Oxford. We walked many Welsh clifftops and mountains together. His vast stores of memorized poetry kept him going through the frequent rain. Then an undergraduate in history, Katharine Nicholas (now Mourby) was and is another good friend; she met Ritchie through me. Many years and a marriage later they married each other. There are other friends from that period too.
How did you evolve philosophically?
Most of my evolution as a philosopher just consisted in learning more. I did have a wobble as a graduate student, when I tried to be too original too soon, veering off into self-indulgent obscurity in my doctoral dissertation. For years afterwards, I thought I had wasted so much time on it that I could never catch up. I learned that it is better to concentrate on getting things right, which still forces originality when needed.
As an undergraduate, I was fascinated by Leibniz’s metaphysics (the secular parts). I remember once seeing someone’s apparently smooth eyelid as riddled with Leibnizian monads (I wasn’t on drugs); it was horrible. My idea was to write a dissertation formalizing Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason. I thought I might be able to connect his arguments about symmetry with then-rampant structuralism in linguistics and social anthropology. Leibniz also tried to reduce relations to properties; ‘Paris loves Helen’ becomes ‘Paris loves eo ipso Helen is loved’. I wanted to define the ‘eo ipso’ operator in terms of what would now be called a ground-theoretic reinterpretation of the proof-conditional semantics for intuitionistic logic. It took me a few months to become disillusioned with those ideas. But the self-indulgence came after that.
What do you mean when you say you were self-indulgent? Was writing the dissertation challenging?
My dissertation was self-indulgent because I didn’t apply the same standards of clarity and evidence to myself that I applied to other people. That was the outcome of working too much in isolation. I didn’t properly appreciate that philosophical argumentation isn’t a monologue in outer space; it’s a contribution to an ongoing conversation that needs to relate to what’s already been said and where the other participants are coming from. Otherwise there’s no way of distinguishing what can be assumed from what can’t be. Writing the dissertation would have been more challenging if I’d made more appropriate demands on myself.
What did you do your dissertation on? Who did you work with?
After the false start on Leibniz, I wrote my dissertation on an idea of Karl Popper and others, that scientific theories can approximate the truth better and better, perhaps without ever getting there. I was supervised by David Bostock, then Bill Newton-Smith, then Michael Dummett. None of them could stop me from developing it in a hopeless direction.
How did you land the job in Dublin?
The committee that interviewed me for the lectureship at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) consisted mainly of chronic non-publishers. They wanted someone like them. One of the others on the shortlist was Graeme Forbes, who had a much better CV than mine. The department’s logic teacher, whose heart by then was in the theory and practice of psychoanalysis, told me later that he noted down “ambitious” during Graeme’s interview, a killer adjective. I had nothing published, nothing forthcoming, nothing at all close to it. Although jobs were scarce, I wasn’t desperate for this one, since I already had the offer of a research fellowship at Cambridge. My brain was on half power, from all the port I’d drunk at an Oxford dining club the night before. I’d forgotten to bring my passport, which fortunately I wasn’t asked for to enter Ireland. I did the interview in a relaxed mood, lounging in the chair, jingling the keys in my pocket. The committee thought they sensed a fellow spirit. They gave me the job as the candidate least likely to succeed.
So then, were you excited when you got your first publication?
I was relieved. As an undergraduate I submitted a paper called ‘Criteria of Identity and the Axiom of Choice’ to Journal of Philosophy. I got a revise-and-resubmit. I didn’t know what it was—I thought it was a rejection with a pat on the head. I angrily threw the paper aside. Years afterwards, once I’d started teaching in Dublin, I found out what the letter meant. I revised and resubmitted the paper a decade late. It was published in 1986. By then I’d published several other articles.
haha…wow! Were you prepared to teach? Do you enjoy teaching? What's your approach? How has it changed over the years?
I was never trained or advised how to teach. I just imitated what I liked about my own teachers. When I started teaching at TCD, I was 25; many of my students were older than I was. Once I said in a lecture that some philosophical problem was very hard, and nobody knew how to solve it. Such a remark would have strongly motivated me, but the look on most of the students’ faces said “So why bother us with it? Go away and solve it, then you can come back and tell us the answer.” Extrapolating from one’s own time as a student is a tempting but unreliable way of working out what undergraduates want and need. One colleague at TCD had a student come to complain that the grade he’d been given for his essay was too high.
I try always to give an honest answer to an honest question. Sometimes other students are annoyed at what they see as a digression that won’t help them for the exam. Many students want to be given a series of bullet points. I find it impossible to reduce philosophy to bullet points; when I try, the points always grow into curving lines logically intertwined with each other in complex non-linear ways. I also dislike selling philosophy to people fundamentally uninterested in it, by disguising it as something it isn’t. But if I can help them engage with real philosophy, even if only at a very elementary level, that’s intensely rewarding.
Since I started my present job, in 2000, I’ve mainly been teaching postgraduate students, doing the Oxford BPhil or DPhil. They are easy to teach because very able and highly motivated. Most will go on to become part of the next generation of philosophy teachers. I love showing them how they can set themselves, and achieve, higher standards in their philosophical writing than they ever imagined. I don’t mind if they oppose my views, as long as they work theirs out properly and present them lucidly.
I prefer my students to come up with their own topics to work on, ones that grip them personally. It doesn’t matter whether they are fashionable or not. It doesn’t come naturally to me to lay down a topic for someone else to work on. I have my own instincts for what I want to do, but those are for me. It’s like holidays: I know where I want to go on vacation, but don’t ask me where you should go. That’s for you to decide. This is a limitation of mine—some students genuinely benefit from a greater degree of external direction than I am able or willing to give them.
There are students I’ve taught teaching philosophy all over the world. I’m very proud of that, of them.
How would you describe Dublin to somebody who has never been?
I associate Dublin with snatches of dialogue. From the film The Commitments: “Ah well, Rome wasn’t built in a day” “Dublin was”. From life: passing the Old Library of TCD, a friend, seeing a workman on the roof, near the edge, shouted up at random “Don’t do it—think of your mother!”; the man shouted back “She’s why I’m here!” The night I got my job, I excitedly told a future colleague that I’d spotted the poet Seamus Heaney in the bar of my hotel; he patiently explained that in Dublin it wouldn’t be considered worth a mention unless I’d spent the evening getting drunk with Heaney and had him confess how he’d plagiarized all his poetry. Once some friends were about to put money into a parking meter for their German-registration van when a traffic warden rushed up to tell them “Don’t put money in the meter!—the fine will never reach you back in Germany.” In Ulysses, when Leopold Bloom passes a cemetery, the thought flashes through his mind that it would be a good place to pick up a young widow.
If you go as a tourist you’ll see some beautiful things, like the Book of Kells; you’ll also see some impoverished, run down areas. You haven’t properly seen Dublin until you’ve been taken drinking in the magnificent pubs. When my wife Ana visited Dublin, she felt it overladen with its dark, bloody history, which even taxi drivers knew in detail. For me, what epitomizes Dublin is its sharp, ruthlessly irreverent sense of humour.
When did you feel like you found your philosophical groove?
It took me to the age of about thirty to get in the groove of writing philosophy fit for publication. It took me another five years to develop my distinctive approach to philosophical issues.
How would you describe "your distinctive approach to philosophical issues"? Over the years, has this changed?
I approach philosophical issues as an anti-reductionist realist. We are a tiny bit of the universe, with no special right to know. In any non-trivial area, there’s a difference between what’s so and what we know is so. If we think at all, we are liable to ignorance and error, but have opportunities for knowing too. That applies to areas like morality and politics, art and beauty, manners and taste, our own thoughts and feelings, and to mathematics, logic, and philosophy, as well as to the natural and social science. It applies whether the questions are precise or vague. Although we can partially shape reality through individual and collective decisions, we are liable to ignorance and error about those shapes too. But “everything is what it is and not another thing”. We lose the special interest of most of these questions if we try to translate them into the language of physics, or anything like it. They must be taken seriously in their own right. We can approach questions in a scientific spirit without privileging natural science over other sciences. After all, mathematics is a science, but not a natural science—it’s not based on experiments. The best framework for all this is classical logic, based on the dichotomy of truth and falsity. Every statement is either true or false, and not both. Classical logic is a scientific theory about reality too, a very good one.
On a related note, why epistemology?
Epistemology, the theory of knowledge, is the field in which we can systematically discuss the relation between reality and what we know or think about it. And the same limitations apply there too. If we know, we may fail to know that we know. If we don’t know, we may fail to know that we don’t know.
You say you're ambitious. Where does that drive come from, you think? What's the ultimate goal there? Being remembered? Shaping the dialogue? Simply getting at the truth?
My parents didn’t tell me to be ambitious, or get to the top, or anything like that. They feared I was too ambitious, and would be miserable if I failed by my own standards, which they encouraged me to lower. I wasn’t pleased with what I took to be a vote of intellectual no-confidence, but I didn’t resign. In retrospect, they may just have been more concerned with my happiness than with my achievements. My own attitude is different, at least for myself: what’s the point of being unhappy if it doesn’t make you work harder?
Ambition is closely related to self-belief. I grew up among academic high-achievers. There were lots of family arguments about abstract issues. Since I could hold my own in them, why wouldn’t I believe I could make it in philosophy? If you’re doing something you love, it would be strange not to try to do it as well as you can. And if you’re highly motivated, you’re willing to put in the time and work required. Success feeds self-belief, and self-belief feeds success. Of course, the best kind of self-belief is self-knowledge! The key is to combine it with a capacity to learn from criticism, rather than ignoring it for fear of being destroyed by it—a difficult balance to achieve.
There is philosophical knowledge, I say. I want it, and want others to have it too. I want to create such knowledge myself. It’s solipsistic not to care whether anyone reads what you write. It’s like saying something in a conversation but not caring whether the others hear it—as if they didn’t matter. You don’t just want them to hear what you’re saying, you want them to react to it, not to go on as if you hadn’t spoken. Philosophy is a vast collective enterprise that has been under way for well over two thousand years. The real vanity would be in not caring what anyone else thought of your work, as though your opinion were the only one to carry any weight.
Of course, ambition has a selfish side too. There is intense competition for jobs in philosophy (like most other academic fields): if you get a given job, many other candidates don’t. To expect philosophers to be above competitive emotions would be to expect them to be inhuman. What matters is that, as far as possible, the best strategy for getting jobs and other scarce resources in the field should be by doing the best work of which you’re capable, rather than by having the best social networking skills or whatever. We could be better in that respect, but we could also be much worse. The point is not to stifle competitive emotions but to harness them in the service of intellectual standards and achievement.
When you finally got into your philosophical groove, what were you doing in your free time?
When first in Ireland, I explored the countryside, often with a group of my students—rugged mountains to climb and peat bogs to flounder in, cliffs with the Atlantic stretching out from you to America, islands that seemed to have changed little since J.M. Synge, huge stone tombs, stone iron age forts, monasteries and round towers in the midst of what seemed like nowhere.
In my first year in Dublin, I met the woman who became my first wife, Elisabetta Perosino, an Italian visiting student working on Yeats. We would spent part of each year in Italy, moving between her family’s three apartments—one in Turin, a great unsung city (where Nietzsche went mad while Peano worked on the foundations of mathematics), one in Ospedaletti on the Italian Riviera near San Remo, and one in St Vincent, in the middle of the Italian Alps near Aosta (birthplace of Anselm of ontological argument fame). I learned Italian, not very well but enough to hold my own at family meals and just about give a philosophical talk in Italian without notes, and to read La Stampa in the morning, I ate vast amounts of exquisite Italian food and drank corresponding amounts of Italian wine and coffee (Italian readers would insist on detailed menus), I climbed a few of the easier mountains (Gran Paradiso, the Aiguille du Croux on Monte Bianco), came to understand the outlook of the old Piedmontese bourgeoisie and the complexities of Italian politics, though such knowledge rapidly goes out of date when one is out of the country. I lived the life of an Italian son-in-law, hedonism mixed with extensive family duties. I deeply respect cats, and have some of their ability to make myself shamelessly comfortable in whatever environment I find myself living in, to let people look after me.
Sounds fun! Do you have kids?
My daughter Alice was born in Oxford in 1993, and my elder son Conrad in Edinburgh in 1996. Not as a result, my first marriage broke up in the years 1998-2000. From 2000 on, I was living in Oxford, from 2001 with Ana, who became my second wife, while they remained in Edinburgh with their mother. Much of my non-professional life revolved around spending as much time as I could with Alice and Conrad, in Edinburgh, Oxford and elsewhere. I don’t deceive myself with the idea that it’s enough to spend only short periods with children provided that it’s ‘quality time’. Having quality time with children depends on also spending large quantities of ordinary time with them too, so that you are all easy and comfortable together. In any case, children want parents to be there, in the background. They want the non-quality time too. I will always feel the loss, to me and to them, of the large parts of Alice and Conrad’s daily growing up that I missed. In 2005, Ana and I had a son, Arno, whose growing up I have been present for. In one way or another I’ve been living the life of a family man since 1993, albeit in part the life of a broken-family man.
I’m often travelling, not only for work. Ana’s immediate family lives in Belgrade, so we often go there (I usually give a talk in the philosophy department too). Her extended family has a house on Korcula, an island in the Adriatic between Split and Dubrovnik, more Venetian than Balkan in spirit and looks. We gather there every summer. We swim from rocks less than fifty yards from the house, under the city walls. We go to Lumbarda for its sandy beach and fish restaurant in the remains of a Roman villa. Round the offshore islands a sea-battle took place nearby in 1298 between the Venetians and the Genoese, reputedly the one in which Marco Polo was captured; one island was also the local leper colony. In the background stands the mountain of Sveti Ilija, falsely reputed by pleasure-loving Dalmatians to be an exhausting climb. When we can, we also travel as a family to the Scottish Highlands; it was satisfying to go with all three of my children up Beinn Dorain two years ago, and Ben More on the island of Mull (mentioned in Kidnapped) last year.
Speaking of which, reading anything other than philosophy nowadays?
Unfortunately, most of my reading has to be reading for work. Apart from that, I’m an obsessive re-reader, above all of Jane Austen. She writes with as much precision, clarity, formal control and ruthless intelligence as any philosopher, more lightness of touch, elegance, irony, and wit, and less self-regard. Every re-reading brings new pleasures. She’s not a romantic novelist—her more romantic characters are shown to be living their lives from books and misjudge people as a result. She’s a classical novelist. Classical novels are better than fuzzy novels just as classical logic is better than fuzzy logic.
How do you balance your personal and professional life? Does philosophy have an impact on your personal live (and vice versa)?
‘Balance’ is too kind a word for the relation between my philosophical and my personal life. I improvise. My wife Ana says I would sell my family for philosophy. I hope she’s joking.
I’ve heard rumours that I work sixteen or even twenty hours a day. I don’t, of course. On a normal day, I get in to my office about 8:30 in the morning and leave before 7 in the evening. I don’t try to organize my time systematically. I just work in whatever direction the resultant of the forces of pleasure and guilt currently points. Pleasure usually points towards writing my own stuff. When things are going well, I can write 2,000 words a day. It soon adds up.
I pity the family and friends of philosophers who try to live by applying their philosophical principles to their personal lives. When I have to make hard decisions, I just procrastinate until one morning I wake up knowing what I’m going to do. I’m not saying the results are always good for family and friends, but it’s better than using a formula.
Sometimes the philosophical impinges on the personal in small unexpected ways. The first time I felt my unborn daughter kicking with my hand, what moved me most was the feeling that I was having singular thoughts directly about her, not just as ‘the baby, whoever it is, inside my wife’; in Bertrand Russell’s terminology, it was knowledge by acquaintance, not by description. When she was born, amongst the overwhelming feelings, was a trace of mathematical satisfaction that her weight in kilos was π (well, 3.14). When I starting giving objections and counterexamples to whatever Ana says, she tells me it’s time for me to go to a conference.
Why did you leave Dublin?
I was offered a job at University College Oxford. I was ambitious. It was a no-brainer to move to one of the leading centres of philosophy in the world.
Was Oxford what you hoped it would be? Highlights?
In Dublin, I’d been philosophically rather isolated. In Oxford, I was surrounded by philosophers with related interests. I talked a lot to John Campbell, Mike Martin, David Charles, Paul Snowdon, David Wiggins, Lizzie Fricker, Bill Child, Bill Brewer, Helen Steward, and many others. Some of those conversations got me thinking about the tradition of Oxford realism, and the fundamental role it gives to knowing. Philosophically, a highlight was presenting my then-new epistemicist of vagueness as unavoidable ignorance in 1992 to a large audience at the Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and Mind Association, the main annual UK philosophy conference, in Reading. They thought it would be easy to knock down, and threw objections at me for an hour, but I was on good form, rebutting them without difficulty. It was a boost to my reputation. After that, I kept being asked to apply for jobs elsewhere.
Why did you leave for Edinburgh?
Edinburgh has always felt like a home to me. I wanted a senior position, to be my own boss and to experience the British university system from a non-Oxbridge perspective. The Chair of Logic and Metaphysics there has a distinguished history—for example, it was held by Sir William Hamilton, a major figure in early nineteenth-century logic. I was a little alienated from University College Oxford, where I was, for its unwillingness to facilitate opportunities for visiting positions abroad. I knew that the Wykeham Chair of Logic would become vacant within six years. If I stayed in Oxford, there was a risk of the committee calculating “We don’t need to give it to him, we’ve got him anyway”. It’s easy to reach the Scottish Highlands from Edinburgh. My mother lives in Edinburgh, so my daughter would have her grandmother nearby. None of those considerations was decisive, but they combined. Some of them were based on better assumptions than others.
What was it like to return to return to Oxford and assume Ayer's position?
Rightly or wrongly, it felt as though my whole life had been a preparation for the job. I was surprised how easily some unfortunate tendencies in Oxford philosophy were reversed. In the period 1970-2000, Oxford philosophy had developed a reputation for obscurity—by contrast with the lucid writing of leading Oxford philosophers in the 1950s, like Austin, Ryle, and Strawson. The Oxford I returned to was still heavily under the influence of gurus such as Wittgenstein and Davidson. The atmosphere was slightly anachronistic— philosophy of mind by transcendental argument; philosophical logic uninformed by formal semantics and logic; in graduate classes a fear of asking questions that might be frowned on. In appointments, insiders were favoured over outsiders with better publications. The effect was complacent intellectual isolation. Of course I’m playing up the bad things, and there were many good ones, but something was definitely not right. I started as Wykeham Professor of Logic in the same year, 2000, as John Broome started as White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy. Although we never got together to plot a change, we have similar intellectual styles and values, and were both coming in with an external perspective. When Dorothy Edgington took the Waynflete Chair of Metaphysical Philosophy a few years later, she too had a similar approach, and she was succeeded by John Hawthorne and then Ofra Magidor in the same spirit. The effect was an opening up of Oxford philosophy to the outside, in both appointments and ideas, which produced an opening up in the reverse direction too. The turnover of graduate students is comparatively quick, which helped the atmosphere amongst them improve rapidly. It was a delayed generational change.
You've had a lot of visiting positions. Your favorites, if you had to pick?
That’s like the question “You have a lot of friends. Your favorites, if you had to pick?” Part of what I value about those positions is the variety of experiences of philosophy in very different parts of the world—the Chinese University of Hong Kong, UNAM in Mexico City, the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand (before the terrible earthquake), the ANU in Canberra. I’ve also benefitted enormously from time spent teaching in some of the best US departments: MIT, Princeton, Michigan, Yale.
Who is your favorite friend? Just kidding. Biggest differences between US philosophy departments and European philosophy departments?
The US philosophy departments where I’ve taught are richer than European philosophy departments. There isn’t the same sense of losing opportunities to bring excellent philosophers in for lack of money. But of course they are not typical of US philosophy departments. The variations amongst European departments are just as large as those between them and US departments. A recent trend is that the centre of gravity of the application of mathematical methods to philosophy has moved towards Europe.
You have spoken all over the world. Hardest place to leave?
In August 2000 I spoke at a conference in an ex-monastery in Celje, Slovenia. Another speaker was an old friend of mine, Misha Arsenijević, a professor of philosophy at the University of Belgrade. He offered to take me to Ljubljana airport after the conference. When he drove up to the ex-monastery to collect me, a glamorous young woman emerged from the car. He had been staying with her and her mother in Celje, where she taught music; her mother was a colleague of his in Belgrade, a professor of Latin. The young woman got into the back of the car. At first I thought she didn’t understand English. Then I made a joke to Misha; she burst out laughing. We got talking, and hit it off. My flight was delayed, so we had just over three hours. I boarded the plane wondering what for; I felt irrationally sure I’d be back soon, even though nothing much had been said. It took a couple of weeks. She is now my wife, Ana Mladenović Williamson. It was a close-run thing. Only as Misha was leaving the flat did he think of asking her to come, so he would have someone to talk to on the drive back. She was hung over after Serbian socializing into the small hours. It was a toss-up whether she could be bothered to get out of bed. If she hadn’t, both our lives would have been utterly different.
Excellent luck! You have a massive body of work. If you could only save three things you've done, what would they be?
My four major books are obviously Vagueness, Knowledge and its Limits, The Philosophy of Philosophy, and Modal Logic as Metaphysics. If I had to drop one, it would be either Vagueness or The Philosophy of Philosophy.
Low point of your career?
1984, though it wasn’t as bad for me as it was for Winston Smith. That summer I was struggling to write a book, rewriting the cryptic opening paragraph over and over again, never getting beyond it. I had no confidence in the project—rightly, because it was inchoate. I kept allowing myself to be distracted by sport on television. I could watch the cricket between England and the West Indies all day, the Los Angeles Olympics all night. It was more fun than labouring to cut one word from a dead-end epigram. At the end of the summer I got a letter from The Philosophical Review, accepting an article. It boosted my self-confidence. I switched to more clearly defined projects and never looked back.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice then, what would it be?
“Stop being pretentious. Pick something doable and do it.”
Any interesting upcoming projects?
I’m writing a Very Short Introduction to philosophical methods for Oxford University Press. I have to explain in very few words (under 35,000) what philosophy is and how it’s done; I can be quite opinionated. I’m covering a wider range of topics than I did in The Philosophy of Philosophy, while not assuming any prior knowledge of the subject. Writing it is a fun challenge. Paul Boghossian and I are putting together a book in which we debate the analytic-synthetic and a priori-a posteriori distinctions, including our previously published exchanges and some new ones. I’m also writing various more specialized articles. One is on whether evidence of evidence for a hypothesis is evidence for that hypothesis, using the methods of epistemic logic. Another is on the structure of possible norms of belief, for instance that something is wrong with beliefs that don’t amount to knowledge. A third paper responds, uncompromisingly, to recent critics of my view that logic is much more similar to other branches of science than many philosophers like to think. It also explains the difficulty of applying one logic to mathematics, another elsewhere. A more long-term project is to take the analogy “Knowing is to believing as doing is to intending” further than I have yet done, trying to make epistemology and the philosophy of action as symmetrical with each other as they will go.
Interesting stuff. Earlier, you mentioned that as a young person, you thought that philosophy was about the abstract, universal, and necessary. Is that still your take, or has your conception of the nature of philosophy changed?
That’s still my instinct about the heart of philosophy. But the abstract, universal, and necessary by its nature has all sorts of ramifications for the concrete, particular, and contingent. Tracing them out is still philosophy.
Do you find any trends in philosophy disconcerting?
I find the current atmosphere of self-righteous moralizing and vindictive internet mobs in the discipline deeply disturbing (whether the mob is on the left or the right). Such attitudes easily produce injustice and cruelty to individuals and unwise and counter-productive policy-making. Here I’m moralizing too, though not naming individuals or proposing policies. The effects would be much less serious if universities could be trusted to observe basic principles of fairness and due process and to fulfil their duties of care to both students and employees, but they can’t. Like most other institutions, they are more concerned to protect their reputations, which typically involves trying to cover up a problem or, if that fails, summary dismissal of alleged culprits. But those institutional failings are not specific to philosophy.
The moralizing atmosphere spreads into philosophical theorizing itself, lowering standards of argument and evidence. As moral stakes rise, epistemic standards fall: ‘This is too important for quibbling’. Philosophers compete with each other in the virtue stakes. There are inevitably pressures to say things because saying them is politically convenient, rather than because you know them to be true. There are even greater pressures to not say things because saying them is politically inconvenient, or even a career-killer. Philosophers don’t have the best track record of resisting such pressures.
Right. Exciting trends?
I try not to get excited, and calling something a ‘trend’ makes me want to go the other way. What I find encouraging is that the work produced by today’s graduate students in philosophy tends to be better than that produced my own generation at the same stage. Not only are they much clearer and more professional in presentation, the content is typically more carefully worked out and explicitly argued. That puts a brake on my pessimism.
How do you see the distant future of philosophy, that is, is this something we do forever and ever, or is there a point where philosophy comes to an end because it has either died or succeeded?
Philosophy will never complete its task. More specifically, it has in effect been proved that logic will never have fully succeeded. Even in the fixed, restricted formal language of first-order logic, however many theorems we have proved, it will only be a finite number, and, provably, there can’t be a mechanical procedure for classifying all the remaining formulas into those that are logically valid and those that aren’t. Taking a wider view, we can always expand the language of philosophy, to express new distinctions, and thereby raise new questions. Obviously, that doesn’t imply that traditions of philosophical thinking will go on forever. Our species will one day be extinct, possibly sooner rather than later. Even while human civilization continues, it may become so shallow that people lose interest in philosophy. We just have to keep whistling in the dark.
As a philosopher, specifically an epistemologist, what do you make of recent political developments in the west?
‘Post-truth’ is an obvious place to start. It was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2016, an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are often less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. It’s not that people have really given up the distinction between what’s so and what isn’t so. What has declined is belief in the idea that care is needed in applying the distinction, because doing so properly often requires sensitivity to the differences between reliable and unreliable sources of information. In both the US and the UK there is less respect for ‘experts’, as certified by professional training and qualifications, or position in the academic hierarchy. A leading scientific expert on global warming is ‘balanced’ on TV by a self-appointed loudmouth. Many people distrust the obvious social markers of expertise. It’s a kind of defiantly dumb anti-elitism.
Firms lobbying for scepticism about manmade climate change describe their product as ‘doubt’. For epistemologists, it’s a useful reminder of the dark side of doubt. Sceptics tend to be self-righteous about their scepticism, trumpeting it as a virtuous form of anti-dogmatic open-mindedness. In the context of global warming, it may be a self-indulgence humanity can’t afford. No one is more dogmatic than sceptics in their scepticism; they pretend even to themselves to be open to counter-argument, while it’s obvious to others that nothing will ever change their minds.
When it turned out that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (the original excuse for invading in 2003), the public debate was confused by failure to make the basic epistemological distinction between knowledge and belief. Tony Blair insisted that he had genuinely believed that there were WMD in Iraq, obscuring the key point that he hadn’t known that there were. Epistemological theories that base justifications for belief on introspectible conscious feelings are of little help when one asks whether belief in WMD in Iraq was justified before the invasion. They are looking in the wrong place for justification. The real issues concern publicly or at least interpersonally available evidence.
One can’t blame the Iraq invasion, Brexit, and Trump’s election on post-modernist rejection of the ideas of truth and falsity. Most of the people most influenced by post-modernism were on the other side. But when politicians need to be called out for speaking plain falsehoods, it doesn’t exactly help that many academics in the humanities and elsewhere have been doing their best for years to ‘deconstruct’ the distinction between truth and falsity. They’re hardly in the strongest position to accuse a politician of disrespect for truth. Whatever adds to the confusion helps politicians get away with their lies. The road to such relativism is paved with good intentions, at least in part. People wrongly took the plain distinction between truth and falsity to imply intolerance of other points of view, other religious or political faiths, perhaps a willingness to suppress them by force. As Bernard Williams pointed out long ago, relativism doesn’t imply tolerance; it’s just as relativistic about the choice between tolerance and intolerance as about any other choice. Politically-inspired relativism is an attempt to solve a political problem by muddled logic. In the long run, such attempts are destabilized by the untenability of their assumptions in public debate. The bullshit gets sniffed out. The problem of how to live at peace with people we disagree with has to be settled by political and social negotiation, not by going into denial about the fact of disagreement (another way of not taking the others’ beliefs seriously). I wrote my book Tetralogue: I’m Right, You’re Wrong to address such issues, not just for philosophers. People often treat the phrase ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ as expressing exactly the sort of superior attitude they want to eliminate. They don’t understand that it’s built into the very possibility of thinking. If I think something is so, you can think it’s not so. If we recognize each other’s view, it’s implicit in what each side thinks that they are right and the other side wrong. We just have to learn how to live with that.
Aside: the starting-point of the argument in Tetralogue was inspired by the collapse of our garden wall in Oxford, though no legs were broken; the book helped pay for its rebuilding.
Most underrated philosophers, living or dead?
Chrysippus, the Greek Stoic. Only fragments of his work survive, but they and his ancient reputation provide good evidence that he was one of the greats, in both logic and general philosophy. He stars in my book Vagueness.
Favorite movies and/or TV shows?
These days I’m so busy with work and family that I have less time than I’d like to watch, especially films (I can’t bring myself to use the word ‘movies’; it would feel as though I were pretending to be an American).
One of the most ravishingly beautiful films ever made, both to watch and to listen to, is Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. I’ve been devoted to it since it first came out in 1975, when it was widely dismissed as slow, cold, and boring. The slow reflective pace and the narrator’s cold ironic distance are essential to the film’s point. Those it bores deserve to be bored. I also love film noir, paradigmatically John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep. A favourite director is Alfred Hitchcock, not least for his more light-hearted early British films—The Lady Vanishes, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Young and Innocent. There’s something Shakespearean about his use of everyday humour to intensify the terror of losing everyday assumed safety. The Macbeths’ frantic attempts to cover up their part in the murder, the sudden ordinary knocking at the gate, the drunken porter’s procrastinating jokes could be a scene straight from Hitchcock. However, my favourite film version of Macbeth is Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, which brings out the eeriness, evil, and disorientation of the original better than more literal versions. Other favourite Shakespeare adaptations include the Olivier Henry V, of course, and the Ian McKellen Richard III, whose fascist setting no longer seems as securely in the past as it did when I first watched it. One of the most politically intelligent films I know is Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, as on the mark now as when it was made. Changing tone, I have a very soft spot for Four Weddings and a Funeral, which shows how the English used to be world leaders in embarrassment, and are still at the bottom of the international league for creative swearing. Recently, I’ve been watching many Éric Rohmer films; in each he somehow makes a gripping narrative out of a few people wandering about and talking to each other.
When being interviewed about oneself, it is good to be reminded of the limits of self-knowledge, for instance by Powell and Pressburger’s I Know where I’m Going! (don’t miss the cameo of the dry, precocious little girl with no illusions about life, played by Petula Clark, later a 1960s pop star). My son Arno is still a bit young to watch Pulp Fiction, but he and I have spent many hours listening to the music from it on YouTube. The opening number, by Dick Dale & the Del Tones, is a speeded-up version of “Misirlou”, a Middle Eastern song first recorded in 1927; the quintessentially American-sounding “Son of a Preacher Man” is sung by Dusty Springfield, who was English and is buried in Henley-on-Thames, where I went to school.
Unlike many philosophers, I don’t much like science fiction, despite its capacity to generate useful examples for philosophy. I prefer characters who are not puppets. The constraints of the world we know are what generate psychological and cultural depth. In the long run they produce art that stands the test of time. My instincts are realist about everything. I’m not sure whether my actor son Conrad will be able to forgive me for this heresy: I prefer watching recorded to live performance, because I want what I’m watching to be independent of my will. I dislike the feedback loops characteristic of live theatre, the thought that my reactions will ever-so-slightly affect the actors’ performance—exactly what many people most love about it. I’d walk a long way to avoid audience participation.
I go to art for entertainment, not education. I don’t expect to be made a better philosopher, still less a better person. My sympathies are with Jane Austen, “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery”; likewise for other cameras. However, it must be admitted that reading her novels isn’t guaranteed not to make one a better person. The trouble is that sometimes being educated is entertaining. But what I don’t need reminding of is that the world is a place where the most terrible things keep happening. Tell me something I don’t know. My experience of moral outrage has made me suspicious of it; too often it’s a comfort zone for ignoring the complexities of a problem. Shakespeare is so good at not ignoring them because he can see and articulate things from any character’s point of view, however alien. He doesn’t rush to judgment. The eloquence of much-quoted speeches tricks people into assuming that he’s endorsing the attitude expressed; often in the play it’s counterbalanced by another character’s remark. As in Montaigne, it’s not relativism, just awareness of deep complexity.
Totally. Suppose you met an omniscient being. If you could ask that being one question, what would it be?
The first question that springs to mind is “Did Mallory and Irvine make it to the summit of Everest in 1924?”, though I’m pretty sure the answer would be a disappointing “No”. For professional reasons I’d better ask whether Cantor’s Generalized Continuum Hypothesis in set theory is true, about which I’m 50-50. Of course, if one isn’t confined to yes/no questions, one can ask “What is the best true description of reality in under 100,000 words of English?” or the like.
Despite my prioritization of knowledge, I don’t find omniscience quite as attractive an ideal as it may first sound. If you knew exactly what was going to happen in the rest of your life, could you be bothered to live it? When I’m following a path, my reassuring knowledge from the map of where it leads is also a slight damper; I like the idea of walking into the unknown, even though it may be full of nasty surprises. Acquiring knowledge is more fun than possessing it. This is related to the pleasure of the hunt (though I have no desire to kill wild animals). Satisfaction isn’t satisfying.
Great answer, Tim. Thanks for your time!