In this interview, Tristan Haze, who recently finished his PhD at Sydney University but is not on the market yet (though he is willing to consider any offers, of course), and I discuss his early obsession with Ancient Egypt, underage drinking, King Crimson, Django Reinhardt, religious impulses, contemplating a career in computer science, David Foster Wallace, ‘the click’, the mysteriousness of, and falling in love with, logic, his band the Crystal City Aviators, working at Subway, how nature helps him philosophize, his satirical website Philosophy Metablog, working out ideas on his more serious blog, Sprachologik, Naming and Necessity, Leiter Reports, his interest in stand-up comedy, Norm MacDonald, his relaxed attitude towards the philosophy job market, trying to do something profound and inexhaustible, the best philosopher he disagrees with most, his favorite living philosopher, Terrace House, his last meal, and the question he would ask an omniscient being…
Where did you grow up?
I grew up on the Northern Beaches in Sydney, right where they film the soap opera Home and Away (popular in Australia and the UK). It was idyllic, and although naturally I appreciated this more later, I did appreciate it at the time. I had some solitary, mystical experiences walking around there.
Just very good, very positive experiences.
What was your family like? What did your folks do?
My mum is Australian and my dad is Norwegian. My mum was a secretary when she met my dad, and became a nurse later. My dad was an engineer, and then went into sales and local business advertising. My mum is voluble and good at doing funny voices, and my dad is a bit more buttoned-down and serious, but generally pretty affable. My mum watches spiritual content and lifestyle bloggers on YouTube, and my dad is a non-churchgoing Protestant and watches a lot of news. They're still together and now live up the coast away from Sydney.
As a kid, what were you into?
I always loved music. I had some trainspottery interests as a young kid, such as coins and bottle tops, but they fell away. Around that trainspottery time I had an obsession with Ancient Egypt, and on the preservation of things. I used to ask my parents how long various materials and objects would last. I spent a lot of time outdoors on skateboards and bikes. I liked playing soccer but wasn't very good at sport. As a high schooler I got into computer programming and got more serious about making music. Those were my two main interests that might have led into grown up work. I've kept going with music, but the programming fell away once I started taking philosophy courses at uni. I loved learning the basics of programming but didn't really have a taste for real world software development. Logic replaced it for me, as a love.
Were you a trouble maker?
A bit, yes. The most common complaints of my teachers were that I was disruptive and didn't apply myself. When I was sick once, the doctor told my mum that I had what was then called ADD, but I wasn't put on medication. I went through a delinquent phase around the age of 14, but that passed and I got an early version of my current personality.
Delinquent? What's the worst thing you did?
If you mean really worst, it was probably some time I made another young person feel really bad in some way, with potential knock-on effects. There are a couple of things like that which will always be on my conscience. In a lighter sense, maybe underage drinking and running from police, or some petty vandalism. Fortunately, it was just an attitude thing for the most part. A lot of smoking cigarettes and looking menacing. And I was never fully committed to it, in the sense that in many situations I would act differently. Looking back, I think this, for me and for lots of people, can be explained as an attempt to grow up as if in an honour culture.
As a younger kid mainly rock music from the charts at the time, then a lot of rap, and then I got into the Beatles, British prog bands such as King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Yes, then later more arty and lyrical artists like Captain Beefheart, Syd Barrett, Bob Dylan, and Robyn Hitchcock. Also a bit of classical and jazz, especially Bach and Django Reinhardt respectively.
Wish You Were Here is one of my favorite songs of all time. Favorite Django jam?
‘Nuages’, maybe followed by ‘Daphne’. But the versions are all different and I’m very much attached to the ones that imprinted me. The versions I like, from a CD I have, were recorded with Stephane Grappelly and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. There’s no more specific information about when they were recorded on the packaging though.
Do you make music yourself?
I play guitar and sing and write songs. I was in a band called The Brill, and then Brilltown - we thought the word 'brill' was funny - and then did my first proper recording project in 2009, a solo record under my own name featuring the bass player from Brilltown. Then the Brill/Brilltown guys and I got a bit more serious and formed a band called Crystal City Aviators, which had one EP in 2010. We recently unearthed an almost-completed second EP, which we might put out one day. More recently I've done further solo projects, and I think my songwriting has improved.
Not officially, but I have some religious impulses. I would have said I believed in God as a child and into my teens. I went through an anti-religious phase, and then an anti-anti-religious phase. I have prayed even as an adult, but only at personally trying moments. When things are OK I don't seem to have much to say to God any more. (As a kid I would address grateful thoughts to God.)
When was the last time you prayed?
When my now wife was ill.
How’d you meet your wife? What does she do?
Libby and I went to the same primary school actually, and her family also lived in Palm Beach at that time, but we didn’t interact much. We then got together at a party just as high-school had finished. She studied Fine Arts, then education, and now she’s an early childhood teacher.
In high school, did you start thinking about what you would do for a living?
I wanted to be a mechanic, then an engineer, and then I thought I might do computer science.
Where did you end up going?
Sydney Uni, where I ended up doing my PhD.
How did you end up majoring in philosophy?
I gravitated to philosophy and became disenchanted with computer stuff. One thing which made me start thinking seriously about majoring in philosophy instead of something more sensible is that I seemed naturally to retain and think about the things my philosophy lecturers and tutors said. I noticed that I was more like this than the other students around me, so I thought I might have something. It wasn't like that in computer classes.
It was a rocky start for me assessment-wise, however. Intro logic I did well in, but my marks for essays were initially quite low. It wasn't until maybe the second half of second year that things began to click. I don't think the decision to major in philosophy was made until I was in second year. I don't remember it well now, but I think I was quite anxious about what to do, and then relieved when I decided to major in philosophy and was by that time getting good marks for essays.
Why did you fall in love with logic, you think?
A big part of it is that I found it afforded the same kind of pleasure as I experienced learning programming. David Foster Wallace called it the click [editor’s note: Wallace attributes this quote to Yeats]. And additional aesthetic pleasure, from the look of the formulas, arrangements of them, etc. There is a passage in the Investigations where Wittgenstein remarks that, unlike with some words and phrases in natural language, people don't care as much when one of the signs in 'the algebra of logic' is changed [editor’s note: section 167]. Well, point taken I guess, but I do care a fair bit about those signs, and enjoy them to different degrees. I like the tilde a bit more than the right-angled thing [editor’s note: tail] for negation, and I like the horseshoe much more than the arrow for material implication. They make formulas look more musical and profound. The right-angled thing and the arrow make the formulas look a bit more utilitarian.
I hate the right-angled thing! But seriously…
Another thing is that formal logic seems so sui generis and, in a way, mysterious (although I don't want this feeling to degenerate into obfuscation). It's like mathematics, or in some ways is mathematics, but it arose from a distinctive kind of soil, different from (other) mathematics. And there are different stories in logic books and philosophical writings about what it is, or what it is about. And to me they all seem partial views at best, the full acceptance of which would put blinders on us. Formal logic has many different vital connections to things, plays many roles, or whatever. I get a sense of wonder when I think about this, picturing humans developing and doing logic over the centuries. And there's something sort of touching about it, thinking of all those people, whose ancestors are apes, making these marks and looking at them and thinking about it, teaching it. Half-blindly, as it were.
I feel you.
Another big thing is the way it blends into philosophical issues and topics which you wouldn't categorise as logic. And it gives us a certain kind of model of how language works which, while it can do harm and obscure things, can also help us think about some things. It's easy, after a phase of critiquing classical logic and things people have thought and said about it (and continue to), to overlook the extent to which it really does capture a lot.
So, what was life like outside of the classroom?
Good times mainly. I was working at Subway for most of my undergrad years, and was already going out with my Libby. I got better at music and playing live, and had a lot of fun with that (along with quite a bit of frustration). I still lived on the Northern Beaches, and so had much more access to wilderness than I do now in Sydney's Inner West, which I think helped my philosophizing.
How does nature help you philosophize? I empathize!
I think it helps to not have any symbolic representations around you sometimes, but that may not be a big part of it. I don’t know how nature does it.
Why did you decide to go to grad school? Were you not worried about your employment prospects?
No, I didn't really care that much at the time. I knew that if I got an APA (Australian Postgraduate Award), I'd be paid enough to live on to concentrate on philosophy for three years (which I managed to get extended to three and a half). I was thinking and writing a lot of notes about modality and related topics, quite intensively, and it just made sense to keep going and see if I could discover something. It seemed like my best prospect in life.
Where did you apply?
I just stayed at Sydney Uni where I did my undergrad studies. It's considered pretty good for philosophy, if not as good as ANU, and I had people I wanted to work under.
Was grad school what you expected? Friendly? Competitive?
Sydney is pretty friendly. I never felt particularly competitive with other people doing postgraduate study. Obviously, I felt the competitiveness of philosophy more widely, the difficulty of publishing and getting work. I don't know what I expected really. I think I may have expected more active interest in my work on the part of my mentors, being quite excited and full of myself when I went into it.
How did your interests change in grad school? Who’d you work with? Dissertation topic?
My philosophical interests didn't change during my PhD studies. My supervisors were David Macarthur and N.J.J. Smith, and my thesis (we call them theses in Australia) was about necessity construed as an attribute of propositions. I had a new account of the conditions under which a proposition is necessary - necessary in the sense of Kripke's Naming and Necessity. The account is meant to factor out an a priori tractable, arguably semantic, aspect to the concept. Some new data came to my attention this year after submitting, mainly due to Jens Kipper, and I'm currently working on a paper containing a modified account. I'm quite excited about it.
Nice. You have a solid publishing record for a grad student! Writing habits?
I go in spurts. I tend to overreach, and I "complete" lots of things that aren't really complete or good enough. It's a never-ending process of hubris and humblings. I used to work at night when I was younger but now I tend to work in the day. I like using my blog to work out ideas, a fraction of which then appear in peer-reviewed publications.
I think your serious philosophy blog is good stuff, but what inspired you to start the Philosophy Metablog? It's sort of brilliant, dude. It's cynical yet playful.
Thanks. I've been happy to learn that some people get something out of it. A lot of people hate it. I can imagine thinking it's really lame or pathetic. I do understand that viewpoint. (Part of the lameness is intentional, but of course that doesn't automatically prevent it from really being lame.) I think it's an idiosyncratic thing and that the good receptions of it justify the bad.
People are dumb. It is not lame. It is great. Wasn’t there a predecessor?
There was a website at that URL where people would talk anonymously about philosophy as a profession, but it moved or gave way to a descendant. I just grabbed the Blogspot subdomain when I saw it had become free, since I knew it would, at least initially, get a trickle of traffic from existing links to the website that was there. Then I started playing around with it, initially anonymously, making strange posts and commenting on them. I've done different things with it. The early posts, and some later ones, were quite collage-like, copying and pasting things from Google image search and other philosophy blogs. And at the beginning I tended to let lots of comments accumulate on a post before doing a new post. I then moved toward doing more posts, and not always collages. At some point the blog got the nickname 'the Pilos', from something I typed by accident when I was sloppily typing something about philosophy. Then I did some 'Pilos Profiles' about famous philosophers, just writing sort of bad biographical sketches based on a mix of real things I remembered about those philosophers and vaguely plausible made up stuff.
It really helps me work through my feelings about the profession.
I've found it a way of blowing off steam, and processing some of the loss of innocence that happens when you get into philosophy and begin thinking of it as a possible profession.
I notice you have a PayPal link. Millionaire yet?
I haven't had a single donation.
Check again, bro! I feel your pain. The struggle is real.
I also dig the serious blog, Sprachologik.
I'm surprised that more philosophers don't have personal blogs with substantive posts about their research, but maybe they know what they're doing and I'm paying costs I don't understand by having one.
So you just use the serious site to work out ideas?
Also to get things out there in preliminary form, in case I drop dead or someone scoops me. Also, even some of the better stuff there would be hard to publish in articles even if polished, being more exploratory. I think it's important to try to be as clear as possible - but not clearer. And if you can't write about something in a contemporary article format, maybe you should still try to write about it. I often think about the contrast between 'profound and inexhaustible' philosophical writings and the ideal analytic journal article. I think there's a real difference there, and I don't want to take myself out of the running with respect to the former.
Favorite philosophy sites?
PhilPapers is great. I don't know what else. I like your site, but I guess it's not the sort of thing you continue to go back to several times a week. I regularly visit Leiter Reports. Outside philosophy narrowly construed (but still inside it broadly construed I think), I find a lot of what Robin Hanson writes on his blog Overcoming Bias really interesting and insightful, although I feel like he has quite different values from me around things like art and philosophy.
Least favorite sites?
Who am I to judge when the Pilos is so bad? There are a couple of sites that I sometimes feel pretty bleak reading. But I do look at them.
Got it. You do comedy. I feel like good comedy and good philosophy are similar. Are they connected in your mind?
I think one thing they have in common, as I understand them, is that they both involve a kind of being outside life and examining things. But the mood I'm in when I do them is very different. Unlike Nietzsche (or the late Jerry Fodor!), my philosophical writings don't have much if any humour in them, and on the other side, there's nothing literary or self-consciously intellectual about my stand up. I suppose the Philosophy Metablog is the one thing I've done where the two interests overlap in a way.
I really like a couple of English comics who are very silly with no real irony, but in a way which indicates depth (without being overtly dark or anything). Tim Vine is a contemporary one of those. Tommy Cooper is a good historical one. Gerard Hoffnung was an amazing German-English comic, who died quite young. I think a lot of his comedy was based on classical music and hasn't really aged well in that its context has largely disappeared from the culture, but he did some radio interviews with a really good "straight man" called Charles Richardson which I think are fantastic. It seems to be in vogue, although this may be changing right now, to be authentic and real on stage, and I like the way the aforementioned comics aren't like that at all - it's completely stylised and an act - and yet you feel you learn something about them anyway.
I don’t recognize any of those names, to be totally honest with you.
When it comes to produced videos or episodes of shows, I like Tim Heidecker's work, and Jay Weingarten's. On the more mainstream side, I think the monologues on The Pete Holmes Show which ran a few years ago are masterful. I think they're mostly on YouTube. On podcasts I really like Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport, Scott Aukerman, Paul F. Tompkins, Harris Wittels, and T.J. Miller. Other comics I like include Reggie Watts, Rory Scovel, Maria Bamford, and Norm Macdonald. Closer to home, some Sydney comedians I like to watch are Fran Middleton, Sam Campbell, and Aaron Chen.
Aukerman and Tompkins are long time favorites. Mr. Show fan?
No, but I did check it out a couple of years ago. I suspected it may be one of those things that was very innovative, but where the innovations got refined so much subsequently that it’s dated a bit. But I should give it another go.
Right. Tim, Holmes, Wittels, and Bamford are brilliant. Norm’s the best. Favorite Norm bit?
It’s not so much his bits as his way of being, as seen for example in Norm Macdonald Live.
Probably my favorite podcast. How's the music coming along?
Fairly well lately. I had a few years when I was writing but not completing proper recording projects, but in the last year or two I've been ratcheting back up my efforts to get things produced and released. I've just put out a new album called Central Hub, and I have another one in the can, an acoustic one.
Do you worry about the philosophy job market?
If I worry it's not so much about the philosophy job market all by itself, but rather the idea that it might be part of a larger story in which I screw up my life. But I'm not that pessimistic. I feel very lucky to live in Australia and to have some people who care about me. I'm OK with the idea of failing to get ongoing paid work doing philosophy as long as I manage to have some kind of place in the world. I try not to worry too much.
What are your long-term career goals?
I'd really like to make a lasting contribution to analytic philosophy. I'd also like to leave behind something that people with the relevant interests will want to go back to and think about. Something 'profound and inexhaustable'! That may have to be a separate stream of output to some degree, separate from the stuff I send to journals, so that it can be more exploratory and seminal. That's if I have any chance at all. There's something disturbing about even wanting to do that. Sometimes I feel it makes me ridiculous. Why would I want to do it? Is it because I have something to say, or for some baser or pathological reason? But then it occurs to me that the people who managed to do it did want to, perhaps even before they knew what they had to offer, and I'm glad they did, so I try not to get hung up about it. Also I try make sure there are other things about me that make me worthwhile as a person, like being a good husband and friend, and a good shop assistant (and good at whatever my next job is). I also have hopes of being a good teacher.
Future of philosophy? Disconcerting or exciting trends?
I have no idea. One thing which comes to mind, though, is that people are talking nowadays about there being less emphasis in philosophy departments on the traditionally core topics of analytic philosophy, and less jobs (proportionally at least) for people working on them. That's a bit disconcerting, since I work on and am most interested in topics which fall in that category. But not everyone who contributes has to do so as their job, or their primary job, and if you look at the world, there are more and more people, I think, being exposed to these topics and thinking about them, which is exciting.
Favorite living philosopher?
Saul Kripke for sure.
Best philosopher you most disagree with?
This may be me being thick, but I get confused by questions of that form. I guess what they call for is maximising the total of, in this case, goodness and disagreement with me, but also while maintaining a decent balance between those two things. But something about the way the form strikes me makes me resist interpreting it that way: seeing 'best' at the start makes me think I really need to maximise the goodness bit, but then that runs into trouble. (I'd love a pointer if someone knows of this form of question being studied.)
Answer the question!
For a long time I was obsessed with David Lewis and how wrong I think he is about some things surrounding modal realism, and I think there may be a lot of insight to be had in diagnosing that really deeply, but it gets tiresome after a while. I think as I've gone on in philosophy, I've become less about attacking worked out positions that I think are wrong, and more about avoiding wrong turns early on, critiquing philosophical movements of thought while they're still crude and have a more telling physiognomy. Wittgenstein had insightful things to say about this. When it comes to responding to particular people's work, I'm now more interested in seizing on things that I think are right and trying to run with them.
What are the insightful things Wittgenstein had to say about this?
According to Philippa Foot (this appears on the first page of Natural Goodness), during a public discussion at Oxford, “Wittgenstein interrupted a speaker who had realized that he was about to say something that, although it seemed compelling, was clearly ridiculous, and was trying (as we all do in such circumstances) to say something sensible instead. ‘No,’ said Wittgenstein. ‘Say what you want to say. Be crude and then we shall get on.’”
What are you watching and listening to nowadays?
My wife and I have been enjoying Terrace House on Netflix. It's like a less invasive, Japanese version of Big Brother, with an entertaining panel of commentators. I can imagine people who are sort of like Libby and me but Japanese would find it irritating, but since the culture is foreign to us, we're fascinated.
Maybe something with a bit of potato. I'd be too focused on my impending death to think about food. But perhaps I wouldn't know death was coming. In that case, just something I normally like. A nice roll or a curry maybe.
If you could ask an omniscient being one question, what would it be?
‘Does your mind have moving parts, or does it not need to since you are omniscient? And if it doesn’t, how is what you have a mind?’