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Classical Investigations: Timothy Williamson

Richard Marshall interviews Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford Timothy Williamson.

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3:AM: Your last two books, Knowledge and Its Limits and The Philosophy of Philosophy are astonishingly radical. Your 1994 book on Vagueness has already become a classic of analytic philosophy. Yet outside of professional philosophy circles they have not become well known. Jerry Fodor once noted that whereas Sartre, Foucault and Derrida could easily be found in bookstores his own books, and those of others like yourself, were much more difficult to locate. This seems to be a general tendency for much work in analytic philosophy. So before discussing specifically what they’re about, I’d like to ask about this. Why do you think this is the case? Sartre is no easier than Dummett, say, and yet many self-described intellectuals will have heard of Sartre but not Dummett. Is it to do with the writing, the subject matter or just that analytic philosophers tend to undersell their radicalism and the alternative tradition overplays their claims? (I tend to think this is the case; so with you, your ideas blow away many so-called radicals such as Foucault and your conclusions, couched in very cool, precise language, belie their corrosive impact!)

TW: Of course Sartre’s high public profile depended on his novels, plays and political writings as much as on his philosophy, so he is a rather special case. Bertrand Russell is an example of an analytic philosopher who was comparably well known to the wider public, as a result of his provocative writings on marriage and morals, atheism, nuclear weapons and so on rather than the brilliant technical work in logic on which his reputation in philosophy is based. Nevertheless, there is obviously something to the contrast you draw. Michael Dummett is a good example, because he was a leading activist in the anti-racism campaign of the 1960s and he has written books on a variety of topics outside philosophy, including voting systems and tarot games, but still without becoming widely known outside philosophy. One reason may be that in his public interventions he did not invoke his authority as a philosopher. He never pretended that his writings on the philosophy of language were crucial texts in the struggle against racism. Maybe if he had done, people would have believed him! Not long ago I had a revealing discussion with a professor of ancient Greek literature, who was convinced that, by contrast with the tradition of Sartre, Foucault and Derrida, contemporary analytic philosophy had nothing useful to offer the study of poetry ― a common view in departments of literature. He claimed that it could not handle phenomena such as meaning more than one says. I discovered that he didn’t know of the analytic philosopher Paul Grice’s analysis of just such phenomena, which has had a huge impact on linguistics as well as philosophy. The point is that he had never even looked at Grice’s book (Studies in the Way of Words); he wasn’t reacting negatively to its content or manner of presentation. That’s not untypical. Outside philosophy departments, many people are taught that analytic philosophy is sterile logic-chopping, so they don’t feel the incentive to do the hard work that is needed to master the ideas and see how they can be applied to literary texts and other material. Of course, it doesn’t help that since comparatively few analytic philosophers present such applications, it is not immediately obvious that they can be made. Analytic philosophers have a sound methodological instinct to start with simpler, more ordinary cases and build up gradually to the complicated, sexy ones; for advertising purposes, that’s a drawback.

3:AM: I think the three books of yours I mentioned above are all radical and have made a profound impact in the way we have to think about their subjects. For instance, your approach to vagueness is striking because it takes seriously the limits to human knowledge. And it undermines several claims that on the face of it seem plausible, such as the idea that you always know when you’re in pain. Can you say a little bit about how you came to this theory – I mean, was it something you suspected before you’d worked out the logic or was it as startling to you as it has seemed to others? And why were you drawn to vagueness in the first place – was it philosophy or reality that drew you to it?

TW: I was aware of vagueness as a challenging issue from my undergraduate days. It seemed to present the strongest challenge to the classical, realist picture that has always rung true to me, on which the world is largely independent of us, and the principle of bivalence holds ― every proposition is either true or false (and not both), even if we do not and perhaps cannot know which ― and other standard principles of logic hold too. The problem was that, on an unqualified realist picture, there must be a point at which subtracting just one grain from a heap takes it from being true to being false that there is a heap in front of you, which seems to be incompatible with the vagueness of the concept of a heap, which has no precise definition. For a long time I could see no satisfactory way round that objection. Then, as I was finishing my first book, Identity and Discrimination, I started thinking about the way in which ordinary knowledge requires a margin for error. It dawned on me that the need for a margin for error would explain why, even though ordinary concepts have sharp boundaries, we can’t know where those boundaries are located. That explanation solved the main objection to the logical view that I had always wanted to hold. So the hard part was working out the epistemology; the logic was the easy bit. The larger purpose underlying my book Vagueness was to argue for realism like this: if realism is wrong about anything, it is wrong about vagueness (that premise was generally agreed); but realism is not wrong about vagueness; therefore it is not wrong about anything.

3:AM: How far is your commitment to the principle of bivalence something that shapes your philosophical outlook and what are your thoughts about philosophical traditions that tend to dismiss it, such as Hegelianism?

TW: I regard classical logic, in a broad sense that includes the principle of bivalence, as the best guide we have in philosophy. That doesn’t mean that I think it crazy to challenge bivalence. Many able philosophers have argued against it in various interesting ways for various domains, including the past, the future, the infinite, and the quantum world, as well as vagueness. I don’t dismiss their arguments; I try to show in detail where they have gone wrong. I would put Hegelianism low on the order of challenges to bivalence, because Hegel was writing long before the development of modern logic, at a time when logic was in a terrible state, and so he had no idea of the resources of logic. There are profound things in Hegel, such as the master-slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Spirit, but he was no logician. Although some contemporary advocates of non-classical logic refer to Hegel from time to time, I have never seen a powerful Hegelian critique of classical logic.

3:AM: Are there fields of enquiry that would benefit from taking vagueness more seriously than it does at the moment? For instance, are there aspects of evolutionary theory that might be less secure once vagueness comes into play?

TW: Cats evolved from animals that were not cats. If you ask when the first cat appeared, you realize that vagueness is involved. As it happens, I discussed vagueness-related problems about the individuation of species in Identity and Discrimination. One of the main theories is that two animal populations belong to the same species if and only if they can interbreed with each other. The trouble is that there are chains of populations where each can interbreed with its immediate neighbours but the population at one end of the chain can’t interbreed with the population at the other end. The theory seems to imply identity of species at each link of the chain but difference of species between the endpoints, which is a contradiction. I showed how to achieve a logically consistent best approximation to the original inconsistent theory in situations like that. However, that is really just a matter of tidying up loose ends. Vagueness throws no doubt on the spirit of evolutionary theory.

3:AM: I think somewhere you suggest that AI engineers need to consider vagueness if they’re to engineer thinking like ours. How far has AI taken up this thought?

TW: Vagueness is a much more serious issue in AI and related fields. If robots are going to have concepts that they apply in real time primarily on the basis of perception, then those concepts are likely to be vague, which raises the question of how they should be reasoning with those concepts ― a central issue in philosophical discussion of vagueness. Unfortunately, one of the most influential theories of vagueness in those fields has been fuzzy logic, which is much cruder and more naïve even than the best of the non-classical theories of vagueness. Fuzzy logic has been applied to the design of washing machines, although I don’t think they were using the most distinctive implications of the theory. Recently I looked at a paper for Artificial Intelligence Journal that used the framework of my theory of vagueness, so it is having an impact in that area too.

3:AM: Were practical applications important to you or was it just the fun of working out the theory that drew you in?

TW: I must admit that practical applications were the last thing on my mind when I developed the theory. I was just interested in the theoretical questions. But it is normal in science that theories developed for no practical purpose later turn out to have practical applications. In fact, worrying too much about practical applications may be counter-productive, because it tends to inhibit the kind of radical questioning that in the long run drives major innovations. Turing developed the concept of a computer in response to a purely theoretical question in mathematical logic.

3:AM: The third book, Knowledge and its Limits, puts forward what Tim Crane called ‘a daring new picture of knowledge’, Brian McLaughlin and John Hawthorne considered ‘…the most important contribution to epistemology in many years…’ and Patrick Greenough called ‘…one of the most important and refreshing books on epistemology written in the past 20 years.’ In it you argue that knowledge isn’t to be understood in terms of a kind of ‘true belief.’ Can you briefly say a little bit about this position?

TW: The basic distinction in epistemology is between knowledge and belief. Beliefs can be false but knowledge can’t be. Someone may believe that the earth is flat but they can’t know that it is flat, they just believe (falsely) that they know that it is flat. The traditional direction of explanation in epistemology is to start with belief and analyze knowledge in terms of it: knowledge is belief plus truth plus various other factors. The trouble is that there have turned out to be counterexamples to all such analyses that have been proposed. In the book, I reverse the direction of explanation, starting with knowledge and treating belief as a state that aspires to the condition of knowledge. There is a deeper motivation behind this reversal. Knowledge is the success state, whereas belief is neutral between success and failure (it may be true or false). The idea is to understand malfunctioning in terms of successful functioning, rather than treating them on a par. In the case of action, trying is the thing neutral between success and failure ― you try and you may succeed, you may fail. But our analysis shouldn’t start with trying, because trying can only be understood in relation to what it is aiming at, i.e. succeeding. Similarly, believing can only be understood in terms of what it is aiming at, i.e. knowing. Knowledge and its Limits is a further step in the development of a tradition in the philosophy of mind known as externalism, which goes back to the work of philosophers such as Hilary Putnam, Tyler Burge, Gareth Evans and John McDowell in the 1970s. The idea is that mental states are not internal to the brain; their very nature involves relations between the brain and the external environment. Those philosophers were interested in the way that the contents of mental states involve the world: someone on a planet causally disconnected from ours can’t want to meet Obama. I’m interested in the way that states like knowing, remembering and seeing involve the world: you can’t see that it is raining unless it is raining (if it is not raining, you can only believe that you can see that it is raining).

3:AM: Were you aware how groundbreaking the argument was? Did you have certain targets in mind when writing the book?

TW: I remember, several years before the book was published, I put forward some of the ideas in it in a lecture at an American university, and someone in the audience said that if he thought I was right, he would give up philosophy! That struck me as a rather extreme reaction. I knew that I was proposing a view of knowledge that challenged the framework within much of twentieth-century epistemology had been done, although I was also building on the ideas of previous philosophers. What I didn’t know was what reaction it would provoke. I was afraid that since it didn’t fit into the standard terms of debate, it would be marginalized. It has had much more impact than I expected. Maybe the time was right for such a theory.

3:AM: Were there positions being taken and arguments being made, implicitly or explicitly, not just in circles of analytic philosophy, that you were dissatisfied with?

TW: The picture that I was criticizing is not confined to analytic philosophy ― it goes back to Plato. Internalism about the mind is extremely common amongst non-analytic philosophers and non-philosophers. Films like The Matrix raise all sorts of questions about internalism and externalism.

3:AM: Since writing it, have you reconsidered any of your positions in the book?

TW: I recently had to write replies to fifteen critical essays on Knowledge and its Limits, to appear with the essays in a book called Williamson on Knowledge. I had to clarify some things I said but the essays didn’t make me change my mind on anything. For independent reasons I have changed my view on a few things that are peripheral to the main line of argument. There are lots of points on which I now think that, although what the book says is correct as far as it goes, it does not go far enough, and the theory needs to be developed further. I have carried the development forward in subsequent articles.

3:AM: Outside philosophy are there areas where you think your work would be well learned? It seems that sceptical arguments and much continental philosophy grounded in luminosity e.g. post-structuralism and phenomenology – are seriously challenged by the book. Have there been counter arguments coming from those areas?

TW: Some linguists (and at least one missionary!) have been interested in the ideas about assertion in the book, and some lawyers in the ideas about evidence. It would be interesting to see reactions from post-structuralists or phenomenologists to the book, but most of them don’t read any analytic epistemology. In the last years of his life Richard Rorty started using me as a paradigm of what he regarded as the wrong turning analytic philosophy has taken. I was hoping that he would attack The Philosophy of Philosophy, since that would have been good for sales, but he died before it appeared.

3:AM: This book and Vagueness, indeed everything you’re writing, seem to suggest that human fallibility and the limits to what we as humans can know are a key insight. How far is this a view that has been developed by the philosophy, and how far was it an already established insight that then suggested the contours of your theorising?

TW: It’s pre-theoretically obvious that in almost every domain of human thought our beliefs are fallible and our knowledge limited. Many philosophers have regarded our own minds as some kind of exception, a ‘cognitive home’ as I once called it, in which those limitations did not apply, so that there is no cognitive limitation to knowing one’s own present mental states (they are ‘luminous’, in the book’s jargon). Theoretical argument was needed to show that the same fundamental limitations apply even to one’s knowledge of one’s own mind.

3:AM: In your last book you again insinuate yourself into contemporary philosophical thought and say that not only has it made errors but it has actually taken a disastrous wrong turn. You call this the ‘linguistic turn’, which develops into ‘the conceptual turn’. This is radicalism without a hat. Could you briefly outline the main argument that philosophy that thinks that its sole job is to analyse language/concepts is wrong and why this is such an important point?

TW: The linguistic turn and the conceptual turn took many different forms. All of them were, in one way or another, responses to a methodological challenge to philosophy that the development of modern experimental science has made more and more urgent: how can philosophers expect to learn about the world without getting up out of their armchairs to see what it’s actually like? The idea was that whatever philosophers have to do, they can do on the basis of their understanding of their native language, or perhaps of some ideal formal language, or their grasp of the corresponding concepts, both of which they already have in the armchair. In some sense philosophical questions are linguistic or conceptual questions, either because they are about our own language or thought, or because they are the kind of questions that can be answered from principles that we implicitly accept simply in understanding the words or grasping the concepts. In reply, I argue that the attempts to rephrase philosophical questions as questions about words or concepts are unfaithful to what contemporary philosophers are actually interested in. For example, philosophers of time are interested in the underlying nature of time, not just the word ‘time’ or our concept of time. As for the principles that we implicitly accept simply in understanding words or grasping concepts, I argue that there aren’t any. A language is a forum for disagreement; contrary to what many philosophers have thought, it doesn’t impose an ideology. People who take wildly unorthodox views, even about logic, are not ‘breaking the rules of English’. Although the linguistic turn and the conceptual turn involve radical misconceptions of philosophy, in my view, I don’t regard them as avoidable accidents. Probably they were stages that philosophy had to go through; we can only determine their limitations if lots of able people are doing their utmost to defend them. But by now we can see their limitations. As an alternative, I show how we can answer the methodological challenge to armchair philosophy without taking the linguistic or conceptual turn. For example, thought experiments, which play a central role in contemporary philosophy, involve offline applications in the imagination of cognitive skills originally developed through online applications in perception. Those skills go well beyond the minimum required for understanding the words or grasping the concepts. Our ability to perform thought experiments is really just a by-product of our ability to answer non-philosophical questions of the form “What would happen if …?” Philosophy is much more like other forms of inquiry than philosophers have often pretended.

3:AM: When you wrote the book did you intend to shake everything up?

TW: I felt that the predominant self-images of philosophy hadn’t properly adjusted to its current practice, in part because the ‘big picture’ narratives of philosophy were mainly being written by people like Rorty who were unsympathetic to the most fruitful recent developments. Although our practice can be better than our theory of our practice, if we have a bad theory of our practice it is likely to have some distorting effect on the practice itself. I thought it time to a philosophy of philosophy more in tune with philosophy as it is actually being done.

3:AM: Has the book caused analytic philosophy to re-imagine itself?

TW: It is too soon to say how much impact the book will have. Some philosophers, especially in the USA, have strongly agreed with it. Others regard it as crazy. Several debates on the book between me and other philosophers have been published or are about to be.

3:AM: Many of my friends are Wittgensteinians, others phenomenologists. Should they stop?

TW: It would be unhealthy as well as boring for philosophy if everyone did it in the same way. We need a wide gene pool of ideas and methods. Nevertheless, some ideas and methods are better than others. When it comes to writing the history of twentieth century philosophy, the works of Wittgenstein, Husserl and Heidegger will presumably remain major texts, given their originality and vast influence. But from a historical point of view, it also seems clear that in recent decades the Wittgensteinian and phenomenological traditions have not adequately renewed themselves. Although books continue to be published in both traditions, they are recycling old ideas rather than engaging with new ones. Part of the attraction of such a tradition for its adherents is that it constitutes an intellectual comfort zone in which they are given pseudo-justifications for not bothering to learn new ways of thinking. At their best, the Wittgensteinian and phenomenological traditions share the virtue of patient, accurate description of examples. In that respect the analytic tradition has learned from them, I hope permanently. But once the examples started giving results that didn’t suit them, Wittgensteinians retreated into their dogmatic theoretical preconceptions while pretending to do the opposite. As for phenomenology, if a phenomenological description of experience is one that mentions only facts the subject knows at the time, fine. But it shouldn’t be confused with a description of facts about appearances, since one often knows facts that go beyond them. You can know that you are seeing a computer screen, not just that you seem to be seeing a computer screen. I argue in Knowledge and its Limits that the privileging of appearances results from the fallacy of assuming that we must have a cognitive home.

3:AM: Regarding philosophers’ intuitions, you have strong things to say about these in The Philosophy of Philosophy when discussing evidence. At one point you say, ‘The point of such maneuvers is primarily dialectical, to find common ground on which to argue with the opponent at hand.’ Do you think that this may be a reason for why analytic philosophers haven’t found a broader readership; it hasn’t managed to find common ground, its intuitions have been faulty?

TW: I was arguing that the idea of ‘intuition’ is mystifying and unhelpful in discussion of philosophical method. What we are really talking about are philosophers’ judgments. There is no special faculty of intuition. When analytic philosophers take their opponents seriously, they go out of their way to find common ground with them ― perhaps they sometimes go too far doing that, for example in arguing with extreme skeptics. Of course analytic philosophers often make faulty judgments ― they are human, after all ― but that isn’t what explains why they haven’t found a broader readership. Plenty of books packed with faulty judgments sell well.

3:AM: Returning to the afterword of your last book where you address us like a headteacher admonishing us all to do better, do you think that there no room for continental philosophy? Given that you argue that so much of the analytic tradition, so called, has been wasting its time taking the linguistic/conceptual turn, might not someone from the continental field suggest that that in itself is a reason for looking for different approaches to philosophy?

TW: The linguistic/conceptual turned wasn’t confined to analytic philosophy; it occurs in a different form in ‘continental’ philosophers like Derrida (of course, the label ‘continental philosophy’ covers a wide variety of approaches, but it is convenient shorthand). Nor was it a mere waste of time. Analytic philosophy learned much about language and mind in the course of it, and thereby contributed to linguistics and cognitive science too. One philosophical gain is that we have become much better at analyzing the structure of arguments, by thinking about the semantics and syntax of the sentences that make them up; as a result, we have become much better at determining whether they are valid or not, even though the arguments themselves are not about words. As for learning from continental philosophy, analytic philosophy has become a much broader, more varied and more tolerant tradition than it once was. It is not afraid of learning from non-analytic philosophers ― you can find analytic philosophers discussing Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Derrida from time to time. However, it tends to learn much less from such continental philosophers than it does from non-philosophers ― linguists, psychologists, biologists, physicists, mathematicians. In philosophy in continental Europe (as opposed to ‘continental philosophy’), the most important development over the past thirty years has been the massive spread of analytic philosophy. ‘Continental philosophy’, by contrast, is stagnating.

3:AM: Are there no writers from this other field that interest you?

TW: When I was a graduate student, I used to go to meetings of a Radical Philosophy group and read Derrida and Foucault because I was curious about whether continental philosophy had intellectual resources that I could use. Although I occasionally found something intriguing in their works, I eventually came to the conclusion that they were not worth the trouble. The texts were obscure and dogmatic. At first I thought other people in the Radical Philosophy group understood them better than I did, but then I discovered that they didn’t ― they were simply more willing to go on talking in that way, without trying to clarify the obscurity. They couldn’t answer my questions. In general, although the rhetoric of liberation is far more prevalent in continental than in analytic philosophy, I’ve found the world of continental philosophy far more hierarchical and authoritarian than that of analytic philosophy. In a department of analytic philosophy, if the most famous philosopher in the world comes to give a lecture, graduate students are expected to put tough objections to them; if the famous philosopher tries to fob them off, that’s noticed and disapproved of. The attitude in continental philosophy tends to be more deferential and fawning. I find it a depressing world. It isn’t much fun arguing with people who don’t know how to discriminate between sophistry and valid reasoning. I admire Nietzsche as a brilliant writer and culture critic rather than philosopher.

3:AM: Do you think analytic philosophy can change? Do you see yourself as a radical leading such a change?

TW: Analytic philosophy has been changing throughout its history, and will continue to do so. I don’t think a radical change in how it operates (as opposed to how it thinks it operates) is needed. What I was suggesting is that by conscious reflection and training we can improve our performance incrementally. Although that sounds dull, the long-term effects can be dramatic. Tycho Brahe was just a bit more accurate and comprehensive in his astronomical observations than his predecessors, but the result was data good enough to discriminate between the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems.

3:AM: Can you say a little about the ontological commitments of your general philosophical position?

TW: My work on vagueness and ontology doesn’t really concern ontology. Probably my most distinctive ontological commitment comes from my defence of a controversial principle in logic known as the Barcan formula, named after the American logician Ruth Barcan Marcus, who first stated it. An application of this principle is that since Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy could have had a child (although they actually didn’t), there is something that could have been a child of Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy. On my view, it is neither a child nor a collection of atoms, but rather something that merely could have been a child, made out of atoms, but actually has no location in space and time. The argument can be multiplied, so there actually are infinitely many things that could have been located in space and time but aren’t. It takes quite a bit of work to show that the Barcan formula is better than the alternatives! That’s what my next book will be on. The working title is Ontological Rigidity.

3:AM: You wrote a wonderful piece about Barcan. Though the logic is too hard for me to understand you still managed to indicate to me the intellectual excitement of her discoveries and the journey this remarkable woman has travelled. You also expressed great sympathy and admiration for her; you seemed to be writing almost as a fan.

TW: That piece is the speech I gave when Ruth was awarded the Lauener Prize for a lifetime’s achievement in philosophy. I’m glad that I managed to communicate something of that achievement. Of course, there are many other philosophers for whom I have a deep respect. For instance, an important experience for me as a first-year undergraduate was listening to Saul Kripke lecture at Oxford: the combination of clarity, logical power and good judgment struck me then, and continues to strike me, as a model for how to do philosophy.

3:AM: Currently, who and/or what excites you most and why?

TW: Intellectually, what excites me most at the moment is an obscure branch of logic known as second-order modal logic, which I’m going to use in Ontological Rigidity. It excites me because it is beautiful and rigorous and casts light from unexpected angles on metaphysical disputes that had become rather stuck, and so enables us to move them on.

3:AM: What do see as the great challenges facing humans and what role do you think philosophy has in helping us face them?

TW: Obviously, a central challenge facing our species is to survive on this planet for as long as it can. It’s hard not to despair when one thinks about the destruction of the environment and the tenacity of irrational belief. Philosophy can help us face these challenges. My colleague John Broome, who is the professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, has a book on Counting the Cost of Global Warming. There are difficult philosophical issues about how to take into account the interests of actual or possible future generations in present decision-making. There are even logical issues: how can we reason about future individuals who will never exist if we wipe ourselves out first? Interestingly, the Barcan formula provides a solution to the purely logical problem, but unfortunately not to the others.

3:AM: Has the recent credit crunch raised issues that philosophy can address?

TW: I’ll leave it to non-analytic philosophers to pontificate on the credit crunch in ignorance of economics.

3:AM: Are there any non-philosophers you’d say are worth reading?

TW: I don’t know any philosophers who think that only philosophers are worth reading! I know some who seem to think that only non-philosophers are worth reading. It’s frightening to go into a bookshop and realize how many of the books are worth reading and how few of them one will find time to read. In fiction, I like novelists who are as clever and clear-eyed as good philosophers, and as exact in their use of words, but who don’t attempt to do philosophy. Jane Austen is an obvious example (my taste in literature, art and music is as classical as in logic). Those virtues can be found in less exalted branches of fiction too; Dashiell Hammett has them. The poets I return to most often are Shakespeare and Yeats. I’d be more receptive to ‘experimental’ literature if I knew how to tell whether it refutes the author’s theory.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Prof. Timothy Williamson has been the Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford since 2000. His main research interests are in philosophical logic, epistemology, metaphysics and philosophy of language. He is the author of Identity and Discrimination (Blackwell 1990), Vagueness (Routledge 1994), Knowledge and its Limits (Oxford 2000), The Philosophy of Philosophy (Blackwell 2007) and over 120 articles. Williamson on Knowledge, edited by Patrick Greenough and Duncan Pritchard (Oxford, forthcoming) contains fifteen critical essays on his work and his replies.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, April 25th, 2009.