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Dangerously frank

C.G. Prado interviewed by Richard Marshall.

C.G. Prado is dangerously frank about the current state of analytic philosophy, thinks we’re always stuck with the divide between analytic and continental, thinks much epistemology a dead end, thinks Rorty wrong on objectivity but read his work as a wake up call, thinks Churchland right on self, thinks academic writing is concerning in several important respects, thinks Foucault very cool, novel and unfairly ignored by analytic philosphers and all in all goes deep-fried and heavy. He also has brooded on elective suicide and related issues, which all in all makes him inescapably a happenin’ muckety-muck big gun of the philosophical slam.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? What have been the significant changes you’ve noticed since you began back in the 60s?

C.G. Prado: I took a philosophy course out of curiosity and found the instructor to be the most intelligent person I’d ever met. I took every course he offered and more or less found myself majoring in philosophy. The biggest change I’ve seen since I started out is a division of philosophy into hard-core and applied, with the former being mainly philosophy of language and logic and the latter largely medical and business ethics.

3:AM: From the very start you were wide ranging in your interests: you wrote about D.M. Armstrong’s materialist theory of mind, cybernetics, perception, Aquinas, the Ancient Greeks and Indian philosophy. Were you looking for your focus back then, or was there already a core focus in all this?

CGP: I worked at changing my focus because so my colleagues seemed to me too entrenched in particular areas. I was also looking for what I could do best. Meeting Dick Rorty in the middle of my career provided me with a new perspective. I didn’t stick to Rorty’s work very long; frankly I found the criticism of analytic philosophy exciting but saw little of a new, positive direction. But Rorty enabled me to take Foucault seriously — something my colleagues didn’t do, and that was like a door opening.

3:AM: In 2003 you said to Richard Rorty that when younger you had expected philosophy in the English speaking world to shift to Rorty’s approach to epistemology but this never happened. Were you disappointed and how do you account for the fact that the shift never happened?

CGP: When I said that, I was already aware that the lack of a positive direction in epistemology, which Rorty essentially dismissed, proved something of a dead end. In retrospect I’m not surprised nothing developed. When Rorty shifted his focus to more socio-political stuff, I lost interest.

3:AM: Can you say what you take to be Rorty’s important contributions to epistemology and is your epistemological position broadly in line with Rorty’s critique of Cartesian epistemology?

CGP: Rorty’s critique was a wake-up call. It forced serious reflection. But in the end, I couldn’t give up what John Searle consistently defended against Rorty: objective truth. Thanks to the reflection Rorty prompted, though, I was able to appreciate the complexity of the issue of truth and of Foucault’s multifaceted position on truth, a position I’ve tried to explain in some of my work.

3:AM: If Rorty’s position contrasts with Descartes, another figure you contrast with Descartes is Freud in your essay ‘Reference and the Composite Self.’ You say that for Descartes ‘self reference is always self awareness’ whereas for Freud ‘self reference may be to the subject aware subject, or to a putatively continuous subject.’ Which of these two has the best resources to deal with the problem of reference and the composite self you identify in that paper? And is your use of Freud an attempt to introduce ideas which at the time were rarely found in much of the philosophy you were looking at?

CGP: This is a very complex matter. The basic issue is the split between those who believe we are discrete, singular selves or egos — whether substantive or brain-dependent, and those who believe each of us is a bundle of somehow interconnected brain-dependent mental states. The question for this second group is what provides the unity of the self, our sense of self. Here I endorse Patricia Churchland’s comment that “the self is a tool created by the brain to make sense of the world” in her piece in the New Scientist, ‘Do We Have Free Will?’. For the first or Cartesian group, the unity of the self just is its singularity, and Freud makes no sense because the self is transparent to itself. Their problem is that such a singular self really has to be a thing separate from brain activity, and the question is what that might be.

3:AM: However in Descartes and Foucault you analyse a contrast that involves one of your central concerns: Foucault. In that book you contrast Descartes’ Meditations with Foucault’s History of Sexuality. What are the salient contrasts you discuss here?

CGP: Answering that would take another book. Let me just say this: Foucault, while focused on the shaping of behaviour, offers us insights into how we are each molded by others’ behaviour and by how we respond to that behavior. For Descartes, the self, the ego, is paramount and wholly independent. Descartes’ Meditations is essentially an exercise in total self-determination, something requiring only discipline and thoroughness. The adequately reflective self is impervious to the influences of others.

3:AM: In Starting with Foucault you continue with your attempt to show that the historicity of knowledge and the formation of subjectivity, captured in Foucault’s term ‘Genealogy’, ought to be more central to the concerns of many Anglo-American philosophers than they have been. Do you connect Foucault with Rorty, in that they both show that modern societies have imposed constraints on how to live and think that pre-moderns wouldn’t have accepted?

CGP: Not really. I don’t think Rorty was as despairing about how we are shaped as persons as was the genealogical Foucault. There was a deep sense of individualism in Rorty that was not just missing but basically rejected by the genealogical Foucault. But in Foucault’s last two or “ethical” works some of that creeps back in.

3:AM: Reading Frederick Beiser’s book on German Historicism it seems Foucault is part of a long tradition of philosophy which Chladenius, Moser, Herder, Humboldt et al inaugurated and which was completed with Max Weber. Is this something you’d recognise when assessing Foucault’s importance?

CGP: Sorry, but this question raises one of my major concerns about academic writing. If you work at it, and are selective enough, you can make practically any original and complex philosopher part of one or another favoured tradition. Sure, Foucault had obvious ties to the work of Heidegger, for one, and sure, he wrote in a canonical tradition — the “Continental” — as opposed to another, particularly the Anglo-American analytic tradition. But Foucault offered brilliant insights that whatever their general intellectual backgrounds or contexts were very much his own and articulated in very much his own manner. I read writers like Foucault for ideas, not similarities and dissimilarities with others.

3:AM: In your book Searle and Foucault you present these two thinkers as converging on several of their ideas about truth. Foucault claimed that all his books were fictions, which at first blush seems to take him miles away from Searle. So can you say why these two can be discussed as working in converging fields of interest?

CGP: This question relates to your last one. I wasn’t trying to bring Searle and Foucault together on anything as individual philosophers. I took each as representing a fairly extreme position on truth and related epistemological matters. I then tried to show that their positions — or anyone’s similar positions — have important concurrences. As for Foucault saying his books were fictions, that was just Foucault being Foucault. Fictions in a sense, yes, so far as we focus on intellectual interpretation and possible alternatives, but hardly just stories. Foucault worked at his commitment to any history or position being just one more interpretation among many, but as I try to show in Starting with Foucault and other places, he continually slides back into putting his views forward as the right views, inconsistent though that may be.

3:AM: Was Foucault more interested in thinking ‘differently’ to escape intellectual normalization than in ‘advancing’ thinking? Does this explain to some extent the changes of mind in Foucault over his life and why a Whiggish interpretation of Foucault is a mistake?

CGP: Yes. The overriding objective was novelty of thought. However, in connection with the last question, he was like someone aspiring to moral perfection and constantly slipping up. While the goal was novelty, and the implication was therefore that other novel views were as desirable as his own, time after time after he has presented his alternatives Foucault treated them as preferable to others.

3:AM: Connected with the last question, how far was Foucault just working out elements of Heidegger and Nietzsche and how far was he an original thinker? I think you feel that some philosophers sometimes miss how original he was?

CGP: All intellectuals have precursors, and Foucault certainly owed much to Nietzsche and Heidegger, but he was an original thinker. One indication of this is how, like Wittgenstein’s central ideas, Foucault’s ideas, especially about power, have worked their way into our thinking and now are used with little or no mention or even knowledge of their origin.

3:AM: The analytic-continental divide is the elephant in the room when discussing Foucault (and Rorty too I guess). Was your book on Searle partly aiming at bringing the two tribes together and see that there were important positions being developed in both camps? One reviewer of the book of essays you edited on this subject commented that he felt the selection there strongly favoured the continental. Is that fair? Of course several philosophers now find that the distinction one of little merit. What do you think? What are we talking about when we say the house is divided? Is there such a divide? Is the divide what it thinks it is?

CGP: No, I don’t think there’s much chance of bringing them together. What I tried to do was to get analytic philosophers to take Foucault seriously. Too many wrongly lump him in with Derrida and dismiss him as another postmodern. He was that, to a point, but his genealogical works in particular deserve to be read and appreciated by philosophers who don’t happen to share his canonical position. I thought the reviewer was more or less right. To be dangerously frank, I feel analytic philosophy has declined significantly in intellectual productivity. Journal papers are getting more and more infarcted. Rorty made fun of a whole series of papers on heaps (on just what constitutes a heap) and I thought him right. The papers seem to be written only to add one more footnote to ongoing and often uninteresting and unpromising debates, and seem driven more by the need to publish than to contribute philosophically. I used to advise my graduate students: find a journal debate you can stomach, write a short paper turning the most recent contribution on its head, and you’ll get published. As for the divide, Foucault himself would describe it in genealogical terms. On both sides people do what they were taught to do; what their peers expect.

3:AM: The philosophical issues of elective dying are a major concern in your later work and continues to be of importance. I guess the obvious question to ask is whether suicide is rational in the context of terminal illness? And was this a topic that sprang out of your reading of Foucault?

CGP: Suicide most certainly is rational in any circumstance where the alternative is being lessened as the person one is. That’s what I’ve argued in all my writings on the topic. I have even argued that it is rational to preempt such lessening. And no, my interest had little or nothing to do with Foucault; it had to do with experience with Alzheimer’s sufferers and what I learned about the Sue Rodriguez case.

3:AM: In your 2009 book, Choosing to Die you note that ‘there has been growing recognition that life is not of ultimate and unquestionable value.’ Is this true of all cultures or just some? What is the role of multicultural perspectives here? And you link this with changing attitudes towards elective death, shifting from being though immoral and cowardly to brave and wise. Should this be welcomed? Aren’t there slippery slope dangers that this will erode many of the safety devices in culture against taking life?

CGP: Another tough one. I think recognition of the relative value of life is limited to some cultures, and at the risk of being offensive I’ll add that it is limited to the more mature and sophisticated cultures. As for the shift from seeing suicide as cowardly to seeing it as wise, it is a welcome change but a very dangerous one. If it becomes engrained in popular culture and thinking it will cease to be adequately reflective and will lead to perilous expectations.

3:AM: In your latest book you examine how people close to those who elect to die due to terminal illness cope. What are the philosophical issues that you discuss here and why do you think that a philosophical treatment of this issue is of help?

CGP: This is not a philosophical issue. I wrote the book because my philosophical position on the rationality of suicide in dire circumstances called for something about those affected by suicide. In this way the book was “philosophical” only in the broad sense that people use when they consider or discuss basic questions.

3:AM: Felicia Cohen raised an important and interesting point about your book Coping with Choices to Die. She thought it brilliant, but too hard to be a practical book for most people not trained in philosophy. Many philosophy books are like that and I have smart friends who often complain that philosophy books are too dense. Does philosophy have to be hard to read? Can we get the insights into the public domain without losing the complexity and subtlety? And in subjects like yours, isn’t there a moral dimension to this: are we obliged to get the philosophical views to survivors and indeed everyone involved in elective death issues?

CG.: All I’ve written about elective death has come up against this point. Some of my stuff has been ignored or dismissed by health-care professionals who see it as too theoretical and who seem to care only for case-based works. I’ve tried to make my work accessible, and I think I’ve succeeded to a modest degree, but I’m treating elective-death issues at a very basic level — at the level of rationality and not even at the level of morality. I guess my ambition is to at most provide some with material they can apply in helping and counseling others who might not get much out of my books themselves.

3:AM: You have recently begun to return to think about issues in philosophy of religion. Can you say something about these issues and whether they are issues that you have been drawn back to through your work in suicide?

CGP: Yes. Reliance on religion in cases where elective death is an option returned me to my ideas on religion. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked. I’ve not been able to come up with anything novel or worthwhile regarding the role of religion. As we are seeing in the domestic and international political realms, religion has gained new significance and with it has come greater intractability. I’m afraid that I have nothing productive to offer on the topic.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books (other than your own which we’ll be rushing out to read straight after this) that you could recommend that would help the readers here at 3:AM understand further some of the complex philosophical ideas you have been grappling with?

CGP: What? Recommend other people’s books? Okay, these are “must reads” (and I hope it’s okay that I’m mentioned in a couple):

Margaret Battin, The Death Debate.

D. Micah Hester, End of Life Care and Pragmatic Decision Making.

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish.

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality (Vol. 1).

Gary Gutting, The Cambridge Companion to Foucault.


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 4th, 2013.