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Thinking How To Live

Interview by Richard Marshall.

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[Photo: Steven Pyke]

Allan Gibbard is the philosopher who broods on the notion that what something means is a normative claim, that this is about the meaning not the nature of meaning, on Kripke’s book on Wittgenstein, on what ‘ought’ depends on, on expressivism, on ehics and planning questions, on utilitarianism and contractarianism and on the current state of contemporary public ethical discourse. As xmas draws close, here’s an early gift…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Allan Gibbard: I arrived at Swarthmore College as a freshman intending to major in math and physics. My impression of philosophy came from reading Plato, whose arguments I had found lame and fallacious. I thought that philosophy consisted chiefly in bad arguments for the existence of God. But my parents had told me they thought I might be interested in philosophy, and I registered for the introductory course just to find out what it involved. My section was taught by Jerome Shaffer, who was a brilliant teacher able to flummox us into avid disputes. It was a course on contemporary problems with some historical background, and I was much more gripped by recent philosophical writing than by older figures whom I really didn’t know how to interpret. Philosophy faculty at Swarthmore taught what we would now think a heavy load, two introductory sections of 50 students each along with a more advanced course. Some of the 50 students sat quietly in the back and smoked, but about ten of us sat in the front engaged in arguing points. Mr. Shaffer often had a bemused smile as he teased us with things that had never occurred to us.

I came to think of philosophy as something any person should do seriously whatever field one was in—but I didn’t think I could make a living doing it. I took the philosophy of science course of Stephen Barker, who was visiting from Johns Hopkins, which Mr. Barker taught as a relativity of the layman course. David Lewis, who I later learned had just returned from a year at Oxford with his family and had changed from chemistry to philosophy after engaging Oxford luminaries, sat in the back, a vocal auditor. Since we—and especially he had a better understanding of the issues than Mr. Barker had, we in effect taught the course from our seats. My big change at Swarthmore came my senior year, when I took Richard Brandt’s moral philosophy seminar. Brandt was enthralling, and halfway through the seminar, I told him I had decided to go on in philosophy. A week or two later, I told him I had decided first to join the Peace Corps.

Brandt had built the Swarthmore department into one of the best in the world, with not only Shaffer but the two beginning Assistant Professors Larry Sklar and Jaegwon Kim. In a small department, he was convinced, the faculty needed above all to be able to talk with each other, even if that left gaps in coverage. He would sometimes interview a dozen candidates for a job and reject them all; “The only thing he could talk about was his thesis,” Brandt complained of one candidate he had introduced me to. Harvard was of course wonderful in many ways, but it also felt like something of an anticlimax. The dean told us, “You may think you came here to get an education. We figure you already have an education.”

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3:AM: You’re well known in philosophical circles for developing a theory of meaning. You claim that linguistic meaning is normative. Before discussing what this claim is, can you first say something about the competing theories that you found wanting?

AG: The view in my book isn’t precisely that “linguistic meaning is normative”. Rather, the thesis I explore is that claims as to what something means are normative claims. This is a view about the meaning of ‘meaning’, about the concept of meaning rather than the nature of meaning. For the most part, so far as I can think, there aren’t competitors around to my metatheory of meaning, because writers on meaning don’t generally talk about what the things they say about meaning mean. The issue they address is what a word’s meaning such-and-such consists in.

Metaethics, in contrast, in the wake of G. E. Moore, is a field that explicitly treats the meanings of terms. “Analytic” philosophy more generally for a long time followed Moore and centered on analyses of meanings. From standard taxonomies in metaethics, we can, if we like, devise corresponding views one might take on the meaning of meaning claims: theories that are versions of analytical naturalism, a non-naturalism that says that a term’s meaning is a non-natural property of the term, and perhaps some form of non-cognitivism for meaning claims. The obvious approach to the meaning of meaning claims, though, is to try to define the concept of meaning in naturalistic terms, in terms that can fit into a purely empirical science. A central question for me, then, is why I reject treating meaning as a concept within a purely empirical science.

As early reviewers of the book point out, I’m rather perfunctory on this question. I don’t come up with a knock-down argument that analyses in scientific terms won’t capture the meaning of meaning claims. In a way I don’t want to: as I say at one point in the book, I’m not convinced that treating the concept of meaning as a normative concept will be the most illuminating way to approach the theory of meaning. A search for a fruitful naturalistic reform definition might do better, in the spirit of Ruth Millikan. Another possibility, which I don’t pursue, would be to attempt a treatment like that of Paul Horwich, seeking to give the meaning of ‘means’ by identifying a “basic acceptance property” that characterizes the term’s use. But Moore-like arguments, I suggest, will show that naturalistic analyses of the concept means go wrong, just as, as Moore argued, naturalistic analyses of the concept good go wrong. Perhaps we should go for a naturalistic reform of our concepts, but that will close some questions that might be worth asking. I try to identify what sorts of questions these might be.

Semanticists, so far as I am aware, don’t have a standard gloss on what’s at issue in questions of semantics. Perhaps they should say that semantic value is whatever fairly natural property—in David Lewis’s sense of “natural”—best explains the phenomena their tests uncover. I argue, though, in a quick way, that semanticists can be interpreted as addressing questions of the normative kind that I try to elucidate in my book. A chief aim of the book is to try to show how fruitful a normative approach can be in identifying what might be at issue in questions of meaning.

3:AM: How important were arguments in Kripke’s book on Wittgenstein to your approach?

AG: Very. I have to confess shamefacedly that I took a long time to get to Kripke’s book. I am very bad at keeping up with philosophical literature. Many works don’t engage me when I get to them, and when a work does engage me, it takes me a long time to try to think matters through. When I did read Kripke on Wittgenstein, I was thrilled. (I was sent there by a referee for my 1990 book Wise Choices, Apt Feelings who turned out to be John McDowell.) I had long struggled, off and on, to make something of Wittgenstein, and—whether or not Kripke got Wittgenstein right, and whether or not there is even such a thing as getting him right— here was a reading that made Wittgenstein intelligible as a philosopher. I was also perturbed, though. A lot in Kripke’s Wittgenstein, it seemed to me, needed the sorts of distinctions that were standard in metaethics as I had learned it from Shaffer and Brandt. I had a sabbatical and had been invited to give the Hempel Lectures at Princeton in 1991. I also had the wonderful privilege of a discussion group, with Paul Boghossian, Peter Railton, David Velleman, and Steve Yablo. I was especially caught up by the famous line, “The point is not that, if I meant addition by ‘+’, I will answer ‘125’, but that … I should answer ‘125’”. I found this rich in possibilities, especially when joined to points in 20th century metaethics. (My quote here skips some words that I don’t so much like.) The first of my three Hempel Lectures became the paper “Meaning and Normativity” published in 1994 and incorporated into my 2012 book of the same title. In the other lectures I tried to develop a positive view, but I got stuck, and it took me two decades to think I might be unstuck and could finish the book.

3:AM: Is the ‘ought’ of your theory exceptionless or does it depend on the interests of the user, for example, or just for those interested in believing the truth?

AG: What I ought to believe depends on my evidence, in a way that doesn’t depend on whether or not I care about the truth. What I ought to want to believe, in contrast, may perhaps depend on my interests. My interests might make it upsetting to believe what my evidence supports, and in that case, if I ought to want strongly enough not to be upset, it may be that I ought to want not to believe what my evidence supports. The question of what I ought to believe, on the other hand, is a substantive question in normative epistemology. As such, it isn’t strictly a question for a meta-normative theory like mine. My meta-normative theory tries to identify what’s at issue among theorists of statistical inference and the like, if they have competing substantive views on how one’s degrees of credence ought to depend on one’s evidence. My book is about meaning, and these questions are matters of substance, and so my book won’t answer them.

Let me back up and approach your question in a more roundabout way. We must distinguish what it means to say that I ought to do a thing and what being what I ought to do consists in. Maybe, for example, being what I ought to do consists in something hedonic, such as being what will maximize my happiness. Even so, ‘ought’ doesn’t mean “would maximize one’s happiness.” If it did, as Moore argued, then “You ought to maximize your happiness” would just mean “Maximizing your happiness would maximize your happiness.” It’s a complex question whether Moore’s arguments can be made to work, but in the book, I suppose at the outset that they do—and then at the end, I ask how you, a reader, could recognize whether they do for what you mean by ‘ought’.

Back, then, to your question of whether or not what I ought to do depends on my interests. This, as I say, is a question of normative substance. A central, Moore-like point is that we can’t define the concept ought in terms of interests, even if what we ought to do does depend on our interests. It is intelligible, for instance, to say that one ought not to inflict torment, even if it is in one’s interest to do so—and I accept the Moore-like claim that the same would go for any naturalistic definition of ought. Of course I have some views about what we ought to do and why, but they aren’t part of the metatheory the book develops. Here, for example, is a substantive normative view of mine: whether I ought to believe Darwin’s theory of natural selection depends on my evidence, not on my interests. In addressing this substantive claim, we need to distinguish what I ought to believe from what I ought to want to believe. Whether I ought to want to believe Darwin might well depend on my interests, or on public benefits that my belief or disbelief might bring. Whether I ought to believe Darwin doesn’t so depend, in my view. I draw a primitive sense of ‘ought’ from A. C. Ewing, and talk couched with that primitive ought, I claim, is intertranslatable with Scanlon’s and Parfit’s talk of “reasons”. Suppose I tell you I have reason to doubt natural selection as explaining our natures. If the reason I offer is that doubting it will promote my career, I’m changing the subject—unless I have very strange views about reasons to believe. Career success is at most a reason to want to doubt natural selection.

What, in this primitive sense, I ought to want does, it seems clear, depend on my interests among other things. (I say “among other things” in that, for example, if it is in my interest to torture you, that doesn’t establish that I ought to torture you.) How what’s the thing to do does depend on one’s interests and how it doesn’t is a central normative question that we face in various guises. It’s a question that my book is devoted to understanding, but it’s not an aim of the book to answer this question, even for cases where the answer is pretty obvious.

3:AM: Aren’t there factual reasons for taking a particular expression to mean something rather than anything else, or are the arguments of Quine and Hartry Field decisive here?

AG: Of course there are factual reasons, if talk of meaning makes any sense. There are factual reasons to carry an umbrella when the sky looks threatening, and if the meaning of a word is a matter of when to accept sentences with that word, then in a like way, there will be factual reasons to accept some sentences with the word and to reject others. Those will be factual grounds for conclusions as to what the word means. Plausibly, they might be facts about one’s proclivities to use the word in certain ways. (What these facts are is a substantive question in the theory of meaning, not a question of the kind my book addresses, not a question in the metatheory of meaning.) Quine was a skeptic about meaning: he thought that the only intelligible notions in the area—stimulus meaning, for example—were vastly different from the notions that had driven analytic philosophy. Traditional notions of meaning, his thinking suggested, aren’t even meaningful. A central aim of my book is to find meaning in traditional notions of meaning. I draw substantially on Quine, but my aim is to find a way around some of Quine’s main contentions. I don’t claim to show that Quine was wrong and some or our claims are analytic, but I do claim to identify what it would mean to say that a sentence in one’s language is analytic. Roughly, this amounts to saying to accept the sentence come what evidence may and on any intelligible supposition. Calling a sentence analytic is saying what to do with it.

3:AM: Do you say all statements about meaning imply an ought-statement? Can you say how this works?

AG: Not all statements about meaning entail non-trivial ought-statements. Some such statements are trivial, such as “A word means what it means.” But in Chapter 6 of the book, I try to show how to translate sentences with ‘means’ into sentences with ‘ought’. With Quine and Horwich, I say the basic notion is one of synonymy. A Frenchman’s sentence ‘La neige est blanche’ is synonymous with my sentence ‘Snow is white,’ and this means that they are composed in corresponding ways of elements governed by the same oughts of acceptance. (The synonymy can only be rough, since, among other things, French has structural features like gender that English lacks, but I’ll ignore such matters in what I say here.) We can build up synonymy with oughts from the ground up, recursively. So Pierre’s word ‘blanc’ is synonymous with my word ‘white’, in that, among many other things, once we establish that his context ‘La neige est …’ is synonymous with my context ‘Snow is …’ then, for any evidence and under any supposition, Pierre ought to accept ‘La neige est blanche’ if and only if I ought to accept ‘Snow is white’.
7. Quine argues that it is in principle possible for empirical evidence to allow [us??] to reject any sentence – even mathematical and logical ones – and so Quine is denying that we [don’t??] have the normative obligations you claim we have. Is this a problem for you?

Quine quines any distinction between changing beliefs couched with a term and changing what the term means. If quantum logic tells me to reject the sentence “The photon went through one slit or the other,” Quine thought, we can’t intelligibly ask whether the word ‘or’ here means the same thing as it meant in the days before quantum theory. I agree that it might turn out we should stop thinking in terms of the classical inclusive ‘or’, but it doesn’t make sense to think in terms of it and deny the law of excluded middle. Quine, as I say, didn’t think that the question of whether I’m thinking in those terms, with those meanings, makes sense. I try in the book to give sense to such questions.

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3:AM: You’re an expressivist about normative language aren’t you? Can you sketch out what this commits us to?

AG: Huw Price has been arguing for expressivism for all language, even the most clearly naturalistic and factual—and I read Paul Horwich the same way, along with Robert Brandom. The issues involved are complex, and I have contributed to a volume on them. As I use the term ‘expressivism’, I, like Price and Horwich, am a universal expressivist. Some writers build into the definition of ‘expressivism’ that it denies that the claims it covers are true or false, and I myself made such denials in 1990 in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, but I don’t do so now. I now say that deflationary truth is the only kind I understand (though more needs to be said about it than is ordinarily said), and that ‘Torture for fun is wrong’ is as true as anything could be. So what do I mean by ‘expressivism’? The basic pattern is that of Ayer’s theory of what ‘wrong’ means. Ayer holds, pretty much, that ‘X is wrong’ means “Boo for X!” Booing a thing doesn’t assert that one opposes it, but rather, expresses that opposition. My own view isn’t Ayer’s, but I adopt this pattern of explanation: explain the meanings of words, I propose, by explaining the states of mind they serve to express. That’s expressivism as I mean the label. And in the explanation, this state of mind can’t just be specified as believing that X is wrong. That would make the explanation uninformative.

3:AM: How do you put together your theory of meaning and your expressivist theory of normative language?

AG: In a nutshell: Claims about meaning are claims as to which sentences in one’s language one ought to accept, in which circumstances, actual and hypothetical. Questions of which sentences one ought to accept are questions of which sentences to accept. And so questions of what a term means are questions of when—under what circumstances—to accept sentences that contain the term.

3:AM: Why don’t you think linguistic meaning is causal-explanatory in nature when I can think of lots of examples where reading a sign, for example, explains what I do. ‘Turn left’, it says, so I turn left. My knowledge of meaning helps to cause my behaviour. Why don’t these count as empirically robust facts about language in the sense that you deny?

AG: As I am treating them, these are empirically robust facts in virtue of which we ought to accept various of our sentences in various circumstance. So they are facts in virtue of which our words mean what they do. That leads to your question, understood as a question about the meaning of meaning. When we say what a word means—that a Frenchman’s word ‘chien’ means dog, to take a stock instance—aren’t we saying something analyzable as a purely empirical claim? Can’t we put what we are saying purely in terms of the sorts of empirically robust facts you are speaking of? Well first, of course, once I answer no, I need an account of why what a person means by a word figures in explaining her behavioral proclivities. I offer such an explanation. The issue here is equivalent to that of how there can be “moral explanations”, such as the purported explanation that slavery evoked such strong opposition because it was so bad. “Slavery was bad,” plausibly, can’t be analyzed in purely causal-explanatory terms, since believing that slavery was bad involves being against it.

How then could the badness of slavery explain why it aroused such opposition? My explanation is that, by its meaning, “Slavery was bad” agrees with various combinations of attitudes and causal beliefs. It agrees with the combination of opposing suffering and believing that slavery caused suffering, but it also agrees with opposing unprofitability and believing that slavery was unprofitable. Many of the relevant attitudes will go without saying, and so we adopt them implicitly in offering the explanations we give, but the pure logic of the claim “Slavery aroused such heated opposition because it was so bad” allows a wide range of combinations of attitudes with causal beliefs.

Still, why suffer these complications? You asked me earlier why I found alternative views of the meaning of ‘meaning’ wanting, and I didn’t give you much of an answer. But in the book, I look at some length at one debate about meaning, what classical physicists meant by ‘mass’. I ask what’s at issue in such a debate, and argue that the issue may not be settled unproblematically by classical physicists’ proclivities of usage. We can give a normative account, though, of what might be at issue. What’s at issue, I say, is, among other things, which sentences in one’s language to accept if one is a 19th century physicist who ought, given his evidence, to accept the substance of Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

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3:AM: This takes us to your ethical theory. For you moral questions are not empirical questions about the natural world are they, but what you call planning questions. Can you explain what you mean by this and why it’s crucially important if we’re to understand the nature of morality?

AG: My term ‘planning’ is misleading in a number of ways that I spell out in the book, but I still think it is illuminating. I talk about “planning” what to believe, what sentences in one’s language to accept, and what degrees of credence to accord, even though one can’t believe or accept sentences at will. Consider, though, planning in the most literal sense, contingency planning for what to do. Planning what to do issues in intentions—but just as one can’t believe at will, one can’t intend at will. One acts at will by forming an immediate intention and carrying it out. So what is the relation between “planning” what to believe, in my sense, and believing? It is the same as the relation between planning literally what to do and forming an immediate intention to do it. Plans are of course closely related to non-planning beliefs, but as Hume insisted, the relation isn’t logical: it’s not a conceptual contradiction to want to touch a hot stove tomorrow. Clearly, though, it’s not the thing to do—and in saying that, I express having a clear plan not to do it, a plan with which you no doubt agree.

3:AM: You’ve written about your metaethical ideas under the title ‘Thinking How To Live’. Your hypothesis in that book is that normative questions ‘are at base questions of what to do, what to believe, and how to feel about things.’ You don’t ask whether it’s true but rather, what difference would it make to us if it were. So can you sketch what conclusions you draw.

AG: I do claim that normative questions are questions of what to do and the like, but it doesn’t follow that answers to them aren’t true or false. Even Ayer, with his expressivistic version of emotivism, should have said that moral claims can be true or false. He was a deflationist about truth: according to him, saying “It’s true that slavery is bad” is just saying that slavery is bad. So if ‘Slavery is bad’ means “Boo for slavery!” then ‘It’s true that slavery is bad’ must just mean “Boo for slavery!” Now I admit, of course, that we don’t call ‘Boo for slavery!’ true. Many philosophers think that this is a deep fact, but I can’t find what’s deep in it. Rules of usage, I agree, restrict ‘true’ and ‘false’ to declarative sentences, and so if you say “Boo for slavery!” I can’t properly respond “How true!” whereas if you say “Slavery is terrible,” I can. But to agree with the one is to agree with the other. By rules of usage, agreeing with a declarative sentence is regarding it as “true”, whereas agreeing with an exclamation isn’t. But reforming this rule away, I think, wouldn’t make much difference.

3:AM: Are you a species of contractarian? Where would you part company with perhaps the two other major contractarians of recent times, TM Scanlon on the one hand and John Rawls on the other? Is one major difference that for you utilitarianism is still pretty compelling?

AG: At one time, it was widely thought that departing from utilitarianism would entangle one in contradictions. Hare thought indeed that conceptual logic and the nature of moral concepts pretty much forced one to be a utilitarian. That view is rare now, and we have to ask whether it has just gone out of fashion, or rather we have discovered something wrong with the arguments that used to convince people. The strongest arguments, to my mind, were the ones that John Harsanyi gave in the 1950’s—although my impression is that these arguments still aren’t widely known among philosophers. I myself think it is a disgrace to philosophical education that Harsanyi’s arguments aren’t standardly studied, even in graduate programs that pay some attention to ethics. Moral philosophers these days mostly think that utilitarianism goes against our moral intuitions and so fails, but we have to ask the further question of whether our moral intuitions can be made to fit in with each other coherently.

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Can anti-utilitarian intuitions be fixed up so that they become consistent with each other but stay anti-utilitarian? Harsanyi’s arguments seem to show that any non-utilitarian view has to be inconsistent. Rawls offers us many valuable ways of thinking, but his attempts to differentiate his system from Harsanyi’s are strained. In fact he just sets aside rule-utilitarianism as not really utilitarianism, and then gives arguments which, if correct, would show that his system coincides with a rule-utilitarian version of Harsanyi. Tim Scanlon is the rare moral philosopher who has genuinely engaged Harsanyi, and he argues for a way around Harsanyi. My little book of Tanner Lectures Reconciling Our Aims accepts Scanlon’s critique of Harsanyi, but then argues that the contractualist insights that ground Scanlon’s system entail features that are close enough to utilitarianism that they will be counterintuitive in the same ways.

If these discredit utilitarianism, they discredit the bases of Scanlon’s contractualism in the same way. As for these conflicts with intuition, I think that for the most part, something like rule-utilitarianism is the way to handle them. Disastrously, in my attempt to keep the the lectures at a proper length, I cut out saying this explicitly, and I was distressed that more than one commentator read me as rejecting rule-utilitaritarianism. I am glad to see that with Derek Parfit and Josh Greene, the right kinds of consequentialist views seem to be making a comeback.

3:AM: How do you respond to contemporary debates of morality, such as the new interest in the trolley arguments, Derek Parfit’s ‘On What Matters’ and Sam Harris’s new and widely publicized book? I guess the broad question is whether you think the public discourse about ethics and morality is healthy or not?

AG: Your question is not, I take it, whether it is healthy to engage in public discourse about ethics and morality, but whether the public discourse that we are producing is in good shape. For the most part, philosophers aren’t all that prominent in public discussions of morality, and I hope that more philosophical input into public discussion would make it better—though with some philosophers, I wonder. Some strands of philosophers’ current discourse on morality, though, I find encouraging. My view on Derek Parfit’s giant two volumes is divided: On the one hand, I disagreed with some of the metaethics in the volumes—though he and I have been pursuing the issues and our views turn out to be far more compatible than either of us had thought. With Parfit’s exploration of what Kant could reasonably have maintained, I am much on board.

Much of my own interest in moral philosophy stems from hopes that getting clearer on what the issues are will help us to address them better. I think that public discourse on morality is a matter of thinking together what to favor and promote, and why—as well as how to feel about things that people do or might do.

Once we join Socrates in rejecting the view that ethics starts with the supernatural, the real philosophical work begins. How, understanding ourselves as parts of the natural world, are we to get somewhere in addressing ethical questions that matter, and pursue the questions systematically? How are we to get started with the systematic pursuit of ethical questions. In most of my work in the past few decades, I have focused on questions of what we are doing when we address moral questions and, more broadly, questions of how to live. Some of my smaller pieces, however, have been on substantive issues in ethical theory, and this especially holds for my Tanner Lectures and replies in Reconciling Our Aims (2008). My hopes are for more insightful thinking on public issues that is coherent and thus, I argue, broadly consequentialist.

3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM are there five books you could recommend that would take us further into your philosophical world?

AG: Much of my philosophical world most narrowly understood consists of subjects where I already have strong opinions, and so although I respect some recent books, I don’t credit myself as learning central things I didn’t realize before, apart from occasionally finding new arguments I must answer. Two philosophy books that have occupied me recently are:
Huw Price, Naturalism without Mirrors (2011),
Robert Brandom, Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism (2008).
Especially with Brandom, I’m still trying to master the framework, but his work is very rich. The books that most excite me in recent years are good presentations of scientific developments that bear on philosophical questions—especially on how to understand human thinking in a richly naturalistic way. I remember that when the psychologist David Premack looked around in a bookstore here at the University of Michigan, he commented that the textbooks assigned are pedestrian, whereas there are now a rich array of books for a popular audience that are first rate in their presentations of their subjects. Three books that advanced my understanding of how evolution shapes our propensities are:
Sean B. Carroll, Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom (2005),
Gary Marcus, The Birth of the Mind: How a Tiny Number of Genes Creates The Complexities of Human Thought (2004),
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012).


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 5th, 2015.