What philosophers know
Gary Gutting interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Gary Gutting has his finger on the philosophical pulse, writing books and articles and writing regularly for The Stone philosophers’ blog at the New York Times to keep everyone in the know. He’s always thinking about why global skeptics are wrong, how we define our moral self-identies, what fundamental convictions can do, about Husserl and Wittgenstein, about Habermas and Taylor and Rorty, whether science is the only way of knowing, about the Enlightenment, about God, and why there’s no bridge between continental and analytic philosophy. He thinks Foucault had gifts of creativity and worked on a large scale and there were moments when he didn’t have time to be obscure. He’s not an existentialist but finds Sartre impressive and Derrida less so, and de Beauvoir kind of wonderful. He wonders whether the modern continentals are as empty as they seem or whether they’re just waiting for Being to speak again, and whether continentals will join the analytics in an international scholasticism. He’s sure that the internet is getting philosophy a bigger readership and that optimism and pessimism are just ways of avoiding the work of improving this screwed up world. He writes groovy books on all of this that are lucid, smart and complex, bringing the light along with the dark to stick it in, which makes him a Tyranaphilosophicus Rex!
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Gary Gutting: The problem of skepticism. My first philosophical thought – when I was ten or eleven – was that, if you gave a reason for some claim, someone could still ask for a reason for your reason – an infinite regress, as I would later learn it was called. This led to an interest in Descartes and, later, foundationalists such as Husserl and the logical empiricists. Fairly soon, I concluded that radical, global skepticism was an impossible attitude and not worth worrying about (Hume was a big help here – and, later, Wittgenstein and Rorty). But I still took seriously “regional” skeptical challenges to specific areas of thought that claim cognitive authority. Here my first focus was on the challenge to science that many people found in Kuhn. I also became interested in the idea, which I found in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, that the scope of scientific knowledge was limited by its empirical methodology. Later, I developed a strong interest in Foucault’s historical critique of various social sciences. Also I was very taken up with the cognitive claims of religion. I had a Jesuit education from high school on, and, at that time, there was an insistence that Catholicism was a rationally grounded religion. My teachers especially emphasised the power of Aquinas’ philosophical system, which, however, they believed needed to be somehow integrated with modern science and philosophy. I pretty quickly concluded that Aquinas wasn’t the answer, but was left with the dual conviction that religion couldn’t be dismissed as simply not in accord with modern scientific thought and that, at the same time, it needed much more than a facile appeal to faith. My first book was Religious Belief and Religious Skepticism.
Finally, I have always been interested in skeptical challenges to philosophy itself. Here Richard Rorty has been a major influence, though my book on the topic, What Philosophers Know, turned out to be much less Rortyan than I had expected. Of course, philosophy as a discipline doesn’t know the answers to the fundamental questions (God, freedom, morality, etc.) that define its cognitive enterprise. But why think that our beliefs on such topics require a philosophical foundation? To take Rorty’s example, we don’t need a philosophical guarantee that democracy is a value worth fighting for. The same is true for our deepest ethical and religious (or secular) commitments. If we need philosophical justifications, then we aren’t entitled to any such beliefs, since the justifications aren’t there. But it would be absurd to think that we have no right to the fundamental convictions that define our moral self-identity – our souls, if you will. Rorty’s conclusion from this seems to be that philosophy isn’t important for most people but is more a specialised interest for certain types, perhaps like an interest in fine wine or avant-garde literature. I disagree. Our fundamental beliefs don’t need intellectual justification, but they do need intellectual maintenance. We need to understand their implications, modify them to eliminate internal contradictions, defend and perhaps modify them in response to objections. Over its history, philosophy has accumulated an immense store of conceptual distinctions, theoretical formulations, and logical arguments that are essential for this intellectual maintenance of our defining convictions. This constitutes a body of knowledge achieved by philosophers that they can present with confidence to meet the intellectual needs of non-philosophers. Consider, for example, discussions of free will. Even neuroscientists studying freedom in their labs are likely to offer confused interpretations of their results if they aren’t aware of the distinction between caused and compelled, the various meanings of “could have done otherwise”, or the issues about causality raised by van Inwagen’s consequence argument. Parallel points apply for religious people thinking about the problem of evil or atheists challenged to explain why they aren’t just agnostics. Philosophers can’t show what our fundamental convictions should be, but their knowledge is essential to our ongoing intellectual engagement with these convictions.
3:AM: Were you from very early on finding dialectical relationships between so-called analytics and so-called continentals? I’m thinking that even when studying in Belgium (at the end of the 1960s) on a Fulbright you were examining the link between phenomenology and analytic philosophy in your paper ‘Husserl and Logical Empiricism’. There you took phenomenology away from ordinary language philosophy, where the connections were already being made between Husserl and Wittgenstein, (which wasn’t too great a leap given Wittgenstein’s ‘floating’ status as both an analytic and continental) and into the realm of the eidetic and phenomenological reduction of logical empiricism. Was this a conscious move on your part to develop a link with continental philosophy from the analytic side, or was that divide one that you either hadn’t noticed or didn’t worry about?
GG: I was very aware of the divide and did have some idea that I might build a bridge over it. At that point, analytic philosophy for me meant mainly the philosophy of science, which was my specialty in graduate school. (I didn’t know much about the rest of analytic philosophy until I took a job at Notre Dame, right after my Fulbright year. At Notre Dame I got a great education in analytic philosophy as part of a group of young faculty interested in Wilfrid Sellars, who became a very important philosopher for me.) The idea of going to Louvain was to complement my training in philosophy of science with a study of Husserl’s phenomenology. I’m no longer happy with the project of “bridging the gap” between analytic and continental philosophy. I now think that, overall, they are two quite different ways of doing philosophy. They can learn from one another, but there’s no good way of combining them into a single enterprise. Still, Husserl (like a number of others) did have a place in the early history of both analytic and continental philosophy – that’s what made my paper on him and logical empiricism possible – although the two enterprises have diverged more and more since then.
3:AM: Much of your early work concerned issues concerning the methodology, epistemology and ontology of the natural sciences. Is it fair to say that your interest in phenomenology and Husserl and Habermas was due to your suspicion about the claim that ‘science is great, and if we can find out how it works we can improve other discussion enormously’, which Philip Kitcher worries about too? Also, does the paper you wrote in the form of a dialogue between a scientific realist a la Wilfrid Sellars and a constructive empiricist a la Bas van Fraassen illustrate one of your continuing philosophical preoccupations? You thought of the issue then as a dialectic in your own mind: where do you now stand on the issue, has it changed over time and is it still one of your philosophical preoccupations?
GG: The skeptical thought that science might have important cognitive limitations was important in my early work. But an even stronger influence was Sellars’ idea that science has an ontological primacy (as he put it, “science is the measure of what there is, that it is, and the measure of what there is not, that it is not”). Like Sellars, I never took this to mean that science was the only way of knowing. There is normative knowledge (about meanings and values) that is not about what exists in the primary sense of exercising causal power in the world. Science tells us nothing about this domain of non-ontological truth. Nowadays, though, I’m less willing to push the hard Sellarsian line that science is the sole arbiter of ontology. I’m not sure, in particular, that science can handle the “hard problem” of phenomenal consciousness — or, in terms of Sellars’ famous example, that he can melt the pink ice cube. I’ve also become more sympathetic to Rorty’s pragmatic take on different ontologies as corresponding to different interests we have in engaging with the world. But I still think there’s a special role for the interest in causal control, which maintains a certain ontological privilege for science.
3:AM And when did you discover that setting up dialogues between competing positions in a certain philosophical sphere of interest was a useful way for you to grapple with issues, and why is it a literary philosophical form that attracts you?
GG: Dialogues are just something I find myself naturally falling into every so often. I found them attractive in cases where I held strong views on an issue but had a deep respect for people on the other side and wanted to give a full hearing to their views. This was true of Rorty on Kuhn, van Fraassen on scientific realism, and Plantinga on religious belief.
3:AM: Am I right in thinking that another issue that haunts much of your work and has motivated many of your various research interests is the question, ‘can philosophical beliefs be rationally justified?’ Doesn’t this become part of the theme that you expand on in your book Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity through the voices of Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor? Are these three still important to you?
GG: Right. I called an APQ article, ‘Can Philosophical Beliefs Be Rationally Justified’ to echo the question standardly asked about religious beliefs. The issue comes up in Pragmatic Liberalism but is central in What Philosophers Know, and I’m currently pursuing the topic in a paper on philosophical progress. I wrote Pragmatic Liberalism as a treat for myself, after many years of working on Foucault and other difficult continentals. I was tired of having to strain every intellectual muscle just to see what the texts I was reading might mean. So, when I thought about my next book should be about, I said, “Who are the philosophers I most look forward to reading?” My immediae answer was Rorty, MacIntyre, and Taylor (also Bernard Williams, though he turned out to have a less central role). It was the book I’ve had the most fun writing and the one that best expresses my own views on the central issues of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. I defend what I see as the best of the Enlightenment: a commitment to reason and to liberal values, but freed from the philosophical foundationalism, dismissal of history and tradition, and facile atheism associated with its positivist versions. Despite the disagreements among them, I see Rorty, Taylor, and even MacIntyre as contributors to the Enlightenment project.
3:AM: In ‘Paradigms and Hermeneutics: A Dialogue on Kuhn, Rorty and the Social Sciences’ it seems like you were continuing with that question about rational justification and beliefs. This paper again works as a kind of dialectic between philosophy of science (Kuhn) and pragmatism (Rorty). Can you say how this dialectic worked for you, and why you chose Rorty as the representative of pragmatism rather than say Quine, or Pierce, who might have been pragmatists more obviously concerned with science?
GG: I was trying to work out a position that combined a consensus account of justification with scientific realism. Rorty makes a good case for consensus but also thinks that consensus is inconsistent with realism. I wanted a Rorty-like voice in the dialogue, first, to support a pragmatic epistemology of justification and, second, to serve as a foil to my claim that such an epistemology doesn’t exclude a realistic ontology of science. The position I defended was roughly that of Sellars (without the difficulties of his picture-theory of truth). Also, a primary example I wanted to use was the Galileo-Bellarmine debate over the cognitive authority of scripture and of science. Rorty had a stimulating treatment of that.
3:AM: You also use the dialogue form to discuss Alvin Plantinga’s philosophical arguments about the existence of God and about the general issue about the relationship between faith and reason. What are the key philosophical arguments you discuss here? Later you have discussed faith and religion in terms of the affirmation of ordinary life and the question of radical evil in human life. Can you say something about this and in the light of all this do you think faith is philosophically respectable?
GG: I sat in on Plantinga’s early, very exciting seminars at Notre Dame, where he was developing his idea that religious belief could be epistemologically respectable without being justified by evidence. His claim was that we could plausibly regard, say, belief in God the way we (should) regard belief in other minds, the validity of inductive inference, or the reliability of memories. On his view, these were all examples of properly basic beliefs: claims that we are entitled to hold without evidence. The way to refute this surprising view would seem to be to find a definition of “properly basic” that covers belief in other minds, etc. but excludes belief in God. But Plantinga showed that at least the more obvious ways of doing this didn’t work. His suggestion was that to define “properly basic beliefs” we needed to generalise from some obvious examples of such beliefs. But once we embark on this project, he claims, there’s no answer to a religious believer who thinks (as many in effect do) that “God exists” is obviously properly basic.
The dialogue you mention (from 1985) was one of several efforts I’ve made over the years to come to terms with this defense of religious belief. My most recent publication on the topic is in chapter 5 of What Philosophers Know. There my conclusion is that, even if there’s no reason in principle why religious belief couldn’t be properly basic, most thoughtful adults in the epistemic situation of our secular and pluralistic world cannot claim that most of their religious beliefs are properly basic. My current work on philosophy of religion tries to move beyond traditional discussions, which strike me as having little relevance to the reasons why actual people (even philosophers) do or do not believe. To keep in some touch with religious reality, I’ve been working with several books of “testimonials” from believing and non-believing philosophers. My current thought is that neither traditional atheists nor traditional theists are in a very strong epistemological position. Atheists, I think, should move to a more humble agnosticism: there simply are no decisive reasons for denying the existence of God (where’s the compelling case for atheism in the philosophical literature?). But to meet the objections of atheists (e.g., the problem of evil) believers need to give up anthropomorphic conceptions of God and regard God as fundamentally mysterious in a way that moves them to their own sort of religious agnosticism. My idea is not that belief and nonbelief should converge to a neutral middle ground. Rather, I think that there are significantly different varieties of agnosticism that include viable views for both believers and nonbelievers.
3:AM: You are well known as an expert on various French intellectuals and philosophers. Michel Foucault has been a thinker that you have found important and interesting. You’ve written extensively about him. So firstly, can you sketch out what you understand Foucault’s central contributions to philosophy to have been, in particular his ideas of ‘discourse’, of an ‘archeology of knowledge’ and a ‘genealogical method’?
GG: I see Foucault as more a philosophically informed and oriented historian than as a philosopher in any traditional sense. He typically writes what he calls “histories of the present”, meaning that he starts from what he sees as an ethically intolerable practice of contemporary life (e.g., the treatment of the mad or the system of imprisoning criminals) that, despite its obvious flaws, we tend to see as necessary given certain general views our society holds (e.g., that madness is a medical condition, that prison is the only humane form of punishment). His histories are genealogies showing that the view allegedly justifying the practice is a contingent feature of our society that does not impose a genuinely normative limit on what we think and do. (A genealogy is a diachronic causal story, usually also accompanied by synchronic archeological analyses of the conceptual structure at various key temporal points.) Foucault’s histories are philosophical in that they require critical discussion of philosophical views, but he does not put forward his own philosophical views in any traditional sense. At most, he sometimes constructs an ad hoc theoretical apparatus (e.g., a “theory” of power) designed to expose the limitations of a view he is criticising. But once the critical points are made, he is happy to abandon the apparatus, which functions like a scaffolding that’s removed when the work is done. Toward the end of his life, Foucault did move toward a conception — akin to that of the ancients — of philosophy as a way of life. But he does not seek a body of theoretical truth.
3:AM: Doesn’t his reading of Nietzsche misconstrue Nietzsche in a way that recent scholarship now would find disastrous? And doesn’t this point to a larger criticism about Foucault, that his work is parochial (so his work on prisons for example generalises from specifics of French penal systems that aren’t true of in, say, England of the period); that his historical ideas are prisoners of his theory and so only hold the imagination so long as we ignore actual historical details; that at heart he’s committed to a corrosive form of relativism; and that he writes deliberately obscure prose?
GG: Foucault was quite happy to offer “creative misreadings” of Nietzsche and other thinkers. He specifically says, “The only valid tribute to thought such as Nietzsche’s is precisely to use it, to deform it, to make it groan and protest.” His engagement with Nietzsche (and Heidegger, for another example) is often more a matter of appropriation than of explication (although there is explication in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”). As to historical accuracy, Foucault does paint with a broad brush, often with a limited palette of data. On the other hand, his goal is not, as it is for many historians, a meticulous delineation of “exactly how it was”. Rather, he’s after a general interpretative framework that will shed critical light on current practices. Such large-scale work must still answer to the facts, but it is less vulnerable to simple counterexamples. So, for example, when Foucault claims that confinement of the mad in asylums expresses the Classical Age’s distinctive conception of madness, we can’t refute him by simply pointing out that there were cases of confinement well before the Classical Age.
Foucault’s relativism and skepticism is always very specifically local. His critiques are aimed at certain psychological and social scientific disciplines and associated practices. He does not try to undermine knowledge or reason in general (e.g., in math, physics, chemistry) and even allows that disciplines thoroughly implicated in the network of social power (e.g., economics) still produce bodies of objective knowledge. As to obscurity, Foucault has his faults, particularly in some literary essays and when (as in parts of The Order of Things) he’s channeling Heidegger. But he’s overall much more accessible than, say, Deleuze or Derrida, especially from Discipline and Punish on. His last two books, on ancient sex, are quite lucid—he was ill and may have realised he didn’t have time to be obscure.
3:AM: You’ve written about French philosophy in the last century. You make several claims in that book, that existentialism is French philosophy’s major achievement, but that structuralism and post-structuralism are also important. You’ve recently been worrying that no one takes existentialism seriously anymore, but then you rethought that and think that it still casts a large, if only implicit, shadow. So firstly, can you tell us what you think existentialism is, why it is so important an achievement and what your own relationship to it is? Are you or have you ever been an existentialist?
GG: I’m not an existentialist — just a fellow traveller. In the narrow and probably most useful sense, existentialism is Sartre’s philosophy – not just Being and Nothingness but also the Critique of Dialectical Reason (an attempt at an existential assimilation of Marxism) and everything else. But the theme of engaged freedom and the atmosphere of metaphysical drama occur in other philosophers, at least since Kierkegaard, so a broader understanding of the term is sometimes helpful. In the end, though, what you think of existentialism should depend on what you think of Sartre.
3:AM: So is Sartre an impressive philosopher in your opinion? De Beauvoir?
GG: Sartre continues to impress me. First, I think he’s a very original philosopher, not a second-hand dealer in the ideas of Hegel or Heidegger. Second, at his best, he achieves a rare integration of literary and philosophical expression (trailing, I’d say, only Plato, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche). Of course, he’s not always at his best — his philosophical books are far too long, lack discipline, and try too hard to build a system. But they are filled with striking arguments and brilliant philo-literary vignettes. And his plays, novels (especially Nausea), biographies, and autobiography are superb literary expressions of ideas. I would suggest, in fact, that Sartre is a writer first and philosophises mainly as a way of enriching his literary expression. I admit, however, that he could be remarkably silly in his political postures. I have also learned a lot from Simone de Beauvoir. Sartre was obviously a strong influence on her thinking, though we need to remember that the two of them were in constant discussion of one another’s ideas. She had, in any case, a distinctive ability to present existentialist thought with a clarity, balance, and nuance that often escapes Sartre. Also, there’s nothing in Sartre to match the wisdom of her work on feminism and on aging. She wrote excellent novels and her autobiography, especially in the opening volumes, before it becomes more a log of her travels with Sartre, is wonderful.
3:AM: You devote a chapter to Derrida. Lee Braver recently corrected my ignorant skepticism and told me to buck up, stop being a prejudicial prig and take Derrida seriously! Braver is right, isn’t he, in saying that there’s a lot of prejudice about Derrida in certain circles (not that I’m in any circle, unless going round and round getting nowhere counts)? What makes Derrida important for you and why does he have such a negative reputation?
GG: To some extent, Derrida deserves his negative reputation. He’s a serious and valuable philosopher, not a charlatan, as some maintain. But much of his writing is needlessly obscure and repetitive. More important, he often pretends to a logical rigour — which he indeed needs to make his points — that he falls far short of achieving. I also think that his writing often has far less intellectual density than its difficulty suggests. There’s a continual deployment of ever-new convoluted terminology to make pretty much the same points about the essential instability of discourse. But he’s an intelligent and creative reader of texts and often worth the irritations you encounter. I agree that you should take Derrida seriously, but I’d advise thinking carefully before committing large amounts of time to reading him. He’s especially frustrating if you try to pay him the complement of a rigourous close reading.
3:AM: What’s the relationship between existential phenomenology and structuralism and the emergence of poststructuralism?
GG: Conceptually, I think existentialism was capable of incorporating much of what structuralist social science had to offer. Merleau-Ponty (a good friend of Lévi-Strauss) was on his way to doing this but died too early. Sartre, in the Critique, developed existentialism in a structuralist direction, but the rivalry between him and Lévi-Strauss made any rapprochement impossible. Things might have been very different if Merleu-Ponty (to whom Lévi-Strauss dedicated the book in which he denounced Sartre) had lived.
Poststructuralism is a different matter. It began as a reaction against the scientific objectivism of structuralism, and could, in principle, have found a lot in common with Sartre’s existentialist critique of structuralism. Even Sartre’s view of subjectivity needn’t have been foreign to, say, Derrida. (As Mary Howells has shown, Sartre’s analysis of self-presence in some ways anticipates Derrida’s deconstruction of Husserl’s phenomenology.) But the parricidal drives of the new generation of philosophers allowed no fruitful dialogue with Sartre. They needed to eradicate their adolescent devotion to existentialism. This may have been for the good. Sharpening differences often produces creative leaps that respectful negotiation could never achieve.
3:AM: You thought Brian Leiter’s Future of Philosophy collection did accurately reflect the naturalistic bias in current philosophy. But you thought this meant that it omitted contemporary metaphysics – which is a flourishing area. But your major concern was that it omitted continental philosophy. You say: ‘I agree that there is no fruitful analytic-Continental division in terms of substantive doctrines distinctively characteristic of the two sides. But it seems to me that we can still draw a significant distinction between analytic and Continental philosophy in terms of their conceptions of experience and reason as standards of evaluation. Typically, analytic philosophy reads experience in terms of common-sense intuitions (often along with their developments and transformations in science) and understands reason in terms of formal logic. Continental philosophy, by contrast, typically sees experience as penetrating beyond the veneer of common-sense and science, and regards reason as more a matter of intellectual imagination than deductive rigor.’ Do you still think this is the case?
GG: Yes. It’s fashionable to say that the analytic-continental divide is outdated, and it’s certainly true that there are more and more philosophers who read and work across any borders we may try to designate. The fact remains that you can be an eminent metaphysician in the anglophone world and never have read a word of Heidegger, Deleuze or Badiou, or be famous on the Continent for your philosophy of language and have no interest in Quine or Putnam. Is it just that the two styles of philosophising are different, that continentals can’t understand the complexities of rigourous logical analysis and argument and that analytics can’t penetrate the thickets of a philosophical version of literary modernism? This isn’t likely: there are too many smart and good-willed philosophers on each side.
In my view, the mutual befuddlement goes much deeper. Philosophy is the deployment of experience and reason to answer deep human questions. But analytic and continental philosophers have different understandings of experience and reason. Analytics appeal to the obvious truths of common human experience (and its extension via science) and then reason to further conclusions using standard rules of inference. Some continentals appeal in various ways to phenomenological or transcendental modes of experience that penetrate beneath or go beyond ordinary experience; others see reason as a creative power that leads to radically new ways of thinking. There can occasionally be fruitful local interactions between these approaches, but I think there’s little hope of any sustained and comprehensive convergence.
3:AM: Your New York Times Stone Opinionator blog shows that you are someone keen to bring philosophy into the mainstream discourses. This is something that figures in the continental tradition seem to do really well – Zizek is everywhere it seems, as is Badiou. And we think of Sartre and de Beauvoir and Camus and Foucault and Derrida in the past – they have an aura of sexy, worldly, lefty cool. How do you explain this foregrounded public intellectual role that philosophers have in the continental tradition, and why do you think it’s so difficult in the Anglo/American setting? Is it because Anglo-American philosophy tends not to think the impossible, and so lacks the dramatic risky perfomance qualities?
GG: The French in particular have a long cultural tradition of public philosophising, supported since the 19th century by universal philosophical education in the last year of secondary school. Other European countries, at least to some extent, similarly support public philosophy. We Americans lack such a tradition and also tend to think of democracy as requiring a certain anti-intellectualism. There are, however, a number of recent developments that are giving philosophers a much higher public profile. Ever since Rawls, ethicists have increasingly engaged topics of political and social interest, a turn intensified by the explosion of work in applied ethics and the acceptance of philosophers as essential contributors to discussions of ethical issues raised by professions such as medicine and law. Work in the social sciences, psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and fundamental physics has raised issues about consciousness, freedom, the origin and nature of ethics, and the origin of the universe that can’t be adequately discussed without invoking philosophical distinctions. And a new militancy among both conservative Christians and “new atheists” has brought philosophical discussions of religion and science to the fore.
The Internet has allowed a much wider range of people access to philosophical discussions and revealed, beneath the crust of anti-intellectualism, a substantial popular interest in philosophy. The NYT blog, The Stone, publishes about two philosophical essays per week, each typically attracting often quite intelligent comments from 200 to 800 subscribers. Each of the forty or so columns I’ve written for The Stone over the last year or so has been read by far more people than have read all of my books and articles together. I’ve also found that writing philosophy for a non-professional adult audience demands a focus and clarity that improves my own philosophical thinking and writing. Martha Nussbaum’s current book, The New Religious Intolerance, derived from a piece she wrote for The Stone and the comments responding to it. Internet philosophy is rapidly making obsolete the old saw that philosophy has no meaningful presence in the general culture. Finally, I would mention the internet’s invigorating effect on philosophy just as an academic discipline. There are countless blogs that facilitate professional interactions, and PhilPapers has become an essential gathering of current work in all areas. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, the book review journal I co-edit with Anastasia Friel Gutting, could not publish so many reviews so quickly if it weren’t online. And, of course, your End Times series has been one of the best ways we philosophers have of learning about one another.
3:AM: The world is in crisis – politically, economically, socially, environmentally – are you pessimistic or optimistic about what’s going to happen and do you think philosophy has a role?
GG: I learned long ago from Candide that both optimism and pessimism are just ways of avoiding the work of improving the world. For optimism, improvement is unnecessary, for pessimism it’s impossible. But it always makes sense to do what we can to make things better in our immediate locale, where we have some reasonable chance of alleviating what Voltaire rightly saw as the three great evils of vice, poverty, and boredom. It might seem that philosophy would have little relevance to such immediate and mundane concerns, and it’s true that theory, high or deep, won’t tell us how to work in our gardens. But effective action requires accurate thought, and in our culture at least, the basic ideas we need for thinking trickle down from philosophy, as do the methods of thinking well.
3:AM: Of the new continentals, who do you find important and stimulating?
GG: I have to admit I haven’t found much in any of them. It may be that philosophy on the European continent is in an interregnum, waiting for Being to speak again. There are also signs of a move, even in France, to analytic philosophy, which may become a new international scholasticism. On the other hand, it may well be that, for now, I’m a bit burnt out on the continentals. Certainly, my current interests are much in analytic work and in the possibilities of public philosophy.
3:AM: And finally, for the existentialists and Foucaultians and all here at 3:AM, can you recommend five books (other than your own which of course we’ll be dashing away to read straight after this) that will take us further into your philosophical world?
GG: 1. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and Objectivity,Truth, and Relativism. His Northcliffe lectures, reprinted as the first three chapters of OTR, are an excellent introduction to his thought.
2. Wilfrid Sellars, Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (in Science, Perception, and Reality). Hard going but a gold mine. If any copies still exist, you might find help in the book on Sellars my ND colleagues and I did years ago: C. F. Delaney, et al., The Synoptic Vision.
5. I’ve long wanted to write about Proust and philosophy. Somebody who’s done a great job of it is Joshua Landy, Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust.
6. Finally, although it’s not philosophy, I’d feel bad if I didn’t recommend some of the best, most enjoyable, and funniest writing I know: Evelyn Waugh’s early novels, especially Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, and Scoop.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 10th, 2012.