Aspiration, Acclaim, and Ancient Philosophy: A Conversation with Agnes Callard

The Review recently sat down with professional philosopher Agnes Callard for a brief conversation on her recently magnified public image, her new book, public philosophy, and the Ancients. The following conversation has been lightly edited by approval.

REVIEW: I want to start with public philosophy. You’ve written a couple of articles now in the New York Times, in the Boston Review and you’ve done some podcasts and so on. But you also wrote this piece in the Point about being against against public philosophy. So what are you trying to do in sharing your philosophical views publicly and do you think it’s going to be successful?

CALLARD: Part of why I wrote my essay in the Point is that I don’t know what I’m trying to do and I realize that. I think that one of the advantages of being a philosopher is that you get to be something like a hypocrite — but it doesn’t get called that. You can do something, and then you can ask, “Was that thing good?” If you’re almost anybody else, you have to stand behind everything you do and say, “I’m sure that I did that properly and correctly.” As a philosopher, your own actions fall under the set of all the things you can question.

What was I doing when I wrote my most recent New York Times article? Well, I was reading a bunch of blog discussions about “speaking as an X,” and I was thinking that the most interesting issue here is getting lost and covered over by the idea of “special information.” So, there’s this idea that when I speak as an X, it’s because I have information that you don’t have, and I’m contributing that to the conversation. If that were all it was, then no one would mind it. I think that analysis may be true of some cases, but posing it as the explanation for all cases covers up the reason why the phrase elicits the hostility it does, which is because it says, “I want to control this conversation.” Once you see that, you don’t have to think that it’s wrong or evil, rather you are now in a good position to assess under what circumstances that is permissible.

I was just thinking about all of those things, and I didn’t write it for the New York Times. I just wrote it out as a response to the bloggers. I emailed it to this guy in the Times and asked, “Do you want this?” and he says, “Yeah” and just published it as is shortly after. So the whole thing wasn’t very reflective, or at least not the public element.

If you want to ask: what are my reflections on public philosophy? You won’t find that in the public philosophy I’ve done; you’ll find that in the piece I wrote most recently in the Point. And I didn’t say public philosophy was bad; I said I didn’t know whether it’s good or bad. That’s a response to a conversation going on. A month ago, Walter Sinnot-Armstrong wrote about how philosophers are so rational and everyone should model themselves on them and how great public philosophy must be. But no one even considers the question whether it might be bad. And we ought to think about that. As a philosopher, I have the freedom to think about it, even if I also do it. It’s the awesome thing about being a philosopher.

REVIEW: Where does that desire, to just have your thoughts be shared publicly, come from?

CALLARD: So, there’s a couple of questions you can ask. You could ask for my motivation or you could ask for my justification. And I think that my motivations are mixed, but I’m sure in part it’s a desire for fame, approval, and acclaim. I’m also deeply suspicious of that, so it’s not an accident that I end up saying, “Is this even a good thing that I’m doing?” I think that something like that desire is what motivates anyone to do anything that is immediately public.

In some sense, all philosophy is public philosophy, because the stuff that I publish can be read by anyone. But what I’m doing when I write for the Times is trying to make people right now pay attention to me as opposed to, say 100 years after I die, they might read my book. That’s the right kind of fame – the worthwhile kind of fame is the one that happens after you die. That means you were actually worth something. Like Plato’s fame: that’s the good fame. It’s the kind of fame that can’t corrupt you and that means you actually did something valuable.

So, I definitely think there’s some element of vanity to it, but I’m not sure how important that is — in the sense that, the question really should be one of justification. And that’s the question I’m discussing in the Point piece. The question of whether it’s justified or not is somewhat independent of the question of what would motivate someone to do it, and is altogether more difficult.

But it’s also not an accident that philosophy began where it did. Philosophy is a hard thing to get started. It’s always a lot easier to keep something going than to get it started. And so it stands to reason that the stuff that did get it started was really really good.

REVIEW: On twitter, you always tweet about reading ancient philosophy: Aristotle, Plato, even the Iliad. What do you think ancient philosophy has to tell us that’s relevant to everyday life today?

CALLARD: One thing that is nice about, say, Plato, but also Aristotle to a large extent, is that their philosophy wears its question on its sleeve. So, if you want to know what question is being asked here, what issue is being grappled with, one can really quickly see what it is. If you just took a section out of Kant’s first critique, you’d need this whole big lead-up — and that whole big lead-up isn’t just what happened up until there in the critique, it’s the whole history of philosophy up until that point.

Ancient philosophy has a kind of shortcut that you can take: if you start at the beginning, you’re starting with something which can’t require any kind of education to see what’s going on, because these authors were speaking to an audience who had no philosophical education.

That’s just the cheat of going to the beginning of something. But it’s also not an accident that philosophy began where it did. Philosophy is a hard thing to get started. It’s always a lot easier to keep something going than to get it started. And so it stands to reason that the stuff that did get it started was really really good. Philosophy now, the philosophy I’m doing, it doesn’t have to be that good to be in the world of philosophy. The standards are high, but thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people, meet them all the time. But, the standards for getting philosophy started, there had to be something that was sort of accessible, interesting, but also challenging, but not offensive, and which tapped into exactly questions that people were asking in their everyday lives, otherwise what would have been their interest in it?

REVIEW: Your most recent book Aspiration draws a lot from decision theory and psychology. What do you think the role of philosophy is in other academic fields?

CALLARD: One way that philosophy can help other fields is that it can help change the way you ask a question. So, for a long time people had been asking the question of how could you possibly rationally make certain decisions. In fact, some of these are really big decisions, like the decision to become a parent, or the decision to move to a foreign country. Then there’s also a set of problems about small decisions, like the decision to pick this box of cereal over that one: how can you rationally make that decision? One thing that philosophers can do (and there’s all kinds of problems with giving a method for making these decisions) is say, “They’re not decisions,” which is in fact the best answer to both.

There’s a great paper by Sidney Morgenbesser and Ullmann-Margalit, called “Picking and Choosing,” about why the small thing is not actually a decision. You just pick, but you don’t choose. That is, there are no preferences involved; it’s a choice situation without preferences, i.e. it’s not really a choice. So we shouldn’t ask the decision theorist to theorize it.

With respect to the larger things, I believe decision plays a much lesser role than it usually is taken to. If you want to know, “How did someone end up with a whole different set of values than the ones they started out with?”, the answer isn’t going to be, “Well, one day they decided to have those values.”

So, that’s one thing that philosophy can do: it can reframe something, such that that shifts it out of a field of inquiry, and relieves the burden of solving it within the confines of that theory. People have thought these sorts of decisions pose a big problem with decision theory. But no, there’s no problem with decision theory, it’s just trying to do something it can’t do. So that’d be one thing.

REVIEW: Now that your book is out, what sorts of topics are you working on? What does your future look like, in terms of your philosophizing?

CALLARD: I’m not really planning to do much with Aspiration directly. The things I’m working on right now are a paper on why love hurts (I gave a talk on this at Candace Vogler’s Virtue Institute). I’m also working on a paper about Plato’s Hippias Minor. But the bigger projects that I’m going to work on next year are a book on Socrates as the inventor of intellectual culture more generally — not just philosophy, but the idea that there are rules of engagement in intellectual conversations that are really different from other kinds of conversations. I’ll argue that he invented that genre of the intellectual conversation. Whether or not we’re philosophers, we’re all following those rules. After that, I want to write a book about love and marriage and divorce. I want to talk about some movies in there too, but that’s more long term.

REVIEW: How do you decide what to work on next? Where do you get your ideas? And how do you choose to prioritize which ones you work on first?

CALLARD: I’ve found that people differ on this, especially across fields. I’ve found classicists have fewer ideas, but when they do, they are really good and perfect from the beginning. I have tons of ideas: I have a file of over 100 different paper ideas on my computer. I come up with several every day but they are mostly bad. The first draft of my paper tends to be bad and it takes a long time before my ideas turn out to be something good. It’s more like a process of destruction that an idea has to go through before it seems worthwhile to me.

I don’t know how I first come up with them. I just always come up with them. Part of it is teaching, talking to people, having conversation where people make an interesting point. My standards are very low for what counts as an interesting point or observation. This means that most of the time when I’m giving talks about papers I’m just getting refuted by people who are making really good objections that make me go back to the drawing board. But that’s the process that works for me. Other people are more autodidacts – they can just come up with something good on their own. I’m not very good at that.

REVIEW: The class you will teach next quarter is philosophical as well as literary. What do you see as the connection between literature and film and the arts with philosophy?

CALLARD: I think it’s very important for philosophy to connect with stuff that is outside of philosophy, not for the sake of that other stuff, but for philosophers. And it has to do with the role of intuitions in philosophy. Philosophers have to start somewhere, with something that just seems true to you. We can’t reason without having these intuitions, but sometimes they are bad, and need to change.

One way we can test our intuitions is engaging with the intuitions of other people. Novelists and filmmakers are really good at presenting an intuitive picture of human life. I also think work in empirical psychology can have the same effect on philosophy, so I see the role of engaging with psychological research as being a corrective on your intuitions, where you realize “Oh, that’s just the way I see it, while other people actually see it this way!” That allows you to say “this is part of my quirk that I always see something in some way and I have to get over it.” How do you know whether to get over it or not? Film and literature and empirical psychology help you learn.

Something that happened to me as an undergraduate was that one day I got a note in my mailbox at Burton-Judson. It said “Come to this place; Dress Regally; Having read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.”

REVIEW: Since you were once an undergraduate student here like us, we also wanted to ask about your special relationship to this school. Did you always know you wanted to come back here? Have things changed at all? Has your vision changed for a good undergraduate experience?

CALLARD: When I was applying for jobs after just finishing my dissertation, there were these lists of jobs that came out and there were two jobs at the University of Chicago: one in ancient philosophy and one in ethics. I remember talking to my graduate advisor at Berkeley, Sam Scheffler, and I said that the Chicago job would be my job. And he said that’s not how it works, you don’t pick which job you want. You apply, and you’re lucky if you get something. But I’m going to get that Chicago job, I said. I didn’t care which one and to this day I don’t know which one of those two jobs I ended up getting.

So, at that point I definitely had the idea that I would come back here, but only because there was a job opening. I hadn’t assumed there would be one. But I do think all undergraduates have a special connection to the place where they went. My first few years here were like a deja vu experience. I felt like all my students were me, like I was looking at the classroom and there were just a bunch of mes. I had so much empathy for them. I knew exactly what they were all going through. The degree to which they were covering up the stuff they were ashamed of – I could see through all of it. I wanted to tell them, “ can see it – you don’t need to cover it up!” Like not having done the reading, or how much they care about a grade, or being uncomfortable about coming to office hours, or really wanting to catch the teacher after class and wanting to ask her a question. Those moments right after class somehow having special meaning for people, I really get that.  

In terms of the University, I feel like the kinds of things I want to bring about are not so much about bringing back the University that I went to, rather I want to write large over the whole University the particular idiosyncratic aspects of my undergraduate experience. So, it’s a kind of tyrannical impulse.

Something that happened to me as an undergraduate was that one day I got a note in my mailbox at Burton-Judson. It said “Come to this place; Dress Regally; Having read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.” It was an invitation to a conversation group with people who I didn’t know. Someone was just starting an intellectual conversation group with random people that they had been in classes with or their friends had been in classes with, about six or seven of us.

We continued to meet throughout my undergrad and I am still friends with all those people! What was great about it was that it wasn’t really friendship. It was centered on books that we would read together and talk about. We even went to the Indiana Dunes to have a conversation! But it had an open endedness – we can do anything, we can construct an intellectual atmosphere for ourselves, making it up and it will become real. And that has really inspired me when it comes to coming up with things like Night Owls and adding study groups to it. I can just make stuff up and people will show up to it! And it doesn’t have to be the kind of thing that is already established.

The costs are really low to starting things like that and is a way I have tried to legislate my own undergraduate experience here.

REVIEW: You did your Classics MA at Berkeley, but you decided to change to philosophy. Why did you make that change?

CALLARD: I think there’s something I really loved about Classics, but it was pretty well captured by everything you had to do up through taking exams. So, I really liked reading stuff in Greek and Latin and talking about it and especially reading it in translation groups. But then, once you’ve taken literature, history, and translation exams, you have to write a dissertation. And I didn’t want to write a Classics dissertation. The Classicists are extremely open-minded about what can go into a Classics dissertation but it was made clear to me that Kant cannot.

There’s a level of remove from the text when you’re writing about it as a classicist that has never been very comfortable to me. I can be translating a text and ask why a certain word was chosen, what does this mean, and other related questions. And then there’s arguing about a text, like what I do with philosophy. What Classicists are doing is really viewing the text as an artifact, which is not a level of remove I’m comfortable at. That was the negative reason. The positive reason was that I always really liked philosophy. I sort of always thought I would someday do it, but I just wanted to do a bunch of Classics first.

REVIEW: Was that a difficult decision to make, whether you go to graduate school or not?

CALLARD: I would say I’ve never found any decision to be difficult, but not because I knew what I was doing. More because I was easily satisfied by the answer to a very proximate question. I was always asking “What do I want to do next year?”

When I was a 4th year, I asked what do I want to do next year.  The answer was I wanted to go to England and get a fancy scholarship where I would get to study at Cambridge or Oxford for a year. I didn’t care that much what I studied. I applied for those, but then I thought: “what if I don’t get one? I should have a backup.”  Which was good thinking, because to my great surprise I didn’t get any of them. My backup was graduate school. And I didn’t know what I wanted to go to school for, so I applied for both Classics and Philosophy. I visited the programs and I realized what I felt like doing the next year was reading Greek and Latin. I did that for a while, up through taking the exams, and then I thought “now what do I want to do?” and I thought “next year I want to do some philosophy.” So, I applied to philosophy programs. I didn’t think of it as a long term plan. I guess I’ve always thought of myself as making short term plans that I can then revise later. So none of the decisions were difficult.

REVIEW: Unfortunately, not all of us can think about long term decisions like that! If we were to try and plan ahead, how would you help an undergraduate think about the decision to go to graduate school or become a philosopher?

CALLARD: These kinds of questions are hard because you’re asking me to give advice at a very general level. I could say some stuff, but if someone comes to me I might tell them to do all the opposite stuff. I’m not sure there is a right way to think about whether you want to go to graduate school or not. It depends a lot on what the opportunity costs are for you, what your financial situation is, whether you want to be in a particular place, all these decisions are very concrete. But it is quite often true that applying to graduate school is low cost. A lot of what you need for the application – if you’re a philosophy major writing a Senior thesis – you’ve got. So I would say don’t put a lot of time into thinking about it, because there are probably more interesting things to think about.

I would say get concrete advice from people. Graduate students are great people to get advice from! Also me, or faculty members teaching a class.  And then just decide. A lot of these things, you can explore them as a bottomless puzzle to figure out, but it’s sort of like putting your mental energies into something where you aren’t going to make progress on it.

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