In this interview, David McNaughton, Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University, talks about being a lifelong C.S. Lewis fan and a nervous child, the appeal of Lord of the Rings, fell walking, becoming a Christian, politics in the 60’s, taking classes with Geoff and Mary Midgley, attending Oxford as existentialism was dying out, working with Peter Strawson, A.J. Ayer, and R.M. Hare, losing his faith, getting a job when a job was all but guaranteed (if you went to Oxford), hooking up with Jonathan Dancy, writing Moral Vision and the utility of terror, hearing what Bernard Williams thought of it and what he learned about the importance of generosity, moving to Florida, the joy of collaborating, the death of his second wife, rediscovering his faith, finding love again, escaping the states, what he thinks of feminism and experimental philosophy, making Plato compulsory, his favorite curse word, and what he would ask God if he got the chance...
When and where were you born? What did your parents do?
I was born in 1946 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. When I was three my parents bought an hotel in the Yorkshire Dales which proved to be harder work, and much less economically viable, than they had thought. I went for two years to the local village school, which had one classroom and one teacher for ages 5-11. This was not, on the whole, a very happy experience, though I have very pleasant memories of the walks to and from school, and I remember longing to be up on the hills. Following the failure of the hotel enterprise, my father returned to teaching, this time in Nottingham, where he taught technical drawing. My mother worked in a bookshop. (She was a qualified teacher, but married women were not then allowed to teach.)
What was on your mind as a kid?
I was an only child, much given to solitary play, reading, and reflection. My favorite books were Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and Arthur Ransome’s series of books about children sailing in the Lake District and elsewhere. I had a small number of close friends and we would play together at weekends. I was by disposition highly anxious, and prone to excessive feelings of guilt. I was also extremely afraid of physical pain or injury, and physically uncoordinated, so that sports and physical education were a perpetual nightmare. I compensated for this by my love of language and literature, and by a passion for country walking whenever I got a chance. In addition, I was a great soccer fan, regularly attending all home games until I left for university.
I remember a number of rather intense discussions with fellow-students on rather abstract and academic topics, including politics which I found endlessly fascinating. I think I could fairly be described as bookish, nervous – especially of authority, introspective, and fond of serious conversation.
Michael Ruse was an Arthur Ransome fan, too! I know you're still fond of fell walking and still a big C.S. Lewis fan. What did you find so appealing about the Chronicles of Narnia?
Lewis defines what he calls ‘Joy’ as an unsatisfied longing for something one occasionally glimpses as beyond or behind some significant experience. I have experienced this on some occasions. First, walking in the English countryside, which seems as near to heaven as I can imagine, and, second, when reading Christian imaginative literature. I read Lord of the Rings first when I was 18 and recovering from mumps. I felt totally transported to a world of wonder which, though I knew it to be unreal, seemed more real than the one I lived in. I experienced the same response, though perhaps less intensely, when reading Lewis. In The Silver Chair there is a wonderful reworking of Plato’s cave in which it is claimed that it is better to believe in a perfect world and be wrong, than to think that this world is all there is.
Did religion play a big role in your life when you were a kid?
No. My parents were sympathetic agnostics, so sent me to Sunday School so I could find out for myself. Left when about 11. Started thinking seriously about Christianity when 14 and started going to church shortly afterwards. I was a committed Christian until 24 when various pressures, and an overdose of Hume, led to my being pretty scornful about all things ‘spiritual’ for a while.
You mentioned you were interested in politics. What political stuff did you argue about?
The good and bad sides of what has now come to be called, strangely, ‘liberalism’. I was a Liberal, which was a tiny party back then, as were my parents. Our objection to Labour was they believed in nationalizing big industries.
Followed King closely. Persuaded our Prof to cancel class so we could all see King accept an honorary degree from my university. I remember little about content of speech, but presence of King was electrifying.
You were a teenager in the 60's...what music were you listening to?
Beatles, Rolling Stones, Peter Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, Buddy Holly
I was a Methodist! Most daring pre-college experience was going round to house of a girl who attended the Methodist Youth Club where she introduced me to...Buddy Holly.
In high school, did you look forward to college?
Oh yes. I hated school sports and gym at which I was not only extremely bad, but found intimidating, since I was physically very nervous, and most boy’s games involve violence: rugby, cricket.
I was extremely fortunate to study philosophy when and where I did. I had applied to a number of universities to read English and Philosophy, and was asked for an A grade in English; competition to go to university in those days was stiff, and the Advanced Level exams at the end of Grammar School (secondary education for ‘academic’ pupils) had very high standards. (Only 4-5% of school leavers went on to University, but it was free and we were also given a living allowance.) In the end, I got an A in French, B in English, and E in History (which I hated, but was made to study). I was turned down by all five of my choices. However, the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne still offered what were then known as General Degrees. Having confirmed that I could transfer to Honours at the end of my first year if I were good enough, I accepted the offer, and arrived there in the Autumn of 1964. (Exciting times: the election of a Labour Government after 13 years of Conservative rule, and the death and funeral of Winston Churchill.)
Where did you want to go, and what did you want to do?
I intended to major in English, my favorite subject at school. I was dissuaded by my mother, who graduated in English from Edinburgh in the early 1930s. She warned me that if I studied English on its own I would have to do Old Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon. Looking back I have no idea why she thought I would not like that. One of the books I chose for a school prize was The Tree of Language, about the origins of Indo-European Languages, and she bought me Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary. It had not occurred to me at Grammar (High) School that you could take subjects not taught at school. She suggested philosophy. In response to the obvious question, she replied "I don’t know, but several of my friends took it and they all liked it. You will enjoy it, it is about arguing!" Had I taken English I expect I would have ended up with an Upper Second Class Degree and been a school teacher. As it happened, I went to my first philosophy lecture and that was that!!
WOW…what do you remember from that first class?
It is etched in my memory. A man who looked like the Professor in ‘Back to the Future’ came in, long white hair, crumpled check shirt, puffing away at a cigarette, pacing, and without preparation or notes, proceeded to persuade us that our confidence that there was a world of material objects, objects external to the senses, was, perhaps, misplaced. He pursued this for quite a while before bringing up the name of Berkeley. I was enthralled. (I became a convinced Berkelian, until I discovered Kant!)
Was it the teacher or the content?
Both. Geoff Midgley was garrulous, full of fun, endlessly curious, always exploring. It was not just the novelty, or the intellectual excitement, but the fact that here was a subject that one could engage in immediately, without the lengthy preparation of learning the acknowledged facts. (How different from dreary History, as it was then taught, with its totally unmemorable litany of dates, battles, treaties, and Acts of Parliament.) You could question anything; but you had to produce arguments for your conclusions! It was love at first sight and, like most young lovers, I wanted to commit to my new love immediately. However, with what I then thought was amazing self-control, I waited for the second lecture to finish before approaching the department and saying I would like to study Philosophy as a single subject if I could transfer at the end of my first year. And so a journey of over fifty years began.
What was life like as an undergrad philosophy major at Newcastle?
We spent a good part of the day in The Cave, a common room for staff (faculty) and students. We discussed every philosophical problem we could think of, and often faculty would join in. The whole experience was, in many ways, much more like philosophy grad school than majoring in Philosophy in a US college.
What was the rest of the faculty like at New Castle?
At that time the Philosophy Department at Newcastle consisted of five teachers: four full-time and one half-time – all very different from each other and yet, each in their own way, the ideal person to introduce people to the subject.
The Professor and Head was Karl Britton, who had studied under Wittgenstein. Slim, neat, dapper, with well groomed silver hair, he always wore a three-piece suit and tie. We were all in awe of him, though he was a very kind man. He would ask questions with obvious answers, such as ‘how does an Intuitionist know these moral truths?’ and then look at us in bewilderment as we all thought the obvious answer could not be the correct one! He did not write a lot, but he published a book on the meaning of life while we were there. I remember writing an essay for him on that topic, in which I argued that life would only have meaning if there were objective values. He looked at me rather sadly, and said: ‘this is a fine essay, but you don’t mention death.’ To which, with all the invulnerability of youth, I replied that I had not thought it relevant.
Colin Strang taught us Ancient Philosophy – mainly Plato, because he said he did not think he knew enough about Aristotle to teach it well! So two whole years of Plato’s Dialogues. Wonderful. Tall, stringy, with a small military style moustache, he was also dapper, and chain-smoked small cigars. He would often stretch with his hands above his head, causing his trousers to slip down a little revealing a glimpse of coloured patterned shorts – something none of us then had ever seen. He would always address the members of the audience as ‘chaps’ even when a majority were women. Rumour had it that he was a communist and, when he inherited his father’s title, would become the first communist peer in the House of Lords (he took up his seat but was not active, whether he really had communist sympathies I do not know). Apart from an abiding love of Plato, Colin taught me to read texts closely and to argue with care. Many years after I had graduated he contacted me at Keele and said he did not think he would be publishing any more on Plato and would I like his books. He duly arrived with a large trunk full of texts and hard to find commentaries – a characteristically kind gesture.
Then there were the Midgleys: Geoff, who I mentioned earlier, and his wife Mary, who was then half time. Geoff had a fine-tuned sense of the ridiculous, and made the driest philosophical topic engaging. His laugh was contagious although, because of his bronchitis from smoking, it nearly always ended up as a racking cough. He once took forty minutes answering a question and then, realizing what he had done, said: ‘You always get more than you bargained for’ and started laughing so hard and bouncing up and down in his huge shabby armchair that we feared the subsequent violent fit of coughing would finish him off. Geoff had the untidiest desk I have ever seen (though I am running him a close second!) It was piled high with not only books and papers but also parts of a flute (he played) and what looked like bits of a car engine. One day, in searching through this pile for a book he pulled out a letter, read it, and exclaimed: ‘it’s a request for a reference I haven’t answered … well, no use now, it’s two years old.’ At which point, he thrust the letter back into the tottering pile! Geoff’s main interest was logic and early twentieth century philosophy. His final year exam on the Tractatus consisted of ten quotations from that work, with the single instruction, “Comment”, after each one. I once spent a whole term with him studying the Vienna Circle, especially Carnap. We thought him the smartest of a very intelligent department, but he was completely uninterested in publishing. He could not see the point. (He had, I believe, two publications, each in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, which requires publication of invited talks.) Rather, what he wanted was to do philosophy and, above all, to introduce students to it. Those who know me will easily guess on which person in that department I have modelled myself right down, to my chagrin, to the untidiness. When I went to Geoff’s memorial service I gave a lift to the former departmental secretary on the way back to the reception. I apologized for the hiking equipment and other detritus littering the interior. She took one look and said: ‘Geoff would have been proud of this car!’
Mary Midgley mainly lectured on ethics and would, in moments of intensity, close her eyes and run her hands through her hair. I remember two special incidents. The first was when, in the course of explaining why she preferred Kant’s moral theory to utilitarianism, she gave the example of an old people’s home where they had taken away people’s glasses, hearing aids, etc. and filled them full of tranquilizers, making life easier for all. Rightly shocked by this, she explained Kant’s stress on the importance of rational autonomy before apostrophizing, ‘You see, Professor Britton, life is just more complicated than you realize.’ (Karl gave the lectures on Bentham and Mill.) The other was a conversation with Colin who claimed to be both a hard determinist and a utilitarian. ‘But, Colin, it is important to people’s dignity that they be held responsible for their actions’ to which he replied, ‘I’m very happy to blame people, Mary, if it will make them happier.’ She and Geoff were cheerful and bohemian, living in a large and untidy house. Incredibly kind and caring they always had at least one angst-ridden student lodging with them, so that they could look after them. I was totally unaware at the time that Mary’s contemporaries at Somerville were Anscombe, Foot, and Murdoch. When I went to stay with her later while giving a talk to the Philosophy Group in Newcastle (the department having been axed by a technocrat Vice-Chancellor) I asked her about them. She was a great admirer of Iris Murdoch’s philosophy and wished she had continued with it, instead of writing ‘those novels’.
Finally, there was Don Locke, the youngest and an exemplar of the new breed of philosopher. Don published books and articles at a rate that would now be considered normal, but which seemed frenetic back then. His lectures were models of how to organize material and convey it in an accessible way. He was careful and punctilious almost to a fault. He once began a lecture thus: ‘There are thirteen arguments in the literature against phenomenalism, and all of them are unsound.’ And off he went, through all thirteen.
Sounds like a small but amazing line up!
Looking back, I do not think we then appreciated how lucky we were. The staff (faculty)-student ratio was absurd. We were the largest year they ever had, their annus mirabilis, with eight people reading philosophy as a single subject (major) and eight reading it as a double major. Karl and Geoff had persuaded the university that we needed a lecture room in the department, though they had no intention of using it as such. Rather, it was a common room for both students and teachers, unsurprisingly labelled The Cave. We virtually lived in there, drinking endless coffee and discussing philosophy. We would be joined by at least one of the staff on most days, who would give their time unstintingly to our enthusiastic questioning. I felt perfectly free to knock on any door and ask a philosophical question; nor were the answers brief. I would be welcomed in and given as much time as I liked. That generosity spilled over into social life; we were often invited to parties at the houses of staff. Finally, there was the tutorial system. Two people to a tutor, taking it in turns to read an essay. Since I was often paired with students who did not show up, I received, in effect, individual supervision. Since my stay there lasted four years, this was more like a graduate than an undergraduate education; indeed, in some ways we had more access to faculty than students in most graduate programs.
Things seemed a bit different back then.
This was a group of people who were widely read, thoughtful, engaged; members of an old-fashioned intelligentsia. Suffering none of the pressures of the modern publish or perish regime, they saw their mission as opening young minds and, above all, showing how enjoyable philosophy was.
I have only one regret, namely that I did not go there a year later for, in 1968, the department appointed a very bright chap called Mike Brearley. He did not stay long because he decided he had more to offer to cricket than to philosophy. In that he was probably right, since he went on to become the best captain England’s cricket team have ever had. I would love to have met him.
Least favorite classes back then?
I disliked psychology for two reasons: first, it was taught by an egomaniac; second, it seemed very superficial to me (still does).
What did you do for fun outside of class?
I would usually drop by someone’s place on my way back to my lodgings for a coffee and a long talk. And reading: it was in my first year that I discovered Lord of the Rings. Sundays, I would have lunch with the parents of a friend of mine who lived at home, and then the rest of the day was taken up with activities in the Methodist Society.
What on earth was college in the 60's?
The Swinging Sixties had scarcely penetrated to Newcastle University, though the Animals were big, and Liverpool was not that far away. The group I was with, mainly Methodists, were fairly serious about life, though not solemn. I was, of course, a huge fan of both the Beatles and the Stones.
Do I look to you like someone who has ever been groovy? I was probably more middle-aged at 20 than I was at 50.
You ended up going to Oxford, was that different, socially?
In Oxford the main impact in 68-70 was the Student Revolutionary Movement. There were protests, sit-ins, etc. Against being treated like kids, against the Vietnam War, against capitalism. Tariq Ali was a big figure, as was Marcuse at a more intellectual level. And existentialism had not quite died out.
Any room for romance?
Yes, though I was painfully shy and awkward when it came to anything along those lines. I had many women friends, and was totally relaxed talking to them, but terrified of making a fool of myself, and of being rejected, if I made any approach beyond that. I did get engaged at the end of my time at Oxford, but even there a girl I was trying to go out with suggested that her room-mate might be interested in dating, so I knew what the answer would be before I asked her out. I should say that we were, on the whole, pretty inhibited by today’s standards. Many of us, including me, were almost wholly sexually inexperienced by the end of college, and many of us in the Methodist Society, including me, thought that full sexual relations should be reserved for marriage.
Who did you work with at Oxford?
I originally had Peter Strawson as my tutor, because his work interested me the most. He was kindly, but very urbane, and rather hard to talk to. Really didn’t keep a conversation going. After two terms he said he was getting a student from Ayer and would I like to swap? Well, no, to be blunt, since I had seen Ayer on TV eating Christians for breakfast. The Richard Dawkins of his day. But actually he was tremendous fun; enthusiastic about what you had to say, and with a genuinely open mind on many things. He would pace up and down, chain smoking through a cigarette holder, shooting questions at you. He asked me what I was going to write my thesis on: something in ethics, I replied. ‘Don’t do that; you seem a bright chap. It can all be written on the back of a postcard’ I kid you not. So I developed a paper of Ayer’s on private access to one’s own mind. Unfortunately, he then went on a tour of the States, and I was handed round to others – first Gosling, and then Hare, neither of whom wanted to read my stuff on philosophy of mind. It seemed like Pass the Parcel, but I was probably being over-sensitive. There really wasn’t much guidance or help; you were just left to get on with it.
Are you still in touch with folks from Oxford?
One or two. There was a great deal of one-upmanship in philosophy back then, and I tended to avoid mingling with them because it left one feeling inadequate. I mainly mixed with people from my College, Magdalen, and most were undergrads, and few were doing philosophy. I was, however, friends with Terence Irwin, who I meet occasionally.
Least favorite classes in grad school?
I am not sure. At that time I was broadly Kantian in my approach to epistemology. I think the main thing that I learned was that philosophy of language (hugely popular at the time) was not for me, and that ethics and aesthetics were my favorites. Back then, logic and phil. of language were for REAL MEN, and ethics etc. were thought rather ‘soft’.
Earlier you mentioned you were a Methodist. Did your faith ever waver?
I was not conscious of it at the time. I was an assiduous attender at Chapel in Oxford, but that was an aesthetic as well as a religious experience, since there was Choral Evensong every evening – still my favorite service. Here I discovered Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons, etc. However, whereas I had found the fellowship of the Methodist Society at Newcastle very supportive, there was nothing really like that at Oxford, and few of my friends were Christians. Since I lost my faith soon after graduation, I think the seeds must have been planted then.
It wasn't A.J.'s fault, was it?
Only indirectly! It just slipped quietly away once I got a job. I became increasingly convinced that Hume’s objections were devastating. Much better than Ayer’s!
I'm not totally clear on how the English system works. You don't have a Ph.D., right?
Almost all UK universities only offered the ‘British’ Ph.D. – go off and write a dissertation. No classes! Ryle decided that this was not a good way to find university teachers and so instituted the B.Phil, which is a bit like an MA. Two years of attending any lectures or seminars in Oxford you wanted to. An essay to be handed in every two weeks and discussed with your supervisor. At the end of two years, three exams on your two chosen areas and one on your chosen historical figure. I did Metaphysics and Epistemology, Ethics and Aesthetics, Kant (complete works of). 10 questions on ANYTHING in those areas; answer 3!! And a thesis of 20-30,000 words. The examiners were chosen alphabetically so I got Mackie, and two others whom I forget.
What was the job market like when you finished the B.Phil?
Mine was the last year in which the B.Phil more or less guaranteed you a job in UK. Of the 35 or so who started, 17 of us completed, and many of them were overseas, so competition was not intense. I had six interviews. I also applied for a post in Seattle, and was told I was the runner up, just on the basis of my letters and writing sample: not even a phone interview.
How did you land your first gig?
I had tried to do phil of language, at which I had no clue. After an embarrassing series of essays for Strawson we reached mutual agreement that it was not for me, so I chose ethics instead. I wanted to do ethics, but there was a feeling back then that this was an easy subject suitable for the weaker brethren and girls (insofar as there were any)!!! Greatest job move ever. Keele wanted a moral philosopher; I was the only one.
What was that like? Were you prepared to teach?
Hadn’t a clue. I prepared so much material for my first hour’s lecture that it would have lasted four!
You were at Keele University for almost 3 decades. When did you discover particularism? How did you come up with the idea for the book Moral Vision, which is now widely considered a classic?
Jonathan Dancy and I were the same age, and he was fearsomely bright; into Davidsonian truth theoretical semantics and John McDowell. Indeed, I provoked him into writing his first short paper by what he regarded as my confused views about the subjective and objective ‘ought’. Eventually, he suggested he and I teach a final year special subject in ethics. After he had written up his lectures on epistemology into a successful book, he very generously suggested I do the same for our course. As many of the ideas in it came from him, that was indeed generous. But it was, of course, filtered through the old McNaughton brain, so it came out very differently from how he would have written it. I was also indebted to McDowell, and through him to Aristotle. In many ways, one of the main influences was Iris Murdoch, though I somehow managed to overlook this at the time.
Can you describe the writing process?
Bloody terrifying. I had tried writing articles for years, but they never came out right. I had the opposite problem with the book: what I call ‘philosopher over the shoulder syndrome’. You write something that is supposed to be helpful and accessible, but then – for an academic article or book – all the qualifications and objections would have to be put in. Oddly, as I got going, I found it easier not to worry about this and go with my gut instincts. I write best when I let stuff that has been stewing in the depths of my mind flow out. Because of Jonathan’s recommendation I got a contract with Blackwell, who wanted the book in a year. Since I had only published one piece in Analysis, I thought this was my final chance (which it was) and so sheer terror overcame anxiety, perfectionism, and procrastination.
It might still have sunk without trace (2 short reviews, neither hugely enthusiastic). I had begun to realize (after 18 years) that you should network! We had a big medical ethics program at Keele that I ran and I saw there was a mini-conference in London at which Bernard Williams and two others were talking. So I took the train down. It was delayed for an hour because of mechanical problems, and I was just about to get out, because I would be too late, when it jerked into life and I was going to London willy nilly. Bernard gave one of his wonderful papers and I had a good question. Being an old hand by now I waited and asked it towards the end. Bernard sat up and took it seriously, so as soon as the session was over I jettisoned my British reserve and made a bee-line for him and introduced myself. After we had chatted for a while I asked him if Blackwell had sent a copy of my book to him. I knew they had, but I had also heard that he got tons of unsolicited mail most of which he jettisoned. He did not think so, so I asked if I could send him a copy. I did; heard no more. A year later, at a conference, a grad student approached me and asked if I would autograph my book. After I had recovered from the shock I asked how he had heard of it. Oh, Bernard Williams is recommending it to people in Oxford; said it was one of the few books on ethics written for grown ups.
I tell this tale not simply for vain glory (though a bit of that is nice) but because it illustrates a number of things. The tremendous role of chance in this profession; the difference the generosity of people like Jonathan and Bernard can make; finally, since I felt a failure and a fraud at philosophy after so many fallow years, the need to offer similar generous encouragement to others. Academia can be a cold and cruel place; and philosophy in particular favors not only the very clever but the very confident.
There are a couple of people you frequently co-author stuff with, which is sort of unusual in philosophy. How did you hook up with Piers Rawling?
The third time I returned to Georgia, Piers was in his first year as Assistant Prof. We hit it off straightaway, and I discovered he had never learned any ethical theory. So I made him come to my grad class. We were going through the Oxford Readings on Consequentialism, and I could make little of a paper by Sen with lots of logic in it. I got Piers to explain it to the class. He not only did this, but then proceeded to demolish it. I told him I was puzzling over agent-relativity; he suggested a bar and a legal pad. After we had put my six month old son to sleep by feeding him french fries dipped in beer, we got going. "We need some logic – boxes. Now, what are these things moral philosophers go on about, moral principles or something. They are universally quantified directives. Whereabouts does the bound variable occur?" An hour later, we had our ’system’ and had written our first paper. Writing with another person, when they are the right person, is so much fun. It takes away most of the anxiety, and you can bounce ideas off each other in an entirely safe space.
Eve Garrard was working as a counselor at the Open University in UK and read one of the reviews of my book which said, I don’t like this book, but if you do like this sort of book, this is a fairly good one of its kind! Since she did like that kind of book, she read it. She found references in it to Dancy and came to Keele to be his PhD student. We discovered that she was a phenomenal teacher, so we offered her some teaching and she moved into the office next to mine. I introduced myself, we got chatting, I mentioned C.S. Lewis, she replied that she had read every word Lewis had written and we were off. I might add that she suffers terribly from self-deprecation and the feeling that she is not a ‘real’ philosopher, which illustrates my point about the competitiveness of the academic world, and the need to encourage people.
Did you ever get married?
Three times. My second and third marriages have been to Americans. I met Lee when I was on a year long exchange visit at U Ga. One son, Alex. Lee spent 18 years in Stoke-on-Trent (a big change from the South) but wanted to come home. I finally got a job at FSU and she was immediately diagnosed with terminal cancer. She had one year over here to see her family.
I’m sorry about that. Did you rediscover your faith?
I moved with agonizing slowness back towards Christianity after my mid-30s, mainly as a result of various people I met and talked to. By the time I had to nurse Lee I was, more or less, a believer and certainly prayed a lot. After her death, I felt God was telling me to step up to the plate, so I returned to the Church of England in its American incarnation: the Episcopal Church
You are married now, yes?
I am now married to a wonderful woman I met in Tallahassee. Rosa is a complete Britophile, hence our retirement plans. We are moving to Melrose, Scotland in Summer, 2017. Coming up to our tenth anniversary. I look forward to a quiet life in a small town, with Edinburgh nearby, stuffed with castles, stately homes, and romance.
So you miss the UK?
Miss it??? Of course I do. Most Americans I meet are delightful, and I love their positive attitude. I hugely enjoy the vast amount of classical music concerts in Tallahassee. And Jan and Feb can be nice. But the rest of the year it is a tropical hell-hole, crawling with alligators, poisonous spiders and snakes, disease-laden mosquitos, ticks, etc. Plus, you don’t have any historical places to speak of and you have to travel vast distances to see nice landscape. The UK also has many faults (some of which have surfaced dramatically in the last week) but the countryside, climate, and culture make up for it. Plus, the things I dislike are at least familiar rather than alien. One thing I have learned in my years in USA is that, just because we share a language and a history, one should not assume we are culturally akin. I feel more at home in most parts of Western Europe than in the USA.
How have your philosophical ideas evolved?
When I first started, I thought naturalism must be right and so I was, in ethics, a universal prescriptivist, of the Hare variety. Jonathan Dancy persuaded me that there were no good reasons to be a naturalist, and many not to be. Naturalism has reached epidemic proportions in USA, though I have never seen a decent argument for it. I have also become rather Moorean, in that I think that if a tricksy philosophical argument seems to undermine a belief which, in every other way, seems solid and secure, one should conclude that the argument is in error. I have also learned a lot from James and Pascal about the need for commitment, in practical matters, even when the evidence is not compelling.
High point of your career?
Getting Professorship at Keele University in 1995 (back then, to get Prof. exceeded normal expectations).
Late 1970s, when I had nothing published and did not know how, and the University were offering a large bribe to anyone who would leave. I seriously considered this.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice then, what would it be?
Do not try to ape what others do, but do what you are good at and have faith in.
Great advice. How has philosophy changed since you started?
Yes! But not as much as you might think! Biggest changes are: Publish or perish; tightness of job market; huge increase in faculty numbers; increasing tendency for discussion to feed off itself (replies to replies to amendments to replies …); growth of X-phi; increase of women in philosophy; slightly less combative tone.
How do you see the future of philosophy?
I don’t know. I fear that the tendency to focus on minutiae and ignore the big picture will get worse.
Is it going to go on forever and ever or is it all going to come to an end at some point?
Philosophizing will last until the world ends. Academic philosophy? Who knows?
Do you find any trends in philosophy disconcerting?
X-phi: this completely misunderstands both the status of philosophy as a normative discipline, and the appeal to intuitions. Plus, as social psychology, it is usually very badly done, and by people whose lack of understanding of ethical theory would lead to their failing a graduate ethics course.
Feminism. More attempts to explain relevance of philosophy to general public.
Are you going to keep doing philosophy in Scotland?
Yup. I will be an Honorary Prof. at Edinburgh 2017-2020, and I have two contracts with OUP: one for an edition of Butler’s Analogy of Religion, and one for a book on Butler’s thought.
PLUS, Piers promises me that we will winnow all the stuff we have published over last 25 years and turn it into a short, sharp book outlining our view of ethics as a whole.
Any interesting projects on the horizon? Are you going to miss teaching?
I may do some at Edinburgh. And I enjoy ‘lifelong’ or continuing adult students much more than undergraduates, so will probably do some of that.
In general, nineteenth Century novels, esp. Austen, Eliot, Dickens, Dostoevski, but also Tom Jones, detective fiction, Lord of the Rings. In the last month a twentieth century novel has joined the list – Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song. If, like me, you had not heard of it, that’s partly because English, Welsh, and ex-colonial novels have been centre of attention.
Plato, Aristotle’s ethics, Stoicism, Eighteenth Century British moral philosophers, Hume, Kant, and British philosophy between the wars.
One of my heroes is C. D. Broad: he carried the art of open-minded enquiry further than anyone else; his capacity for drawing relevant distinctions was unparalleled, without ever sacrificing the enormous clarity of his exposition. (Only Sidgwick does it as well, but Sidgwick is tedious, whereas Broad is a joy to read.) Finally, his mordant and sardonic wit never fails to amuse me. His dismissal of claptrap (of which there is much in philosophy) is always decisive and witty.
The other main philosophical influence has been C.S. Lewis, but it would take a volume to trace it all out.
Suppose you're king of the world. What's your first move?
Make Plato compulsory in schools (also, Chronicles of Narnia).
Favorite curse word?
I eat continuously, so that might be tricky.
If you could ask God one question, what would it be?
No questions; grace to live better.