"You can't pick a set of rules for inquiry and systematically exhaust those alone because the rules themselves will go unchallenged.”
“I actually think that ideally a philosopher, in so far as he inquires, seeks only to live up to his own expectations and answer his own personal questions--he has to cater to his own interests and passions because only thereby will he do worthwhile work; but ideally his inquiry can be made available to others and be useful to them after the fact.”
“It's important to be discerning and not attempt to read loads of books just for the sake of exhibiting one's erudition; but it's important to do oneself the justice of becoming familiar with approaches taken by others to similar problems.”
Brent Vizeau: First off, thank you for taking the time to have this conversation. I want to begin by asking simply, where does philosophy begin? I will preface this by making clear that I don’t mean with Thales or the Greek Miracle. Rather, I mean to ask about the motivation for doing philosophy at all, and for taking the approach/perspective that you do? I want this to be able to go a number of ways, so I will suggest a few ideas to help hone in on the sort of place I think this question could go.
It is often thought that philosophy begins in “wonder” or curiosity. Simon Critchley argues that it begins in disappointment. It has been pointed out to me that Hegel had “one great obsession” that colored his whole approach. Do you think that there is this kind of pre-philosophical element at the beginning of philosophy? If so, what gets you going? What is your experience of first moments/motivations?
J. Glass: The embarrassing answer as to why I got into philosophy--which I'd appreciate you keeping to yourself lest my emo image around the department get further out of hand--is... When I was a kid I was overly afraid of death and thought about it constantly. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life and there seemed to be a lot of pressure to do it right--since I was so obsessed with not dying for nothing. Everything practical seemed trivial on a sort of cosmic scale. Philosophy seemed to be the most promising in that it might allow me insight into life and a life-path.
When I started I was really into philosophy of space and time because it seemed like that could really reveal the secrets of the universe--I was a bit of a positivist. And then I realized that that wouldn't do and some metaphysics--further than space and time--was needed. And then I figured that personal identity would solve my problems: if I knew what exactly a person was--i.e., what I am--then I could figure out what my existential issues were and what I should be doing. If one could know exactly what a person is, one could know exactly what a person should do.
And then finally I figured that the problem was in the 'should' and value seemed to stand at the bottom of all my problems--including my previous fear of death, which had in the meantime mostly been shirked due to my busyness with school and wanting to get a job as a professor eventually.
So all of my philosophical endeavours have been a really selfish, sometimes-government-funded quest to sort out my own existential crises. And even my current research isn't really an exception.
BV: Since you are able to articulate a kind of beginning to your philosophizing, along with how it has sort of morphed and changed toward questions of “value”, do you have a deliberate way of following through? Do you take a systematic or principled approach to tracing out your motivation, obsession, or curiosity? Or is there a reason to avoid such a structured way of going forward? Perhaps, the assumed teleology of the question is problematic?
JG: I think you can only be systematic insofar as you commit to approaching your question in different ways--including your willingness to change the question and have another supersede it when it becomes necessary. You can't pick a set of rules for inquiry and systematically exhaust those alone because the rules themselves will go unchallenged. You also can't commit in advance--as you know--to what an answer will formally look like; so you also can't suppose that any sort of rigid system of inquiry will yield an appropriate answer (and I don't say a 'true' answer); and nor can you suppose that the answer itself will appear systematic and tidy.
BV: What would you say the work of a philosopher consists in? Is it our job to create, polish and present ideas? Is it enough to learn for ourselves? I suppose I’d like to uncover some of the ideas we have about what we ought to be doing. There may be a number of perfectly legitimate occupations of the philosopher, and perhaps a number of illicit ones.
JG: The work of the philosopher is somewhat self-imposed and self-decided. There's perhaps a difference between being a philosopher and being a university professor of philosophy (though the two aren't mutually exclusive). Different obligations come with each. If a philosopher is just an inquirer (a 'bold searcher and researcher' as Zarathustra says) then the only obligations a philosopher has are to that task itself. If one is a government-funded university employee then perhaps some non-philosophical obligations come out of that. I actually think that ideally a philosopher, in so far as he inquires, seeks only to live up to his own expectations and answer his own personal questions--he has to cater to his own interests and passions because only thereby will he do worthwhile work; but ideally his inquiry can be made available to others and be useful to them after the fact.
Philosophical work in itself should be personal though. Given where I suspect philosophical inquiry starts, I suspect one can't really carry out dispassionate, impersonal research. Incidentally, though I'm reluctant to allow for just anything, I'm not sure there are 'illicit' occupations or doings of a philosopher. Saying that a philosopher can act illicitly insofar as he acts like a philosopher seems to suggest predilections, which are incompatible with the open mind required for philosophical work itself.
BV: Would you say that you have a philosophical – in the sense of doing the work of a philosopher – program? For instance, one might have the goal of producing polished ideas to the public based on their philosophical interests. This might mean that one works on writing articles. Maybe you start with a research phase, followed by a write up, followed by a new research phase in a linear fashion. Some might write when the motivation strikes them, but never according to a work program. What do you do? And what would you like to do in this regard?
JG: Not concerning my academic program--which is really just a tool to give me the skills I need to be a philosopher later on--one benefits from doing a lot of research, no doubt. It's important to be discerning and not attempt to read loads of books just for the sake of exhibiting one's erudition; but it's important to do oneself the justice of becoming familiar with approaches taken by others to similar problems.
I happen to really enjoy writing, and I'm able to formulate my thoughts on paper in a way that I could never do in my head alone. But the product--a book or article--to be dispensed to others is never the goal. My philosophical research is for my own personal interest first, and sharing it with others is enjoyable, but secondary. I keep notebooks of little notes and questions as they come to me. I'd write it all up and analyze it in essay form in the end for my own benefit, but it's the insight itself that matters to me. The particular form it takes in the end is less important.
Relatedly, I think philosophy should touch on reality and life in direct ways. I think philosophy's first question should be about what we ought to do and believe--not epistemology or ontology for their own sake, but only the latter in service of the former normative question. As such the real end to philosophical inquiry should be to inform one's actions and way of conducting themselves. It so happens that I need to think things out for myself in order to accept some suggestion as an imperative--but there's a reason not everyone is a philosopher.
BV: I’m wondering about philosophical communities. We work in spatial proximity to other philosophers (or students of philosophy, however you want to demarcate this), but rarely it seems do we work in close intellectual proximity. What do you make of this isolation? Or do you disagree that there is a lot of isolation from others in our field? Would you rather a different kind of community to work in? If so, are you able to begin articulating what it might look like?
JG: By philosophical community and isolation I assume you mean university life and the degree to which philosophers collaborate or interact? There's interaction at conference presentations, as well, insofar as philosophers respond to others' papers and books. Even informally bouncing ideas off my peers and supervisors I have found quite helpful. On the other hand, I don't think really novel ideas are usually reached in close proximity to others.
Subjecting one's ideas to the criticism of others has the benefit of improving one's ideas in ways one could never do alone--just simply for the number of perspectives one can then take advantage of. However, isolation allows one's thoughts to roam with a bit of freedom that I think is conducive to creative thinking--which is probably the single most vital component of philosophical inquiry.