Continuing our series of interviews with new members of staff, we have Dr. Katharine O’Reilly.
Where were you before coming to Kings?
Immediately before coming to King’s I wrote my D.Phil at University College Oxford, but there’s also a sense in which I have been at King’s for nearly a decade. I took the M.Phil Stud. in Ancient Philosophy here from 2010-2014, I have been a GTA from then until now, and in 2018-19, the year I was finishing my D.Phil, I held the Analysis Trust Studentship here in the Department. I’ve also worked on two projects in the Department for a number of years: the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle Project, and the British Journal for the History of Philosophy. As you can probably tell, I’m a very big fan of King’s Philosophy (and now Classics! I’m cross-appointed there).
What got you into philosophy?
When I started University in Canada (University of Toronto) I didn’t really know what philosophy was. But having been at French Immersion schools up until then, it turns out I had been exposed to good deal of philosophy, by way of authors such as Camus and Voltaire. I thought I would be an English major, but in North America you don’t have to declare right away, and can take a breadth of courses in the first year. I signed up to Mark Kingwell’s Introduction to Philosophy because the reading list looked so great. I was immediately hooked.
One focus of your research is prudentialism in the ancient world. Could you tell us what attracted you to this?
My research is broadly interested in ancient moral psychology, and within that realm, I’m particularly interested in prudentialism in the sense of the strategies ancient thinkers and schools recommend for conceiving of and concerning oneself with ones own good. I became interested in this topic by observing the diversity of approaches to thinking about ourselves and our lives in ancient texts. Some suggest we think about our future selves and their good, some our lives as a whole, some our posthumous good, some the recollected goods of our past. I became very interested in the way this kind of autobiographical and prudential thinking underlies the strategies and therapies different figures recommend their followers adopt in order to bring about the right kind of self-interest. So far I have been considering these issue within the thought of Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenistic schools.
You’ve argued that Plato isn’t as strictly opposed to hedonism as he is sometimes made out to be. What have we been getting wrong about him?
Plato is often characterised as decidedly anti-hedonist. He presents Socrates in dialogue with hedonists repeatedly, and that is usually to critique them, and show that the life they thought they could pursue, with pleasure as its goal, isn’t one they can or should pursue successfully. What this reading misses out, I think, is Plato’s deep and sustained interest in pleasure and the role it ought to play in our lives. He is anything but dismissive of hedonist arguments: he takes them seriously again and again, and even devotes an entire late dialogue (the Philebus) to thinking about the nature of pleasure. That doesn’t mean that Plato is a fan of hedonism, or isn’t critical of it, but what I think it does mean is that he is interested enough in the arguments to develop multiple analyses of the psychology of pleasure and pain. If we read Plato as too dismissive of hedonism, we risk missing the insights these discussions provide. So I would rather characterise Plato as being fascinated by pleasure.
Is there a philosophical idea that you endorse that most people don’t but should?
I think the Cyrenaic advice about anticipating future pain is far more effective than most people give it credit for.
Wouldn’t it be better to be a jellyfish?
Not according to Plato (or so I argue here)! But as the deadlines stack up, it is tempting…