What got you into philosophy?
I sort of got into philosophy twice, interrupted by getting into linguistics. The first time was the ‘metaphysical awakening’ that sometimes happens to kids around 11 or 12, when I started asking questions about the existence of God, an afterlife, knowledge of other minds, etc. I started talking about these thoughts to one of the moms who drove my carpool to Hebrew school, and she lent me a copy of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, which gave my questions more structure and direction, and also severely freaked me out when I realised that (spoiler alert) I can’t rule out the possibility that I’m a character in a book.
Then, when I was 13, the first Lord of the Rings movie came out, I read the books, appendices and all, and I fell in love with phonology and historical linguistics. I decided to go to Stanford for university because of its linguistics program. But while I was there, I also took some philosophy classes (you can do that in the U.S.), remembering my old interest in philosophy. One of the first philosophy classes I took was Philosophy & Literature, which was co-taught by Lanier Anderson, and I took Existentialism from him the next term. The Phil & Lit team hired me as ‘program assistant’ for the following year and then Lanier hired me as his research assistant, even though I was still majoring in linguistics and only minoring in philosophy (this is a distinctively American academic situation). The summer after my third year I had a profoundly boring experience as a linguistics research assistant and realised that I preferred doing research in the humanities. Eventually, in my fourth year, I finally decided to declare a second major in philosophy and apply to grad school. I found out afterward that Lanier had been trying to convert me from linguistics to philosophy since the Phil & Lit class in my second year. His influence is a large part of the explanation for my interests in Nietzsche, Kant, and aesthetics/philosophy of art. He also (subtly) nudged me to go to Princeton to work with his PhD advisor, Alexander Nehamas.
Your PhD was on William James and Friedrich Nietzsche, what do you think they have to tell contemporary philosophy?
The first thing they can tell contemporary philosophers is to learn how to write. I often find it difficult to read contemporary philosophy, including a lot of the secondary literature on Nietzsche, because I get stylistically spoiled reading Nietzsche and James all the time.
On a more serious note, something I value in both Nietzsche and James is the breadth of their vision. Many analytic philosophers might perceive it as lack of rigor—that they’re just making oracular pronouncements the way laypeople tend to assume philosophers do, and analytic philosophers often assume continental philosophers do—but both Nietzsche and James recognise that philosophy is about articulating a worldview to live by. Doing philosophy, as opposed to starting a religion or writing metaphysical poetry, requires making that worldview conceptually intelligible and offering reasons for it. But eventually you get down to some fundamental premises that can’t be justified, because they involve different people seeing the world in ways that are so different, it’s as if they’re not even looking at the same world. Not in the fairly trivial way that some people hear ‘laurel’ and others hear ‘yanny’, or some people think cilantro/coriander tastes like soap, but in the more profound way that some people perceive the world as fundamentally dangerous and frightening, while others may perceive it as hospitable, intriguing, absurd, etc. You can present them with the very same information, and they will interpret it differently in light of these ‘priors’ (or ‘primals’, as I heard a psychology researcher call them). We in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy tend to assume that the goal of philosophical reasoning is to present an argument so flawless that everyone is forced to accept its conclusion, but I wonder if that’s a realistic or helpful goal. Nietzsche and James were fine with the thought that only some people would benefit from their ideas. That doesn’t mean they don’t present reasons or make arguments—they do—but they understand that the arguments will only have a pull on people who accept the same fundamental premises.
And obviously I think they had some good arguments against scientism, too, because I wrote my whole dissertation about that. They both thought that science couldn’t answer questions about meaning and ultimate value, but that doesn’t mean (as some science-boosters have claimed) that these are pointless questions. They think that philosophy provides a structured but not ‘scientific’ way to answer those questions.
You have argued that wine can be more than just tasty but actually beautiful. Why do you think this?
The argument of the paper was really just that some wine can be considered beautiful according to Kant’s theory. Kant says that wine can only be considered ‘agreeable’, not ‘beautiful’—that (in the weird Kantian terminology) you can only make empirical, not pure judgments of taste about it—because the experience of flavour consists only of sensory ‘matter’, while pure judgments of taste (judgments of beauty) can only be made about the ‘form’ of an object. For free beauties, which aren’t supposed to be anything in particular (as opposed to adherent beauties, which have to conform to a concept), the Kantian form is spatiotemporal structure. The argument was that wine, or rather the experience of wine, does have form in the Kantian sense: it has a duration, and a structure over that duration. It is, to borrow Kant’s description of music, ‘a play of sensations in time’. I also argue that what wine experts mean by ‘structure’—roughly, the ratio of certain chemical components of wine (acid, alcohol, glycerine, sugar, and tannins)—also corresponds to an aspect of Kantian form: it’s experienced as a ratio of the intensive magnitudes of the sensations produced by those chemical components. A wine can be judged beautiful, then, if its form—its development over the length of the engagement with it and the way it balances its sensory components—produces the kind of pleasure that Kant describes as the response to beauty.
One of the more helpful and less idiosyncratically Kantian aspects of Kant’s analysis of the judgment of beauty is that it involves the ‘free play of sensibility and understanding’—which, yes, is put in terms of Kant’s weird faculty psychology, but you can translate it into something quite familiar: having a sensory and/or imaginative experience that engages your intellect, but that you can’t easily put into a conceptual box and be done with. Beauty is something that rewards continued engagement: it’s an object that yields fresh nuances of insight and delight every time you return to it, whether it’s a book, a symphony, a painting, a park, a cathedral… Obviously it’s hard to do that with a wine, because if you ‘return’ to it after the same interval that you might with a book you reread or a place you revisit, it’s going to be quite literally a different object. But a wine that I would call ‘beautiful’ is one that gives me something to think about while I’m tasting it; it has complexities that take a while to unpack, and I have to keep going back to it to identify the various interwoven strands.
Is there a philosophical idea that you endorse that most people don’t but should?
I’m more of a fan of Pragmatism than most analytic philosophers are, I think, though there’s been renewed interest in it—not always under that description, because some of the people who talk about ‘moral encroachment’ in epistemology aren’t familiar with classical American Pragmatism and they’re kind of reinventing the wheel. There’s this sort of annoying tendency—maybe not specific to analytic philosophy, though of course that’s where I find it because that’s where I hang out—to say that some school of thought, like Pragmatism or Logical Positivism, has been decisively ‘refuted’. Maybe we’re back to the philosophies-as-worldviews thing, because I think (along with William James) that broad philosophical programs like those aren’t really the kind of thing that can be refuted with a single argument or even a barrage of them. They’re not reducible to collections of propositions, or even specific arguments leading to propositions; they’re a stance toward the world, which builds in a certain amount of flexibility and resilience. They can undermine themselves, perhaps, but only when the people who were holding to them come to find them untenable for intrinsic reasons—because they don’t work as a tool for interpreting and navigating the world—not for extrinsic reasons like changes in academic fashion (if, say, it becomes impossible to get a job or endure the social environment in the profession while openly holding a certain kind of view).
I also have a slightly unusual attitude toward scepticism (having moved on from my 12-year-old freak-out about being a character in a book). I don’t think sceptical arguments can be either dismissed or refuted; I think they’re unavoidable and that’s funny. It’s a feature of the absurdity of the human condition. There are a lot of things that we have to ignore most of the time in order to get along in the world (not least the fact of our own mortality), but you’re forced to acknowledge them some of the time, and you’re self-deceived if you deny that there’s a problem at all. I don’t really consider myself a sceptic, though. It’s more that I apply existentialism to the epistemic as well as the ethical domain. The world doesn’t furnish us with certainties in either domain, but we need something to hold onto; we have to rely on our own wit and creativity, but be ready to abandon one creation for another if the old one can’t sustain us anymore. That ability to do without certainties is one of Nietzsche’s ideals: ‘one could conceive of such a pleasure and power of self-determination, such a freedom of the will that the spirit would take leave of all faith and every wish for certainty, being practiced in maintaining himself on insubstantial ropes and possibilities and dancing even near abysses’ (Gay Science 347). That’s a specific kind of scepticism, which Nietzsche contrasts with the scepticism of the disillusioned believer who isn’t willing to trust in anything again because the loss of faith was so shattering, and with a Pyrrhonian-type scepticism (on a certain reading) that suspends judgment about everything to avoid the anxiety involved in making commitments, which is a type of extreme aversion to doxastic risk. (All respect to Sextus Empiricus, though; he was inventive and hilarious.)