Before coming to King’s I worked at various universities across Europe. I was in the Philosophy Section at the University of Copenhagen for six years. I then joined the Jean Nicod Institute at the Department of Cognitive Studies at École Normale Supérieure, Paris, for a year. Most recently, before coming to King’s, I was a member of the LOGOS group at the University of Barcelona.
What will you be teaching this term?
This term I am teaching Neuroscience and the Mind, which is an introduction to philosophy of mind tailored specifically to students following the BSc in Neuroscience or other undergraduate courses in the Health Schools.
How did you get into philosophy?
At secondary school! My school generally encouraged reflection: lessons in “Scripture” were built into our curriculum and would involve the teacher leading a kind of seminar discussing concepts like justice, love, time, etc. as they are raised in various ancient texts, such as the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. I had a fantastic English teacher, Katharine Watson, who took it upon herself to teach philosophy at AS and A-level. It was her first time teaching the material, which must have been a challenge, but I only realised this later on, as she did such a fantastic job introducing us to the distinctive framing and treatment of philosophical problems in academic philosophy.
In a recent article you argue that we can combine multiple first person perspectives under one unified perspective. What do you think is minimally required for a perspective to pertain?
Well, most of my work on the notion of perspective is in the context of thinking about perceptual experience. In that context, whenever there’s a perspectivally structured experience, there’s a perspective – for a perspectival structure is, I take it, an organisation of content determined by a perspective. That’s a slightly uninteresting answer though. Perhaps more interesting is to think about perspective more broadly. After all, being perspectivally structured is a property not only possessed by perceptual experiences. Here I am interested in the kinds of perspective structuring images and various other ways of representing time and space. Indeed, in a broader sense of the notion of a perspective, it characterises any representation which is structured in relation to some privileged something, such as a theory, a group-identity, or a set of political or social ideas.
How central is the notion of a perspective to your research?
Well my interest in perspective is really a part of my interest in problems to do with self-consciousness. Take, for instance, the problem elusiveness: self-consciousness is supposed to involve a special relation to oneself as a subject of thought and experience; but how is it that we are able to think about or experience that which is thinking the thought or having the experience? I am interested in the viability of an embodied approach here, according which each subject of experience is a special kind of object, a conscious, thinking body. If we assume this and we grant the obvious fact that we do experience our bodies, it would seem, then, that we have an obvious response to the problem. So my interest in perspective is really an interest in what is right (or wrong) with an account along these lines, one which appeals to the perspectival structure of perceptual experience as a means by which we can be aware of ourselves as embodied.
Your research goes beyond conceptual investigations and include a wide of pool of collaborations. Can you tell us about teh work you have done with the artist Mariam Zakarian?
Mariam was involved in a workshop that I organised at the University of Copenhagen on virtual reality (VR) technology. VR presents the promise of otherwise impossible forms of experience, unconstrained by the bounds of physical reality, stretching our current understanding of the limits of experience. I wanted to ground the theoretical discussion properly in the subject matter, so I worked with Kasper Hornbæk and Aske Mottelson at the Computer Science department to set up a demonstration area where participants could experience various virtual worlds for themselves. (Mariam’s demonstration was part of her Amaryllis series: http://www.amaryllisvr.com/ ). I think that the experience of VR, especially the experience of its contents as plausible, are a great example of how some of our experiences are partly self-constructed, in virtue of our mental activity transforming incoming sensory experience to form a state of imaginative perception. I think that this will allow us to reconsider a wide range of illusions as really cases of imagining sensorially present objects to be things that they are not.
I’ve been at King’s for a while now, but in different guises. I did an MA and my PhD in the Department of Philosophy and have more recently been a Visiting Research Fellow. As a VRF, I’ve been running a programme of philosophy courses in London prisons, for which King’s has provided the lion’s share of funding. This year I’ve also been working as an Associate Tutor at Birkbeck. Before all this, I studied an MPhil in history and philosophy of science and a BA in chemical engineering at the University of Cambridge. I also worked as a teaching assistant in engineering and materials science at Queen Mary University of London.
What will you be teaching this year?
I’m officially in two Departments at King’s (Philosophy and Classics), so I’m running courses in both. In Philosophy, I’m teaching Greek Philosophy I – a first-year module that introduces students to ancient Greek philosophy. We’ll be studying a fairly broad range of thinkers: some Presocratics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and a number of neo-Pythagorean women philosophers. I’m also co-convening Political and Economic Philosophy, a first-year course primarily for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics students. For this, I’m teaching 5 weeks of contemporary political philosophy. We’ll be getting to grips with several key political ideals, such as justice, liberty, equality, and democracy. In Classics, I’m teaching Introduction to Ancient Philosophy (another introduction to ancient Greek and Roman philosophy), as well as a third-year module on ancient Greek political philosophy. Most of this is devoted to Plato’s Republic and its reception, but we’ll also be considering earlier political thought in the epic poets (Homer and Hesiod), the historians (Herodotus and Thucydides), and Athenian politicians such as Solon and Pericles.
How did you get into philosophy?
Slowly. I was introduced to philosophy at high school by a religious studies teacher who tended to emphasise the philosophical puzzles at the heart of the subject. Lots of our classes consisted of discussion, which really brought things to life for me. But it wasn’t until after studying chemical engineering that I started reading philosophy again, as an MPhil student in history and philosophy of science. Here I did a little philosophy of science and mind, but was really fascinated by ancient Greek science and mathematics. Somewhat circuitously, and encouraged by my supervisor at the time, I started reading more ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle. I really enjoyed the mixture of philosophy, textual interpretation, and history that’s involved in ancient Greek philosophy. I eventually came to the Department of Philosophy at King’s to properly convert to philosophy and was lucky enough to do my PhD here as well. Both my identity as a philosopher and my sense of what it means to do philosophy was really formed at King’s, where I met and was supported by a great community of graduates and staff.
Your doctorate focused on Aristotle’s epistemology. Can you give us the 2 minute elevator pitch summarizing your contribution.
My doctoral research focused on motivating and explaining two ideas. The first is that Aristotle’s epistemology is value-driven, in so far as Aristotle is principally interested in accounting for epistemic states that are ideal. So, for example, when he gives an account of knowledge (epistêmê) in the Posterior Analytics, he is giving an account of an ideal form of knowledge. As such, whether or not Aristotle provides a satisfactory account will depend primarily on whether he describes an epistemic state that is in fact valuable. The second idea is that Aristotle explains such value with recourse to virtue: ideal epistemic states are valuable in part because they are intellectual virtues (an idea prominent in the Nicomachean Ethics). But then we’re left with the further question: why are intellectual virtues valuable? What makes them worth pursuing?
Focusing in particular on the virtue of theoretical wisdom (sophia), I argue that intellectual virtue is valuable because of its transformative nature: in order to have the virtue of theoretical wisdom, it is necessary to understand the goodness of the proper objects of theoretical wisdom (theoretical truths) such that one develops a love for the proper activity of theoretical wisdom (contemplation). This love is in turn required for contemplation to be a constitutive part of the wise person’s flourishing (eudaimonia). Theoretical wisdom thus transforms contemplation and its proper objects into something good for the wise person.
This, it seems to me, is a strange view: Aristotle not only thinks that some theoretical truths are good, but also that they are good for us to know! Nonetheless, I do think it is Aristotle’s view. I also argue that some recent neo-Aristotelian virtue epistemologies end up in a mess when they try to explain epistemic value, because they abandon these peculiar aspects of Aristotle’s account. Indeed, it’s precisely the goodness of certain truths that ultimately grounds the value of theoretical intellectual virtue on Aristotle’s view. So, one of my main take home messages is that, if you want to be an Aristotelian virtue epistemologist, you might have to buy into some of his more peculiar ideas!
How do you balance the intellectual with the practicalities of daily life?
I’m not sure whether I do! My habit is to write to-do list upon to-do list, and set loud reminders on my phone to make sure I don’t forget anything essential. To be honest, though, none of this works particularly well. I tend to do all of the practical things I have to do in a frantic rush, just before I really have no more time to do them!
You won an award for your contribution to the ‘philosophy in prisons’ project. How did you get into that and are you still involved in delivering programmes?
I started work on the prisons project back in 2015. I was on a period of interruption from my PhD, in part because I was feeling pessimistic about the worth of academic philosophy. MM McCabe suggested that I try teaching philosophy in prison (I think she had recently met people working on the excellent Princeton Teaching Initiative). If I remember right, the rough idea was to try to rediscover the worth of philosophy by doing it in what was (for me) a new and radically different context. I was immediately really excited about this and, with MM and Bill Brewer’s support, started contacting prisons. We ended up having a particularly warm reception from staff at HMP Belmarsh, so I extended my interruption to a full year and set about preparing a 10-week pilot course. Since then, the project has really blossomed.
With my two main collaborators – Andy West and Andrea Fassolas – we’ve delivered a host of courses at several London prisons. The last courses were back in 2019, at Belmarsh and Wandsworth. We also delivered one at Downview, our first at a women’s prison, which was funded by Philosophy in Prison – a charity established by King’s philosophers MM McCabe and Bill Brewer, along with their colleague, Tom Harrison. I had been planning three new courses with the charity for summer 2020, all of which had to be indefinitely postponed in the wake of the pandemic. Face-to-face education in prisons halted in March 2020, with prisoners spending the vast majority of time in their cells. Unfortunately, prison regimes are still severely limited and it’s not possible for external educational providers to come into prisons at the moment. In response, I’ve been working with Philosophy in Prison and a number of philosophers on a series of videos in lieu of in person teaching, all of which can be freely accessed and broadcast by prisons. I’m also co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Prison Education and Reentry on philosophy education in the prison context, with Kirstine Szifris (MMU).
Working in prison is extremely rewarding and enriching. In addition to getting to know lots of really interesting people and have engaging philosophical conversations, my experiences have also been philosophically enriching, making me think harder, for example, about the nature and value of epistemic virtues such as open-mindedness. Our students also report a whole variety of benefits, from being empowered with the confidence to re-engage in formal learning and education, to a richer understanding of both themselves and other people, to a sense of community amongst peers that they otherwise lacked in prison. On the other hand, this project has also given me some understanding of the very real, problematic, and damaging aspects of our prisons. In spite of the hard work of many prison managers and staff, our prisons often have people living in incredibly poor conditions, where prisoners are frequently unsafe and have little opportunity to craft and live meaningful lives. This is so much the case that the mere task of teaching in prison, let alone being imprisoned there, can often be upsetting and unsettling.
What is the puzzle that keeps you awake at night?
I’m stuck on a particular puzzle about the value of knowledge. Aristotle draws an apparently strict divide between theoretical and practical knowledge. What’s more, he sometimes claims that theoretical knowledge is useless. One way of thinking about this is that theoretical knowledge has no practical value. This raises an obvious question: what’s the value of theoretical knowledge, if it’s practically useless? Note that we need not buy into Aristotle’s particular characterisation of theoretical knowledge for this puzzle to get off the ground. All we need is the idea that there is some type of knowledge that has value independent of its practical usefulness, e.g. knowledge of astrophysics, which clearly has practical pay-offs but plausibly has value independent of such utility. So, what is that value, exactly? Is it a peculiarly epistemic value, e.g. in so far as grasping truth is of epistemic value? This seems likely right to me, but I don’t think it goes far enough. I don’t think it’s sufficient to explain, for example, the fact that people build whole lives around theoretical pursuits. Alternatively, might we think that theoretical knowledge has some kind of non-practical, prudential value? For example, is attaining this kind of knowledge somehow related to human flourishing? Perhaps, but it’s really unclear how we should spell this out – that’s what I’m puzzling over at the moment!
If not philosophy, then what?
That’s a difficult question. If I’m not doing philosophy, I tend to gravitate as far from cerebral activities as possible. I really enjoy how sport absorbs my focus – running, climbing, cycling, and hiking are favourites. I also took up skateboarding during lockdown, though I’m not sure that will last; I don’t think I’ve got the nerve for it, plus I bruise way easier than I used to! I also enjoy the usual things: music, cooking, video games and the like. If I stopped being a career-philosopher, then I don’t know what I’d do. I have the occasional fantasy of brewing beer – perhaps I could recollect my past life as a chemical engineer!
Prof. Maria Alvarez recently appeared on the podcast Aleks Listens, here. Over the course of the interview, she discusses being Head of Department, what it means to be an agent, and the importance of talking with people who have different views.
If you are interested in hearing a thoughtful discussion of some important issues, give it a listen.
The interview begins about 10 minutes from the beginning or 1 hour 8 mins from the end (depending on the direction you are coming from).
Before coming to King’s I was a postdoc in Political Theory at Free University Berlin, having completed my PhD at Humboldt University in Political Philosophy the year before.
How did you get into philosophy?
By accident. I moved from politics to political theory to political philosophy/feminist philosophy and here I am. More substantially: I got passionate about philosophy because it helps me to make sense of the social world and it allows me to get a better understanding of the political struggles of our times.
You’ve written about the exploitation of emotional labour in hierarchical social relations. Could you tell us a bit about this?
For me, exploitation is intimately linked to power. On my understanding, one party exploits another if her position of power allows her to gain benefits from another party that she could not have gotten absent the power relation. Gender specific exploitation draws attention to the power that comes with being positioned in hierarchical gender relations and the way in which those in positions of power (mainly, though not exclusively men) are able to gain benefits in virtue of their social position. What I take gender specific exploitation to consists in is an unequal flow of care giving and emotional support from women to men and a systematically inadequate valuation of the energy and time it takes to provide this. To illustrate this: I think that the fact that women disproportionally provide emotional labour both in the public and the private sphere constitutes a case of gender specific exploitation. Women’s social positions in hierarchical gender relations make them structurally vulnerable to disproportionally provide emotional labour. Assumptions about women’s ‘natural propensity to care’ or an understanding of emotional labour as a ‘labour of love’ mean that this type of labour is often not recognized as labour and as a result not (or not adequately) valued and compensated for.
Why do you think traditional analyses of exploitation are unable to capture distinctively gendered forms exploitation?
Dominant accounts of exploitation fail to capture gender specific exploitation for two reasons in particular: first, they often exclude the structural conditions under which specific interactions take place, gender being one of them. But social position matters with regards to making individuals exploitable in the first place. Accounts of exploitation that explicitly focus on structural conditions, most notably Marxist accounts of exploitation are prone to the old Feminist Marxist charge of prioritizing class over gender (or race, sexuality…). Another reason for why dominant accounts tend to fail to capture gender specific exploitation is their focus on commodity exploitation. Yet, many of the exploitative interactions that feminists are concerned about, e.g. the unequal provision of care, happen outside of the market and thereby fall out of the scope of exploitation conceived as commodity exploitation.
Is there a philosophical idea that you endorse that most people don’t but should?
As a political theorist/philosopher and a feminist, I think my relationship to philosophy is to some extent instrumental. I use philosophy as a toolbox to think about the different ways in which our social order fails allow people to live even minimally decent lives, e.g. by depriving them of access to affordable housing or healthcare, by stigmatizing members of marginalized groups, or by distributing care-giving unequally. Philosophy has a crucial role to play in drawing out normative conflicts, clarifying values and providing resources to change our social practices. That philosophy should move beyond interpreting the world to changing it is no news. Yet, it does not seem to have gained widespread support. I think it should.
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.)
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…
After finishing my PhD at UC Berkeley, I spent a few years at UCL as a teaching fellow, and some time at Umeå University in Sweden—which by the way is a great place to do philosophy—as a research fellow.
What got you into philosophy?
When I first started as an undergraduate, I thought I’d do a degree in biology. I took a logic course in my first year, though, and that changed everything.
You’ve written about the philosophical implications of language death. What is lost when we lose a language?
There are too many things to list! In the stuff I’ve written on this question, I’ve tried to call attention to some that I think are both particularly important and a bit hard to see. For example, while philosophers mostly reject the idea that there are things you can say in one language that you can’t say in any other, I think there is space open for us to think that there are things you can do in one language that you can’t do in any other. This means that when a language is lost, so is a class of possible actions. Since I think the space of possible things we can do amounts, in a fairly direct way, to the space of people we can be, this is a problematic loss.
Why do you think philosophers have traditionally overlooked this issue?
To be honest, I have often wondered this myself. I imagine it has something to do with the fact that you can more-or-less get by these days speaking only English, and probably something to do with the fact that philosophers tend to think of languages as more-or-less interchangeable signaling systems.
Is there a philosophical idea that you endorse that most people don’t but should?
I’d have to say metasemantic pluralism.
You can find out more about Ethan’s work on his website
King’s PhD candidate Vanessa Brassey interviews artists on the CPVA website.
Here’s an excerpt from an interview with artist Nicola Durvasula
I’ve always been deeply interested in the nature of line. For instance, what went on in the head and/or heart of the very first man (or woman) –the Caveperson – when they created a line which had the ability to ‘stir’ another? I think this is fundamental to what drawing is, or can be. The way in which I draw is visceral, immediate and there is a certain sensuality in the curvilinear qualities of the lines. I’m quite intrigued by the idea that these could actually be connected to our sense of movement or other sensory capacities. That seems to make sense on one level. On another, it’s not as if I consciously hear sounds when I’m drawing.
Five Books interviews David Papineau on his recommended readings on Philosophy and Sport. Of course, David has recently published his own work on the topic, Knowing the Score (2017), but here are his other picks: