In August 2022, Anna Day, Eloise Hickey, James Cafferky, and Mark Rothery sat down for a conversation with Agnes Callard in Melbourne for UPJA’s Conversations from the Region, an ongoing series of discussions with philosophers from, or working in, Australasia. The segment explores how people become philosophers and how philosophers work, giving our audiences a better idea of the work that academic philosophers do. Agnes, an American philosopher based at the University of Chicago, was at the time a campus visitor at the Australian National University.
James: Thank you so much for joining us. Could you introduce yourself and your philosophical interests?
My name is Agnes Callard. I’m a philosopher. I teach at the University of Chicago. I was trained first as a classicist, in Greek and Latin, literature, history, linguistics, etc., but then I switched to philosophy. My interests in philosophy are roughly fifty–fifty: in ancient Greek philosophy (especially Plato and Aristotle), and then contemporary ethics, moral psychology, theory of rationality, theory of emotions—that sort of stuff. I enjoy writing about all of those topics. But then I also enjoy the fact that when I do public-philosophy-type writing, I can write about things I don’t know anything about. And that lets me branch out into new authors, new topics.
James: A number of advice columnists are philosophers, like Kwame Anthony Appiah for the New York Times and Eleanor Gordon-Smith for the Guardian, writing broadly in a similar way. Do you feel like you’re well-positioned to offer advice based on your philosophical background?
Well, I have a sort of public philosophy column that I’ve been writing for The Point Magazine, which is a culture and philosophy and literature magazine that comes out of Chicago. And one of my columns is called ‘Against Advice’. In there, I argue that you should not give advice. I distinguish advice from two similar ways we try to help people, namely through mentoring and instruction. And I say: those things can be useful, but advice generally isn’t. I was very pleased to learn that there have been some studies on advice-giving since I wrote that piece. One of them was actually co-authored by a woman at the University of Chicago, Ayelet Fishbach. She studied, I think it was study-advice, in a junior high (maybe more than one) in America, and they found that those who received advice did not improve, but the givers improved. That completely corresponds with my intuitions about advice, that advice is somewhat self-serving: it makes people feel like they have knowledge and it also makes them confident. But usually—very, very often, especially in the world of public intellectual advice —we don’t really know what we’re talking about. We don’t actually know what would be good for the very particular situation that the person we’re advising is in.
Eloise: Is there a distinction between philosophers or experts giving advice, and friends giving advice to each other?
That’s not how I would draw the distinction. I would draw it based on whether the person knows you. So I think you can get advice from people who know you. And I think you can get instruction, which is from people who don’t know you. Instruction is when people tell you what the means are to achieve a well-specified end. So if I’m wondering how to get to Melbourne Airport, you guys could give me instructions about that, even if you don’t know me that well. So I think we can give instructions to people in an anonymous interaction. When friends give each other advice, I would mostly call that mentoring rather than advice.
James: What first drew you to philosophy?
In these sorts of stories, there are multiple beginning points. As a high-school student, I did high-school debating. And it was humbling, because at Lincoln Douglas debate, there would be a resolution, something like ‘that begging on public transit systems is a justified infringement of the individual’s right to privacy’. That’s one I remember. So you then have to argue both sides of the resolution. You can hear how confusing a task that is. Because you have to consider is there even a right to privacy? Is there an infringement of it? And then is it justified at the level at which you’re supposed to be arguing? So you would argue both sides, and you’d be in a competition, and the judge would decide who won. I became obsessed with debating. I was super into it, I put tonnes of effort into it, I became the captain of my team, but I wasn’t good at it. I didn’t win. I enjoyed it and I was constantly looking for ways to improve. Some people would use this thing called ‘philosophy’ in their speeches; that is, they would have quotes. So I’m like: ‘I’m gonna get some of this ‘philosophy’ and put it in my talks, and then maybe I’ll start winning’. I went to Barnes & Noble and there was a philosophy section, and I just bought one of each philosophy book. I thought, funny that some of these people wrote two books—you know—why would I need two books by Plato? I’m just going to get one. So I just got one book of every philosopher (and luckily it was a small section…). I read them all, and I thought that they were awesome. These were good debates. And then I got to Kant’s Groundwork. I thought: okay, so this guy answered all the questions and solved the problems, he finished this philosophy thing. And I was, in fact, a little puzzled that they kept going with philosophy after Kant because I thought that he was right about everything. So as a debater, I then only quoted Kant and I quoted him a lot for both sides. I still have this version, my version of the Groundwork, in which I’ve underlined which lines are good for quoting in your speech. I became obsessed with Kant, and with talking about Kant to other people, but I was a high schooler and people had not heard of Kant.
When I got to the University of Chicago as an undergraduate, people asked, ‘What do you want to study?’ and I said, ‘I want to be a physics major. But I also want to study this guy named Immanuel Kant. He was a philosopher and…’ and they’re like, ‘Yeah, we know Kant’. That was when I realized I wasn’t the first to discover him, which was really a bit of a letdown because I sort of thought I was going to show the world this great thinker, but the world had already discovered him before me. But I did study a lot of Kant in college, and I learned that he wrote other books besides this tiny one. So that was my main throughline to philosophy. On the other hand, I didn’t major in philosophy in college. And I didn’t go to a philosophy PhD program right away. So there are more twists and turns in the story. But I suppose if I had to find the earliest origin point it would be that.
James: Could you tell us about your most memorable class or lecture and so on from when you were an undergrad?
I did a lot of math and physics at the beginning. Then I switched-over and I became interested in the classics, a lot of Greek and Latin. I had so many memorable classes. My interest in math and physics, as a high-school student, had come from the fact that there are definite answers there. I had a lot of trouble in high school, figuring out what teachers wanted for me in the more humanities and history-style classes. I would write a paper and it would be all wrong, but I didn’t understand why it was wrong. And I was thinking: I guess you just have to make it up, and I didn’t know what they wanted me to make up. So I was somewhat cynical.
At Chicago, I was exposed to this environment where there were real questions that we could ask and talk about and inquire into. That was really a revelation to me. I then thought if there are truths over here, these are more interesting than the ones on the physics side, so I’ll head over this way. And, even if I can’t speak to the sort of philosophy department culture, I would say it was a very intellectual culture at the University of Chicago. So everyone understands themselves as an intellectual. That’s how the students see themselves. And it can be pretentious and annoying, but it can also be pretty awesome that people hold themselves to that standard, where it would never be like ‘Oh, what are you doing trying to have an intellectual conversation with me’, it’s like of course, this is exactly what I was planning to do too because we’re all intellectuals. So I really love that. And, you know, it wasn’t weird or nerdy to spend all your time in the library, we just talked about books and stuff. For me, it was a very comfortable intellectual culture that I hadn’t encountered before.
Eloise: Now you are teaching at Chicago. Do you think that the student culture has changed much since you were there?
Yes. Really the biggest difference is that students these days are way, way, way more stressed than ever. They’re also better. In the year that I entered the university, Chicago accepted something like seventy-something percent of applicants. These days, we accept maybe six percent of applicants. So the university has come up in the world. I wasn’t the greatest student—I wouldn’t get into the university nowadays. Someone who went through high school the way I went through high school would not be accepted. So we are attracting a higher class of students. But they’re more competitive. They’re students who have been through the wringer, they’ve been through the high-school pressure-cooker system. And they’re very stressed. They’re very worried about their grades. They’re worried about what’s going to happen when they graduate. Will they get jobs? And is this major okay, in terms of getting a job? Those were questions I did not ask myself. I was much more oblivious about those things.
Eloise: Do you have any theory for why it might be the case that students are more stressed, assuming that it’s not just a Chicago problem but a more global phenomenon?
Yeah, I think that stress levels have risen in many of the areas that I have contact with, not just in the undergraduate world, but in the graduate philosophy world, in the professional philosophy world. I sometimes call this the ‘distant signals problem’. Suppose that you and I are having an interaction, and suppose you want me to approve of you, or to like you, or to accept you, or to think well of you, in this interaction. It would be very natural for you to be interacting with me with that purpose. But suppose instead that what you wanted was for me to report on that interaction to someone else, and then maybe for them to pass it on to another person, and so on. You’re actually sending a signal that is supposed to go really far. I think that students at a younger and younger age are trying to send more and more distant signals. So now a student, even in high school, is thinking ‘I’m taking a chemistry class or something in high school, but if I don’t do well on this test, then I might not get a good grade, and then I might not get into AP Chemistry when I’m a senior, then I might not get into my college, and then, I won’t be able to catch up’. So they’re thinking really far down the line. They’re thinking about the value of their signals, these sorts of signals which you can send really far. The worry over these signals is not very conducive to happiness or education, unfortunately. There’s just been a generalized pressure to be sending those distant signals. That’s my theory.
Eloise: You didn’t start out studying philosophy as an undergraduate. What was your understanding of philosophy at that time?
It’s a little hard to remember… I think I was intimidated. I wasn’t sure that I could do it. I didn’t quite know how you just come up with answers to questions. I could see how once you had an answer, you would defend it. I was good at arguments. But I would think, how do you decide which of these answers to pick in the first place? And somehow it was easier for me to sink my teeth into literature. I could adopt the vantage point of the characters and I could think through a problem situation in a concrete way that was more intuitive to me. In a way, I always wanted to do philosophy. I loved philosophy without really understanding what it would be like to do it.
Eloise: Funnily enough, we’re asking you for advice now. Do you have any advice—or words of instruction—for undergraduate philosophy students?
I honestly don’t. That is, I think that what will be good for students depends on their circumstances. But I can tell you something that I’ve found through mentoring, something I’ve thought was appropriate for a number of students, though not all. Recently, I’ve found that a lot of my students have become more atomized and alienated from one another through the pandemic. We have been back in person for a little while, but what hasn’t really come back are student organizations and philosophy clubs, and things like that. Those organizations relied on that hand-down system where the seniors would hand the mantle over to the next group. So the advice could be: find a way to connect with other students and do philosophy together. A view that I have about philosophy (I’m writing a book right now to defend this view) is that it only appears that you could do philosophy by yourself, that it’s a bit of an illusion—you actually can’t do it by yourself, you need other people. And the earlier you are on your philosophical journey, the more you need those to be living breathing people in the same physical space as you.
Anna: We were wondering, what do you think the defining features are, if there are any, of Australasian philosophy or the philosophical culture in Australasia, as opposed to the rest of the world?
I don’t feel very knowledgeable here… what I can give you are my biases, so here they are. One is you are sort of known as being—what’s the word… hard-nosed. There are touchy-feely parts of philosophy, and then they’re are tougher parts of philosophy. You guys like the tougher parts but the not touchy-feely parts. Although I think this may have changed somewhat. But, for example, there’s a lot of logic, you have a lot of logicians here. And when I was in New Zealand, too, I noticed how many logicians there are there relative to how many we tend to have in the US.
You don’t have much history of philosophy is another of my biases, whether it’s true or not. And it seems like insofar as there’s an interest in ethics [in Australasia], it’s going to be carried out a little bit in the direction—or it has historically—of a more empiricist approach. Or… a lot of metaethics gets done rather than ethics. And then I associate David Lewis with Australia, even though he’s not Australian, but he had this really tight connection with philosophers here. So there’s this Australian metaphysics, although that is more associated specifically with ANU. But there is Frank Jackson, David Lewis, that sort of crowd, where there is a lot of weight placed on clarity of expression and simplicity. A good way to think about it is if you think about the analytic–continental divide. Some parts of analytic philosophy have quite a bit of overlap with continental stuff and, I would say, you guys are way over the end that has almost no overlap. That might be the most succinct way to put it.
Anna: You said in an interview once that classicists have fewer ideas, but when they do, they are good and perfect from the beginning. Which ideas come to mind when you say this?
Oh, that’s a hard one. I wasn’t thinking about any particular famous classicists, more about my cohort in grad school. My best friend is a classicist, and so she’ll have this careful exploration of the concept of ambition in the Roman period. There would be all this research and legwork that goes into it, such that by the time she has something like a thesis, it just seems sort of right or almost obvious. And there’s a kind of carelessness about philosophers where we’ll just come up with a theory on the basis of nothing really, and then you shoot it down. So that’s the ethos of research versus coming up with anything you feel like and then waiting for someone to refute it.
Mark: You already walked us through how you switched from physics and maths to classics, and then to philosophy. Did you have any doubts along the way that you were pursuing what you really wanted, or worries that you were spending too much time at university?
It’s so funny because the answer is no. I took 10 years in grad school, which now is considered… well it’s not considered, it’s impossible. My department won’t let you take 10 years. I switched programs, and I switched what I was doing as an undergrad. It’s hard for me to convey how little I planned, and how little I worried about what would happen to me next. I would only think ‘what do I want to be reading next year?’ That’s as far ahead as I would be thinking. In my last year as a classics student, I was reading tons of Kant and Freud. And I remember my teachers—they were so nice and so supportive of me, but they would say you really can’t study Kant and Freud, you’re a classicist, they’re just not at the right time. And, so I’m like, I guess I gotta do something else. But even there, I was like, let me try that for a year. So I went to Princeton (for a year to the class with David Lewis on time travel, it was awesome) just to try philosophy out, just to see if I liked it. I didn’t have these doubts. As far as I recall I never had complicated thoughts about why this was actually a good plan or not. I always just thought, well, if it doesn’t work, I’ll just figure something else out later. But also, on a day-to-day level now, I rarely have the feeling that I’m doing the right thing. There’s that feeling ‘I need to be doing X’—I need to be writing this paper, and I need to be reading this book. I have this feeling of uncertainty all the time. I spent several hours today just answering emails, and I was thinking, is this what I should be doing with this time? But I don’t ratiocinate about it, because I don’t expect to have that feeling of knowing the answer. And I think that is a really interesting and deep fact about human life—that you rarely know that you’re doing the right thing. I don’t mean morally right, I mean using your time well, engaged in the thing you should be engaged in. I do feel that there’s this social conceit that we all walk around saying, we know what we’re doing: I’m going to work now, I’m going to go to the gym to exercise… We all have schedules and rituals, and all the time we think that maybe I should be doing a different thing. That’s just constant and persistent. And I’ve always had that feeling of I don’t know that this is the right thing. So I probably had that even as I was studying stuff. But I didn’t have a very high expectation of myself that I would ever know that this was the thing I should be doing. And there’ll definitely be lots of other stuff to be interested in. And so my standards are lower for that kind of certainty.
Anna: That’s encouraging! Where did the phrase ‘Kantistotle’ originate?
It’s modeled on ‘Kripkenstein’—this idea that there are these thoughts in Kripke that overlap with Wittgenstein. It’s not just Kripke’s interpretation of Wittgenstein, nor is it just Kripke with nothing of Wittgenstein in it, but it’s Kripke-flavoured, let’s say. I feel like my own department has this focus on the parts of Kant and Aristotle that overlap. Maybe the view of the kind of people most on the inside of this will be, ‘Oh, they just agree about all these things’, which I think is pushing it a little too far. That’s like saying, Kripke was just right about Wittgenstein. But it is, I think, an interesting and fruitful thing to look at these two philosophers, who are often placed in opposition to one another and ask, in what ways can we actually read them as thinking along the same lines?
Mark: This is more of a fashion question—you have a very distinctive aesthetic and it’s very different to the brown-tweed stereotype of philosophers. Is there a statement that you are making with this style? Maybe start by describing your current outfit, so we can get an idea of what your aesthetic is like.
I’m currently wearing a denim dress, with a beetles shirt under it—not Beatles the band, beetles the bugs. I got the dress just the day before yesterday in Melbourne, the brand is Obus, it’s a colourful denim dress with mushrooms on it.
There are a lot of levels to how I dress, in terms of how it does send out a signal. It began well before I became interested in public philosophy or anything like that, and before I knew that many people would see it. At the fundamental level, it is just that I like visual complexity. What we see, the proper sensibles in the visual realm, is colour. That is, colour is the first and foremost object of sight. And we see things because we see the colour of those things. But specifically, it’s not just colours, it’s colour differences. In the Meno, Socrates says shape is that alone of all existing things that always follows colour, and reading that and thinking about it as an undergraduate really, literally, shaped my way of seeing the world. Because I thought it was a terrible definition of shape—that shape is ‘that alone of all of the things that always follows colour’. But then there was a moment where I looked around the room, and I’m like: ‘Oh, my God, the shape boundaries are the colour boundaries! That is actually what I’m seeing all around me: if I want to track the shapes, I have to look at where the colours change.’ A form of being very direct about my visual experience is to be interested in colour, because that’s really what’s showing up to me. And I think that it just happened that, over time, I came to look past colour. I think we all look past the colour to the things, but I see the colours a lot. I see the surface. And so it makes me happy to experience the visual complexity because I am easily caught at that surface level of thinking, this is the thing I’m actually seeing.
Mark: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions people outside philosophy have about philosophers or philosophy in general?
I don’t know, because people don’t say it to me. But I did see one person on Twitter saying something about how terrible philosophers are, that they are all so rude and mean. That seemed very wrong. I think philosophers are very polite, and pretty conventional, for the most part. They don’t stand out, especially in social contexts. You might not even know that they are philosophers. But the thought that to meet a philosopher is to meet someone who is very distinctively going to behave like a philosopher and is going to try to philosophically destroy you or something, that seems to be behind this sort of Tweet. But, to me, it’s a little disappointing that philosophers actually take off their philosopher hats very readily, and stop philosophising whenever they get the chance to. I think, no, we should philosophise all the time, and we should just annoy everyone with our constant arguing. I wish we were annoying in that way, but we’re not. I’m not sure how prevalent that particular misconception of philosophers is—it’s just one thing I saw.
Mark: How has philosophy changed, or how is it changing? More specifically, academic philosophy has traditionally been lacking in diversity—what do you think we can do about it?
Philosophy is changing in a lot of ways. But specifically on diversity, I don’t think it is changing much. Maybe there are somewhat more women, and somewhat more racial minorities in philosophy, say over the past ten years. But the really fundamental forms of diversity, as I see it, we haven’t touched those. How many of the people who studied philosophy or who go to graduate school in philosophy had parents who at least took a class in philosophy? I think that number would be going up. So we’re getting less diversity. That is the bar of privilege that you have to pass before you can end up in a philosophy class, and that is likely rising. I’m not sure what to do about that. Something I try to do is to communicate philosophically to a broader audience. But what would really help would be being able to communicate to a younger audience, that would be really crucial. My dream is to one day write for Seventeen magazine, that’s not a joke, I would love to. I tried to write for a lower-ranked teenage magazine. I wrote to them, and thought I could write a philosophy column, and these teens could find out about philosophy, and then they could study it later. The magazine was not interested. There is this general hunger for philosophy, I feel it in the population at large outside of academia, but we’re not doing a great job of communicating with those people yet.
James: What are your hopes for the future of philosophy?
I have big hopes for the future of philosophy. The way I see it, the first really big achievement for humans was language. That meant we could cooperate and coordinate on a whole different plane. We were coordinating pre-linguistically, even had some norms, probably, but language was really big. And then, literacy was also huge. The idea that we could preserve the things that we communicate to one another, even after we die. The spread of literacy was really significant. But if you just have literacy among a very small elite, that’s different from if you have literacy in the general population. We still are not at a point of universal literacy, even today, but we are moving in that direction. Together with the birth and spread of literacy, we have an understanding of general human entitlement to the most important things—‘human rights’ is a phrase for that. I take these to be the most important human achievements—language, literacy, human rights and the spread of these things—but I think our next level up is for everyone to have the conceptual framework for their own life be open to them for modification and reflection. Another way to put it is thinking about your life, and living it in a reflective way. You could call it universal conceptual literacy. I think it’s the job of philosophy to kind of push that and push us towards universal conceptual literacy for all human beings. I think once we’re there, we’re going to be able to cooperate at a whole other level. Just as having language meant another level of cooperation and having literacy spread meant another level of cooperation. So I see that as the agenda of philosophers.
James: Could you tell us about a book or a paper that profoundly affected your intellectual development?
I’ll give you a recent one. This didn’t have the biggest impact on me of all time, but it did in the past year and I have a really short memory. I happened to read a book called The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman. He’s a sociologist and he’s kind of one of the fathers of sociology. It’s an exploration of everyday human interactions, things like how you interact with a waiter, how you interact with your friends. Goffman shows how in those interactions, there’s often a ‘frontstage’ and a ‘backstage’. In a restaurant that’s clear—you can have the waiters interacting with the customers, but then there’s what’s happening back in the kitchen. The frontstage often involves a coordinated performance by a bunch of people, for an audience. This framework, and the way that it fits into so many different aspects of life was to me kind of mind-blowing. It made me think maybe this thing, sociology, maybe it’s interesting. So since then, I’ve been reading lots more sociology. Lately, I’ve been reading about ritual, about what a ritual is and about the various kinds of rituals. How can we understand our own? What constitutes ritual practices for us? Is sex a ritual? That sort of question. So that’s a text which has influenced me recently. But, actually, probably the first and most important works for me were the Platonic dialogues, which I read as an undergraduate.
Eloise: What is the most controversial philosophical position you hold?
It’s a little hard for me to know because that’s a prediction about what other people would find surprising, and I often find it hard to predict what other people find surprising—that is, it often surprises me. I will tell you the most controversial thing I ever argued for in-print which is maybe not going to be so exciting. In Book Seven of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes this character, the ‘enkratēs’, a ‘strong-willed person’. They’re the opposite of the ‘weak-willed person’. The weak-willed person eats the cookie, even though they told themselves ‘No, don’t eat the cookie, all things considered, you shouldn’t, it will be better for you not to eat it’. The stronger person is strong-willed, and they’re like: ‘No, even though I’m tempted, I won’t eat the cookie’ and they don’t. There’s a giant amount of philosophical literature that takes the fundamental, distinguishing feature of Aristotle’s ethics to be putting-down that strong-willed person, saying that that person is not actually virtuous. That’s not the good way to be; the good way to be is to not even be tempted. The way [John] McDowell puts it is that the temptation is ‘silenced’. Suppose someone is thinking of robbing a store. Should they think ‘No, no, I will be strong-willed and not do it’? That’s not being moral—being moral means you’re not even tempted to steal, you’re not even tempted to do evil stuff. You don’t have to overcome a temptation. So the idea is that Aristotle has this nugget of wisdom for us, which is that strength of will is not virtue. The problem is, I don’t think Aristotle thinks that strength of will isn’t a virtue, and I think he pretty clearly says that it is, actually. There’s lots and lots of textual evidence, and I wrote this paper that is so boring, I don’t really recommend you read it, in which I just present all the textual evidence. I think there’s literally a passage where he says ‘strength of will is virtue’. But I really had a lot of trouble getting that paper published. I would send it to places and they’d say, like they hadn’t read my paper, ‘Look, we all know that Aristotle thinks that strength of will is not virtue’. I was really pushing against an interpretive orthodoxy that also undergirds a certain kind of Neo-Aristotelianism. A lot of people are interested in Aristotle because they think he has this view, and so people were even quite offended by what I was arguing.
Mark: Have you ever significantly changed your opinion on some philosophical issue?
Yeah, that happens to me almost every day. I change my opinions a lot. My husband says it’s one of the scariest things about me. And he’s being very literal. He says it’s actually scary. Because if I convince you that things are completely different, you’ll just immediately start doing things in that other way, and I’m quite volatile in that sense. I gave a talk a week ago, about free speech, and during the talk I gave a definition of ‘persuasion’. After, a philosopher comes up to me and he says, ‘I don’t think you’re right, here’s why not…’. I realised that I was wrong, so I changed my mind. He was a bit taken aback. I told him that this happens to me all the time. I’ve had people say to me, ‘Oh, philosophers, they never change their minds’. And I don’t know what philosophers they’re talking to. I mean, they’re not talking to the right kind of philosopher, because philosophers force you to change your mind. They argue with you. And they have really good arguments.
It’s related, though, to the thing I was saying about classicists versus philosophers—I just have a lot of bad ideas, all the time, every day I’m talking to people and spewing-out ideas, and they’re telling me that my ideas are wrong for whatever reason, and then I have to change my mind. I wrote a dissertation on the weakness of will, which I thought was true when I wrote it. And then it was refuted, and I had to throw it in the trash. I had to not publish it. So there I changed my mind about my whole dissertation.
James: Any parting words for our readers?
That’s a fancy way of saying advice…
James: You can say whatever you want…
I watched a movie maybe a month ago called Fourteen by Dan Sallitt that I thought was really great. Those are my parting words.
James: Thank you very much, Agnes!
Thank You, Associate Professor Agnes Callard!
Agnes Callard’s two most recent books are Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming (2018) and On Anger (2020). She’s also on Twitter as @AgnesCallard.
This interview was edited and abridged by Anna Day, Eloise Hickey, Mark Rothery, and James Cafferky and published in November 2022.