In February 2022, James Cafferky, Mark Rothery, Eloise Hickey and Anna Day entered into correspondence with Eleanor Gordon-Smith 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.
For our readers who might not be familiar with your work, could you tell us what your philosophical interests are and what you’re working on at the moment?
At the moment I work on the ethics of doubt, enquiry, and attention. My dissertation [at Princeton University] asks whether the moral demand to respect persons qua persons imposes any mental obligations on us. I think it does, but these demands are pretty hard to reconcile with our existing epistemic norms—unless (as I argue we should) we think of these moral demands as regulating our attention rather than our beliefs. In other words, I claim that a central component of the task of respecting other people is to attend to them in particular ways and to regard certain questions about them and their dignity as ‘closed’ for further enquiry.
Elsewhere in my work, I’ve argued for a neo-pragmatist view that evidence is not the only reason for belief. I also have first-order ethics interests in credibility, speech acts, and moral sentiments. In 2019, I wrote Stop Being Reasonable, a series of nonfiction stories about people changing their minds in high-stakes situations—the goal was to examine real moments of crisis and upheaval to see what they could tell us about reasoning and rationality.
What initially got you interested in philosophy?
I was enrolled in a politics and international relations degree and kept feeling like the questions we asked there were two or three steps too far down the argument chain. The starting categories of state, person, rights, conflict, etc., were the interesting ones to me. So I switched to studying philosophy where the point was to ask more of those foundational questions, and found the more I studied the more questions there were to ask.
How did you get into radio and writing for media outlets?
I’ve loved radio since I can remember—it started when I was a kid and I got a stomach bug, and my parents brought me some cassette tapes to while the days away. When I was in my undergraduate degree I just started banging on doors and asking people to let me put things on air or in their publications. The first piece I ever published was for Jonathan Green, who was at the time editing The Drum (at the time, an online ABC opinion page); the first radio I ever did was for Joe Gelonesi, who was then producing The Philosopher’s Zone on ABC Radio National—like a lot of other young Australian writers and broadcasters I owe them each a tremendous amount. Then I just kept doing whatever I could, whenever I could—I fell asleep in a couple of lectures because I’d been at Triple M at 4:30 am.
What is the philosophical culture like at the University of Sydney, where you did your undergraduate degree?
My impression is that Sydney has seen a real resurgence of interest in philosophy in the last few years. I see so many intelligent, creative and hungry minds choosing to pursue philosophy, it makes me really excited. I think Australia and Sydney can be a hub of vibrant intellectual activity (and really deserves to be).
As you were starting your journey in philosophy, what perception did you have of philosophy as a field, and what did you most struggle with? Do you have any advice for students?
I thought relatively little about philosophy as a field or a profession and much more about whatever I happened to be philosophising about at the time. I guess that’s the advice I’d give, which echoes what an old adviser of mine, Tom Dougherty, once told me: it’s about the work. When you feel distracted or frustrated, try to find your way back to asking what’s true about the question at hand.
You’ve described yourself as a ‘recovering champion debater’—how does your debating background inform your philosophy (if it does at all)?
I think debating teaches you the same thing that any intro philosophy class seeks to, namely: how to see the architecture of an argument—which parts are load-bearing and which parts are weak. Ideally, if it’s your opponent’s argument, you’ll be able to spot something both load-bearing and weak. You notice that people who’ve done a lot of debating or a lot of philosophy get very quick at this, like they develop a sense of smell for it. I think it can be easy to forget how little else in our educational environment teaches those skills, but it’s such an important way to equip yourself for life, whether you want a career in academic philosophy or simply to be able to tell when you’re being sold a lie.
Like some other philosophers, perhaps most notably Kwame Appiah, you write an advice column for a major broadsheet. Do you think philosophers have special moral expertise that makes their every-day advice especially compelling?
I love his column, what a gift he has. Working at Guardian Australia has been a highlight of my life. We’ve had questions about grief, infidelity, business, revenge, debt, friendship, illness—the whole gamut of life experience. I’m careful to almost never give definitive recommendations of the form ‘do X and not Y’, partly because of what your question asks. I don’t think of my job (either as columnist or as philosopher) as about having and dispensing a moral expertise that other people don’t. I think of it instead much more as a task of articulation—as being able to re-frame the question in a way that brings clarity, and to point out what it chimes with, what it echoes. I think a lot of wisdom in life (and in philosophy) is about being able to see why things are confusing—once you can see that the confusion itself is a lot easier to live with even if you still don’t have the answer. In that regard I try to treat the column like I do philosophy: trying to hammer out what exactly the question should be rather than leaping to a certain-sounding answer.
Do you think certain ethical frameworks are more appealing in popular culture?
I think popular culture rots our minds and strengthens the resolve of our enemies.
How do you balance the public work of journalism with the more private nature of academic scholarship?
I think of these as very similar tasks—in each domain I’m trying to find clarity about immensely complex questions, speak that clarity out loud, and to spend as much time as possible with the clever people who spend their days wrestling with these problems. Moving in a few professional spaces at once gives you the instant gift of rapidly expanding the number of talented people you get to encounter in your working life—I have learned so much from academics, journalists, radio producers, writers, event managers, all people who are passionate about and dedicated to their craft. Often lessons about passion and work from one field carry fairly naturally into another.
Out of curiosity, who chooses the (excellent) artworks for your column?
Alyx Gorman! Best in the business, lifestyle editor for Guardian Australia. It can be a real struggle to illustrate advice columns, a lot of places would run with awful stock images of a woman cringing or a man holding up his hands, really terrible stuff. Alyx has such expertise in art history—she always knows and finds a work that captures the deep heart of a letter writer’s question.
How has the degree of representation amongst different demographic groups changed over the course of your time in academic philosophy?
When classes are small and change is slow, it’s difficult to answer this with any degree of precision. I will say that in the wake of the George Floyd protests in America in 2020 I think a lot of people worked very hard to show that racism (especially anti-black racism in the US) is everybody’s problem. I hope it doesn’t keep taking deaths to make that point.
Do you see any significant differences between Australian and American philosophical cultures?
I see a lot of differences between America and Australia more broadly, well-documented ones, like that American cheese is the colour of a highly poisonous frog, but I try to be careful with ‘over here we do it like this’ generalisations because ‘here’ and ‘we’ are such topiaried concepts for all of us that they’re unlikely to be really tracking much. It’s a big world and there are all kinds of people everywhere. But one of the really nice things about philosophy and international academia is that everybody can be united in a project—I love being at conferences with people from all over the world. I hope attending conferences becomes a more and more accessible experience for young scholars based in the antipodes.
Can you tell us about a book or paper that had a particularly profound impact on your intellectual development?
Judith Jarvis Thompson’s A Defence of Abortion was the first time I remember really being struck by how useful good argumentation can be—that opening paragraph where she more or less says, ‘Okay, grant that a fetus is a person, what follows?’. I remember reading it when I was 17 or so outside Manning Bar and thinking wait, I’ve been making exactly the mistake she’s diagnosing here, by thinking the whole abortion debate turns on the personhood question. To realise that there was space between one claim and another—that was a pretty special feeling to have for the first time. Anything by Rae Langton or David Velleman sets me straight when I’m adrift—well-written, humane philosophy.
What is the most controversial philosophical stance you hold?
That p ∧ ¬p.
Any parting words of wisdom, or philosophical recommendations, for our readers?
Do logic, even if you’re scared of it, even if you don’t think you’re a logic person—arguably especially then. Then do some non-classical logics just to be sure. Don’t let there be pockets of philosophy that scare you.
Thank you, Eleanor Gordon-Smith!
This interview was edited and abrdiged by James Cafferky, Anna Day, Eloise Hickey, and Mark Rothery and published in October 2022.