A Conversation with Frank Jackson

Frank Jackson

Interviewed by
Will Cailes, Thomas Spiteri,
Jack Hawke, Jessica Sophia Ralph

Photo by Daniel Cohen, 2013

In November 2021, Will Cailes, Thomas Spiteri, Jack Hawke and Jessica Sophia Ralph interviewed Frank Jackson for UPJA’s Conversations from the Region, a series of discussions that invites philosophers from or based in Australasia to share their student and academic experiences. The segment looks into what inspires people to study philosophy, how they pursue their philosophical interests, and gives our audiences a better idea of philosophy as an undergraduate.

Will: Could you introduce yourself: what are your philosophical interests and what are you working on at the moment?

Hong Kong, 2006

I have wide interests. One reason is that I like to ‘move on’; one might describe this as my getting bored easily but that would, I think, be unfair. What happens is that I get engaged by some particular issue – say, the semantics of conditionals  – perhaps as a result of going to a paper on the topic or talking to a colleague. I then think hard about the topic and do some serious reading, and one of two things happen: I judge I have got nowhere but hope I have learnt something all the same, or I judge I have got somewhere and I publish on the topic. I then look for something else to work on. A downside to this way of doing philosophy is that I always feel I have not read as much as I should have on any given topic. The upside is that sometimes – sometimes – I get to see connections between what might appear to be separate topics. In moving between topics, I get to see links that can easily be missed.

So when you ask about my interests the answer is pretty much anything in analytical philosophy with the exception of technical questions in logic.

What am I working on now? I am (still) trying to convince people of the truth of two-dimensionalism and what the best version of representationalism about perceptual experience looks like.

Will: What initially drew you to study philosophy?

Russell and my parents. I read a lot of Bertrand Russell while I was at school. My parents were both philosophers. I found what I read in Russell and what I heard my parents talk about, often over dinner with visiting philosophers, fascinating. My parents belonged to a tradition associated with Wittgenstein (Dad attended his classes in Cambridge after the Second World War) in which discussion plays an especially big role. People sometimes ask me what Dad had to say about Wittgenstein. The answer is not much. I now wish I had pressed him on the subject, but back then I did not appreciate Wittgenstein’s importance. 

Will: What was the philosophical culture like as a student at The University of Melbourne and La Trobe University? Tell us about your most memorable class – has anything changed since then?

I was a student at Melbourne in the early sixties, starting out in mathematics and science before moving across (up?) to philosophy. I was on campus most days during term time, went to most of my classes, spent a fair amount of time in the university library and a certain amount of time in the pubs near campus, especially Naughtons, which was where the philosophers used to hang out. Studying from home wasn’t an option in the way it is now. I had a ball and learned a great deal from talking to my fellow students, from reading in the library and from most of my classes. You ask for the most memorable class: that would be David Armstrong’s first year honours class on Berkeley.

The hot topic back then was physicalism about the mind, and one of pluses of being a student at Melbourne in the sixties (and of being a lecturer at Adelaide for one year in 1967) was the sense of being close to that debate as it evolved. The two most powerful advocates for physicalism were Armstrong at Melbourne (he moved to Sydney during my time at Melbourne) and Jack Smart at Adelaide; one of the most perspicuous critics was Michael Bradley at Adelaide. I was lucky enough to be taught by Armstrong and to be a colleague, even if just for a year, of Smart and Bradley. Back then I was on Bradley’s side and it took me some decades to realise that Smart and Armstrong were right.

The culture at La Trobe was, as they say, as good as it gets. It was a young department (in a young university, the first enrolments were I think in 1967, a year before I joined the department). A good number of us were early on in our careers and were feeling our way as teachers, or anyway I was. We made mistakes, but we learnt from our mistakes (with some prodding from our students). The atmosphere was enormously supportive. Many of us were determined to build serious research profiles and of course there was a certain amount of competition, but there was also a great deal of constructive feedback and co-authored publication. There was also a healthy emphasis on the philosophy of science that came from the foundation professor, Brian Ellis, especially. Nowadays, the importance of ensuring that what one says as a philosopher should be a good fit with what science says – where science means more than physics, it means probability theory, biology and neuroscience, the theory of evolution, psychology etc. – and that science has lessons to teach us in epistemology and methodology is very widely recognised. Things were different in the 1960s, despite the influence of, e. g., Smart and Armstrong.

Thomas: As an undergraduate, what perception did you have of philosophy as a field, and what did you most struggle with? Do you have any advice for students?

Because I came to philosophy as someone who had read a lot of Russell and with a background in mathematics and science, I saw the subject from that perspective. Russell’s influence made me a fan of clarity, and, in combination with the mathematics–science background, a supporter of respecting what science says and of expressing one’s views in semi-formal ways when possible. No surprise then that I loved Russell’s treatment of definite descriptions. I thought he was right (and still do except for the failure to include the de se in his treatment) but, more importantly, I thought he gave us a good model for tackling a whole range of issues. Equally, no surprise that I approached epistemology through the lens of probability theory, an approach reinforced by Douglas Gasking’s lectures. Equally, no surprise that I liked four-dimensionalism, a liking reinforced by Smart and reading W. V. Quine.

What did I struggle with? I don’t think I really understood aright the key issues in ethics, political philosophy and aesthetics. I suspect that I would be very embarrassed to read today the answers I wrote in the exams in those subjects. (Luckily, I have had some very generous colleagues, especially at Monash and ANU, who gave me an education in ethics).

Advice to students? Philosophy is a wonderful subject. Only a small number of you will become philosophers in the sense of joining a philosophy department, but you will be philosophers in a wider sense for the rest of your lives. For the rest of your lives, you will know what it is to develop an argument for a position, to make the key distinctions needed to clarify an issue, how to spot dodgy arguments and rhetorical tricks, and how to think about hard, abstract questions like the relation between mental states and brain states and whether we should be retributivists or consequentialists about punishment.

Only a small number of you will become philosophers in the sense of joining a philosophy department, but you will be philosophers in a wider sense for the rest of your lives.

Thomas: You have made major contributions in a range of areas throughout your career. Do you have any thoughts on the hyper-specialisation and the disappearance of ‘generalists’ in philosophy?

Of course I am in favour of having wide interests but, as a friend of mine who is both a fine tennis player and a fine singer put it, ‘who wants to be the best singer among the tennis players and the best tennis player among the singers’? The reason for having wide interests in philosophy is not so much that it is a good thing in itself, but that often one has to have wide interests. Issues in philosophy often cross the boundaries we mark with the subject names in lists of departmental subject offerings. Here are some examples. i) Ethics is to do with action. Decision theory is to do with action. It makes obvious sense to ask what we might learn from decision theory when we look at questions in ethics. ii) Some views in ethics have implications in metaphysics; if they are correct, there are properties that outrun those that appear in accounts of what our world is like that come from the sciences (and from perception if it comes to that). This means that work in ethics trespasses on metaphysics. iii) We often use sentences to express how we believe things to be. Examples are the sentences I am writing right now. Theories of reference for the words that sentences contain need to make sense of this fact. The upshot is that the philosophy of belief is inextricably intertwined with the philosophy of language. iv) Meta-ethics is, among other things, about the semantics of a certain class of sentences in a natural language, as R. M. Hare signaled when called his major contribution to meta-ethics ‘The Language of Morals’. There are, that is, questions in ethics which are also questions in the philosophy of language.

I could give more examples but I hope the message is clear. Very often, corralling is not an option in philosophy. This is one of the reasons philosophy can be hard. But of course sometimes specialisation is just fine, and indeed is the way to go. I do, though, think it is worth distinguishing the kind of specialisation that is just fine from something that is not such a good thing, and maybe this is what you had in mind when you talked of hyper-specialisation. Philosophy is about issues – the nature of consciousness, the objectivity of value, the authority that comes from being democratically elected, etc. It is not as such about what we and other philosophers have said, unless one is doing history of philosophy. Philosophers can get too involved in the ins and outs of one or another dispute in the journals, why this or that objection to what they themselves have said is a mistake, and in reassuring readers that they have read a lot of papers on the subject they are writing about.

Thomas: How does it feel having created a paradigmatic thought experiment taught in philosophy programs globally?

It is an important thought experiment that has spawned a lot of high quality philosophy, both from supporters and from opponents of the argument based on it. Also, if I may say so, the paper that contains the thought experiment is a fun read (by the standards of analytical philosophy), which is, I suspect, why it is often discussed by people who are not philosophers. Obviously, I feel good about all that. I would of course be happier if I could say that the message of the paper that contains the thought experiment is correct. Letting go was not easy. By the way, I hope those teaching the thought experiment note that, in one form or another, it has a long history, going back, I have been told, to Locke.

Photo by David Braddon-Mitchell, 2018

Thomas: There are many famous thought experiments in the philosophy of mind: Mary the Colour Scientist, the Homunculus brain, ‘What it is like to be a bat’, “zombies”, the Chinese room argument etc. Some have criticised this type of argumentation as mere ‘intuition pumps’. Why do you think thought experiments have played such an outsized role in the philosophy of mind? Do you think this is a good argumentative move?

I am always puzzled by unfriendly talk of intuition pumps. I am sure many who talk this way have strong opinions about, say, the Iraq war. They think, let’s suppose, that it was a mistake. Why do they think that? We all know the answer. Their opinion comes from their conviction that things would be better in many ways had Iraq not been invaded. This is a belief about a non-actual possible case. Iraq was invaded. They are appealing to an intuition (a belief) about a possible case, the possible case where Iraq is not invaded. They are, that is, carrying out a thought experiment. Thought experiments – garnering opinions about possible cases considered independently of whether or not they are actual – are ubiquitous and often vital to arriving at sensible opinions about a whole range of subjects. Should we have made vaccines mandatory from the beginning? Should we raise the minimum wage? Would I be alive today if I had not had that operation? In reflecting on the answers to questions like these, we ask ourselves what would have been the case had vaccines been made mandatory from the beginning, what would be the result were the minimum wage to be raised, and what would be the case had I not had that operation. In asking these questions, we are carrying out thought experiments.

Of course, the thought experiments philosophers appeal to are often claimed to have a special property, namely, that the answer to them is glaringly obvious in a way that isn’t true for claims, e. g., about what would be the case had Iraq not been invaded. But it is hard to take seriously the view that thought experiments are fine except when the answers to them are glaringly obvious. Maybe those who express doubts about thought experiments in philosophy are really doubting that certain examples have the glaringly obvious answers claimed for them. I have no quarrel with a position of that kind – indeed, I would join them if they were talking about Twin Earth – but note that it can only be addressed case by case, by looking at the ‘certain examples’ in detail.

Jack: You’re a philosopher who has shifted course from earlier views in your career. Why do you think philosophers so rarely change their mind on things?

I suspect philosophers change their mind more than is realised. We know about Russell and Hilary Putnam’s changes of mind, but that is because they are famous and because they told us about them. I suspect that there are many cases of philosophers changing their mind which go unnoticed because they are not as famous as those two or because they did not talk about the changes much. Having said that, I am all but certain that philosophers change their minds less often than, say, epidemiologists and plant biologists, but the obvious explanation for this is that epidemiologists and plant biologists are answerable to the results of empirical investigations to an extent that outruns the degree to which we philosophers are answerable.

Jack: You have been able to remain in Australia throughout your career. There are increasingly systemic pressures for aspiring philosophers to work or study in one of prestigious, highly-ranked schools, likely in the US or the UK. What do you think is the effect that this will have for the future of philosophy?

I have spent a good deal of time outside Australia, and especially in the US, but you are right that my primary location has been in Australia. When I was an undergraduate, the norm for aspiring philosophers was to go overseas for graduate work. I was something of an exception. It is still true that many Australians go overseas but it is no longer the norm, and many Australian philosophers have forged major careers off the backs of higher degrees earned in this country (as have some non-Australians).

I don’t think Australians working or studying at highly-ranked programs overseas is a threat to philosophy in Australia. Australians doing well overseas is excellent publicity for Australian philosophy, and anyway many of them choose, sooner or later, to return. What is a threat are government funding policies and the view, held by some who should know better, that having a philosophy department is an optional extra for a university.

Jack: What is the biggest misconception people have about being a philosopher?

That’s really a question for those who have done the needed empirical research. I’d be guessing. Of course, like all philosophers, I sometimes get asked by non-philosophers what philosophers do. I tell them if there’s time, and in my experience they mostly like the answer. It is, I think, a perhaps tempting mistake to think that it is hard to explain and justify what philosophers do. Anyone with an ounce of intellectual curiosity can see the interest and importance of questions like the ones I mentioned above: the nature of consciousness, the objectivity of value, and the authority that comes from being democratically elected. Recently I had a conversation with a CEO of a Council about the Sleeping Beauty Puzzle. She understood very well what the puzzle was and came up with what I regard as the correct answer

Jessica: How has the degree of representation amongst different demographic groups changed over the course of your time in academic philosophy?

Again, that’s really a question for those who have done the needed empirical research, but I can say this much: when I entered the profession, a very high percentage of staff were white males. Eventually, that percentage started to drop. It has taken longer than it should have, but it is good that things are now heading in the right direction.

Scotland, 2011

Jessica: What are your hopes for the future of philosophy and philosophers’ work?

Australian philosophy can be very proud of what it has achieved, especially when you take into account our relatively small size and distance from major centres overseas. Let’s hope this happy state of affairs continues. I think it will. What about philosophy at large? The subject is endlessly fascinating; it will be around as long as there are exploring minds.

Jessica: Can you tell us about a book or paper that had a particularly profound effect on your intellectual development?

I think it was example more than any particular book or paper that most influenced me, and given that, I’d have to name Russell, Smart, Armstrong and David Lewis. Apart from being outstanding philosophers, they share a commitment to respecting science, writing about difficult topics as clearly as possible, being upfront about what they believe and not being afraid to tread on toes. 

Jessica: What is the most controversial philosophical stance you hold?

That Moral Functionalism – the view advanced by Philip Pettit and me – is true. We hope, of course, that as time passes it will become less controversial. What makes it controversial is that it is a species of analytical naturalism in ethics.

Thank you, Professor Frank Jackson

You can see more of Frank Jackson’s work here