A Conversation with Kim Sterelny

Kim Sterelny

In March 2022 James Cafferky, Anna Day, and Jack Hawke interviewed Kim Sterelny 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.

Jack: What are your philosophical interests, and what are you working on at the moment? 

Broadly speaking, my philosophical interests have always been on the border between philosophy and the natural sciences. That started mostly in the connections between philosophy and the cognitive sciences, and over the years that evolved more towards the biological sciences and historical sciences. So, over the last 15 to 20 years, most of my work has been on the evolution of human social behaviour. Why are humans so very different from our closest biological relatives? What explains human uniqueness? Most of the focus has been on first-order issues. But you can’t focus on the first-order issues without paying some attention to the methodology—methodological issues about what our access to the past is, like what sorts of data streams are available, and so on. So at the broadest level, it’s the relationship between philosophy and the natural sciences. Recently, that’s been the biological sciences. And most recently, issues to do with human evolution—archaeology, prehistory, and evolutionary biology.

Jack: What initially drew you to study philosophy?

Lucky accident! When I was in high school, my main interests were in the natural sciences, but in those days science was often only taught at high school and the humanities were much better taught. I had good English and History teachers, pretty terrible science teachers and, by and large, pretty terrible maths teachers. So I evolved towards the humanities but was always interested in the natural world. I had an English and History teacher called Bob Petherbridge, who had done philosophy at Newcastle, and he said ‘Look, if you’ve got a spare unit, you should do philosophy because I think you’ll like it’. I’d enrolled in History, Economics and Politics, and in those days you did four subjects, so I said ‘Okay I’ll give it a go.’ And so I did! And pretty well instantly I realised that this is what I wanted to do.

At Sydney University in 1983

Jack: What was your initial experience in philosophy and what made you realise that it was that you wanted to do?

A lecturer walked in, in this case, it was Graham Nerlich, who I’m happy to say is still alive, and still fairly active at Adelaide University. [Sadly, Nerlich passed away before this interview was published. Ed.] He gave a kind of general introduction to philosophy; he started with the free will problem and the challenge of determinism to free will. It just gave you this chance to sort of just assess… you didn’t have to take anything on, you know, you had just had a chance to assess the arguments yourself. If you were good enough, you could find holes in some of them or patch up the holes. I found that immensely appealing.

Jack: Why did you decide to shift from a traditionally core area in philosophy (i.e. philosophy of language) to the more empirical areas? Was it a difficult transition?

Well, there wasn’t really a shift. My honours thesis touched on empirical issues, because it looked at how to integrate semantic phenomena into transformational grammar, which was sort of the new idea in linguistics those days. And my PhD thesis was, again, a hybrid between philosophy of language, transformational grammar, and linguistics. So the PhD thesis was really already dealing with philosophy and cognitive science. By the time I was looking to do actual research in philosophy, I was already doing variable philosophy. 

If you’re reading something by a famous guy or a famous girl, and you think, This can’t be right… Trust your instincts! Show it’s not right; be different—don’t be afraid to stick your neck out, don’t be afraid to follow your interests. The pleasure of philosophy is the freedom to follow your interests, far more than any other discipline at university. You’ve got the ultimate licence to roam. And that’s great fun.

Kim Sterelny

Anna: What was the philosophical culture like when you were a student at the University of Sydney? 

I think things have changed enormously since then. When I began, which is a bloody long time ago, in 1969, there was an extremely democratic and non-hierarchical culture. Even in first year, there were social associations between students and faculty. The old Department of Philosophy used to run a philosophy camp at Easter every year, and students were invited to go along. There’d be talks and then informal chatting, drinking, and partying afterwards. That lasted probably for the first three years I was there.

Towards the end of my undergraduate years, as I was moving into the Honours programme, things became very fraught. The Sydney Department of Philosophy divided into two, the Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy and the Department of General Philosophy. This was a result of a whole lot of increasingly bitter arguments about politics, about the nature of philosophy, and about how our philosophy department should be run. The whole atmosphere became deeply conflicted and very acrimonious. A lot of bitter things were said and done. So from about 1971 through to about 1974/5 it was increasingly polarised, and people stopped associating as a group of philosophers. It was not a good time to be doing a PhD in philosophy!

Anna: How did that affect your philosophical learning? 

It affected me quite a lot, you know, because for the first four years or so there was a real academic community. But then while I was doing my PhD, there was much less of a community. I was much more by myself trying to write a thesis. There was no atmosphere of reading groups and seminars or any collegial association between graduate students and so on. It was a much more isolated experience than there had been before.

Anna: As an undergraduate, were there any tutors or classes that were particularly memorable to you? 

I’ll tell you the most memorable class for me. Michael Devitt had come back from Harvard and was teaching the Philosophy of Maths (not that he was a philosopher of maths) and he spent three hours on the nature and structure of Godel’s Theorem. For at least that lecture, and probably for an hour or so afterwards, I felt that I understood it—don’t ask me now! But that was very exciting and interesting to me.

The most engaging course was a course taught by David Stove in second or third year on the new developments in the philosophy of science. It basically began with Karl Popper and did the kind of post-war period in philosophy of science—Kuhn, Feyerabend, and so on. That was a terrifically engaging course because David was immensely sceptical about all of that philosophy. So he taught it, we read it, and we thought about it—but David didn’t believe a word of it! He was a terrific person, and a terrific teacher, extraordinarily quirky and extraordinarily interesting. It was a huge amount of fun. 

Kim with Karen Neader at La Trobe University in 1991

James: As an undergraduate, what perception did you have of philosophy as a field? And what did you struggle with? 

It wasn’t until after my PhD that I began to have a conception of philosophy as a field, and to think more about meta-philosophy (what was important in philosophy) and what philosophy should be doing (as distinct from what philosophy was doing). As an undergraduate, I was pretty critical, probably hyper-critical, about specific issues, episodes, books, and stuff like that. But I didn’t really have much of a conception of philosophy as such. That began to develop when I was a PhD student, because that was one of the issues I talked about—what was the relationship between philosophy and politics? What was the relationship between philosophy and the sciences? Was it okay to do philosophy as a sort of autonomous, self-contained discipline? Perhaps those questions should have been pressing to me, as an undergraduate, but I didn’t really struggle with anything, to tell you the truth. I mean, I’m not enormously gifted in terms of doing formal work—logic and probability theory and so on, but I was okay, and that was a fairly substantial part of the undergraduate and Honours curriculum. 

James: Do you have any advice for undergraduate philosophy students today?

My advice to undergraduate students is don’t do philosophy unless you really enjoy it, and don’t be afraid to be wrong! If you’re reading something by a famous guy or a famous girl, and you think, ‘This can’t be right…’ Trust your instincts! Show it’s not right; be different—don’t be afraid to stick your neck out, don’t be afraid to follow your interests. The pleasure of philosophy is the freedom to follow your interests, far more than any other discipline at university. You’ve got the ultimate licence to roam. And that’s great fun. 

I mean, you almost inevitably bite off more than you can chew. I can remember saying to myself 20 or 30 years ago, ‘Well, when I retire, I’ll take the philosophy of physics seriously. I’ll try to understand relativity theory and quantum mechanics and stuff.’ Okay, I don’t think I’m ever going to. But in principle I could! In principle, I could decide tomorrow, ‘Okay I’ll learn it, and if it took me two years to learn it, that would be fine!’ There’s no other discipline like that. In philosophy, we use our heads and have the freedom to play.

Jack: What do you think separates philosophy and the sciences? Do you think that there are questions currently considered to be in the realm of philosophy that in fact need to be addressed by people from other disciplines as well? 

Well, I’m a radical on this. I don’t think there’s a sharp distinction between philosophy and science. There’s a kind of standard, conventional view that there are conceptual structures we can investigate a priori, and there’s the nature of the world we can investigate empirically. According to this view, the job of philosophy is to investigate conceptual structures in an a priori way, and the job of the sciences is to investigate the world and say what does or does not satisfy the conceptual structures that are identified in philosophy. I’m very sceptical about this division of labour. I don’t think there’s a sharp dividing line at any point that separates the wholly empirical questions from the wholly conceptual questions. 

If you read philosophical or biological literature, there’s no clean segmentation of conceptual issues, like ‘what is the nature of a gene?’ and empirical questions, like ‘what counts as a species?’ Because what you’re trying to come up with is for the purposes of trying to understand the biological world. The question ‘what’s our most useful concept of species?’ can’t be answered without thinking about what the biological world is and what the phenomenon is that we need to explain. There isn’t a question that you can ask and answer independently of thinking about what your environment is. So I don’t think of there being any realm of ‘wholly philosophical questions’ or ‘wholly empirical questions’. For me, the question of what knowledge is has an empirical dimension—questions about the nature of mind, cognition, consciousness, and so on. So, I think philosophical questions should be answered with an eye to the empirical world. I think all important questions have an empirical dimension.

At an ANU Workshop in 2008

Jack: Do you think that the historical sciences will eventually reveal to us a more or less complete picture of the evolution of human societies? Do we have enough traces or evidence to put the pieces together?

If by complete, you mean ‘a fairly good understanding of the major events in human history, and the causes and consequences of those major events, then yes. Like, when did humans reach Australia, and what happened when they reached Australia? How many out-of-Africa migrations were there? I’m pretty optimistic about answering these kinds of broad-scale questions about human evolution. This is in part because science has an amazing, developing record of picking up and interpreting incredibly faint traces of the past. Once you find hominid fossils, you can often find out lots about the individual’s diet, the location, and the individual’s position in the fossil group. The amount of strontium in the bones is an indicator of where that person grew up. So science is really, really good and getting better at picking up really faint traces. And major events produce lots of traces—important events have lots of causal children, so the colonisation of Australia (65,000 years ago) will leave lots of traces because when people turn up, they start doing stuff, and that stuff multiplies. They have significant impacts on their environment—direct impacts and indirect impacts. So I’m fairly optimistic that we’ll get a fairly complete picture of the major events in the past. 

Anna: We are really interested to know whether there is a dialogue, debate, or conversation happening in the historical sciences at the moment that you find to be particularly intriguing?

There’s quite a number of them! One that I think is particularly intriguing is to try to understand why, about 150,000 years ago, humans suddenly became so much more innovative. If you look at the material record of humans over time, you know that from about 2.5–3 million years ago, when we had the first stone tools, till about 150,000 years ago, the pace of change was really quite slow. And then about 150,000 years ago, it suddenly changed. This is evident in the pace of change and the degree of regional difference. 250,000 years ago, the technology of human beings was all pretty much the same throughout the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, Europe, and so on. Then 50,000 years ago there was enormous regional variation. So something important seems to have happened roughly 150,000 years ago. That’s a really important and interesting debate. 

Another question is ‘What was the relationship between our species and the Neanderthals?’ Up until recently, it was thought that there may not have been much interaction at all. Some people thought the Neanderthals became extinct even before modern humans turned up, but we now know that’s not true. We know that there was some interbreeding—some sexual contact between these two species. So suddenly, we have to ask questions about the social context—what were those interactions like? What was the impact of Neanderthal genes on our species? There are views that say that one of the reasons why we were able to spread throughout the world was because we had some Neanderthal in us. So that’s a really interesting, developing issue and I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out too. 

James: In your work you describe how increasing resources leads to increasing inequalities within prehistoric communities. And, as you’ve said, few people are keen to revive the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Do you think there are effective post-scarcity solutions to resolving modern inequalities?

Well, there’s one that seems to work fairly well, at least to some degree, but it’s not one that I would recommend. War does it! The more intense the war, the greater the effect on increasing equality. So it’s no accident that Western societies are more equal. In the 5–10 years after World War Two, a guy called Peter Turchin did a lot of work on the relationship between war and equality/inequality. War tends to promote equality, both because the elites are going to bribe the non-elites to serve—to fully and wholeheartedly engage in war—and also because wars are expensive, so elites have to spend their resources. So, war is one thing that will do it. But nonetheless, I’m not recommending that! I think the only tool that we really have is an effective left-wing party, a party that emphasises social and economic equality. I have to say, in the Western world, the political left has largely lost its way. It should be more focused on the fundamental material inequalities, which I think are the things that really matter—then some effective amelioration would be possible. I think that’s something that would require a major change in the focus and direction of the political left. We can hope for it, but I don’t see much sign of that happening.

With Peter Godfrey-Smith in 2011

James: Do you think that philosophers are being sufficiently encouraged to work on empirical questions in, for example, the cognitive sciences, biology, or the historical sciences? Should we encourage philosophers to engage in those spaces more?

Yes, I think philosophy would be a much more productive discipline if philosophers routinely engaged deeply and seriously with relevant empirical work. Some philosophers do that, but it’s not a standard expectation in the discipline. 

Jack: And do you think scientists are engaging with philosophy enough?

In fact, they do a lot of philosophy. In particular, they do a lot of epistemology. Every scientific discipline has people who basically work on calibration, proofing, and testing the reliability of the tools of the trade. Every experimental science has people who work on experimental design, where part of the task is to try and make the results of the experiments less ambiguous and more targeted to the question that they’re trying to solve. Scientists do an enormous amount of epistemology. They don’t, however, do as much metaphysics. Geneticists tend not to worry about ‘What is a gene?’ But when something unexpected happens scientists have to do what we would think of as a kind of scientific metaphysics. Astrophysicists are tremendously worried about dark matter because the universe is not behaving as it should if all the matter was visible matter. So, when anomalies and problems and stuff like that turn up, that’s when scientists would start doing metaphysics of science. But they do the epistemology of science all the time.

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

Not very dramatically, but it certainly has. I’ve mostly been in Australia, and New Zealand (which is culturally extremely similar to Australia). I’ve had tonnes of visiting jobs in America and the UK but I’ve never worked there for long periods. So this answer is about Australasia rather than about the world. In Australasia, there’s definitely been an increase in people with South Asian and East Asian backgrounds, and an increase in people with Central Eastern and Southern European backgrounds. These are where you see the most noticeable change.

Jack: What are your hopes for the future of philosophy and the work of philosophers? And do you think there has been, or will be, progress in philosophy? 

Well, you’re not gonna be tremendously surprised by this answer. What I would like to see is philosophy evolving to a more naturalistic philosophy, where the higher-level, abstract, and general kinds of questions that philosophers like to ask—about the nature of the mind, the nature of mental representation, the nature of life, and so on—can be better integrated with relevant empirical work. I thought it was going to happen in the 80s and 90s, and it didn’t really. Since my graduate student days, there have always been some philosophers who have worked that way, but there’s never been a majority, or even close to a majority. What I would like to see is a shift away from a priori philosophy towards a more empirical philosophy. If that shift would happen, I think we would see a much clearer, narrowing of progress in philosophy, because there is a clear narrowing of progress in science. I think you’d have to be nuts to deny that there’s been major progress in science. And to the extent that philosophy integrates itself with that, it will also progress, because the kind of empirical phenomena with which science interacts, and the kind of questions that science tries to answer, will be better informed by an increasingly comprehensive understanding of how the world works. So I think yes, philosophy could progress. 

There have been significant degrees of progress in philosophy in the past. You occasionally see that silly remark about how the history of philosophy is just people quoting Plato. I mean, that’s just nonsense. There are all sorts of philosophical questions which couldn’t have been formulated at various times, the whole philosophy of science, for example—science didn’t exist back then! So I think certainly, there has been progress, but that progress would be much more reliable and much more systematic if philosophy was more appropriately connected to empirical disciplines. 

In France for the Nicod Lectures in 2008

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

Jerry Fodor‘s book The Language of Thought. I read that in the mid-70s when I was still doing a PhD. It is a wonderful synthesis of conceptual, theoretical, and empirical phenomena. I don’t believe many of the fundamental claims in it, but it is just a wonderful illustration of how to do the kind of philosophy that I think can be done. It handled the really big questions about how to think about the architecture of the mind, and talked about the (then) current empirical work in cognitive psychology and cognitive science. It said, ‘Okay, what are the theoretical assumptions behind this—they’re not explicit, they’re not manifested in the actual experimental work, and they’re implicit in it’. What Fodor did was to take live empirical cognitive psychology and say, ‘You know, if this stuff is right, this is what it’s actually saying about what the mind is and how the mind works’. It’s a wonderful piece of work, written with immense reverie and style. It was great fun to read. 

Jack: Any parting words of wisdom or advice or anything that you’d like our readers to know?

Well, one thing. One way of doing philosophy and becoming a philosopher is to find a nook or cranny in the natural or social sciences that you find genuinely interesting. In particular, if you are interested in the more theoretical, more abstract, more general end of that, then go for it. So let’s say you’ve always been interested in economics, but what you’re interested in are the big questions, like ‘How should we measure whether or not an economy is successful?’, ‘Is GDP a good measure?’, and so on. Find a chunk of the natural world that you’re interested in, for other reasons, and use that as a springboard into philosophy.

That was partly my route into the philosophy of biology. I’ve always been a bushwalker and a birdwatcher, I’ve always liked natural history and natural history programmes. So it was partly from the bottom-up, by being interested in biology and biological phenomena, but also it was partly from the top-down, by reading. For example, one of the books that I found absolutely enthralling when I read it was Richard DawkinsThe Extended Phenotype, which is presented as a book of theoretical biology, but it’s also a great book in the philosophy of biology. It’s full of thought experiments—Dawkins imagined all these alternative ways the world could have evolved, and imagined alternative answers to really big questions like ‘Why are there organisms at all?’ So I got into the philosophy of biology, in part, from the top, by engaging in this wonderfully rich book of theory and thought experiments, but also from the bottom, just by finding the living world such a cool thing to read about. I think that’s a great route that people could take, especially in the kind of philosophy that I do. 

Jack: What is the most controversial philosophical stance that you hold?

Probably the view that most a priori philosophy is a complete waste of time. Take all the metaphysical stuff on the nature of grounding—that is just killing trees for no good reason. Complete and utter fucking waste of time. A good deal of a priori philosophy is like that, and in my view, a waste of space. Does that do for controversial?

Thank you, Professor Kim Sterelny!

You can see more of Kim Sterelny’s work here or check out his books below.

This interview was edited and abridged by Jack Hawke, Jessica Sophia Ralph, James Cafferky, and Anna Day and published in July 2022.