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A Conversation with Philip Pettit

Philip Pettit

In January 2022 Will Cailes, Thomas Spiteri, and Jack Hawke interviewed Philip Pettit for UPJA’s Conversations from the Region, an ongoing series of discussions that invite philosophers from or based in Australasia to share their student experiences, ideas from their areas of expertise, and thoughts on the discipline more broadly. The segment looks into what inspires people to study philosophy and how they pursue their philosophical interests, and aims to give our audiences a better idea of the work that academic philosophers do.

Note: this interview has been transcribed and abridged. 

25 Minute Read

Jack: Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your philosophical interests?

Oh, well, I’m rather voracious (some would say promiscuous) in my interests. I think almost every philosophical issue holds a certain sort of interest for me. That’s something beautiful about philosophy, to me, is it’s such a general subject. You can move around, and I think you can move around with benefits, because work in one area can give you all sorts of ideas about similar topics elsewhere, parallel approaches and so on.


Teaching in China

Jack: How did you first become interested in philosophy?

I was doing a mix of maths and classics in my first year at university. I became somewhat disenchanted with classics and was looking around for a major elsewhere. People told me about philosophy, and I remember thinking that it was so exciting, the idea that you could think for yourself about such incredibly important topics. Like, ‘Is there a God?’, ‘What is our character?’, ‘Do we have free will?’, ‘How do we relate to other animals?’, as well as questions of a more ethical or political sort. I was mainly focused on questions about free will, or freedom — like, what is it? That absolutely fascinated me, and I learned that you could think about those sorts of problems in doing philosophy.

I’ve worked in a whole range of areas, and that’s partly a generational thing — people of my generation in philosophy were raised to be generalists. Departments were fairly small, so everyone was expected to take basically any introductory course, and a whole range of courses in second and third year. People tended to write on topics that they became interested in through teaching. So generally most philosophers had a wide range of interests. In the course of my own career, I’ve moved from being interested in freedom and free will, to more general issues in philosophical psychology, for example, consciousness, intentionality, what is it that makes an agent, what is it that distinguishes us from other agents? And general questions, such as the nature of causation, whether we live at the centre of a causal nexus, whether the world is deterministic or indeterminist, whether it’s wholly mechanical… whether there are grounds for believing in a divine providence (as a lot of people believe), in the “guiding hand of God?”

I always say about philosophy — you’re not doing the thing right if you’re not bringing it home from the office. It’s not something you just do in the office. If it is, then I don’t think you’re approaching the subject in the right spirit. It’s not just mental gymnastics, or an exercise in high dialectical logic. I think fundamentally it has to be grounded in a real curiosity about this whole range of questions on nature, on our place in the world, on the sort of aspirations we hold for ourselves in ethics and, of course, collectively in politics.


Seminary Days

Jack: That’s very interesting. What are you working on at the moment?

Well, I have two major projects just now, both books. One is in political philosophy. And it’s really a two-part book. The first part (which is about to be published) is called The State. It struck me a few years back, when Trump came to power, that it forced a lot of us to think, again, about what on earth is going on here, you know? One of the things that was obvious, to me, was that he did not have any understanding of why constitutions are the way they are, and what the rationale for them is — for example, the separation of powers, checks and balances — he just seemed to have no sense whatsoever of this. I began thinking about the state, and how you would organise a philosophical study of the nature of the state. Other than a book by Christopher Morris, there’s not been a philosophy book on the state for the last half century! The second part (which is supposed to follow in a series with Princeton University Press) is on the just state, or justice of the state. So I’ll argue in the first about the nature of the state; how we should think about the state, whether the state is a good thing, or whether it’s an inescapable feature of reality (as I happen to think it is actually, and I think it’s been on the whole, quite a good thing). Then the second part is on what justice will require from the state, and that is going to inevitably be a restatement of views that I’ve already defended in connection with my support for republican theory.

Then the other book is one that cuts closer to my heart because it takes me back to the very issues that started me in philosophy, and those are issues to do with human nature. Everybody agrees that when it comes to the constitution of the human being, obviously nature plays one part — you know, what nature has given us, what genetics has given us — and culture plays another part. The position I argue in this book is that it’s basically the advent of speech that has been transformative for our species. It’s made our species far better, but also in many ways far worse, and very, very different from even our nearest relatives, the other great apes.

The book runs through a thought experiment that is designed to support the thesis that, actually, most of our distinctively human capacities can be seen as capacities that would have come almost automatically (certainly with a robust likelihood) to any species like ours that had come to use speech. The idea is that as users of speech, we learn social skills — making assertions, checking assertions, exchanging information, presenting our position in the best light possible, forming communities with others. My argument is that most of the distinctive mental skills that characterise us as a species are actually skills that would have come on stream, almost automatically, in the wake of language.

In the book I ask you to imagine a group of humanoids, human-like creatures, who do not have language, but who have a whole range of faculties: faculties that we know are associated with the human, with our species, and that on the face of it do not appear to be language dependent. And then I imagine these humanoids in a situation where they come to invent language, and language begins to take off, maybe not initially in the more sophisticated Chomskyan form, but in a basic informational-exchange form. Going through six basic capacities, I show how these creatures would almost invariably have developed those capacities as a result of having language.

The first chapter starts with judgment and argues that this is robustly likely to appear among the humanoids as they begin to share information. They are going to benefit not just by getting information from others, but also by giving information to others, and once that’s the case, they are likely not just to ask other people, or answer the questions of other people, [but] to ask themselves questions, and to come to answer those questions. I argue basically, that this is the skill we call making judgments, and ultimately reasoning (I’m rushing a bit there in saying reasoning, that’s in the second chapter of the book). These mental skills allow ‘updating’ that is intentionally controlled, not just automatic and sub-personal. You ask yourself a question, like ‘what is the shortest route to such-and-such’, and as you remember, you go through it, in this mental map sort of way. And by virtue of making that effort, you answer your own question. You work out the swiftest route there. That actually is thinking, isn’t it – asking yourself questions and making judgements in response?

So the argument of that first chapter of the book is that this skill of judgment is really the interiorisation of a social skill that linguistic animals would have had to have anyhow, in order to communicate with one another. And then the book moves to other topics — the ability to reason, the capacity to distinguish between appearance and reality (to imagine things that are not), the capacity to make commitments to one another, and in the wake of such commitments to assume responsibility, and to hold others responsible.

I go on from responsibility to the notion of personhood — what it is to be a person. I focus on this range of human characteristics, from being a thinker and a reasoner to being an agent who can make commitments, can be held responsible and hold responsible, and can count as a person in a distinctive sense. I think this range of capacities is arguably due in great part to our being a species [that] learned social skills and then internalised and interiorised them. I call this an ‘outside-in’ theory of mind, as in the social or the outside comes first, so to speak, and the mental and the interior comes second. The idea that we are social animals (as Aristotle told us), conversable animals is, I think, not always fully appreciated. And I think this thought experiment of the humanoids is a way of making vivid a possible hypothesis that, actually, we are basically creatures of the word.


A Young Philip Pettit

Will: Your work has often looked at individual freedom and political freedom within societies; do you think that Covid-19 has challenged mainstream assumptions about the balance between public safety and personal or political freedoms?

Well, this takes us back to the social nature of the human being, and political philosophy (of both the state and of justice and so on). Now, I think what’s really central is that, just as the capacities we have at our best are language-dependent and so society-dependent, the highest aspirations we can fulfill are in our relationships with one another. They presuppose the existence of a social and political or legal framework.

So let’s focus on freedom. One way of thinking about freedom is that you’re perfectly free, so to speak, on the heath, in the wilderness of the state of nature, with no one around you. You can act as you wish, go wherever you want — you’re not fenced in, you’re born free! There is no interference and that’s what constitutes freedom. But, apart from Hobbest, all of the major theorists down to the later eighteenth century recognise that this is not the freedom that you might aspire to achieve in a social world.

It’s not what they would have called ‘civil freedom’, which is a phrase I quite like. Now, what does it take in order to enjoy civil freedom? We enjoy civil freedom, in relation to other people, since we live in a society. We know that we get in each other’s way, and we’ve got the power of interfering with one another. We know, therefore, that whatever freedom is, in the presence of all human beings, it can’t be the ‘freedom of the heath’, as it were — the freedom of the city has to be something quite different, right? Then we assume also that whatever individual freedom is, it should be a freedom that we can enjoy equally. Okay, now put those two assumptions together, it’s civil, and it’s equal. And ask, well, what could freedom be? 

An appealing answer comes from this long tradition that I’ve tried to draw on in my work, which I call the Republican tradition. This argues that you are not free if you’re in a position where no one is getting in your way, but there is a superior who can stop you acting as you’re choosing to, should their will towards you change. And the question is, are you free in such a world? I often use an example from A Doll’s House [by Ibsen]. Under Norwegian law in the play’s time, which is the 1860s or 1870s, a man really is in charge of his wife. And so in this world Nora, the wife in the play, depends on the goodwill of her husband Torvald in order to dress how she wishes, in order to meet whoever she wants to, in order to go to the theatre, in order to associate with friends, in order to practice this or that religion. That’s all under his control. But Torvald does not exercise that control — he gives her carte blanche, she can do whatever she wishes. And the question is, is Nora free? Well, she isn’t interfered with. So she certainly enjoys something like freedom as non-interference. He’s not getting in her way.

I remember asking a very large Chinese audience in mainland China, hundreds of graduates and undergraduates, is Nora free? And I remember these Chinese students chorused, resoundingly, no. If you live under the thumb of someone else, even though the thumb does not press… you depend on their will and, whatever you do, you do by their leave, by their implicit permission — cum permissu, as the 18th century Republicans put it — with permission, and that’s not being free. The lesson is that to enjoy civil, equal freedom, people have got to be not just not interfered with, but secure against that sort of interference. If people are to be equally free we ought to designate a range of choices, such that they’re protected for everybody by the law, and the breadth of those choices ought to be as wide as possible, as large as possible. But, equally, we want that the law will give a depth of protection against the interference of other people, that will create a zone of security within which each person can live. 

To enjoy individual freedoms is precisely to have security in such choices. So to enjoy freedom of speech, it’s not enough not to be hindered in choosing to say, or to not say your piece — it’s to be secure [and] confident that no one can get in your way, can step in… you don’t depend on anyone implicitly for permission to speak. Think of that as a model of what it is to enjoy individual freedoms. A just republic that promotes freedom will identify basic liberties for each and every member of that society, and protect those liberties in law. 

If you think of individual freedoms in this way, as a creation of law and of the state, you will realize that we are dependent on our communal law for the very freedoms we can enjoy — we are in the debt of the community as a whole, as represented by the state, for our freedoms. This means that as a society we define the freedoms we expect the law to defend. We don’t give one another freedom, for example, in this country to carry guns. And that’s obviously because if we had that freedom, we all probably think things would actually be worse for us overall. So the community doesn’t give individuals that freedom. In America, you get a massive murder toll every year, which is demonstrably connected with the availability of guns, and to Australian eyes that looks like a mistake. 

Now, when it comes to something like a pandemic, I think a community would be irresponsible if it did not recognise that allowing people the standard traditional liberties of movement and association might actually do more harm than good overall to the community. Thus it makes perfect sense that the community, the state, should sometimes be entitled to put limitations on our liberties… but always, always, I would say, with a sunset clause and an ability to challenge what it does. You don’t want a government that’s operating single handedly, on its own — it should be subject to checks and balances. The preconditions of freedom — which are social, political and legal — mean that emergency legislation and limitations may be, not just consistent with the enjoyment of your liberties, but essential for the community.


“I always say about philosophy — you’re not doing the thing right if you’re not bringing it home from the office. It’s not something you just do in the office. If it is, then I don’t think you’re approaching the subject in the right spirit. It’s not just mental gymnastics, or an exercise in high dialectical logic. I think fundamentally it has to be grounded in a real curiosity about this whole range of questions on nature, on our place in the world, on the sort of aspirations we hold for ourselves in ethics and, of course, collectively in politics.”

Philip Pettit

Will: Some readers might not be aware of your involvement with the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). We were hoping you could talk a little about that experience, of getting to see the philosophical movement be tangibly realised in the real world, through [former Spanish Prime Minister] Zapatero’s engagement with Republicanism. Were there any lessons or surprises that came about as a result of that?

Well to explain how it came about, I wrote this book called Republicanism at the ANU in 1997. Ironically, although when you write something like this, you think of it as a little trickle of tributary, flowing into a great river, and hope that even if it’s only taken up by a few hundred people, hopefully, it will reverberate in some way. Republicanism was in the air at the time, however, and the book got taken up quickly… multiply translated, and so on, to my total surprise and my publisher’s delight! It was translated into Spanish in 1999, and Zapatero became leader of the opposition in 2000, for the Socialist [Workers’] Party in Spain. I know from his advisors that he said, ‘I want a philosophy of government, not just, you know, to make it up as I go along’. He read political philosophy widely, and apparently, he liked my book and decided, ‘this is where I’m at, I’m a Republican’.

Maybe I should mention very briefly, the three crucial ideas of the Republican tradition (which goes back, at least, to ancient Rome, [to] Cicero and Polybius). One is the idea of freedom, that means not having a dominus, as they would say, a master, in your life — not having anyone whose leave you depend on. Secondly, it means having a government and a law that you share with others equally. It’s not a law imposed by a great dominus, a king — hence, Republicanism became associated with the rejection of kings in their absolute sense. The state should be under the control of many mutually checking hands if it is not to dominate people. And now the third element in republicanism — if this arrangement is to survive, there must be civic virtue and participation, the people must be prepared to take an interest and make an effort. Now, republican ideas went underground with the Roman Empire, but they were resurrected in the Middle Ages; in the northern medieval Italian Republic, the Republic of the Nobles in Poland, the Dutch Republic, the English Republic, and of course, they were very much part of the American Revolution.

What I tried to do was draw on the work of historians, for example my very close friend, Quentin Skinner, to restructure that tradition and set up a central matrix of ideas, and build a philosophy of contemporary government on the basis of those simple ideas. Now, Zapatero took up those ideas and popularised them. He talked about non-domination as the crucial idea of a republic, and in the end, by a matter of good fortune, he was elected in 2004. He invited me to speak to an audience in Madrid, and shortly afterwards he invited me to review his government six months before the next election. So I spent three years deeply engaged in what was happening. I had my 15 seconds of fame! I loved meeting with him — he was always intent on persuading me about what he was doing, and he did many wonderful things, like legalising gay marriage.

In arguing for gay marriage, I remember he made an impassioned plea to parliament, asking heterosexual members, ‘which one of you is going to meet with a gay friend, look him in the eye and say that “your intimate relations are not deserving of the same legal recognition and protection as as mine are”?’. And that was very powerful, you know. I also remember him across the table asking me ‘who are the most dominated people in the world’ and then answering ‘…women, women, women!’. I admired the man very greatly. I learned a lot from him. People are many, and legion, and divided, you know — united in commitment, hopefully, for their constitution, but otherwise divided — and I think mainly I learnt the importance of finding a language in which to articulate your ideals in a way that can reach all people who don’t necessarily follow a philosophical argument.


With President Zapatero in 2005

Thomas: We are interested to know what you thought about the levels of inclusion or exclusion in philosophy when you first came to Australia, perhaps with certain demographic groups, or overlooked philosophical traditions. Do you think this has changed?

The best change in my lifetime has been the increasing number of women in the profession, although it’s not as if it was wholly male dominated when I began. It’s  wonderful to see the increasing number of women, but there still aren’t enough women. I would say most of us think that it will take undoubtedly a decade or two to put that right. It also was certainly a dominantly white population, and that’s still true, alas, in philosophy, I would love to see it expand. I would love to see other traditions, for example, traditional Chinese philosophy. There is more and more of that actually, and also Buddhist traditions and Indian traditions.

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

Well, I’ve absolutely no doubt what it is. I talked about being enthusiastic. When I came to philosophy, there were a number of books I liked a lot. One, for example, was Hart’s The Concept of Law, which I started quite early on, and indeed still matters to me a lot. But the book that really excited me was Being and Nothingness by Sartre. It’s a hard book to read. I actually tell students who are approaching it, ‘think of it like crossing a rope’. If you go too slowly you’ll fall off, you’ve got to go at a certain pace through it. I think the same is true for Ulysses, although I’m sure the literary theorists would hate me for saying that. This is very different from analytic philosophy, where you have to read very carefully — sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. With Being and Nothingness you’ve got to read it fast. But man, there’s a massively, extraordinarily interesting picture in that book. It’s a very stark picture, and in many ways a very false picture. But it was the only picture I got apart from the traditional Christian one which included everything in it.

In Being and Nothingness you get this divide between en-soi (being-in-itself) and pour-soi (being-for-itself). I actually went to France for a summer, to learn French in order to read Sartre, and some of the commentators in French at the time. I found it so exciting! On Sartre’s picture, you get these emotions that reveal to you the nature of the en-soi and the pour-soi — being in itself and being for itself. En-soi is just everything there is out there. It’s stuff, as you might say. His novel Nausea describes the experience of Roquentin experiencing stuff in itself, and the emotion of nausea in response to it. And what he experiences is ‘the loss of names’. As he says, ‘park benches cease to be park benches, chairs cease to be chairs, trees cease to be trees…’ they become just stuff. 

And then the pour-soi, it’s what we are. And Sartre thinks we are a “nothing”. “Nothing” is like a verb; it’s what you do in marking off things from one another and marking changes over time. You introduce the ‘not’ — this is not that, this is not what it was. Sartre says ‘you are not what you are’. You realise, as soon as you think of yourself as having this character but actually, it’s not you, because you can be anything. Out of this Sarte has this notion of freedom — freedom is the fact of being capable of assuming any unknown identity, and recognising that actually it’s the en-soi that assumes names and meanings and distinctions… it’s all your work (of creation, of construction) that you bring to that passive being.

The thing about Sartre that I loved was you also have an emotion that reveals the pour-soi to itself. Just as the en-soi is revealed in nausea, the pour-soi is revealed in anguish. This appears in realizing ‘I could commit suicide, I could let go, I could do anything’ — and it gives you “vertigo”, as he describes it. Sartre’s plays and novels round out these emotions in this experience of reality, and indeed the social commentary draws on it too. For example, in The Portrait of the Antisemite, this rather uncertain adolescent character goes to a party, someone introduces him to a Jewish friend of theirs, and then they say ‘oh my God, I’d forgotten, he can’t stand you. I shouldn’t have introduced you.’ He’s not anti-Semitic, but he suddenly realises this is his identity. He has now assumed that he’s a somebody — he’s an anti-Semite. 

I just found that overall picture so enthralling… [also] I found it really repugnant at a certain level. I did not think, and do not think, that we have that sort of freedom. Indeed, I think that’s probably in great part a reason why I’ve been so focused on notions of free will. as well as social freedom — searching for something to make sense of our freedom without going to the extremes like Sartre. I think Sartre’s wrong on both the en-soi and the pour-soi. But man, there’s an arresting vision there.


Trekking in Namadgi

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

Perhaps the stance I take on free will — which perhaps is also shared with my partner, Victoria McGeer, who is also a philosopher at the ANU, [although] we might formulate it in different ways. Here is my way of putting it. I think there is a reality to what we talk about when we say that we have the capacity to have done otherwise — the whole range of choices we make — and therefore there’s a reality to what we ascribe to ourselves when we think of ourselves as having free will. But I do think that the perception of free will is stance-dependent.

I think that when you pull back the lens, and you look at the universe (from the point of view of God, or the ultimate physics) all you see are the workings of cause and chance. You won’t see free will in there by, for example, pointing out ‘there’s a wiggle!’. You won’t see free will intervening and changing the order of things. But I think that we actually lose sight of it if we only take the perspective of physics. You can’t fall in love with someone from the point of view of the great physics perspective. There’s not going to be anything about someone that will make you laugh or want to be friends with them. Because friendship is stance-dependent, it ultimately depends on our stances, and on the particular creatures we are. To take a more obvious example, from the physics point of view, things aren’t even coloured. You have to have a certain sensorium, a sensitivity to light within certain wavelengths, a sensitivity to the reflectance of light from surface objects, in order to see different colours in them. 

But I ask you now — are things coloured or not? Well, I think yes, of course, things are coloured. Colour is not a fundamental property of things. It doesn’t, so to speak, play a role in explaining things from a cosmic point of view. But colour is a reality that [we] and other animals, with our sort of sensorium, see. And of course we see colour in the things in which we take great joy, and the things that are really important to us. I think that free will is on a par with colour. I think that’s what we see in other people when we see them as someone within a community of mutual influence — someone you can talk with, interact with, and in that old phrase, “do business” with. In these cases we see the person as someone of free will. We also see ourselves as possessed of free will insofar as we see ourselves as worthy of that stance that others take towards us. The fact is, we see ourselves as worthy of our taking that own stance towards ourselves.

Suppose you’re confronted with an issue of whether to tell the truth or not in an embarrassing situation. I see you as worthy of free will when I think of you as someone I can exhort to tell the truth. When I exhort you, I can say, ‘Jack, you know what you want to do and you can do it!’ — when I say ‘you can do it’, I’m not saying ‘Oh, by the way, I’ve noticed you have this ability, you could tell the truth, it’s a possibility that’s consistent with everything up to now’ — I’m not saying that. I’m actually trying to elicit the very capacity I’m describing to you. By reminding you that you can do it, I can actually lift that capacity within you. And if you don’t do it, I may give up on you altogether. 

But if I don’t give up on you, what am I going to say to you? I’m going to say, ‘You could have told the truth, Jack’. You’re still within the community of mutual exhortation that we belong to. And when I think that I possess free will, I think of myself as someone who can be exhorted to do things. And I know that I can, so to speak, recruit and mobilise the resources of persuasion that are available to us through language and through having settled and shared norms. I know I can resource myself to actually perform up to par. And if I fail to do so, I don’t necessarily give up on myself. If I do, that’s really very sad. That is the “sin of despair” — the sin against the Holy Ghost in ancient wisdom. I don’t give up on myself like that. I continue to push back. That’s what free will is. It’s having the capacity to actually keep yourself true to standards that you have chosen to endorse on the basis of the evidence available to you.

I am a compatibilist — I think that free will is compatible with the world being as it is in the cosmic vision. People often say that compatibilists ascribe free will because, for example, they don’t know the causes, or because they think there’s a cause of a certain kind. I don’t think that’s quite right. I think, rather, that we ascribe free will when we can successfully adopt and maintain a stance towards the person in question in our mutual relationships, and when we can sustain that stance in our relationship with ourselves. Is free will real? It’s as real as colour. It’s far more important to us than even the fundamental forces. Our lives are built around the assumption of free will. Our success as a species, the joy or achievements we have in life… all of them turn on the assumption that we have free will. So I think it’s really important. And it’s as real — if not as real as it gets — as it’s important to be. And that’s enough for me.

Thank you, Professor Philip Pettit!

You can see more of Philip Pettit’s work here.

This interview was edited and abridged by the 2021-2022 UPJA Editorial team of Jack Hawke, Jessica Sophia Ralph, Anna Day, and James Cafferky in April 2022.