Keeping Sartre, and other passions


Richard Moraninterviewed by Richard Marshall.

Richard Moran thinks shutting down questions is a bad philosophical impulse, is buzzed by the relationship between literature and philosophy, finds his interest in metaphor arising from rhetoric as much as aesthetics or philosophy of language, slaps down high modernism's treatment of emotions, finds Proust a high-five when considering Kant's ideas about beauty,(and more extreme, and more amazing than he dared to imagine) goes deep considering self-knowledge and bad faith, sees deep-cookin' relations between knowledge of actions and knowledge of minds when jammin' off Anscombe, shoots up Wittgensteinian and Gricean wonders about speech and testimony and some, is ice cool and steady with Freud, naturalism and x-phi, and digs Sartre as essential, unfairly bad-mouthed and like John Lennon. Taken together, this is one groovy existentialist jive.

3:AM:What made you become a philosopher? Were you always thinking about the world in a particular way that meant philosophy made sense to you, or was it something else?

Richard Moran:It's hard to say. It's certainly not what I expected when I was a raw youth. Early in school, I can remember being struck by how each teacher for my different subjects could talk sometimes as though their subject was the "master discipline" that was the most important one, and that encompassed and explained all the others. Sometimes that's just a teacher's way of trying to generate enthusiasm for their subject, but I always found it off-putting. They couldn't all be right, of course, and it seemed to me just too easy for any subject matter to picture itself as being the one at the centre of things, the one that all the others are somehow secretly striving to emulate. Probably some seed of irritation was planted then which grew into the desire to show that they were all wrong, that any such reductionism or disciplinary imperialism was just deluded public-relations.

Beyond that, in my case there were multiple factors at play, some of them quite superficial such as the fact that philosophy seemed to permit me to put off indefinitely the question of what kind of intellectual work I would do, and the kinds of questions I would concentrate on. Philosophy allowed you to roam around. I was certainly attracted right away by the idea of a disciplined form of humanistic knowledge that was holistic, that strove to see the interconnectedness of questions as different as those of the possibility of knowledge and right action, metaphysics and poetry, language and history, and politics and self-knowledge. In the right hands, philosophy has always been a place for questions that have no other home among the disciplines, and yet which we remain convinced are real questions even if we don't yet even know what it would mean to answer them. Sometimes, of course, we discover that our sense of the question we were asking was confused, or there wasn't really the question we thought there was. But it is very important to the health of philosophy that we resist the idea that there is a way of knowing in advance whether our questions are real ones or not. That is a perennial temptation in philosophy, to think that we could arrive or have arrived at a method or general principle (e.g., verificationism, certain forms of pragmatism) for knowing in advance which questions are "real" and which are not, the dream of a formal method for banishing "metaphysics" in the pejorative sense.

Sometimes philosophical practice takes the form of "shutting down questions", but I think that's a bad impulse. It can be a matter of professional philosophical pride to think that we should be in the business of providing something like a formal criterion of meaningfulness, since the intellectual world is indeed crowded with bluster and emptiness of various kinds. But the long history of such attempts fully justifies the "pessimistic induction" that there is no such thing to be found, and that the confidence that one has found such a method leads to aridity and factionalism in philosophy itself. Neither the history of the sciences or of the arts suggest that we will ever be in a position to legislate in advance on the limits of the meaningful. The temptation is a natural one, for abandoning it means that as philosophers we have to acknowledge that we ourselves cannot always be confident that we are even making sense, let alone that we are provably correct about something. That's an embarrassing position for any grown-up to be in, but particularly one who is being paid to teach the young and advance the cause of knowledge. But at the same time there is something particularly bracing about this line of work as well. There must be somewhere in intellectual life for the disciplined and good-faith effort to understand something about the difference between the meaningful and the meaningless, the contentful and the empty, and the name for such a discipline would have to be 'philosophy'.

In college I had a chaotic but intense introduction to the subject, and was introduced to an amazing variety of texts early on. By the time I graduated, pretty much everyone I had taken philosophy courses from had been expelled from the system, one way or another. My undergraduate friends and I were both exhilarated and burned by the experience, and after graduation everyone but me dropped philosophy and didn't look back. I somehow remained hooked, but also felt abandoned; I didn't want to stop, but I also didn't know how to continue with it on my own, since at the time I certainly didn't want to pursue philosophy in graduate school, nor would it have been possible for me to do so. (No one remaining at my school was willing to write me a letter of recommendation, for one thing.) For several years I worked at various jobs and read a lot of philosophy and other things, and kept writing the whole time. Eventually, I felt I could take a chance on re-entering academic life, and started preparing to send out applications. The good thing is that by the time I did get to graduate school I had a pretty good idea of some of the things I wanted to do and learn about, so I was much more focused than in my undergraduate days. But I did get my original passion for the subject in those days, so I can't regret that either. And Cornell was a very supportive and stimulating environment once I got there.

3:AM:Can you tell us something about your approach to figurative language and metaphorin particular and why you take this to be philosophically important?

RM:I have been interested in the relations of philosophy and literature since I first became interested in philosophy itself, and I was certainly someone whose first attraction to philosophy came from various intense responses to the texts of philosophy. Reading Plato or Descartes or Nietzsche for the first time can, among other things, make you want to understand how such a feat of writing could be possible, how such a mad text could have been produced, and what world of discourse could have made such a text possible, if improbable. Especially in first encounters, philosophy attracts as much by its sound as by the soundness of its arguments. And that the texts as reading experiences really were of the sort to invite, frustrate, and reward such intense focus and questioning - that for me was a revelation, and part of what first drew me to philosophy. I really had not had that kind of experience of a text bearing up under that kind of pressure and scrutiny. And of course one wants so much from the reading experience of the great texts of philosophy, the stakes and expectations are so high, that it is thrilling to encounter texts that present themselves as actually occupying that space, welcoming, insisting on that kind of attention. (Hence of course the complementary reactions of disappointment, the various forms of 'take down' and 'seeing through the whole thing' that also marks those encounters.)

My paperson metaphorwere coming from an interest as much in rhetoric as in either aesthetics or philosophy of language. I was and am interested in both the philosophy of language and the aesthetics of metaphor, but my focus there was on what certain work in the philosophy of language (Davidson, primarily) could tell us about what the difference is between getting one's idea across in the sense at play in literal assertion, and getting one's idea across in the case of metaphor, irony and other tropes. That's a distinction that a rhetorician is concerned with: the differences in forms by which speakers address and influence the ideas of others, and whether some of these forms are inherently corrupt, or untrustworthy, or less transparent than the standard of explicit, literal assertion. It's a Platonic suspicion, of course, but not only him. Rhetoric in the bad sense is a matter of emotions rather than reason, force rather than logic, pictures that sweep you up rather than arguments that convince you.

So I wanted to begin with two naive questions, and ask, one: Why do we speak metaphorical language in terms of 'figures' and 'pictures' in the first place? What does it mean to speak of metaphoric functioning as akin to that of a picture, an image, or a figure? And two, the same question vis-a-vis the idiom of "force" as applied to metaphors and figurative speech generally. In both cases, once you look for it, you see this language is everywhere, but it is unclear what it is doing. And then, I was suggesting that the understanding of 'image' in metaphor and 'force' in metaphor had to be understood together. And that this enabled us to see what was right and also what was wrong in Davidson's account of metaphor, according to which nothing is strictly speaking said in metaphor, or by the speaker of the metaphor, beyond the literal content of the statement. Contrary to Davidson, we do say things metaphorically, at least to the extent that we find ourselves affirming and denying the metaphorical content (rather than the literal one) of each other's statements when we argue with each other. And the composition as well as the comprehension of metaphor would make no sense if that were not true. But Davidson is also right that the functioning of metaphor is not exhausted by what is said, either literally or figurative, but centrally includes the ways that metaphor and other figures organise thought prior to anything being said, asserted, or offered for belief.

The later paper I wrote on Aristotle on metaphor in the Rhetorictakes on the rhetorical context directly, and when I set to work on it I was gratified to see how insistent on seeing and visuality Aristotle himself is, very much including in his explanation of the peculiar 'force' of metaphor, and how it functions rhetorically. My more recent work on speech, intersubjectivity, testimonyand the like is in some ways a development of some of these concerns, trying to understand better the importance (and sometimes the unimportance) of the difference between such things a direct and indirect saying or claiming, and the various other illocutionary forms of "getting one's ideas across".

3:AM:You have examined the role of emotions in aesthetic appreciation. There’s an obvious philosophical question as to what is the role of emotions directed towards fictions, and there’s also a historical context where we have the backlash against Romanticism’s sublime and Victoriana’s sentimentality which certainly infused high modernism.

RM:If I were to write that paper again ('The Expression of Feeling in Imagination'), I would try harder to connect two thoughts that are not really developed there. You mention "high modernism" there and the rejection of sentimentality. There is a suspicion or an indictment of emotion as such in much of the rhetoric of both modernism and post-modernism. I don't mean that it's universal, but it is certainly pervasive. This is often coupled with the idea (Brechtian, or Platonic) that emotional engagement with something representational must be grounded in the illusory belief that one is not in fact outside the scene or fictional world, but that one is somehow within it. This normally more of a background assumption than a stated principle, and when it is affirmed it is normally presented as merest common sense. This always seemed wrong to me. I couldn't understand it's appeal, and it didn't fit with any of my own experience with music, literature, or movies. The sources of emotional engagement with representations are far more diverse than some kind of quasi-belief that one is within the fictional world, and often independent of it altogether. So that's one thought in the background. And the second thought, which is really the main body of the paper, is that there must be something off in an approach to the role of emotion in aesthetic contexts that is formulated in terms of imagining or making-believe that something is so (e.g., that I see something threatening approaching me and I am afraid of it). This is what I was objecting to in Kendall Walton'saccount of emotions and make-believe. His view has in the meantime become very influential and so by now some version of this is many people's view of imagination and emotion.

One thing that seemed off about it to me, again going back to my own experience with movies and literature, is that a theory like that separates me as spectator too much from the imagined person who is in some fictional world and feeling something. That is, it seems plain to me that in many contexts we take ourselves, our real, non-fictional selves, to be implicated in what we're feeling and how we're feeling it in the movie theater, or sitting reading in a chair. When we are appalled, or gratified, or vengeful, or aroused, or indignant, we are responding as the very people we are, and not fictional counterparts of ourselves. I couldn't careabout what I feel or fail to feel at the movies or when I'm reading if I related to those feelings as those of an imagined version of myself. (This is not to say that Walton's view precludes the person actually feeling things at the movies. It does not. But the feelings that matter to the account are in an imagined context.) So, I wanted to put pressure on the idea that imagination in these contexts should be understood in terms of fictions or fictional states, that it should be understood always in terms of making believe that something is so (or that I am doing or feeling something). So the two thoughts it would have been nice to develop together would be that in both the Platonic-Brechtian suspicion of the role of emotional response in the context of mimetic art, and in the contemporary analytic account of the nature of "vicarious emotions", there is the assumption of a kind of "propositional" understanding of both imagination itself (i.e., that it is always "imagining that --"), and of emotional response itself (that they both are a matter of taking something to be the case and responding to that fact).

I think we do a lot of imagining and responding emotionally in the theatre, for instance, much of it having nothing to do with imagining something to be the case, let alone that it is happening to us. (By the way, my friend Billy Fleschhas a book that should interest philosophers, called Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment and Other Biological Components of Fiction, which is among other things a fascinating account of the nature of "vicarious emotions" and responses to fictions.)

3:AM:Perhaps we can understand your take on the role of emotions in aesthetics if we look at how you discuss beauty. Developing insights from Kant and Proust you resuscitate beauty as something involving a normative demand on the subject. You see Proust as trying to resolve some of the paradoxes of beauty found in Kant. So what are these and how does Proust attempt to overcome them? And do you think he succeeds and does this also help us understand how feelings fit in with art?

RM:In 'Kant, Proust, and the Appeal of Beauty', I begin with Kant's problem from the 'Third Critique' of how taking something to be beautiful can involve making a claim any different from that involved in finding something to one's liking. He takes it to be different from that, different from simply finding something to be a source of pleasure. He believes that calling something beautiful is a judgment of a different order than that of simple likes and dislikes. And indeed, one might think, that without some such difference, there is no topic of 'beauty' any longer, or no reason to be concerned with it philosophically anymore than any other generic way of thinking of the pleasurable. This thought is not unique to Kant, however, but is found everywhere where poets or philosophers distinguish beauty as a topic by reference to the idea of a special claim it makes upon us or that we make upon it. In Kant, we see a concentration on the idea of a beauty as characterised by a special claim we make upon each other; that is, a claim for universal agreement. With ordinary pleasures, he says, we are happy to let everyone find it where they will, and there is no demand that we all agree. With beauty, however, he believes that it is part of the very idea of invoking that concept that we demand universal agreement from everyone. That's just what it means to call something beautiful (as opposed to merely 'agreeable'). The central paradox for him stems from the fact that it equally pertains to the judgment of beauty that we recognise that no such judgment can be proved empirically or show itself to be based on principles. In which case: what in all this could put someone in a position to be making demands for (or imputations of) "universal agreement"?

I've taught the 'Third Critique' for years, and it is clearly one of the indisputably great texts of philosophical aesthetics. But I've always felt uncomfortable in this region of his thinking. We start from the idea of something distinctive in the experience of the beautiful, in the expression of the judgment of beauty, and then we move very quickly to the picture of someone issuing demands to others and insisting on their agreement, all the while acknowledging, even insisting, that he can't really offer reasons or principles to back up this demand. Something has clearly gone wrong here, the direction of attention is off, the kind of value associated with beauty seems misplaced in this context of rendering judgments and calling for universal agreement. In the confrontation with something beautiful, one's attention is captured by the thing itself, and not distracted by the possible reactions of other people and the insistence that they agree. And yet, for me anyway, Kant seems starting from the right place, and insisting on many of the right things.

Reading Prousthelped me to see that there is a way to go back to the original thought that in the experience of beauty we want to invoke a different order of value from what happens to please us, but without that taking the juridical form that it does in Kant. In his own way, Proust is even more extreme than Kant in his depiction of encounters with beauty as involving a sense of felt necessity, of a kind of claim upon him, something he takes himself to be measured by, as opposed to ordinary pleasures which answer to his existing needs and desires. Both Kant and Proust may be said to be insisting on an inflated conception of beauty, one that is ripe for deflation by philosophers and others. They both bring the idea of beauty into the region where it seems required to promise more than it can honestly deliver, and I'm interested in that experience as well, the Proustian theme of disappointment with the promise of beauty and the history of forms of skepticism about the very idea of beauty as a distinctive region of experience, or as a different order of claim. Proust is both more extreme than Kant in his dramatising of the encounter with something beautiful, and yet ends up giving a more realistic picture than Kant does of the place in our live of such experiences and their claims upon us. Or so I argue in the paper. It turned out to be very natural to discuss them together. Kant's concerns in the 'Third Critique' are of course as much theoretical and architectonic as they are strictly aesthetic. At the same time, Proust is a useful and worthy counterweight here, given the depth of his own philosophical learning and the profundity of his own experience and contemplation of beauty. I was lucky enough to be able to teach a full course on Proust last year, and will certainly be working on him more. I had always planned on reading him, but I didn't get to it until relatively late in life. It was one of those cases where you put off reading some masterpiece for a long time, partly out of fear that it will be disappointing after all the hype, and then it turns out to be more amazing than you could have imagined.

3:AM:You’ve objected to theories of morality that leave out the Sartrean idea that objectivising our selves omits the duties we have towards ourselves. What are the objections to these impersonal theories of the self that Sartre makes and do you agree with him that they are deficient at least in respect to this?

RM:You mean the Rakehell paper ('Impersonality, Character, and Moral Expressivism'), that evolved into the last chapter of Authority and Estrangement? There I start off talking about the role of an ideal of impersonality in ethics, an ideal of objectivity toward oneself. This ideal is part of a picture of morality that takes the overcoming of egoism or self-love as the task of morality as a perspective on ourselves and our actions. This can take many different forms. Tom Nagel has been among the most explicit and searching in laying out how a certain basic commitment to objectivity, reason, realism, and the anti-solipsistic understanding that I am but one person in the world among others, how all this leads us to the thought that "one must be able to regard oneself in every respect impersonally." (The Possibility of Altruism.) It's a natural thought to have. In Nagel's case it is certainly related to a kind of moral ideal embodied in Rawls' 'original position', where I am to adopt a point of view upon myself that is "impersonal" in the relevant senses. And it's as natural as the thought that there is an ideal of seeing oneself as much as possible outside of the egocentric perspective and that is as much as possible modelled on how we would relate to ourselves as an other person.

The previous chapters of the book argue that the systematic asymmetries between the first-person and the third-person perspectives "go all the way down", as it were, and are basic to the very notion of the person, of being an agent, being a believer or a thinker at all. So that there will always be limitations to the coherence of modelling one's relation to oneself on a relation to someone-or-other. So I mean to be pointing to an ambiguity in the notion of the ideal of the impersonal point of view, and asking how we might resolve this. Surely it does not follow simply from my acknowledging that I am but one person in a world of others that I am compelled to embrace, or even to find coherent, the idea of a perfectly impersonal relation to myself. And I don't think that this is ultimately what Nagel himself wants. But then what is the ideal of impersonality, especially once we have withdrawn the stark universal form of the claim that one must be able to regard oneself "in every respect impersonally"? I think this is a form of objection that can be found in Bernard Williams, for instance, although I was not picking up on this at the time I wrote my book. But I did see something like that in Sartreon bad faith. For one of the forms of bad faith is taking an "objectifying perspective" on oneself, on one's attitudes, or one's behaviour, as phenomena pertaining to some person or other, when this is convenient or a form of evasion. And the recriminations and reversals of the Rakehell'sself-description seemed a perfect expression of what is perverse in the impersonal demand, and how it exhibits itself not only in the self-sacrificing behavior we admire but also in the self-exculpating behaviour we deplore.

The great thing about the man in the Rakehell storyis that, like anyone in bad faith, at any point in his evasion or self-justification he can appeal to the fact that he is rendering a judgment upon himself "from the outside", taking the perspective of another on himself. And indeed he is rendering a true judgment on himself from that perspective. As though any and all claims upon him must have been fully addressed and discharged here, now that he is apprehending himself just as he would any other person. He means to acknowledge his fault and place himself out of reach at the same time ("I leave my tattered garment in the hands of the fault-finder", in Sartre's wonderful phrase). But what the bad faith and the Rakehell cases show, I think, is that this sort of show of impartiality is a sham, and that rather than being hard-headed and objective about oneself, one is in fact evading the specific engagements, responsibilities that are lodged in the first-person point of view of the deliberator, the agent, the self-justifier. And that perspective on oneself is not an indulgence or a concession to egocentrism, but is constitutive of being a person with a moral life in the first place. Hence the question: what, then, is the ideal of the impersonal point of view, assuming I am right that it is not simply equivalent to the rejection of solipsism, and what sort of reason, if any, do we have to respect it?

3:AM:In grappling with how we should understand ourselves, you take issue with Wittgenstein and Crispin Wright and a host of others who argue that self-knowledge can’t be about privileged apprehension of independent facts about our inner life. And this links to your ideas of first person authority doesn’t it? This is the idea that the epistemic authority of the first person is not that I always know best about what I am thinking but rather that its my business what I’m thinking, that I have authority over that realm. Can you say something about your interests in this big area of philosophical thinking?

RM:There are indeed many different strands to the philosophical topic of self-knowledge, so my concerns are not going to necessarily be the same concerns as those of other philosophers writing on the topic. Sorting out real disagreement from differing interests in different phenomena is more difficult in the area of self-knowledge than in many others. Although the topic seems like one of the perennial ones in philosophy, the different discussions of self-knowledge in the literature today are inhabiting different problem-spaces that are in fact quite new. My interest in the topic emerged at first from Wittgenstein, and the topic of self-knowledge has a special place there. Wittgenstein takes it to be a fundamental fact about psychological concepts that they exhibit various forms of asymmetry between their first-person and third-person uses. For him, it marks the very notion of the psychological (as range of phenomena, as a form of discourse) that the ways I can talk about my own mental life will be systematically different from the ways I can talk about the mental lives of others.

And yet surely we can talk about the very same things! Including our own mental lives and those of others. There is pressure here as well to do justice to the idea that we live in the same world, with the same range of phenomena available for discourse. Surely I can have all the same thoughts about my pain for instance that another person can have, if my being in pain is to be as true or as much of a fact as anything else in the world. And likewise for my beliefs and other attitudes. And likewise for the actions I perform, one might think. But alas, there are problems with all these ideas. It might be argued for instance, as Wittgenstein does, that it makes no sense to think of me doubting whether I am in pain, whereas another person can of course do this. And as for belief, another person may take my belief about something to be mistaken, but this doesn't seem to be a straightforward possibility in relating to my own belief, not while I retain it. And as for action, there are many reasons for thinking that the agent's own relation to her own action must be fundamentally different, cognitively and otherwise, from any observer's relation to it. And yet one's action is something that takes place in the same world as other things, including the actions of other people. If this is right, these are differences in the very possibilities of thought with regard to these things, and not just differences in proximity or differences in the possibilities of practical control. And yet, as before, this whole perspective on the realm of agency and mentality seems in tension with the idea that we live in a common world of phenomena, and the phenomena are equally available for thought by anyone, however she may be situated with respect to them. The counter-thought is that, no, I cannot actually relate to my own action simply as a happening in the world alongside other happenings, even if there is some sense in which that is true of my action of driving in traffic, for instance (all those other happenings out there I have to relate myself to). And I cannot do this for reasons that are central to what agency itself is. Whatever being objective ultimately means, it cannot mean denying this, but must instead mean something more like: acknowledging that all other agents around me are similarly situated with respect to their own actions, and yet the actions we perform all take place in the same world. Similar things can be said about my relation to my pains, and my beliefs and other attitudes. So when I said earlier that my interest in self-knowledge was coming from a particular place, this is what I mean. I'm interested in the very idea of self-other asymmetries marking the psychological as such, and therefore as charting a set of philosophical tensions in the idea of our occupying a common world with other subjectivities, other agents.

You spoke of the contrast I draw between authority in the sense of an 'expert witness', the person with the best vantage point for observation, and the idea of authority in the sense of the person in charge, or the person responsible. There is something undeniably metaphorical in this, but I think the contrast is useful enough. My invocation of agency in the explication of self-knowledge has sometimes been thought to be misplaced. Some would wish to deny the relevance of a notion of responsibility altogether, as a characterisation of our relation to our beliefs and other attitudes. Don't they just occur to us, with no agential intervention? Others may grant the notion of responsibility as applied to one's beliefs and other attitudes, but deny that this has anything to do with the understanding of self-knowledge. After all, when I confidently answer a question about what I believe, am I not reporting on my already settled belief, rather than exerting any doxastic agency then and there? I try to address these concerns in a recent paper 'Self-knowledge, 'transparency', and the activity of belief', which is published in the recent Introspection and Consciousnessvolume, edited by Declan Smithiesand Daniel Stoljar(with excellent papers by many other philosophers).

When I speak of it as being "your business" what you believe, I am not thinking of anything like the conscious manipulation of belief. Rather I see myself as defending a somewhat minimal claim here: the subject of belief is the person who we ask when we want to know what he believes and why he believes it. He is not just one person among others with regard to these questions. He is the one expected to know, both about the what and the why of his belief. What it is that he believes and why it makes sense to believe it. And this expectation is related to the fact that his belief is not simply a condition he is in, but is the expression of how he is relating himself to the world around him. The thought is not that the agency in question is somehow located outside of the beliefs and other attitudes, manipulating them for purposes external to what they essentially are. Rather, the comparison with action is closer than that. Just as with ordinary action, a person in the middle of doing something is expected to be able to tell us what he is doing, and why he is doing it. And the reason for this is that the answers to these two questions cannot be separate matters for him. That is, his answer to the question of what he is doing has to be at the same time his answer to the question of why he is doing it, what the point of it is. For the agent these answers come to the same thing because the very production of the action, what brings it into being, is his response to the question of what he has reason to do, what the point of it is. The existence of the action as something real to ask a question about depends on the agent seeing its unfolding as an ongoing response to the question of why he is doing it. He can tell us what he is doing and why because the unfolding of the action itself is his business. It is itself a response to the reasons he takes himself to have and to the worldly situation he finds himself in. So it is here that I think that the connection between self-knowledge of action and self-knowledge of belief and other attitudes is close enough for them to be parts of a single topic. So in a sense I wanted to defend what I saw as a minimal claim: about self-knowledge and being the subject of belief. Being 'subject of belief' can't mean like being the subject of headache or a bolt of lightning. It must mean being participant in my believing. The person who is addressed what we ask "How can you believe a thing like that? You were right there when it happened!". I take this approach to be consistent with the possibility of gaps and errors of various kinds, but I'm not always sure whether other philosophers writing about something called "self-knowledge" mean to deny what I take to be this minimal claim, or whether they are concerned with a different set of questions altogether.


3:AM:You link the idea of non-observational knowledge with Anscombe’saccount of practical knowledge. You again invoke the idea of the privileging of authority over our own actions without saying that this means we are infallible about intentions. It’s just that ‘if the agent doesn’t know what he’s doing, no one else can know.’ This is because it is only through the agent’s description of what she’s doing that we can understand the action, and the agent knows without observation. Is this right? Can you say more about this argument, and how your ideas connect with Anscombehere.

RM:Anscombe'sbook on Intentionmade a big impression on me when I read it as an undergraduate, though I couldn't understand most of what was going on. But the idea of 'agent's knowledge' stuck with me. When I began to work on self-knowledge in graduate school with Sydney Shoemaker, I had Anscombe's discussion in the back of my mind, particularly the idea that an agent can typically say what she is doing, and what she will do, in a way that does not depend on observation of herself. (David Velleman's paper Practical Reflectioncame out in the Philosophical Reviewaround the same time.) The account I developed tries to show deep relations between knowledge of actions and knowledge of minds, in the end seeing these as part of one topic because it is agents who have mental lives. And agents bear a special relation to their own actions and their own attitudes, different from any observer, in that it is to the agent that we direct the question "What are you doing?" and "Why are you doing it?"

These questions have to be answered together. Given Anscombe's thought that an action only counts as intentional when describe certain ways and not others ("under a description"), the very reality of it as an intentional action depends on the agent's understanding of what she is doing and why. Naturally it is possible for us to be confused about what we are doing or about our own genuine attitudes about something, but I believe that without the framework just described we have left the topic of intentional action or intentional (in the sense of 'directed') states of mind. Not everything one does (like blinking or knocking something over) is an intentional action, and not everything going through one's mind counts as an attitude about something in the world.

The sense of saying 'if the agent doesn't know, no one else can know' is to capture the limited but crucial sense of privilege here, which once again grounds things in asymmetries between self and other, or agent and observer. When the agent has no idea what she is doing, or refuses the application of Anscombe's question "why?" altogether, then the thought is we don't have an intentional action in view, to be known by either the agent herself or some outside observer. Of course, in this whole approach I am insisting on the perspective of the person as a whole, and denying that either actions or attitudes apply to parts of a person. This is a matter of deep division in contemporary philosophy. I think the perspective of the person as a whole is fundamental to understanding either action or mental life. The idea of practical knowledge has many dimensions, not only in Anscombe and related thinkers. I think there is a lot more to say about practical knowledge as a form of self-knowledge, and self-knowledge as itself a form of practical knowledge. The discussion is evolving in very interesting ways right now, on the part of several different philosophers.

3:AM:You are interested in speech and testimony. Can you say something here about where this interest came from and why you find it significant?

RM:Oddly enough (or repetitively enough), my interest in speech and testimony originally came out of that same interest of mine in the idea of self-other asymmetries, or the idea of systematic, inescapable differences in how I can relate to some aspect of myself and how I can relate to others. It was in graduate school, when I was starting to work on self-knowledge that I read a paper by Angus Ross called 'Why do we believe what we are told?'. In that paper he argues that the speaker's own stance toward what she says must be something different from the presentation of something as evidence for the truth of what she says, in part because when something like a photograph is evidence for something, it is so for reasons quite independent of the beliefs or intentions of the person who either takes the photograph or shows it to someone else. A speaker's relation to her own words, when she tells someone something, can't be like that. In the context of her telling someone the house is on fire, for example, her utterance is only a reason to believe something on the assumption that she, as speaker, bears a certain relation to her utterance. She must, for instance, be awake and aware of what she is saying, otherwise she's just talking in her sleep and not asserting or warning at all. The speaker must mean these words she says as an assertionthat the house is on fire, rather than as a linguistic example as I just did, or as a translation exercise; the speaker must understand the language she is speaking, and that her act of speaking is supposed to count for her audience as a reason to believe that the house is on fire. All this and more must be part of her agent's relation to what she is doing, to her speech-act, if it is to function as an ordinary piece of testimony.

Anyway, Ross develops this thought in the context of a contrast between the speaker's relation to her act and her relation to a piece of evidence she encounters, examines, and perhaps shows to someone else. So I was immediately struck by the connections with a similar argument I was in the process of formulating with respect to self-knowledge and self-other differences. In both there is the challenge to make sense of a certain connection between agency and knowledge (where in testimony this means informing another person of something; hence the relation to knowledge); in both there is a central place for a contrast between a stance of observation and evidence and a stance of agency and commitment; and in both this contrast is expressed in asymmetries between the first- and third-person positions. Just as the fact that first-person authority (and what is sometimes described as 'privilege') is at the same time internally related to restrictions on the first-person point of view, limitations on how a person can coherently relate to his own mental life; in a related way the speaker's authority to, among other things, constitute her utterance as an assertion, or a question, or other illocution is internally related to the fact that she can't assume the same relation to her utterance that she is enjoining her audience to take. She can't believe herself anymore than she can accept her own word on something. It takes two, two people in a certain relation. And this again is part of the contrast with ordinary evidence, like the photograph or a found object. There the person with the evidence and the person she shows it to will only accidentally be in different epistemic positions with respect to what it shows, what it means, whether it is to be trusted. It's a phenomenon in the world like any other to which even the producer of the object (like the photographer) stands in an observer's relation. Speaking, on the other hand, must be understood as an act. For any act there will be a contrast between the agent's perspective and a perspective on his act "from the outside". And in the case of speech-acts like asserting and telling, there is the additional fact that the act in question does not just admit of another perspective (an "outside perspective), but the speech-act of telling presents itself to another perspective, that of its audience, and hence understands itself "from the inside" as already containing this other perspective, that of the interlocutor it hopes to inform and communicate with.

I got very interested in these connections between the two sets of issues. In both the questions around self-knowledge and the questions around speech, testimony, and intersubjectivity, there is systematic difference of perspective that defines the subject matter itself, along with the philosophical and practical task of coordinating these two perspectives. The first-person perspective cannot be understood apart from the third-person perspective, and reciprocally. One of Wittgenstein's main points in the 'private language argument' is that it is an illusion (and a very natural one) to think that the first-person use of psychological concepts could be a "stand alone" use, could remain meaningful when divorced from its third-person uses. Rather, he maintains, in the case of 'pain' or the psychological verbs these different perspectives are integrated parts of a systematic whole, forming a single concept. The fact of this systematicity means that the differences between the two perspectives and their contrasting demands must be understood in terms of each other, and not in isolation from each other. They are what they are only in with respect to each other. Hence while stressing the asymmetries, there is equal and reciprocal stress on these differences as forming the grammar of one concept, and hence seeing these contrasting perspectives as actually forming a systematic whole. And in the case of speaking, there is the fact of the asymmetries between the speaker's perspectiveand the audience's perspective, and the practical and philosophical task of coordinating these two perspectives, since neither could exist without the other, and indeed each has to be understood in terms of the other.

So the topic of relations to oneself and relations to others became entwined in my first thinking about self-knowledgeand I wanted to integrate these two projects. I was reading Being and Nothingnessat the time, and here I seemed to find someone else who was trying to work out something about the connections between subjectivity, the limitations of self-relations (e.g., the theme of 'bad faith'), and the clash of perspectives in relations to others (a clash that at the same time involves incorporating the perspective of the other). This all seems like one topic to me, and in fact I originally had planned to combine in one book the account of self-knowledge, and the account of "essentially other-related" acts and attitudes. I soon enough realised that if I really tried to do that my book would never see the light of day. So I cut that other part loose, and I'm only now trying to put them back together again. I've been continuing to work on speech and intersubjectivity since my first paper on testimony, and in the completed story I hope to make clear its relation to the topics Authority and Estrangement.

3:AM:So is your approach linked with Grice’s non-natural meaning cast in an epistemological light, whereby the speaker assumes responsibility for whatever she says and this constitutes her utterance as a reason to believe?

RM:Indeed, Grice's 1957 paper 'Meaning'is a central part of the story I tell in that paper, even though it's not really a Gricean account that I'm defending. I'd been fascinated by that paper since college, but Ross also brings it up in his original paper. One fascinating thing about that paper is the question of what the notion at the centre really is, and why it seems to be one we have a kind of pre-philosophical affinity with. Grice simply introduces this idea of something he calls 'non-natural meaning' as a philosophical term of art. He says it's not the same as 'conventional meaning', which at least has its non-philosophical uses, and it's not the same as linguistic meaning, since of course it is supposed to contribute to an account of that notion and hence can't be presupposed. So in that sense, as a term it is a complete philosophical artifact.

And yet in the paper he just launches into a discussion of contrasting cases, progressively refining the notion, as we consult our intuitions about such things as the donning of a tailcoat, the handkerchief left at the scene, the compromising photograph, or throwing a five-pound note out the window in the presence of an avaricious man. And at each stage Grice expects us to have (and we do!) pretty firm intuitions about whether the case in question should count as a case of "non-natural meaning" or not. But the odd thing is: what could possibly be guiding these intuitions? What pre-philosophical understanding of some concept could we take ourselves to be tracking in this progressive refinement of the definition? It certainly seems like something real, but Grice does not really tell us what it is. And when I read the paper more carefully, I noticed that at one crucial moment in it he does say that he is here trying to capture the difference between "telling" someone that P, and merely "deliberately and openly letting them know". So the notion of "telling" makes an appearance. And here I felt we were fixing on a difference that was driving much of the argument. It was this difference that was being tracked in the progress of the different cases. And that difference does seem to matter, in a variety of interesting ways. It's not a hard and fast distinction, and part of the interest in Grice's paper is in seeing how we move along a spectrum of cases here, with a range of different implications for the normative relation between the two people in the encounter. It's connected with my interest in metaphor and the like, since there in a different register much hangs on the difference between saying something outright and suggesting, insinuating, or "intimating" it (as Davidsonsuggests we put it).

The discussion of pictures and praeteritio in the first metaphor paper is part of that interest, as well as the interest in the Aristotle paper on the rhetoric of metaphor. There are important differences in the modes of encounter between the more explicit and the less explicit, and as I see it the topic of testimony and telling people things is in part about understanding the nature and importance of the difference made by explicitly telling someone something. Grice's paper is in part an exploration of that, and he says that it has to do with a certain form of self-presentation (although he doesn't put it that way). To engage in non-natural meaning, to tell someone something, is to present my act to them so that they will recognise my intention, and the recognition of this intention will play some role in actually bringing the other person to believe. The unanswered question there is how such recognition is supposed to do that. Grice speaks of a 'motive' for belief, but that doesn't really help. And further problems flow from this, such as the distorting effect of the picture of doing something so as to 'act on the beliefs' of the other person.

3:AM:When discussing Jonathan Lear’sTanner Lectureson Freuda key issue is Freud’s relationship with natural science. It seems as if Freud at first wanted to disavow physiology and the natural sciences and approach psychoanalysis as pure philosophy. This invites speculation about the relationship between philosophy and psychoanalysis and of course, your own work has been very much focused on how we should understand minds and selves. So as a philosopher, are you disavowing physiological evidence about the mind – and so rejecting perhaps the naturalist turn in morality with parade cases the work of Pat Churchlandor Brian Leiter’snaturalist Nietzsche or Josh Knobeand the x-phi crew - or is your philosophical project in some ways orthogonal to these – and Freud’s – concerns?

RM:I don't think it's right to say that Freud ever wanted to disavow physiology and the natural sciences, or that he saw psychoanalysis as pure philosophy. Freud had a deep and deeply ambivalent relation to philosophy his whole life long. His project is philosophical in that it means to be a general account of the human condition, and it is also a deeply metaphysical theory in that he took himself to be offering an account of how an organism comes to acquire the idea of the external world in the first place, and how this acquisition is precarious for creatures like us. We fall back into the dream world every night, we never leave behind our infantile, solipsistic selves, and the primary process thinking that characterizes dreams is a constant part of our waking lives as well.

Freud also offers an account of the origin of morality, and of reason itself. In all this he sees himself as undertaking a classically philosophical enterprise. But there are at least three other aspects of the Freudian enterprise that are equally important in this regard. One, from the very beginning he saw his project as continuous with natural science. And not just natural science in the sense of biology or neurology, important as they were to Freud. No, the connection with natural science he wanted went as deep as thermodynamics itself. Early in his career (the 'Project for a Scientific Psychology') and late ('Beyond the Pleasure Principle') he saw the very notions of drive, inner and outer, need and action, as stemming from the basic facts of energy retention, tension, and discharge. This basic framework was never abandoned.

Second, psychoanalysis was never just a descriptive theory. From the beginning it was a therapeutic practice, and as such it was an engagement with the empirical on a day to day basis, and not simply an matter of abstract theorizing. One may certainly raise questions about Freud's assurances about his "clinical results", but in his own mind the evolving psychoanalytic theory was nothing without them. So in this way psychoanalysis departs from "pure philosophy". In another way, of course, we may think that a practice-oriented therapeutic perspective doesn't necessarily take us away from philosophy. Both the Socratic and the Nietzschean, and the Wittgensteinian visions of philosophy take themselves to be primarily forms of practice, rather than theory construction.

Thirdly, Freudian psychoanalysis was from the beginning a form of cultural critique, which distinguishes it from some forms of "pure philosophy" but obviously not from all philosophy. By cultural critique I mean that Freud saw as central and not peripheral to what psychoanalysis was that it had a deeply critical story to tell about civilization and its relation to pleasure, sexuality and aggression, about the origins of religion and morality, about the family and other forms of authority. It may seem a long way from thermodynamics, to the theory of dreams and the unconscious, to the critique of morality and the family, but that's the shape of the theory. I don't think it's possible or profitable to distinguish the properly philosophical part of it from the rest.

As to 'experimental philosophy, I can't claim to be very well versed in it, but it seems to be a research program in its early days. I think that by now, even its practitionersare beginning to realise that simply asking people, outside of any particular context, about their "intuitions" about some concept of philosophical interest is not really going to be informative since without any philosophical background to the question, the respondents themselves can't really know just what question they are being asked to answer, what their responses are responses to. There are just too many different things that can be meant by a question like, "'Was such-and-such an action intentional or not?", for example. And without further discussion or further analysis, the experimenters themselves can't know what answers they are being given by the respondents. It's not good data. So I can imagine experimental philosophyevolving in a way to account for this, and starting to include some philosophical backgroundto the investigation, perhaps even some philosophical history, to provide the needed context to the particular intuitions that they are trying to expose and test for. At that point, the experimental situation might also become less one-sided, with a researcher examining a respondent, and could allow for the experimental subjects themselves to ask questions of the experimenters, including questions of clarification and disambiguation, and perhaps even challenges to the way the experimenter has framed the questions.

Later it might be found useful to conduct such experiments in small groups rather than individually, with one experimenter and one subject, and instead the respondents could be encouraged to discuss the questions among themselves as well as with the experimenter. People could meet in these groups two or three times a week and perhaps some relevant reading could be assigned, to clarify and expand upon the question, and the respondents would be given time to do the reading, and asked to write something later on about the question in connection with the reading and the discussions they have had. Then the experimenter could provide "comments" on this writing for the experimental subjects themselves. I think grading the results would be optional on such an arrangement, and probably of no experimental interest, but other than that I think something like this could be the future of experimental philosophy. It's worth trying anyway.

3:AM:So perhaps now we can ask about your relationship with existentialism. We briefly mentioned Sartreearlier, but you note elsewhere that as a movement at the moment it has no friends, and is perhaps more dead on the continent than it ever was in the Anglo-Saxon context. Even interest in Heidegger and Nietzsche is now divorced from existentialism. Yet you find things of value in i,t don’t you? You’ve writtenabout Iris Murdoch’sengagement with Sartrean existentialsm and find her compelling in many ways. Is it again linked to your idea that they offer a compelling notion of the self that doesn’t fall foul of the kind of errors that you have sketched out earlier? What’s the appeal for you, and what is important that we’re missing if we dismiss her, and Sartre and existentialism as a whole? Is it time we revisited it seriously?

RM:Like many people, my early encounters with philosophy included reading writers like Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and other writers who get associated with existentialism. I read Heidegger early on, but it was only after college that I read Kierkegaard and Sartre. The attraction for these writers is easy enough to understand. In the case of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, these are simply some of the most brilliant writers philosophy has produced. And they take seriously the idea of addressing questions that are everyone's concerns, and not just part of a scholarly debate. Not to disparage philosophical writing that is ensconced within a scholarly debate, of course, but it shouldn't be the only kind of philosophical writing there is. And the non-scholarly sort is of course much easier for a young person to connect with since it doesn't presuppose a particular training. I've retained an interest in all these figures.

As an undergraduate, and later in graduate school, I was always involved in "continental" thinkers of one sort or another because I was always interested in literary studies, and literary theory at the time was only drawing on philosophy from the broadly continental tradition. (Or so it seemed at the time. Even that was something of an illusion.) However, it wasn't until after college that I read Heidegger seriously, and it wasn't until years after that, mid-way in graduate school, that I read Sartre's Being and Nothingnessfor the first time. So I came to him a bit late. I'm not sure exactly what led me to it at that time. It might have been something in Frederick Olafson's book Principles and Persons. I found it very exciting, in particular because Sartre, especially in his account of bad faith but not only there, seemed consumed by the 'practical' dimension of the self-other asymmetries that were so fundamental to Wittgenstein. The inescapability of an irreducibly agential perspective coupled with the difficulties in incorporating that in an objective picture of the world (including the world of other people). So I came to value him as a philosopher, and wondered why he wasn't taken more seriously. For all his fame, Sartre came to seem to me to be a neglected philosopher. And here's the thing, by this time (the 1980s) Sartre was a shunned and despised figure on both sides of the Atlantic. In the world of Foucault, Derrida, Althusser, etc. there was no figure more discredited than Sartre, who represented everything that was outmoded in the dreaded "philosophy of the subject". And in the analytic departments of philosophy Sartre was treated as a joke. There is plenty to complain about or disagree with in Sartre, as with most philosophers, but this universal contempt seemed to me to have other sources, and was based for the most part on a self-satisfied ignorance of his actual writing. Unfortunately, in the English-speaking world, I think Iris Murdoch contributed to the dismissal of Sartre, despite how much her early work is indebted to him and other existentialists. Many people stlll get their first impression from the caricature in Murdoch's Sovereignty of Good, which is a seriously distorted account (as I argue in the paper you alluded to).

One source of this general dismissal was simply his fame, the fact that he became such a media figure in the first great age of electronic media, and many philosophers find that hard to forgive. He fully paid the price of his media presence. In his uses of his celebrity he was like John Lennon in a way. Someone eager for fame, who then actually became famous in a way that was beyond what he could have imagined. And in both cases they thought they could use their position as celebrities, as media figures, to inject themselves into political contexts of one sort or another. In both cases, I think, the idea was that all this celebrity should be good for something, should be something one can put to use, spend like money or political capital. You can get crowds of people together, you can denounce some political crime, you can get an audience with Castro, and count on the media to cover that. That's something. And of course both good and embarrassing things can come of such a tactic. Sartre was brash and bratty, and prone to drastic changes of position, and denunciation of his opponents, both political and philosophical. All that is part of ordinary philosophical-literary-political life, especially in a hothouse atmosphere like the Parisian scene in the sixties. There was much good work, and there were many excessive, reckless gestures. Sartre is typically thought of as someone with a great deal of 'baggage', much to answer for, whereas somehow Heidegger's Nazism, for instance, can be overlooked or put aside, and he is by now a perfectly respectable citizen of the philosophical world. (And he certainly belongs in the philosophical world, don't get me wrong, but his political history is hardly irrelevant). By contrast, Sartre's early support for the Cuban revolution, for Algerian independence, his alliance with Simone de Beauvoir, and his involvement in the post-colonial world generally is still unforgiveable, so he can't be taken seriously. As a graduate student I also felt that it was just the fact itself that Sartre, despite how we are all encouraged to condescend to him, still had an audience among young people around the world that made him philosophically unrespectable. What can all these kids know about real philosophy? So it was this situation as much as anything else that in me gave rise to the perverse desire to keep his presence alive in philosophy, keeping him as part of my regular teaching for many years, despite my ambivalence about him in many ways. I say all this even though I myself have never read most of his work, I think more than half of Being and Nothingnesscould have been removed by a good copy-editor, and I know I would never live long enough to make even a first assault on, e.g., the Critique of Dialectical Reason. It's just the good stuff that matters.

3:AM:And finally, for the existentialists here at 3:AM, are there five books (other than your own which we’ll be dashing away to read as soon as we’re done here) that you could recommend to give us further insights into your philosophical world?

RM:Sure, I'm thinking here of books that an interested person could pretty much just pick up and read. Some of these are famous, some are relatively neglected, and at least one is out of print.

Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Agree or disagree, this is still one of the most searching examinations of the relations between the ambitions of moral theory and the place of moral thinking in a human life.

Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. (Nearly) everyone cares about (some) movies, but this book is much more than that. It is one of the great texts of philosophical aesthetics, in particular for the role it gives to the question of modernism in the arts.

John Skorupski, English-Language Philosophy 1750-1945. For such a brief book, this gives a beautiful and enlightening account of the competing traditions of thought that gave birth to what we still think of as "analytic philosophy", and gives a far more sophisticated account of the role of naturalism and the rejection of naturalism than we often hear today.

Alan Garfinkel, Forms of Explanation: Rethinking the Questions of Social Theory. How questions and explanations meet, and miss, each other. From way back in 1981, but still for me one of the best discussions of individualism, reduction, and holism in social explanation, with implications for political philosophy.

Arthur Lovejoy, Reflections on Human Nature. My colleague Doug Lavin introduced me to this book. Originally lectures, it's a great read and a beautiful little history of the development of ideas of self-consciousness and what he calls "approbative desire"; that is, the human drive to see oneself in the imagined regard of others, and to care very much about that regard. Mostly the moral psychology of the 18th century. Whoever owns it should bring it back into print.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshallis still biding his time.

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