T.M. Scanlon Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Freedom of Expression, Tolerance, and Human Rights: Conversation with T. M. Scanlon, Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity; Harvard University; February 20, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Professor Scanlon, welcome to Berkeley

Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here, Harry.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Indianapolis and spent almost twenty years of my life there before I went east to go to college and never returned.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

My father was a lawyer and he loved the law and the Constitution. Questions of legal policy were an important part of the dinner table conversations while I was growing up. He and my mother had also both been quite interested in philosophy as undergraduates. Although that wasn't their major, it certainly had a big impact on them. So, the idea that there was this subject called philosophy was something I knew about, even though I never read a philosophy book or it never appeared, we talked about it much. When I went to college I saw these courses in philosophy, so I thought, "Well, Mom and Dad used to talk about that and it sounded interesting to me. I'll give it a try."

Give us an example of a conversation you would have around the table about some Constitutional issue before you went to college.

My father was a litigator and sometimes defended libel suits, so he was very devoted to the First Amendment and we often talked about the First Amendment. One particular moment I remember had a huge impact on me. I was going for a walk with my father sometime in the early fifties and we were arguing about an article that had appeared in the Indianapolis Star. It was a client of my father whom he always defended, although their politics which were very different from ours, very conservative. They had had a particularly misleading series of articles on some subject which I don't remember, and I was incensed by this. As an angry eleven-year-old I said to my father, "How can they be allowed to publish this kind of thing? It's misleading people about these important questions." My father answered, "But who's to decide what they can publish and what they can't?" I felt as if I'd been turned to stone in the moment. I was so ashamed of myself that I couldn't answer this interesting, difficult question. I had no idea; I felt caught between the sense that it's a very bad thing that this sort of thing is out there, but his reply seemed absolutely right. The tension between these ideas, the obvious rationality, apparently, of restricting expression versus, on the other hand, the idea that it wasn't proper, really stuck with me.

It's something I continue to think about. Twenty years later, when I was first writing in political philosophy, that was the first thing I wrote about.

As a young person before you went to college, were you engaged in debates and arguments? Did you bring a philosophical bent to your way of thinking even before college?

I suppose I was drawn toward abstract thinking but I was mainly interested in math and science. Mathematics was my main interest, and so I had a bent for abstract thinking. I didn't really think about philosophy in the usual sense. I wasn't occupied with paradoxes or the sort of thing that one might have been thinking about.

Were there any mentors, high school teachers or such, other than your parents, who shaped your thinking?

No. The high school teachers that had the biggest impact on me were, again, my math teachers, who inspired me to work hard, and they got me interested in logic because we did proofs. I found that I wasn't so interested in geometry, that is, the structure of space, but I was very interested in the idea that you could prove things, and the puzzle of discovering proofs. It was natural that when I went into philosophy one of the main things I got interested in was logic. That was my main subject of inquiry for the first ten years or so in the subject. They didn't really turn me on to philosophy in a direct sense.

Where did you do your undergraduate work?

I was an undergraduate at Princeton, and then I went to Oxford in England, taking a year out to decide whether I could take the plunge and become an academic, which seemed to me a very strange choice of life at the time, rather than go back to Indiana and practice law, which is what I'd always been assuming I would do. Then I decided philosophy was something I couldn't give up, so I went back to the U.S. and went to Harvard as a graduate student. After just a few years I went back to Princeton to teach, so I followed a very small circle.

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