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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Being a Philosopher

What was it about philosophy that drew you in? Was it this base in logic and argumentation that you had brought to the table?

Initially, it was. It's a good question. I don't fully know the answer. Certainly, initially questions about logic and the structure of argument were the things that most appealed to me, the technical side of the subject. In fact, I wasn't interested in moral philosophy at all. I suppose I was a kind of logical positivist, as that was a popular but already much criticized doctrine when I was a student. I was skeptical of whether there was anything interesting to be said about moral and political questions from a philosophical point of view. I only took a moral philosophy course because I was told I had to; it was a requirement for my graduation. When I took it, I thought it was terrific and really got engaged with the questions, although in the beginning I was mainly interested in them from a technical point of view. I thought that formal decision theory and welfare economics were a way of answering questions of social philosophy and individual morality, and that's what my first teacher in the subject had emphasized. After a year or two of working in that way, I became frustrated with it. I loved the formal techniques but I found the results a bit arid. I thought there was more to it, so I broadened out and got interested in other things.

I think our audience would be curious to know what exactly a philosopher does. A way I like to get at this problem is to ask, for the benefit of students who watch this, what skills and temperament are required to do philosophy.

The skills are a taste for analysis and skill at drawing distinctions, the patience to keep doing it, and the tolerance for a fair amount of frustration because it is inherently difficult. It's no accident that philosophical questions are difficult in this way. Philosophical questions are questions that are raised by some way of understanding life in the world that we're naturally drawn to use, but which can't be answered satisfactorily using that method.

For example, if religion is an important way of understanding life in the world, then the question of whether God exists is an important philosophical question. It's a philosophical question because religion raises it, everything depends on whether there is a God, but answers within a religion presuppose that there is a God. You aren't going to discover whether there's a God or not by reading scripture.

Similarly, if science is the important way of understanding life in the world, then a philosophical question is, what's the difference between a chance regularity and a genuine law of nature, and how can you tell that you're seeing one rather than the other by simply looking at a finite number of experiments? Everything about empirical science assumes that science doesn't just discover coincidental regularities; it discovers how nature really works and it does that by inferring from a certain number of carefully constructed experiments. Those questions are questions that science presupposes and depends on, but they can't be answered in a laboratory; they're philosophical questions.

Philosophical questions are questions that are, in a sense, external to some normal way of thinking. Because they're external, there isn't an obvious way of how to answer them, so the philosopher's a bit at sea, or out there in the void, trying to synthesize, trying to make up or find some grip on these questions.

There are also philosophical questions that don't come from an established system of thought, like religion or science, that are perennials: Do we have free will? How do we understand our idea of moral obligations to each other? We are taught and learn, we develop, some sense of what our obligations to other people are, and we can reason using those commonly understood standards about what we ought and ought not to do. But there's a question: Why should we care about that? Why should we be willing to sacrifice in order not to do something that's wrong? That's not going to be a question that's answered within the ordinary moral principles because those principles presuppose that there's something important there, but it isn't obvious what it is. So, philosophy then takes up the task of trying to give an explanation of why these are something we should care about. That's a task of philosophy that's as old as the Greeks; it's what Socrates and Plato were doing, and all their successors.

Philosophy is difficult because it is external in this way, and for that reason it requires patience. Students tend to get frustrated because there isn't an obvious answer. They say, "Well, what's the answer?" I say, "Well, here's a plausible answer. Here are the reasons why it seems like a good answer. Of course, there are difficulties, and you're not a good philosopher unless you're also always looking around to find the difficulties with what you've said." Not everybody has a tolerance for that kind of tension.

What personal choices do you as a philosopher make about the problems you're going to address? What has led you to particular topics, for example, problems of political philosophy?

I got interested in problems of freedom of speech because they were a topic of conversation. They just seemed inherently puzzling and important. I also was interested in questions about the foundation of mathematics which didn't come up. It's hard to say exactly what draws you to one particular puzzle rather than another. I suppose it has to be a puzzle about something that you really care about, and it also has to be something you feel able to say something about. There are questions about, let's say, the metaphysics of time which are puzzles, but I don't feel I've got a real grip on them, so I tend not to be drawn to those.

What you're trying to do is formulate the right questions for a particular sub-field or endeavor.

People are divided about this and one can be embarrassed by the answer one finds oneself giving. Of course, when you think about questions in philosophy, there are a lot of smart people who have thought about it and it certainly makes sense to see what they have to say. Some people think that's the main thing you want to do, develop an understanding of how this developed; for example, what Kant had to say about it, what criticisms there were, and so on. That's certainly a very important form of inquiry. I'm a little bit embarrassed to say that although I've learned an awful lot by studying Kant, Mill, Hume, and others in the history of philosophy, I tend to just think about it myself. I get my bearings and think about these answers as possible answers, but when it comes down to it, you've got to decide yourself; you have to, at some point, switch off the reading and just start thinking and scribbling.

What does creativity in philosophy look like?

I think it isn't, on the whole, just flashes of insight. It comes out of noticing things that others haven't noticed because you've been putting your mind's eye on them more carefully and been willing to consider objections to what one would normally say more seriously and more penetratingly. The real original bursts of creativity in philosophy come to others who haven't made the discovery, in a certain sense, as a revelation but as saying, "I actually was somehow aware of that already." A good philosopher finds things in the materials that are available to everybody, which once expressed makes you think, "Oh, right. That problem was there and I was kind of turning my eye away from it." Insight in philosophy comes from careful attention to the questions as they present themselves to us.

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