Achille Varzi on Philosophy and the Academy
The following is a transcript of an interview by Max Marshall and Ethan Herenstein with Columbia philosophy professor Achille Varzi about academia, mentorship, and how to pursue philosophy after graduation. The interview has been transcribed and edited for brevity and clarity by Aaron Friedman.
The Gadfly: Talk about your journey into academia. How did you get here and what have you learned about the differences between philosophy inside the academy and philosophy outside of it?
Achille Varzi: In many ways, my path is rather typical: I went into a PhD program, I lived the life of a PhD student in philosophy, and I eventually wrote a dissertation. However, there are some atypical features as well: instead of immediately going into a philosophy position after getting my PhD, I went back to Europe. I got a position as a research scientist in a fairly large institute doing cognitive science and artificial intelligence. The early 90s was a time when these areas were actually highly interdisciplinary, and so in addition to computer scientists and engineers and mathematicians, this institute was looking for some philosophers, some logicians, some psychologists, and so on. In fact, working there, I didn’t do any artificial intelligence; I just did philosophy.
That’s when I wrote my first book on holes with Roberto Casati. The book started with the idea that people in artificial intelligence are interested in the structure of the common sense world, because they are trying to build machines that interact with the world like we do. Well, when we interact with the world, we surely do not rely on our understanding of the most accurate, modern physics, such as quantum mechanics. Instead, we go back to Aristotelian physics and act as if the world was a simple, Aristotelian world. So, paradoxically, all these engineers, computer scientists, and so on trying to develop intelligent machines must become interested in naïve metaphysics if they want a picture of the world that’s close to the way ordinary human beings conceive of it.
Anyways, then I applied to an academic philosophy job and got hired. As far as my thoughts on professional philosophy, meaning philosophy as it is done in academia, I think that without it, philosophy would be dead, because the teaching mission is crucial to the mission of philosophy in general. However, with that said, I don’t think academic philosophy is the whole world. I find myself doing a lot of writing of the academic sort, where I work on a tree or sometimes just a branch of a tree, but I’m always interested in the forest. The nature of philosophy today is the same as it was at the very beginning. Aristotle said that philosophy begins with a sense of wonder, and Plato says something very similar. It is because we are puzzled by the world that philosophy makes sense. One of the main tasks of philosophy is to keep this sense of wonder alive, to replace exclamation marks with question marks. Philosophy is, at the end of the day, this sense of curiosity, this sense of wonder, this ability to look beyond the obvious and to see how complicated even simple things may be. It is in this spirit that I want to go outside of the academic world, and I hope every professional philosopher shares this view.
G: Some examples come to mind: in your metaphysics class, students read a dialogue between Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan. You also seem to enjoy injecting pop culture, such as metal music, into your conversations. You’ve even written a children’s book. Are these projects arguing for that curiosity?
AV: Yes, exactly! These projects are trying to show that big philosophical questions are a part of everyday life. It is, however, important to make clear that our job when we leave the narrow academic world is not to make complex ideas look simple so that anyone can understand them. I think that would be offensive to the public. In fact, I think our job to be the opposite. Namely, if you want people to get excited about philosophy, show them that even the simple things are much more complex than they think. That is what philosophy is about.
There are popular books in philosophy today, but often they try to simplify things. I remember seeing a book titled something like Kant Presented to My Children. No! Don’t take Kant and summarize it in a silly, superficial way so that your children can understand it. Rather, take a problem that your children have and show how it eventually takes you to Kant! It’s true that some fields, such as math or physics, require simplification; otherwise, people just won’t understand. But philosophy is exactly the opposite. Show me how big theories come from the simple things. That’s the sense in which I try to reach a broader public when I write such pieces.
The second example you used, the philosophy for children, is similar, but it’s based on the idea that children have a philosophical drive, and we should try to preserve it. We should tell them some stories that build on their natural curiosity. Tell them stories about identity and causation, about numbers, about colors, about taste, about whether objects disappear when we don’t look at them, stuff children already ask about. Show children that they should not be afraid of asking these questions, because parents can be interested in them too. They’re not silly questions; they’re the beginning of everything.
G: What does mentorship of these children who maintain their curiosity and become philosophy students look like for you? There are a good deal of graduate students coming in and out of the university, your classes are very large, and you’re taking time to write and to speak, so how does mentorship and that sort of individual pedagogy fit into your project?
AV: Mentorship is very important, and there are different ways of understanding it. I think it is a mistake to put too much weight on your mentor. According to the European way, we always need to have a master, and that’s not good. It’s not healthy. Mentorship should not be a process of that sort. Instead, I see my role as a mentor to be that of someone who listens to questions and descriptions of projects and can contribute a personal perspective. Students need to know whether they’re on the right track, whether they actually have a good idea, whether something is worth pursuing, and when we’re young, we may not have criteria for determining such things. Even when we’re old and mature, these are big questions that we always have. The most difficult question a student can have is, “Is this a good idea or not?”
I also believe mentorship is something that continues throughout life. It’s a community that goes in all directions: you’ve got friends, colleagues, teachers, and students all working together. It is also important to note that the input one gets from mentorship is not only content. Often it is input on the framework, whether or not something is interesting, whether or not something is important, whether or not something is promising. Otherwise, you just don’t know whether what you’re doing is of any interest. The same goes for answering the question of what to do with your life. These are big decisions, and the only way to make an informed decision is to talk to people.
G: What do you think of the notion that academia has become (and continues to become) hyper-specialized? How much of this supposed trend is true and how much is just a narrative?
AV: I wouldn’t put it in terms of “hyper-specialized.” That by itself is perfectly fine. Every discipline, including philosophy, is getting more and more advanced, and, as a result, more and more specialized. No one does physics or biology the way Aristotle did, and that’s fine. The problem is that this hyper-specialization tends to go hand in hand with a greater professionalization of academics’ lives – we have to publish, and we have to publish often. As a result, one can’t write a two volume treatise on the nature of the world. Instead, one works on a leaf of this tree, which is itself in this forest.
In and of itself, this practice is fine. However, because we have to publish, we often end up writing specialized stuff not because we think it’s important but because we think that’s the only stuff that’s left. The interesting views on a topic might have already been taken, but there’s some strange, zany combination of views A, B, and C that no one has held yet. So, you write a paper on that, because that’s going to get published, just because it’s new. Of course, the idea that there is no important work left to do is a misconception, but the professionalization of our lives tends to favor this attitude.
Fashion plays a big role in academic writing as well. This is something that’s always been the case: some topics are fashionable, and other topics are not so fashionable. It’s convenient to write on the fashionable stuff because people will read you. Today that means blogs will talk about your work. If you write on something that’s not fashionable, even if it’s incredibly important and interesting, people just won’t notice it. The Internet, in this respect, is extremely powerful and violent. You have to be able to resist the temptation to do something just because it will get you a lot of followers or a lot of likes online, and that’s hard.
Another factor that affects the research that takes place is department and university rankings, which have become increasingly more important. Departments and universities shape their strategies and policies (what classes to offer, what risks to take, etc.) based on what they think will improve their rankings, even though the rankings do not necessarily reflect the true quality of the programs. Often, the ranking simply reflects how many big stars there are in a department, but having a bunch of stars doesn’t necessarily mean a department is the best. It’s regrettable but understandable. The competition is such that unless you pay attention to rankings, you disappear.
G: Now, for philosophy lovers who do not go into academia, how do you suggest that they not only keep their curiosity alive but also keep practicing philosophy in their daily lives?
AV: There are many ways of practically pursuing philosophy, ranging from certain kinds of jobs that one could pursue to cultural donations that one could make. For example, this semester I’m teaching at the Taconic correctional facility, a women’s prison. There are many such activities one can do: teach in high school, organize workshops, talk to young children. As far as jobs go, working in literature, movies, theater, etc. keeps your sense of curiosity alive. Philosophers have the right kind of sensibility to come up with interesting ideas, stories, and plots. The best science fiction has been written by philosophers.
Otherwise, going to law school is one way to apply your philosophical skills to a practice, but there are other jobs as well. Yesterday, I had breakfast with a person who received his PhD in philosophy, and he’s now working with a non-profit organization involved with refugees from Africa. Do you have to be a philosopher to do that? Of course not. You can have all sorts of different motivations, but surely, as a philosopher, you can bring some perspective and even some method that can be extremely fruitful.
Being a philosopher, really, is being a good problem solver, someone who can see beyond their nose, someone who has a broad sense of possibility. Everybody needs someone like that. Every corporation needs a couple of people who can look beyond the obvious, who can analyze problems competently, and who have a good sense of originality and imagination. It’s different when it comes to graduate school, because then it’s no longer a matter of just acquiring some tools but a matter of completely devoting your life to some specific issue in philosophy. Undergraduates who are at the end of their undergraduate philosophy experience, though, have a broad spectrum of possibilities, most of which would not require that you give up philosophy. On the contrary, most of these possibilities will, in fact, build on your philosophical background. Ultimately, it’s up to you how much you want to keep your philosophical curiosity alive. When you get down to it, if you don’t want to give philosophy up, then you’re not going to.