My guest for this episode is Agnes Callard (episode page, youtube). Agnes is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and her specialties are in ethics and ancient philosophy.
Agnes recently wrote a book called Aspiration which tackles an intuitively clear concept, that we aspire to learn new things and to value them. Easy, right? The thing with philosophy, though, is that things aren’t always as straightforward as our fallible minds are apt to think. Actually, the whole discipline of modern philosophy exists to apply order to our thoughts and it isn’t easy…
[35:57] Agnes Callard: And one thing philosophers can show you is that you didn’t actually say anything when you said that you thought you did, right, it sounded good to you. Um, but when we put a kind of… conceptual microscope on it, it turns out you said P and NOT P, you contradicted yourself.
We find that the idea in Agnes’ book, aspiration, is riddled with contradictions. How can you learn to value something new, like, say Opera? If you already value Opera you don’t need to learn anything. If you don’t value Opera then you’re just another irrational human agent wasting her time listening to all that Opera. As you’ll hear, Agnes has figured this puzzle out!
We also talk about philosophy generally. Philosophers spend their time sorting through intuitions to find the logical reality to our thoughts. It’s abstract stuff and in preparing for this interview I was reminded exactly how my mind recoiled at this in my undergraduate philosophy studies.
[03:38] David Wright: I was thinking like that’s the feeling I always have when I’m studying philosophy or thinking about philosophy. It just doesn’t quite seem clear enough. And sometimes there’s a little snap into, into detail and you’re good, but for the most part you sort of wandering around and this kind of haze, is that what it feels like to be a philosopher?
And there’s so much more like our discussion of the culture of refutation in philosophy ([01:18:20] David Wright: Is there an etiquette of refutation?)
… and weakness of will:
[34:43] David Wright: What is a Akrasia, and is it real? What did Socrates think? What do you think?
[34:48] Agnes Callard: Okay. Um, Socrates and I don’t agree on this particular point…
Ever wondered if you should be angry forever? It’s not like an apology reverses the wrongdoing!
[41:22] David Wright: So next question, should I be angry forever? why? Why would I want to be angry forever? Why should I be? And then why might that be wrong?
And then I bring it all together in defense of Tyler Cowen’s Straussian analysis of Agnes’ book and come up with my own, which is that “[56:18] Everybody got Socrates wrong, starting with Plato”.
Agnes is breaking all kinds of new philosophical ground by reconciling the very deep urge of aspiration in us with the rest of mainstream philosophy. This was an amazing experience for me. Agnes is one of the more charismatic interviewees I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down with. So buckle up and come get philosophical with me!
Here is a transcript of the episode:
David Wright: 00:00:00 My guest today is Agnes Callard, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, Agnes’ specialties are in ancient philosophy and ethics and she’s the author of a recent book called Aspiration, the Agency of becoming. We’ll be covering all that today and more. Agnes, welcome to the show.
Agnes Callard: 00:00:14 Thank you.
David Wright: 00:00:15 So I want to start with how you’ve influenced yourself kind of grounding philosophical thinking in actual experience. So what are the most philosophically formative life experiences you had? And that means the way that the real world, real world Agnes has influenced the philosopher Agnes?
Agnes Callard: 00:00:30 Well, interestingly, I think that the further back you go in time, the less it’s me influencing me and the more it’s other things in the outside world influencing me. Like I think I can now make myself more philosophical, but when I was much younger I think other things had to. So if I, there are a lot of things along the way that I could cite, but I guess I don’t know, something is jumping out to me is when I was in high school, uh, I read James Joyce’s Dubliners and then I read like most of the rest of the drug of choice. Um, but the thing about Dubliners that really resonated with me was that it every story kind of had an epiphany in it. It had this sort of moment of realization in which somebody suddenly has a new understanding of their life but not just a new understanding and understanding maybe for the first time is especially striking and the final story of the dead, um, and I think you could get this thought out of so many movies, but I didn’t. It’s a wonderful life or something like that. So I was just amazed by that, by the idea that you could suddenly have an understanding of your life that it could like light up for you. And that seemed really desirable to me. And I think that eventually it took awhile. But eventually philosophy just came to seem like being able to have one of those epiphanies continuously for your whole life.
David Wright: 00:01:53 Hmm. Because you’re always learning about more about yourself or about the world or
Agnes Callard: 00:01:59 Because you’re always adopting the point of view that somebody has when they have that epiphany where they’re sort of thinking about their own life in a, not in a fully detached way. So not as an anthropologist of themselves or something. Right? Um, but, um, but in a way that isn’t just going along, going along with the flow of their everyday experience. Right? So if you’re a philosopher and say, I don’t know, you were thinking about, um, say I’m teaching the Meno and there’s a line in the Meno “shape is that alone of all existing things that always follows color” it’s definition of shape. Right? And so I have the students look around the room and look at the shape things in the room and just notice the fact that where you see a color boundary you see a shape boundary. And that is the way the world presents itself to us. Now that was always true. We always, but you know before they had that experience, color boundaries and shape boundaries would come right in their visual field, but that’s a moment where you noticed that it’s like it shines a little bit of light into the way in which the visual space is organized for you and philosophy is just kind of like doing that all the time with everything.
David Wright: 00:03:14 There was a feeling that I remember having when I studied philosophy as an undergraduate that I felt again as I was studying some of your work and related works and stuff, which is this feeling of fuzziness and by that I mean and you make mention in the kind of, in the closing remarks of your, in your book where you say, I don’t really see this as clearly as I need to to finish this process. Right. And that really resonated with me because I was thinking like that’s the feeling I always have when I’m studying philosophy or thinking about philosophy. It just doesn’t quite seem clear enough. And sometimes there’s a little snap into, into detail and you’re good, but for the most part you sort of wandering around and this kind of haze, is that what it feels like to be a philosopher?
Agnes Callard: 00:03:52 That’s a great point. Because the epiphany analogy that I was using suggests, well, it’s just the sudden clarity that it would be hard to imagine how you could extend it in time, actually. Right? It suggests something that occupies a moment rather than a period. Right. And I think you’re completely right that the trick philosophers have discovered in order to extend it in time, um, is to turn that, like, ‘looking for something’ into inquiry into trying to understand, but in order to try and understand there has to be something you’re trying to understand and that requires that there be something you don’t understand, some kind of puzzle. Right? So, um, so often any, any kind of philosophical inquiry will have somewhere at the back of it a kind of dilemma or a problem where sort of, there’s no easy way for you to think about the situation because if you’re inclined to go one way and then that creates one problem and if you move away from that, it creates another problem. And so you’re caught between these two problems and you have to find a way to think through whatever subject matter you’re thinking about without falling into either of those two problems. And um, that I think that creates that. That’s the kind of fuzziness of it. The fuzziness of it is that there’s something you’re trying to figure out or understand and you don’t and you know, that you don’t. And so you can experience the fuzziness.
David Wright: 00:05:19 There’s a frustration there. I had a, a conversation interview with Cathy O’Neil, who’s a mathematician and author and she has this phrase which I feel like I’m, this feeling of mine maybe predates my conversation with her, but she definitely articulated it best where she said everyone thinks mathematicians are smart, right? Because this is difficult, well it’s a subject area which.. Every subject areas has its own difficulties, right? But for whatever reason, mathematicians kind of wind up being elevated in some way intellectually, cognitively. And she said that the irony of being a mathematician and she was a mathematician for a few years, Is that you don’t feel smart, you feel stupid all the time because you’re always working on these problems that are really hard and you have to get used to that feeling. And I have the same characteristics as some actuaries who are to a degree mathematicians and taking these exams you have to do for actuarial.. there a lot of them and, and you spend the entire time just feeling inadequate because you’re always trying to learn this material which is such a challenge and you failed the exams.
David Wright: 00:06:11 And, and so it’s this exercise and, in feeling kind of pretty dumb. And, and yet, from the outside world they’re saying, oh wow, you know, you guys are so smart. It’s like it is not what it’s like on the inside. And what’s what’s interested me in the philosophy kind of comparison is that it’s a different kind of feeling of frustration, intellectual frustration, doing math and philosophy for math is it feels more discreet or it’s like you don’t get it, you don’t get it, you don’t get it, Bang, you get it. With philosophy, I feel like there’s much more of a feeling of progression in between it’s a little more continuous or I feel like you sort of can feel yourself coming towards the conclusion before you get there. And math. I feel like it just sort of snaps into place. Do you have any thought on, and you study, you study science for a little while, right? Before philosophy.
Agnes Callard: 00:06:49 Yes. And I, I think in high school probably my favorite subject was math. I love math and I love that feature of it. Um, the thing that’s amazing about math is that when you get the right answer, you know it’s the right answer. And that was one reason why Plato used it often as an example of, well, what we might now call something like a priori knowledge. Um, the thought he said math. It’s like remembering, um, because when you want to say you want to remember someone’s name, right? What was his name? What was his name? And then when you actually remember it, you know that that’s right, right. It’s like, it’s like, oh yeah, it had that “Oh yeah” moment, as opposed to just learning some new thing. Like here’s so and so, and here’s his name. Right? Yeah. And so every mathematical thing comes packaged with that thing that we also get in memory, which is like, oh yeah, that’s the right one.
Agnes Callard: 00:07:41 Right. And so Plato thought, well, yeah, so we should um, we should think of learning math as a kind of recollecting of what you knew when in a past life or something. So it has that click, right, that click of recognition and Plato thought philosophy could have that too. Um, but it’s a lot harder I think to get the click. I mean, maybe in some ways it’s easier because you get close. Well, I think you can, but then I, and I think maybe some people just do it, maybe, you know, maybe with just really differs from person to person, but for me I get it, but then it falls apart again. And so there is this progress, but the progress is two steps forward, one step back. It never it. Um, and, and I can always sort of tell as, as you’ve noted at the very end of my book, I’m like, yeah, and I haven’t really solved any of these problems and in fact I’ve just kind of gotten started and it always sort of feels like you’ve just gotten started. So, so I think that may Plato, was pretty optimistic that, or at least Socrates was that I think both of them actually were optimistic about the possibility of arriving at that click though it’s not clear that either of them thought you could do it within your lifetime.
David Wright: 00:08:50 Yeah. Well let’s, let’s talk about the beginnings of the book. So the book’s called Aspiration. Maybe you can describe a bit about what it is and I want to come back to the idea of of its origins in your own development, because let’s put it this way, when do you think was the first time that you were consciously aspiring, maybe a previous version of the theory and you’re thinking, wait, that’s what this is, is I’m doing it right now. You can you think of that example? So first describe it and then maybe talk about an early example in your own life?
Agnes Callard: 00:09:16 Yeah. Okay. Um, so, um, so Aspiration is the rational process of value acquisition. So it’s trying to come to value something that you don’t already value and um, so if you think about all the things you care about now and that includes people you care about, um, it includes, you know, maybe political ideologies that are important to you, religious views, um, um, activities that you love, um, you know, if you go back and think about yourself at age 10 or something, probably very few of those things were you into, right? Yeah. So there’s like, you know, what we’re all about in life and as adults, those are not the same things that we’re all about the children. And so the book is just about that process of like how do we get from there to here and you know, one story you could tell is it’s just a series of accidents.
Agnes Callard: 00:10:10 And so that’s why the phrase “a rational processes” important, um, where I’m making an assertion about that process, namely that you have some role to play and where you ended up. Um, um, in terms of my own. Well, so one thing about the book is that it came about, I suppose I’ve, this might be unusual because I’ve never heard anybody else say this about how their book came about. It came about with me trying to say something, write.. write up on a different topic and, and I was giving talks on this different topic and they kept getting refuted by my audiences and I kept, um, and yet I kept feeling like I was. What I had to say was there was something really right and important about the topic.
David Wright: 00:10:56 What was the other topic?
Agnes Callard: 00:10:56 Weakness of will
David Wright: 00:10:57 Right
Agnes Callard: 00:10:58 So this came out of my dissertation, right, and I was giving this theory of weakness of will and people kept pointing out that like, there were lots of cases of weakness of will that didn’t fit what I was talking about and that there seemed to be cases of what I was talking about that didn’t fit, that weren’t weakness of will, and people just kept making these, like giving these counterexamples and I’m like, there are good ones.
Agnes Callard: 00:11:14 I’m like, you’re right. Um, and uh, and then all of a sudden, one time I realized that the problem wasn’t that it was a bad theory. It was just, that it was a theory of something else.
David Wright: 00:11:22 Interesting.
Agnes Callard: 00:11:23 So, so it was almost like I kept the theory but shifted the topic. Um, and so that’s how it came about. So it didn’t come about by me thinking about my own experiences of aspiration. I was thinking about a set of like wrong examples, but clearly something in me wanted to think about this problem. Um, it’s, I think part of the reason why I didn’t think about it is it’s not discussed in philosophy very much. The word is basically not used, um, so I didn’t have anything to plug into and philosophy on the other hand, weakness of will is widely discussed and so it was sort of the closest thing to the thing I wanted to talk about and it just took me a really long time to figure out that there was this other thing.
Agnes Callard: 00:11:58 It was super widespread. No one had really philosophized about it. Um, but as for my own life, yeah, I think it would have been full of examples if I had thought to use them early on. I, I, I didn’t. Um, I guess the best ones would probably actually have been and were once I started to think in a more straightforward way. I’m just my students actually. That is, I’m just constantly interacting with aspirants, paradigmatic cases of aspirants and they often come to me and say, I’m thinking about my life and where it should go and like what road philosophy should play in it. Um, and we have, we have these conversations that are basically about aspiration. So that would be maybe the best.
David Wright: 00:12:44 You’re immersed in aspiration.
Agnes Callard: 00:12:46 [laughs] Yes
David Wright: 00:12:46 Everywhere, almost everywhere.
Agnes Callard: 00:12:47 And yet I didn’t see it for years.
David Wright: 00:12:49 We all are, but maybe it’s supercharged and universities because it’s explicitly.. explicitly an aspirational activity: going to school.
Agnes Callard: 00:12:55 Yes. And also there’s something. There’s something very special about university. So after I wrote the book, I read, but I. But before it was published, I was able to put in a correction. I already realized a mistake, a big mistake that I made. So in the book I say that in order to aspire first towards some end you have to have some grasp of what the end is. You’re aspiring towards. So you can’t just like have no idea what you’re doing and yet still in some sense be aspiring. I made that claim in the book, but then I realized it was wrong because I think that’s what universities are, is that they are. That the question of whether you can aspire without knowing what you’re doing is actually more a question of institutional support than it is a question about individual psychology and that in some way that’s what a university is.
Agnes Callard: 00:13:41 It’s like an invention that not maybe not originally for this purpose, but that we have deployed for the purpose of making it possible to throw, throw, throw people into an environment where all they have is like, I want to become someone. I want to do something important and let that thought is productive in a way that it often isn’t. When you sort of go find yourself thing, right? Because when you go find yourself in Europe, there isn’t an institutional structure that is in any sense guiding you so that you’ll get somewhere. But I think in universities you are being guided in a, in a very gentle way and there’s so many ends you could pick that even if you don’t know where you’re going, you can be going somewhere.
David Wright: 00:14:19 you know, one of the things that I find interesting about young employees that we hire is a common criticism, and I gave it myself when I first started working is there’s not enough guidance, right? So it’s a bit more like a discover yourself in Europe, than discover yourself in college kind of thing. And people really liked the guidance, through college and it’s now it’s much harder because there isn’t an explicit pedagogy, I guess, saying here’s all this stuff and how you kind of learn it and, and nobody thinks about that because in business you’re not focused on education. It’s an important component of any successful company is training it’s, it’s, it’s younger staff and older staff and everybody for that matter. But the focus is not. The focus is on whatever the social function of the business is on producing profit of course, and selling things and helping the customer and all that. And, and so you kind of have this lack of guidance relative to what people have experienced before. And they really like the guidance. And so everybody wants to feel in this kind of comes back to an idea in the book which is in some of your papers to uh, which is that we have, we look outside of ourselves for the aspirational inspiration, right? I mean, where do you get the ideas from? Is from the people around you understanding your, you should we go to this university, gives them a lot of that. I guess, right?
Agnes Callard: 00:15:30 Yeah. So I think that guidance is really tricky because.. and the older people get the trickier it is to guide them. Right. Um, and um, so we have the same thing and universities just do you think about Grad students, right? So in some sense, I always feel like they don’t get enough guidance. I remember feeling that as a Grad student. Um, I remember feeling like I had this advisor who all he ever did was refuted everything I said and he would just like pick it apart and it was like, it was absolutely the best thing anyone could have done for me, but it didn’t always feel that way. And um, and I remember one point I actually learned a special trick with him, which is that you could deploy him against himself by just saying something like there’s no possible way to produce an argument for this conclusion.
Agnes Callard: 00:16:19 And then he’d refute you and give you an argument. You just like write it down and then of course next time it would show up in your work and he’d refute it. But, you know, I’m at least, at least you made a little progress there. So I think the problem is that, that, um, there’s, as with philosophy problems with guidance, they’re sort of two extremes, right? One is I’m just leaving people to their own devices and I don’t think they’re going to really get anywhere. I mean, maybe there’s some geniuses who would, but I’m very few of us are that sort of genius, very few geniuses or that sort of thing as even I think. So there’s just that, right? And then at the other extreme there is, I’m making other people into yourself and that’s a real danger. Um, people, um, when you influence someone and you make them and you and you bring it about that they do things in a similar way to how you do them, it makes you feel really good because it makes you feel like you’re living your life with knowledge.
Agnes Callard: 00:17:29 Like, wow, look at what a good thing I’m doing. If somebody else wants to do the same thing. Right? And so, um, like when I was first learning how to cook, I used to always pretend that I was in a cooking show and giving people advice about cooking. This is when I was first learning how to cook so I didn’t know anything, so I’m making stuff up and I would be like, so this is how you do it. Know. And like as though I knew, right? But the idea that I was guiding, someone made me feel like I knew, okay, so that’s very dangerous because we’re just motivated to make ourselves feel like we know by imprinting ourselves and other people. And so it’s, that’s the tension, right? Is that you want to guide someone but you want to guide them in a way where they become themselves and not you. And that gets harder as the person gets older. I think
David Wright: 00:18:20 it was a social feedback loop then I guess. Right? So you’re saying, you know, you’re right because people around you agree that you’re right. And, and that’s one of the things that really interests me and back to back to the book where we allow. I’ll pose this question, then we can get into it, which is, there’s no such thing as negative aspiration. Right? So maybe talk a bit about that, about why that’s the case or not the case.
Agnes Callard: 00:18:43 Yep. Good. So there’s actually two things you might mean by negative aspiration. One is aspiring to cease valuing something. I think that is possible, right? I give an example of it in the book, um, but the other is aspiring to value something that isn’t in fact valuable. Okay. So I think it’s possible to value things that aren’t valuable. I think people do that. Um, people make valuational mistakes, right? Um, however, um, I don’t think it’s possible to aspire to have one of those false values or more specifically, more carefully what I think is if you see that somebody is on the road to acquiring some false value, okay, as we’ll call it, valuing something that isn’t in fact valuable, then you can’t see that person as aspiring. They might see themselves as aspiring insofar as they falsely believe that that thing really is in fact valuable.
Agnes Callard: 00:19:43 Right? Um, but that aspiration, using the concept of aspiration and applying it to someone would, that someone could be yourself, is predicated on taking the thing that they’re moving towards, to be, as a matter of fact valuable and one way that, that, that might sound crazy, but one way to sort of see what family of thoughts that belongs to is just to see that, like on the picture I’m presenting of aspiration, what you’re doing when you’re aspiring, as you’re learning or you’re learning the value of something like say you’re learning to become an actuary and you’re learning the value of how to manifest a certain kind of honesty and integrity in relation to certain sorts of predictive practices, right? Um, so, um, and the word learning is effective. That is you can only learn what is in fact there to be learned. Just like the word knowledge is factive. So you can, the word say belief is not fact. If you can come to believe something, even if it isn’t true, but you can’t come to learn something if it isn’t true.
David Wright: 00:20:49 Santa Claus.
Agnes Callard: 00:20:49 Exactly right. You can’t learn that Santa Claus exists because he doesn’t exist. You can come to believe, right
David Wright: 00:20:54 I won’t be playing this for my six year old.
Agnes Callard: 00:20:59 You can’t, um, so you can come to value something that isn’t valuable, but you can’t come to learn that value. Um, and so since I think that aspiration is a learning process, I think there isn’t any false aspiration in that sense.
David Wright: 00:21:15 And so I think one of the really important ideas there, which I really liked, and this is the one thing that I’ve thought about a lot, which is your initial idea of what the value is, is, isn’t you know enough to know that this is worth pursuing, but you don’t know what it’s going to be like when you get there. Right? And so I think that what is, what is, you can have the false positive. That’s what we’re talking about, right? So I think this is there, but it’s not there yet. But one of the things that surprises me a lot about this is that when you get to the end, you might realize it was never there. And how do you determine or who determines or how is it determined that that value is in fact true or not?
Agnes Callard: 00:21:49 Right? So there are a couple of different ways to hear that question, right? So one of them is, um, who determines quite generally, which are the real values in which are the false ones. I don’t think anyone determines it.
David Wright: 00:22:04 And yet everyone does.
Agnes Callard: 00:22:05 I think that, um, well I think it’s a fact. There’s a fact of the matter, right? So nobody makes it be the case. It just is the case. But I think, I suspect that isn’t the question that you’re really asking. I suspect the question is you’re asking is sort of like, how can you know at an early stage, right? How can you be sure that this thing is going to, that you are going to come to the correct judgment that is valuable at the end of the day, how can you be sure secure that you’re in a good direction, moving in a good direction? The answer is you can’t.
Agnes Callard: 00:22:35 I think so aspiration is kind of a risky process, but that’s exactly why I’m. We do rely on so many structures as we’re aspiring, right? So we don’t just us, most of us, the vast majority of majority of us aspire to a way of life in a way of valuing that is in some sense socially sanctioned. And this is part of why the social sanctioning of certain practices is actually so ethically significant because, um, you know, if take something like homosexuality, right, so it’s now a possibility for someone to, in a kind of relatively comfortable way, depending on where they live. Right? But say they live around here, um, aspire to um, a certain kind of homosexual life, right? Um, but that aspiration was available to very few radicals and you know, as recently as 50 years ago or something. Right? And so the kind of value possibilities that are available to a person are partly a function of their community. It’s sort of function of both their community and sort of like how risk averse they are. Right? Because you might be willing to take more willing to take those chances, but it, that’s why, you know, that’s why we’re looking for a certain kind of feedback because we’re worried that we could be wrong and we’re correctly worried because we could be wrong.
David Wright: 00:24:02 Well, I want to actually, I’m going to come back to kind of the main theme of the aspiration, but I want to make sure. One of the things that amazes me about your career so far is that, and this made me make sense given that you started out with a different question but have kind of been, been drawn towards this idea of aspiration because a lot of your work winds up in the book, a lot of your papers. I was like, okay, I saw that before and then it turns out, yeah, there was a paper on that. So I’m gonna ask you a few questions that have touched on some papers and maybe you can sort of talk through some of the ideas and we can come back to it.
Agnes Callard: 00:24:31 Okay.
David Wright: 00:24:31 So, um, what is AristotleIian deliberation and how is it different from what we think it might might be or should be?
Agnes Callard: 00:24:39 So Aristotelian deliberation is the process where you go from having an end like say your end is, um, to buy your mother a birthday present. Okay. Um, you go from that towards some particular action that you’re going to perform that is going to lead to that end. We’re working backwards. Exactly. Yeah. So you work backwards from the end to the immediate action that you can take and Aristotle thinks of this as analogous to analysis and geometry so that if you have a problem in geometry, like construct such and such a shape, one thing you can do is start with the shape, assume that it’s constructed and then deconstruct it and see when you get to the first step that you could have done from the beginning and then go the other way. And that’s what he thinks deliberation is like. You start right? You start with like, okay, my mother has the president and
David Wright: 00:25:42 yes, yes, yes, how do I make that happen
Agnes Callard: 00:25:43 Exactly the way that it’s different from, um, I would say the thing that it’s really different from is how contemporary philosophers think of deliberation, which is that they think of deliberation as I’m, I’m offered a set of options. I’m in a marketplace say, right, and someone says you can have this or this or this, and I’ve got to choose which one. Right? And I’m going to choose whichever one is best say right? But they’re nothing has been presupposed about what my goals are. It’s almost like, well, look, there’s just some abstract idea of the best or utility or pleasure or something that I can measure them in terms of. And I just got to do the calculation. Which of these is the best option for me? Um, and um, so that, that clearly that accountant deliberation also presupposes a whole bunch of things. Like it presupposes that I have options like that. There’s more than one thing I can do, right? It’s almost like we’re imagining ourselves into kind of supermarket and in Aristotle’s day there weren’t any supermarkets and there were just a lot fewer choices such that from his point of view being able to come up with one thing you could do that could achieve your end, that’s like really impressive and he’s not too concerned with coming up with the best way.
Agnes Callard: 00:26:51 Right. I’m coming with any way is good. He does actually… there is a line where he says, Hey, if you come up with more than one way, then choose the one that’s more efficient or the one that’s more noble doesn’t care much. Right. Like, like, you know, every modern interpreter are coming at that line is like, wait a minute, wait a minute. How do we decide between the more efficient and the more noble. And Aristotle was just profoundly indifferent to that. He’s like, this is an awesome situation, right? Whichever way you like, you’ve got to. That’s an embarrassment of riches. Right. Whereas the modern point of view is it’s all about comparing your options.
David Wright: 00:27:22 You know, what’s interesting about that coming to my head, and this is another idea that I’ve been thinking about which is in Aristotle maybe picked up some of the lower hanging fruit philosophically because he was probably thinking that we can get to a decision is so important and, and that we can get to an end is very important. And these days that’s. We kind of figured that part out. Right now we’re moving on to maybe things that are harder to figure out but also maybe a little bit less impactful. Perhaps you know, sorting out which one is best is, is not as good as kind of the. Maybe you get the 80 percent solution right away. And I’m wondering like, you know, this.. Come back to an idea of what you’ve written on, which is quite a lot of what we do now is based on what on the, on the prior work of of say ancient philosophers and others and and you know, they might’ve picked a lot of low hint lowest hanging fruit and then we’re kind of just still working out going higher and higher up in the tree. And it’s a little bit less clear where the value is. So what do you think about that?
Agnes Callard: 00:28:15 I find that to be a question that’s very hard to think about. Maybe. Maybe it’s harder for someone to think about that question when they spend so much time directly kind of in the ancient world as I do, right? Where it’s almost like it doesn’t seem as low hanging because I’m trying to figure out exactly what Aristotle thinks about these things is actually super hard. Right? Whereas if I were looking at it from enough distance, um, you know, like if I think about Kant, say, so a philosopher I know pretty well, but who I’ve ever spent any time I’m trying to really interpret, right? I just kind of read them quickly and I’m like, yeah, I get what he’s saying, you know, the way that someone else might have been Aristotle. Right? Then I’m just like, oh, I see here are the things that he realized were achieved.
Agnes Callard: 00:28:57 Right? But what I’m like looking at ourselves so close. Um, so I guess I think that, um, you know, one, one way that I have of thinking about this problem is it’s not exactly so much a question of low hanging fruit as it is that a lot of what earlier philosophers do is come up with a kind of conceptual repertoire that gets integrated not just into later philosophy but into common, ordinary thought. Um, so like one example of that with Aristotle is, um, and this is not an original claim to me. There’s a book that was written maybe maybe 10 years ago, by Wolfgang Mann called the discovery of things where basically he makes the case that Aristotle discovered things in the sense of like continuing durable physical objects as a way of organizing the world. Um, whether or not you think you’re going to willing to attribute that much to Aristotle and go.. They were already there except, well, it was a popular conception of it.
Agnes Callard: 00:30:04 There’s a, there’s a, there’s a way in which it’s like, that’s like our question about value, right? It’s like, um, who determines. And it’s like, were they there? I mean, in some sense there were subtly determined it, right, but of course, in another sense they were there, but the world isn’t already, or the organization of the world doesn’t come along with the world. Right? So the lines dividing things from other things aren’t themselves just in the world. Um, we have to draw those lines. We have to carve the world up and what, you know, what you saw in sort of the earliest ancient philosophy, the Ionians people like Perimedes was a real skepticism about whether the world could be carved up in any way at all that made sense and not know.
Agnes Callard: 00:30:43 Um, and then you have Plato who thinks, well it can’t, but then there’s this other world that can, namely the forms, right? And then Aristotle comes along. It’s like, no, no, no. This world right here can be carved up and understood in a way that made intelligible and divided into things. Right? So one way to sort of appreciate that discovery is that it wasn’t obvious in the sense that it was challenged before Aristotle. Um, and so now think about where we are, right? Obviously there are things, there are all around us, we see them, right? We think we just see them, but we don’t realize we’re also thinking them. We’re thinking them using Aristotle’s concept of a substance. Um, and um, and so now I’m, it’s not just low hanging fruit, right? It’s, um, it’s that they built a kind of, um, they, they had, because they came first, they had a kind of foundational place in our conceptual repertoire.
Agnes Callard: 00:31:36 So we’re mostly thinking Aristotle’s thoughts as we walk around in the world, um, especially if we’re not philosophers.
David Wright: 00:31:45 So I want to keep going through this and we’ll come back to, we’ll come back to the, I think that next paper. How is the Socratic desire thesis foundational to socrates thinking in what ways?
Agnes Callard: 00:31:58 Um, so the desire thesis, the thesis that everyone desires the good, right? And um, I think in some way that is Aristotle’s foundational, sorry, Socrates’ foundational ethical thought. So Socrates had a set of idiosyncratic views that, that sort of coming up. Yeah, they kept coming up and they were sort of the um, it was like, this is the sort of thing that you always hear when you talk to Socrates, say his interlocutors
David Wright: 00:32:31 here he goes again.
Agnes Callard: 00:32:32 So there’s a lot of that. Actually, there’s a lot of the here you get here he goes again, line in a bunch of dialogue very strikingly in the Laches right. Um, so, so some of those, you know, Socratic principals are, um, there’s no such thing as weakness of will, virtue is knowledge of the good, men can’t be harmed. I’m a, nobody does evil voluntarily. Um, a punishment is education, etc. Etc. So there are these views that when Socrates would say them, people be like, that’s insane. And then, but then he would sort of argue you into them. And I would Say that the, the big sort of lever or sort of fulcrum that he used argue you into them was the idea that everyone desires to good because of that one is I’m actually relatively palatable and easy, right? Because the thought is, well, what do you, what is it that you would want from the bad? Why would you want bad things, right? No one wants bad things. Everyone wants good things. Um, and so of course everyone desires to good and now let’s move on.
Agnes Callard: 00:33:31 But that, that quick move that I just did hides a really crucial ambiguity, which is when you say everyone desires, they could do you mean that everyone desires what they think is good or what actually is good. And Socrates thought that the answer was both, in fact, that is people desire what they take to be good and what actually is good and it’s the same thing. Um, and getting his interlocutors to accept that, that version of the desire thesis right, where they’re committing themselves both to the objective goodness of the thing that they desire and their own grasp of that goodness that is then more work and that, that extra bit of work is then very important for getting you to accept some of the other crazy. Right?
David Wright: 00:34:17 It just reminded me of something I meant to mention a minute ago, which is that how much detail you go into in your work of going to the original, original Greek, trying to translate it again and think that the way we typically translate this word is a little bit kind of off and you can give me a few different ways and then you’re able to actually pull more meaning at a lot of the texts than is, has been accepted up to that point. And you know, there’s still more to be found. I mean, it’s kind of amazing, isn’t it? I mean, whatever, thousands of years later. Um, so what about what, so what is a Akrasia, and is it real? What did Socrates think? What do you think?
Agnes Callard: 00:34:48 Okay. Um, Socrates and I don’t do, don’t agree on this particular point. so, um, so, uh, a crazy acquisition is weakness of will, which is to say when you act against your better judgment. So you’re like, I am not going to eat another cookie. I’m not going to have another drink. But then you do anyway. Or like, I’m going to go to the gym tomorrow, but then you don’t, right. And, and, and you wake up in the morning and you’re like, I know I should go. I realized that would be the best thing for me. that would be the thing that I should do, but I just don’t feel like doing it. I’m not going to do it. and when I, when you give examples like this to people, everyone immediately recognizes them from their own lives as like, oh yeah, I do that. Right?
Agnes Callard: 00:35:27 And so then it’s really fun to tell them, well, philosophers, at least some philosophers think that’s impossible actually. So the thing you just think you described an experience, you didn’t experience it in a way that’s actually a really good example of the sort of thing I was talking about a minute ago about parmenides. It’s sort of like, um, there’s a way that the world appears to you or manifests itself to you. And you can describe that. But then there’s a question about the coherence of your description. Like have you said anything at all when you described it that way? And one thing philosophers can show you is that you didn’t actually say anything when you said that you thought you did, right, it sounded good to you. Um, but when we put a kind of, um, my conceptual microscope on it, it turns out you said p and not p, you contradicted yourself.
Agnes Callard: 00:36:12 And so we’re gonna need to find some new way to talk about the thing that you took to be what you just described. And I think that much that is the idea that the way people ordinarily think about those episodes is conceptually confused and incoherent. I’m there. I think that’s correct. Um, I’m with Socrates on that now. Socrates wants to go even further and just say, yeah. And really nothing like that can happen. It can happen. Namely, you always do what you believe to be good. You always act on your better judgment. Um, and so at that point you can come up with a variety of sort of, um, dismissive explanations as to why people mistakenly take themselves to act against their better judgment. for instance, self deception would be one. Another would be they quickly changed their minds right at the last minute. Um, I’m, Socrates has a much more.. Socrates doesn’t give either of those, actually he gives it a much more complicated and interesting explanation of what’s really going on there.
Agnes Callard: 00:37:09 um, um, namely that people actually can’t tell apart different kinds of mental states so that, you know, there’s such a thing as believing that it would be good to get a bed and then there’s such a thing as say fantasizing or imagining that it would be good to get out of bed, right? You can have a thought in a variety of moods. You can have a thought in unbelief motor and say hypothetical mode or fantasy mode and Socrates thinks that you think you can just using introspection tell apart your thoughts, which one, which kind you’re having, but you can’t. And so you called it a belief, but it wasn’t a belief. It was a kind of fantasy of like the, you know, that I really think that I should get out of bed. That’s not even a thought you have. So that’s the socr, Socratic analysis.
Agnes Callard: 00:37:51 Um, I have a different analysis. My analysis is that akrasia is the product of an interrupted growth process. Um, so, um, you know, over the course of our lives we adopt new value frameworks and we adopt them with different degrees of perfection in terms of how much to what degree have we completed the aspirational process and come to inhabit the new value. Um, and one thing that sort of stands in the way in an almost universal sense of like coming to value anything is just the basic condition as animals, right? Where like what we want is immediate physical pleasure. That’s, we’re, that’s the value system we’re born with a biological exactly right. And, um, and so like no matter what, like you might value exercise, right? I’m in this and it’s going to be an aspirational project to come to value it. Right? And it’s gonna take years of I’m hating it. And then sort of coming to see what forms of exercise give you a certain kind. It’s not going to be enough for almost anybody to be like, this Is good for me in the abstract, right? They’re going to, you have to find something that gives you a certain kind of pleasure or delight. Um, but even if you find that thing, the chances are you didn’t ever come to inhabit it completely fully. And so there’s this kind of vestigial value system that is in you. And when that comes out, that’s awkward. My understanding.
David Wright: 00:39:19 So is there, is there a way in which it’s kind of a value confusion, is that a way of thinking about it where you think that some things more or less valuable than it should be?
Agnes Callard: 00:39:27 I… So there are one place where confusion definitely shows up is in people’s self descriptions of being Socratic because I don’t think most people do see akrasia as being, um, what I just said, right? Nor do they see as being what Socrates just said. Um, and um, of course you might ask, and I think you should ask at this point, well, why not just trust what people say? Right? But the answer is that it sort of turns out that, and I didn’t sort of spell this out a minute ago, but the, under philosophical analysis, the idea that, look, I fully knew that it was the wrong thing to do, but I intentionally decided not to do it. That’s a contradiction. It’s a contradiction because intentional action is action for a reason. And when you act for a reason, your reason has to be that the thing that you’re doing is good.
Agnes Callard: 00:40:15 And, um, if you think that something else is better and you’re free to choose while everyone desires the good, so there’s a reason you wouldn’t choose the better thing. Right? And so to say, I intentionally and freely chose the worst thing. It’s kind of like saying I desired the Bad. It doesn’t make sense. Yeah. So that’s the confusion. The confusion is in some sense the ordinary person taking a kind of liberty with a concept like action or intention that once you analyze it a bit into its components, you see the contradiction. Um, but, um, so that’s one level, that’s just the level of the person theorizing about themselves right now. There’s another level of confusion where, you know, you might say, if I’m right about akrasia, my analysis is correct, then it entails at least this much confusion. The person who was akratic hasn’t fully inhabited a certain value system, and so they are to that degree, confused about it. They don’t have the knowledge that somebody would have had they fully inhabited it. Yes. Yeah.
David Wright: 00:41:22 So next question, should I be angry forever? why? Why would I want to be angry forever? Why should I be? And then why might that be wrong?
Agnes Callard: 00:41:31 So, um, suppose that I’m somebody wronged you in some way, like they stole money from you, let’s say. Then you have a reason to be angry with that person, right? That is your anger is rational, right? And the reason is that they stole money from you. That’s why you’re angry at them. Um, and so now let’s think about what it would take for you to no longer have a reason to be angry at them. well, let’s say they gave you back the money, gave you back the money, but, but it’s still true that they stole from you and that’s what you were angry about, that they stole from you. So when they give you the money back, if they haven’t changed it yet, they apologize. They haven’t changed it. Um, you might say, and I do think about this a little bit in at least some version of paper I wrote on this.
Agnes Callard: 00:42:25 What if we went back in time? Could they do, could they solve it that Way? At least theoretically, right now there’s a question actually, whether it’s going back in time is theoretically possible. It’s an active debate in the, uh, philosophy of physics. David Lewis, one great philosopher from who I took a class on this very topic thought. Yes, but most philosophers think no, but anyway, I suppose suppose we can go back in time and so I suppose it goes back in time and decides like, this one I’m not going to steal from you. Right? Well then I think it’s true that you don’t have a reason to be angry at them, but you never did have a reason then, right, in that weird world in which time travel happens. And so the question is, supposing the real question is like, supposing you do have a real reason to be angry with someone, um, is there anything they can do to address that reason?
Agnes Callard: 00:43:09 And there’s at least a prima facie argument that there isn’t anything that can do, um, and that would, it would follow that you would have a reason to be angry with them forever. Now it doesn’t follow from that, that you should be angry with them forever because you might have other reasons. Right? In fact, you most certainly will have other reasons and those reasons can easily dwarf your reason to be angry with them. But the point is, and it might even be irrational for you to be angry because you have so many reasons not to be angry with them. Right? But the sort of so, so in a sense, the, the, the philosophical position that I’m looking at doesn’t make an um an interestingly counter intuitive, practical recommendation that everyone stay angry forever. But I think it’s puzzling enough to think that whatever reason you have to be angry with someone, like even when you were a child, that you still in some sense have that reason.
Agnes Callard: 00:44:00 Um, and, and it would still be rational for you to respond to it in some way. And I think that’s an unacceptable conclusion. So what I try to do is find some way around it. I think one of the reasons why it’s unacceptable is that it makes it impossible to give a really good account of apology and forgiveness because I think that what you were doing when you forgive someone is to say, I no longer take myself to have any reason at all to be angry with
David Wright: 00:44:26 and that matters
Agnes Callard: 00:44:28 Exactly. Um, and so I think in a way puzzle about eternal anger is really a puzzle about how we can account for forgiveness
David Wright: 00:44:38 yep. and
Agnes Callard: 00:44:39 you wanna know how?
David Wright: 00:44:41 how?
Agnes Callard: 00:44:41 So I think that, um, I think that the sort of illusion that you have a reason to be angry forever is a product of the fact that, um, anger severs you from the person that you’re in a relationship with, right? Um, so, um, and this is going to be true even if the person is a stranger, but it’s easier to explain if the persons close to you. So let’s imagine that it’s your spouse, right? You’re angry at them. Um, and um, so anger feels like when you’re angry at someone, you think about them a lot, right? And you have these conversations with them in your head and you’re like, we, you show them how wrong they are obsessed with it. Exactly right. And yet you hate them and you don’t want them to be in your head. It’s like anger is like being trapped in a room with like the last person in the world.
Agnes Callard: 00:45:40 You want to reach out to them. You can’t get them away from you. And um, I think what’s going on there is you’re trying to think about your relationship with this person. Um, which is essentially a two way street, but the thing they did has broken it and so you’re angry thinking is sort of your attempt to do something that requires two people but only as one person. Right? Just like your attempt to have a conversation that’s a two person thing, but you’re just going to have it on your own and it never works. Like the fight you have with the person in your head. You sound so good and they sound so Bad. And then in real life you have that fight and like they have much better arguments. Right? Um, and so I think that the sort of feeling like there’s nothing they could say is the feeling like, well, there’s nothing that the image of them that I have in my mind could say to make me forgive that image.
Agnes Callard: 00:46:27 Right? Um, and so in a sense there is a kind of myopic or sort of Cartesian bubble quality to the rationality of anger and that when like the actual interaction with the actual other human being makes a real difference in terms of creating a repair to the relationship that you then become able to think about this problem together with them. And I think once you can think together with them and not in the illusory whatever you’ve just imagined them, you’re sort of rational resources change. Um, and um, it’s no longer the case that the fact that they did that thing is a reason for you to be angry with them.
David Wright: 00:47:13 Framing that, uh, that I read about in the paper that I really liked, and this kind of comes back to the aspiration book is interpreting that in terms of valuational progression. Right? And so the, the idea of being angry with somebody is that we have the shared value system, would you violate it? And now bring me back, show me that we have this value system is still in.
Agnes Callard: 00:47:33 Exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly right. So, you know, the way that I understand anger is sort of predicated on the idea that to be in a relationship with someone is to be engaged in like a kind of co valuing people valuing one thing together where that’s not the same as just two people who both values something, right? I’m sort of like the difference between walking with someone and just walking next to a stranger. Um, and that, um, what happens with anger is that there’s a kind of injury to that valuation so that you’re now trying to do something by yourself that you can only really do with another person. That’s why you need them in your head. Um, and so you have devolved into a kind of doing a two person activity as a one person know you’ve transformed it into a defective one person version and the processes of like fighting with the person and talking it through with them and apologizing and all of that is repairing the relationship so that you can do it as a two person thing again. And then there, that sort of eliminates the need for anger because that’s what anger is, is trying to do a two person thing as a one person thing.
David Wright: 00:48:38 So I want to change gears just a little bit and we’ll come back to that now. Which is, this comes to your, to the conversation you had with Tyler Cowen. Oh, it was great. I mean, I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Really enjoyed it. And he, he has a reading of your book. would you pushed back on. And I’m going to, I’m going to try and mount myself to mount to his defense here. So his reading is that actually this is a piece of a theory of everything. Would you have in your head whether you know, it or not? so he calls the Straussian reading the book because there’s all. This covers a lot of ground here. And uh, you know, you think of like, just the, the papers you mentioned where deliberation is an important idea here. The Aristotelian deliberation which you were examined because that’s about looking at a goal and thinking about how you get to that goal.
David Wright: 00:49:15 It’s a goal oriented process even though you might not see it as clearly as you want to. The aspirational element, deliberate aspirational deliberation Aristotelian, I think the desire thesis, I think it’s important there because you have this, you are desiring the good and that’s another way of putting the value system. Right? And so this was goal oriented kind of process again, where we’re looking, where we, we, we are all, there’s a set of values that are out there and they’re all good and that’s what values are and if they’re not values and they’re not good, you know, it kind of an equality there. So the angry forever. There’s valuational progress there, right? So you’re either moving away from somebody becoming angry with them, moving towards them and, and you’re creating a deeper relationship and so you pushed back because you said this is the value of change.
David Wright: 00:49:55 So does the theory of change and this isn’t just describe states, right? So where I would then say where I think Tyler was onto something there is that I don’t think there isn’t such a thing as state, right? I think that we’re always changing. We’re always nudging a little bits here and there towards goals end of every interaction we have with somebody else’s other progressive value system deeper or farther away and every act we take in the world I think is actually moving towards something or away from something. And I think the human experience isn’t necessarily one, at least in its, in its most fulfilling version where you’re working towards goals. So this is actually a theory of everything because that is everything. Everything is a progression towards something. What do you think about that?
Agnes Callard: 00:50:36 So, um, I have sort of two kinds of responses to that. One is sort of meta and methodological and the other is more first order. So maybe the meta or methodological one is just to say like, even if I were to grant all of that, the book is not even really a theory of aspiration. Um, there’s so much left to do. There’s nothing in the book about love.
David Wright: 00:51:01 It is itself aspirational.
Agnes Callard: 00:51:02 Exactly right. And so if you think about it then if you think about the book as being itself aspirational and as having left out a whole, that is what the methodology that I use in the book is to sort of break a whole bunch of stuff in philosophy to say here’s like a whole bunch of distinctions that are super useful that like we’ve been using internal external reasons and then, and then like none of them work to describe this phenomenon.
Agnes Callard: 00:51:24 So look, let me just create a mess and then I hope someone else is going to clean it up and produce some new because it’s not like we can live without them. Right. And so I haven’t cleaned, haven’t done the cleanup work. Um, and so then, you know, there’s a question, what point of view do you adapt towards somebody who’s done what I did, right? And you could adopt this sort of optimistic perspective where you’re like, yeah, but like we can sort of project forward and see that like in a sense it implies a view about everything. Um, and I prefer like as an aspirant myself, I guess I prefer the more negative approach of like, what is this? It’s nothing because that’s what’s gonna get me to produce the next thing, right? It’s like if you think it’s already there, that induces a kind of complacency of like, um, and nothing more even really needs to be done.
Agnes Callard: 00:52:13 Whereas my approach is like so much wanting to be done because that’s what’s gonna get me to do it. So it’s almost like there’s a kind of a gestalt question were part of the what part of what goes into how you’re going to view that is the place that’s going to play in your future, you know, deliberations. All right. So that’s the sort of methodologic question. But now the sort of first order substantive question of like are there states, right? So there’s an issue that I don’t come down on in the book. It’s probably the most important issue that I don’t come down on. Um, and I would say it’s the single greatest way in which ancient philosophy influences that book is making me realize that there’s a debate that I don’t know how to resolve, and so I have to steer clear of suggesting and solution one way or the other.
Agnes Callard: 00:52:59 But the debate is about whether aspiration is infinite or not. And it’s a debate between Plato and Aristotle. And Plato thought, yes. So Plato thought you should spend your whole life trying to improve yourself in the sense of trying to more fully acquire the values that are in some sense I’m ill suited your mortally embodied soul. And so never going to have them in any kind of perfect way. You’ll always be subject to something like akrasia. I right. Even if we don’t call it that, um, and so you should just try to perfect yourself. That’s the Platonic view that aspiration is infinite. Aristotle’s view. And the ultimate underlying disagreement here is whether or not the soul is immortal, whether dies. So implant as you, it doesn’t die. So you know, it’ll be reincarnated, those afterlife, you just, you just keep trying, okay? Maybe forever. Aristotle thinks the souls mortal, so when you die, you’re dead.
Agnes Callard: 00:53:49 That’s it. Um, and so you’ve got to achieve something in your life and that achievement can’t just be making yourself as good as possible. There’s got to be some amount of making yourself into something where at that point it’s good enough and now your job is not to have yourself as a project anymore. But to have outside projects where you do things like help other people become good and write constitutions for cities, for new cities that’s like ourselves, you know, prime example of like a great thing you can do for the world. It’s like create a new city, right? A really good constitution for write a really good set of laws. And like when you’re doing that, you’re not aspiring. What you’re doing is putting into action knowledge that you have. And I think it was really important to Aristotle to think that you can have knowledge.
Agnes Callard: 00:54:33 Knowledge isn’t just something you’re always trying to get. Um, knowledge is a state of your soul, an ordered state of your soul. And, um, there’d be no point to spending your whole life trying to get it if you could never get it. Um, and again, whether or not there seems like a point actually, it really matters whether you think the soul is mortal or not. So I think that really is the fundamental disagreement. Now what do I think that is? What do I think about whether aspiration is finite or infinite? Whether it is self indulgent to spend your whole life perfecting yourself. I really go back and forth on this one and I have a really hard time. Um, you know, I, I’m pulled, I’m very much pulled by both sets of intuitions I have to say. And so I try not to come down on that question and um, but so now the question is whether or not my book is really a theory of everything actually depends on how you answered this question because if you answer it.
Agnes Callard: 00:55:24 So maybe Tyler is a Platonist right? Um, and maybe that’s like my Straussian reading of his Straussian reading of my book is that he’s just taking a Platonic framework for granted. Um, and the Platonic framework is the one in which in the human realm, all there ever is this change because in this world there is nothing stable. Um, whatever is stable, it has to happen in another world. In the Aristotelian framework is more humanist and it says no, there is something stable in this world to go for. And so there are states and that’s what his whole theory of ethics is about how their states of character, they can be acquired and once you have them you’re not still trying to get them in the period of education as a period up to age, maybe 30 or 40 and then you’re done with education and now it’s time to do things.
David Wright: 00:56:09 So let me give you my Straussian reading here and, and that’s that. I’m sure you’re not going to believe this, but it’s my reading of your book. So we’ll see what you think. Everybody got Socrates wrong, starting with Plato and so that it is not about the goal actually. So the goal is there to get us to work, to work, right? But it’s the work that is actually the goal in some kind of weird way. Right. So if you think about Socrates’ method where he’s, I believe, I believe Socrates, which is to say that I think he’s actually trying to figure it out in conversations. Right? I don’t think he was with. When you read the books, you sort of get this feeling that he had in the answer all along. Right. You know, there’s always kind of Socrates’s it isn’t always the case, but he’s the hero who conquers the problem and he wins and carries the day.
David Wright: 00:56:55 Right. But I want to believe anyway in a Socrates that was there really to try and figure it out with other people and say, let’s all get together and work this problem out. Right. And I think Plato’s Plato almost, right. Socrates is a little bit too superpowered then. Then maybe he really was because Plato wants it to be a direction towards a correct answer at the end and bang just draw a line under that one. Move on to the next book. Right. The next dialogue. But Socrates never actually wrote anything down and I think the reason why he didn’t write anything down with, because you never probably never felt like it was complete and I think that he was probably okay with that as a result because he could have rewritten history. Socrates perhaps and said actually had all the answers all along and Plato kind of did it that way.
David Wright: 00:57:33 Right? So he rewrote it or he wrote it, he wrote it, and so he’s the authority. We’re kind of trying to see through Plato to Socrates, but I think he created more certainty than Socrates would have felt because Socrates is this underlying kind of feeling of a social construction of all these ideas. And Aristotle just took that and ran with it. And on we go to philosophers of the day. We’re trying to find the right answer. But actually, and this is where the ask, this is where I’m okay with the mess you created in that China shop, because I’m thinking, well, it’s the process of cleaning it up and breaking in and cleaning it up. That’s actually what we’re doing and we should be okay with that and some kind of weird way. What do you think?
Agnes Callard: 00:58:04 So there’s a lot in what you say that I agree with. I very much tended, as one person once said to me something like, for you, Plato is like, Socrates’ ugly, clothing. He’s like clothing you’re going to take off to get to the real Socrates. So yes, I think that’s very much how I read that. I lost. I disagree that the way Plato presents Socrates is like the dialogues and with some answer because they don’t. I mean most of them, most of the dialogues that are considered the most Socratic end in confusion
David Wright: 00:58:33 How about the ones that were the ones that were the most Platonic,
Agnes Callard: 00:58:35 um, well I’m
David Wright: 00:58:37 not in the formal philosophical sense of Platonic
Agnes Callard: 00:58:39 They still end in weird ways. You know, the Theaetetus. Um, the Republic, the Sofist. I mean, um, so, but, but you know, in any case we have the Socratic ones and so we do have Plato presenting Socrates as being aporetic. That is Plato didn’t merely present Socrates as just having a bunch of views. But I mean, even in the Platonic ones, you might arguably in the Platonic ones a view emerges, but it isn’t something where it’s like always asserted by Socrates. Um, so, um, the Parmenides, I mean, that’d be a great example. Um, um, socrates is just totally lost. Um, so, so, um, but on the other hand, I guess I look, I do think that Socrates is genuinely looking for answers to these questions and that’s what the, what are you doing in the dialogues? And he often says it, he’s like, actually, you think I’m trying to beat you or whatever, but I actually am just trying to look for an answer to this question and many of the conversations, this becomes an explicit topic in the Protagoras and the Gorgias. And it’s a really interesting question, why it is that, you know, doing that so much shows up for people as being something else. Right? um, Socrates understood that he was going to be misinterpreted and he says that in the dialogues and he’s like, you’re going to think I’m being ironic. He says that uses the word ironic in greek, right? Um, and so the problem of interpreting Socrates is already a problem even within the dialogues and Plato presents us that problem. Um, and you know, as for um, like the process is the goal.
Agnes Callard: 01:00:06 See, I guess the thing that’s, that’s a not unpopular interpretation of Socrates, that’s the thing that worries me about it is like how pleasing of a story that is to tell yourself and, and how often Socrates seems to not be willing to allow himself that I think he thinks that the thing that he’s doing, which is looking for answers and not finding any, is the only possible worthwhile way to spend your life. Okay. So does he think it’s valuable? Yes. Um, does he think that it’s enough? No, I think um, that is um, the idea, it’s like there’s a real temptation to make a certain inference from it’s valuable and it’s the only kind of meaningful human life to. It’s enough because it’s got to be enough then. Right. I mean this has got to be like pretty good. It’s got to be pretty awesome if it’s the best possibility. And I think that Socrates, one of the ways in which Socrates challenges us as to say this is all we can do and it’s not very good because what you actually want is knowledge and you can’t have it in this life, that’s Socrates, right? And of course one sort of like Straussian and reading of that is like, no, really, that you don’t need to worry about the afterlife or this is the valuable thing. Right? But just think about how that reading of it defangs the point and makes it easy and acceptable and kind of, um, uh, kind of.
David Wright: 01:01:34 Meaningless
Agnes Callard: 01:01:35 Yeah. And not only meaningless, but a kind of, it really allows you to flatter yourself in a certain way, right? Um, in the sense that it allows you to be like, hey, I wrote this book. And like there’s a whole bunch of stuff I didn’t explain, but it’s fine. Like, I’m doing the great thing and this is awesome and I’m but like, what’s going to move me forward? What’s gonna move me forward is it’s not that it’s not awesome and this is not good enough and we need to answer these questions. And merely being like engaged in the activity. I mean it’s kind of a paradox, right? Because the thing I was describing to you at the very beginning was like, well I want this light to be shining in my life. It’s kind of a piff epiphanic light. And you were saying, but it’s kind of this, there is, it’s partly there’s this confusion and it’s like the thing that, the thing that allows you to extend it in time is the fact that there’s this confusion in the fact that there’s a direction you’re moving through it and you’re inquiring. But none of that would make any sense if there weren’t something you were after. And I don’t think the idea that you’re after something is a lie you tell yourself, I think you really have to be after…
David Wright: 01:02:28 So let me push back here. So because think of what aspirations teaches me is that you don’t necessarily need to know what the goal is. I mean, you kind of do, right? Think about… Think about the example of your own career. Right? So this book came up, but I mean you weren’t looking for it. So you’re looking for something else and then suddenly this thing is discovered and so it’s almost like those, those authentic moments, those eureka moments, the accumulation of knowledge, that’s kind of like a byproduct that keeps you going, that you love and who knows why where motivation comes from, right, why do we work so hard, all that kind of stuff, but for some reason we love it. We also love the good parts of it too. Right? But the process does seem to create a lot of value for the world.
David Wright: 01:03:05 One of the things that, and reading Tyler’s book Stubborn Attachments.. that I thought was so neat was he’s integrating directly this idea of economic growth into philosophy and economic growth. I mean, I don’t know how familiar you are with kind of the intellectual side of the venture capital business in silicon valley and all that, but one of the amazing things about what their whole strategy is that we don’t have a stake… We don’t have a strong idea here for what’s going to work. So we’re gonna place a lot of bets and all these little companies and most of the vast majority of them are gonna, fail spectacularly, lose all the money, but once in a while one of going to hit on something, it’s almost impossible to tell in advance and that’s what efficient markets teach us is you don’t know what, which one’s going to work, so you have to let it emerge on its own.
David Wright: 01:03:44 And there’s a goal there kind of implicitly. So two ways to think about the goal. One is the goal here is to make money. The goal is progress.. the goal is knowledge! The goal is some, some good that nobody can dispute, but the pursuit of that goal is almost mindless or it’s almost like, I don’t know, it’s almost, I don’t know what the right word is. Maybe you can help me with that, but I don’t know how it’s going to happen. I’m just kind of trusting that it’s going to happen and I’ve seen it a few enough to have enough times that I believe it’s gonna work, but that’s not really why I’m doing this. I’m just kind of doing it and I love it and I love the good parts and that sort of keeps me going, but I feel like that that’s a much more accurate description of how I lead my own life and how I observe. I’ll have other people do it too. When we really liked the idea of goals, we tell stories about goals and they are important to a degree, but that’s not what’s really going on, what’s really going on. Something else, something a little messier, harder to see, but, but just as powerful in the generation of insight and knowledge and wealth in society.
Agnes Callard: 01:04:40 So I mean, I guess one question about say that process that you described. If placing bets and then we don’t know what’s going to happen, but we have say some reason to believe that one of them will work out. One question to ask is like, could that fit the paradigm that I’ve described about a learning process? Are you learnIng anything when you’re doing that? Now you can totally discover things over the course of discovery. You discover like that this one was the good one, right? Um, but when you’re trying to say, come to appreciate classical music, come to see what people see in it. Like what is that thing? I think there’s something there, but I don’t know what it is and I’m trying to get myself to see it. Um, there’s, it’s important that in that process you’re changing, right? The idea of prediction is sort of, there’s a kind of way in which you’re holding yourself fixed and you’re letting the world vary it up.
Agnes Callard: 01:05:38 Um, and your description of venture capitalism is a description of that sort of activity, which I think can add value. I have no objection to it, but it isn’t aspirational. Um, and not all ways of having new things come into being are aspirational.
David Wright: 01:05:57 Sure.
Agnes Callard: 01:05:58 Um, um, you know, one way to have new things come into being is just doing a bunch of random stuff and like some of it will work out right? And you can do that in a more informed way where like, you have some reason to believe some more reason to believe that one of the, one of the more account, what’s really interesting is to think about a kind of continuum between that kind of random activity on the one hand and something like a university on the other hand, right? because I think of a university is kind of a structure that makes possible aspiration that makes aspiration possible, um, where in some sense it fits what you just described with venture capital, right?
Agnes Callard: 01:06:32 Where you’re like, we’re going to get a bunch of people in here and we don’t know what they’re going to do, but they’re gonna do something great. Right. Um, but, um, but there, there is a kind of structure present that um, you have some reason to believe is going to do some work in guiding them towards the things that are valuable. You have a history department and you have
David Wright: 01:06:50 the structure is pretty rigid, isn’t it in universities? You have departments.. you have a hierarchy established status markers. And..
Agnes Callard: 01:06:52 I mean, I guess it depends what you’re comparing it to, you know, like in some ways I teach classes on whatever I want. Nobody ever tells me what to teach on next quarter, I’m teaching James Joyce and Elena Ferrante and in a class that I made up and I’m a philosopher. So like there’s a lot of ways in which universities are not rigid that are, maybe not as obvious, but there are some ways in which it is.
Agnes Callard: 01:07:21 Um, I mean also students like mostly just take the classes that they want. They have to fulfill a major and they have some basic requirements. Some, some, some universities, any of those, um, they have a lot of choice as to what kinds of classes they take. And then we have a lot of choices to whether they want to be in the drama club or whether they want to do sports or like there are all these, there are all these sort of institutional things that are available to them but they don’t have to do. Right. Um, and so that’s, you could say, you know, there is an institutional structure there, but it actually makes possible a certain kind of freedom I think. So the question is, so I think that structure is a structure where you can sort of say that what you’re doing is in some sense guiding people towards this kind of value where you hope that some or many of them are going to become great.
Agnes Callard: 01:08:06 Um, I think that like I’m betting on people, it’s just a very different approach to that. And um, even in silicon valley there’s um, you know, some amount of that university structure is starting to be incorporated in the form of guidance and even institutionalized guidance. Right?
David Wright: 01:08:24 Yeah.
Agnes Callard: 01:08:25 Um, and in a way, what you can see happening there is in some sense silicon valley is just aspiring to become a kind of university, right? To incorporate the best aspects of it and we’ll see whether it works or not. Right. The university is a very old institution that we’ve kind of been handing down to ourselves for a thousand years or so. Um, and you know, and I mean our, I mean arguably arguably dates back to Plato’s academy. Okay. But certainly to the, you know, medieval Germany or something.
David Wright: 01:08:54 Yeah. And I think that there is an element of knowledge acquisition in a lot of venture capital and this is something that Tyler and I discussed a little bit and it’s something that I believe is the case. I mean they’re not just smart people, they’re smart people who think very deeply and are using the experiences of what works to learn more about kind of the underlying reality of the world or whatever it is, you know, the current state of the economic process, which itself is so complex. It’s so hard to understand. And, and one, one theory of why, why a venture capital firm exists is, is, well this is kind of a new conception of it used to be just a parceling out cash, right? But the way that particularly one firm Andreessen Horowtiz manages and others do now too is we’re here to help these entrepreneurs and a much more explicit way and use the network.
David Wright: 01:09:36 And, and, and we know the firms did do this before, of course, but it seems so much more prominent now as a way of using using this as knowledge distribution. So, so we’ve learned these lessons from these other places and we are learning something about the way the world works and here’s what you, here’s the knowledge and you can go work with it and figure it out. So anyway, I want, I want to move on to another idea here which is the idea of optimism and I see it, I see aspiration and this is another kind of theme where it linked me to venture capital. And so that’s kind of jumping off point here is that it’s fundamentally optimistic, right? I think or, or it could be interpreted that way. So I wonder if you could talk to me a bit about how you think of it as optimistic and another, another idea here is whether it is, whether it’s kind of their philosophy itself generally is optimistic or not. What do you think?
Agnes Callard: 01:10:25 I guess I think of optimism and pessimism, more as features of people rather than features of institutions or concepts or activities. So I sort of agreed that aspiration is optimistic, but I guess my thought was that aspirants are, um, yeah. Okay. Um, yeah. And, um, and I think that, I guess what I would say is it’s a kind of tempered optimism, right? Because as an aspirant you’re constantly aware of the way in which you were defective and that awareness is crucial to your development. So, um, but, um, you know, that is the flip side of how good you could become, right. Um, and the idea that the idea of aspiration is the idea that how good you can become when weighed in the balance with how bad you are, it outweighs it. So you’re going to move in that direction. Right? And that’s optimistic.
Agnes Callard: 01:11:23 Is philosophy optimistic. I’ve found that strangely a lot of philosophers are really pessimistic. Um, and I, I’m not sure why I think that there could be a lot of different reasons. So one of them could be a lot of philosophers now especially, you know, people who have tenure track jobs. You like me just seeing a lot of students, great students not get jobs that’s bound to make you pessimistic. Right? Yeah. Um, and then maybe you started out in philosophy thinking that you’re really going to get somewhere and the more philosophy you do, like, I don’t know, the more I feel like even in my intro courses, I’m just like, wow, I thought I understood the Meno, I’ve taught it 50 times. And so there’s this, um, it, I think that can be quite difficult as you get older to live with. So here’s the thing, here’s like a demographic fact that I’ve found about people who work in ancient philosophy. So, um, you know, as you were noting a little while ago, part of what I do is interpret passages right? And I’ll read it in Greek and say, well, here’s the translation, but actually here’s a slightly different translation that’s maybe better, more accurate, right? And then there, there’s not just translation issues. There’s text issues for a lot of these text, especially like say Aristotle’s De Anima, book three. Our manuscript edition is terrible. So it’s like we don’t know what it says, right? and people argue about what the Greek says, not just how we translate it. okay. So here’s something I’ve found that I find super interesting, which is that the older people get, the more dogmatic they become about those issues, about issues of, um, you know, uh, what the text says, textual criticism as it’s called, um, what that text actually says, but then even more so like how we interpret it and when there were like multiple readings of a passage, right?
Agnes Callard: 01:13:13 I’ll be like, oh, here’s another reading. And like if somebody is over the age of 60, the chances that they’re like, no, there’s only one reading. This is how you have to read it. Like super high. Right. And I think it’s partly that, like they’re like, look, I’m approaching death and at the very least I have to know what Plato’s republic says. You know what I mean? It’s like I can’t keep going. I can’t just die and admit as I’m dying that I don’t know what those books that I find the very basics. Like what is the first line of the republic mean or something, you know, I went down to the Piraeus that. So I think that that could explain something like pessimism is like this feeling like that as you get older, as a philosopher, the need to leave things open just becomes harder and harder. And Socrates actually encounters in the Gorgias because Callicles says to him like, you have this philosophy thing you do is, is, is really appealing and young people, it’s kind of like a list which is kind of attractive and like a young person. But like when you see an old person doing it, it’s kind of and stupid like move on with your life, make some progress. Right. And like if you’re a philosopher, you haven’t done that. You’re still listening at the age of 60, you know, and uh, that can seem sort of pathetic to you, I guess.
David Wright: 01:14:23 Uh, we’re, we’re out of a time, uh, but, uh, I want to ask one more question, which is you’re, your own journey really intrigues me in that when you were refuted so, so convincingly right on your initial version of the aspiration idea you kept going, not everybody would right or you might say, okay, that didn’t work, I’m going to try something else. And so you, there’s a persistence about your efforts there, which I think ultimately is, and will mark the success because that’s kind of one of the more interesting and important qualities in any person. Where does that come from? Do you, do you recognize that as something that maybe you do well? Um, and, and what do you think about it?
Agnes Callard: 01:15:08 I don’t think it’s a personality trait. I think it’s that at that time I was working in contemporary philosophy, not ancient that, you know, the basis of my book. I was reading a lot of ancients and um, I’ve just been really persuaded that refuting someone is the best thing you can do to them. It’s the greatest favor that one person can do to another. And I mean simpliciter not just as philosophers. Um, and so that gave me a kind of perspective on it where I’m just like, wow, these people are really doing this amazing favor right over and over again because it’s still there. It wasn’t just my book, this happens to me all the time and happens to me kind of with every talk that I give, but I’m looking for it. Right? I’m listening for it. I’m like hunting for the refuting point. I’m not trying to avoid it. I’m like, what’s the best version of this point that this person just made that I can even turn it into? If I can respond to it? Is there a version of it I can’t respond to you? I’m always looking for that. I’m, I want to help them refute me because I want to help them do me this favor. And I think that I just have been persuaded by Socrates. Somebody says that in the Gorgias okay. Refuting someone is the greatest favor you can do them. Um, and he’s like, yeah, I’m always doing people these favors and like I wish someone would do them to me, but nobody’s ever willing t.. right. Um, and so I really appreciate that, that they’re doing that. I sincerely appreciate it. And I think that, um, I don’t know. I think maybe that’s the best thing I’ve gotten out of Plato is the ability to sincerely appreciate that and so then it makes me kind of cheerful and it doesn’t make me feel bad about myself or feel like I need to give up because the feeling like you would need to give up is the feeling like you need to avoid having that happen to you again. Right. Shift ground so it doesn’t happen or say something else or. But I’m not trying to avoid it because I’m actually trying to make it happen. It’s unusual.
David Wright: 01:16:52 Do so. When you refute other people, do you find that they have a similar response or or not?
Agnes Callard: 01:16:58 No, usually no.. Though I’m hoping. I’m hoping to make it more usual how by teaching this to my students and I think my students do respond in this way
David Wright: 01:17:12 Saying this is a good thing. Socrates was right.
Agnes Callard: 01:17:13 Yes. Like what I’m doing because I wouldn’t say it to them. Like they’ll like my grad students who like have this thing that my teacher did to me. I mean that’s another big part of it, right? I had this teacher who just refuted me and even when it didn’t feel good, I could kind of see that it was good, right? So I do that, but not only do I do it, but I do something he didn’t do, which is to be like, and right now I’m doing you a favor. Let me explain why this is the thing you should actually instead of trying and then they’ll sort of try to avoid. And I’m like, no, no, no, don’t, don’t do this thing where you’re trying to avoid seeing my point. Actually just try to see it and make it worse. Um, try, try that approach or something. And I think it’s kind of liberating when you, when you try it, you realize that like it, it’s almost like you become empowered again somewhere. Um, so, so I don’t know, maybe if like, yeah, if I hope to have a legacy that would be an awesome one. And I do think that some people by temperament are such that being refuted, it doesn’t bother them very much actually. Yeah. But that’s not true of me. It’s not for me. It’s not a fact about my temperament, it’s more about like a commitment to a certain ideal in the light of which I’m trying to shape myself. And so I think that that’s available to people even who don’t have the temperament.
David Wright: 01:18:20 Is there an etiquette of refutation? Does, is it sort of implicit there? Maybe that’s something you need the handbook you need to write. I mean,
Agnes Callard: 01:18:26 oh my god, there’s such a huge. This is a big issue in philosophy because um, for a long time like say in my early years in grad school, but much more so before that there was a very bad culture of how refutation was nasty. Yeah, exactly. They get nasty, they pick on particular kinds of people. They try to refute them in a way that makes them look maximally stupid. Sure. Um, and um, it’s so easy to turn a refutation into an attack on a person. Right? And so there, I think there really is an art of trying to refute people where I’m like, what you make you make him part of the problem with trying, with turning reputation into an attack on the person.
Agnes Callard: 01:19:13 I think the main problem is not that it hurts people’s feelings, but that a, it’s a bad way of refuting them because you’re usually not going to be centering on their main point, you’re just going to be finding the point where you make them look stupid, but you should be finding the point where they’re most relevant. Yeah. Or about them. Um, but like it, you got to get to the heart of what they’re saying and show that’s wrong. You’ve got to bring down the whole edifice who can’t be satisfied to be like, oh, you got this little fact about Socrates wrong or something. Right. But that might be more embarrassing. So yeah, I think that there’s a lot of work to be done. I mean, there’s a lot now. There’s a lot more consciousness in philosophy that we have to refute politely, but I think it’s for the wrong reason. Namely it’s like, so that we can be more civil to one another, which is a good goal. It’s not that that’s a bad goal, but like there are intra-refutational reasons why we shouldn’t be that way.
David Wright: 01:20:01 Yeah, yeah, exactly. Yeah. My guest today is Agnes Callard. Thank you very much for joining me.
Agnes Callard: 01:20:06 Thank you so much. That was really fun.