Today’s New APPS Interview is with Samuel Wheeler, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut.
Thanks very much for doing this interview with us, Sam. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you?
A great pleasure for me is what it’s like when I’m working on a paper that has some interesting ideas that I haven’t entirely thought through. The experience of writing an original paper (rather than an assignment, such as “could you write a chapter on Y for our guide to X”) is very much like what I experienced as a painter and print maker during my art-major and post-art-major period—you’re thinking about nothing else, night and day, problems come up, you mull over them, your muse kicks in with an idea, and you go on writing until you hit the next problem.
Yes, there’s a great pleasure in that kind of immersion.
I also enjoy steep learning curves in new stuff that connects with my training, but requires reading lots of interesting and unfamiliar people. In order to write about Derrida, I read, for the first time, a lot of Hegel, Husserl, Saussure, Freud, and Heidegger. A long process, but pretty exhilarating.
Yes, with Derrida, there’s a huge tradition to become familiar with. The same with any great philosopher I imagine.
What is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine?
How do you deal with the down periods, when the words hide themselves instead of flow through your fingers?
When the muse is absent, I read, go to the gym, mow the lawn, fish, throw a ball for the dog, do routine writing, etc. Or, during the semester, prepare classes, read stuff people have sent me, read novels, etc. I found long ago that trying to force myself to write when I’m not inspired yields very humdrum work.
Yes, there’s a wisdom there that only comes with experience I think. You just have to have faith that the words will flow the next time, or the time after that …
In what ways, if any, do you integrate art, science, politics, and other areas of life such as cooking, or listening to music, or physical / spiritual exercise – what have you – into your philosophy?
I do a lot of things outside philosophy—I have been a member of a volunteer fire and ambulance corps for about 40 years. I was actually deputy chief of the fire department. I did about 3000 ambulance calls.
Wow. I don’t know if I know another philosopher who was that involved in emergency service like that. But maybe you’ve met others?
About 1990 there was a New York Times magazine article about a guy in upstate New York who was a philosopher and a fireman. I don’t know of any others. There are no professors in any field in any of the volunteer departments in my county or adjacent ones, that I know of. I have recommended this activity to many of my colleagues, but without results. It’s really a great way to live in a small community as an active participant rather than just sleeping there. Plus, you get to drive big trucks with lights and sirens. If you do EMT work, you accumulate so many good deeds that you can relax about that. You get to do slightly dangerous and exciting things that have some purpose, unlike rock-climbing. Rocks don’t need to be climbed. Fires in partitions do need to be put out.
Another feature of being in a fire department is that you have a better conception of what a good portion of the world is like. For a large number of people, I’m the only PhD with whom they are on a first-name basis. Some of my best friends (in terms of who you can count on to help you out, and who count on me to help them out when need arises) never graduated from high school.
What else has captured you?
I was chairman of a school board for a few years. I’m sort of a serial obsessive about hobbies—baroque music, fishing, bridge, chess, collecting rare books, etc., each has had a run of a few years, after which I can’t remember why I was so interested.
I suppose I’m like that with sports. For a while I couldn’t work at swimming enough. And then one day I realized my stroke was just about as good as it was going to get – short of complete dedication, that is – and then swimming just became another workout. It’s fun, but no longer consuming.
Except for philosophy, I’m between obsessions at the moment. With the exception of rare book collecting, where my knowledge of philosophy and Greek and Latin helped a lot, none of the non-philosophical activities really were relevant to philosophy, or philosophy to them.
How do you see philosophy as it relates to other parts of one’s life or to other people’s lives?
I think philosophy is primarily an art-form. It may have some contact with what other people do, but is really not generally of much relevance. Try to think of some concrete social benefit that has sprung from the work of Kant. That doesn’t mean that I think philosophy is not worth doing. Try to think of a concrete benefit that resulted from the Goldberg Variations. Once in a while, and in some areas, philosophy has effects in the wider culture. But these effects are hard to sort into the beneficial and the pernicious.
And yet we’re pushed more and more by politicians and administrators – it’s hard to separate the two sometimes; they seem to egg each other on – to show the short-term bottom-line effects of our work.
Rawls is the only contemporary philosopher I can think of who has affected policy anywhere. Maybe Singer. Marx seems to have provided the ideological basis for more suffering than benefit, but that’s not his fault. Philosophers cannot generally control what people will do with their work.
We’d have to include Nietzsche there too!
Indeed. Just as I wouldn’t judge the Rolling Stones by whether their lyrics were edifying, so I would not judge philosophers by their effects. Philosophy is conceptual art. I take a l’art pour l’art stance both in relation to philosophy and to painting. Effects are unpredictable and irrelevant to how good the philosophy is.
How do you integrate teaching and research? How long did it take you to find the most productive practices here?
I usually get interested in the things I’m teaching. Fortunately, I’m at an institution with a graduate program, so I can choose seminars that fit with what I want to work on. But I find that I get ideas from teaching courses even when they are assigned service courses. I have a paper deconstructing Kant’s Groundwork, which I had to teach as part of an intro ethics course. Most good philosophers will give you something good to think about and write about if you engage with them. Plato, Kant, Aristotle, et al. are pretty good philosophers.
I’ve heard as much.
As a result of having for some reason volunteered to teach the philosophy section of an interdisciplinary course on the Bible in 1981, I have a long-standing interest in the Bible and its history of interpretation, which connects with philosophy of language, but runs off into topics that are not really philosophy. I took three years of Hebrew, for instance. I enjoy Talmud. I have occasionally used material that I learned from Bible-study in philosophy papers. For example, a perfect case of a text where authorial intent is irrelevant is the Pentateuch. I’m using that now, in writing a piece on Davidson and literary theory.
How did you come to study philosophy? Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
I was a faculty kid in a small college town. I was the oldest of six kids of an associate professor, so it was not ritzy. So, of course, I was a smart kid and a voracious reader, especially of science fiction, but also recognized as the best drawer/artist in my class throughout grade school. As a third, fourth and fifth grader, I hung out summers at the college-run summer theatre being tent clean up kid and occasional child actor. I listened to theatre majors discuss Camus, Kerouac, the existence of God, etc.
Quite the experience for a little kid. I was thinking about the existence of the Phillies’ starting rotation at that age I think! What about high school?
In high school, I wasn’t a complete nerd, but socially somewhat below average. I was president of the science club, but I did get a letter in track and was on the wrestling team.
What was your idea of philosophy?
How did I become a philosophy professor? Just as a carpenter’s son thinks of carpentry as what grown-up males do, I thought of academics—grading papers, going to class, etc-- as what grownup males do. I think I’ve always liked interesting ideas and arguments.
When did you start doing philosophy, if I can put it like that?
My first venture into philosophical writing was when I decided to get confirmed as a Presbyterian, so I could go to church camp and meet girls. My high school class had 60-some people, so after seven or eight years, every plausible girl had been a girlfriend at least once.
Ha! Cherchez la femme strikes once again!
The Presbyterians believe in predestination, and my assignment was that doctrine. My presentation was the argument: Suppose God created everything at year 0. Either He instituted deterministic laws, or He allowed some randomness. On the first alternative, you have been doomed to do whatever you do from the moment of creation, so whatever you do is God’s doing. On the second alternative, you can hardly be responsible for random events. So it’s all God’s doing. So predestination doesn’t matter, since on either alternative, nothing is under your control. I still think that’s an interesting argument. At the time, when I invented it, I thought it was brilliant. The minister, fortunately, was a kindly liberal, so I managed to get confirmed anyhow.
We all benefit somewhere along the line from the benevolence of our guardians!
As a nine-or ten year old, I also went to a Quaker Sunday School, run by a philosophy professor named Mahlon Hepp, where the texts were the Bagavad Gita and some Buddhist writings. So I was kind of ready to be a philosophy major.
Later, from taking French classes at my father’s university while still in high school, I read Sartre and Camus, and a lot of other French stuff.
Can you tell us about your undergraduate days? Sounds like you had a lot of exposure to philosophy already.
I went to Carleton College, which was a sort of grad school prep school. Gary Iseminger and David Sipfle, both gifted teachers from Yale, are the teachers who influenced me the most—especially Iseminger, who told me to go to Princeton rather than to Yale, which was the Carleton tradition.
I see. What sort of curriculum did they have there?
The department had a broad range of analytic/continental courses, with a solid historical component. Just as important as the professors and the program, though, was that there were a number of avid philosophy majors. Having peers who like to talk philosophy is as important as having good professors. I liked philosophy right away. I was especially interested in Wittgenstein and Ryle, actually.
Any especially memorable courses?
My sophomore year, I took a senior major seminar on Whitehead from John Lango, and did pretty well. After that I was sure I was going to grad school in philosophy.
Yeah, if you can handle Whitehead, you’re pretty much ready for anything I think. I swear my copy of Process and Reality sneers at me every time I pass by. How about graduate school then?
I went to Princeton during the Golden Age of graduate study. Everyone had full financial aid and the job crunch hadn’t happened. Princeton was a very good place to be, if you were married, which I was and still am. After the first semester, which was rather rough and the main filter, everyone felt assured that they would get a degree and a job.
I can see how that lets some of the worst competitive aspects of graduate school dissolve.
The atmosphere among the grad students was pretty much that of colleagues. This was a great group. The people I overlapped with included Tyler Burge, Larry BonJour, Adam Morton, Steve Stich, Michael Tooley, Richard Kraut. There was no competition for funding, and everyone worked pretty hard and talked philosophy a lot.
I can imagine the inspiration from the faculty was excellent too.
There were lots of good philosophers there. The ones who had the most influence on me were Gil Harman, Donald Davidson, and Richard Rorty. I’m right now writing a neo-Davidsonian anti-metaphysical treatise. Rorty gave me good advice all his life, including “Yes, you ought to read Derrida.” I’m editing a special issue of The European Legacy on him. A Davidson student, who has now abandoned analytic philosophy for more meaningful things, was John Wallace, a wonderful person. Tom Nagel, Tim Scanlon, and Dick Grandy were junior professors.
How about memorable seminars?
Seminars that stand out: A Davidson/Harman seminar, Tom Nagel’s seminar, which consisted of chapters of his Possibility of Altruism, Rorty’s seminar, where the opening meeting was a wonderful tour of the history of philosophy leading up to Sellars.
Inspiring talks: In 1970, Kripke came to Princeton and gave the lectures that became Naming and Necessity.
Not quite being present at the creation of the earth, but still, an important event!
I have never been so impressed by an oral presentation before or since, even though I now have grave doubts about the surge in analytic metaphysics that has come out of his work, making essentialism respectable, and David Lewis’ work (another crazy great). This was three lectures delivered without notes, but in a way such that, thirty years later, I looked at the notes I took, and saw that I had understood it very well on a single hearing.
What was your dissertation topic?
My dissertation was on the logical form of ethical language, applying Davidson’s truth-definitional approach to natural language semantics to “good” and “ought” and trying to provide a linguistic argument for a version of Tom Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism as a basis for rational-agent, neo-Kantian ethics. This was an ideal dissertation topic, since nobody had done much logical form work other than Davidson, so that there was no research to do—just figure things out.
What about the actual process of writing?
So I wrote the dissertation between March and October, 1969. I had it essentially complete by mid-August. A fun several months—fishing in the afternoons, playing volleyball in the evenings, writing from about 9:00pm until 4:00am, getting up at noon, doing it again. I’m actually sort of doing a better version of much of that project right now.
Sounds like that Marx quote: “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic”!
I’m not sure I really go along with Marx. It sounds like a permanent vacation, or like retirement. I like to relax from my work doing other stuff, but having something that’s worth doing to do is pretty central to my happiness. I sort of feel that my projects, especially philosophy, define what I am. I do of course take being a father and being a husband as important and capable in emergencies of displacing philosophy, but if you ask me who I am, the answer is philosopher or intellectual.
That may be just because I’m lucky enough to have something enjoyable and rewarding to do at which I can make a living. I would have a different perspective if I had a real job. So, I don’t criticize my friends who retire from the state highway department at 55. I understand that they don’t want “truck-driver” to define them.
I could perhaps mention that all the summer and vacation jobs I had from high-school through college were things like construction, farm labor, halibut-processing, and other jobs where you could become expert enough in a few weeks. At the end of each summer, I was really happy that: 1) I didn’t expect to do that the rest of my life; and 2) I was about to get back to college.
Who was your advisor?
Gil Harman was my main advisor, and was the ideal advisor—he would return comments on my chapters the day after I put them in his mailbox (this was before e-mail) and told me articles I should footnote, and maybe also read.
Tell us about your professional life then, if you would.
My first and last job is at the University of Connecticut. The teaching load in theory at first was 3 and 3, with two preps, but that usually actually was 3 and 2. It has been 2 and 2 for the past several decades.
You’ve obviously found a home in Connecticut.
I wanted to be at a New England university with a graduate program where I could live in the country on some land. My wife’s family is from Massachusetts, it was important to be near her recently-widowed mother, and I am a small village person.
What about the students at Connecticut? How did you adjust to teaching them?
The students were a shock. The only undergraduates I had taught were Princeton undergrads, who were somewhat less intellectual than Carleton undergrads, but could write coherent paragraphs and did the reading. It took a while to figure out how to teach Plato to people who did not find philosophy fascinating.
How have you managed to integrate teaching and research?
Integrating teaching and research was interesting. After Kripke, I suddenly realized that Aristotle was pretty good. So I started teaching Ancient Philosophy, learned classical Greek, wrote some essays that got published, etc. Doing Ancient Philosophy courses, I began to like Plato a lot more. I’ve just completed a piece in natural language semantics that turns out to be a worked-out version of Plato’s account of comparative adjectives (‘tall’, et al) in the Phaedo.
What were your first publications? Is there one that stands out as your breakout piece?
My first publication was a piece of Davidsonian logical form analysis of comparative adjectives. It was perhaps the first attempt to apply Davidsonian semantics to a real linguistic case. It is still cited in the vast literature that has now developed since 1972 on this topic. I had a similar experience with my second publication, which was an application of the sorites argument to the question of what things are real (assuming that essentialism is true and that essences are given by the best physical laws). Both of these topics were virtually untouched in the 70s, so you could write an article that did not require 75 citations of previous work. Also, you did not have to read anything. Since 1970 something, the sorites literature has grown to be a massive clump of some hundreds of pieces and theories. So the issue is how to find something interesting that people haven’t beaten to death.
What were your colleagues like? Did you feel supported? Was there a formal mentoring process?
My colleagues were supportive. The department has always been open-minded and supportive, and is so now. When I wrote a series of pro-civilian gun-ownership papers (the first ever published in mainstream philosophy journals) my colleagues, while they didn’t go out and buy guns, were tolerant.
Well guns are one thing, but reading Derrida!
Yes, while some of my analytic friends from other departments were pretty hostile about my taking Derrida seriously, my colleagues, while they were not about to read Derrida, thought the things I was arguing were interesting.
What was your tenure process like?
Getting tenure didn’t use to be (in 1976) such a stressful thing. I actually spent a lot of time in my pre-tenure years at UCONN doing things that would be impossible now. I took a number of studio art courses, only abandoning that when it became clear that I had to choose art or philosophy, since both are full-time. I spent a lot of time and energy learning to be a firefighter—how to drive big trucks, Scott air pack procedures, fireground procedures, EMT training, etc. I’m now one of the old guys in the FD, but still a sort of alien after 40 years.
Do they call you Socrates? Or Aristotle? They must have a philosophy nickname for you.
For bantering, the usual term is “Professor,” but normally it’s “Sam.” A lyric that comes to mind is Laurie Anderson’s Big Science—“everywhere he goes, he’s a stranger”—my colleagues in philosophy think it’s weird that I’m a fireman and gun owner; my colleagues in the fire department and the fish and game club have no idea what philosophy is or why someone would be interested in things of no practical import. Also, “How you can be working when you’re home in your basement?” But both groups tolerate weirdos—philosophers give a break to anyone who does good work; firemen give a break to people who are active and effective firefighters and EMTs.
Yeah, I can imagine what counts is whether they can count on you in the clutch, not what you do outside the fire department.
Let’s consider the institutional and professional side of things. You’re one of the few people who works right at the border of continental and analytic philosophy. What do you see happening at that border? Is there hope for a rapprochement?
Speaking from the side of analytic philosophy, I don’t really see much hope. A rapprochement requires that you have a significant number of analytic philosophers who know enough continental philosophy to be sympathetic. This requires having a certain breadth, obviously. What is happening on the analytic side is that, because of the job-market pressure to publish while in graduate school, students have to focus more and more narrowly in order to get a job.
Yes, I can see that institutionally driven narrowing of focus at work.
If you are in contemporary metaphysics, it is more important to know articles published in the past decade, so you can write a knowledgeable variation on a current view, than it is to know Aristotle. Every field is getting fragmented into specialties. “Epistemology” would be much too broad a field, if the idea is to master a literature before you can publish.
That is progress from one point of view, the “division of labor” perspective. But it wasn’t always like that, and it has its costs.
When I wrote my first paper on the sorites argument, you could read everything written on the topic in the twentieth century in an afternoon. Today there are about six hundred articles in an on-line bibliography on the topic.
So, it would be professional suicide for most analytic philosophy grad students to spend much time reading outside their area—they have to master a large literature and publish within three or four years of having been an undergraduate. Most analytic philosophy grad students also know little of the history of philosophy, so the points of connection with continental philosophy are missing. I would say that in another thirty years, analytic philosophy, not to mention philosophy, will cease to be anything recognizable as a single field.
Unless there’s a change in the structure, that fragmentation does seem likely to continue. And some would applaud it no doubt; no one seems to mind there not being “science” anymore, but sciences. But is the science model what’s best for philosophy?
I think what makes philosophy a “field” is a common background literature. That background is disappearing. Many analytic philosophy grad students never really study Wittgenstein and Quine, let alone Husserl and Heidegger.
Philosophy and other humanities are under increasing pressure to justify their existence in universities on short-term economic criteria, sometimes in number of majors or tuition income, sometimes in terms of outside grants. How is this pressure manifest at your university? How do you respond to it, practically and theoretically?
UCONN seems to be resisting this pressure in some ways and succumbing in others. In 2001 my college began our Humanities Institute, which gives out fair number of faculty and graduate student year-long full fellowships. Our faculty and graduate students have had a number of such positions. On the other hand, our research TAs have vanished, which was one reason we lost two prominent department members to places with research assistance. Every TA must now cover a set number of sections.
How has the falling percentage of tenure-track positions relative to graduate assistants, part-timers, postdocs, and permanent instructors affected the strategies your department uses in graduate student placement? What does your department do with regard to preparing graduate students for non-academic work?
The main effect of the reduction in tenure-track positions has been to limit our admissions to the PhD program to people with a reasonable chance to get a tenure track job. The people who could be qualified to be philosophy professors vastly outruns the jobs there are. Very talented people typically apply to philosophy programs. By GRE standards, I believe students intending to go to grad school in philosophy have the highest verbal scores of any field (average close to 90th percentile.)
I think that is by-and-large correct.
I think it is morally wrong to encourage a person to spend years getting a PhD that will not result in a decent job. When I was director of grad studies (for about a quarter century, ending June 2010) I would use the following analogy: The number of people qualified to play the lead in the Titanic (a good job) was probably around a quarter million. But there was only one job. The fact that you would be a good philosophy professor does not mean that philosophy can be a career for you. I would point out that probably, when they are forty-five, they will want to have a home and a decent income.
Yeah, if you can manage it, low-income grad student life can have its good sides, a certain simplicity and camaraderie. But I’m not going to romanticize the life I led in Chicago in the late 80s. Even with a good bartender job, there’s only so much spaghetti and peanut butter – not at the same time! – you can eat.
The class interests of faculty and graduate students are different. As far as faculty are concerned the more graduate students and the longer they stay, the better. It is satisfying to teach graduate seminars, and you need a population of interested graduate students to do so. But I doubt that it is in the interests of a graduate student to work for eight years, get a PhD, adjunct for a few years, and then start over at the entry-level in some other profession.
Yes, we have to start using that class interest analysis within the philosophy profession.
What we do is the following: Two years of intense philosophy study is worthwhile and enjoyable. You’re not harming a person if you supply that without putting the student in debt. We admit only students we can fully support, albeit by teaching assistantships rather than fellowships (see the Golden Age, above). After two years, we limit further funding to people we think we can place in another three years.
That seems responsible.
It’s just wrong to entice people into wasting their young lives on a futile hope. Of course we make mistakes of both obvious kinds—funding the unplaceable and not funding people who would have done well.
Just to take the other side, I can imagine some people calling that paternalistic. The students know the odds, who are we to dissuade them?
We’ve had this argument in the department. The problem is that grad students are very good at convincing themselves that outside factors account for their less than sterling performance. What I have to point out is a person in their twenties routinely has girlfriend/boyfriend crises, apartment problems, etc., etc. Eventually, a person has to realize that he/she is competing in a field where everyone is very, very smart, and go on to something else if it’s not working out. We try to encourage that realization early rather than late.
I guess I’m a consequentialist. The alternative to paternalism is a lot of harm. Also, we don’t actually kick people out of the program—we just decline to fund them further.
That’s always the tricky point: perseverance is a virtue, but so is realism.
The central point is that philosophy grad students are talented people who can have satisfying careers in almost any other field. Go to law school—it will be a breeze compared to the Critique of Pure Reason or the Science of Logic. Get an MBA and drive a Mercedes rather than a decrepit 96 Lumina.
How do you see university philosophy programs in the larger social context?
I’m not sure what proportion of the GNP should be spent on philosophy rather than on other worthy projects. We’re a cultural luxury item. Wonderful, desirable, but perhaps not what the sources of our income would select. I guess our self-interest would be to convince people that we’re very important. To be honest, it’s a little hard to be objective. How do we stack up relative to ballet and opera companies? Relative to increased medical care for the poor? I’m of course happy to have people advocating for my profession, but I can’t convince myself that we’re being wronged if the culture decides it would like fewer philosophy teachers and more nurses, for instance.
There’s a lot more to be said; the whole profession needs to – and I think increasingly does – take these issues seriously. But let’s move on, and conclude by coming back to your individual situation. Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
I’ve done a variety of things, but most of them hang together around some central issues in philosophy of language. Believe it or not Derrida seems to me to work out some consequences of Davidson’s thought about language that Davidson had not thought out.
I do believe it! Although I did most of my Derrida work on his metaphysics (or better his reading of metaphysical texts), I’ve always thought there was room for Derrida in mainstream philosophy of language discussions. Now what would you say was the most frustrating experience of your professional life?
Most frustrating: Getting brilliant articles rejected by journals.
Ha! We can all relate to that! What was the most rewarding?
Most rewarding: My time at Yale learning literary theory from Hartman, Hollander, Derrida, et al. in the mid-80s.
That was another Golden Age perhaps. What are you looking forward to doing next? What are your short and long-term projects?
I’m working on a magnum opus showing how Davidson, properly understood and somewhat modified, dissolves contemporary metaphysical problems. I have just finished a piece halfway between linguistics and philosophy on comparative adjectives. I have a bunch of promises to write essays for people’s projects and journals due over the next couple of years. And I intend to continue writing things in philosophy of language that incorporate Derrida’s ideas into analytic philosophy.
That’s something I hope we can all benefit from, continentals and analytics alike. Thanks so much for this interview!