Today’s New APPS interview is with Ruth Chang, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University.
Thanks for doing this interview with us today, Ruth. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you?
Well, like many philosophers, I have an ambivalent relationship with philosophy. I love it, but it’s hard work and frustratingly difficult to make any real progress. When I succeed in deceiving myself into believing that I am making progress, it’s great! And the old saying is true: ‘What? I’m being paid to do this?’ Or maybe more accurately in this dire economy: ‘What? I’m being paid not-enough to do this?’
How did you come to study philosophy? Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
I grew up in Minnesota in a very Wonderbread and mayonnaise suburb. I think being one of three non-white families in the town had a big impact on me. A lot of my philosopher friends are ‘outsiders’ in one way or another, and it shows in our philosophy. I first encountered philosophy when I picked up Plato’s Republic at a pretty early age. It was unlike anything else I had ever read. Before then, I had wanted to become a geneticist – and even tried to do a transplant on a rat in my Dad’s lab.
There’s a long tradition of the Minnesota outsider: Bob Dylan, the Coen brothers… When did you know you wanted to study philosophy?
My first philosophy course was during the summer of my junior year in high school, when I went away to summer school and took an introductory course with C.B. Martin. We looked at the arguments for the existence of God and the usual smattering of introductory material. I had been raised a Catholic – by a Taoist mother and Buddhist father, go figure – and it was eye-opening to see how reason could smash all those Sundays at the cathedral. I was hooked. It probably helped that Charles Martin looked like Santa Claus.
Did you manage to find philosophy courses during your senior year of high school? Most high schools don’t offer philosophy.
Yes, that is a real shame. Young people are actually pretty philosophical and it’s too bad that philosophy is considered a boutiquey subject suitable mostly for fancy private schools. My lower-middle class high school was no exception, so I went off to the local state university to learn some more. I took an upper-division ethics course and promptly got a ‘C’ on my first paper. That was a generous grade. I sometimes feel like I’m still getting the hang of doing philosophy.
I see that you did your undergraduate work at Dartmouth. Why did you go there?
There was a kid two years ahead of me who went to Dartmouth and came back raving about the place. So I went there. It was not an altogether successful experience for me. I should have realized that a football-playing white male homecoming-king jock would not be a good barometer for me. I left after two years and went to China for a spell and then to England to round out my undergraduate studies. It is a miracle that Dartmouth allowed me to have a degree. I’m grateful to them for that.
You didn’t go straight to graduate school after that though. I see that you took a detour through Harvard Law School. If you loved philosophy, why did you go to law school?
Partly because I had grown up being told by adults that I should be a lawyer, partly because I came from an immigrant household and was worried about becoming homeless, and partly because I was discouraged from pursuing philosophy by a well-meaning philosophy teacher whose opinion I respected.
Do you think others should give up on doing philosophy if a philosopher tells them to?
Well, I do think it is the duty of every philosopher to discourage bright young things from becoming philosophers. Deciding to be a philosopher is a bit like deciding to become a Hollywood actor – the only people attempting to do it should be the people who can’t help themselves. I count myself as one of those. And so I persevered, and am glad I did.
Now, what about philosophy graduate school: who were your most influential teachers?
I went to Oxford in the days when there was no department and very little structure to the D.Phil. You either sank or some kind faculty member fished you out of the deep end by the collar. Derek Parfit was my fisherman. He is without a doubt the person who most influenced me in graduate school. He was encouraging just when I needed it. The thing I like most about him as a mentor is that he is ‘pure’ – there’s zero ego when one does philosophy with him – it’s all about the ideas and trying to understand. Also, the best philosophical interlocutors are Goldilocks – people with whom you disagree not too much and not too little – so you can roll up your sleeves and really get into it. Derek is like that for me. It’s such a pleasure talking philosophy with him.
What was the atmosphere like at Oxford: friendly, competitive, stimulating, stressful?
Oxford was pretty atomistic. My rough cohort included Seana Shiffrin, Mike Otsuka, Alan Thomas, Gillian Lester, Simon Glendinning, Ed Harcourt – those were the people I’d see around the most. As I said, there was no department and no gathering place for graduate students to hang out. I think we were all pretty much doing our own thing.
What did you like best about your time at Oxford?
I started off at Wolfson and then moved over to Balliol as a junior research fellow – basically a post-doc – which was great! I am not sure there is a better job on the planet. Part of what made it so great was that I got to talk to Joseph Raz. Who could ask for anything more? Joseph is so brilliant but also so wickedly fun and funny.
What was your early professional life like?
Armed with a J.D. and a philosophy D.Phil, and being a very indecisive person, I dipped my toe in both the legal academic world and the philosophy world. Towards the end of my graduate studies, I took a year to be a visiting assistant professor at UCLA in their philosophy department. I had a great time there – it’s a department with a great laid-back vibe.
Okay, what then?
I followed that year with a year as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School. That year was less successful. Don’t believe it if anyone tells you that legal academia is like philosophical academia. They are like night and day. I was better suited to philosophy and so that’s where I planted my flag. I am in awe of those who can do both.
Their loss is our gain! Was there anything between Chicago and Rutgers on your path?
No. My first job – incredibly lucky – was Rutgers. I just love it there.
What were your first publications? Is there one that stands out as your breakout piece?
I suppose if I had to identify a ‘breakout’ piece it would be my ‘The Possibility of Parity’. That piece argues that there is a fourth basic general value relation beyond ‘better than’, ‘worse than’, and ‘equally good’. When I explain the idea of parity to ordinary folk or even to academics outside of philosophy, they usually yawn and wonder why I would waste my time trying to defend such an obviously correct idea. If only philosophers were so accommodating.
A not uncommon experience for philosophers. What was your tenure process like?
Tenure was mercifully a nontraumatic experience. I know people denied tenure who say they have been scarred for life. It’s a horrible thing to go through, but my department on the whole was so supportive and wonderful that I escaped, unscathed.
The relation of continental and analytic philosophy has been fraught with tension for many years. How do you negotiate this conflict?
I don’t have much to do with this divide, which is starting to crumble, I think. My own view is that, from what I know of the continental side of things – I spent a summer of reading pretty much everything Sartre wrote and dip into ‘continental’ papers now and again – the methodology and therefore the questions of concern in each camp are quite different. There is no need to squabble over the worthwhileness of the questions because the questions asked by each camp are, on the whole, clearly worthwhile questions. And the same goes for the methodology – on the whole. My own sense, for what it’s worth, is that at the heart of the rancor between the two camps is an importing of standards of excellence from one methodology to another where those standards are inappropriate.
Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
Right now, I’m busy developing a view about practical reason. The general aim is to explore a view about how we humans fit in the universe that gives our agency or volition a central role. Right now I’m exploring the relation between reasons for action and volition. The project grows out of ideas I had when I was in graduate school. But as I describe this, I’m reminded of something Chris Peacocke once said to me along the lines of: ‘We philosophers are odd – we have a big idea when we’re 26 and then spend the rest of our lives defending it. What are the chances that a 26 year old is right about anything?’
Ha! That’s a good note on which to finish. Thanks very much for doing this interview with us today, Ruth!