Given that you pursued a career in academic philosophy, any specific regrets?
One big one from my early days. Not turning my MA thesis on Paul Feyerabend into my first book. The idea was there, and it hadn’t been done. There were no book-length works devoted to Feyerabend’s ideas then like there are now, and most of the secondary literature on Feyerabend was awful. I don’t know if having a book like that come out about the same time as receipt of the Ph.D. would have helped or not, of course, but part of me would still like to think so. But I let myself get sidetracked. I can’t blame anyone else for that. I was writing for a local music magazine and trying to write a novel based on some of the stuff I’d seen and been through as a student in a college town where there were a lot of popular bands — and also a lot of dopers. One version of it got finished but was never published, which is probably just as well.
I also ended up with what was probably a publishable paper on incommensurability that I’d read at a meeting that first year out. All it needed was some tweaking, but the novel seemed more important! We live, we learn, we regret. Paraphrasing Kierkegaard, we reflect backwards after we’ve lived our lives forwards.
There’s a new book out with Paul Feyerabend’s name on it, you know.
Yes, Philosophy of Nature. I’ve started reading it, and I doubt his forays into ancient Greek art and the Homeric worldview will be understood. Feyerabend was always an interdisciplinarian, in a field riddled with microspecialists.
You wouldn’t describe yourself as a specialist, then, I take it?
Heck no! If I wanted to be a specialist I would have stayed where I was in geology!
Do you find any recent trends in academic philosophy disconcerting?
I never cared for so-called feminist philosophy. Nothing against women, of course; I just doubt the wisdom of pursing philosophy from a group-grievance perspective. Most of what I’ve read of feminist philosophy just isn’t very good. It isn’t well reasoned, conscious of its own unstated premises which tend to be Hegelian-Marxist, or what it’s borrowed from others sometimes without credit. It’s not even well written. And radical feminists don’t handle criticism particularly well. That was one of my first observations as a new Ph.D., knowing next to nothing about them at the time but observing them disrupt a meeting at a national conference.
What was the conference?
American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division, either 1987 or 1988, that escapes me now. Christina Hoff Sommers was the speaker, doing a paper on feminism and the family, and she was basically shouted down – booed and hissed down, in fact. You might expect something like that from student revolutionaries, but do you expect it from professionals many with tenured teaching jobs? I was astonished. Drawing attention to this in a couple of prominent venues probably cost me job interviews because of the special favors accorded these people. There was, and still is, an irrational push to get more women into philosophy.
But is it not the case that only 25% of philosophy professors are women?
I’ve seen that stat, and I’ve no reason to think it’s wrong. There’s also been a push, going back longer than 30 years, to get more blacks into philosophy. The percentage of blacks in philosophy in the late 1960s was between 1 and 2%, and that hasn’t budged. These affirmative-action pushes just don’t work, unless we’re supposed to believe there’s dozens of blacks and women out there who can’t find tenure-track teaching jobs in philosophy because of discrimination. Some say that women just don’t warm to philosophy’s argumentative nature, which doesn’t ring true to me, so I don’t have a specific explanation other than the actual numbers reflect the actual choices women have made, or are making. Sometimes political hires backfire. There are departments that get stung because they hired someone who doesn’t give a damn about anything except her political agenda, and she turns the department into a war zone. I watched that happen once … from a safe distance … so I know it happens.
Wouldn’t feminists or critical race theorists or other voices that claim they’ve been marginalized say that traditional philosophy is all straight white male philosophy?
Strictly speaking, that’s not true. Plato, arguably the first pivotal figure in Western philosophy, was gay. Wittgenstein was gay. It doesn’t appear to have affected the way they did philosophy. I’m sure there are others. As for the rest…? Straight white males all. But so what? Look, whether anyone likes it or not, just about all the people who gave us the Western intellectual tradition were white males, many of them explicitly Christian, at least until we get to the Enlightenment. Not that the Western tradition is perfect. I’ve criticized it as a whole myself on certain specifics like its tendency to dichotomize everything: Plato’s essential versus accidental properties, Aristotle’s terrestrial versus celestial realms which the scientific revolution transcended, Cartesian mind versus body which in some respects we’re still stuck in, Kant’s noumenal versus phenomenal worlds, analytic versus synthetic statements, determinism versus free will, and so on and so on. There are other problems. There’s a tendency in most Western thought to treat everything abstractly. Abstract and universal versus concrete and local is probably another dichotomy. The postmoderns do get some things right in my view. We are situated. We all come from specific places and times. We are either male or female, and there are things (relationships being the obvious example) we don’t perceive in the same way. There is such a thing as class consciousness. This academic abstraction, the rational individual, thinking thing, or whatever you want to call it, does not exist. It’s a Platonist-Cartesian myth, and pernicious as it works against the local knowledge of common people the world over and justifies this creation of a mass-consumption monoculture, which turns out to be nothing more than Western scientistic-technocratic materialism based on abstract rules. What happens is that common peoples in other cultures have followed their noses for centuries solving problems rather than relying on a book of rules, or a money system, or anything like that. Feyerabend’s worked on this; so have anthropologists like Clifford Geertz. There’s plenty of grist there for anybody’s intellectual mill, if they’d but use it; there’s no need for this affirmative-action based pseudo-scholarship to talk about group dynamics in cultural settings. A “feminist approach to physical science”? What sense does that make, anyway?
What bothers me the most about academic feminists and others of that ilk is that intellectual curiosity is not what motivates them. They’re part of a collective grievance industry driven by a desire to “get even” with us mean old white guys. Some are chronically angry, like the women who disrupted that meeting I talked about. I had an office right next door to one such person during my last job in the U.S. During a four-year period, I think she spoke three words to me. One of them was “Hey!” when one day I accidentally hit the hall light switch that also killed the lights in her corner office due to some screwy wiring. Guys like me just had no business existing in her version of reality.
Are you an angry white male?
The angry white male was an invention of the mass media. The first time I saw it was on an article I wrote that year, 1994. I’d not used the phrase in the article. Nor has any other white person used it that I know of.
Don’t you think racism is still a problem in America?
I’m sure it is, it’s a problem in a lot of places, not just America, and the devices liberals favor, offering minority groups benefits at the expense of whites, are making it worse, not better. Any time government offers one group favors at the expense of another invites resentment from the nonpreferred. That’s not racism, that’s human nature. That, plus factors like the outsourcing of jobs, is part of what is driving whites, the only race in America losing ground and numbers right now as is well documented, to support Donald Trump. Also, there’s the implication that blacks can’t succeed without government-mandated freebies. Many aren’t succeeding with government freebies. They’ve been made dependent, and told they are entitled. Left-liberals have created a postmodern welfare-state plantation, and I fear it’s about to blow up in their faces.
There are more whites on welfare than blacks.
Blacks make up 14.4% of the population in the U.S. I don’t have statistics in front of me what percentage of the population receiving government benefits of some sort or another is black, but I’m sure it’s larger than 14.4%. Everyone wants to think in terms of ratios, that if the ratios don’t match, it’s systemic racism. If 14.4% of the population is black, then 14.4% of professors should be black, the reasoning goes, the same being true in other organizations. But there’s not a society of multiple ethnicities anywhere in the world where you see proportional ratios in all institutions. You always have a dominant group. Always. These Social Justice Warrior types demanding more “diversity” because they can’t have the politically correct ratios they want are in a fantasy world. You’d think more people would figure out that the disruptions we saw on campuses all over the country last year are dead giveaways that these left wing policies don’t work. How long have these policies been around, anyway? At least since the early 1970s. That’s the trouble with the left in a nutshell: nothing it does ever works. It discredits the disciplines it takes over, and the universities get more corporate. And it turns race relations into a powder keg.
Do you believe political correctness is both real, and a problem in academia?
I think political correctness, along with the corporate model that’s eliminating the tenure system little by little … the two of them together have just about ruined higher education in America. I have been banging the first drum for a quarter century now, and everything I warned about in the early ‘90s has come true. I have no idea how to turn these two tides back at this point, because they’re part of academic culture now. Students believe they’re entitled to “safe spaces” just like top administrators believe they’re entitled to six-figure salaries. These disasters aren’t going to be fixed from the inside. I’m not sure they’re going to be fixed at all. It’s past time to start new institutions that make the present-day ones. Some folks are already doing this, but the accreditation system is in their way, and so is the employment system. If that ever changes, watch out!
Do you think sexual harassment is a problem in academic philosophy?
Well, I’m not there anymore, and I never saw anything when I was, but I have followed to some extent the accounts of the last few years, one at Northwestern University, another at the University of Miami. Nothing I’ve read really surprises me that much. I met arrogant men with tenure when I was in academia. They may or may not be married, I have no idea, but it’s clear: professional ethics took a nosedive long ago. I wouldn’t put it past some of them to solicit favors from vulnerable female graduate students in exchange for positive recommendations or contacts later to help them in this horrid job market. I think any guy who does anything that stupid in this day and age deserves whatever he gets when he gets caught.
How do you see the future of philosophy?
Dismal. It’s suffering from all the problems of academic culture generally we just talked about, as well as the neglect that is the natural outcome of a corporate environment of money über alles, which fields like philosophy don’t contribute to. Most of those finding academic work are ending up as permanent part-timers — adjuncts — working for pay that’s a joke. The “hyper-educated poor,” one online column called them. One concern I have is the disappearance of figures that promise to be historically important. Where are today’s Quines, Wittgensteins, or even its Kuhns, Feyerabends, and Rortys? There are very few if any such voices, and the remaining major figures are almost all in their 70s and 80s. The figures that made philosophy worth studying in the last century are dying off, one at a time, and not being replaced. This is particularly true in the U.S. A major figure in the philosophy of mind is David Chalmers, 50 I think, but he’s Australian. There are a handful of good people in Great Britain, like Timothy Williamson and Luciano Floridi, but in the U.S. no one under 70 is breaking new ground. One reason is this adjunctification, affecting 70% or so of those with teaching jobs, and you can’t do scholarship on the kinds of schedules adjuncts have to keep if they want a roof over their heads. Of that other 30%, no one is writing anything especially new or impressive. There is publishing going on, of course, a lot of it, in fact, but it’s the same microspecialization that’s guaranteed to gather the proverbial dust on library shelves. Some folks are retreading the same ground over and over again — especially libertarians and anarcho-whatevers. Their books have been written three dozen times now.
I think another reason things prospects for academic philosophy are so dismal is that the reasoning skills that make you good at it transfer to other disciplines or occupations, and so there’s been a brain drain. There’s no way to document this, of course, because there’s no way to determine how many people might have gone into philosophy had the environment been more hospitable, but my nose is telling me the number is far from negligible, that a lot of intelligent people who might have been good philosophers saw better opportunities and took them, sometimes before ever starting graduate programs.
Meanwhile, hostility to liberal arts education in our neoliberal environment has never been greater! Guys like Florida governor Rick Scott openly suggest what amounts to eliminating them in favor of STEM education. A book I’ve been reading on the culture wars by Andrew Hartman [A War For the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars] says it all at one point, how the real issue, now that universities have been changed not just by PC but by the corporate model, is not, do we teach John Locke or Frantz Fanon, but do we bother with the liberal arts at all? They don’t help corporations make money! In a way it’s depressing. But in a way it’s not, because in a few years, the field may be wide open for contributions from those of us working outside academia.
You moved to Chile in 2012?
Yes. I had an inheritance, and was fed up with teaching jobs which by themselves would never have paid the bills.
You had outside work?
In a manner of speaking I had outside self-employment. I was selling off my vinyl collection on eBay all those years — well over 1,000 vinyl records, some dating from those days I told you about [Part One] when I was growing up. That wasn’t sustainable indefinitely, of course, because a vinyl collection is finite and soon those that sell really well are gone. I’d gone to my department chair and asked for a raise, but the university I was then at — USC-Upstate in Spartanburg — wouldn’t even reimburse my travel expenses to a conference in North Carolina where I’d read a paper a few weeks back. This was a university that had just spent something like a $100 million on a plush new facility for the business school, as well as random millions on other new buildings and beautification projects around campus. So at the end of spring semester 2012, I resigned. It was a de facto resignation: since adjuncts don’t really “resign,” they just aren’t rehired. All I did was clean out my office and disappear. I don’t think the department was happy to be left in the lurch, but for a change the shoe was on the other foot; it wasn’t my problem. I had friends in Chile and a couple of job prospects there, so off I went. Plus, the political situation in the U.S. was already bad and about to get worse. The GOP screwed up again, got Obama reelected, and Americans got Obamacare shoved down their throats. Not to mention continuing the Bush foreign policy that’s just about wrecked the Middle East. Chile, to its credit, is not at war with anybody and has no designs on countries on other continents.
Anything you miss about the States?
A few things. Solid research libraries, reliable mail that doesn’t cost a fortune, good customer service, dealing with ordinary people in my own language, greater efficiency generally. Although I imagine those are living on borrowed time in the U.S.
You’re more than pessimistic about the future of the U.S., I gather.
Look at the present presidential choices, the deteriorating infrastructure, the culture generally. I’ve long considered the Clintons to be two of the most loathsome human beings on the planet, and there’s at least a 50-50 chance voters are going to put another Clinton in the White House — probably the worst of the two — because the Republicans screwed up yet again! As bad as left-liberal Democrats are, Republicans also screw up everything they touch.
Are you for or against Donald Trump, then?
I’m not endorsing anyone, but I don’t think he’s worse than Hillary. Some of what I’ve read about his being a psychotic sociopath who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the nuclear codes is utterly ridiculous! He’s not going to blow up the world! I do think his Make America Great Again slogan, as well as the response it has generated, speaks volumes about America’s decline from greatness, but because he’s a prima donna, lacks patience with complexity, and will sow a lot of confusion by insisting on doing things his way, and above all, will be resisted by a firmly entrenched Establishment, if he gets in it will hasten the empire’s demise. That’s if he is who he says he is. If he turns out to be another Establishment tool who’s been leading a huge swath of voters by their noses, then all bets are off. There’s a massive financial debt bubble that is going to burst in the near future anyway, and that’s going to happen no matter who gets elected.
Your opinion of Hillary Clinton?
A loathsome creature. A lot of progressive leftists despise her, because they’ve figured out she’s not one of them. She’s a consummate opportunist who serves the interests of power and greed. And a total hypocrite. She claims to support the LGBTQ community while the Clinton Foundation takes money from foreign governments that brutally murder homosexuals. Her volatile temper is well-known, according to those who worked around her in the 1990s. She’s the one who shouldn’t be anywhere near your nuclear codes. She’ll get you into World War III faster than Donald Trump, who assuming he’s allowed to govern if he gets elected, may try to work with Vladimir Putin to rid the world of ISIS, instead of against him to try to extend neocon / neoliberal world domination.
Wow! Now tell the world how you really feel.
I think I just did.
Have any of your fellow U.S. citizens criticized your decision to leave?
I’ve been accused of cutting and running instead of standing and fighting, so to speak. My short answer is, you’re right, I cut and run. Only because I think standing and fighting is a losing game at this point. My long answer: however we look at it, the U.S. is an empire in decline: overextended militarily and fighting wars we shouldn’t be involved in, its “main street” economy hollowed out by globalism, its national debt rising to unsustainable levels, its political system bankrupt and dysfunctional, its media corrupted and filled with shills who wouldn’t keep their jobs otherwise, and the culture hopelessly divided with the races at each other’s throats and dumbed down by the entertainment industry. And very few people really have that much of a clue what is really going on. If things go completely to pieces, I’ll be watching over my computer screen instead of through my front window.
You mentioned job prospects down there. Have you done any philosophy teaching in Chile?
Yes, at two institutions. Both were disasters, mainly because the schools are so bureaucratic and inefficient. One of the places neglected to pay me for almost four months, and I had to threaten them with legal action. Liberal arts education is even less of a priority here than in the States. Chile is not a tropical paradise. It has its own set of problems. Education is a disaster here, too, though not for the same reasons as in the States. It’s more expensive than the average Chilean can afford, which is one of the things motivating a strong “free education” movement here. President Michelle Bachelet promised “free education” but hasn’t been able to deliver. Long story, but that’s been a cause of unrest here, especially among students. There have been protests that have shut down major campuses. The Social Justice Warriors haven’t done that in the U.S., at least not yet.
Any interesting projects on the horizon?
I am sitting on two manuscripts which I revise periodically, one of them on the breakdown of academia in the U.S. Another is on Descartes and the epistemological turn, that draws attention to a mistake in Descartes’s reasoning that, in my opinion, threw the Western tradition off track. It started as a paper that got turned down by four journals, none of which pointed to fundamental flaws in my arguments or otherwise gave a credible reason for the rejection (one said the paper was too long, but nothing more). After that I stopped sending it out. I was losing faith in peer review, just another overrated procedure that protects certain ideas and methods at the expense of others. I once had a 30-page paper of very detailed arguments against so-called feminist epistemology rejected by a major journal which provided two lines of referee comments. That paper disappeared during one of my many moves, trying to keep employed. As we were still in the 1990s it didn’t get saved on a flash drive. I’ve continued expanding the one on Descartes, and it could be published as a slim book now, if I ever get motivated to send it out. I’m also sitting on a manuscript on the original small-is-beautiful political philosopher Leopold Kohr, who was E.F. Schumacher’s teacher, and I’m working on a longer manuscript on where civilization needs to go from here.
That last sounds like an ambitious undertaking.
Yes, but as I note in its introduction, we’ve nothing to lose at this point.
Where does civilization need to go, in your opinion?
Away from scientistic-technocratic materialism. Away from financialization, centralization, and globalism, the actual drivers of the worsening inequality blamed on “capital in the 21st century.” These are causing unrest all over the world, and seeding the ground for more populist revolts by peoples who, if they get things right, will see their enemy as a firmly entrenched economic elite seated in central banks, centers of high finance, and the corporations that have grown up around all that – not just governments. We need to get away from the need to monetize everything and everyone, which means, away from the neoliberal ethos (leftists using that word do get some things right). We need to move past postmodernism, which is really just a gesture of despair in the face of the hardships of seeking truth inside the institutional cages we’ve created for ourselves.
I call it civilization’s Fifth Stage.
Fifth Stage? What were the other four?
Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology, formulated the first three — the religious or fictitious, the metaphysical or abstract, and the scientific or positive. His Law of Three Stages. He thought we could stop at three, because the third would give us a scientific-secular paradise. It hasn’t, obviously. Postmodernism became the fourth, but postmodernism is an academic and artistic curiosity, not a basis for continuing civilization. Most of it is unintelligible to nonspecialists. We can’t go back to the first three in their original forms, although we can look for things they got right. The third still commands a lot of authority but, I argue, has left us at sea ethically and is one of the reasons we are having so many of the problems we are having. But we can draw on the earlier stages to build a fifth one. I don’t know that we’ll do it, or that anyone will care, but if we do, we will have figured out how to build a global civilization that isn’t centralized and authoritarian, one that uses technology to create abundance instead of to maintain artificial scarcity, one that doesn’t confuse liberty with money and power or free trade with corporate-controlled trade, but rather takes seriously what people want at a local level, acknowledging that most trade between common people is local and has to be. There is absolutely no reason, for example, to transport food from thousands of miles away, with unhealthy preservatives to keep it from deteriorating, when it can be grown locally. People have a right to know what’s in their food, and to have control over their food and health care. A Fifth Stage of civilization may have found a cheaper and more efficient way of powering our homes and vehicles that puts the present energy leviathans out of business. A Fifth Stage would be global, but post-globalist, in the sense of rejecting the encircling economic coercion we have now: cooperate or starve, because peoples have had their local economies destroyed and been robbed of their autonomy. (To see how this happens, read John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.) A Fifth Stage would welcome cultural exchanges and learning, provided the interactions aren’t forced on peoples like today’s open immigration policies which really serve corporations, not the peoples directly involved including the immigrants. It might even be able to abolish the money economy, with a technological state of affairs no longer requiring rent and mortgages for shelter and money for electricity. Think of oxygen, our most basic biological need. Without it, you die in a matter of minutes. We don’t pay for oxygen, though, because oxygen is abundant. Energy is presently a scarce resource, produced from scarce resources. Can we use technology to make energy abundant and therefore free? I don’t know, but the question seems worth asking.
Sounds almost like a Utopia of your own.
It may be, but the alternative is that the West passes into history, another failed civilization. And that’s even if we avoid a major war involving a nuclear exchange.
You are married now, yes?
Yes, to a Chilean woman I met over two years ago. Love her to death. There are a lot of things she says and does that I can’t get enough of, even after well over two years. Last thing I expected, as I was an unmarried dateless wonder in the U.S. But in Chile, women are women. They don’t resent men, and aren’t trying to be men. PC imperatives are trying to make inroads here, promoting such things as legal abortion and gay marriage, but they’re up against some fairly high cultural walls.
Might these walls come down in the future?
It’s possible. If they do, it will be for the same reason they came down in the U.S. An educational system that was inattentive to those kinds of threats because it neglected subjects like philosophy and critical thinking, used the emphasis on vocational STEM education to create employees instead of free citizens, and a culture that emphasizes the same mass consumption we see in the U.S.
Congratulations on the marriage. Here’s a question I’ve asked several philosophers. Suppose you’re king of the world. What’s your first move?
Resign. Or abolish the position and then resign. Come to think of it, if I abolished the position first there’d be nothing to resign from. But if I resigned without abolishing the position, then I’d relinquish the authority to abolish the position, and someone could replace me. Sort of a paradox. So I guess I’d abolish the position. That would make resigning redundant. Although I’d still sign a resignation document. Just to be clear.
Any non-philosophical interests these days?
I’ve been working on my cooking, often just experimenting. It’s surprisingly relaxing, and my wife seems to like the results. It gives her a break since she does the bulk of the cooking. I think we’ll be doing some gardening when spring rolls around, too. With the crap that’s in the food you get in grocery stores now, even in Chile, we get as much as we can at outdoor farmer’s markets, and the next step is growing some of our own.
You’re in favor of “prepping,” of people growing and storing their own food?
Yes, even absent the dangers of economic decline, social conflict, and possible world war, I think food corporations have done a lot of damage to our health, and growing and distributing our own food is the only way we’re ever going to get it back. That’s another interview, though.
True. Is there anything else you have to say, any other author we haven’t mentioned in this interview you’d recommend reading?
Leopold Kohr, although I did mention him briefly. He wrote a book back in the 1950s predicting a lot of what we’ve seen, the breakdown of the U.S. amidst greed, political corruption, and wars of choice. It was called The Breakdown of Nations, and it deserves a much wider audience than it’s ever gotten. He basically laid out a theory of the trajectory of empires, something like Spengler without Spengler’s obscurities, that when they get too large, empires become violent, abusive, and self-destructive. My Fifth Stage thinking would try to break this trajectory, which has empires rising, hitting a plateau, slowly getting corrupted by complacency and greed, then falling from within. But a lot of my private thinking these days is about this, so nothing I’d say would be short, and I know this has gone on too long and we’re out of time.
One more question, then. Are you writing about Fifth Stage thinking, as you call it?
Yes. Assuming it ever gets finished, it’ll be called The Fifth Stage of Civilization.
How far along is the manuscript?
As we speak, I’m almost two thirds of the way done. With the hardest part still in the thinking stages!
Do you have a publisher?
Haven’t sought one yet. I’ll be sending out feelers well before the end of the year.
Good luck, in that case. I’ve enjoyed doing this, and I hope readers if we have a few will benefit in some way. Thank you.
I hope so, too, and thank you.