The Workbench

Cheshire Calhoun’s Workbench

Origins, Brickmaking,
& Thinking-Beyond

The first time I met my colleague Cheshire Calhoun, she offered to paint my office. In our building on campus, the walls are all painted the same, sterile off-white tone. But not Cheshire’s. Her walls are a relaxing green. Her office is next door to mine, and we sometimes get a moment to chat on a busy afternoon. Once we were talking about co-authored articles and she mentioned that she hadn’t ever written one, “because writing for me is a form of art.” Few philosophers I have known would use the word art to describe whatever it is they do with words on a page. (Honestly, sometimes what they do isn’t pretty—no, we aren’t talking about a relaxing green or even a sterile off-white.) And so I got to wondering: What does Cheshire think about writing? How does she do her work? What for her is art?

Cheshire Calhoun is a Professor of Philosophy at Arizona State University. She studied philosophy at Northwestern University (B.A. Honors, 1974) and the University of Texas at Austin (M.A., 1978; Ph.D., 1981), before teaching at the College of Charleston, Colby College, and the University of Louisville. Calhoun’s writing has focused on ethics, moral psychology, and feminist philosophy. She has received a number of awards and honours, and in 2020 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Tell me about painting office walls. Where did this begin?

I just enjoy painting walls. I painted the walls in my very first office back in the 1980s—yellow—and hung floral curtains. The paint and the curtains were a kind of resistance to the very male climate of that first job. I think the color of a space should fit what you plan to be doing in that space. My current home office is an intense, high-energy teal. My school office is a calming green that makes me enjoy being there and makes it feel like an extension of home.

Do you start writing a new piece at the computer keyboard or do you sometimes begin the work on paper?

Always paper first. I have a spiral notebook for each writing project. In it, I record quotes from essays that I think are relevant and likely useful. I’ll also set aside pages for recording my thoughts. If the project is on something for which there is virtually no literature, as my encyclopedia entry on intimidation was, I’ll spend a lot of pages just describing the phenomenon and examples of it. I go to the keyboard only when I’m ready to outline the essay.

When do you write?

​I do my writing during the summer, and occasionally a bit during academic breaks—except, of course, when I’m on sabbatical. That’s for two reasons. First, I really need to be able to get up every day and think about my current project, whether that’s to do literature searches, or to read and take notes, or to actually write. I have to immerse myself in a project. Second, writing for me is always personal, so I prefer not to be on contract and being paid while I’m doing my own work. I know that sounds weird!

I often hear academics say they write in the summertime because the school year is too hectic, but what you’ve said is different. How does writing during unpaid summer months help you?

​It’s a psychological thing. If I’m on contract, I’m working for the employer. If I’m not on contract, the time and the product is entirely mine. It’s sort of like painting my house—a lot of work, but it’s my house, my time, and my choice to do it. I don’t claim there’s anything rational about this way of thinking.

You say it’s crucial to be “immersed” in a project. Could you unpack the metaphor?

​By “immersed” I just mean uninterrupted by other things that need thinking about, such as my classes or committee work. I like to be able to work most of the day on a project and do that day after day until it’s done. Because I do this in the summer, I generally think of taking six to eight weeks to complete a project from beginning to end.

There is also a psychological kind of immersion that’s always great when it happens—being super focused and engaged, where the writing just flows. For whatever reason, that happens less these days. So, when writing starts, I set myself the goal of writing at least one paragraph a day no matter how I feel about the work. Most days I end up writing more.

It’s very easy to think, “Oh, I need to read something more about that,” and endlessly postpone writing. That’s why I set myself a daily writing task. A paragraph is a small enough unit that I can generally write something that doesn’t need to later be thrown out.

Have any projects fizzled out because you couldn’t get yourself psychologically immersed?

​No, if I have a project, I finish the project—with one exception. I really wanted to write an essay on animal-human social worlds. I find it fascinating the way pets are increasingly incorporated into practices originally designed for humans—gourmet food, toys, specialized furniture, daycare, cremation urns, television “shows,” video games. I’m also fascinated with the use of service animals of all kinds (I’ve written a Kantian essay on this). After a wide literature search and a lot of reading, I realized I was too far behind the curve on philosophy of animals to carry off a project on animal–human social worlds.

Despite normally finishing projects, it has occasionally happened that I write an entire paper and then throw it away because it’s not good; that means starting all over!

Do you record general thoughts and observations that might be the seeds of future projects, before things have settled into a definite form?

I don’t record thoughts about future projects. That said, my actual projects do not have a definite form. I’ll just set out to write something about, say, contentment. Or if I’ve had an invitation, I’ll set out to write something about meaning in life or responsibility. Then I do my literature search and begin reading with the aim of finding an interesting angle on the topic. I’d say at least 90% of the notes I take are direct quotes. I like to let the authors speak for themselves. I’ll occasionally insert my own brief thoughts. And as my ideas begin to gel, I start adding paragraphs or pages of my own thoughts to the spiral notebook.

Have you kept the binders filled with notebooks from earlier in your career?

No, I don’t have any notebooks from long ago. I’m actually not sure how far they go back—probably not too many years, since I periodically pitch and purge.

You leave writing for the summer months or a sabbatical, but does that mean you don’t add to your notebooks when you’re in the midst of the school year?

I only attempt to simultaneously work on projects and do service and teaching when I’m under a deadline and can’t avoid it—something I try, not always successfully, to avoid happening. Jotting down notes and ideas that I’d plan to return to weeks or months later isn’t very useful. I would surely wonder: “What on earth was I thinking about? Why did this seem to matter? Where did I think I was going with this?” But once I’m into a project, I do sometimes pull to the side of the road and scribble down a note, or scribble something on the kitchen notepad while I’m making coffee.

When you write, what sort of background sound is optimal?

Silence. Just generally, I like to live in silence.

When did you first want to become a writer?

I can say when I first thought I wanted to teach, since teaching was something I tried to evade in grad school. But writing? I’ve always enjoyed thinking my own thoughts and writing about them, from my undergraduate papers on.

Perhaps this is relevant, though. When I got my first job, in 1981, I knew I needed to publish. But I looked at what was being published in The Journal of Philosophy, which was at that time the flagship journal in the field. There was just a ton of formalization—much of which struck me as totally unnecessary. The topics didn’t interest me either, and I thought to myself, “I can’t write anything for this audience.”1 I went into writer’s block until I did an independent study with an undergrad student on Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology. I had the life-changing realization that I needed to be writing for myself—writing what I thought needed saying. And I’ve never looked back. That is part of what I mean in saying that writing is, for me, always personal.

What do you remember from the independent study on Mary Daly’s book? How did it trigger the insight that you needed to write for yourself?

While Mary Daly was an academic, Gyn/Ecology is very clearly not your ordinary academic book. She was doing what many feminists were doing at the time: asking “What needs to be talked about that isn’t being talked about?” It’s very liberating to realize you don’t have to write about what everyone else is writing about and can just strike out into whatever conceptual territory you think matters. What changed at that point was that I started always thinking about that question: “What needs to be talked about that isn’t being talked about?”

As to what I remember: Sally and I would sit on my orange shag carpeted office floor and just talk about ideas. I then had the mad idea of teaching a feminist theory class in which we read Gyn/Ecology. There were maybe six students. One was a very smart fellow who looked like he could have been in a fraternity. Another was an older guy, also quite sharp, who came with his buddy, sometimes in camo—they were into hunting. I don’t know why they took the class. They weren’t out to undermine the class, but they did keep me very much on my argumentative toes.

The writing you found in The Journal of Philosophy, circa the early ‘80s, left you cold. I looked at Daly’s Gyn/Ecology and, to be honest, it is pretty tripped-out writing—when you said “not your ordinary academic book,” well, that was an understatement! Did the writing of any philosophers jump out at you as admirable and worth emulating?

Early on, Annette Baier and Tom Hill were great models of writing for me. They are very different writers. Tom writes simply, with great clarity and organization. Annette Baier had a denser, more ruminative style that is atypical in philosophy. Both have a wonderful eye for what human life is like.

It sounds like what you appreciate in Baier and Hill is a kind of sensitivity to facts and questions about life and human experience.

Yes. There’s a perfectly respectable style of doing philosophy that starts from “Here’s a conceptual puzzle that philosophers should be interested in addressing” where the emphasis is on the conceptual puzzle. There’s another style, which I take Baier and Hill to model, that starts from “Here’s an important feature of human moral life that it would be good to shed some light on.” The emphasis is on understanding human life. Baier’s “Trust and Antitrust” is a great example. By attending to the phenomenon, she not only provided a pathbreaking account of trust but also highlighted forms of trust, such as infant trust, and early socialization into being a trustworthy person that contractualism, as she says, “takes a loan out on.” Her essay is also a great example of starting from a question that I think it is important to start from: “What are philosophers not talking about that they should be?” And Hill’s earlier essays, for example on snobbery and self-respect, are also keenly attuned to the actual phenomena. His examples are wonderful. But even in his more theoretical work, you get the sense that he cares deeply about human moral life and isn’t just engaged in a theoretical exercise.

I enjoy Annette Baier’s “Some Thoughts on How We Moral Philosophers Live Now.” One line from the essay should be inscribed on the walls of philosophy seminar rooms: “Is the large proportional increase of professional philosophers and moral philosophers a good thing, morally speaking? Even if it scarcely amounts to a plague of gadflies, it may amount to a nuisance of owls.”

One thing I admired about Baier was her occasional sharpness of tone just when sharpness was warranted. I attended her American Philosophical Association presidential speech in 1990. I recall her beginning by observing that up to then the APA had awarded its presidency to only a very few women, the majority of whom were elected in the first half of the 20th century.

I had to look at Baier’s opening for her Presidential Address:

According to John Knox, in his First Blast of the Trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women, it is “repugnant to nature,” as well as “contumely to God, and the subversion of good order,” to promote a woman to any position of superiority in any realm. We in the Eastern Division of the APA have not often subverted the patriarchal order that John Knox so passionately defended. Our first woman president was elected surprisingly early—in 1918 Mary Whiton Calkins gave the eighteenth presidential address at Harvard… Grace de Laguna was the next woman president, in 1941, and Katherine Gilbert was president in 1946. So in the first half of our 90-year-old existence, we elected three woman presidents. In the second half of our existence there have been only two, Alice Ambrose Lazerowitz in 1975, and now me.

She could write with a blistering pen. If you ever met Baier or Hill, did your sense of them as people match what you found in their writing?

​I met Baier only twice—once when I was being interviewed for my first job. I didn’t do well in the interview and didn’t get the job. The second time was when she gave a talk at the College of Charleston, not long after I took my first job there. Despite knowing nothing, really, about me except a piece on Francis Hutcheson I had written for my dissertation, she graciously agreed to write a recommendation letter I desperately needed (probably for an NEH application). I’ve been privileged to attend Tom’s National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on Kant and a workshop he organized, and to have him as a philosophical friend. And yes, certainly, my sense for Tom as a person matched what I discovered in his writing.

Is there a philosopher whose writing serves as an ideal for you?

Chris Korsgaard. When the opportunity arises, I tell my students to write like her. She has an amazing way of explaining exceedingly difficult texts (Kant’s, for example) and presenting very difficult ideas in perfectly ordinary English. Sometimes it’s colloquial English: “Teeth” appears in more than one essay, as in “flying in the teeth of.” Her examples are familiar, everyday ones. And she speaks directly to her reader. I’m not sure she’s ever used the fussy “one,” as in “one might think.” She just says “you.” The clarity of writing is phenomenal.

How do you think about audience?

In our conversation, I’ve talked a lot about writing for myself, which makes it sound as though I think audience doesn’t matter. It matters a lot. A piece has to, in some way, be able to hook into existing philosophical conversations, even if fairly obliquely. That’s why preparatory literature searches are so important. The piece also has to be readable. Chopping down a long essay to oral presentation length is super helpful, because it focuses the mind on the question “Could someone listening to this paper follow it and grasp every single sentence and every transition between thoughts?” This is to say, thinking about the audience matters a great deal before and after the writing. But during the initial writing, thinking about the audience can be disastrous for me. It’s a quick route to writer’s block. It’s also a quick route to terrible philosophical writing—excessive qualifications and defensiveness, showing off one’s erudition, overly technical language where plain English would do, and use of in-vogue writing conventions (like giving names to examples and expecting the reader to remember what example the name refers to; ditto with acronyms).

I agree that scholarly conventions sometimes make the ways philosophers speak and write unintelligible to outsiders. Still, let me mount a defence of one convention: naming examples.


The late Fred Dretske once quipped that “epistemology is ten bedtime stories.”2 He was referring to epistemologists’ practice of devising cases in order to test theories. Many epistemologists since the 1960s have used the “case method”: they devise an imaginative case to show, for example, that some theory is false. Epistemologists’ papers are filled with curious little stories.

Anyhow, the convention has at least a couple of benefits, I think. Inside an article or book, it’s often helpful to refer in shorthand to a specific case, especially when many cases are discussed—one epistemology article that takes the naming convention to a hilarious extreme is Tamar Gendler and John Hawthorne’s “The Real Guide to Fake Barns: A Catalogue of Gifts for Your Epistemic Enemies.” Aside from keeping the reader on track, labeling cases can also make a conversation among participants better coordinated, where everyone is familiar with “fake barn” cases or whatever. Names can be a useful handle, at least for insiders. What do you think?

I did hesitate to mention my dim view of named examples, since I suspect I’m an outlier here. There are many ways of doing philosophy, and we each select what we find most useful. Perhaps what I object to is the feeling that a particular stylistic device is being used not because it’s the most useful or reader-friendly or meaningful device, but simply because it’s the “in thing” to do. In ethics, at least, these kinds of examples—however helpful for bringing out distinctions—often introduce a frivolity into reflection on ethical life.

I agree that mindless conformity is good to resist in matters of method and style. Here’s something related that I’m wondering about: When you write, you want to say something that you believe needs saying that isn’t being talked about, and there is a kind of nonconformism built into your approach. But how does somebody get in a position to do that? Part of the story is to be informed about recent and past philosophical discourse. Is there anything that has helped you see lacunas in the conversation and head off in a new direction? Is there anything you do to “prepare” for that?

​Yes, having a sense for the content of various philosophical conversations is certainly important. I don’t “prepare” myself to say what I believe needs saying, but over my career I’ve been led to missing conversations via different routes. Let me mention three.

Back in the 70’s and 80’s there was a lot of conversation across the disciplines about gender bias in theorizing. So, as a moral philosopher, I found myself on the lookout for moral phenomena that were more characteristic of, or more salient to, women. My little essay “Emotional Work” (not my best article), and a variety of essays exploring the relation of social to critical morality emerged from taking that route.

A second route involved simply getting invitations—either to speak on or write about topics I thought I had exhausted my ability to say something about (for example, same-sex marriage) or topics that it hadn’t occurred to me to ever write about (for example, intimidation and responsibility). Intimidation was a great topic for me since, other than Sandra Bartky’s essays, there really wasn’t anything specifically on intimidation even if the phrase “intimidation and coercion” got lots of mentions across the disciplines.

A third, more personal route was to reflect on phenomena in my own life that I was having a hard time getting clear on or that just seemed like important experiences and that extant literature wasn’t helping me with. Much of Feminism, the Family, and the Politics of the Closet was an outgrowth of that route. My immersion in feminist philosophy prepared me wonderfully to understand gender-based oppression. It didn’t, though, prepare me for what I would experience when I switched sexual orientations. It seemed not to have a good grip on sexual orientation oppression.

Much of my work in ethics also had this personal origin—for example, I found myself wrestling with the question of what makes forgiveness possible; and reflecting on the penchant for discontentment characteristic of my family’s approach to life led me to wonder whether this was a good or bad thing. I was once on a college committee that took up a troublesome case of an invited public speaker disparaging gays and lesbians, and that led me to think about what the bounds of civility are in addition to the more familiar question of what civility is. This is the “philosophy as therapy” route.

Can you say more about how family discontentment led to a project?

In my family growing up, there was just this standard way of responding to many, many things. Something always wasn’t good enough, or someone was always worthy of criticism. I tell a story in “On Being Content with Imperfection” about my father’s routine discontentment with the apple pies he always ordered whenever we ate out. The crust was a particular subject of disappointment. But then again, no one could bake a pie like my maternal grandmother. What crusts! That essay really did help me do a lasting mental reset.

What did that reset involve?

I’m much more mindful of what’s going right and what there is to be thankful for—which is not to say I don’t do my share of complaining.

In the contentment essay, you picked some unexpected interlocutors. You call them the “Christian Moralists.” They were English and American ministers who lived in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but, as far as I know, none of them are ever mentioned in contemporary philosophical discussions. You engage with them because they had thought deeply about contentment, which was important for their religious lives and ministerial work. Drawing on the Christian Moralists gives your essay a distinctive flair: their archaic language and moral earnestness is kind of fun. Finding engaged interlocutors is your goal, but how does the material you choose feed into the tone or vibe you aim for in a piece?

I’m always writing for contemporary philosophers who either are already interested in the topic or who might become so, and I trust them to find my non-philosophical sources interesting and suitably used in the service of a discussion that speaks to a contemporary philosophical audience. As for the “tone or vibe” I aim for in a piece—that’s an interesting descriptor. I don’t know. Maybe: “close to the experiential bone,” “therapeutic,” “exploratory”?

Those terms fit with my sense of your writing. Do you ever feel your material is funny? I admit to laughing aloud more than once at the language of the Christian Moralists.

I love their talk about “murmuring and repining.” It’s such a perfect description of what we all do. There are little bits of essays that I found amusing while writing. The story of my father and his pie in the contentment essay is one bit. In Doing Valuable Time, there’s a wonderful passage where Betty Friedan quotes a housewife describing her housewifely day. I also quote a psychological study’s narrative in which a woman complains that even her hair is boring.3 If these are funny, that’s because we all recognize the ridiculousness of some of our everyday experiences, even if they are also somewhat painful. This is part of what I meant by “writing close to the experiential bone.”

Sometimes it’s an experiential funny bone. Or maybe an existential funny bone.

Yes, “existential funny bone” is perhaps even better for an appreciation of the occasional absurdity of ordinary life.

Can you tell me more about your typical process of collecting and studying background material for your projects? Is there anything you do to approach a search or stay organized? Sometimes, you’re searching for materials where there are no established trails to find stuff, such as a review article or bibliography.

Here’s the process in a bit more detail. The first stage is the extensive literature search. I make a running list of every possible search term and start with, although depending on the topic I may use other databases. Because the list is running, there will be ongoing new searches. When a listed article seems worth including on my provisional reading list, I copy the bibliographic information and abstract and put it in a Word file and keep adding to the file as the search progresses. At some (not really fixed) point, it’s time to start reading. I go to my Word list and highlight the top-priority essays to read, either printing them out or downloading them. Since I work by only having a topic (e.g., contentment) in mind, not a particular thesis, it then becomes a matter of zeroing in on essays or books that I think have something interesting to say or are sufficiently topic-defining that I need to keep track of them by making handwritten notes on them in my little spiral project notebook. Those materials often prompt me to expand my search terms (or add items from the articles’ bibliography) and thus the list of reading.

I have to say, this probably is not a terribly efficient way of producing philosophy since I end up reading a lot of stuff that’s irrelevant to my project as it shapes up. If I’ve downloaded essays, I color code the files for relevance. If I’ve printed them out, I’ll note “not relevant,” “marginally relevant,” and “relevant” at the top.

Your search process seems to have been forged in libraries. It’s something about the need to stay organized, dig around for lots of thought-provoking material, and know your way around the places where texts lie in wait. You described your current practices, but how did your research happen in the balmy days before the internet? Do you see any downsides to adding the internet to the mix?

Forged in libraries. Exactly so. Before the internet, there were print issues of Philosopher’s Index—big, bulky volumes, of necessity accessed in libraries. I also spent a lot of time just wandering through the stacks, pulling books off the shelf and browsing (and xeroxing!). I miss that (the browsing, not the xeroxing). But, of course, there’s so much more that is readily accessible with the internet. Perhaps that’s why I feel like my essays have become more complicated—there’s just a lot more behind-the-scenes reading of so many different writers’ ideas.

Just out of curiosity, what were the search terms you used when developing your essay on contentment?

Oh goodness, I don’t recall. I jot down terms on scraps of paper whenever I think of them, but the scraps don’t survive. As a guess, some were: tranquility, frugality, luxury, gratitude, discontent (of course), acceptance, settling, good enough, satisficing, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, appreciation, disappointment, regret, positive thinking, and (maybe) upward comparison.

I see how those search terms pulled you into your topic. What you say about contentment is forceful and meaningful, I think. “The contented affectively appreciate the goodness of their present condition even if they may acknowledge its imperfections,” you write. The paper got me thinking about a song that my daughter and I love by John K. Samson, a brilliant Canadian songwriter. The line that stuck out goes like this: “We know this world is good enough because it has to be.” Here is the whole lyric, just because I can:

Woke up in a parking lot
Air mattresses gone flat
The sun selecting targets for the shadows to attack
So make a visor with your hand
And squint at where you’re from
A lonely line of buildings you can block out with your thumb
Salute the ways we tried
And no one knows we’re anywhere
We’re not supposed to be
So stay awhile and watch the wind throw patterns on a field
This crop withstood the months of snow
The scavengers and blight
Tuned every ear towards a tiny lengthening of light
And found a way to rise
We know this world is good enough because it has to be
Allow the hope that we will meet again
Out in the winter wheat
Find me in the winter wheat

By the way, winter wheat is planted in Fall and survives the cold months to continue growing in the Spring.

A good epitaph: Good enough.

How do you handle the critical or dismissive responses of readers?

There are different kinds of criticism. I once received a manuscript rejection where the reviewer had spent a great deal of effort detailing what the entire paper should have been about, including the lines of argument. I thought: “Well, that would be a good paper for you to write, but it’s not the paper I’m writing.” Good reviewers understand the author’s project and suggest how it might be carried off better.

Indeed. A philosophical friend, John Heil, once used the term “publication by committee” to refer to what happens when journal reviewers are too involved in the process of revising a manuscript. Years ago, one academic observer called out the “intellectual prostitution” of following all of a reviewer’s advice, good or bad, in order to publish. What other kinds of criticism have you seen?

Henry Richardson, when he was editor of Ethics, used to caution authors not to spoil their essays in response to the comments the associate editors made after approving the essay’s publication. “Don’t spoil your essay” was really good advice.

But as to different kinds of criticism: There’s the kind of criticism one receives in a book review or in a paper that engages with one’s work. Usually, this doesn’t feel like criticism so much as another mind at work, exploring a topic from another possible (if conflicting) angle. I’m always pleased when anything I write has that generative effect. And then there’s the criticism that makes a piece better. Oddly enough, that is the hardest for me to handle.

Why’s that?

When I get reviewer reports, I read them, mentally object to every bit of criticism, and set the reports aside for at least two weeks to let the critiques percolate. Once I return to the reports, in a less defensive frame of mind, and begin working through revisions, I generally find my essay becomes a lot better—and better by my own standards, not just the reviewer’s.

The best piece of writing advice I ever received was in a review of an early and quite drafty draft of Doing Valuable Time. The reviewer said I needed to center my own ideas, making them the focus rather than other people’s work. I give this advice routinely to graduate students who are making the transition from an excellent seminar paper to a professional piece of writing, and sometimes to authors of manuscripts I’m reviewing. Another reviewer of that same drafty draft said they were looking forward to reading the manuscript but were disappointed that it wasn’t the quality they expected from me.


Yes, that stung! But like the other comment about centering my ideas, it was a valuable reminder that things go badly when I lose sight of myself—my ideas or my standards—in a piece of writing.

The advice to ‘center’ your own ideas is helpful, especially given that your work often emerges from wide reading of other authors. On occasion I’ve told students and academic friends something along these lines: Write the paper somebody will reply to, not the paper that replies to somebody. That strikes a similar chord, I think.

I like your variant. Of course, my early writer’s block arose because I thought I had to do the first bit—write a paper somebody will reply to.

Agreed. Blocks can begin with overly narrow ideas about audience—the JPhil editorial board is a pretty niche target demographic. When I’ve given that advice part of my thinking is this: publishing mere “response” papers in philosophy journals can be tough.

The issue, to my mind, is not just the toughness of publishing response papers. The question is whether what one writes opens a door for further interesting conversations. Sometimes response papers do that. The basic goal, however, is to hold up one’s own end of a conversation and keep it moving.

What is your writing advice to students?

When I was at the College of Charleston, one of my colleagues, Marty Perlmutter, would always ask in our reading group, “What motivates this essay?” That always stuck with me. One piece of advice I give my students (and sometimes require this in assignments), is to pose the central question in the introduction (rather than just saying “I will argue that…”) and to set up the question in a way that motivates the reader to read on. Posing questions is often a useful stylistic device throughout an essay. I think all philosophy is an answer to a question. The trick is to figure out what question you want to answer—and are, in fact, answering. When my students do formal manuscript reviews of each other’s papers, one question they must address is “What question did the author say they were answering? And is that the question they in fact answered?”

I also make a big deal of editing down material—whether in take-home essay exams or papers. It’s fine to indulge in flabby writing the first time around. But then sentences need to get shorter and fluff edited out. I give my seminar students a ridiculous page limit on the draft of their first essay—7 pages! It is a way of forcing economical writing.

Yes, it’s counterproductive to ask typical first-year graduate students to write journal-length papers. They need to figure out the mechanics of an effective conference paper first, if they haven’t yet mastered the form. When I was in graduate school, one of my professors, Keith Lehrer, said to me: “Write your first draft like it is a telegram sent to yourself at your own expense.” I had never sent a telegram, or received one for that matter, but I got the point. To send a telegram, you pay by the word.

That is so great! – “Write your first draft like it is a telegram sent to yourself at your own expense.”

What other advice do you give students?

Here are two pieces of advice I give particularly to undergrads. Your reader (me) is not a mind-reader and, second, trust your instincts—if you feel like you’re being unclear or don’t really know what you’re talking about, you’re probably right. It is easy to be lazy and think, “Oh, they’ll figure out what this sentence means.” I think the number one no-no in writing is burdening the reader. I get very annoyed by writing where I have to toil sentence by sentence to figure out what the person is saying and why they are saying it—especially when I’m reviewing a journal submission.

How is your advice to students connected to the writing advice you give yourself?

These bits of advice originated as much from reflecting on the errors of my own writing as on the errors of student writing. It is always a bit embarrassing to discover I’ve violated my own writing advice.

You seem often to enjoy the process of working on an essay. Do you enjoy being finished more than being midstream? Do you think of the thing you make as complete and good, or do you return in your mind to imperfection or incompleteness?

Yes and no. I most enjoy doing the background reading, discovering where I want to go with a piece, and being done. The writing itself often feels like pulling teeth—hence the paragraph a day goal. Except for a couple very early essays that I think weren’t very well written, I have to say I’m virtually always pleased with the final product. Reading things that I’ve written, even in the more recent past, is always a somewhat strange experience. I am always a bit surprised (in a good way) by the text. There’s also the experience of finishing something that I like and then thinking, “I’ll never write anything decent again.”

Are there any papers or books you wanted to write at some point but didn’t get an opportunity to tackle yet?

I am not normally awash with ideas. At the moment, I don’t, for example, presently have any “next project” in mind, although I hope it has something to do with positive moral philosophy. Although I don’t operate with a backlog of potential papers, not infrequently I’ll think, “I really want to write something on X,” and then it will take years before I actually do.

What is positive moral philosophy? Is that term your coinage?

Yes, it is.

Why do we need the new label?

I’d say that the point of naming a sub-discipline called positive moral philosophy is to encourage and legitimate work on things that are important to moral life that don’t get talked about so much by moral philosophers. (I certainly don’t mean to suggest that positive moral philosophy is the only area of moral philosophy that aims to help us identify what’s important to moral life!) Constructive accounts of how individuals and cultures might go about moral improvement is one part of PMP. Karen Stohr’s book Minding the Gap is a wonderfully creative and insightful example of what the latter might look like. But so is work on the topic of largescale moral progress, including Cristina Bicchieri’s investigation of social norm change, especially in “Norms in the Wild.”

What got me thinking about positive approaches to moral philosophy was the enormous literature on resentment and blame as well as the seemingly endless expansion of the list of moral obligations. Those foci squeeze out attention to the generous, hopeful, and trusting elements of moral life with others. If you’re interested, I describe positive moral philosophy on my website.

Fascinating. Do you think of yourself as an anti-theoretical philosopher, in some sense? Maybe you won’t like that way of putting the question—it could sound a bit paradoxical, given that philosophers have to theorize something. Let me try again. When it comes to philosophical work, do you have a tendency to care more about concrete specifics than grand theories and generalities? Have you thought about this aspect of what you do or don’t do? How would you express your commitments here?

In “What do Women Want in a Moral Theory?”, Annette Baier contrasted the “broad brushstroke”—what you call “grand”—with the “mosaic” approach to building a moral theory. The latter starts from smaller scale works and (shifting metaphors) assembles “painstakingly-made brick after brick.” I am not opposed at all to broad brushstroke theories, but personally I find making the bricks far more interesting. I’m just persistently attracted to “What Is?” questions—What is moral failure, contentment, responsibility, boredom, civility, common decency—with an eye to normative questions specific to those phenomena. That penchant for answering “What Is?” questions explains why I begin initially from a topic rather than a potential claim to be defended.

Baier’s brickmaker offers a contrast to John Locke’s “under-labourer” from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke’s under-labourer is supposed to prepare the way for the “master builders” in science, by “removing some of the rubbish which lies in the way to knowledge.” Can there be “master builders” who add to human knowledge using either humongous brushes or little bricks? Or are the brickmakers always under-labourers?

One might well feel like an “under-labourer” while crafting one’s little brick. I’m not so sure that the mosaic approach should have been defended, in the way Baier did, as creating a theory—understood as a fairly comprehensive, systematic account when all the bricks are put together. That invites us to think that the primary merit of the “brick” is that it contributes to some larger, fairly comprehensive, systematic account. No doubt that is often the case, but there is also something to be said of the “brick” just being an illuminating account of X. I think, for example, of Glen Pettigrove’s wonderful essay on meekness and moral anger. It’s true that he uses a Humean account of virtue to defend meekness as a virtue: slowness to anger is a quality of temper that tends to be useful or agreeable to oneself or to others. But Glen’s aim in the essay is not to add a brick to Humean virtue ethics but to prompt us to think about whether expressing moral anger is really as productive (and admirable) a way to engage with wrongdoing as we often tend to think.

You have written on a lot of different topics in brickmaker fashion. Are there nevertheless any common themes you return to?

There’s one. It isn’t a theme that I consciously pursued, though it is there in a lot of my essays. I’m drawn to what might be called “both-and” positions. And I have some aversion to thinking a normative theorist must hit on the recommendation as opposed to making space for a plurality of different recommendations (e.g., about whether long-term, substantive commitments are valuable in a meaningful life). Here’s the “both-and” theme at work: In a very early piece, “Justice, Care, Gender Bias,” I aimed to argue that traditional moral theorists were correct to think their theories could accommodate themes (e.g., special obligations to intimates) that some feminists argued they could not and that made their theories gender biased. But I also aimed to make the charge of gender bias stick by developing a different account of what gender bias might consist in. The same “both-and” theme appears in my most recent essay on theorizing about meaning in life, where the aim is to explain why, for example, objectivist, subjectivist, and hybrid accounts of meaning in life are all perfectly reasonable accounts of meaning in life—we need not choose among these theories.

Interesting. Do you think your effort to avoid choices between what seem to others to be mutually exclusive alternatives is a kind of ambivalence toward theorizing? Or do you take yourself to be giving a theory that just encompasses all of the options?

No, I’m not ambivalent about theorizing. It has more to do with appreciating the merits and motivations of competing theories or of different ways of conducting a life. Perhaps this goes back to what I said earlier about good reviewers getting on board with and understanding what an author’s project is and working with their view rather than just being critical. Perhaps it also goes back to what I said about authors upholding their end of the conversation. One way of doing so is to look for a way of reframing disputes not as contests about the one correct view but as a conversation that reasonably allows for plural reasonable positions—and thus creating a space for everyone in the conversation.

I have something of the same attitude toward normative questions. Not all of them, of course! But, particularly as philosophers, we’re prone to thinking that the task is to determine the right way of living, the right attitudes: Is contentment or discontentment the right attitude? Is there something wrong with the person who is easily bored, or with the person who isn’t easily bored? Should one frame one’s life around long-term commitments or not? That approach precludes from the get-go any attempt to understand what might make it reasonable for different individuals to conduct their lives differently. It is possible to do this without being wishy-washy.

Something about the values you describe here reminds me of what some people call twentieth-century liberalism. Do you think your political values are somehow linked to that inclusive vision for philosophical conversation?

Yes, it occurred to me as I said that that it sounded like I was advocating tolerance of different views given that reasonable people can disagree. But it’s something more than that. Thinking that reasonable people can disagree is compatible with thinking that, still, there’s one correct view. One thing I find philosophically interesting is explaining why it’s reasonable that reasonable people disagree. Think of this as part of re-imagining what a philosophical project might look like.

We often sell the value of philosophy courses by emphasizing the value of critical thinking. That’s right and good. But what I’m noticing in my grad students is that, when asked to engage with a reading, the go-to strategy is to attack, and argue that this, that, or the other is wrong or incomplete. That has really driven home to me the need for options beyond “This is wrong and here’s why” and “Yeah, that’s great, I have nothing further to say.”

Yes, there’s a vast chasm between “It’s wrong” and “It’s neat.” What alternative reactions exist between those two responses to ideas or texts?

The most basic alternative is offering a friendly amendment. Once there’s a criticism on the table, the next step is to ask, “Couldn’t the author accept this as a friendly amendment to or extension of their view?” Discerning the difference between disagreeing and offering a friendly amendment is a basic skill.

Another option is to look for an interesting implication or application of the view. Yet another is to put two seemingly conflicting positions in dialogue and ask, “Is there some third position that can reconcile them, or at least acknowledge their merits?”

Another is to begin by looking for what is most valuable or philosophically interesting in the piece. It might be the statement of the problem, or the methodology being used, or a conceptual distinction. Then one asks, “OK, what can do with this interesting bit?”

That’s a vision for a more participatory kind of philosophy.

In general, it is the difference between thinking against and thinking with and beyond a view. It’s a kind of corrective to just hunting for whatever one disagrees with in a piece of writing.


  1. I know you published in The Journal of Philosophy in the late ‘80s and then again in the ‘90s. Did they change or did you change?

    I imagine JPhil changed. It can be eye-opening to take a look through journal issues from the past. One gets a sense not only of how philosophy has changed over time but also how professional standards have changed over time. When I published “Justice, Care, Gender Bias,” I received a congratulatory note from a woman philosopher on publishing a feminist essay in JPhil.

    Yes, philosophy journals are a record of changing professional values and social worlds. Joel Katzav, a philosopher at the University of Queensland, has done some historical digging into The Philosophical Review and found that articles and reviews by women were represented in much higher numbers in the 1920s and ‘30s than the ‘40s and ‘50s. The story has something to do with changes in editorial leadership at the journal and the rise of new scholarly styles. Anyway, I tried to check on feminist contributions to JPhil and found one article that appeared in 1987, a year before yours. Your essay might be the second feminist essay in JPhil!

    It will be interesting to see how not only the demographics of the authors but also the subject matter of published philosophy changes over the next 40 years. Among the factors I can see influencing change are the increasing pressures on the youngest in the profession, especially grad students, to publish; the increasing priority that universities (including our own, ASU) place on both research relevant to contemporary problems and interdisciplinary research; and the rise of online-only journals.

  2. Mark Timmons passed along the report to me.
  3. I liked the quotation you used in Doing Valuable Time about boring hair:

    Presently, I am bored with my whole life. None of the old things I used to do bring enjoyment to me anymore. Nothing. [Boredom] covers my social life. It covers school. It covers work. It covers going to the grocery store… It covers a lot of things. My hair.

    When I was a kid, I had this illustrated book called Bored—Nothing to Do! The story was about two brothers who are bored out of their skulls and decide to build an airplane. In a sequel, they could shave off their hair.

    What sort of books did you like to read, or have read to you, when you were young?

    Thanks for sharing the picture of your childhood book! I read the entire Nancy Drew mystery series. I’m still a fan of mysteries, though I made a detour through science fiction for a number of years. I find I no longer have the energy to learn weird names of characters, places, and things, although I appreciate the incredible inventiveness of sci-fi and fantasy authors when they create entire new worlds. My nephew writes fantasy—quite funny books.

    Whenever I dip into one of your papers, I find neat sources. I’d like to understand a bit better your pleasure reading habits. What sort of books do you tend to read outside of work? And how much of that material ends up filtering into your essays in the form of quotations or anecdotes?

    My reading outside of work is entirely for pleasure—so the easy reading variety. Preferably mysteries or funny, or both (for example, Caimh McDonnell’s books), and preferably with short, uncomplicated sentences (Chinese and Japanese authors are often more reliable for that). Going to the public library is always a treat. It amazes me that it’s possible to walk into a building full of books and take home a bunch. For free! Usually, I just browse without a plan and read the first paragraph or two. If an author can’t get out an interestingly crafted first paragraph—indeed, an interesting first sentence—I put it back. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, also from my public library. The narrator for James Lee Burke’s books is phenomenal—patient, atmospheric, cadenced. Burke has an interesting way of giving the reader a total sensory experience—not just of sights, but sounds, tastes, feelings. Barbara Rosenblat—who reads Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mystery series—is an incredible voice actress. She also appeared in Orange is the New Black as Rosa Cisneros.

    My nonwork reading is usually disconnected from my own writing, although Atwood’s Life Before Man supplied the wonderful example of Auntie Muriel in “Changing One’s Heart.”