The Workbench

Daniel Stoljar’s Workbench

Font-Switching, Imagining Voices, & Embarrassment

Can you think differently about a paper you are drafting just by switching fonts? In a 2021 interview, Yugin Nagasawa, a philosopher at the University of Birmingham, reported a piece of advice that his dissertation advisor had shared years earlier: “Daniel [Stoljar] once told me that when he revises his drafts, sometimes he changes the font so that he can look at his drafts from a different angle.” Nagasawa’s report caught my attention. The font-switching trick is something I have used since my undergraduate days when I was clacking away on the keyboard of my Pentium 386. I wrote to Stoljar to ask him what he does and why. Our exchange expanded into a wide-ranging conversation about his writing habits and his background as a philosopher.

Daniel Stoljar is a Professor of Philosophy at the Australia National University. He studied philosophy at Sydney University (B.A. Honours, 1988) and MIT (Ph.D., 1995), and then taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder before moving to ANU. Stoljar’s writing has focused on the nature of consciousness, introspective knowledge, the mind–body problem, and the possibility of progress in philosophy. He has won a number of accolades for his research and teaching and served as the President of the Australasian Association of Philosophy during 2016–17.

Daniel Stoljar: It is interesting to know you use a similar technique. At the moment I am partial to PilGi 18 point, pink with a black background.

There’s something important about the practice of switching fonts that I can’t quite put my finger on. I have been doing this for years and am convinced it helps me expose sentences that need reflection and refinement. But if I had to justify the value of my habit, I’d draw a blank. It just seems to help. How long have you been font-switching? And where did you pick it up?

I’m not sure where I picked it up, but I have always done things to make what I am writing salient as a physical object just as you describe. Reading out loud is obviously a version of this. At the moment, I am rather keen on the read-aloud function on PDFs which I have set to a rather fetching South African accent (!). When I was a high-school student, I used to imagine my papers read out in the voice of a well-known film reviewer on the radio. And, like you, I turn Track Changes on and off, though I find that too many changes make the page much too messy to get a handle on.

Yes, Track Changes can get messy. I find it satisfying to click “Accept All Changes” and start the process of revision over again. Who was the radio personality, by the way?

The radio personality was a guy called John Hinde, who appeared on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation regularly. He talked slowly but didn’t seem particularly fluent or to have a large vocabulary. His delivery was a bit like Alistair Cooke, who you might know from his Letter from America which was on the BBC for years and was also played on the ABC here—the Australian equivalent of the BBC. My father used to listen to Cooke religiously.

What was it about their voices that resonated with you?

Both Cooke and Hinde breathed in a very obvious way that radio people then seemed to.1 When I was in high school I used to imagine both of them reading my papers, but especially Hinde. Or rather I used to read them to myself in a voice that sounded like Hinde’s.

You mention writing experience during high school. Were there any books that caught your attention during that period?

I find it hard to say if there were particular books that caught my attention at that age. Not books on writing certainly. Generally, I am a rather slow reader, and easily get bored. My older brother and my mother can both read at top speed. I grew up in a house in which writing was highly prized, though, and I had lots of examples of what writing and writers should be. And the practice of writing was something that seemed like a very natural thing to do—that is, being in your room working over some piece of prose.

It sounds like your parents were bookish.

Yes, both of my parents were academics at ANU. My father was an academic lawyer, and in fact was in the Research School of Social Sciences, the part of the university where I am now, when it used to have a law program. Law in the RSSS wasn’t a matter of teaching law—there was a separate law faculty at ANU. It is was rather a matter of analysis of law, jurisprudence, and some philosophy of law. He wrote a very large number of books and articles on a variety of topics, some analysis of aspects of the law (e.g., quasi-contract) and some on historical aspects of the law, including medieval law. He also wrote a bit on promising and rights, and a book on “groups and entities” which concerns the legal status of institutions. My mother, who is retired now, is a scholar of German literature and music, focusing particularly on the romantic period, especially the Sturm und Drang. She has a translation of the German poet and philosopher Novalis, among other books. Both of them believed firmly that books, ideas, culture, language, and music are all of immense importance, and conveyed that very strongly to my siblings and me.

I am embarrassed to say that I am to some extent replicating my parents’ life! I am in philosophy, as you know, but you may not know that my wife Helen Keane is a cultural theorist and sociologist. Both of us are in the RSSS at ANU!

Do you and Helen ever exchange drafts? What have you learned from her ways of thinking about scholarship and writing?

I have asked Helen to read things like grant applications, but never draft papers or book manuscripts. She is a very good and clear writer, but I don’t really want her reading my stuff. Likewise, I have never read any of her academic writing apart again from things like grant applications. I have learnt an enormous amount from her but mainly this comes from talking in general terms about intellectual, cultural or political questions, rather than about the specific topics either of us are working on.

Why do you think Helen and you prefer not to read each other’s work?

Apart from a healthy respect for each other’s areas of expertise, I have no idea.

You grew up in Canberra but went to Sydney for your undergraduate study. Was there any reason for that move? Did you decide to avoid ANU given you were a “local” kid?

Partly because I was local, certainly. And it was even worse than that since both my parents worked at ANU, the only university option for me in Canberra. Also, my older brother and sister had likewise gone to Sydney, and my younger sister came after me. My older sister went there initially I believe because she wanted to do medicine and ANU at the time did not have a medical school (it had medical research but not a medical school in the usual sense).2 I was very keen to see the world, which largely in those days meant going to Sydney. When I went to Sydney, my overwhelming impression was how colonial it seemed—the buildings, especially around Sydney University, are basically Victorian but the greenery is rather tropical. It is quite different from Canberra, which is a planned, twentieth-century city with loads of European trees.

Did you have any formative writing experiences with teachers or courses at university?

When I was at Sydney University, one of the most memorable experiences writing-wise was David Armstrong saying that he tried to write like a second-year undergraduate would understand it. One reason that Armstrong managed to write that way is that he almost never developed arguments for his views. He often claimed to be giving multiple arguments for something on the ground that if he had n arguments and 1 failed then he had n minus 1 arguments. But the arguments are always basically presented in three or four sentences.

Fascinating. Was it that Armstrong ordinarily gave arguments but that these were just relatively undeveloped, compared to what analytic philosophers in his era typically offered?

Well, Armstrong said he gave arguments, but really they were arguments in the sense that people outside of philosophy often have in mind—considerations in favour of things or reasons in favour. I may be misremembering (I haven’t gone back to check) but I have it in my head that he very rarely gave, for example, a three-premise argument from which some conclusion was supposed to follow.

When someone challenged Armstrong about one of his arguments, would he sometimes dig in and supply a lot more detail? Or did he typically manage to maintain that brisk, comprehensible style?

His general principle was to give as many arguments as he could, on the ground that if one failed he still had plenty of others. It is death by a thousand cuts—except in reverse. Armstrong also used to organise his books and papers in this way: first he would present zillions of arguments against the view he opposed and then he would present his own view. I think of that as the Armstrong model. The rival model is the Lewis–Jackson model, named after David Lewis and Frank Jackson: first present your own view and then argue how it is better than the others. I try to follow the Lewis–Jackson model in my own writing and encourage it in students.

When you worked on papers as an undergraduate, did you imagine Armstrong reading them or did you stick with Hinde?

I stopped imagining John Hinde reading my papers somewhere along the line, and started imagining another teacher, the philosopher Michael Devitt doing so. I can still hear some of what I write as if intoned by Devitt!

Actually, it is a bit hard to know what is going on when you imagine someone else reading what you have written. Are you imagining that they are reading it? Are you imagining yourself reading but in their voice? Are you imagining that you are them reading what you wrote? Are you imagining their voice reading it?

The experience of shifting perspectives seems to be routine among skilled writers. In a book on writing from the 1940s called The Reader Over Your Shoulder, the authors say: “We suggest that whenever anyone sits down to write he should imagine a crowd of his prospective readers (rather than a grammarian in cap and gown) looking over his shoulder.” And the exercise has a practical upshot: “the writer will discover certain tests of intelligibility.” Of course, imagining another voice reading one’s writing, as you do, is different from imagining an audience silently reading one’s writing. But I figure that imagining another voice reading could also reveal “tests of intelligibility,” and maybe different ones

Yes, I definitely use this as a test of intelligibility. But I also use it as a test for how the points might come across, which is a slightly different matter from intelligibility. A related phenomenon is that whenever anyone criticises something I’ve written, I find that I have to go back and read it, and try to imagine how it might have come across to them. Sometimes that is because I don’t recognise what I thought or said in what the critic has said.

There’s a humbling idea for authors in the face of criticism: Do not presume you know what you once wrote.

Well, yes, I sometimes do wonder whether I could possibly have said what some critic says I have said. I guess that means that I don’t presume to know what I once wrote, since it seems at least in that moment that it is an open question whether I said the relevant thing. But just as often I get a queasy feeling that I did in fact write what is being criticized. What I have discovered though is that when I get that feeling and go back and look, I realize that I didn’t mean anything along those lines.

Here is a trick I’ve used. I sometimes try to imagine specific audience members. I fill in their identities, so they become imaginary characters or composites based on people I know. The trick is suggested in a great old essay by the American sociologist C. Wright Mills. Mills’s essay is about conducting sociological research, but he takes up the question “For whom am I trying to write?” and imparts some advice:

You are to assume that you have been asked to give a lecture on some subject you know well, before an audience of teachers and students from all departments of a leading university, as well as an assortment of interested people from a near-by city. Assume that such an audience is before you and that they have a right to know; assume that you want to let them know. Now write.3

These imagined people are not an audience over my shoulder, nor voices I imagine reading my text, but an audience hearing me speak. Of course, as you just pointed out, these different perspectival shifts blend together. It might be hard to know what we’re doing when we take ourselves to be shifting out of a first-person authorial stance. Is there philosophical work that can help us make sense of this?

I recently wrote a few essays with Justin D’Ambrosio on various varieties of imagining and perspective. One of our main points is that certain kinds of event imagining, when you imagine, for example, reading something​ rather than imagining that you are reading something, conceal “what it is like” questions. So, to imagine reading something is to imagine what reading something is like. If that point is accepted, then it turns out that most cases of event imaging are more complicated than they look since they introduce three different subjects to keep track of: the subject who is doing the imagining in the first place, the subject who is the agent of the imagined event, and the subject to whom the imagined event is like something. These three can all come apart, though of course they often coincide. What Mills seems to be saying is that it is a good idea to imagine what your lecture is like to a particular sort of person—an interested an informed party who is not an expert in your field. That’s pretty good advice. I think I have given, and have been given, advice along those lines myself.

We have talked about imagining people speaking or hearing our words; you also have your computer read to you. But sometimes it’s helpful to literally hear how words sound in our own mouths and ears. Do you ever read papers aloud to yourself or to others?

I constantly read things aloud to myself. But I rarely read them to others. When I co-write, I read to my collaborator though. I need all the help I can get in making myself concentrate on the words I have written rather than through them. It is a bit like the point about memory: people find it harder to remember particular words than what was said with the words. When you write, you need to focus on the words.

You’ve talked about imagination playing a role in your self-editing. Could you comment on how the exercise of imagination was part of your life growing up or when you were a philosophy student?

Gosh, that’s a difficult one. That’s like asking whether I could comment on how the exercise of perception or thought was part of my life growing up or as a philosophy student! In general, imagination doesn’t seem like an add-on or appendix to other parts of cognition—it seems absolutely central to all activities of the mind.

Maybe I should have asked a slightly different question: Did you catch yourself daydreaming a lot when you were young?

Daydreaming constantly, yes—talking to myself at all times!

Tell me about your formative experiences with writing during graduate school.

It was Judith Jarvis Thomson who basically taught me how to write. My writing was reasonably clear before going to MIT and being exposed to her, but I can’t really bear to look at anything I wrote back then—it was extremely influenced by Armstrong’s style, which is good, but doesn’t approach the levels of clarity Judy operated with and expected. For some reason, Judy saw something in me and read numerous drafts of a paper on meta-ethics I wrote during my first-year, going over and over it until it was acceptable. Later on in my graduate career she told me to “muddy the waters” a little, in order to sell myself to the outside world—one of the high points of my graduate career, being told by JJT that you are being too clear.

An intriguing compliment. What did she mean by “muddy the waters”?

I think she mainly meant that people (mistakenly!) confuse clarity in writing with lack of depth. I’ve come to realize that she may also have meant something else: that sometimes an extreme focus on clarity can get in the way of communicating, since your audience might not be concentrating on clarity as much as you are (and might not know what it means to do so), and so misinterpret what you are doing. I have occasionally had students who try to draw so many distinctions that they never end up saying anything, which is an understandable vice, and a vice that comes from a laudable place, but a vice nevertheless.

Right—clarity is valuable as a means to an end, but not a mere end in itself, and communication can be served by muddying the waters a bit. Did you publish the paper on metaethics you worked on with Thomson?

Yes. It is called “Emotivism and Truth Conditions”.

Why do you think early-career philosophers sometimes fall into the vice of drawing distinctions while saying nothing? Do they have better capacities for drawing distinctions than capacities to make a significant point?

I am not sure why. I suspect it may have something in common with another vice that I call “philosophy by subscript,” in which you allege that there are two ways of understanding some word or phrase that appears in a piece of reasoning, and that the reasoning goes wrong because it doesn’t respect the distinction. In the abstract, of course, that is impeccable. But in practice you need to follow-up by showing that there really are these two ways to understand the relevant word or phrase. Both vices come from grasping only the outer shape of a contribution to philosophy.

What other writing advice did you pick up during grad school?

Ned Block used to say that people often don’t know when they have a good point and when they don’t. I have often found that; you realize later that the main or best point in a paper is the one in the footnote in section 3.

In general, my experience in graduate school was challenging but also overwhelmingly positive. In retrospect, what I really liked about the mood was that there was a seamless transition between work that is more on the a priori end and work that is more on the empirical end. People like Ned, Judy, and other people I worked with closely, like Noam Chomsky and Bob Stalnaker, didn’t really care what sort of work you did or were interested in; the more important thing was being clear, being creative, and offering reasons for or against.

Were you and your fellow graduate students encouraged to publish? Was it seen as essential to have a good chance on the academic job market?

We were encouraged to publish. There was a very strong sense that the job market is hard, and that getting the job you want is something you need to start working on from day 1. Publishing was part of that. There were dark rumors of other schools who looked on publishing among graduate students as déclassé—such places were dismissed as not having a sufficiently robust sense of reality. On the other hand, there was also a strong sense that mere publishing was a bad idea. You needed to publish something important in a good journal. Not an easy thing to do!

From your perspective, how has the business of journal publishing changed over the years?

As an associate editor for Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, and as a reviewer of many papers for different journals, I often see papers that on examination look like term papers—they are good papers for early level Ph.D. courses which are then submitted to journals without much further work. I don’t really have much evidence for this, but I would doubt that was the case 30 years ago. I’m sure it comes from students being desperate to publish. I have talked to loads of students who are absolutely in a panic about the need to publish. When I say to them that perhaps they should wait or work on their ideas a bit more, they either don’t hear what I say at all (even though I am saying it to them from across an office) or dismiss it as coming from someone who is out of touch.

Yes, and one likely reason your Ph.D. students don’t seem to hear you, or at least dismiss your advice, is that the incentives to publish often and early are so irresistible. To forgo writing for publication during graduate school is like launching a polar expedition without winter boots. And I think it can be tough to take in advice along these lines when it comes from someone of a different generation—the advisor can seem, well, out of touch even when the advice is good. Anyhow, when advising students, how can we balance realism about the academy’s dire labour conditions with the goal of encouraging substantive, creative scholarship?

It’s difficult, certainly. I employ all manner of tactics. One thing I say is that while publishing is a good thing, trying to publish is not such a good thing. I also say they should be more patient and trust themselves more. If you spend time trying to understand something interesting, you may well come up with something publishable, but you’ve got to wait around a bit for it to happen.

Yes, waiting around for ideas is important—don’t expect finished projects to pop into existence. But what do you do while trying to move things toward completion?

I have definitely tried to convey to my students the sense that it is always a good idea to go over the basics, not to be afraid to set out the basics of an issue, and then set out the basic of an issue again, just to make sure that we are on top of it. I think of it like being a musician—you have to keep going over the basics, keep doing exercises, keep it as simple as possible. Lou Reed apparently once said, “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re in jazz.” I’m not sure I would quite say that, but I do agree that simplicity is something you should always aim for.

There’s a charming sentiment about simplicity from the writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince: “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not where there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.”4

Not a metaphor I would use, but I agree with the sentiment. In general, I like children’s fiction as a model for philosophical writing.5

I see an emphasis on simplicity in your writing. One way that shows up is that you often use uncommonly brief sections. A single section, in a chapter or article, might be no longer than a page or even half a page. How do you think about that unit, the section?

If it were up to me, I would basically like to organize all my papers in terms of numbered paragraphs, sometimes very short. But I find that I can’t do that for various reasons. One is that that journals these days force you to come up with names for sections.

Using a standalone sentence as a paragraph is a trick I learnt from various people: Judy Thomson was one, but there were others. I am still very keen on it, and get annoyed with myself if I read something I have written and there are not enough paragraphs.

Another feature of your writing is the paucity of footnotes. A couple of your books are footnoteless. Are you opposed to footnotes? One philosopher I’ve encountered who is fanatically opposed to footnotes is John Heil, the former editor of the Journal of the American Philosophical Association.

Well, I would describe myself as opposed to footnotes but not fanatically so. While I generally prefer not to use footnotes, for some topics I find it impossible to present things cleanly without them. That was true in my book on Philosophical Progress for example. But I know about Heil’s opposition to footnotes. David Armstrong was in that camp, too. I have it in my head that Chomsky is in favour of footnotes, though, so it is definitely not a universal view.6

What’s the rationale for not using footnotes?

It’s not that I think footnotes can’t be used properly. Stephen Neale’s book Descriptions is an example of a book that uses footnotes really well in my view. In my case, it is partly because of the influence of Armstrong. Also, in some of my early papers there were so many footnotes and qualifications that the argument never really flowed. I wrote an article on “Physicalism and the Necessary A Posteriori” many years ago, and that paper overuses footnotes terribly. Plus it is the experience of writing for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which doesn’t use footnotes—or at least doesn’t usually. Writing without footnotes does seem to impose a sort of iron discipline on what you are going to include in the text and what things you are not; I very much like that.7

Are there any philosophers, living or not, who write in a style you admire and have tried to emulate?

I generally like writing that is analytic in orientation but which also has a strong humanistic side. Thomas Nagel is a good example of that sort of writing. I have been reading a lot of Gideon Rosen recently and I greatly admire him.

Could you say a bit more about how Nagel and Rosen exemplify analytic writing in a humanistic register?

What I like about both Nagel and Rosen is the ability to move apparently seamlessly from topics that are typical of analytic philosophy to topics of more general human or scientific concern and back again. They show a sensitivity to both history and culture on the one hand, but also to more overt bits of science and philosophy on the other.

What does the humanistic element in that sort of writing consist in?

If I had to spell it out theoretically, I might say something like this (but I would not want to attribute these views to either Nagel or Rosen). I tend to think of philosophical inquiry as systematic inquiry into philosophical topics, just as history is systematic inquiry into historical topics, and mathematics is systematic inquiry into mathematical topics. I tend to think of all of these topics as “there anyway”—that is, there regardless of whether we manage to inquire into them. When we do manage to do so, what we are doing is providing information about these topics in accordance with very standard principles: aiming at truth and relevance, not being too general or specific, improving on what is already believed or known about them, and so on. In some cases, such as in maths or physics, systematic inquiry sometimes takes a very special form, involving equations or laws or specific models; but in many other cases, that isn’t so. I think history falls into the latter camp, as does most of philosophy. But nobody blows a whistle when you move from one topic to the other, or draw on one topic in thinking about another. It is in that sense that philosophy is akin to history.

I go into this a bit in my “Philosophy as Synchronic History.” That paper starts off with Bernard Williams’s idea that philosophy is a humanistic discipline. Williams’s argument for that view, such as it is, is that philosophy itself is a kind of ordinary (i.e., diachronic) history, insofar as it focuses on (or should focus on) changes in philosophical concepts over time. I don’t find that view convincing, not because it is not a good idea to study the way philosophical concepts change over time, but because doing so is not especially central to philosophy. So, in the paper I argue that philosophy is akin to history in a more foundational way: both are forms of systematic investigation into a series of topics, but neither is properly understood as providing definitions or laws.

We started off by talking about the visual aspect of writing but have also touched on aural and imaginative techniques you use. Do any other modalities figure into your process?

I like to write things out by hand as well, especially when working out the argument. I have various notebooks on my bookshelf that contain loads of attempts to state various arguments clearly. And earlier I mentioned that I am big user of the read-aloud function on PDFs. I often save things in PDF, have my digital friend with the South African accent read it out, and then edit as I go in a Word document.

In William James’s correspondence, there’s a letter from Sarah W. Whitman, an American painter and stained-glass artist, where she complimented James’s prose. Then James wrote this in a reply to Whitman: “If there is aught of good in the style, it is the result of ceaseless toil in rewriting. Everything comes out wrong with me at first; but when once objectified in a crude shape, I can torture and poke and scrape and pat it till it offends me no more.” Reactions to that?

I do something similar and would think about it in the same way. It’s funny—I don’t tend to think of James as a great stylist in at least one sense. I’ve never been completely confident that he is in control of his material. It always seems slightly on the edge and slightly underdone. There is not a hint of the Tractatus (or David Lewis) about it.

David Lewis loved scale-model trains, so perhaps writing for him might have been like constructing a toy train set. But it’s interesting that James was writing to an artist who had experience working with materials—and James himself studied painting in his early years.

Yes, although James in that letter to Whitman seems to be using sculpting metaphors: you have some piece of writing and then you modify it—torture or scrape—until it is passable. I do that too, but just as often I throw the whole thing out and start again. I find myself going over and over lines of reasoning, trying to express them in various ways. Often, as James says, the initial crude way of objectifying it is no good at all and you need a clean slate.

Yes, a clean slate, or maybe a fresh hunk of clay. One difference here is an additive versus a reductive metaphor. Is writing for you like starting with clay and adding to it? Or it is like getting a block of marble and chipping away to find out what is underneath?

Neither analogy is perfect but the additive one seems more apt to me.

Are you moved by the same sort of feeling of “offense” or dissatisfaction James described?

Dissatisfaction and disappointment certainly. I am not sure I would use the word “offense.” I don’t think I am offended by the fact that a particular piece of writing doesn’t properly express the line of thought it is aimed at—just disappointed. I should add that I don’t think the reasoning behind the prose is there in some pristine form prior to the writing. The writing is definitely part of the thinking. For the most part what happens is that I need to start again at the beginning, both for thinking and writing, to see the shape of the reasoning.

So the kind of dissatisfaction you feel is not based on failing to match the written draft with an ideal expression of your reasoning. When you work away on prose, how do you experience the feeling that guides your efforts to “poke” and “scrape”?

The feeling of having to go over things again and again is very prominent, but often that is not a matter of actually writing. I tend to walk around the house or the neighbourhood, talking to myself out loud, going over bits of reasoning again and again. I find that when I am trying to write something, actual typing can be unproductive, and walking around saying it out loud is better. It is also good if you have someone you can talk it over with, but I am routinely embarrassed at how inchoate various thoughts are when you voice them to another person in a premature way.

Yes, philosophy is an iterative process and the first try is almost never going to be the best try. Trying again is worthwhile, at least if it’s possible to make progress. Speaking of progress, how did you end up writing on that theme?

Why did the Bee Gees go disco? Well, I guess I have always been interested in meta-philosophical questions, questions about methodology, and so on. My book Physicalism, for example, was mostly about what physicalism is and how there are different versions of it at different times. But it was also about what role the thesis played in the narrative of philosophy, particularly since the 1960s. When I was both an undergraduate and a graduate student, the basic shape of a philosophical problem was: How do we understand the nature of X such that X can exist in the physical world? X might be colour or morals or consciousness or causation or the like. The book is pretty skeptical of that way of thinking. But all of this stuff led me to think about the nature of philosophy and how it is different or similar to other fields.

It sounds like your thinking about philosophical progress was a natural outgrowth of work on other themes.

Yes, it was. And since writing the book on progress I have become increasingly interested in other ideas that follow on from that, in particular ideas of exceptionalism and anti-exceptionalism to adopt some vocab Timothy Williamson has used recently. In the book on progress, I defend a sort of anti-exceptionalist picture of philosophy, but many people, both in and outside the discipline, tend to hold exceptionalist views about it.

What do these views say?

Roughly, on the exceptionalist picture, philosophy is in some hard-to-articulate way set apart from other disciplines in the university, either in the humanities or sciences; the anti-exceptionalist view denies this, insisting that the difference between philosophy and other disciplines is like the difference between, say, biology and physics. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the origins and influence of epistemological exceptionalism. I think it is false, but that doesn’t mean that loads of people aren’t attracted to it, and have been attracted to it since philosophy got going as a modern discipline in the nineteenth century. I’m also interested in the interaction between exceptionalism in an epistemological sense and exceptionalism in a social sense.

Could you say more about the difference between the two senses of exceptionalism?

Well, exceptionalism in the sense I just described is an epistemological idea: it means that inquiry in philosophy is somehow fundamentally different in an epistemological way from, say, inquiry in linguistics or history. Whatever you think about epistemological exceptionalism, though, it is hard to deny that philosophy is socially exceptional, and that your average philosophy department looks quite different from your average linguistics or history department. Is it a coincidence that a discipline that is at least widely believed to be epistemologically exceptional is also socially exceptional? I find that pretty hard to believe!

I’ve noticed the social exceptionalism you described. Some philosophers I’ve met seem to feel they are different than practitioners of other disciplines, and yet they seem a touch uncomfortable and insecure about their line of work, don’t they? They tend to look to one another for affirmation that they aren’t wasting time on pointless problems. How do you fit philosophers’ exceptionalism together with their intellectual insecurities?

I know what you mean. I like to think that academic fields often have a proprietary emotion. In the case of philosophy, the proprietary emotion is embarrassment.

Say more—I’d like to know why I am embarrassed to be a philosopher.

Embarrassment is a social emotion, as the sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out years ago. To feel embarrassment is to perceive or apprehend some event or situation as violating some social norm or other that you accept. In the case of philosophy, embarrassment is a symptom that the discipline is ‘not behaving as a standard discipline’. It is in violation of a social norm that collectively it accepts.

What happens when that embarrassing feeling creeps up on us? How do we react?

One reaction is to try to recast or reimagine philosophy so that it no longer violates the social norm. Some people might think of it as a systematizer or enabler of other disciplines that are ordinary by the implicit standard; others might reject the view that philosophy is truth- or knowledge-normed, resolving the tension that way. My own reaction is different: it’s to reject the norms that provoke the embarrassment in the first place—in other words, to refuse to be embarrassed!

I wonder whether epistemological exceptionalism might have led some philosophers to do their work in particular ways. Maybe they haven’t been inclined to collaborate with investigators in other fields because, in their minds, never the twain shall meet. Does that seem like a plausible consequence of exceptionalism?

It’s an interesting idea that exceptionalism in meta-philosophy has implications for the acceptable genres of philosophical prose; there might be something to that. Still, even if that’s true, I’d hope that the genres sanctioned by exceptionalism can nevertheless be used to promote anti-exceptionalism. Otherwise I’m in serious trouble!

Are there any ways in which your commitment to anti-exceptionalism might influence how you go about your work?

I may be imagining things, but I do find anti-exceptionalism about philosophy in some hard to define sense liberating about the possible forms of philosophical writing. If you think as I do that the answers to philosophical questions are there anyway, then in effect what you are doing when you write philosophy is describing the facts that constitute those answers, or at least attempting to do so. But clearly there are lots of different ways to do that, some good, some not so good, and it is unlikely that any of us will come up with some definitive way. So if you do it once and it doesn’t come out in the way that you wanted, you can do it again in a different way.

I like that experimental attitude. Now, in our conversation, we’ve talked about conceiving of writing in physical terms, but I didn’t ask about the actual physical circumstances of your writing. Do you tend to work pretty well anywhere or only in a particular spot? Do you need books at hand, or no access to email, or background music, or what?

I am fairly happy to write anywhere. I don’t need much equipment. I particularly like writing in libraries, especially in the reading room of the National Library of Australia and in the undergraduate library of the ANU (or one of them since there are several).

Menzies Library: a large, boxy building, with smooth stone walls and a regular grid of windows. In front: a few trees and a driveway.
Exterior of Menzies Library, ANU
A corridor through the library, with row after row of metal bookshelves on the right, and desks for private study on the left
Stacks in the Chifley Library, ANU
The library façade. Out front is a flowerbed with sculptural planting, and a wide staircase leading up to the building. The library is a starkly modern take on the "stripped classical," with simple vertical columns interspersed by narrow vertical windows and flat stone panels.
National Library of Australia

My office is basically Grand Central Station during the day, so it’s not much good trying to write there. I work quite a lot at home too, but my main quirk there is that the room needs to be neat. I generally clean up the room before I write. Most of the time I don’t have music on, but I sometimes have classical music on (I can’t write with pop music). Writing at home, I usually have a musical instrument with me—a guitar or piano, sometimes a violin—and tend to play that intermittently. Email needs to be turned off (as indeed it is turned off in the evening). I am pretty hopeless at doing research so I usually postpone doing that systematically until after I have a draft. The guiding motto is this: Don’t think, write.

Helpful advice for writers who delay starting. P. F. Kluge once called writers “strategists of the blank page.” Sooner or later, they must stop strategizing and send in the foot soldiers. Don’t think, write! And Kluge said something else that also reminds me of your motto: “Don’t worry about talent yet; don’t wait for inspiration, ever. Write. Don’t aspire to perfect openings. If you do, you’ll never finish. Just write.”

On all fours with Kluge here! One thing that occurs to me in the same vein: I remember being exposed in graduate school to the idea of writing a draft first and “scholarizing” it later. That is, add all the bits and pieces of scholarship only at a later point. No less a luminary than Tom Kuhn said this in a course on conceptual structure and conceptual change I took in my first year. I was impressed that even someone like Kuhn thought it was important to get the argument down first and worry about scholarship later. That isn’t to say scholarship is unimportant. But it means that you shouldn’t let it get in the way of figuring out exactly what you want to say first.

When you stop thinking and just write, what happens?

Well, admittedly, sometimes it doesn’t work. But other times it flows incredibly fast, and when it does I don’t notice much else. A few months ago, my younger kid came home with a packet of snakes and gave me what was left, while I was in one of those periods. I remember them giving them to me, and then I remember looking down and seeing the snakes were gone. I have no memory at all of eating the snakes but that is what must have happened.

What are snakes?

A packet of gummy "Snakes" from The Natural Confectionery. It's illustrated with a picture of two cartoon children playing "cowboy," on top of an enlarged photo of a candy snake that they have lassoed.

In North America, we have gummy worms. Do snakes taste like gummy worms?

Curiously, they have the same natural properties and yet taste better.

Fascinating. Would they taste good with vegemite?

No, but nothing does.


  1. Curious. Breathing isn’t about word production but about spaces between words. Could you actually hear Cooke and Hinde breathing on the radio, or were you just detecting a distinctive way in which each one created gaps between their words without actually hearing what was filling the gap, that is, their breathing?

    I think I can remember them breathing deliberately but it might be confabulation. You are right that breathing isn’t about word production exactly but knowing when not to speak is a pretty important part of word production!

    I’m done!

  2. How did your sister’s pursuit of philosophy influence you?

    Well, that both my older sister and brother did philosophy at Sydney University influenced me to take it because I wanted to see what the fuss was about.  But looking back I think I was interested in it even in high school where we were exposed, not to analytic philosophy, but to things like Sartre and Camus. My father was pretty in favour of philosophy, too. He was interested in H. L. A. Hart and various other philosophers of law and had quite a few analytic philosophy books in his study. In fact, he even attended Rudolf Carnap’s lectures in Chicago when he visited there in the ’50s.

    So did your father nudge you to go into philosophy?

    It was David Armstrong who really convinced me to think about going into philosophy as a career. I was an Arts/Law student (a standard combined degree), majoring in history and English. After taking his course in philosophy of mind, Armstrong took me aside and told me in very direct terms where he thought my talents lay. At a later point he chased my younger sister around the main quad at Sydney University trying to convince her to do it on the grounds that then he would have bagged “all four.” But to her great credit she resisted such things very firmly.

    Your poor younger sister! I trust she has no regrets about not majoring in philosophy.

    No, no regrets at all. Neither my older brother (who did honours in philosophy at Sydney) nor she ended up doing philosophy for a career. 

  3. C. Wright Mills reports that the advice was imparted to him by his colleague Lionel Trilling.
  4. Wind, Sand, and Stars, translated by Lewis Galantiére (Harcourt, 1967 [originally published 1939]), 42.
  5. What are the aspects of a good children’s story that could guide philosophers?

    What I like about children’s fiction I guess is that things are introduced without much presupposition and explained briefly, often with a sense of distance.

    Interesting. What are some of your favourite stories?

    I like The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay. Another good example is Ginger and Pickles by Beatrix Potter. Here an excerpt from Potter’s story with bits in italics I like.

    Once upon a time there was a village shop. The name over the window was “Ginger and Pickles.”

    It was a little small shop just the right size for Dolls—Lucinda and Jane Doll-cook always bought their groceries at Ginger and Pickles.

    The counter inside was a convenient height for rabbits. Ginger and Pickles sold red spotty pocket handkerchiefs at a penny three farthings.

    They also sold sugar, and snuff and galoshes.

    In fact, although it was such a small shop it sold nearly everything– except a few things that you want in a hurry—like bootlaces, hair-pins and mutton chops.

    Ginger and Pickles were the people who kept the shop. Ginger was a yellow tomcat, and Pickles was a terrier.

    The rabbits were always a little bit afraid of Pickles.

    The shop was also patronized by mice—only the mice were rather afraid of Ginger.

    Ginger usually requested Pickles to serve them, because he said it made his mouth water.

    “I cannot bear,” said he, “to see them going out at the door carrying their little parcels.”

    “I have the same feeling about rats,” replied Pickles, “but it would never do to eat our customers; they would leave us and go to Tabitha Twitchit’s.”

    “On the contrary, they would go nowhere,” replied Ginger gloomily.

    (Tabitha Twitchit kept the only other shop in the village. She did not give credit.)

    But there is no money in what is called the “till.” Ginger and Pickles gave unlimited credit.

    Now the meaning of “credit” is this—when a customer buys a bar of soap, instead of the customer pulling out a purse and paying for it—she says she will pay another time.

    Lovely. Are there any philosophers you’d like to name in connection with children’s fiction?

    Perhaps a good example comes from Judith Jarvis Thomson. One of the topics I am interested in and have written about is negative introspection—that is, how we know in introspection that we are not in pain or do not believe something. In the course of thinking about that I did some reading in classical work on negative responsibility (i.e. being responsible for not doing something) which is a topic with a similar structure. Thomson has an incredible discussion of this in her 1977 book Acts and Other Events. She uses this example to introduce the topic:

    At 8 am last Monday, the neighbors told me they had to rush away, and I would I please feed their baby while they are gone? Every four hours, round the clock, starting at noon. I said, “Certainly, I’m on vacation this week.” They then left. I then packed my bags, and left for the Cape for the week, thinking I never did much like that baby. It is now Sunday night, and the baby died this morning. If ever there was an act of omission, there was one this past week! (212)

    Thomson then goes on to point out that she is not the only one didn’t feed the baby. Gerald Ford also didn’t, but somehow that is a different.

    Here we have a lot of elements of children’s fiction. There is the ghoulishness of the example, the matter of fact way of talking about death, etc. – much like a lot of traditional children’s fiction, which from our point of view is ghastly (children lost in the woods, being eaten by wolves, etc.). There is also the implicit suggestion that while Thomson of course did something outrageous, so too did the neighbours…

  6. I wrote to Noam Chomsky and asked about his footnote usage: “I use footnotes pretty extensively. Sometimes in fact I have appendices which amount to extended footnotes, and footnotes in these.”
  7. A few years back, I submitted an essay to the Journal of the APA and after the piece was accepted, John Heil guided me through the production process. First he pressed me to cut some of the footnotes. After I made cuts, he sent me a “footnote grade” for the revised piece. Did he give you one on your article in the JAPA?

    No, Heil didn’t give me a grade so far as I remember. What was your grade?

    I quote from his email: “Footnote grade: B/B- (but showing signs of improvement).” The joys of notes are not appreciated by everyone.