What should I ask Agnes Callard?

I will be having a Conversation with her soon.  She is a philosopher at the University of Chicago, and her new book Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming is coming out in early April.  Here are some of her papers.  Here is her recent NYT Op-Ed.  So what should I ask her?


"Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming"

I wonder what it's like to write books that nobody reads and, moreover, which you, deep down, know that nobody should read, either.

I like Turchin's concept of elite overproduction. We have enormous amounts of people churning out these useless theses in hopes of getting an academic sinecure.

There is a less stupid and sterilely provocative neighboring question to Maz's: how do you think about the relationship between writing and teaching (and arguing, and "philosophizing") in philosophy? I think something similar to Tyler's insights into anthropologists (that their best products are not their written research) may hold for other academic disciplines as well. How does a philosopher like Callard think about her "output"? And how much of its importance is mediated through op-eds, teaching students, etc., rather than through traditional scholarly output?

Given she works on (a) ancient philosophers including Socrates (not big on writing!) and (b) the agency of "becoming," (which her students are currently in the process of) I suspect she will have much of interest to say on these topics.

Looking forward to this one.

Related question:

How much variety in quality of content is there in "Title: The Something of Something" books?

I didn't finish either The Righteous Mind or Thinking Fast and Slow and generally assume most of these books are inferior rather than superior to those. Am I mistaken?

And look at that book's price: $65! It's practically screaming out "don't read me!"

Comments like these are pointless and embarrassing, in my opinion. Please, everyone, refrain from making them.

"And look at that book’s price: $65! It’s practically screaming out “don’t read me!” Clamence, the authors do not decide the price . Sometimes they don't even decide the title .

Which is why academics is in for a shock on a planet near you.

We possibly have too many books already, and without doubt too many books with colons in the title

Regarding that op-ed, since I was a teenager my bone to pick with Pascal's wager has been: why should God want us to believe in him? It seems equally (perhaps more) likely that God sees it as "look, I gave you this wonderful brain that separates you from animals, I want you to be brave and honest about using it, and I therefore reward both well-reasoned faith and well-reasoned nonbelief, but get out of here with this craven ass-covering wager".

Off topic, but what happened to the conversation with Martina Navratilova? I thought it was supposed to be released by now?

Hasn't happened yet - https://www.mercatus.org/events/conversations-tyler-martina-navratilova

'Mar 19, 2018 6:00pm – 7:30pm

Martina Navratilova — record-setting tennis player, communist defector, author, and activist — will join Tyler Cowen for a wide-ranging dialogue as part of the Mercatus Center’s Conversations with Tyler series.'

Oops. Thanks.

That actually is a good segue to my point that Tyler might want to ask her: Maybe the point of Pascal's wager is not that we will eventually "learn to believe". Maybe the point is that, by following the precepts of religion even without faith, you still get the benefit of religion. Whether there is a God or not, you get the benefits in life. If there is a God, you get even more (assuming God cares).

So I think the wager still applies. Actually, I think a lot of humanism is just a re-phrasing of the wager. It says "let's try to live a 'good life' even though we don't believe on the reason why'.

Maybe ask her about the relationship (if any) between pagan ideas of a 'good life' and current ideas. Neither Plato nor Aristotle seemed convinced that divine revelation was necessary to have a well grounded conception of human flourishing.

That is really an outstanding question. Western philosophy does seem caught up with the idea of the Good Life. Which is taken up by the Christians. Which in turn means much of Twentieth Century philosophy (and related fields) have been searches for an explicitly or implicitly anti-Christian Good Life.

Does she have views on how that is working out? Marxism was a disaster. There is a strong correlation between the Nazis and various German philosophers which has not been entirely fair to some of them. Freudianism - perhaps the most explicit in being interested in the Good Life but not the most explicitly anti-Christian, seems to be dying. What is left?

You are seriously claiming the Nazis were a Jewish plot?

Of course not - but you really should look into the history of anti-Christians like Marx. Of course Marx was fundamentally anti-Christian, like so many of his hard left ilk, but he by definition never believed in the fundamental tenets that Christians agree are the basis for being considered Christian.

And the Nazis were utterly unconcerned about the good life, certainly as it applied to what they considered to be defectives, inferiors, or parasites. Though the Untermenschen were considered acceptable as slave labor (so no reason to exterminate them), the Nazis were even less concerned about their happiness than that of the master race.

Christianity upended western notions of what constitutes a good life.

Classical thinkers valued above all the Cardinal virtues - temperance, forbearance, courage, prudence.

Christianity came along and downplayed the emphasis on the cardinal virtues. Instead virtues like compassion, kindness, charity, equality suddenly moved up the stakes, while the cardinal virtues became secondary.

To my mind this was a big big shift. And contributed greatly to the decline of Western civilization (b/w 300 CE and 1300 CE).

Christianity was a left wing force of populism that downplayed aspirations for a higher order of life by emphasizing equality, charity and kindness at the expense of everything else.

You realize that St. Ambrose (330s–397 AD) was the first to use the expression “cardinal virtues” right?

“And we know that there are four cardinal virtues temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude.” - Commentary on Luke, V, 62.

To these were added the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity resulting in the Church Fathers called the seven heavenly virtues.

Later after Pope Gregory released his list of seven deadly sins in 590 AD, the seven virtues became identified as chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. Practicing them is said to protect one against temptation from the seven deadly sins.

It doesn't matter who coined the term "cardinal".

The Cardinal virtues have their root in classical antiquity, being discussed first in Plato's Republic. The early Church fathers merely borrowed them, paid lip service to them for a while, but over time the theological virtues of charity, hope and faith completely undermined the cardinal virtues in public discourse.

Fact. Take it or leave it.

You may feel they have been undermined, but I assure you that they have not been. They form a major component of the catechism of the Catholic Church to this very day.

Ancient church theologians like Aquinas and his predecessors had no problem borrowing from truth arrived at via rational argumentation because God isn’t a magus waving a magic wand. Truth can be arrived at by our mind and reasoning... hence the respect paid by people like Augustine and Aquinas to people like Plato and Aristotle.

You only need to observe popular culture to realize the degree to which the theological virtues have overwhelmed the cardinal virtues.

Listen to a "State of the Union" address by any president. Be it a left wing president (Obama) or a right wing president (Trump). Which phrases would you bet are more likely to be used?

Faith, home, kindness?


Prudence, temperance, fortitude, perseverence?

Place a bet, have some skin in the game, and then comment!

Just because their are morons out there so uneducated on the intricacies of Christianity that they fall prey to wolves in sheeps clothing using Christianity for personal or political gain doesn’t mean any teaching has changed.

It just means pop Christianity is a farce and that many of the faithful are not living up to their responsibility to study the faith using the full suite of the human intellect.

I am going to tell you right now, prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice are big time players in deep Catholicism.

Walk into a confessional and confess your weaknesses and you will hear much about temperance, fortitude, and perseverance... that is a fact.

shrikanthk the ancient Geeks used to say that in everything we do should be done in moderation. They would not say "don't drink" or 'don't eat beef or pork"; they would have said drink, eat beef or whatever in moderation. The ancient Greeks did not have any hangups about homosexual relations either. I read somewhere that christianity repudiated this profound value system with downright prohibitions. However thanks to separation of church and state, the west recovered this value system and that is why western culture today is superior to all other cultures, including present day Hindu culture I belong to,

Actually Christianity is hardly big on prohibitions.

It is a LOT more populist than Jewish culture.

I am all in favor of the cultural discipline that taboos bring. The success of Jews and certain puritanical brahmin sects in India (not all) shows that cultural discipline can do wonders.

What I bemoan about Christianity is not the few taboos that it does bring to the table. For instance I like the Christian insistence on monogamy. Christianity hurt western civilization not with its prohibitions. But with its populism and underplaying of the cardinal virtues.

While Plato and Aristotle didn't believe in the need for divine revelation, they were definitely not nihilists or atheists.

They did believe in the existence of a soul and its upliftment.

Christianity didn't introduce religion to the West. Paganism has an honorable past, and Rome was a deeply religious society. What Christianity did was introduce a heady mix of egalitarianism, populism and divinity by leveraging revelation and the monotheistic God of Judaism.

Maybe, we should ask Ms. Callard, should one aspire to believe in God or aspire to believe that God won't punish one for not believing in God?

Roko's Basilisk doesn't care if you believe in Him or not.

That Op-Ed was pretty good. Ask her what Pretty in Pink can tell us about Descartes' systematic doubt.

--so TC could ask:

are philosophers relevant in America 2018 CE if and only if they plug their arguments into pop culture illustrations and metaphors (or vice versa), which themselves may be of dubious application?

Here's a lazy, availabiity-bias-laden one, but one that might actually be fruitful: How is aspiration like Girard-ian mimesis? Is it partly caused by it?

How come Jon Franzen didn't win the Pulitzer did but Jen Egan did? Is it because magazines are in vogue?

What are some determinants of an individual's level of aspiration? Why are some people so hungry to become something else while others are satisfied, and why does this seem to change at different times for different individuals?

How might her insights on developing a personal identity be applied to business (i.e. startups developing their values, brand, competitive advantage, strategy, etc.)?

What does she make of the Girardian view of Christianity as the reveler of the victim mechanism? Is that a rational path to believing?

Are mentors/heroes useful for bootstrapping a model of who we wish to be, or must you have an independent model of who you wish to be, even if it is not fully developed?

How important is publicly accountability to one's ability to follow through on something?

To what extent do you put faith in the the cliche that one must be "torn down to be built up stronger?"

How has place changed your thinking? U Chicago versus UC Berkeley, are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, at least in the economics department. What is it like having been at both for significant portions of your career.

What is Chicago better at than any other American (and perhaps world) city?

Can one harness one's weak-willed or hedonistic urges towards productivity? If so, how?

What is difficult about being a woman in philosophy? Why do you think women are underrepresented in your field?

Why should we study the writings of dead white men?

*revealer & public. Plus a change in to whom I address the questions. Not my best proof reading.

+1 for the Girard question

something something JORDAN PETERSON something something ....

Wow she's really green and possibly jejune. I was expecting a white-haired Margaret Mead type person, but she looks like a 30-something. I guess I would ask her if people mistake her to be a housewife based on her looks?

Obviously don't ask this question.

Ray,Ray This is a serious interview. Tyler doesn’t want to attract the attention of the #metoo movement

How do tragedy and science interface, if at all, with religion? What does she think of phenomenology, especially that of her fellow UChicago colleague, Jean-Luc Marion?

It looks like the really interesting question is why all the important French philosophers are working in the United States?

Which leads on to the related question - what the hell happened to French philosophy? This is a field that the French dominated for centuries. Then the Germans kicked them all over the metaphorical philosophical battlefield, and then they gave up. The only French philosopher of note is Bernard Henri Levy. Enough said. Why has the decline in French philosophy been so steep and so comprehensive?

Perhaps “ no one is a prophet in their own land” applies here

1) What's her best defense for reading Classics?

2) How is U. Chicago Economics perceived by U. Chicago Philosophy, and if she knows about it, other department at U. Chicago?

3) Overrated/Underrated: Parmenides, Cicero, Augustine. Most underrated dialog of Plato?

4) Her production function. Has her work on akrasia helped her overcome akrasia?

5) Why does philosophy have an obsession with history that other disciplines don't have?

6) What are her own aspirational beliefs?

7) Can group agents have aspirational beliefs? The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights seem very much to be aspirational documents.

Ask this: Does she have any thoughts relating to her thesis on the concept of metanoia (μετάνοια) from the Greek New Testament?

Addendum -- See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metanoia_(theology)

I would ask her what hope a genuine liberal arts education has in this day and age, given the increasing split in universities given the dual focus on career preparation or as the academy as a kind of vanguard in the Marxist sense. Does she think that any level of government will support academics studying the works of dead white men in 20 years?

This topic should genuinely be explored.

Another twist on this question would be to ask her to what extent she believes higher education should be about aspiration as opposed to career preparation, research in the sciences, or political advocacy, and why? Definitely ask her something about what Bryan Caplan has written about education as signaling, and our inability to find anything any replicable pedagogical models that increase civic mindedness or civic engagement.

Is it plausible to think we can offer aspirants help at the institutional level--say, in education? What would this look like?

How can institutions of education and entertainment, etc. be structured so as to help people aspire?

Can institutions in addition help people in sorting out what they should be aspiring towards?

Do people have an ethical responsibility to aspire? If so, does that mean that we have a responsibility to create a social environment conducive to aspiration?

Are Ms. Callard's teaching practices structured by these sorts of questions? Has she taken any specific steps in relation to these issues, and how have they worked out?

Did Melzer in any way change her mind about how to read ancient philosophy?

U of Chicago was Leo Strauss' home institution, so maybe he can ask her about what influence Strauss has had on her as a scholar.

She's in a festschrift for Nicholas Smith – assuming she's indebted to him (which may be wrong), my guess about Strauss would be little to no influence. So, has Melzer changed her mind on any point?

I think it would be strange for someone who is a professor of philosophy at the U of Chicago and was an undergrad there to be unfamiliar with Strauss. Is the Committee on Social Thought a separate department from the philosophy department?

Sure, but aware of and influenced by are rather different. I'm sure she's aware, I just doubt she's terribly sympathetic.

The Committee is an interdisciplinary program with faculty from different departments. If I'm not mistaken, the Straussians are all in political science and the philosophy department is more or less hostile, with Pippen as an exception.

It seems like a wide range of Plato scholars are doing various kinds of "literary" readings now. But the interesting case is Aristotle. Melzer presents some pretty unambiguous evidence that plenty of ancient and modern authors believed Aristotle, in some sense, wrote esoterically. Does she think that is true? Why or why not?

Ask he if she thinks people's beliefs can be changed by changes in the beliefs and attitudes of their social group. I.e. if your friends all change their minds about gay marriage, do you change your mind in lockstep? Can political beliefs realign in accordance with tribal identity?

. I.e. if your friends all change their minds about gay marriage, do you change your mind in lockstep?

Men, about 50% of the time. Women, about 80% of the time.

I get what you are trying to say, but the math doesn’t really add up. How can only 50% of men change their mind when all of their friends have changed their mind. Are all of their friends women?

Wow, I never realized the MR comment section was so dumb, especially toward women. It saddens me. :(

> But many of us recoil at this suggestion. We don’t want to lie to ourselves.

Does she actually believe that?

Good point. People want to lie to themselves about lots of things. Does your wife love you? Do you love your wife? Are you children smart. Plenty of self deception in all of those things. Belief in God and thus
Probably an afterlife has got to top the list of most dsir able form of self deception .

Belief in God and thus Probably an afterlife has got to top the list of most dsir able form of self deception .

No, it tops the list maintained by evangelical atheists, not by the normal.

This is what makes me smile about the "deep thinkers" here like Art Deco and Steve Sailer - they are so very deep but still believe in the after life. Yeah, your corpses along with those of the turtles and snails will be in heaven soon...

As the philosophers of Journey insisted: Don't Stop Belivin!

Someone who believes in evolution would never laugh at the religious impulse. They would recognize or at least wonder about the influence of religion over human history as a survival mechanism. Even in our experience we have seen the millions murdered by avowedly atheistic systems of governance. And the infertility of the secular societies who depend on the vigorously religious and fertile populations to maintain their populations.

So what deep thinking have you been doing? I see no evidence. Simply some self satisfying blathering.

Lazy going along with what everyone else believes is hardly a sign of being a deep thinker. If SS or Art were in rural America, perhaps their belief would be uninteresting. But they are not. Art in particular seems to hang out with a lot of academics - where belief is not all that common at all. He does so here. He swims against the tide and still believes.

I don't think it is proof of deep thought but it is certainly suggestive. A smug, trite, sneering atheist *around*here* is about as interesting and transgressive as a zebra in the middle of a herd of zebra.

Also, of course, Christianity has spent a lot of time persuading agnostics to be believers. Every educated person has been exposed to pressure to be at least agnostic. Yet many of them are not. So by definition Christianity's theology is complex and perhaps even deep. Frankly if the best minds of Europe spent 2000 years contemplating the consequences of playing Minecraft they would probably come up with some pretty deep thoughts. Christians, well Catholics, certainly have.

Notice that I never said anything about the "religious impulse" let alone laugh at it.

Okay, her specialty is ancient philosophers, but one commenter has already concluded that she isn't influenced by Leo Strauss; well, I suppose not directly, since he died before she was born. If one can be a Francophile or Sinophile, then can't one be a Chicagophile (that would include me). Here's her faculty web page: http://philosophy.uchicago.edu/faculty/a-callard.html Aspiration (the title to her forthcoming book)? What I observe in reading Cowen's blog posts could be described as aspirational. Does Ms. Callard regret not having attended an all-women's college?

There’s this thing called “editing” where you go back and change what you’ve written to make it more intelligible.

I appreciate that some readers may find starting with patriarchy and ending with a question about women's colleges a bit confusing, but for them I suggest a different web site.

Is that a complaint about the commenting technology on this site?

Marcus Aurelius: Overrated, underrated?

Is the domain of pure philosophy shrinking? Can questions such as the nature of the mind, of knowledge, the nature of reality , free will , consciousness, morality etc.. be addressed from scientific inquiry rather than philosophy using disciplines like evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, behavioral economics, physics for example

Can self deception (akrasia) be reduced in the many wholesale or do we concentrate on the few?

What are the costs of a focus on self deception, if any? Too much self reflection seems to yield narcissism or paralysis.

Who are the great self deceivers in literature? In tragedy?

Based on current affairs, my question was going to be about how philosophy was bounded by psychology. And then I googled and found that was her thing. Should be great.

(The detail of why everyone right of center-left needs to classify a Trump statement as "to satisfy the rubes" or "to troll the libs" or "a joke" rather than the simple stupidity it is, may be too narrow and .. real .. for this venue.)

Is Rene Girard overrated Peter Thiel's portfolio economists?

Who's your favorite writer/thinker on governance and political systems?

Ask her what does she think the odds are that Pascals Wager was postulated with tongue firmly in cheek?

I suppose Tyler could ask this... if he wished to signal that he had never read anything at all about Pascal.

When are contrarians just plain annoying in public discourse?

Has she ever thought hard about an alternative world history where neither Christianity nor Islam had taken off? And the classical culture of Rome, Athens and Byzantine had continued without disruption?

What would the world be like? Would it be a richer, finer, more sophisticated world, albeit a little less compassionate?

We get it, you really don't like showing compassion to those below you in social station. We already know what a culture lacking in compassion looks like: Brahmin ruled India, a total shitshow whose biggest claim to fame is, aptly, "discovering" zero. Null. Nada.

Ask her for her thoughts on whether the decreased emphasis on the Scholastics within Christianity (particularly the Protestant variety) has lead to a decline in faith among the educated.

Given her op-ed, she may have interesting thoughts on this. To me, I think one can learn to believe by studying the Christian scriptures and the writings of the saints and church fathers deeply along with secular science. People like Aquinas we’re doing amazing things by harmonizing Classical philosophy and Christian teaching/thought.

For example, I find Aquinas’ map of the soul (which builds on Aristotle) to be a rather amazing line of reasoning that presaged much of modern neuroscience... we are just now getting to what he and Aristotle posited hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Aquinas began by reaching back to an earlier thinker. Following Aristotle, he posited that the human soul has three kinds of powers. It has vegetative powers, which serve physiological functions such as heartbeat, respiration, and metabolism. It has sensitive powers, such as sensation, perception, memory, sensitive appetite, and locomotion. The vegetative and sensitive powers are caused by matter, in a purely physical way.

But the human soul also has intellect and will, powers of a wholly different kind. With our intellect, we can think of universal concepts, such as mercy and justice and abstract mathematics. With our will, we can act on abstract principles. Because thinking of abstract concepts entails thoughts removed from particular things, Aquinas reasoned, intellect couldn’t be a material thing. Intellect and will are immaterial powers.

Aquinas taught that our soul’s immaterial powers are only facilitated by matter, not caused by it, and the correlation is loose. His insight presaged certain findings of modern neuroscience.

What is the relation between contemporary science and ethics? Is a project like Sam Harris's Moral Landscape possible? Are Plato and Aristotle valuable apart from such a project?

In light of metoo...

Over or under rated: JPII’s theology of the body.

I think that in one of his writings Aristotle asserts that Plato was a Pythagorean. What weight does she give to such first hand testimony, and given her familiarity with Plato’s writings, what would it men for interpreting the Republic if Aristotle’s assertion is accurate?

With rare exceptions, possibly none, publishers not authors decide everything related to the marketing of a book, including price and title.
Many worthy books were not read by any but a handful of people, making them no less worthy. While on the other hand many books that are gobbled up by millions are bereft of worthiness.

"I wonder what it’s like to write books that nobody reads and, moreover, which you, deep down, know that nobody should read, either." Maz, at least have you read the excerpt ( in amazon) from it before making such a drastic comment? I am not an academic nor do I pretend to be an intellectual . But this philosophy book seems to be about something that interests me: if I understood the excerpt right, it addresses issues like why I opposed gay marriage in college but I am now supporting it. It is interesting to reflect deeply on why my value system changed ... and keeps changing ... toward a more liberal viewpoint as I became older.

Books like these are not intended to be best sellers. It is understood that the market for it will be very small. But what makes you think just because you don't like to read it, others also will not? Bryan Caplan says learning a subject like philosophy needs the proper mind-set and should be taught only to those with the aptitude for it. In other words, pearls should not be thrown before swine...

Underrated or overrated: The Iliad

(1) You have training as a classicist, yet your work in ancient philosophy does not feel "classics-y," despite showing a subtle and linguistically expert attention to the text. How does this training inform your work as a philosopher?

(2) In 2007 you were perhaps the most sought-after job candidate in the discipline. Your writing sample was, from my admittedly limited perspective, one of the most discussed philosophy articles (full stop, not just by job candidates) that season. How well do you think that piece ("Two Ways to be Moved") was understood? Did this experience have non-obvious effects on your career?

(3) It is traditional in philosophy to conduct a conference presentation by simply reading a whole paper, often in exactly the form one intends to publish it. This model has been criticized as inefficient, boring, and inattentive to the distinction between speech and writing. What do you think of it?

(4) How much do you read current issues of philosophy journals? What is your strategy for reading a given journal article?

(5) It is commonly assumed that many (perhaps all) of our thoughts are propositionally structured or at least can be modeled that way. Is this a safe assumption?

Akrasia and the work of Jonathan haidt.

I think the problem is that governments co-opt and use religion as an excuse to plunder others and make life miserable.

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