What can studying the lives of philosophers tell us about how to organize and interpret our own lives? Elijah Millgram is a professor of philosophy at the University of Utah whose research focuses on the theory of rationality. His latest book, John Stuart Mill and The Meaning of Life, analyzes the relationship between the ideas of the famous theorist and their impacts on Mill’s life. His forthcoming book examines the life and work of Frederich Nietzsche through a similar lens, combining philosophical analysis and biography.
Elijah joined Tyler to discuss Newcomb’s paradox, the reason he doesn’t have an opinion about everything, the philosophy of Dave Barry, style and simulation theory, why philosophers aren’t often consulted about current events, his best stories from TA-ing for Robert Nozick, the sociological correlates of knowing formal logic, the question of whether people are more interested in truth or being interesting, philosophical cycles, what makes Nietzsche important today, the role that meaning can play in a person’s personality and life, Mill on Bentham, the idea of true philosophy as dialogue, the extent to which modern philosophers are truly philosophical, why he views aesthetics as critical to philosophy, and more.
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TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m chatting with Elijah Millgram, who is one of the best philosophers and a professor at the University of Utah. Elijah, welcome.
ELIJAH MILLGRAM: Hi. Thanks for having me.
COWEN: We’re going to get to your work on John Stuart Mill and Nietzsche and your current project on the lives of philosophers, but I’d like to start with a few just very basic questions about philosophy.
What do you think is the most underrated tool in the rationality toolbox for practical reasoning?
MILLGRAM: This is really, really basic, but I think people don’t pay attention to their own experience. They pay attention to experience when they are trying to figure out what’s going on factually, but when they’re trying to figure out what to do, they discount experience as an input. This is true among the professional philosophers, and I think it’s true of just anybody.
The tacit ideology is that people are supposed to know what they want already and then they try to figure out how to get it, but you learn what’s important and what matters from experience. And if you don’t pay attention to your own experience, you’ll go off marching in some direction that you in the end are going to find probably really disappointing.
Yes, everyone somehow in the end pays attention, but it’s really underrated.
COWEN: If people in trying to assess their own preferences are underweighting their own experience, in relative terms, what are they then overweighting? Social conformity pressures?
MILLGRAM: John Stuart Mill, who I’m a little bit of a fan of and have an interest in, complained about that very — he complained about his contemporaries that too many of them didn’t bother to ask themselves what they wanted or they preferred. They would just look around to see what was expected of them and then go for that.
There’s a lot of that, but I think the other thing that is being overrated is what you think you already know about what’s important and what matters. It’s inertia. Inertia of your own assessments.
COWEN: Newcomb’s paradox: Are you a one-boxer or two-boxer, and why?
MILLGRAM: I’ve never been able to take a stand on that, mostly because there’s this moment in Robert Nozick’s discussion of the Newcomb paradox. Should we pause to tell the audience . . .
COWEN: No, no. This is not for them; this is for us. They can Google —
MILLGRAM: Oh, this is for us? OK. Nozick said, “Look, here’s what happens when you get a class,” or not even a class. People talk about Newcomb’s paradox. Some people end up having one view and some people end up having the other view. Each side has the argument for their own view, but they don’t have the explanation of what’s wrong with the other argument. Then Nozick says — and I think this is absolutely on target — “It doesn’t help to just repeat your own argument more slowly and more loudly.”
Since I don’t know what’s wrong with the — whichever other argument it is, I don’t have a view.
COWEN: If you don’t have a view, doesn’t that by default put you close to the one-box position? It means you don’t consider the dominance principle self-evident because you’re not sure that in fact you’re getting more by opting for the two boxes. Quantum mechanics is weird; aliens may be weirder yet. You don’t know what to do. Why not just take the slightly smaller prize and opt for one box? Not with extreme conviction, but you would be a default, mildly agnostic one-boxer.
MILLGRAM: Who knows what I would do if somebody turned up and gave me the . . .
But let me say something a little bit to the meta level, and then I’ll speak to the view that I would be a one-boxer. I live in a world where I feel disqualified from a privilege that almost everybody around me has. People are supposed to have opinions about all kinds of things. They have opinions about politics, and they have opinions about sports teams, and they have opinions about who knows what.
I’m in the very peculiar position of being in a job where I’m paid to have opinions. I feel that I can’t have opinions unless I’ve worked for them and I can back them up, and that means that unless I’ve done my homework, unless I have an argument for the opinion, I don’t have it — so I don’t.
Now, going back from the meta level, kind of one level down: let’s stop and think about what’s built into the . . .
When you explain dominance to a classroom, you say, “Look, here are the different options you have,” and I guess the options are used to the column, “and here are the different states of the world, and you can see that for each state of the world this option does better than that option. So you should take . . .”
There’s a lot built into that already. For example, that the world is carved up into these different — the state space is carved up, and your option space is carved up, and you don’t get to rethink, recharacterize — the characterization of the things that you do is already given to you, and it’s fixed. It’s an idealization.
Until the situation arrived and I had a chance to face it and think about it, I wouldn’t know whether to accept that idealization. I know that sounds really coy, but the principled view is that since I don’t have an argument, I don’t have an opinion.
COWEN: Did the Quinean turn in analytic philosophy turn out to be a dead end?
MILLGRAM: Let me see if I can try to talk this through.
Let’s say that the Quinean turn — there’s different versions of the Quinean turn, right? Different things you could mean by that. But let’s say that it means this: Quine’s slogan was “To be is to be the value of a variable.” So if you’re a philosopher, you’re doing metaphysics, and you want to say what the world is composed of. That’s kind of the — right?
Well, you have a theory which is continuous of science and maybe has logic at the very middle of it, but it’s all one seamless — this phrase was “web of belief” — and you see what the theory tells you exists, and of course that’s what you think exists. It sounds very low key and down to earth and naturalistic, but now . . .
Quine went into his program thinking that what you start with, your raw material, is people agreeing and disagreeing with things — you show them a rabbit and you say “gavagai” and they say yes or no; they make an ascent or descent response, and you collect these and you build your interpretation up of the people, and then you — right? That assumes that you can already understand their ascents and descents before you understand everything else.
Now, Dave Barry has a really funny riff —
COWEN: The comedian Dave Barry? He’s been a guest on the show, by the way.
MILLGRAM: Oh, that’s so cool.
MILLGRAM: I think I’ve cited him more than once as an authority.
COWEN: He’s also one of the best philosophers.
MILLGRAM: There we go.
His riff is — I guess his wife is trying to book travel plans to Japan, and she can’t communicate with the travel agent because the travel agent doesn’t think she can say no politely.
My problem isn’t so much that there’s circumlocution around saying no. Although you know if you ask somebody for a date — if somebody asks you for a date and you’re going to turn them down, you don’t do it by saying no. There’s other ways to do it.
My complaint is that all the interesting, informative responses to somebody asking me “Is that the way they are?” usually turn out to split the difference. “Well, it’s true in a way.” “It’s kind of true.” “It’s sort of true.” “There’s something to that.” “It’s technically true.” “It’s officially true.” “It’s got a grain of truth in it.” I can go on like that. You can’t understand that stuff without already speaking the language very, very fluently.
Quine’s entry point into his program is a nonstarter. I think it wasn’t going to go where he thought it was going to go.
COWEN: Are we living in a simulation?
MILLGRAM: I actually think I have an argument that not.
COWEN: What is it? Let’s hear it.
So you’re familiar with the Bayesian argument that an advanced civilization can create a lot of simulations. Odds are, if you feel you’re alive, you’re in one of those simulations, right? What’s your counterargument?
MILLGRAM: Think of the simulation as a work of art. It has to be that. By a work of art, I don’t mean anything fancy-schmancy; I mean that — I just mean that it’s an object created to look a certain way. Works of art have styles. They inevitably have styles; I can give you a subsidiary argument in a moment if you want that.
If you were in a simulation, unless you simply had no taste, unless you were taste blind, you were aesthetically crippled, you’d be able to recognize the style. It will be obvious . . .
COWEN: Advanced Universe 2.0, right? That’s what we’re living in. A lot of black, some stars, not too much noise — except on planet Earth.
MILLGRAM: When I try this argument out on people, some people say, “But my world is styled.” And I say, “Well, let’s split the difference.”
If it turned out that you looked and your world — there are parts of the world that are definitely styled. PT Cruisers. I don’t know if they’re still around, but they’re styled for sure. These were cars that were meant as an allusion to, I guess, the Dick Tracy strip.
COWEN: But a fair sense of the aliens’ or creators’ notion of style is very distant. How firm could we be in our belief that our universe doesn’t have a style? That seems hard to defend to me. I know what my sense of style is like, but it’s hard enough to understand the sense of style of people in other countries, much less creators of our simulation.
MILLGRAM: Let me pull in my horns a little bit, but say this: To the extent that I understand the simulation hypothesis, I have a pretty tangible sense of how it works and plays out. Then I think that the simulators — I have to understand them as being something like us. Then it’ll turn out that they have styles too . . .
I’ll fill in the argument. If you think of them as sort of omnipotent, then I don’t know. This isn’t — I don’t think I can — if we get theological, I’m not confident anymore.
Think about it this way. The simulation we’re talking about (this we’ll have in common with the space aliens): it’s going to be complex. It has to be built up of many working parts. The kind of working parts I mean — if you look at trade journals for the CGI industry, they enthuse over — people have figured out a way to make the backwash of a rocket look right; here’s how you do it. People have figured out a way — there’s a really old Scientific American article which is nice as an example of this — people have figured out a way to make weathered surfaces look right. To get the simulation to look right, it has to be an accretion of a lot of these devices.
You’re looking at something that — you’re looking at a tradition in the background of the simulation, the tradition that builds up the devices and learns to integrate them and to produce these appearances. Now you ask what the result of having this tradition will be. How are these devices going to make it into the tradition?
Well, some of them will be realistic in some very naive sense, but some — they will strike the simulators as vividly realistic. They’ll induce suspension of disbelief. Now there’s two possibilities: the simulators are like us or they’re not. If these devices are in there because they induce suspension of disbelief in them but not in us, if they’re there, then we’ll notice them immediately.
But if they are there because they do suspension of disbelief in people like us, suspension of disbelief requires complicity on your part. There’s a recognition involved in it that you can train yourself to notice it. So style in this sense, the creation of a repertoire of devices that work together to produce the appearance, pretty much guarantees that if you’re looking out for it, you’ll see it.
COWEN: What do you think of the Robert Aumann agreement hypothesis? That if two people who disagree come together and exchange views, they might also exchange arguments, but even if the arguments don’t convince the other party, the mere fact that one sees we have different views — we form estimates of who is the epistemic superior. We ought to converge upon agreement simply by communicating with each other.
Is that a useful tool of practical reasoning, or is that worthless?
MILLGRAM: I have to put aside — in philosophy, you may know there’s a peer disagreement literature. I have to put this aside somehow in my head to think about this. It doesn’t match what I experience in my life at all.
COWEN: No, of course not, but people may not be truth seekers, right? That’s a rather obvious conclusion.
MILLGRAM: No, no, no. So, I’m a philosopher. My best conversation partners are other philosophers who I think are truth seekers and who I have enormous respect for. But it’s not exactly that one of us thinks that the other one is the smarter one; it’s not like that. Some of these people I’ve known for, I guess, 40 years now, and we have overlapping interests. So we have regular conversations, and mostly neither of us convinces the other; what happens is our views evolve.
I talk to my philosophical conversation partner. I’ve come up with an objection to her view or her argument, and she goes home and comes back. And her argument has changed and the view has changed, but not to agree with me. But she has an objection to my view and my argument, and I take the point. I go home, but I come back not agreeing with her. I come back with a — my view has mutated to swallow the objection, going in a different — right? And I have a new argument.
Maybe philosophers are a special case, but these conversations — the really productive, interesting ones — they don’t seem to produce agreement.
COWEN: But isn’t that proof that you are all, and we are all, not truth seekers? If you are truth seekers, the evolution of your views should be a random walk. Your views evolve, but in unpredictable ways.
What I observe empirically is people move bit by bit toward a new position, and in essence, their position a week later from today is somewhat predictable — at least the direction of change from their position now. Maybe people are more interested in being interesting, a word you used, and they’re just not that much truth seekers, because the evolution should then be a random walk.
MILLGRAM: It could be. Maybe this is something special about philosophy, but there’s something very weird about philosophy, in the West anyway. It’s a discipline that’s well over two millennia old, and some of the smartest people who have ever lived have worked in this discipline, no question, and there aren’t any results. Maybe it’s a feature and . . .
Now, maybe you think they’re all not truth seekers; they’re just after being interesting or something like that. But it’s hard to believe over that kind of stretch of time. Instead, it looks to me like there are patterns of ideas or dialectical patterns that people are forced into, that don’t produce the convergence but which they’re helpless against.
I even have a meta example from last night. I once wrote a paper where I argued that philosophy goes in cycles. The positions evolve in a predictable way, and then they collapse and somebody reinvents the wheel again. Sure enough, I’m reading — I guess I’m not sure how you pronounce his name; it’s either Étienne Gilson or Gilson [French pronunciation], right?
COWEN: Sure — Paris or Paris [French pronunciation], right? I know who you mean.
MILLGRAM: Exactly. This book is called The Unity of Philosophical Experience. He is illustrating my view with the precurrence of it. The part of the book I was reading last night, the beginning, it starts off discussing medieval treatments of universals. His line is, people get forced from position to position to position. You don’t get agreement, but it’s also not a random walk. It’s as though the path is carved in stone, and when later philosophers start at the beginning of that path, independently, they too get forced down the same route.
COWEN: We may get back to these general questions, but let’s try a few specifics.
The project you’re working on now is a new book project. It’s tentatively titled Why Didn’t Nietzsche Get His Act Together? Right?
COWEN: Now, I have just a very general, maybe cynical question. If I look at the status of Nietzsche in 1900 when he died, I would think if I were living in 1900, at that point in time, Nietzsche was a great philosopher. He was very important. He was a culmination of a lot of trends; he gave rise to a lot of new ideas that came to fruition in the 20th century.
But when I read Nietzsche today, he doesn’t actually seem to me like a great philosopher; he seems to me like a once-important philosopher, that so much of his work is very context specific. “Will to power” is a phenomenal insight, but we now have better explications of the will to power.
If I look at his maxims, they seem to me worse than what I see on Twitter every day. So I pulled a few out from the Sue Prideaux book on Nietzsche. Let me just read three of them. One: “There are no facts, only interpretations.” Another: “Even the most beautiful scenery is no longer assured of our love after we have lived in it for three months, and some distant coast attracts our avarice.” The final one: “The most perfidious way of harming a cause consists of defending it deliberately with faulty arguments.” Now, none of those seem very profound to me; they seem OK. Like I said, worse than Twitter.
I understand the historic importance of Nietzsche — but why is he today a great philosopher that we can learn from?
MILLGRAM: I think we can learn from him because, in a lot of ways, we haven’t caught up to what he was doing. There are some moves he makes that we’ve almost gotten to the place where we’re like three steps behind.
But I want to step back a second and ask — and think about the form for a moment. Some of these quotes, they belong to a period where Nietzsche was trying to be the next Rochefoucauld, right? So they sort of sound like Rochefoucauld.
COWEN: Sure. And he was, right? Or the next Schopenhauer. But that was then; this is now.
MILLGRAM: That’s right. That was then; this is now. But then he moved on. His later writings are also choppy; they don’t sound like Rochefoucauld-like aphorisms. Sometimes they’re more shrill, and sometimes the passages are a little longer, but they’re very different.
Let me try to point out two or three ways of seeing Nietzsche that make him out to be philosophically interesting. One of the reasons for the choppiness is that Nietzsche couldn’t work for more than 20 minutes straight. He simply couldn’t stay on point. He was really sick.
As I’m sure you know, and I guess people listening to this probably know, during the period he was writing the books that we think of as most characteristically Nietzschean, he was coming apart at the seams.
His life was a series of lurches from one plateau of psychic disintegration to the next one down until finally, I guess, he collapsed. In the last 10 years of his life, he was first a psychiatric patient and then a ward of his mother and then a ward of his sister, and he was a coma boy for a lot of that. He was coming apart, and his writing style reflects that.
If you’re a philosopher but also not if you’re a philosopher — if you’re a philosopher, you take for granted a way of thinking about people that — you can think of it as a notation that we don’t have an alternative to. You ask, “What does he think?” It’s as though there’s a hook, and then there are the various beliefs or things the person wants or is after that sort of hang off of that hook.
Built into that picture is a kind of presumption of a certain amount of coordination and consistency and taking responsibility for those attitudes. This is the default view in philosophy. The phrase that you’ll see to label this is unity of agency. There’s a lot of discussion, starting with Harry Frankfurt maybe in about 1970, of what it takes to get that full ownership. The assumption always is that it’s a good thing, and mostly we have it. People who don’t are lost causes, hopeless.
COWEN: But no one has it, right? We know from behavioral economics, preference reversals, or the order of the day.
MILLGRAM: Right. Nietzsche really doesn’t have it. He’s a philosopher, and he’s trying to cope with him not being the agent, which is the only kind of agent we already have tools to talk about and understand. He’s philosophizing for himself. It’s an exercise in personality management. He’s trying to manage his own disintegrating personality and keep it together and functioning as much and as long as he can. He’s also theorizing about it. That’s one of the things we haven’t quite gotten to yet and which we absolutely need to. That’s one.
Here’s another: You know Nietzsche was — if you had to describe his program in a phrase, it would be — the program he’s offering people would be inventing values.
Let me give you a characterization of — nowadays (not in Nietzsche’s own day) we have a subspecialty of philosophy, metaethics, which you can think of as the metaphysics of values or of the things you should do. For about 100 years, over the course of the 20th century, if you were thinking metaethics, you basically fell in one of two camps. You could be — I hate this phrase, but you could be a moral realist. You think that the values are out there already and what you should do is some special fact, and you just have to be responsive to this truth, this fact about what you have to do or what’s important.
Or you could be (I hate this word too) a noncognitivist. The evaluations, or the shoulds: they’re expressions of your feelings, or they’re commands that you give other people and maybe also yourself, or they’re expressions of your commitments that you’ve taken on.
Now, notice what happened in that ethics. Whichever branch you took, this was a mythologizing of the abdication of responsibility. It’s making it OK to be the subject in the Milgram experiments. (No relation.)
COWEN: The other Milgram, yes.
MILLGRAM: The other Milgram.
Yes. So if the facts about what you should do are already out there — well, you’re not responsible. You’re just doing what the — and if it’s, like, your feelings, well, you’re not responsible for your feelings and you can’t control them.
When Nietzsche says what you do with values is invent them — we’ve done that always inadvertently, but now it’s time to do it self-consciously. Not all the same for everybody; you could have idiosyncratic values, you could have temporary values, and they’re not whims. No more than other inventions, maybe the ones coming out of — you’re in San Francisco now, right? The ones coming out of Silicon Valley.
They’re not whims. If they fly, there’s a story about why they make sense. That’s an invitation to assume the responsibility that, within philosophy anyway, people have gone very far out of their way to slough off. That’s a big deal. It’s one way to think about it again, in this next-step thing.
The alternative that’s been emerging to these two camps in the last maybe few decades sometimes gets called constructivism. One way to think about Nietzsche’s proposal is it’s in the spirit of constructivism, but it’s much more sophisticated. It’s a few steps up from where we are right now. We’re in a place where that gesture will help some people to appreciate it, but he’s doing way better than we are.
COWEN: Let me tell you another reservation I have with Nietzsche. I think of him as obsessed with Christianity. It’s a recurring theme through a lot of the works; Antichrist is his last statement, in a sense. Also sprach Zarathustra I think of as his attempt, like Sloterdijk suggests, to present a kind of fifth gospel. If Christianity is dead, the God of Christianity is dead, what is the new gospel? What is the new revelation? And it just seems wrong to me.
We have many parts of the world where Christianity is not as important anymore. The gospels that have replaced the previous influence of Christianity — they’re not like Zarathustra very much at all. It just seems empirically wrong to me.
I take you as presenting the Heinrich Meier view that the book Zarathustra is a parody rather than an honest attempt to create a successor to Christianity. Why is that an interesting project under either interpretation at this point in time?
Nietzsche thought it was his most significant work. When I read it, I’m actually bored.
MILLGRAM: I saw this footnote that said that Nietzsche had read Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Israel, and I said to myself, “I know what that means.”
Of course, I had to make sure. I actually trekked off to Weimar to look at Nietzsche’s personal library. I even equipped myself to be a spy, an industrial spy, because I needed to see his marginalia. You know that German handwriting has changed in the last hundred years along with the printed script. I didn’t know that I could read it, but I also thought they wouldn’t let me photocopy it, so I brought a concealed camera so that I could take pictures of the pages. But of course then I didn’t have to. Mostly, Nietzsche — it turns out he underlines, and even I can read an underline; I don’t have to read Gothic handwriting.
Meier thinks (the guy you mentioned) — he thinks that Zarathustra is a parody of the New Testament. That’s not exactly right. It is a parody of the New Testament, but also of the Old Testament, and also apparently of the Quran, and also of Buddhist writings that Nietzsche knew about. It’s meant to be a parody or satire of religious scripture, but not the scripture of any particular religion.
My entry point is more the Bible we’re familiar with because we have both Nietzsche’s copy of a book about the Old Testament, with his markings, so we know how he read it. We don’t have his copy anymore, but we know that he read David Strauss’s Life of Jesus.
Here’s how this ties to the program of inventing values that I described for you a few steps back. Nietzsche writes Zarathustra as the holy text of a nonexistent religion in a way that conforms to the views of the critics he was reading. This is a school of Bible criticism that we’ve pretty much forgotten about.
The common denominator of this school, the shared view, is that the people who actually write the holy texts of a religion come much later, and they systematically misunderstand and misrepresent and have — their own values are flipped upside down from the values of the founder, and so they misrepresent the history and the doctrines of the person founding the religion completely.
Zarathustra is obviously meant to somehow stand in for Nietzsche’s views. He talks about views that are familiar from other works. It seems to me that the exercise is to show that if you try to institutionalize the values Nietzsche wants you to invent and the values he’s inventing, if you try to make it — in the way that a religion institutionalizes values, the results will be completely perverse. They’ll be turned upside down and inside out. That’s the last thing you want.
In Zarathustra — this just seems interesting to me — Nietzsche is setting up a problem which he tries to solve in the books he was working on till the end of his life, for the rest of his life. The awfulness of the — I mean the schlockiness of the book, the horrific sentimentality and sappiness, and the over-the-top — all of that stuff, that’s Nietzsche showing you what scripture looks like.
COWEN: Is that parody, or is that Nietzsche recognizing the necessarily sentimental nature of prophecy, to some extent? If you think of Heidegger and Jung as two of the more insightful readers of Nietzsche on this, they don’t seem to think it’s parody, right? They’re recognizing these eternally recurring structures and how we tell myths.
MILLGRAM: Let me give a different spin on it. I won’t argue back against the other way of looking at it directly. Let me give you an alternative way to see it. Suppose you invent a value and you want to make it socially real, which usually takes time. That’s got two sides: It’s got an external side. Normally — the way we normally do it is we institutionalize the value. That has to do with creating a church or universities that teach students to do things a certain way. There are variations on this.
But there’s an internal flip side to that. You have to change people’s tastes so that the new value becomes natural to them, that you’re changing their sensibility. I think Zarathustra’s surface style is meant as an illustration of what that sensibility would look to us now, before we have it. You’re supposed to look at this . . .
If you look at the King James Bible, it’s a classic of English literature. It’s up there with Shakespeare; every sentence almost is quotable. It’s just wonderful, right? If you look at Luther’s Bible in German also, it’s a classic of the German language. Every sentence is quotable. And If you look at the Hebrew Bible, it’s a reference point for every modern Hebrew-writing author, right? It’s a classic. If you look at the Quran . . .
OK, how can this happen? There’s two explanations. One is that every time somebody writes a holy book, it turns out to be a classic of world literature just on its own. The other possibility is when a book occupies a particular role in a culture, when it’s that sort of reference point, the sensibilities of people in the culture reshape themselves around the book so that it is in retrospect a classic.
Zarathustra, which is awful schlock, is inviting you to think, “What would have to happen to me for me to look at this book and have it seem to me as though it were like the King James, a classic of world literature?” At that point, you’re supposed to go, “Whoa, maybe this is a decision I need to think twice about.”
The point is sort of a relative of — I don’t know if you remember Martha Nussbaum’s Fragility of Goodness.
MILLGRAM: Do you remember her discussion of — I guess she’s considering the Protagoras. Her line on the Protagoras is that Socrates’s hedonism — on which you make decisions on the basis of just pretty much the greatest amount of pleasure, and that’s the only thing that matters — she says, “That’s not supposed to be where we are now; that’s Socrates’s recommendation for reforming our decision-making.”
Nussbaum goes on to talk a little bit about what the world is like in which people have done this: Tragedy doesn’t make sense to them anymore because there are no tragic choices; it’s just a matter of quantities of pleasure. If your friend or lover dies, it doesn’t matter because they were just the bearer of a certain quantity of pleasure, and you go look for the pleasure elsewhere.
The idea is you’re supposed to start to look inhuman. Then you’re supposed to think, “What kind of decision was it supposed to be, anyway? We’re supposed to be looking to the reform program to make things better for us.” Better by whose lights?
I think Nietzsche is prodding you in the same way.
COWEN: I like very much your book about John Stuart Mill, your latest book, called John Stuart Mill and the Meaning of Life. Let me see if I understand your view properly. It seems to me you’re fairly critical of lives that are full of projects because, in some way, they make people subordinate to external authorities. Is that a fair reading of what you’re suggesting?
MILLGRAM: Let me do a little bit of distinguishing and then say what I think the book was aiming for.
A life that’s full of projects in the plural might well be fine, I think.
COWEN: But there’s an individuation issue, right? So Elon Musk — is he full of project? Full of projects? I’m not sure there’s a difference. He wants to build things: that’s a project. But there’s SpaceX, there’s Tesla, there’s more — I mean, does the plural really matter?
MILLGRAM: It does matter. Maybe in Musk’s case, we could actually — I haven’t looked into what he does; I only know what random people on the street know about him.
COWEN: He does a lot of different things, right? That we know.
MILLGRAM: You sort of have the impression that he’s mostly focused — he has a view about saving the planet. Some of it is saving it down here by making everyone drive electric cars, and some of it is saving the planet by moving humanity off of the planet, or something, or maybe moving heavy industry off of the planet. Maybe that’s his one big project and then he has things he gets distracted by and they’re smaller, or maybe he really has different projects. He’s focused on cars and he’s also focused on space industry. I don’t know.
But it really does matter, and here’s I think why. If you have one big project, a project that you think is the meaning of your life, or that has that function, that role: Not only does it tend to push everything else out, but you end up being very, very focused on getting the project to cohere internally, figuring out how to make all the parts fit together. As your very, very ambitious project gets more and more tightly wound . . .
Here’s the actual punchline of the book: If what you were looking for was the unified project that will occupy your whole life and be the meaning of your life, as the project gets more and more tightly wound, it starts to develop fissures and you end up not having the unified project and the unified life.
COWEN: But doesn’t self-deception kick in to save you? There’s no set of views that are even close to fully coherent. You work very hard, as Mill did, to get your views to have more consilience. Maybe ultimately you fail, but he did many great things. He actually had many wonderful projects: liberation of women would be one, voting rights would be another; we could go on through the list. He loved his work as a process. He had a lot of value in the moment-to-moment existence of his being.
It’s like Hume’s card players, except you get to be in Parliament and write incredible books and essays. If at the end of it all it wasn’t that coherent, Mill’s self-deception kicked in. He still thought he did wonderful things; it was a somewhat self-validating self-deception.
Why should we be so worried about that? Take the people who did the mRNA vaccines: they had these incredible projects, which — the vaccines work; there’s a coherence to that. By the end of their lives, they’re likely to feel very good about this. Why don’t we just take the money and run, and applaud?
MILLGRAM: Oh, so the book is part of a larger project. Let me place it a little bit. I actually do think Mill at various points had — there were rough sides to his life. It wasn’t all peaches and cream.
MILLGRAM: I’m not also thinking — I don’t think of the life as a failure or think that he shouldn’t have done what he did or anything like that; that’s not where I’m going. I’m interested in looking at the role that something you would be comfortable describing as the meaning of somebody’s life can play in a personality and in a life.
Of course, what roles something can play depends on what the architecture of the personality in the life is. People have differently structured personalities. Mill is interesting to me because he was a very mobilized personality. I mean he accomplished remarkable amounts, and it’s all very, very structured: subprojects inside subprojects inside subprojects. He was able to sustain this over most of his life. For him, for a personality like that, the natural role for the meaning of his life is to be something that guides action, because he’s so good at acting.
At the other extreme (we were already talking about Nietzsche), you have somebody who is completely disintegrated. Giving him a big project, to which he’ll refer his decisions, that’s simply not going to work because he can’t make plans and execute them. For him, something you’d think — he invented a number of values that you could think of as successive meanings of his life for the different configurations of his disintegrating personality, and because they couldn’t tell him what to do, they had a different role.
It’s like by appealing, by serving as a pole star to his different psychologic — his psychic parts, they could keep the parts flying more or less in the same configuration, and that’s how Nietzsche managed to actually write his last books.
For people, I guess, like myself, and I suppose most of us, who are somewhere in the middle, who aren’t so tightly wired — as wired as Mill or as fragmented as Nietzsche, there are other functions a meaning of life could have.
On the Mill extreme, I think what you see in Mill is that turning your life into a single unified project and being as tightly wired as that isn’t, in fact, an option; it doesn’t work out to be as tightly wired as that, and so you should just give it up as an objective. The thing you might end up with might look to you like you’re pursuing a single project, if you’re self-deceived about it, as you say, but we’re already moving towards the middle of the spectrum.
COWEN: To ask you a rather forcing economists’ question: At the margin, should we be taxing or subsidizing life projects?
MILLGRAM: If you think that you can’t actually get somebody to have something that lives up to the billing, that really is the life project, there’s no point in subsidizing it. Subsidizing something that you can’t get people to do . . .
But people are built differently. Again, if you think of there’s something like a spectrum, with more tightly wired people on one end and more disintegrated people on the other end and different configurations in the middle, it’s not as though there’s any one thing we should be encouraging people to do. Different ways of approaching their lives are going to suit different people.
COWEN: I worry in your book that you are underselling Jeremy Bentham a bit and underselling Mill’s view of Bentham. If I read Mill’s famous essay, just called “Bentham,” which I’m sure you know very well, Mill is still pretty positive on Bentham. He says Bentham has a lot of flaws, but fortunately his main influence has been on the law. If we think of Bentham’s writings, the Panopticon and Auto-Icon proposal to always be reputationally evaluating the achievements of dead people, I don’t favor those as policy proposals, but they seem quite profound and have been highly influential and prophetic.
Bentham on usury is smarter than Adam Smith — on gay rights, on animal welfare. His pamphlet on interest-bearing currency. Fragment on Government is quite good. Mill sees this, so why be so down on Bentham? Why isn’t he just a brilliant, wonderful philosopher with serious limitations — along with most of the other brilliant, wonderful philosophers?
MILLGRAM: First of all, although Bentham was a very strange guy, he had a lot of bad ideas, but also a lot of really good ideas. And the good ideas, they speak for themselves . . .
COWEN: Well, they do maybe today, but they don’t to most of the world even now, and they certainly didn’t in Bentham’s time. The vision he needed to see —
MILLGRAM: Stamps. Stamps!
MILLGRAM: We don’t even think of this as something that was once a radical innovation that a crackpot had to suggest — but putting stamps on an envelope and dropping it in the mailbox: that’s Bentham. He had great ideas mixed up with other ideas that weren’t so good.
OK, think about it this way. Mill — because I’m interested in Mill under the heading of thinking about the meaning of life. Mill started out as a protégé of Jeremy Bentham, and so Bentham’s view of the utilitarian project is we all struggle out of our teenage conceptions of what we’re about and what we’re going to do. Sometimes we turn our back on them, right? That’s normal.
Sometimes what we do, and this is what Mill did, is he worked his way to a different version of the utilitarian program that he was comfortable with and that he could live in. That meant fighting his way out from under the father figure’s conception of that program and of the key concepts in it, like utility. So it’s not surprising that there’s an emotional tone that I see in that essay of somebody dismissing their father. Even though he does recognize that Bentham had real accomplishments, there’s still that tone.
COWEN: As the French philosopher Pierre Hadot has suggested, is philosophy — true philosophy — fundamentally dialogue? Rather than writing things and putting them out there.
MILLGRAM: I don’t know that piece of Hadot’s. I do know his philosophy as a way of life. But this question was taken up very, very early in the history of philosophy — I guess it’s in the Phaedrus, right?
COWEN: Sure. And there’s dialogue before this writing. The Socratic dialogues, while they are written by Plato, they’re dialogues — or representing dialogues, at least.
MILLGRAM: Yes, and in the Phaedrus I guess Socrates floats the worry that written philosophy isn’t really philosophy. It’s the fossil of the real philosophy. The real philosophy can only be the spoken philosophy. The reason he gives is that you can’t ask the text questions about things it doesn’t talk about, and I take it that the Phaedrus itself — this is very typical of Plato actually. His dialogues — there’ll be moves that are made textually and then moves that are made by way of dramatic frame. The Phaedrus is Plato showing you how to write a dialogue (and he did this with almost all of his dialogues — anyway, the ones we mostly read) that you can ask questions of, and they will answer.
The philosophical texts that survive, that we keep reading, all have this feature, or we wouldn’t keep reading them. The objection to written philosophy, as opposed to philosophy as dialogue — maybe it’s been addressed, though not all of us can do it — I don’t know if I can do it.
COWEN: Are you worried that, as you described earlier in this dialogue, all of your best conversations are with philosophers? Doesn’t that mean you’re leaving trillion-dollar bills on the table, so to speak, since philosophers know a somewhat circumscribed set of things — as would be true with any group? Why have all your best conversations with philosophers? Isn’t that a warning sign that something’s badly wrong with philosophy?
You said yourself about Mill in your book — the fact that he in some ways had to attempt to rule parts of India made you think much more of him as a political philosopher, right?
MILLGRAM: I think this is generally true as a professional vice or handicap of philosophy. For my own part, I actually do try to — I mean, there’s two ways you can interact with nonphilosophers. There’s the dead ones — you read them — and then there are the live ones — and I try to do both, to talk to people who aren’t philosophers and also to talk to dead nonphilosophers.
I’m an enthusiast for, recently, Norbert Elias, who I guess started out as a philosopher, but we remember him for The History of Manners, which is something else entirely. And yes, you have to — I just finished reading the — I guess it’s the latest iteration of the Boyd and Richerson project. It’s a book by, I guess, a student of one of theirs, Joseph Henrich.
If you’re too narrowly boxed into your field, especially if it’s philosophy, that won’t be good for you — but then there is also this: it’s often hard to get the nonphilosophers to engage you philosophically in the way that a philosopher would. Talking with philosophers ends up being a large part of your diet.
COWEN: To what extent do you think philosophers today are even still philosophical, in the true sense of that word?
MILLGRAM: Oh, it’s such a painful question.
COWEN: I know. The same is true of economists, I might add.
MILLGRAM: OK . . .To answer the question, you have to have a view about what it is to be philosophical, and the problem here is that I have three different views. I worry about this question a lot. I think it’s part of philosophy to be aware of the question, what is it to do philosophy right and what philosophy is. So I can run through the three takes I have really quickly —
COWEN: Give us the three quick takes, yes.
MILLGRAM: — and then you can see the worries. Sometimes I think . . .
Philosophy is an applied science. It’s the machine-tool industry of the mind. We make the intellectual tools that make the intellectual tools. We’re engineering and engineering science. We’re very high up in the value chain so people don’t notice, but that’s what we do. On that take, I have all of these colleagues — most of my colleagues who think that what they’re doing is completely useless, and they’re proud of it. They have the attitude that John Dewey complained about where you think of yourself as a member of the leisure class and you’re glad that you don’t do anything useful.
There’s a second take on philosophy that I can’t get away from, which is that it’s a response of a certain kind to the imperative of the Delphic oracle: “Know thyself.” Philosophy requires you not to take things for granted and just — OK, I had a colleague in a previous job who remarked to me that there’s a phrase that nonphilosophers use that philosophers never use. It’s starting a sentence with “My philosophy is,” and he pointed out that what’s going to follow is some view that the person simply will not reconsider or give up — but that’s not what philosophy is about. Philosophy is about noticing that there’s something you’ve been taking for granted, and maybe it’s time to have second thoughts about it.
Again, if that’s your view of what philosophy requires, there are a great many people in my line of work who don’t live up to that. That is just disappointing. They’re just very, very confident in the way they do things, and they’re not going to have second thoughts.
Then there’s a third way of seeing what philosophy is. It’s got central questions that somehow don’t go away. Plato’s Socrates asks — the question is, How should you live? That’s one of them, and Kant had these four questions, right? What can you know, what should you do, and what can you hope for — and the fourth question was, What is it to be a human being?
I think one of these questions is, What’s the meaning of life? Well, just on that last score, the meaning of life in analytic philosophy has been pushed to the very, very, very, very distant margins of the field instead of getting — as I think it should get — our most serious attention.
So, when you ask that question, I end up feeling sort of depressed.
COWEN: As you know, we’ve been living through a pandemic, and it seems we’re faced with trolley problems every day. When should we reopen? Who should get the vaccines first? Should we do First Doses First? and so on. My casual impression is that hardly anyone is out there asking philosophers what they think. I don’t know of any writings by formal philosophers on those questions that have gotten a lot of attention.
Is it that the philosophers have such better answers, but the rest of us are not up to digesting them? Or are philosophers simply not usefully engaged with those questions? What’s your diagnosis of what’s going on there?
Because there’s articles about trolley problems for what, 50, 60 years? And at the end of the day, there’s —
MILLGRAM: Oh, that’s so painful. [laughs]
Sometimes you’ll have a topic of current interest and there’ll be something — work in philosophy that touches on it directly and speaks to it directly, but often that’s just not the way philosophy works. Philosophy produces what it produces; it’s got internal dynamics, and eventually there’s kind of downstream upshots. But you can’t just turn around and say to the — “Something turned up in the news and we need to know what to do; what do we — ” When you do that, you usually get really bad philosophy, and trolley problems in particular, not that they were . . .
I mean, think about that genre of philosophizing. There’s some kind of a thought experiment, maybe something about a trolley swerving from one track to the other and — or, I mean, there were a lot of these thought experiments. Maybe thought experiments about cutting people’s brains in half and putting them in different bodies.
Philosophers invite people to have reactions, snap judgments. These snap judgments get dignified with the term intuition, but they’re just snap judgments. You might think, “What could the value of these snap judgments be, and why would you want to systematize them? Why would you think they were worth anything at all?”
That’s a very, very — this is the methodology in philosophy that when you know that something has been produced by this methodology, you should go into it being very skeptical that anything of value could come out of it. I mean, nothing — unless you have some special reason to think that the snap judgments going in are high quality and they somehow are guaranteed to capture something important, you shouldn’t think that systematizing them is going to give you anything important or be of high quality.
COWEN: What’s your best Robert Nozick story?
MILLGRAM: [laughs] I’ll give you two of them. Well, I’ll only give you the two that I’ve heard directly. There’s a story that’s hearsay, but maybe I shouldn’t.
I TA’ed for him once, and I discovered how he taught. He would assign huge piles of material that he wanted to read, but he wouldn’t write a lecture. He would just read the reading assignment all week in parallel with the class. He would turn up five or ten minutes early before class and lock himself in his office. He refused to be disturbed in those five minutes. And then he would get up in front of the class and he would open his mouth — and a lecture would come out. I can’t imagine being able to teach that way. When I lecture, I spend most of my week preparing for my lectures. I can’t imagine just having it happen like that.
Here’s another: This I think is philosophically interesting. At one point I realized that when you discussed something with Nozick, he instantly saw arguments — a sheaf, a panoply of arguments for and against and counterarguments — that would just appear to him all at once. This came up in a conversation in his office when — maybe we have a little bit too much in common that way. I was an advisee and he said, “Well, what about this point?” I said, “Give me a minute and I’ll think of an argument,” and he looked at me and he said, “That’s the problem.” That I will think of an argument.
The way a lot of philosophers make up their minds about things is they consider some question and then they find an argument, and if the argument seems like it gets them a conclusion, that’s enough for them: they stop, because they can’t think of any more arguments. If you could only think of one argument, this is a good way of — anyway, like Peirce would say, of settling on something.
That wouldn’t work for Nozick because he could — arguments just sprang to his mind, more and more of them, instantly. He ended up thinking of arguments as — the idea that you could force somebody to believe something by giving them an argument, that’s just taking advantage of somebody’s disability: that they could only think of one argument, they can’t think of more. That’s why he titled his book (I guess it’s his second book) Philosophical Explanations. His line was, “OK, I know better than this. I’m not going to try to twist your arm with arguments. I’m going to give you explanations for things and you can buy them or not, but hopefully they’ll be illuminating.”
That’s a very interesting place for somebody to be in. You have to be as smart as him to be in the place that he was.
COWEN: Was Karl Popper a great philosopher, even a good philosopher? And why do his followers in practice so often seem to be dogmatic?
MILLGRAM: Oh, that’s a snarky remark.
COWEN: But it’s true.
MILLGRAM: Yes, I’ve never — when I was 18 or whatever it was, I read The Open Society and I read The Logic of Scientific Discovery and each one, there’s a cool idea. It was nice to have the cool idea; maybe I didn’t need a book to get it. Somebody could just tell you the cool idea. And maybe the idea is too simple and you move past it after a while.
I don’t know, if a philosopher over the course of his professional life has a few cool ideas that you’re happy to have heard about — I mean, he did good, so I’m not going to complain about Popper. I don’t, myself, see the idea of being a Popperian that you would — this would be a school you would join, or something like that — but I’m glad I heard about those ideas.
COWEN: If you think about sociological correlates of philosophers and if you learn that someone has a philosophy PhD, they have knowledge of formal philosophy — other than the obvious, “Oh, they went to school for a lot of years,” what unusual correlates do you associate with that?
Let me give you an example. When I meet a philosopher, I actually tend to assume they’re not that interested in the quality of the food they eat relative to people of similar education and income classes. Because that’s what I’ve observed empirically.
What have you observed empirically? What signals or correlates of knowing formal philosophy do you see?
MILLGRAM: Let me think about that for a moment, but while I’m thinking, let me resist your observation. I watch the same thing — and here’s why. (Since I have an interest in Mill.) Thinking about the principle of utility: OK, there’s an early version and a late version, right? The early version is the Benthamite version, where it’s about maximizing the total pleasure and minimizing the pain that people experience, where he thinks of these as sensations.
I found myself thinking, “OK, maybe that’s a reasonable way to direct — to shape policy when you have a population of people who know how to enjoy themselves and who do taste the food they eat.” And how often do you see that? What I see actually is geographical variation. Actually in the East Bay — and you’re in San Francisco, right?
COWEN: At the moment, though not typically.
MILLGRAM: You’re right now in a part of the world where people do pay attention to the food and other — I guess this is a misleading-sounding word — sensual aspects of their life. In the Bay Area, people notice the view; they pay attention to how things feel. When they exercise, surprisingly often, it’s not about how they look; it’s about how good it makes them feel. I find something similar — sometimes I spend time in northern Italy, and I find a similar awareness of the enjoyments that you actually sense, but I don’t see it varying so much by profession as by where people live.
Elsewhere, in Salt Lake City, when you run across somebody who tastes what he eats and notices, you think, “Wow, that’s unusual.”
COWEN: So what do you think is correlated with being a professional philosopher? In the United States?
MILLGRAM: You know, I don’t know. They’re superficial stuff.
COWEN: That’s what I’m looking for: superficial. Bring it on. Because it’s not going to be superficial, right?
MILLGRAM: Well, I’m no longer a member of the APA [American Philosophical Association] because I don’t think there should be such an organization, but I imagine this is still true. If you wander into an Eastern Division APA hotel lobby, you’ll see this sea of people who basically look identical: all the guys are a little bit scruffy, and they’re in sport jackets and sneakers, and they’re — the superficial stuff. There’s a homogenous appearance.
But when I cast about thinking about philosophers I’ve known, they’re — inside, they’re often surprisingly different. Surprisingly different in the way they live their lives and what matters to them and what they think is reasonable. I can think about it some more, but I actually don’t know what I would come up with. It’s a really good question.
COWEN: As you have tried to apply biography of a sort to John Stuart Mill, to Nietzsche — if you did the same to Derek Parfit, what kind of understanding do you come away with?
MILLGRAM: Don’t spend your whole life living at All Souls [College].
COWEN: And what’s wrong with All Souls?
MILLGRAM: All Souls is wonderful, but don’t spend too much time.
COWEN: That’s the margin, right? We’re economists here, in addition to philosophers.
MILLGRAM: Well, Parfit wrote a wonderful first book; I still teach this first book, the Reasons and Persons book. His last book was horrifically awful. I don’t know if I want to blame it on the institution . . .
COWEN: Two volumes. It’s trying to reply to every possible criticism, right?
MILLGRAM: It’s so bad. It’s thin in a way that the first one isn’t. I was actually visiting at All Souls when he was finishing it up, and I tried to have conversations with him about it and about the draft. We had frequent conversations, after lunch, and they would — within seconds — turn into Parfit saying, “But look, it’s obviously right; you just know that torturing babies for fun is a bad thing.” Whatever you think about the merits of torturing babies, not that I think it’s a good thing, there’s a thinness to that.
You can see that the environment had somehow whittled him down or thinned him down. I don’t know enough to say for sure how it happened, but that’s my impression. It’s too cloistered an environment for you to want to spend that much of your life in it.
COWEN: Should philosophers read their papers out loud word for word, as is so commonly the practice in seminars? Economists don’t ever do this; most academics don’t, but philosophers do. Is that good or bad?
MILLGRAM: I know why they do it — and it’s actually what I do. It’s becoming a practice that’s less frequent, but I know why they do it.
Suppose you’re in some other field; maybe it’s economics or it’s a lab science. When you turn up to give a talk, your talk is describing something else: the results you got in your lab or — right? But when you’re a philosopher and you turn up to give your talk, the result is the talk, and so you want to make sure that it’s as carefully crafted as you can make it — because you can’t just point over somewhere else to your — the graphs you got. So I do understand why people do it that way; it makes sense to me.
I mean, they make it boring, right? There’s no reason that when you read a paper, it has to come out boring; that’s just bad staging. But I understand why they script it.
COWEN: But isn’t some of it rent-seeking: we might be better if we had a rule that no one would do it? So to some extent people do it so they don’t screw up, and they want to get a higher post or keep the post they have, but that’s to some extent a zero-sum game, and if they just all were more willing to be more interesting, there’d be more philosophy, more interest in philosophy. There’d be more errors — but wouldn’t that be a better equilibrium?
MILLGRAM: So I really don’t think it’s about — well, let me separate out two things. There’s interesting, and then there’s protecting yourself from people’s complaints. I actually think that — maybe this is just me, I have a blind spot for my own practice, but I do script my own talks, but I rehearse them so it looks like I’m — they’re interactive, right? That’s the way it looks. I don’t just monotonously read the thing that is written. Everybody could do that, and that would just spare people a lot of pain.
I do see why you want to make sure that your formulations are precise and you’re not sacrificing interest for that. You want to make sure you said it exactly right, not because you’re competing with other people, but because the formulation is what you have to convey.
Now, here’s something you could be thinking. We could just get rid of the talks. In previous stages in my life, I thought, “Why do I bother going to talks?” I mean, I can read way faster than I can hear, and if I zone out for a moment when I’m reading, I can just go back, but if I zone out while they’re giving the talk, I can’t raise my hand and say, “Can you just repeat the last five minutes?” It’s just not efficient.
The reason you go to talks is for the Q&A: it’s that point of Plato’s — you want to see if the person can answer questions about the view they presented. Then you want them to have the view presented clearly; you don’t want the questions to be them cleaning up the sloppiness in the presentation because they haven’t stuck to the way they thought it out.
COWEN: Let’s do all Q&A then. University of Chicago used to do that. To some extent they still do. Everyone has read the paper and you start with Q&A. Isn’t that much better? I think it’s much better.
MILLGRAM: If you can get people to do it. If you can get people to do it, it’s great. I’ve done a lot of talks in sort of this format. Usually they actually split the difference. When you do a talk like this, people ask you to do a five-minute warm-up to get people all in the ball together. But yes, I have a lot of fun doing that, and it makes sense to me.
COWEN: To ask you another forcing economics question: Assuming that your will is disposed of in the way that you would prefer, how much would I have to pay you to step into a Star Trek transporter machine? You’ll materialize somewhere else; you can debate ex ante whether or not that’s the real you — perhaps you’ve been murdered and replaced with a double and you’re gone, but maybe it’s simply you and that’s all there is, something like Nozick’s closest continuer theory — at what price are you indifferent to stepping into the machine?
MILLGRAM: So you’re asking a . . .
COWEN: There’s two questions: One is, How much are you a physicalist? And the second is how altruistic are you, because if you get paid a billion dollars and you’re zapped into nonexistence, that billion dollars will someday save many lives, or help your family, or some combination.
MILLGRAM: I’m going to be coy and explain why you’re not going to get an answer.
COWEN: You’re not going to get the money then.
MILLGRAM: That’s fine. If you’re a philosopher, you’re already in the business of saying, “Look, I’m not going to consider lots of economic opportunities. There are lots of ways to make much more money than this.” This is actually material I’ve taught and I think about. I have an ongoing interest in personal identity, although it’s a little bit different from the Parfit-like interests, but from these kinds of things.
Here’s how I teach. The class — they turn up having read something, maybe it’s some of Reasons and Persons, and it has teletransporters and things like teletransporters. And I come to class with an outline of arguments that I’ve extracted from the reading, and maybe they come to class — I often assign as homework something like that — they come to class with an outline of an argument they’ve extracted from a passage in the reading, and we step through one of these arguments, and I asked them what’s wrong with it.
I have really bright students, so it might take them a little while to get going, but they get going and they start producing objections, and more objections, and more objections — and the objections don’t run out. At some point I say, “OK, it’s time to move on; we’re moving to the next argument,” but not because they ran out of objections.
I’ll give you a data point, actually. Sometimes I teach the same thing more than once, and there’s a paper that I found works to start a practical reasoning class off with: it’s Michael Smith’s “Humean Theory of Motivation.” You might know it or you might not. It works for the purpose. When students come up with an interesting, decisive, trenchant, cool objection, I type it up for them and give it out to them in the next class, but I also save it.
I’m compiling these objections. I think this paper is something like 25 pages. And I now have a document that’s more than 30 pages of objections. The objections don’t run out. When you ask me, “What’s your resolved view in this problem space,” where I’ve been looking at arguments where I know very well that the objections don’t run out, I don’t really have a view.
COWEN: If Jeff Bezos offers you $10 billion to step into the transporter, you say no? Think of all the lives that could save.
MILLGRAM: Well, that’s when I start to think about it. Then I’ll formulate the problem . . .
COWEN: He gives you a minute to decide. He gives you limited time — the offer is going to expire.
MILLGRAM: Probably I shrug and walk away, the way I shrug and walk away when . . .
Before I left Salt Lake, some guy turned up on my doorstep, and he had this story about why I should install solar panels on my roof. It made economic sense, and I just shrugged and said, “It’s a distraction. I’m trying to stay focused.”
COWEN: Last two questions. At the very beginning, you mentioned the importance of one’s own experience for practical reasoning. If you had to sum up in a nutshell what you think you, as a human being and philosopher, have a special experience of that you draw upon, how would you describe that?
MILLGRAM: You won’t be surprised to hear that if there’s a domain in which I think I have a special experience, meaning experience that most people don’t have, it’s in philosophy. I have something like 40 years of training in, “OK, this is promising. This is going to pan out into something interesting. This will come together in a really cool way. Oh no, that one’s not going anywhere.” It’s very specialized. Not a lot of people have a use for it, but it’s unusual and I’ve got it.
COWEN: Last question. Why do you view aesthetics as so central to philosophy?
MILLGRAM: Leverage. Aesthetics has been ghettoized. If you look back a couple hundred years, if you look at people who are strong all-around philosophers, they knew they had to have views in aesthetics because they would need those views for something else. Kant had to have views in aesthetics to make sure he’d gotten the first Critique right. Schopenhauer had to have views in aesthetics. Nietzche had to have views in aesthetics. Hume had to have views in aesthetics.
Somehow we’ve gotten the idea that, “Well, OK, aesthetics — it’s housed in philosophy departments for historical reasons,” but everybody has the attitude that we already know. We don’t need to listen to anything these people have to tell us; we don’t care. And they also think — and the people who do aesthetics have somehow internalized this — they typically don’t expect anyone else to be interested in what they do and have a use for what they do. This is terribly wrong.
Here’s more experience, since we’re talking about philosophical experience. My experience is that when you look at issues in aesthetics that crop up, when you’re thinking about one thing or another — including logic, epistemology, Frankfurt stuff about what it takes to own what you think — there’s aesthetics at the heart of it. When you look at the aesthetics problem, the rest of it changes; you get leverage.
So yes, you should absolutely pay attention to aesthetics if you’re in philosophy.
COWEN: Elijah Millgram, thank you very much.
MILLGRAM: Thank you.