An Interview with David Chalmers

David Chalmers (NYU & ANU), apart from being a prolific academic philosopher, does a good amount of public philosophy, is half of the team that runs PhilPapers and its associated endeavors, edits the philosophy of mind series for Oxford University Press and the philosophy of mind section at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and, I’m told, takes on an impressive amount of other service work. To his service to the profession we can now add this answer to a question in Clifford Sosis’ interview of him at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher?. Sosis asks, “Was writing the dissertation difficult?” Chalmers says:

Yes. It was especially difficult to get started.  By my fourth year at Indiana I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to write, but I spent almost a year staring at a blank screen and not actually writing anything.  Instead I’d procrastinate by reading another book, another paper, or messing around online. I’m a long-time Internet addict—in those pre-web days, I’d occupy myself by posting to Usenet newsgroups such as That proved philosophically useful in its own right, and I ended up getting an article or two out of those discussions, but it wasn’t what I was supposed to be working on. Finally one October evening the floodgates came down, the writing came rushing through, and I had an extended outline of the whole dissertation by morning.  I spent the next six months working away at it nonstop and finished the thing by the following April.

People usually laugh when I tell them that I suffer from writers’ block.  I’ve managed to be productive over the years by getting a lot done in periods of flow like that period in 1992-93.  I had another in the early 2000s at Arizona and a very good period in my last few years at ANU.  But in between, writing for me is like pulling teeth.  In my three-and-a-half years at Santa Cruz in the late 1990s, all I wrote was two reply pieces.  I had two long articles written just before moving there with encouraging R&R’s at Mind and Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and I couldn’t bring myself to revise them, so I never resubmitted.  I’ve also given any number of talks (many of which can be found on my website) that I regret never writing up as full papers.

While this is small potatoes as mental pathologies go, it’s still a reasonably serious disease of the will that has all sorts of follow-on effects on the way I live my life.  I’ve seen therapists and read books about this over the years and have found a few things that help. One thing that helped a lot in Canberra was separate offices for writing and internet.  Another thing that helped (I’m a little ashamed to say) was trying less hard to write well.  I think the style of my writing was much better early in my career, but my current boring style is clear and serviceable enough to get the main points across, and that way the articles actually get written.  It can still be a struggle, though.  I’ve just written my first article after moving full-time to New York two years ago.  For some reason other sorts of writing, like doing interviews for philosophy blogs, is much easier. Maybe I should do more of my writing this way!

I think a number of philosophers will identify.

The whole interview is interesting. Of particular interest are his sense of the trends in philosophy. Among them he includes:

  • Philosophy has moved from being an individual-dominated endeavour to more of a collective endeavour.  No philosopher in my generation has the influence or stature that Kripke, Lewis, Quine, or Rawls had at a similar age.  People sometimes bemoan this — the age of the greats has passed.  But a more positive spin is that the sort of work that used to be done individually is now being done collectively.  For example, the philosophy of perception has made enormous progress in the last two decades through a collective endeavor, progress far greater than might have been achieved by one or two individuals. Again there are upsides and downsides here, but overall I think this is probably a healthy trend.  Still, in an era of increasing specialization and “small ball” philosophy, I think individuals should be encouraged to swing for the fences every now and then.  Maybe they’ll individually fall on their face in doing so, but the field as a whole will be richer for it… 
  • There’s been a remarkable flowering of socially relevant and socially driven philosophy in recent years.  The ferment in the philosophy of gender, race, and sexuality has been particularly striking.  There are so many rich and difficult philosophical issues there that are tied closely to what’s happening in the broader world while also being tied to central issues in philosophy.  At a general level, the analyses of social identity by Anthony Appiah and many others have enriched our philosophical understanding of personal identity (in the broad sense) and at the same time have helped come to grips with urgent societal issues involving race, gender, and other social identities.  It’s been fascinating to see the groundbreaking treatments of gender by people like Judith Butler and Sally Haslanger shedding light on the metaphysics and social roles of gender but also facing serious objections in light of transgender experiences. Miranda Fricker‘s ideas about epistemic injustice have drawn deep connections between ethics and epistemology and have also had remarkable uptake among many marginalized communities.  I suggested at an NYU faculty meeting a while ago that these areas are like metaphysics and the philosophy of language were in the 1970s — if one doesn’t have people doing them, one is missing much of the real action.  This was met with some skepticism, but I think we’re reaching the point where any good department has to have people specializing in these areas.
  • I’m especially interested in the trend toward applying insights from “core” areas of analytic philosophy to social domains: applying philosophy of language to social and political speech acts, applying the philosophy of perception to gender and race-based biases in perception and cognition, applying epistemology to internet-based knowledge, applying analytic metaphysics to social structures, applying decision theory to major life decisions, applying ethical theory to effective altruism, and so on.  If the ideas from a century of analytic philosophy are as universal and powerful as we like to think they are, then they ought to have a central role to play in helping us to understand these many domains and ultimately in helping us to improve people’s lives.  It’s good to see them being put to the test.  Of course the influence typically runs both ways: to deal with these domains, we need to sharpen our old analytic tools and develop new tools.  That’s good for philosophy, and we can hope that at least occasionally it might be good for society too.

Check out the whole interview.


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