Why Philosophy? Colin Chamberlain

Colin Chamberlain is interviewed by Céline Leboeuf.

Why Philosophy?
Colin Chamberlain
interviewed by Celine Leboeuf

What is philosophy to you?

There is a feeling I get when I’ve been hiking for hours, and I finally reach a lookout point. I can see. As I emerge from the trees, the landscape snaps into focus. Everything seems clear. The feeling gives me goosebumps. It’s a drug. Philosophy is another source of this feeling for me—the feeling of emerging from obscurity into clarity—though it usually takes more than a few hours to achieve. I am drawn to philosophical problems that are confusing and deep at the same time. I like to work away at a problem—for weeks, months, or even years—where I feel like something important is going on, but I do not yet understand what it is, as I chase the experience of seeing clearly. There is really nothing better than when a piece of philosophy comes into focus. When something deeply confusing becomes clear. This feeling is what it’s all about for me. It’s the joy of philosophy. At the same time, philosophy is often hard and stressful. I often feel like I am not quite smart enough to do the philosophical work I aspire to, which is uncomfortable. The philosophical problems I want to think about are enormous, whereas my brain just seems too small and inadequate to deal with them, and yet I keep toiling away despite the mismatch. The flashes of clarity are worth it.

How were you first introduced to philosophy?

I read Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder as a teenager. From what I remember, the novel tells the story of Sophie’s introduction to philosophy through a correspondence course that begins with some of the first philosophers in Ancient Greece and works its way to the early modern period—the 17th and 18th centuries—in Europe. This is when René Descartes worries about how someone could ever prove to themselves that they are awake and not dreaming. Suppose you pinch yourself to prove you’re awake. Couldn’t you be dreaming the pinch? I loved the way Sophie’s World took philosophers seriously, even when they argued for seemingly outlandish views. Maybe this is when I first experienced that irresistible combination of confusion and depth.

How do you practice philosophy today?

Doing philosophy historically provides me with the friction my thinking needs. Take the self’s relationship to its body. I have a sense of myself as the central fixed point in the swirl of my thoughts, experiences, and feelings (and maybe you do too). I desperately want to understand how this version of myself—the hidden, thinking center—relates to the human body I see in the mirror every morning. But I have no idea how to even start thinking about this problem on my own. The history of philosophy gives me a way to approach it. I can reconstruct Descartes’s view, for example, that the self is distinct from the body and yet intimately joined to it. I can explore the arguments he uses and the problems he runs into. I try to get his views right because my working assumption is that Descartes will have more interesting things to say than anything I could invent on his behalf. That interpretive project helps me avoid spiraling and worrying about a problem unproductively. I can figure out what I think by asking myself where I agree and disagree with Descartes or whoever. What did they get right? What might they have missed? Do their accounts resonate with my own sense of myself?

Admittedly, I could satisfy the need for friction in other ways, such as digging into more recent philosophical literature. But, as Andrew Janiak once pointed out, as soon as we engage with any pre-existing literature by interpreting and reconstructing other philosophers’ views, we are doing the history of philosophy, even if it is the recent history of the last few years. The question for me, then, is not whether to do the history of philosophy—as that seems unavoidable!—but about how far back we want to go. I don’t know that I have a fully principled reason for going all the way back to the 17th century to wrestle with Descartes, Malebranche, and Cavendish, especially since there was so much they just didn’t know about later scientific discoveries. But these figures work for me; I vibe with them in different ways.

What is a philosophical issue that is important to you?

The body is my main issue. I am interested in the fact that our bodies can seem like objects or things to be used and disposed of, and yet fundamental to who and what we are. Sometimes I feel like my body is an alien thing I drag around, other times that it is me. When I was growing up in Canada, I was terrible at sports or really any physical activity. All the other boys played by kicking a soccer ball around or playing catch. I could never figure out how to get my body to do these things. So, I was left out from these male ways of socializing. And I learned to distrust my body. Eventually, I came to inhabit my body more comfortably and recognize myself in it. But I still remember—and sometimes feel—what it’s like to be a stranger in my own skin. How can the body wear both these faces, a stranger’s and my own? That is the issue for me.

What books, podcasts, or other media would you recommend to anyone interested in philosophy?

This is a difficult question because there are so many things I want to recommend! I would like to suggest a few texts from my favorite period—17th and 18th-century European philosophy—because these are the texts that made me fall in love with philosophy. René Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy is a classic for a reason. It is written from the perspective of someone grown dissatisfied with his current beliefs—acquired haphazardly from his experience and teachers—who resolves to figure things out for himself. David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is perfect for anyone wondering if God exists. Nicolas Malebranche’s Dialogues on Metaphysics and Religion provides a wonderful entryway into his system: a glorious cathedral of the mind made from concepts and logical connections. Finally, Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World is wild in the best possible way: a 17th-century work of philosophical science fiction!

In terms of podcasts, I recommend (1) Peter Adamson’s amazing History of Philosophy Without any Gapswhich tells the long version of the story, and (2) my current obsession, Overthink by David M. Peña-Guzmán and Ellie Anderson, who find philosophical puzzles in unexpected topics, like fashion, laziness, and emotional labor, and make me wish I had been a continental philosopher.

This interview of Colin Chamberlain was first published at Why Philosophy?

Colin Chamberlain is an associate professor of philosophy at University College London, where he’s been teaching since 2023. Before that, he taught at Temple University. Chamberlain did his graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University and his undergraduate work at the University of Toronto. He works on 17th and 18th-century European philosophy, focusing specifically on Descartes, Malebranche, and Cavendish. His academic papers take up questions about self and body, the reality of color, and the contents of experience. He is currently writing a book about Malebranche’s account of embodiment.

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