John Carriero, Professor of Philosophy, was interviewed by Ally Peabody. Ally is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy. She is particularly interested in ethical, meta-ethical, and ontological questions involving moral standing.
AP: So, what brought you to philosophy and made you want to become a professional philosopher? And, how has philosophy enhanced your life?
: I started out as a math major. I think a lot of philosophers start doing something else. There are a lot of routes in; it could be political science or English, but I was in math. Then I took a history of philosophy course from Ed McCann. I found it fascinating, and it felt to me, because you know we were fairly rigorous and looking at arguments carefully, a little bit like what I was doing in math. But the subject matter seemed just so much more interesting. Immortality, the self, free will, can somebody knowingly do evil? After that—I was hooked. It was a yearlong course, and I think I changed my major right in the middle of that year. Over time, I’ve come to think that philosophy is a lot less like math than I used to, but it was a natural route.
I don’t know whether philosophy has enhanced my life in any direct way, but I find that I run into former philosophy majors all the time (my dentist was a philosophy major, my previous primary care physician did philosophy and history of science), and I think philosophy majors are a little bit more open to thinking about things, a little less prone to taking things on authority, a little more reflective. As a group—it’s hard to generalize, but I think they’re a little more curious. And I think that’s all to the good, and contributes to a happier life.
“I am trying to help students, or in some cases force students, to get down to that intuitive level where they just get a feel for what this argument is all about. Over the quarter I’m hoping to move them to thinking about whats underneath the words.”
AP: That’s awesome. I was actually pre-med, but majored in philosophy, and ended up being much more passionate about it than the prospect of being a doctor. So, how did you end up here at UCLA?
JC: So I came here in ’92, ’90…. I never get the years right.
AP: You had to get out of that Boston weather.
JC: Actually, ’94. There were a number of possibilities, and I felt that this was the best department. We had a young family, we were a little bit wondering about the culture shock of the West Coast, but we decided to give it a chance. The things I like best about the department, I think weren’t as obvious to me at the time. At the time I could tell it was an awfully strong faculty with a great tradition; the grad students I met here were sharp. But what I hadn’t realized was the freshness of the undergrads. Sometimes when you teach at a private school there’s a kind of jadedness or a sense of entitlement, where students always knew that they were going to be going to university and weren’t all that excited about it. Here, lots of students were the first in their families to go to college, and there was an enthusiasm. Intellectually, it was an open environment, and it was a place that took philosophy seriously without taking itself so seriously. And that was quite welcome. I really found that much more conducive to my own work and getting things done.
AP: : It is a very happy department. When I was comparing departments, I was very glad to finally come here and find out that everyone was as great as I had heard. It was last minute for me.
JC: It’s a department with a real sense of community.
AP: Yeah, people are around a lot. So, to talk about your research: you spent a lot of time working with figures like Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, who are central figures in early modern philosophy. Your research draws heavily on their intellectual history while remaining strongly philosophically-oriented by asking questions about things like epistemology, sensation, the relationship between contingency and necessity, etc. So my question is: when you work on these early modern figures, what draws you to a particular philosophical problem? What does your process look like?
JC: So in terms of process, I’ll begin with the end of the question, and I might be a little different from some of my colleagues in this, but many of my papers begin in the upper-division courses where there are things going on in Spinoza or Descartes—the people I’ve done the most work on—that I feel like I only half understand. Then I try to explain it to students, students ask questions, react, and maybe I’ll teach the course several times, and gradually the pieces start to fall into place. When that happens, it’s not just that you iron out some problems in the texts, but the philosophy starts to get more interesting. It’s been very nice on the quarter system, to spend a whole course on Descartes’ Meditations or on Spinoza’s Ethics. I’ve written a book on the Meditations, I’m trying to write a book on the Ethics, and I don’t think that’s an accident. Additionally, when I’m writing a paper, my first audience is my colleagues; it’s not other early modern specialists. I have to be able to show or make manifest the interest of the philosophy in the paper. Before I’m happy with it, it has to be the kind of thing that I can with a clear conscience think, “Yes! This is something that this or that colleague ought to be interested in.” So they’re the people that I’m writing for first.
I don’t know whether a particular philosophical problem is what attracts me. What I end up writing on is more a sense that something is going on in a text that seems very interesting but strangely elusive, and I want to try to get at what’s happening. So it’s a little bit less like “I don’t understand how A and B fit together,” it’s more, “I think there’s something happening here, I want to figure it out, and I bet if I got this right it would help me understand some other things.”
AP: That’s a really interesting approach. What other philosophy have you been reading lately, and do you enjoy extracurricular reading (fiction, non-fiction, anything like that)?
JC: So mostly I’ve just been reading Spinoza recently, and some of the secondary literature. Outside of philosophy, for various reasons I’ve actually been reading three things at once. I just finished a memoir, Once Upon a Country, by the Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh. He was interested in Islamic logic, and was at Harvard around the same time I was in grad school there. I don’t know that I knew him, but I’m sure we had some mutual acquaintances because some of the people doing logic would come over to the philosophy department. Then, in a more religious vein, I was reading Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor who’s got quite an interesting take on things. I’m a Catholic myself. And then I’ve restarted—and it looks like this time I will probably finish—War and Peace.
AP: Oh, wow, finally!
JC: Yeah, finally, right, right. Of the great Russian novels, I’ve read Brothers Karamazov a few times, and Anna Karenina. But I’ve never made it through War and Peace. When I have time, I like to read, and to read from disciplines outside of philosophy.
AP: And when you read those things, do you often find yourself thinking about philosophic ideas or relating it to your research? Especially Tolstoy.
JC: Well, they help, indirectly. But not quite, I think, in the way the question imagines. So it’s more connected to this idea about philosophy—that you could get through a good Ph.D. and somehow not really know very much—because philosophy proceeds at a certain level of abstractness. What many of these works remind me about is just the complexity of the concrete reality. In Nusseibeh’s case, he’s a moderate trying to convey a nuanced picture of the Middle East, a picture that’s sensitive to its history and to the motivations of the various factions. There’s just so much that’s happening that I hadn’t known about. Sometimes I deliberately choose things that will sort of pull me back to earth. I feel Spinoza is that way. He’s got this abstract geometrical proposition stuff, but other parts of his writings are awfully concrete, and he has a pretty good eye for the everyday. In a way this also moves me away from more philosophical authors like Tolstoy.
AP: That’s why it takes 17 times to get through War and Peace.
AP: Let’s now switch gears to talking about teaching. What classes do you teach here, and what are your goals in teaching undergraduate students? What’s your favorite thing to teach?
: So, I teach 100C (History of Early Modern Philosophy) every year, and then I teach a course in the upper division. Lately I’ve been teaching a Spinoza class on the Ethics
, but next year I’ll be co-teaching a Descartes course with Calvin Normore. I also teach a graduate seminar. This quarter it’s on sensation in early modern philosophy, and we’re having a lot of fun with it. In general I’ve been enjoying the upper-division Spinoza course a lot.
My undergraduate teaching goals vary, but lately, when I’m teaching Spinoza, quite a bit of what Spinoza is doing, whether or not you agree with it, is quite intuitive. I’m trying to help students, or in some cases force students, to get down to that intuitive level where they just get a feel for what this argument is all about. Over the quarter I’m hoping to move them to thinking about what’s underneath the words. For one kind of assignment, I ask my students to write a paper that’s very different from an exam. I direct them to some text I haven’t talked about in class, and they have to explain the argument. Sometimes it’s not so obvious what the argument is, so that can be a lot of work. And then they have to critically respond to the argument and agree, disagree, make it better, find problems for it. Many students find that quite daunting and haven’t really, it seems to me, done a lot of that kind of work before, and often their first instinct is to turn it into a crypto-exam. So they just write three or four pages of stuff from the lecture that’s sort of relevant but doesn’t really address the topic, and then they devote a single page to their critical section, where they basically say, “I agree with Spinoza” or “I think he’s wrong.” So it’s scary for them, it’s like taking off the training wheels. There’s not a particular A-paper that they’re supposed to emulate, there’s a lot of different A-papers. To do well on the paper, almost all the students will have to have parts where they’re not really sure they’re on the right track. We try in the course to make it easier by having copious office hours and encouraging them to talk ahead of time about their papers.
AP: : On that note, what type of advice do you have for undergrads who are interested in philosophy?
JC: The thing I would tell undergrads is that they need to be much more active about their education at a big place like UCLA than they would be at a smaller school. In theory, our courses are four units, so they should be spending 12 hours a week on each course. So what does the 12 hours look like? They listen to me for four hours, they go to section for an hour, that’s five hours. And there’s maybe an hour of reading. Where does the rest of the time come? And I think that’s going over their notes, trying to understand the material at this intuitive level, no doubt coming up short and being puzzled. And then going to office hours or bringing questions to section or bringing questions to lecture. So they have to really be active in a way that if you were in a small college, or small class, the professor would be prodding you.
AP: Right, or even in a different discipline.
JC: Right, and one problem here is that many of my students seem to me to be overcommitted, taking too many courses, five, six courses, alongside significant jobs and extracurriculars, and they can’t do what I’m describing. So I’d advise them to take three or four courses they can really focus on, and then if they have extra time, do some auditing. I think a lot of students don’t think of auditing. Even as an undergraduate I did a fair amount of it, where I felt like I could just show up, kind of learn by osmosis.
AP: The sponge method.
JC: Right, and when I was busy I wouldn’t show up. Some things you can’t audit—a foreign language, a math class—but you can audit a philosophy course. Many of my colleagues are wonderful lecturers, so much so that if you just popped in once you would benefit that day even if you had done nothing else. So I would say, do that.
AP: Was there any good advice you received at Harvard as an undergrad or grad student?
JC: I think the auditing I did was something that my teachers recommended. It was emphasized that doing fewer things in depth was much more valuable to your growth than doing a lot of stuff, even doing it reasonably well but not very intensely.