Gavin Lawrence is Professor of Philosophy at UCLA. His research focuses on ethics and ancient philosophy. His article “The Deep and the Shallow” will appear in a forthcoming edited volume entitled Phillippa Foot on Goodness and Virture. He was interviewed by Jenna Donohue and Professor Seana Shiffrin. Jenna is a fifth-year student in the Department of Philosophy. She is interested in topics in ethics, meta-ethics, and their intersection.
JD: What initially brought you to philosophy?
GL: Desperation. No, I was set a task of writing on history, about Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and began to be interested in philosophy of history. I went and I talked to a friend of my parents, Jane Degras, who had played chess with Stalin’s son; a leftist of the 30s, a chain-smoker. She was really interested in history and got me going and got me to read E. H. Carr’s What is History? I was intrigued.
JD: Tell me a little about your current research and what you are reading.
: I just sent a paper off about a passage in Plato’s Republic,
which I’m excited about, on the art of compensation and what role, if any, incentives may play in practical reason. I haven’t published on Plato before. I am working on a new project on Rousseau, whose mind I find interesting and very challenging.
I’ve found my philosophy more historically illuminated these days. I’ve gotten back into the Republic so I’m reading a lot of Thucydides and Aristophanes. Aristophanes is informative to what Plato does; it sort of intrigued me. The other project I have is to read through Eric Hobsbawm’s volumes of modern history. I’ve read the early one on empire. He’s a very illuminating person. I’ve been reading recently Ste. Croix’s The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World; it’s a Marxist view, an antidote to the philosophers who are just about historical facts. I like reading Marx’s attempt to read history as a sort of transgenerational progression. It’s not that I really believe in it. I always feel that it’s rather like Aristotle who constructs a metaphysics of actuality up to God. Marx is constructing a metaphysics of process in which history is turned generational process of advancement rather than a chapter of accidents. I find there’s a very suspicious but very illuminating idea. There’s some truth in it but it isn’t clear how quite to capture that truth.
JD: Tell me about some philosophers you admire, who are different than you, who think differently than you do, but who inspire, excite, or anger you. If you could have dinner with any philosopher, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
GL: It’s funny. I don’t have any philosophers that anger me. Every great philosopher excites me—partly because of the challenge. If I had to dine with two philosophers, I would choose Hume and Kant, both reputed as great conversationalists so they wouldn’t let me have a word in—frightening. And Plato I would take to Starbucks for coffee because I would be interested to see if the coffee had much effect on him.
JD: 30 years is a long time to be in one place: you must love it here. What are some of your favorite things about UCLA? Why do you love the philosophy department?
: It’s been the most amazing place for me across over 30 years. I’m privileged to belong to it. I love its atmosphere of seriousness and commitment. I think that a lot of this is due to senior colleagues, to David Kaplan, to Tyler Burge, to Barbara Herman, for creating and maintaining this atmosphere.
I want to emphasize the family feel of UCLA. There is this incredible feeling that we are in it together, that we are on an endeavor together. It’s doing a serious subject seriously without competition. It’s incomparable, the seriousness without competition. You can discuss your ideas and receive thoughtful criticism, but always in a constructive way, at the service of your work getting better. It’s important that it’s passed on to the next generation because it really is a beacon in philosophy.
JD: Outside of philosophy, what are your hobbies and passions?
GL: I feel like a real estate agent: philosophy, philosophy, and philosophy. Apart from that . . . opera, traveling. My reading has changed somewhat. I read more historical things: I was always told that this would happen to one as one got older. And it’s true. But occasionally there are certain things I never read as a young person, like George Eliot. I’ve met my level with George Eliot who is just so philosophical. She is to me the most philosophical novelist, a great philosopher. It’s sort of a wonderful world to have opened up to one. Of course there’s Middlemarch but Ramona is what I’m appreciating at the moment; it’s what she loved the most.
JD: What was the question in the philosophy of history that grabbed you then?
GL: I think I’ve always had this trouble about generality and particularity. I didn’t want to be a historian because of the particularness—you know they’re just facts. So I was attracted to generality, but then . . . Thucydides’ message was entirely on writing about human beings forever, but through the particular. And Plato in his dialogues does say the same thing, only kind of in reverse. They’re both jamming up the particular and the general against each other. And perhaps that’s been my deep fascination.
JD: Do you think Hume and Kant would get along over dinner? They’re often pitched as such opponents.
: Oh no. They’re completely congenial. Rousseau—if you added Rousseau to that mix, then you would have a very troubling dinner party. So I would not invite Rousseau—I might go on a solitary walk with him. But it would end up in dispute. He would need to talk all the time. He sees himself as the new Plato, the Plato for the new age, covering all the platonic topics, one by one, and reinterpreting them for the modernists.
But all these guys are just so remarkable. You read them, and it makes you want to cry. When you go back to the history of philosophy, it’s like that. It’s a privilege to read them, it’s a privilege to teach them. And teaching philosophy of politics recently, teaching Kant’s histories of universal cosmopolitanism—it’s just 9 pages of utter brilliance and utter challenge that sets a challenge to German philosophy for the next generations. Both Hegel and Marx rise to the occasion of writing a philosophy of history under the idea of cosmopolitanism.
JD: What do you think of cosmopolitanism?
GL: It’s the only place we have to go to as a human race. We are human; we have to be human together. Some form of cosmopolitanism is inevitable. The United Nations—it tries—it recognizes the commonality of humanity. How exactly best to express the commitment is unclear; you realize that that’s our challenge. But there is no doubt that this is where the human march has to go.
JD: That’s interesting. Do you find looking back that there was a philosopher that when you were young, you didn’t appreciate in a way that you’ve now come to?
GL: Yes. When I was young, I thought that Hume was a sort of mechanical philosopher. He had these sort of tests, and he was kind of mechanical and boring; there was really nothing to be said. But now, I see him as someone caught in a certain sort of psychology of mind, which is absolutely wrong and obviously wrong—but, he never kind of got trapped by it. He was always busting out of it, always asking the deepest questions, within his constraints; it was just remarkable. I think if I had to take one philosopher on a desert island, it would probably be Hume. He’s a remarkable—it’s so rare for a philosopher to mature so young. It’s like a mathematician. His greatest work was done by the time he’s 24. And he’s a challenger, and philosophy is about asking questions. He threw down so many gauntlets.
“It’s the only place we have to go to as a human race. We are human; we have to be human together. Some form of cosmopolitanism is inevitable.”
JD: I’m interested that you say this about Hume because many see him as a skeptic and I think of you as an anti-skeptic.
: [There are] two strands of skepticism, the philosophical strand [and] holistic skepticism.
Hume is a curious bridge. There is skepticism about his whole world picture which is God-dominated, which suggests holistic skepticism. But he’s a naturalist, and within the naturalism, there is no skepticism. I mean, there is, there is only a modest skepticism about how hard it is to find out the real facts in science, and “Have I got the truth?”—that modest skepticism that one might have. “I’ve been describing this life of this caterpillar or this butterfly . . . now, have I got it right?” There’s that, a proper naturalistic skepticism.
JD: An epistemic humility.
GL: Yes, a humility in front of the difficulty of knowledge in that thing. But not humility in front of metaphysical knowledge.
JD: I know you treasure undergraduate teaching. What do you find special about it?
: I love the UCLA undergraduates. I deeply respect the undergraduates because so many of them have to put themselves through their education. I had a very privileged upbringing myself in Oxford and then a privileged initial teaching career, and I was so pleased that my advice was to come to UCLA rather than Harvard, which is like Oxford . . . to come into a big state school and sing my heart out. The undergraduates are so interested. I try to rise to the occasion and to make them interested. I want to inspire them to think for themselves—to be free, which is what philosophy is about. I often say to them in the beginning in the introductory class that it’s very difficult because you’ve been taught subjects where you learn certain facts, but philosophy is about learning to stand in mid-air without any foundation and to feel comfortable there. It’s a very difficult and discombobulating experience.
I once remember Philip Clark, a former graduate student of ours, saying to me that the very best informative course he ever had in his college was something that he didn’t like at the time. And then 5 or 6 years on, he remembered it as the only course that really resonated with him. I bear it in mind constantly. I teach what I think are good values, what I think the kids need to learn, and it will resonate, I hope—if not now, then later.
“It’s incomparable, the seriousness without competition. You can discuss your ideas and receive thoughtful criticism, but always in a constructive way, at the service of your work getting better. It’s important that it’s passed on to the next generation because it really is a beacon in philosophy.”