The following is a conversation with Sean Kelly, a philosopher at Harvard specializing
in existentialism and the philosophy of mind.
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And now, here’s my conversation with Sean Kelly.
Your interests are in postcontinent European philosophy, especially phenomenology and existentialism.
So let me ask, what to you is existentialism?
So it’s a hard question.
I’m teaching a course on existentialism right now.
I am, yeah.
Existentialism in literature and film, which is fun.
I mean, the traditional thing to say about what existentialism is, is that it’s a movement
in mid 20th century, mostly French, some German philosophy, and some of the major figures
associated with it are people like Jean Paul Sartre and Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, maybe
Martin Heidegger, but that’s a weird thing to say about it because most of those people
denied that they were existentialists.
And in fact, I think of it as a movement that has a much longer history.
So when I try to describe what the core idea of existentialism is, it’s an idea that you
find expressed in different ways in a bunch of these people.
One of the ways that it’s expressed is that Sartre will say that existentialism is the
view that there is no God, at least his form of existentialism, he calls it atheistic existentialism.
There is no God.
And since there’s no God, there must be some other being around who does something like
what God does, otherwise there wouldn’t be any possibility for significance in a life.
And that being is us and the feature of us according to Sartre and the other existentialists
that puts us in the position to be able to play that role is that we’re the beings for
whom as Sartre says it, existence precedes essence.
That’s the catchphrase for existentialism and then you have to try to figure out what
What is existence?
What is presence?
And what does precedes mean?
What is existence?
What is essence?
And what is precedes?
And in fact, precedes is Sartre’s way of talking about it and other people will talk about
But here’s the way Sartre thinks about it.
This is not, I think, the most interesting way to think about it, but it gets you started.
Sartre says there’s nothing true about what it is to be you until you start existing and
still use until you start living.
And for Sartre, the core feature of what it is to be existing the way we do is to be making
decisions, to be making choices in your life, to be sort of taking a stand on what it is
to be you by deciding to do this or that.
And the key feature of how to do that right for Sartre is to do it in the full recognition
of the fact that when you make that choice, nobody is responsible for it other than you.
So you don’t make the choice because God tells you to.
You don’t make the choice because some utilitarian calculus about what it’s right to do tells
you to do.
You don’t make the choice because some other philosophical theory tells you to do it.
There’s literally nothing on the basis of which you make the choice other than the fact
that in that moment, you are the one making it.
You are a conscious thinking being that made a decision.
So all of the questions about physics and free will are out the window.
Yeah, that’s right.
If you were a determinist about the mind, if you were a physicalist about the mind,
if you thought there was nothing to your choices other than the activity of the brain that’s
governed by physical laws, then there’s some sense in which it would seem at any rate like
you are not the ground of that choice.
The ground of that choice was the physical universe and the laws that govern it, and
then you’d have no responsibility.
And so Sartre’s view is that the thing that’s special about us used to be special about
God is that we’re responsible for becoming the being that makes the choices that we do.
And Sartre thinks that that’s simultaneously empowering, I mean, it practically puts us
in the place of God, and also terrifying because what responsibility?
How can you possibly take on that responsibility?
And he thinks it’s worse than that.
He thinks that it’s always happening, everything that you do is the result of some choice that
you’ve made, the posture that you sit in, the way you hold someone’s gaze when you’re
having a conversation with them or not, the choice to make a note when someone says something
or not make a note.
Everything that you do presents you as a being who makes decisions and you’re responsible
for all of them.
So it’s constantly happening.
And furthermore, there’s no fact about you independent of the choices and actions you’ve
So you don’t get to say, Sartre’s example, I really am a great writer, just haven’t written
my great book yet.
If you haven’t written your great book, you’re not a great writer.
And so it’s terrifying, it puts a huge burden on us, and that’s why Sartre says on his view
of existentialism, human beings are the beings that are condemned to be free.
Our freedom consists in our ability and our responsibility to make these choices and to
become someone through making them.
And we can’t get away from that.
But to him, it’s terrifying not liberating in the positive meaning of the word liberating.
Well, so he thinks it should be liberating, but he thinks that it takes a very courageous
individual to be liberated by it.
Nietzsche, I think, thought something similar.
I think Sartre is really coming out of a Nietzschean sort of tradition.
But what’s liberating about it, if it is, is also terrifying because it means in a certain
way, you’re the ground of your own being.
You become what you do through existing.
So that’s one form of existentialism, that’s a stark atheistic version of it.
There’s lots of other versions, but it’s somehow organized around the idea that it’s through
living your life that you become who you are.
It’s not facts that are sort of true about you independent of your living your life.
But then there’s no God in that view.
Does any of the decisions matter?
So how does existentialism differ from nihilism?
So it’s two different ways that you’re asking it.
Let me leave nihilism to the side for just a second and think about mattering or is there
any way that you can criticize someone for living the way they do if you’re in existentialism?
Sartre addresses that and he says, yes, he says, there is a criticism that you can make
of yourself or of others and it’s the criticism of living in such a way as to fail to take
responsibility for your choices.
He gives these two sort of amazing examples.
I don’t know if it reads as well for us as it did in sort of mid 20th century Paris,
but it’s about a waiter.
He gives this in his big book, Being and Nothingness.
And he says, so waiters played, still do I think in a certain way in Paris, a big role
in Parisian society.
To be a waiter involved having a certain kind of identity, being a certain way, taking control
of and charge of the experience of the people that you’re waiting on, but also really being
the authority, knowing that this is the way it’s supposed to go.
And so Sartre imagines a waiter who does everything that a waiter is supposed to do, the perfect
form of the waiter, except that you can somehow see in the way he’s doing it that he’s doing
it because he believes that’s the way a waiter should act.
So there’s some sense in which he’s passing off the responsibility for his actions onto
some idea of what those actions should be.
He’s not taking responsibility for it.
He’s sort of playing a role and the contours of the role are predetermined by someone other
So he starts as acting in bad faith and that’s criticizable because it’s acting in such a
way as to fail to take responsibility for the kind of being Sartre thinks you are.
So you’re not taking responsibility.
So that’s one example.
And I think any teenager, if you’ve ever met a teenager, you’ve known someone who does
Teenagers try on roles.
They think, if I dressed like this, I would be cool.
So I’ll dress like this, or if I spoke like this, or acted like this.
And it’s natural for a teenager who’s trying to figure out what their identity is to go
through a phase like that.
But if you continue to do that, then you’re really passing it.
So that’s one example.
And the other example he gives is an example not of passing off responsibility by pretending
that someone else is the ground of your choice, but passing off responsibility by pretending
that you might be able to get away with not making a choice at all.
So he says, everything you do is a result of your choices.
And so he gives this other example.
Where you are on the first date, first date.
And the date, the evening reaches moments when it might be appropriate for one person
to hold the hand of the other.
That’s the moment in the date where you are.
And so you make a choice.
You decide, I think it’s that time, and you hold the hand.
And what should happen is that the other person also makes a choice on Sartre’s view.
Either they reject the hand, not that time, and I’m taking responsibility for that, or
they grasp the hand back.
That’s a choice.
But there’s a thing that sometimes happens, which is that the other person leaves the
hand there cold, dead, and clammy, neither rejecting it nor embracing it.
And Sartre says, that’s also bad faith, that’s also acting as if we’re a kind of being that
we’re not, because it pretends that it’s possible not to make a choice.
And we’re the beings who are always making choices.
That was a choice.
And you’re pretending as if it’s the kind of thing that you don’t have to take responsibility
So both of the examples you’ve given, there’s some sense in which the social interactions
between humans is a kind of moving away from the full responsibility that you as a human
in the view of existentialism should take on.
So isn’t the basic conversation, a delegation of responsibility, just holding a hand there,
you’re putting some of the responsibility into the court of the other person.
And for the waiter, if you exist in a society, you are generally trying on a role.
I mean, all of us are trying on a role.
Me wearing clothes is me trying on a role that I was told to try, as opposed to walking
around naked all the time.
There’s standards of how you operate, and that’s a decision that’s not my own.
It’s me seeing what everyone else is doing and copying them.
So Sartre thinks that in the ideal, you should try to resist that.
Other existentialists think that that’s actually a clue to how you should live well.
So Sartre says somewhere else, hell is other people.
Why is hell other people for Sartre?
Well, because other people are making choices also.
And when other people make choices, they put some pressure on me to think that the choice
they made is one that I should copy or one that I should promote.
But if I do it because they did it, then I’m in bad faith for Sartre.
So it is as if Sartre’s view is like, we would be better if we were all alone.
I mean, this is really simplifying Sartre’s position, and this is really just mostly Sartre
in a certain period of his formation.
But anyhow, we can imagine that view.
And I think there’s something to the idea that Sartre is attracted to it, at least in
the mid 40s.
Can you dig into hell as other people?
Is there some, obviously, it’s kind of almost like a literary, like you push the point strongly
to really explore that point.
But is there some sense in that other people ruin the experience of what it means to be
I think for Sartre, the phenomenon is this, like, it’s not just that you wear clothes
because people wear clothes in our society, like you have a particular style, you wear
a particular kind of clothes.
And for Sartre, like to have that style authentically, in good faith, rather than in bad faith, it
has to come from you, you have to make the choice.
But other people are making choices also, and like, you’re looking at their choices
and you’re thinking, that guy looks good, maybe I could try that one on.
And if you try it on because you were influenced by the fact that you thought that guy was
doing it well, then there’s some important sense in which, although that’s a resource
for a choice for you, it’s also acting in bad faith.
And God wouldn’t do that, right?
God wouldn’t be influenced by other’s decisions, and if that’s the model, then I think that’s
the sense in which he thinks hell is other people.
What do you think parenting is then?
It’s like, what, because God doesn’t have a parent, so aren’t we significantly influenced,
first of all, in the first few years of life, and even the teenager is resisting, like,
learning through resistance.
I mean, I think what you’re pushing on is the intuition that the ideal that Sartre’s
aiming at is a kind of inhuman ideal.
I mean, there’s many ways in which we’re not like the traditional view of what God was.
One is that we’re not self generating, we have parents, we were raised into traditions
and social norms, and we’re raised into an understanding of what’s appropriate and inappropriate
And I think that’s a deep intuition.
I think that’s exactly right.
Martin Heidegger, who’s the philosopher that Sartre thinks he’s sort of taking this from,
but I think Sartre’s a kind of brilliant French misinterpretation of Heidegger’s German phenomenological
view, Heidegger says, a crucial aspect of what it is to be us is our thrownness.
We’re thrown into a situation, we’re thrown into history, we’re thrown into our parental
lineage, and we don’t choose it.
That’s stuff that we don’t choose, we couldn’t choose.
If we were God and we existed outside of time, maybe, but we’re not.
We’re finite in the sense that we have a beginning that we never chose.
We have an end that we’re often trying to resist or put off or something, and in between
there’s a whole bunch of stuff that organizes us without our ever having made the choice
and without the kind of being that could make the choice to allow it to organize us.
We have a complicated relationship to that stuff, and I think we should talk about that
at a certain point.
But the first move is to say, Sartre’s just got a sort of descriptive problem.
He’s missed this basic fact that there has to be an awful lot about us that’s settled
without our having made the choice to settle it that way.
Right, the thrownness of life.
That’s a fundamental part of life, you can’t just escape it.
You can’t escape it altogether.
You can’t escape it altogether.
But nevertheless, you are riding a wave and you make a decision in the riding of the wave.
You can’t control the wave, but you should be, as you ride it, you should be making certain
kinds of decisions and take responsibility for it.
So why does this matter at all, the chain of decisions you make?
Well, because they constitute you.
They make you the person that you are.
So what’s the opposite view?
What’s this view against?
This view is against most of philosophy from Plato forward.
Plato says in the Republic, it’s a kind of myth, but he says, people will understand
their condition well if we tell them this myth.
He says, look, when you’re born, there’s just a fact about you.
Your soul is either gold, silver, or bronze.
Those are the three kinds of people there are, and you’re born that way.
And if your soul is gold, then we should identify that and make you a philosopher king.
And if your soul is silver, well, you’re not gonna be a philosopher king.
You’re not capable of it, but you could be a good warrior and we should make you that.
And if your soul is bronze, then you should be a farmer, laborer, something like that.
And that’s a fact about you that identifies you forever and for always, independent of
anything you do about it.
And so that’s the alternative view.
And you could have modern versions of it.
You could say the thing that identifies you is your IQ or your genetic makeup or the percentage
of fast switch muscle fibers you’ve got or whatever, it could be something totally independent
of any choice that you’ve made, independent of the kind of thing about which you could
make a choice and it categorizes you.
It makes you the person that you are.
That’s the thing that Sartre and the existentialists are against.
So this idea that something about you is forever limiting the space of possible decisions you
Sartre says, no, the space is unlimited.
Sartre is the philosopher of radical freedom.
Yeah, radical freedom.
And then you could have other existentialists who say, look, we are free, but we gotta understand
the way in which our freedom is limited by certain aspects of the kind of being that
If we were radically free, we really would be like God in the traditional medieval sense.
And sort of these folks start with the idea that whatever we are, that’s a kind of limit
point that we’re not gonna reach.
So what are the ways in which we’re constrained that that being the way the medieval’s understood
him wasn’t constrained?
So can you maybe comment on what is nihilism and is it at all a useful other sort of group
of ideas that you resist against in defining existentialism?
So nihilism, the philosopher who made the term popular, although it was used before
him as Nietzsche, Nietzsche’s writing in the end of the 19th century, in various places
where he published things, but largely in his unpublished works, he identifies the condition
of the modern world as nihilistic, and that’s a descriptive claim.
He’s looking around him, trying to figure out what it’s like to be us now, and he says
it’s a lot different from what it was like to be human in 1300 or in the 5th century
In 1300, like what people believed, the way they lived their lives was in the understanding
that to be human was to be created in the image and likeness of God.
That’s the way they understood themselves.
And also to be created sinful because of Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden,
and to have the project of trying to understand how, as a sinful being, you could nevertheless
live a virtuous life.
How could you do that?
And it had to do with, for them, getting in the right relation to God.
Nietzsche says that doesn’t make sense to us anymore in the end of the 19th century.
God is dead, says Nietzsche famously.
And what does that mean?
Well, it means something like the role that God used to play in our understanding of ourselves
as a culture isn’t a role that God can play anymore.
And so Nietzsche says the role that God used to play was the role of grounding our existence.
He was what it is in virtue of which we are who we are.
And Nietzsche says the idea that there is a being that makes us what we are doesn’t
make sense anymore.
It’s like Sartre’s atheism, Sartre is taking that from Nietzsche.
And so the question is, what does ground our existence?
And the answer is Nihil, nothing.
And so nihilism is the idea that there’s nothing outside of us that grounds our existence.
And then Nietzsche asked the question, well, what are we supposed to do about that?
How do we live?
And I think Nietzsche has a different story than Sartre about that.
Nietzsche doesn’t emphasize this notion of radical freedom.
Nietzsche emphasizes something else.
He says, we’re artists of life.
And artists are interesting because the natural way of thinking about artists is that they’re
responding to something.
They find themselves in a situation and they say, this is what’s going to make sense of
This is what I have to write.
This is the way I have to dance.
This is the way I’ve got to play the music.
And Nietzsche says, we should live like that.
There are constraints, but understanding what they are is a complicated aspect of living
And there’s a great story, I think, from music that maybe helps to understand this.
I think Nietzsche, of course, jazz didn’t exist when Nietzsche was writing, but I think
Nietzsche really is thinking of something like jazz improvisation.
He talks about improvisation, there’s classical improvisation.
Nietzsche was, by the way, a musician.
He was a composer and a pianist, not a great one, really, to be fair, but he loved music.
And Herbie Hancock, who’s a pianist, a jazz pianist, who played with Miles Davis for quite
a while in the 60s, tells this kind of incredible story that I think exemplifies Nietzsche’s
view about the way in which we bear some responsibility for being creative and that gives us a certain
kind of freedom, but we don’t have the radical freedom that Sartre thinks.
So what’s the story?
Herbie Hancock says, I think they were in Stuttgart, he says, playing a show and things
were great, he says.
He’s a young pianist and Miles Davis is the master.
And he says, I’m back in the solo and I’m playing these chords.
And he says, I played this chord and it was the wrong chord.
He’s like, that’s what you got to say, it didn’t work right there.
And I thought, holy mackerel, I screwed up, I screwed up.
We were tight, everything was working and I blew it for Miles, who’s doing his solo.
And he said, Miles paused for a moment and then all of a sudden he went on in a way that
made my chord right.
And I think that idea that you could be an artist who responds to what’s thrown at you
in such a way as to make it right, by what measure?
Everyone could hear it, is all you can say, right?
Everyone knew, wow, that really works.
And I think that’s not like, there are constraints, not anything would have worked there.
He couldn’t have just played anything.
Most of what anyone would have played would have sounded terrible.
But the constraints aren’t preexisting, they’re what’s happening now in the moment for these
listeners and these performers.
And I think that’s what Nietzsche thinks the right response to nihilism is, we’re involved,
but we’re not radically free to make any choice and just stand behind it the way Sartre thinks.
Our choices have to be responsive to our situation and they have to make the situation work.
They have to make it right.
And there’s something about music too, so you basically have to make music of all the
moments of life.
And there is something about music, why is music so compelling?
And when you listen to it, something about certain kinds of music, it connects with you.
It doesn’t make any sense.
But in that same way, for Nietzsche, you should be a creative force that creates a musical
And I think what’s interesting is the question, what does it mean to be a creative force there?
There’s a traditional notion of creation that we associate with God.
God creates ex nihilo, out of nothing.
And you might think that nihilism thinks that we should do that, create ex nihilo, because
it’s about how there’s nothing at our ground.
But I think the right way to read Nietzsche is to recognize that we don’t create out of
Miles Davis wasn’t nothing, that situation preexisted him, it was given to him.
Maybe by accident, maybe it was a mistake, whatever, but he was responding to that situation
in a way that made it right.
He wasn’t just creating out of nothing, he was creating out of what was already there.
So that makes that first date with the climbing hand even more complicated because you’re
given a climbing hand, you’re going to have to make art and music out of that.
That’s the responsibility for both of them.
Wow, that’s a lot of responsibility for a first date because you have to create.
The emphasis isn’t just on making decisions, it’s on creating.
But also on listening, right?
I mean, Miles Davis was listening.
He heard that.
He knew it was wrong.
And the question was, what do I play that makes it right?
So let me ask about Nietzsche, is God dead?
What did he mean by that statement?
In your sense, the truth behind the question and the possible set of answers that our world
So, I mean, I think that there’s something super perceptive about Nietzsche’s diagnosis
of the condition at the end of the 19th century.
So not so far from the condition that I think we’re currently in.
And I think there’s an interesting question what we’re supposed to do in response.
But what is the condition that we’re currently in?
When Nietzsche says God is dead, I think, like I was saying before, he means something
like the role that God used to play in grounding our existence is not a role that works for
us anymore as a culture.
And when people talk about a view like that nowadays, they use a different terminology,
but I think it’s roughly what Nietzsche was aiming at.
They say we live in a secular age.
Our age is a secular age.
And so what do people mean when they say that?
I think, first of all, it’s a descriptive claim.
It could be wrong.
The question is, does this really describe the way we experience ourselves as a culture
or as a culture in the West or wherever it is that we are?
So what does it mean to say that we live in a secular age, an age in which God is dead?
Well, the first thing is it doesn’t mean there are no religious believers because there are
There are people who go to church or synagogue or mosque every week or more, and there are
people who really find that to be an important aspect of the way they live their lives.
But it does mean that for those people, the role that their religious belief plays in
their life isn’t the same as it used to be in previous ages.
So what’s that role?
We’ll go back to the high middle ages.
That was clearly not a secular age.
That was a religious age.
And so there we are in 1300, Dante is writing The Divine Comedy or something.
And what did it mean then to live in a sacred age?
Well, it meant not just that the default was that you were a Christian in the West, but
that your Christianity, your religious belief, your religious affiliation justified certain
assumptions about people who didn’t share that religious belief.
So you’re a Christian in the West in 1300, and you meet someone who’s a Muslim, and the
fact that they don’t share your religious belief justifies the conclusion that they’re
less than human.
And that was the ground of the Crusades.
That was the religious wars of the high middle ages.
To say that we live in a secular age is to say that, not that there aren’t a lot of people
who have religious belief, there are, but it’s to say that their religious belief doesn’t
justify that conclusion.
If you’re a religious believer and you meet me and suppose I’m not a religious believer,
concerning that about me doesn’t justify your concluding that I’m less than human.
And that’s the kind of liberalism of the modern age.
Most of the time we think that’s a good thing.
We let a thousand flowers bloom.
There are lots of ways to live a good life.
And there’s some way in which that is a nice progressive kind of liberal thought.
But it’s also true that it’s an undermining thought because it means if you’re a religious
believer now, your belief can’t ground your understanding of what you ought to be aiming
at in the life in the way it used to be able to.
You can’t say, as a religious believer, I know it’s right to do this.
Because you also know that if you meet someone who doesn’t share that religious belief and
so doesn’t think it’s right to do that necessarily or does, but for different reasons, you can’t
conclude that they’ve got it wrong.
So there’s this sort of unsettling aspect to it.
Well, isn’t it true that you can’t conclude as a public statement to others, but within
your own mind, it’s almost like an existentialist version of belief, which is like you create
the world and around you, like it doesn’t matter what others believe.
It’s actually almost like empowering thought.
So as opposed to the more traditional view of religion, where it’s like a tribal idea,
like where you share that idea together.
Here you have the full, back to Sartre, full responsibility of your beliefs as well.
But what you’re describing is not a religious believer, right?
You’re describing someone who’s found in themselves the ground of their existence rather than
in something outside of themselves.
So the religious belief, I mean, if you go full Sartrean, then, well, you’re not in a
position to criticize others for the choices that they make, but you are in a position
to criticize them for the way in which they make them, either taking responsibility or
not taking responsibility.
But the religious believer used to be able to say, look, the choices that I make are
right because God demands that I make them.
And nowadays, and so it would be wrong to make any others.
And nowadays, to say that we live in a secular age, say, well, you can’t quite do that and
be a religious believer.
Your religious belief can’t justify that move, and so it can’t ground your life in the way
So it’s sort of unsettling.
I think that’s one of the interpretations of what Nietzsche might have meant when he
said God is dead.
God can’t play the role for religious believers in our world that he used to.
But we nevertheless find meaning.
I mean, you don’t see nihilism as a prevalent set of ideas that are overtaken in modern
So a secular world is still full of meaning.
Well, I think that’s the interesting question.
I think it’s certainly possible for a secular world to be a world in which we live meaningful
lives, worthwhile lives, lives that are worthy of respect and that we can be proud of aiming
But I think it is a hard question what we’re doing when we do that.
And that is the question of existence.
What does it mean to exist in a way that brings us out at our best as the beings that we are?
That’s the question for existentialism.
So besides Sartre, who to you is the most important existentialist to understand for
What ideas in particular of theirs do you like?
Maybe other existentialists, not just one.
So Sartre is the grounding, strong atheistic existentialism statement.
Who else is there?
So I’m teaching an existentialism course now, and I think the tradition goes back at least
to the 17th century.
And I’ll just tell you some of the figures that I’m teaching there.
We can talk about any of them that you like.
The figure I start with is Pascal.
Pascal, French mathematician from 17th century.
He died, I’m terrible with dates, but I think 1661 or something like that, middle of the
Brilliant polymath, we have computer languages named after him.
He built the first mechanical calculating machine.
But he was also deeply invested in his understanding of what Christianity was.
And he thought that everyone before him had really misunderstood what Christianity was,
that they’d really attempted to think about it, not as a way of living a life, but as
a set of beliefs that you can have and which you can justify.
And I think that’s the first move that’s really pretty interesting.
And then figures like Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky developed that move.
All of those take themselves to be defending an interpretation of a certain kind of Christianity,
an existential interpretation of Christianity.
And then I think there are other figures, other theistic figures, figures like Camus
and Fanon, who are mid 20th century figures.
And then I’ll just mention the figure who I think is the most interesting is Martin
He’s a complicated figure because…
By the way, when you said, sorry to interrupt, that when you said Camus, you meant atheistic?
I think that Camus is an atheistic existentialist, yeah, I’m happy to talk about that.
So okay, so we got, it’s like sports cards, we have the different existentialists.
So maybe let’s go to…
You know what?
Let’s go to Dostoevsky.
Okay, let’s do it.
So my favorite novel of his is The Idiot.
First of all, I see myself as the idiot and an idiot.
And I love the optimism and the love the main character has for the world.
So that just deeply connects with me as a novel.
It comes from underground as well, but what ideas of Dostoevsky’s do you think are existentialists?
What ideas are formative to the whole existentialist movement?
So let me talk about The Brothers Karamazov.
Partly because that’s the last novel that Dostoevsky wrote.
I think it’s certainly one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, maybe the best.
And I’m about to teach it in a few weeks.
So I’m super excited about it.
What is The Brothers Karamazov about?
I mean, without spoiling the ending for anyone.
I mean, look, it’s a murder mystery, right?
I mean, the father gets murdered.
And the question is, who did it?
Who’s responsible for it?
So there’s a notion of responsibility here, like in Sartre.
But it’s responsibility for a murder, that’s what we’re talking about.
And there’s a bunch of brothers, each of whom has pretty good motivation for having murdered
The father’s a jerk.
I mean, if anybody is worthy of being murdered, he’s the guy.
He’s a force of chaos and he’s nasty in all sorts of ways.
But still, it’s not good to murder people.
So what’s the view of Dostoevsky?
I mean, it’s this intense exploration of what it means to be involved in various ways with
an activity that everyone can recognize as atrocious.
And what the right way is to take responsibility for that?
What the right way is to relate to others in the face of it?
And how, even through this kind of action, you can achieve some kind of salvation.
That’s Dostoevsky’s word for it.
But salvation here and now, not like you live some afterlife where you’re paradise for eternity.
Who cares about that, says one of the characters.
That doesn’t make my life now any good and it doesn’t justify any of the bad things that
happen in my life now.
What matters is can we live well in the face of these things that we do and have to take
So it’s this intense exploration of notions and gradations of guilt and responsibility
and the possibility of love and salvation in the face of those.
It is incredibly human work.
But I think Dostoevsky is the opposite of Sartre.
And let me just…
I think it’s so fascinating.
I don’t know anybody else who notices this.
But Sartre actually quotes a passage from Dostoevsky when he’s developing his view.
It’s close to a passage.
It doesn’t appear quite in this way.
But the passage that Sartre quotes is this.
It’s in the form of an argument.
Sartre puts it in the form of argument.
He says, look, there’s a conditional statement is true.
If there is no God, then everything is permitted.
And then there’s a second premise.
There is no God.
That’s Sartre’s view.
I mean, he’s an atheist.
There is no God.
Conclusion, everything is permitted.
And that’s Sartre’s radical freedom.
And if you think about the structure of the Brothers Karamazov, I think Dostoevsky, though
he never says it this way, would run the argument differently.
It’s a modus tollens instead of a modus ponens.
The argument for Dostoevsky would go like this.
Yeah, conditional statement, if there is no God, then everything is permitted.
But look at your life.
Not everything is permitted.
You do horrible, atrocious things like be involved in the death of your father.
And there is a price to pay.
That’s not a livable moment to have to take responsibility, to have to recognize that
you’re at fault or you’re somehow guilty for having been involved in whatever way you were
in letting that happen or bringing it about that it does happen, is to pay a price.
So we’re not beings that are constituted in such a way that everything is permitted.
Look at the facts of your existence.
So not everything is permitted.
Therefore there is a God.
And the presence of a God for Dostoevsky, I think, is just found in this fact that when
we do bad things, we feel guilty for them, that we find ourselves to be responsible for
things even when we didn’t intend to do them, but we just allowed ourselves to be involved
And the nature of God for Dostoevsky is, I mean, unclear.
I mean, it’s a very complex exploration in itself.
And he basically, God speaks through several of his characters in complicated ways.
So it’s not like a trivial version of God.
It’s totally not trivial.
And it’s not a being that exists outside of time.
None of that is sort of relevant for Dostoevsky.
For him, it’s a question about how we live our lives.
Do we live our lives in the mood that Christianity says it makes available to us, which is the
mood of joy?
Is there, maybe this is a bit of a tangent, but so I’m a Russian speaker and one of the,
I kind of listen to my heart and what my heart says is I need to take on this project.
So there’s a couple of famous translators of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy that live in Paris
So I’m going to take the journey.
We agreed to have a full conversation about Dostoevsky, about Tolstoy and like a series
And the reason I fell in love with this idea is I just realized in translating from Russian
to English how deep philosophical, how much deep philosophical thinking is required.
Just like single sentences.
They spent like weeks debating single sentences.
So and all of that is part of a journey to Russia for several reasons.
But I just, I want to explore something in me that longs to understand and to connect
with the roots where I come from.
So maybe can you comment, whether it’s on the Russian side or the German side or other
French side, is there something in your own explorations of these philosophies that you
find that you miss because you don’t deeply know the language?
Or like how important is it to understand the language?
I think it’s super important and I’m always embarrassed that I don’t know more languages
and don’t know the languages I know as well as I would like to.
But there’s a way in.
So I do think different languages allow you to think in different ways and that there’s
a sort of a mode of existence, a way of being that’s captured by a language that it makes
certain ways of thinking about yourself or others more natural and it closes off other
ways of thinking about yourself and others.
And so I think languages are fascinating in that way.
The Heidegger who is this philosopher that I’m interested in says at one point, language
is the house of being.
And I think that means something like it’s by living in a language that you come to understand
or that possibilities for understanding what it is to be you and others and anything are
And different languages open up different possibilities.
And we had that discussion offline about James Joyce, how I took a course in James Joyce
and how I don’t think I understood anything besides the dead and the short stories.
And you suggested that it might be helpful to actually visit Ireland, visit Dublin to
truly to help you understand, maybe fall in love with the words.
And so that presumably is not purely about the understanding of the actual words of the
It’s understanding something much deeper, the music of the language or something, music
of the ideas.
Something like that.
It’s very hard to say exactly what that is.
But when you hear an Irish person who really understands Joyce read some sentences, they
have a different cadence, they have a different tonality, they have different music to use
And all of a sudden you think about them differently and the sentences sort of draw different thoughts
out of you when they’re read in certain ways.
That’s what great actors can do.
But I think language is rich like that.
And the idea which philosophers tend to have that we’re really studying the crucial aspects
of language when we think about its logical form, when we think about the sort of claims
of philosophical logic that you can make or how do you translate this proposition into
some symbolic form, I think that’s part of what goes on in language.
But I think that when language affects us in the deep way that it can when great poets
or great writers or great thinkers use it to great effect, it’s way more than that.
And that’s the interesting form of language that I’m interested in.
It’s kind of a challenge I’m hoping to take on is I feel like some of the ideas that are
conveyed through language are actually can be put outside of language.
So one of the challenges I have to do is to have a conversation with people in Russian,
but for an English audience and not rely purely on translators.
There would of course be translators there that help me dance through this mess of language,
but also like my goal, my hope is to dance from Russian to English back and forth for
an English speaking audience and for a Russian speaking audience.
So not this pure, this is Russian, it’s going to be translated to English or this is English,
it’s going to be translated to Russian, but dance back and forth and try to share with
people who don’t speak one of the languages, the music that they’re missing and sort of
almost hear that music as if you’re sitting in another room and you hear the music through
I get a sense of it.
I think that would be a waste if I don’t try to pursue this being a bilingual human being.
And I wonder whether it’s possible to capture some of the magic of the ideas in a way that
can be conveyed to people who don’t speak that particular language.
I think it’s a super exciting project.
I look forward to following it.
I’ll tell you one thing that does happen.
So we read Dostoevsky in translation.
Occasionally I do have Russian speakers in the room, which is super helpful, but I also
encourage my students to, some of them will have different translations than others.
And that can be really helpful for the non native speaker because by paying attention
to the places where translators diverge in their translations of a given word or a phrase
or something like that, you can start to get the idea that somehow the words that we have
in English, they don’t have the same contours as the word in Russian that’s being translated.
And then you can start to ask about what those differences are.
And I think there’s a kind of magic to it.
I mean, it’s astonishing how rich and affecting these languages can be for people who grew
up in them, especially who speak them as native speakers.
And that’s a really powerful thing that actually doesn’t exist enough of is, for example, for
Dostoevsky, most novels have been translated by two or three famous translators.
And there’s a lot of discussion about who did it better and so on.
But I would love to, I’m a computer science person, I would love to do a diff where you
automatically detect all the differences in the translation just as you’re saying and
use that, like somebody needs to publish literally just books describing the differences.
In fact, I’ll probably do a little bit of this.
I heard the individual translators in interviews and in blog posts and articles discuss particular
phrases that they differ on, but like to do that for an entire book, that’s a fascinating
exploration as an English speaker, just to read the differences in the translations.
You probably can get some deep understanding of ideas in those books by seeing the struggle
of the translators to capture that idea.
That’s a really interesting idea.
And you can do that for other projects and other languages too.
I mean, one of the, I don’t know, I have this weird, huge range of interests and some days
I’ll find myself reading about something.
At one point I was interested in 14th century German mysticism.
Turns out there’s somebody who’s written like volumes and volumes about this.
And I was interested in reading Meister Eckhart.
I wanted to know what was interesting about him.
And the sort of move that this guy Bernard McGinn, who’s the great scholar of this period
made, was to say what Eckhart did, and everybody knows this, he translated Christianity into
He started giving sermons in German to the peasants, sermons used to be in Latin and
nobody could speak Latin.
Can you imagine sitting there for a two hour sermon in a language that you don’t know?
So he translated it into German, but in doing it, the resources of the German language are
different from the resources of the Latin language.
Then there’s a word in middle high German, Grund, which we translated as ground.
And it’s got this earthy feel to it.
It sort of invokes the notion of soil and what you stand on and what things grow out
of and sort of what you could run your fingers through that would have a kind of honesty
And there’s no Latin word for that.
But in Eckhart’s interpretation of Christianity, Grund, that’s like the fundamental thing.
You don’t understand God until you understand the way in which he is our ground.
And all of a sudden, this mysticism gets a kind of German cant that makes sense to the
people who speak German and that reveals something totally different about what you could think
that form of existence was that was covered over by the fact that it had always been done
Yeah, that’s fascinating.
So we talked about Dostoevsky and the use of murder to explore human nature.
Let’s go to Camus, who is maybe less concerned with murder, more concerned with suicide as
a way to explore human nature.
So he is probably my favorite existentialist, probably one of the more accessible existentialists.
And like you said, one of the people who didn’t like to call himself an existentialist.
So what are your thoughts about Camus?
What role does he play in the story of existentialism?
So I find Camus totally fascinating.
I really do.
And for years, I didn’t teach Camus because the famous thing that you’re referring to,
The Myth of Sisyphus, which is a sort of essay, it’s published as a book, super accessible,
He’s a great writer, really engaging.
The opening line is something like, there is but one truly significant philosophical
question, and that is the question of suicide.
And I thought, I can’t teach my 18 year olds.
I just thought that’s terrible.
How can I…
I mean, it’s not wrong, but do I want to bring that into the classroom?
And so I read it, I read the essay, I avoided it for a long time just because of that line.
And I thought, I’m not going to be able to make sense of this in a way that will be helpful
But finally, one year, maybe seven or eight years ago, I sat down to read it.
I thought, I’ve got to really confront it.
And I read it and it’s incredibly engaging.
I mean, it’s really, really beautiful.
And Camus was against suicide, which just turns out to be good.
I was happy about that, but he has a bit of a bleak understanding of what human existence
And so in the end, he thinks that human existence is absurd.
And absurd is a kind of technical term for him.
And it means that the episodes in your life and your life as a whole presents itself to
you as if it’s got a meaning, but really it doesn’t.
So there’s this tension between the way things seem to be on their surface and what really
turns out to be true about them.
And he gives these great examples.
You probably remember these.
He says, there you are, you’re walking along the street and there’s a plate glass window
in a building and through the window you see somebody talking on a telephone.
I mean, I imagined it as a cell phone, but Camus didn’t, but you see somebody talking
on a cell phone and he’s animated.
He’s talking a lot as if things really meant something.
And yet Camus says, it’s a dumb show.
And it’s not dumb just in the sense that it’s stupid.
It’s dumb in the sense that it’s silent.
It presents itself as if it’s got some significance and yet its significance is withheld from
And he says, that’s what our lives are like.
Everything in our lives presents themselves to us as if it’s got a significance, but it
doesn’t, it’s absurd.
And then he says, really what our lives are like, they’re like the lives of Sisyphus.
Just day after day, you do the same thing.
You wake up at a certain time, you get on the bus, you go to work, you take your lunch
break, you get off.
I have a colleague who once said to me something like this, it was about October or so in the
I said, how’s it going, Dick?
He said, well, you know how it is.
I got on the conveyor belt at the beginning of the semester and I’m just going through
and that’s the way my life is.
And Camus thinks that experience, which you can sometimes have, reveals something true
about what human lives are like.
Our lives really just are like the life of Sisyphus who rolls this boulder up the hill
from morning till night.
And then at night he gets to the top and it rolls back down to the bottom.
Over the course of the night, he walks back down and then he starts it all over again.
And he says, Sisyphus is condemned to this life like we’re condemned to our lives.
But we do have one bit of freedom and it’s the only thing that we can hang on to.
It’s the freedom to stick it to the gods who put us in this position by embracing this
existence rather than giving up and committing suicide.
And I thought, well, it’s kind of a happy ending.
But I also thought it’s a dim view of what our existence amounts to.
So I think there’s something fascinating about that.
But what I came to believe, and I tried to write about this once, I know you read the
thing about aliveness that I published once, that’s secretly a criticism of Camus.
I don’t think I mentioned Camus in there.
But I think Camus has got the phenomenon wrong or he’s missed some important aspect of it.
Because in Camus view, when you experience your day as sort of going on in this deadening
way and you’re just doing the things that you always do the way you always do them,
for Camus, that reveals the truth about what our lives are.
But I think there’s some aspect, at least for me, and maybe he just didn’t feel this
or didn’t have access to it, maybe others don’t.
But for me, there’s an extra part to it, which is somehow that, yes, that’s the way
things are and it’s inadequate.
And there’s something that’s missing from that aspect of our existence that could be
And it feels like our lives are not about just putting up with that and sticking it
to the gods by embracing it, but seeking that absence part of it, the part that’s recognizable
in its absence in your experience of that.
And that’s what I think.
I think we do have the experience of the presence of that in moments when you feel truly alive.
And that’s what you mean by the word aliveness, which is a fascinating and a powerful word.
Yeah, that’s what I mean by it.
I think most people can recognize moments in their lives when they really felt alive.
And it could happen in a moment when, I don’t know, maybe Miles Davis felt it in that moment
when he was responding to Herbie Hancock’s chord, or maybe you feel it in that moment
where you grab for the hand on the first date and the gesture is reciprocated, or maybe
you feel it in some moment when you are doing a kind of peak athletic thing or watching
somebody else do a peak athletic thing.
But I think there are moments when it feels like it’s not like the way Camus is describing
And it’s better because of that.
So I think one really powerful way for me to understand aliveness is to think about
going to a darker territory, is to think about suicide.
And I’ve known people in my life who suffer from clinical depression.
And whatever the chemistry is in our brain, there is a certain kind of feeling that is
to be depressed, where you look in the mirror and ask, do I want to kill myself today?
This is the question that Camus asks, this question, this philosophical question.
And there is people who, when they’re depressed, say, not only do they say, I want to kill
myself or I don’t, they say, it doesn’t matter.
And that’s chemistry, that’s whatever that is, that’s chemistry in our mind.
And then on the flip side of that, for me, I’ve had some low points, but I’ve been very
fortunate to not suffer from that kind of depression.
I am the opposite, which is not only moments of peak performance in athletics or great
music or any of that, I’m just deeply joyful often by mundane things.
As you were saying it, I was drinking this thing and it’s cold, and for some reason the
coldness of that was like, oh, great, like refrigeration.
I don’t know.
There was a joy in that, like, I can’t put it into words, but it just felt great.
And then just so many things, you look out in nature, there’s a nice breeze and just
like, it’s amazing.
So that doesn’t feel like I’m embracing the absurd.
That seems like I’m getting some nice like dopamine hits in whatever the chemistry is
from just the basics of life, and that is the source of aliveness.
However my brain is built, it’s gotten a natural sort of mechanism for aliveness.
And so one nice way to see the absence of aliveness is to look at the chemical, the
And so that Camus doesn’t seem to contend with that at all in asking the question of
suicide because when you look in the mirror and ask, like, if I ask myself, do I want
to kill myself today, I ask that question in a different way, more like a stoic way
often, like basically every day is, you know, what if I die today?
It’s more like contemplating your mortality every single day.
You know, that excites me, the possibility that this is my last day, that, you know,
it just reminds me how amazing life is.
And that’s chemistry, I don’t know what that is, but that’s not, that’s certainly not some
kind of philosophical decision I made.
I am a little bit riding a wave of the chemistry of the genetics I’ve been given, of the dopamine.
So that question of suicide, by the way, do you find that formulation of the question
of existentialism, I know you didn’t want to teach it because obviously suicide is a
very difficult word, especially for young minds, but do you think that’s a useful formulation
of the question of existentialism?
Like him saying, this is the most important question of suicide.
I think there is something to it, if you read the question as the question, what is it in
virtue of which it ought to be desirable to live the lives that we’re capable of living?
That’s a deep question.
Yeah, that’s a question that gets focused when someone asks themselves whether they
ought to continue to live that life.
The famous line, nothing focuses the mind more than one’s impending execution.
I think there’s something important about that, that recognizing the riskiness and the
vulnerability of one’s existence is super important.
And I think that if we didn’t have that, our lives wouldn’t be capable of being meaningful.
If they weren’t risky and vulnerable, there would be nothing to lose.
And it’s only because there are things to lose that they can come to have the significance
that they do.
So yeah, I think I’m not against the idea that that’s a deep way of approaching the
questions at the core of existentialism.
But as you said, I was worried for a while about how I was going to teach it.
Well, I think there’s a difference between suicide and not living because suicide is
So it feels like to me, like suicide doesn’t make sense because, you know, imagine you’re
in like a hotel and you’re saying the room I’m in sucks, but like there’s other rooms.
So like maybe explore those other rooms.
Maybe you’ll find meaning in those other rooms, like basically embracing the fact that you
don’t know everything and there’s a, you need time to explore everything.
It’s like once you’ve explored everything, then maybe you can make a full decision.
But it’s unfair to make a decision.
It’s I would say unethical to make a decision until you’ve explored all the rooms in the
And this gets focused in the brothers Karamazov, of course.
There’s one brother who is really asking that question, is asking the question of suicide.
He’s asking the question whether the world that we live in is a world that’s worth living
And I think that character is, as you say, very ill.
And it’s possible and often because, as you say, of, you know, brain chemistry, physiology,
there’s certainly a physical ground to that situation, to that condition.
But I think it is possible for someone to be in that situation.
I think that Ivan Karamazov, who’s the character who’s asking this question, is, you know,
maybe let’s say chemically depressed or something like that.
But I think there’s more to it too.
And I think that Dostoevsky’s real view is that the brain chemistry doesn’t exist on
Like the way we interact with one another, the way we care about or isolate ourselves
from others, the way we care for the lives that we lead, affects the chemistry of our
brain, which goes on and changes the mood that we’re in.
So I think Dostoevsky does think that Ivan’s salvation, if he’s capable of being saved,
is gonna come through the love of his brother Alyosha.
Let me spring maybe a bit of a tangent on you.
Do you ever, one of my other favorite authors is Herman Hesse.
Do you ever include him in our deck of sport cards that represent existentialism?
Maybe I should.
What should I read?
What should I think about including?
Oh no, there’s some kind of embrace of absurdism.
Like there’s a existentialist kind of ideal pervading most of his work.
But there’s more of a, like with Siddhartha, there’s more almost like a Buddhist sort of
like watch the river and like become the river.
Like this kind of idea that what it means to truly experience the moment.
So there is an experiential part of existentialism where you want to, it’s not just about, we’ve
been talking about kind of decisions and actions, but also what it means to listen, like you
said from Nietzsche, like what it means to really take in the world and experience the
So he’s very good at writing about what it means to experience the moment and experience
the full absurdity of the moment.
And for him, I’m starting to forget, Steppenwolf, I think, is humor.
It’s part of the absurdity, which I think modern day internet explores very well with
memes and so on.
Humor is a fundamental part of the existentialist ethic that’s able to deal with absurdity.
You got to like laugh at it.
I think there is some, let me just say something about humor because I think you’re absolutely
Richard Bard, who is Danish and most people think deeply depressed and so on, is actually
an incredibly funny writer.
And someone who was a classmate of mine in graduate school who left philosophy to become
a Hollywood comedy writer, he’s a very successful guy.
And then he came back 25 years later and finished his dissertation.
And I was the reader on the dissertation, there may be a conflict of interest, I’m not
But his dissertation was about, he called it Kierkegaard and the Funny, which is a kind
of a funny title, yeah.
But Kierkegaard, according to Eric Kaplan’s reading, Kierkegaard does have this idea that
there’s something destabilizing about humor that’s crucial to the important possibilities
And so there’s the idea that there’s a moment when a joke is being set up, when you’re sort
of proceeding as if you’re on stable ground, and then the punchline comes and the rug is
pulled out from under you.
And for a moment, it’s like you’re falling.
There’s nothing supporting you until you’re captured by your totally new understanding
of what was going on, and that humor necessarily has that kind of destabilizing feature to
And that’s like the riskiness, that’s like the riskiness that you were pointing to.
If there aren’t risks in your life, if your life is totally safe, then there’s no possibility
And so I think on Eric’s reading, Kierkegaard sort of wants to line up the importance of
the riskiness and vulnerability in your life to its having meaning with the experience
of destabilization that you get in jokes and comedy, which then becomes significant, right?
When you remember having heard a joke for the first time, it’s got a kind of salience
Speaking of jokes, and speaking of, you mentioned film and literature, so existentialism in
film and literature.
I think for a lot of people, especially nihilism, was experienced in the great modern work of
art called Big Lebowski.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that film, but there’s a group of nihilists in that film.
They’re just like, they don’t care about anything.
I think they happen to be German, at least they have German accents.
So maybe can you talk about notable appearances of existentialism in film, and if you at all
ever bring up Big Lebowski, if that ever comes into play?
So I know that people think about the Big Lebowski in this context, and I did actually
rewatch it not so long ago.
We have kids, and I thought, maybe it’s time.
It wasn’t really time for the 11 year old, so somewhat inappropriate.
I have never taught that film, so I’d have to think more.
We could talk about it.
I’d be happy to try to think on the fly about it.
Okay, so I would love to, because there is a, feels like there’s a philosophical depth
to that film.
So there’s a person that just, the main character.
The Jeff Bridges character.
Jeff Bridges character, yeah.
He kind of, he drinks like these white Russians, and he just kind of walks around in a very
relaxed way, and irradiates both a love for life, but also just an acceptance of like,
it is what it is kind of philosophy.
And then there’s a bunch of characters that have very busy lives trying to do some big
projects that are dramatic in some way, make some huge amounts of money.
So it kind of actually reminds me of The Idiot by Dostoevsky in a certain kind of sense.
And then there’s these players, I mean, they’re phrased as nihilists, but they kind of don’t
care to enjoy life.
They want to mess with life in some kind of way.
And of course there’s interesting personalities that, what is it, Jesus, the bowler.
And then there’s like Donnie, who is a bit clueless, and then there’s the John Goodman
character that’s talking about Vietnam and just takes life way too seriously, too intensely
and so on.
So it just paints a full sort of spectrum of characters that are operating in this world.
And perhaps most importantly for existentialism are thrown into absurdity and hence the humor.
All right, good.
Well, that’s helpful.
Reminding me of all that.
And I think…
So one thing to say is that the nihilists, the group of nihilists who call themselves
nihilists, I think they’ve got a bad misinterpretation of what nihilism is supposed to be.
And this happened actually in the 20s.
There was a famous case of a couple of German students, Leopold and Loeb, who’d read a lot
of Nietzsche, Nietzsche was a kind of hero for the Nazis even, I think based on a pretty
bad misunderstanding of what he was up to.
But Leopold and Loeb had the bad understanding first and they were students, they’d read
a lot of Nietzsche and they thought, okay, nothing means anything.
The only way that there’s any significance in life is through our will to sort of powerfully
bring something about.
And if we’re gonna do that in a way that reflects the fact that nothing means anything, then
what we should do is take these things, these actions that people always thought were bad
and do them and show that there’s nothing wrong with doing them.
And so they decided they would murder someone.
Not because they were angry at them, just someone they’d never met.
It was important that it was someone they’d never met.
It was totally unmotivated act.
And they thought, we’ll embrace nihilism by showing that we can act in such a way as to
do something that morality thinks is bad and through our will bring it about that we desire
to do it for no reason that has anything to do with its potentially being interpretable
And I think that’s a terrible misreading of what Nietzsche thinks the response to nihilism
I mean, I think, read that against the Miles Davis thing.
Miles Davis aim is to creatively bring it about that something works well in a situation
where he is kind of constrained.
So they thought two things, one, there are no constraints at all, not even the constraints
of the situation that we find ourselves in.
And two, we only become the beings that we really are when we act against what you might
have thought the constraints were.
And I just think that’s a bad misreading of what that kind of nihilism is up to.
And I think maybe that group in the Big Lebowski has got that kind of bad misreading.
But then the major characters are much more interesting.
Go ahead and say something.
So there’s some kind of apathy to that particular nihilism.
Could you comment on whether you see sort of apathy as a philosophy part of that nihilism?
Sort of like from an existentialist perspective, how important is it to care about stuff?
Like really take on life?
What does existentialism have to say about just sitting back and just not caring?
So apathy is like a really important word.
The Greek word is apathe, it means without passions.
And the Stoics, who you mentioned earlier, really thought that passions are what get
in the way if you’re living well.
Because to live well, you have to think clearly about what you should do and you shouldn’t
let your resentments and your angers and your petty animosities direct your behavior.
You should release yourself from those kinds of passions.
So Stoicism, again, huge caricature, but it’s an aim not to care because caring is bad.
And there’s certain forms of existentialism, certainly in Pascal and Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky
and Heidegger and Sartre in his own way.
So it’s not just a theistic or atheistic thing.
What’s crucial about us is that we do care.
Heidegger says, care is the being of Dasein, Dasein is his name for us.
What it is to be us is to be the being that already cares.
And you can’t not do that.
You can pretend you’re not doing it, but you’re just caring in a different way.
It’s like Sartre saying, you can pretend you’re not taking responsibility.
You can pretend that you don’t have to make a decision, that is making a decision.
Not caring is a way of caring.
And so I think the existentialists that I’m interested in think that we do care.
That’s constitutive of what it is to be us.
And so they’ll think that the Stoics got it wrong.
But that leaves open a huge range of moves about how we inhabit that existence well.
Let me ask about Ayn Rand.
So it just so happens that she’s entered a few conversations in this podcast, and just
looking at academic philosophy or just philosophers in general, they seem to ignore Ayn Rand.
Do you have a sense of why that is?
Did she ever come into play her ideas of objectivism, come into play of discussions of a good life
from the perspective of existentialism in how you teach it and how you think about it?
Is she somebody who you find at all interesting?
So no, I don’t think she is, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read her stuff.
I read it in high school.
I read The Fountainhead in high school and Atlas Shrugged, but that’s at this point a
very long time ago.
I think I read something about objective epistemology or something too.
So my view about her could be based on a total misunderstanding of what she’s up to.
But sort of my caricature of her and tell me if I’ve got it wrong is that she’s sort
of motivated by a kind of, I think maybe sometimes you call it libertarianism, but maybe let’s
in the context of our discussion tie it back to Sartre, a kind of view according to which
we’re the being who has to contend with the fact that we’re radically free to do stuff
and we’re just not being courageous or brave enough when we don’t do that.
And the people to admire are the people who make stuff out of nothing.
So maybe that’s a bad caricature.
No, no, no.
I think, no, I think that’s pretty accurate.
I’m not again, very knowledgeable about the full depth of her philosophy, but I think
she takes a view of the world that’s similar to Sartre in the conclusions, but makes stronger
statements about epistemology that first of all, everything is knowable and there’s some,
you should always operate through reason.
Like reason is very important.
Like it’s like you start with a few axioms and you build on top of that and the axioms
that everybody should operate on are the same.
Again, reality is objective, it’s not subjective.
So from that you can derive the entirety of how humans should behave at the individual
level and at the societal level.
And there’s a few conclusions, she would talk about virtue of selfishness and sort of a
lot of people use that to dismiss her, look, she’s very selfish and so on.
She actually meant something very different is like, it’s more like the Sartre thing,
take responsibility for yourself, understand what forces you’re operating under and make
the best of this life.
And that’s how you can be the best member of societies by making the best life you can
and just focusing yourself, like fix your own problems first and then that will make
you the best member of society, of your family, of loved ones, of friends and so on.
I think the reason she’s disliked, obviously on the philosophy side, she’s disliked because
a little bit like Nietzsche, she’s literary.
I think the reason she’s publicly disliked in sort of public conversations is because
of how sure she is of herself, which is some of the philosophers have been known to do
like make very strong statements like hell is other people, but she was making very strong
statements about basically everything.
But the reason I bring her up is she is an influential thinker that is not for some reason
often brought up as such, it’s not acknowledged how influential she is.
I was recently looking at like a list of the most important women of the 20th century in
terms of thought, not science, but like thought and she wasn’t in that list.
And I see this time and time again and it doesn’t make sense to me why she’s so kind
of dismissed because clearly she’s an author of some of the most read books like ever and
she clearly had very strong ideas that she’d be contented with.
That’s why it kind of didn’t make sense to me because she’s also a creature of her time
and an important one, she’s a creation of the Soviet Union, somebody who left because
of that and so some of the strength of her ideas has to do with how much she dislikes
that particular philosophy and way of life.
But also she’s a creature of Sartre and that whole Nietzsche and so on.
Now one of the other criticisms is she doesn’t integrate herself into this history.
She keeps basically kind of implying that she’s purely original in all her thoughts
even though she’s kind of citing a lot of other people.
But again, many philosophers do this kind of thing as if they are truly original and
It is interesting and also what’s interesting about her is she is a woman, she is a strong
feminist and it feels like with Simone de Beauvoir, it seems like she’s a very important
person in this moment of history that shouldn’t be fully forgotten.
Well, so I mean I don’t have a lot to add.
I will just say this, I mean the way she and Beauvoir seem to me from your description
of her and remembering what I remember from 35 years ago, they seem pretty opposite from
One of the things I find interesting about Beauvoir is that she takes seriously the thing
that Sartre didn’t, which is our throwness, which is the sense in which we’re born into
a situation that’s already got a significance.
I think it was easier for her to recognize that than Sartre because she was a woman.
And Sartre seems to act as if there are no constraints or at least there shouldn’t be.
We’re pretty close as privileged white males and if we could just get rid of the last bits
of them, we would be God like we’re supposed to be.
And I think Beauvoir sort of sees things differently.
I think she recognizes one’s not born but becomes a woman, she says.
So how does that happen?
Well you’re thrown into your culture and your culture starts treating you in a certain way
because of your gender and that starts to form your understanding and your experience
By the time you’re grown up, well you’re pretty well formed by that.
That seems a fact.
It’s a fact about Sartre too though, it was harder for him to notice it because he was
formed into his privilege.
But the world reminds us of our throwness for some more than others.
And for people who have to contend on a daily basis with the fact that the social position
they’re thrown into is one that negates them or one that oppresses them or one that sort
of pushes them to the side in some way or another, I mean the black experience is interesting
in this respect too.
Frantz Fanon who’s a contemporary of Sartre and Beauvoir writes about it and it’s very
familiar the things that he’s saying now but he writes back in the 50s about being a black
man in Paris and getting on an elevator with a woman alone and how her reaction to him,
not knowing him, not having any views about any reason to have any views about him sort
of puts him in a particular social position with respect to her.
And if you don’t have that experience, it’s much harder to recognize the way in which
what we’re thrown into is something we might not have chosen.
So the idea that that’s not an aspect of our existence, which as you describe Ayn Rand’s
views, she sounds more like Sartre, she sounds more like either it’s not an aspect of our
existence or at least we ought to sort of aim at it’s not being an aspect of our existence.
Yeah, almost act as if it’s not.
Act as if it’s not.
And so I think from my point of view, I don’t pretend that I’m explaining the public reception
of her, I’m just sort of trying to say how I understand her in this intellectual context.
From my point of view, that’s something big to miss and the ambition to think that really
what’s happening is that we’re all the same, we’re all rational beings.
We’re all beings who if we just got the axioms of our existence right and made good judgments
and reasoned in an appropriate way, would optimize ourselves.
That feels to me like a kind of natural end point of the philosophical tradition.
I mean, sort of Plato starts off with a view that helps us in that direction and the enlightenment
moves us further in that direction.
But from my point of view, that movement has led us astray because it’s missed something
really important that’s crucial to the kind of being that we are.
Yeah, it misses the music.
Exactly, it misses the music.
Let’s talk about thrownness and I think you mentioned that in the context of Heidegger.
So can we talk about Heidegger?
Who is this philosopher?
What are some fascinating ideas that he brought to the world?
So Martin Heidegger was a German philosopher.
I do know when he was born, 1889, but I know that only by accident.
It’s because it’s the same year that Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher, was born and the
same year that Hitler was born.
So if I’ve remembered my dates right and someone will call in and correct me otherwise.
But that’s the way it sort of sits in my memory bank.
And it’s interesting that the three of them were born at the same time.
Wittgenstein and Heidegger share some similarities, but then it’s also interesting that Heidegger
was a Nazi.
I mean, this is a very disturbing fact about his personal political background.
And so it’s something that anyone who thinks that things that he said might be interesting
has got to contend with.
Heidegger was born in Germany, Hitler in Austria.
Wittgenstein is Austria also.
But so you have to, when you call Heidegger a Nazi, you have to remember, I mean, there
was millions of Nazis too.
So like there are parts of their, that’s the history of the world.
There’s a lot of communists, Marxists and Nazis in that part of history.
And one of the discussion points is, well, was he just a kind of social Nazi?
I mean, you know, he went to parties with them and stuff, or was he like, did he really
believe in the ideology?
And that’s a choice point.
And we could talk about it if you want.
He held a political position.
That’s one of the relevant parts.
In 1933, he was made rector of the University of Freiburg.
That’s like the president of the university.
And that was in Germany, all the universities are state universities.
And so that’s a political appointment.
Can we just pause on this point?
From an existentialist perspective, what’s the role for standing up to evil?
So I mean, I think Camus probably had something to say about these things because he was a
bit of a political figure.
Like do you have a responsibility, not just for your decisions, but you know, if the world
you see around you is going against what you believe somewhere deep inside is ethical,
do you have a responsibility to stand up to that, even if it costs you your life or your
Well, you ask from an existential perspective and there’s lots of different positions that
you could have.
So let me tell you something in the area of what I think I might believe, which comes
out of this tradition.
And it’s this, if you live in a community where people are being dragged down by the
norms of the community rather than elevated, then there’s two things that you have to recognize.
One is that you bear some responsibility for that.
Not necessarily because you chose it, maybe you reviled it, maybe you were against it.
But there’s some way in which we all act in accordance with the norms of our culture.
We all give in to them in some way or another.
And if those norms are broken, then there’s some way in which we’ve allowed ourselves
to be responsible for broken norms.
We’ve become responsible for broken norms.
And I do think you have to face up to that.
I think that, let’s just take gender norms.
Maybe the gender norms are broken.
Maybe the way men and women treat one another or the way men treat women is broken.
Maybe it is.
I’m not making a substantive claim, I’m just saying lots of people say it is.
And if you’re in a culture where those norms take roots, you don’t get to just isolate
yourself and pull yourself out of the culture and think, I don’t have any responsibility.
You’re already a part of the culture.
Even if you’re isolating yourself from it, that’s a way of rejecting the sort of part
you play in the culture, but it’s not a way of getting behind it.
Now you’re playing that role differently.
You’re saying, I don’t want to take responsibility for what’s going on around me.
And that’s a way of taking responsibility by refusing to do it.
I think we’re implicated in whatever’s going on around us.
And if we’re going to do anything in our lives, we ought to recognize that, recognize that
even in situations where you maybe didn’t decide to do it, you could be part of bringing
other people down and then devote yourself to trying to figure out how to act differently
so that the norms update themselves.
And I think this is not a criticism of people.
Alyosha, who we mentioned in The Brothers Karamazov, he’s a character, he’s a kind of
saintly character in The Brothers Karamazov.
But that one crucial moment in that story is when he realizes how awful he’s been being
to someone without ever even intending to do that.
It’s Grushenka, who’s this sort of fascinating woman, and she’s a very erotic woman.
She’s sort of sexual.
And Alyosha, in my reading of it, is kind of attracted to her.
But he’s a young kid, he’s 20 or whatever, and he’s kind of embarrassed about it.
And he lives in the monastery and he’s thinking maybe he wants to be a priest and he’s kind
of embarrassed by it.
So what does he do?
Every time they run across one another in the street, he averts his gaze.
And why is he doing that?
Because he’s kind of embarrassed.
But how does Grushenka experience it?
Well, she knows she’s a fallen woman and she knows that Alyosha has this other position
So her read on it is, he’s passing judgment on me.
He can see that he doesn’t want to be associated with me.
He can see that I’m a fallen woman.
He knows that in order to maintain his purity, he’s got to avoid me.
That’s not what Alyosha intended to do, but that’s the way it’s experienced.
And so there’s this way he comes to recognize, oh my God, what I’m supposed to do is love
people in Dostoevsky’s view of things.
And what I’m doing instead is dragging this poor woman down.
I’m making her life worse.
I’m making her feel terrible about herself.
And if I actually came to know her, I’d recognize her condition is difficult.
She’s living a difficult life.
She’s making hard choices.
And why don’t I see that in her face instead of this other thing that’s making me want
to avoid her?
And that’s a huge moment.
So, but the idea is that we’re implicated in bringing other people down, whether we
want to be or not, and that’s our condition.
The requirement to understand that is to be almost to a radical degree, be empathetic
and to listen to the world.
And I mean, you brought up sort of gender roles.
It’s not so simple.
All of this is messy.
For example, this is me talking.
It’s clear to me that, for example, the woke culture has bullying built into it, has some
elements of the same kind of evil built into it.
And when you’re part of the wave of wokeness standing up for social rights, you also have
to listen and think, are we going too far?
Are we hurting people?
Are we doing the same things that others that we’re fighting against, that others were doing
in the past?
So it’s not simple once you see that there’s evil being done that is easy to fix.
No, in our society, there’s something about our human nature that just too easily stops
listening to the world, to empathizing with the world.
And we label things as evil.
This is through human history.
This is evil.
You mentioned tribes.
This religious belief is evil.
And so we have to fight it and we become certain and dogmatic about it.
And then in so doing, commit evil onto the world.
It seems like a life that accepts and responsibility for the norms we’re in has to constantly be
sort of questioning yourself and questioning, like listening to the world fully and richly
without being weighed down by any one sort of realization.
You just always constantly have to be thinking about the world.
Am I wrong?
Am I wrong in seeing the world this way?
I mean, the very last thing you said, you’ve constantly got to be thinking about the world.
You’ve constantly got to be listening.
You’ve constantly got to be attending.
And it’s not simple.
All that sounds exactly right to me.
The phrase that rings through my head is another one from the Brothers Karamazov.
Demetri, this passionate sort of sometimes violent brother who is also sort of deeply
I mean, because he’s passionate, he’s sort of got care through and through, but it’s
breaking him apart.
He says at one point, God and the devil are fighting and the battlefield is the heart
And I just think, yeah, it’s not simple.
And the idea that there might be a purely good way of doing things is just not our condition.
That everything we do is going to be sort of undermined by some aspect of it.
There’s not going to be a kind of pure good in human existence.
And so it’s sort of required that we’re going to have to be empathetic, that we’re going
to have to recognize that others are dealing with that just as we are.
So I apologize for distracting us.
We were talking about Heidegger and the reason we were distracted is he happened to also
be a Nazi, but he nevertheless has a lot of powerful ideas.
What are the ideas he’s brought to the world?
So that’s a big, huge question.
So let me see how much of it I can get on the table.
I mean, the big picture is that Heidegger thinks, and he’s not really wrong to think
this, that the whole history of philosophy from Plato forward, maybe even from the pre
Socratics forward, from like the sixth century BC to now has been grounded on a certain kind
of assumption that it didn’t have the right to make and that it’s led us astray.
And that until we understand the way in which it’s led us astray, we’re not going to be
able to get to grips with the condition we now find ourselves in.
So let me start with what he thinks the condition we now find ourselves in is.
Lots of periods to Heidegger’s views.
I’m just going to sort of mush it all together for the purposes of today.
Heidegger thinks that one of the crucial things that we need to contend with when we think
about what it is to be us now is that the right name for our age is a technological
And what does it mean for our age to be a technological age?
Well, it means that we have an understanding of what it is for anything at all to be at
all that we never really chose, that sort of animating the way we live our lives, that’s
animating our understanding of ourselves and everything else that is quite limited.
And it’s organized around the idea that to be something is to be what’s sitting there
as an infinitely flexible reserve to be optimized and made efficient.
And Heidegger thinks that’s not just the way we think of silicon circuits or the river
when we put a hydroelectric power plant on it, we’re optimizing the flow of the river
so that it makes energy which is infinitely flexible and we can use in any way at all.
It’s the way we understand ourselves too.
We think of ourselves as this reserve of potential that needs to be made efficient and optimized.
And when I talk with my students about it, I ask them, what’s your calendar look like?
What’s the goal of your day?
Is it to get as many things into it as possible?
Is it to feel like I’ve failed unless I’ve made my life so efficient that I’m doing this
and this and this and this and this that I can’t let things go by?
The feeling that I think we all have that there’s some pressure to do that, to relate
to ourselves that way is a clue to what Heidegger thinks the technological age is about.
And he thinks that’s different from every other age in history.
We used to think of ourselves in the 17th century at the beginning of the Enlightenment
as subjects who represent objects, Descartes thought that a subject is something, some
mental sort of realm that represents the world in a certain way.
And we are closed in on ourselves in the sense that we have a special relation to our representations
and that’s what the realm of the subject is.
But others, in the Middle Ages, we were created in the image and likeness of God.
In the pre Socratic age, to be was to be what whooshes up and lingers for a while and fades
The paradigm of what is were thunderstorms and the anger of the gods, Achilles battle
fury and it overtakes everything and stays for a while and then leaves, the flowers blooming
And that’s very different from the way we experience ourselves.
And so the question is, what are we supposed to do in the face of that?
And Heidegger thinks that the presupposition that’s motivated everything from the pre Socratics
forward is that there is some entity that’s the ground of the way we understand everything
to be. For the Middle Ages, it was God.
That was the entity that made things be the things that they are.
For the Enlightenment, it was us.
Maybe for Sartre, it’s us.
And Heidegger thinks whatever it is that stands at the ground of what we are, it’s not another
It’s not another entity.
And we’re relating to it in the wrong way if we think of it like that.
This is partly why I was interested in Meister Eckhart.
He says, what there is is there’s giving going on in the world, and we’re the grateful recipient
And the giving is like whatever it is, it’s the social norms that we’re thrown into.
We didn’t choose them.
They were given to us.
And that’s the ground.
That is what makes it possible for anything to be intelligible at all.
If we lived outside of communities, if we lived in a world where there were no social
norms at all, nothing would mean anything.
Nothing would have any significance.
Nothing would be regular in the way that things need to be regular in order for there to be
departures or manifestations of that regularity.
So community norms are crucial, but they’re also always updating.
We have some responsibility for what they are and the way in which they’re updating
And yet we didn’t ever choose it to be that way.
So those norms are somehow giving significance to us in a way that we’re implicated in,
we have some relation to, and all that gets covered over if you think of us as efficient
resources to be optimized.
Is that a conflicting view that we are resources to be optimized?
Is that somehow deeply conflicting with the fact that there’s a ground that we stand on?
So what Heidegger thinks is that this is, he calls this the supreme danger of the technological
age is that without ever having chosen it, without ever having decided it, this is the
way we understand what it is to be us.
But he thinks that it’s also, he says, quoting Holderlin, this 18th century German poet,
he says, in the supreme danger lies the saving possibility.
So what does that mean?
It means that this is the understanding that we’ve been thrown into, that we’ve been given.
It’s the gift that was given to us.
It’s supremely dangerous.
If we let ourselves live that way, we’ll destroy ourselves.
But it’s also the saving possibility because if we recognize that we never chose that,
that it was given to us, but also we were implicated in its being given and we could
find a way to supersede it, that it’s the ground, but it’s also updatable.
He calls the ground, the groundless ground.
It’s not like an entity, which is there, solid, stable, like God, who’s eternal and nonchanging.
It’s always updating itself and we’re always involved in its being updated, but we’re only
involved in it in the right way if we listen, like Miles Davis.
So optimization is not a good way to live life.
If you thought that it was obviously clear that that was the relevant value, so obviously
clear that it never even occurred to you to ask whether it was right to think that, then
you would be in danger.
So yeah, there is some in this modern technological age, in the full meaning of the word technology,
that’s updated to actual modern age with a lot more technology going on.
It does feel like colleagues of mine in the tech space actually are somehow drawn to that
optimization as if that’s going to save us, as if the thing that truly weighs us down
is the inefficiencies.
And I think if you think about other contexts, like what are the moments when, I mean, we’re
unique in this respect.
This period in history is unlike any previous period.
Nobody ever felt that way.
But think about, but it’s also true that no previous period in history was nihilistic.
So our condition is tied up, that sort of thing is meant to be a response to the felt
lack of a ground.
And so no previous epoch in history felt that way.
They didn’t have our problem.
So it was much more natural to them to experience moments in ways that feel unachievable for
us, what we were calling moments of aliveness before.
Think about the context in which they felt them.
They weren’t efficient, optimized contexts.
Think about the Greeks.
If you ever read Homer, it is a bizarre world back there.
But one of the things that’s bizarre is that they’re so unmotivated by efficiency and optimizing
that the only thing that seems to run through all of the different Greek cultures is the
idea that if some stranger comes by, you better take care of them because Zeus is the god
of strangers and Zeus will be angry.
That’s what they say, right?
But how does it manifest itself?
Odysseus, he’s trying to get home and he gets shipwrecked on an island and he’s trying
to figure out, he’s been at sea for 10 days, he’s starving, he’s bedraggled and he sees
now Sissa, the princess who’s beautiful and he’s like, boy, I better, I don’t know, get
some clothes or something.
I don’t want them to beat me up and kill me.
And so she takes him to the palace.
They have three days of banquets and festivals before they even ask his name.
It’s like, here’s a stranger.
Our job is to celebrate the presence of a stranger because this is where significance
Now we don’t have to feel that way, but the idea that that’s one of the places where significance
could lie is pretty strongly at odds with the idea that our salvation is going to come
from optimization and efficiency.
Maybe something about the way we live our lives will have that integrated into it.
But it’s at odds with other moments.
Let me ask you a question about Hubert Burt Dreyfus.
He is a friend, a colleague, a mentor of yours, unfortunately no longer with us.
You wrote with him the book titled All Things Shining, Reading the Western Classics to Find
Meaning in a Secular Age.
First, can you maybe speak about who that man was, what you learned from him?
And then we can maybe ask, how do we find through the classics meaning in a secular
So, Burt Dreyfus was a very important philosopher of the late 20th, early 21st century.
He died in 2017, about a little over four years ago.
He was my teacher.
I met him in 1989 when I went away to graduate school in Berkeley, that’s where he taught.
He plays an interesting and important role in the history of philosophy in America because
in a period when most philosophers in America and in the English speaking world were not
taking seriously 20th century French and German philosophy, he was.
And he was really probably the most important English speaking interpreter of Heidegger,
the German philosopher that we’re talking about, we’ve been talking about.
He was an incredible teacher, a lot of his influence came through his teaching.
And one of the amazing things about him as a teacher was his sort of mix of intellectual
humility with sort of deep insightful authority.
And he would stand up in front of a class of 300 students, he taught huge classes because
people love to go see him and I taught for him for many years and say, I’ve been reading
this text for 40 years, but the question you asked is one I’ve never asked.
And it would be true.
He would find in what people said, things that were surprising and new to him.
And that’s humility actually.
Listening to the world.
He was always ready to be surprised by something that someone said and there’s something astonishing
So his influence was, for people who didn’t know him through his interpretations of these
texts, he wrote about a huge range of stuff.
But for people who did know him, it was through his presence, it was through the way he carried
himself in his life.
And so in any case, that’s who he was.
I graduated after many years as a graduate student.
I didn’t start in philosophy, I started in math, math and computer science, actually.
And then I did a lot of work in computational neuroscience for a few years.
That’s a fascinating journey.
We’ll get to it through our friendly conversation about artificial intelligence, I’m sure.
Because you’re basically fascinated with the philosophy of mind, of the human mind, but
rooted in a curiosity of mind through the, it’s artificial, through the engineering of
Yeah, that’s right.
So Bert, I mean, the reason I was attracted to him actually is because of his, to begin
with, was because of his criticisms of what was called traditional symbolic AI in the
70s and 80s.
So I came to Berkeley as a graduate student who’d done a lot of math and a lot of computer
science, a lot of computational neuroscience.
I noticed that you interview a lot of people in this world.
And I had a teacher at Brown as an undergraduate, Jim Anderson, who wrote with Jeff Hinton a
big book on neural networks.
So I was interested in that, not so interested in traditional AI, like sort of Lisp programming,
things that went on in the 80s, because it felt sort of, when you made a system do something,
all of a sudden it was an interesting thing to have done.
The fact that you’d solved the problem then made it clear that the problem wasn’t an interesting
one to solve.
And I had that experience.
And Bert had criticisms of symbolic AI, what he called good old fashioned AI, GoFi.
And I was attracted to those criticisms because it felt to me that there was something lacking
in that project.
And I didn’t know what it was.
I just felt its absence.
And then I learned that all his arguments came from his reading of this phenomenological
and existential tradition.
And so I had to try to figure out what those folks were saying.
And it was a long road, let me tell you.
It took me a long time.
But it was because of Bert that I was able to do that.
So I owe him that huge debt of gratitude.
And eventually we went on to write a book together, which was a great experience.
And yes, we published All Things Shining in 2011.
And that’s a book that I definitely would not have had the chutzpah to try to write
if it weren’t for Bert because it was really about great literature in the history of the
West from Homer and Virgil and Dante to Melville.
There’s a huge chapter on Melville, a big chapter on David Foster Wallace who Bert didn’t
care about at all, but I was fascinated by.
And so learning to think that way while writing that book with him was an amazing experience.
So I have to admit, as one of my failings in life, one of many failings is I’ve never
gotten through Moby Dick or any of Melville’s works.
So maybe can you comment on, before we talk about David Foster Wallace, who I have gotten
through, what are some of the sources of meaning in these classics?
So Moby Dick, I think, is the other great novel of the 19th century.
So the Brothers Karamazov and Moby Dick, and they’re diametrically opposed, which is one
of the really interesting things.
So Dostoyev, the Brothers Karamazov is a kind of existential interpretation of Russian Orthodox
How do you live that way and find joy in your existence?
Moby Dick is not at all about Christianity.
It sort of starts with the observation that the form of Christianity that Ishmael is familiar
with is broken, it’s not gonna work in his living his life.
He has to leave it, he has to go to sea in order to find what needs to happen.
And Ishmael is the boating captain, the whaling boat captain.
So he’s not the captain, that’s Ahab.
Ahab is the captain.
Let me back up.
The famous opening line to the book is, call me Ishmael.
And Ishmael is the main character in the book.
He’s a nobody.
He’s you and me.
He’s the everyday guy.
He’s like a nobody on the ship.
He’s like, not the lowest, but certainly not the highest.
He’s right in the middle.
And he’s named Ishmael, which is interesting, because Ishmael is the illegitimate son of
Abraham in the Old Testament.
He is the, I think if I have it right, again, someone will correct me.
I think he’s the one that Islam traces its genesis to.
And so Islam is an Abrahamic religion like Judaism and Christianity, but Judaism and
Christianity trace their lineage through Isaac, the quote, unquote, legitimate son of Abraham.
And Ishmael is the other son of Abraham, who he had with a girlfriend.
And so he’s clearly outside of Christianity in some way.
He’s named after the non Christian sort of son of Abraham.
And the book starts out with this, what does he call it, something like a dark and misty
He’s walking along the street and he’s overcome by his, I can’t remember what the word is,
but his hypos.
That’s what he calls them.
He’s in a mood.
Things are not going well.
And that’s where he starts.
And he signs up to go on this whaling voyage with this captain Ahab, who is this incredibly
charismatic, deeply disturbing character, who is a captain who’s got lots of history
and wants to go whaling, wants to get whales.
That’s what they do.
They harpoon these whales and bring them back and sell the blubber and the oil and so on.
So he’s kind of rich and he’s famous and he’s powerful, he’s an authority figure.
And he is megalomaniacally obsessed with getting one particular whale, which is called Moby
And Moby Dick is like the largest, the whitest, the sort of most terrifying of all the whales.
And Ahab wants to get him because a number of years earlier, he had an encounter with
Moby Dick where Moby Dick bit off his leg.
And he survived, but he had this deeply religious experience in the wake of it.
And he needed to find out what the meaning of that was.
What is the meaning of my suffering?
Who am I such that the world and Moby Dick, this leviathan at the center of it should
treat me this way.
And so his task is not just to go whaling, it’s to figure out the meaning of the universe
through going whaling and having a confrontation with his tormentor, this whale, Moby Dick.
And the confrontation is so weird because Melville points out that whales, their faces
are so huge, their foreheads are so huge, and their eyes are on the side of them that
you can never actually look them in the eye.
And it’s kind of a metaphor for God, like you can’t ever look God in the face.
That’s the sort of traditional thing to say about God.
You can’t find the ultimate meaning of the universe by looking God in the face.
But Ahab wants to.
He says he’s got a pasteboard mask of a face, but I’ll strike through the mask and find
out what’s behind.
And so Ishmael is sort of caught up in this thing, and he’s like going whaling because
he’s in a bad mood, and maybe this will make things better.
And he makes friends with this guy Queequeg.
And Queequeg is a pagan.
He’s from an island in the South Pacific.
And he’s got tattoos all over his body, head to toe.
He’s party colored, like every different color, says Ishmael, is these tattoos.
And they are the writing on his body, he says, of the immutable mysteries of the universe
as understood through his culture.
And so somehow Queequeg is this character who is like not Christian at all.
And he’s powerful in a very different way than Ahab is.
He’s supposed to be the king, he’s the son of the king, and probably his father’s died
If he was home, he’d be the king.
But he’s off on a voyage too, trying to understand who he is before he goes back and leads his
And he’s a harpooner, the bravest of the people on the ship.
And he’s got the mystery of the universe tattooed on his body, but nobody can understand it.
And it’s through his relation with Queequeg that Ishmael comes to get a different understanding
of what we might be about.
So that’s Moby Dick in a nutshell.
And connected to a book I have read, which is funny, there’s probably echoes that represent
the 20th century now in Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway that also has similar, I guess,
themes, but more personal, more focused on the, I mean, I guess it’s less about God.
It’s almost more like the existentialist version of Moby Dick.
And hence shorter.
And a lot shorter.
Well, Hemingway was brilliant that way.
But do you see echoes and do you find Old Man and the Sea interesting?
It’s been since ninth grade that I read Old Man and the Sea even longer ago than The Fountainhead.
So I didn’t know we were going to go there.
I mean, I find Hemingway interesting, but Hemingway, my general sort of picture of him
is that we have to confront the dangers and the difficulties of our life.
We have to develop in ourselves a certain kind of courage and manliness.
And I think there’s something interesting about that.
He’s for risk in a certain way.
And I think that’s important.
But now I don’t have any right to say this since it’s been so long since I read it.
I do feel like there’s, I don’t remember a sense for quite the tragedy of it.
Maybe there is.
Is it a melancholy novel?
I don’t even remember.
No, it’s, I mean, it has a sense like The Stranger by Camus.
It has a sense of like, this is how life is.
And it has more about old age and that you’re not quite the man you used to be feeling of
like, this is how time passes.
And then the passing of time and how you get older and this is one last fish.
It’s less about this is the fish.
It’s more like this is one last fish.
And asking, who was I as a man, as a human being in this world?
And this one fish helps you ask that question fully.
But it’s one fish, which is just sort of all the other fish too.
And that is a big difference because for Ahab, no other fish will do than Moby Dick.
It’s gotta be the biggest, the most powerful, the most tormenting.
It’s gotta be the one that you’ve got history with that has defiled you.
And it’s a raucous ride, Moby Dick.
What about David Foster Wallace?
So why is he important to you in the search of meaning in a secular age?
So I’ll just, just to finish the Moby Dick thing, I think what’s interesting about Melville
is that he thinks our salvation comes not if we get in the right relation to monotheism
or Christianity, but if we get in the right relation to polytheism, to the idea that there’s
not a unity to our existence, but there are lots of little meanings and they don’t cohere.
Sometimes like in Homer, sometimes you’re in love.
Helen’s in love with Paris and they do crazy things.
They go off and run away and the Trojan war begins.
And sometimes you’re in a battle fury.
Love is Aphrodite’s realm.
And the battle fury, that’s Aries realm and that’s a totally different world.
And they’re not even, I mean, they’re related.
There’s a kind of family resemblance, but not much.
Mostly you’re just in different sort of local meaningful worlds.
And Melville seems to think that that’s a thing that we could aim to bring back.
He says we have to lure back the Merry May Day gods of old and lovingly enthrone them
in the now egotistical sky, the now unhaunted hill.
That’s what we live in this world where hills aren’t haunted with significance anymore.
And the sky is just a bunch of stuff that we’re studying with physics and astrophysics
But they used to be awe inspiring and we have to figure out how to get in that relation
to them, but not by trying to give a unity to our existence through developing habits
and practices that get written on our body.
And so his is about the end of Judeo Christianity and the sort of Roman appropriation of it.
In Wallace, one of the things I think is so interesting about him is that I think he is
a great observer of the contemporary world.
And he’s a very funny writer, he’s really funny.
But he’s a great observer of the contemporary world and what he thought was at the core
of the contemporary world was this constant temptation to diversion through entertainment.
That’s a different story than Heidegger’s story about efficiency and optimization, but
it’s the other side of it.
What is this temptation sort of diverting us from?
The ability to be more efficient.
So you’re tempted to go watch some stupid film or television show or something that’s
dumb and not really very interesting, but you read that temptation as a temptation precisely
in virtue of it’s taking you away from your optimizing your existence.
And so I think there are two sides of the same coin.
I think he’s brilliant at describing it.
I think he thought it was a desperate position to be in, that it was something that we needed
to confront and find a way out of and his characters are trying to do that.
And I think there’s two different David Foster Wallace’s, one, I mean, David Foster Wallace
committed suicide and it’s very sad.
And he clearly did have sort of, there was a physiological basis to his condition.
He knew it, he was treating it for decades with medication, he had electroshock therapy
a number of times, it’s just very, very sad story.
When I decided that we were going to write about David Foster Wallace, the first thing
I was worried about is can you, like obviously a motivating factor, maybe the motivating
factor in his committing suicide was his physiological condition.
But there was a question, could you think, I mean, he’s obsessed with the condition with
what we need to do to achieve our salvation, to live well, to make our lives worth living.
And he clearly in the end felt like he couldn’t do that.
So in addition to the physiological thing, which probably most of it, the question for
me was, could you find in his writing what he was identifying as the thing we needed
to be doing that he nevertheless felt we couldn’t be doing?
And he talks as if that’s the difficulty for him.
So that’s one side of him and I did want to find that.
I think there’s another side of him that’s very different, but you were going to ask
No, please, what’s the other side?
I mean, what I write about in the chapter mostly is what I think he’s got as our saving
He thinks our saving possibility, he says this in a graduation speech that he gave to
Kenyon, is that we have the freedom to interpret situations however we like.
So what’s the problem case for him?
He says, look, the problem case, we have it all the time.
You get pissed off at the world.
Some big SUV cuts you off on the highway and you’re pissed off and you might express your
anger with one finger or another directed at that person.
And he says, but actually, you’re being pissed off as the result of your having made an assumption.
And the assumption is that that action was directed at you.
Like the assumption is that you’re the center of the universe and you shouldn’t assume that.
And the way to talk yourself out of it, he says, is to recognize the possibility that
maybe that wasn’t an action directed at you.
Maybe that guy is racing to the hospital to take care of his dying spouse who’s been there
suffering from cancer, or maybe he’s on the way to pick up a sick child, or maybe he’s…
And it’s not an action directed, that was your assumption, not something that was inherent
in the situation.
And I think there’s something interesting about that.
I think there’s something right about that.
At the same time, I don’t think he speaks as if we can just spin out these stories and
whether they’re true or not doesn’t matter.
What matters is that they free us from this assumption.
And I think they only free us from this assumption if they’re true.
Like sometimes the guy really did direct it at you and that’s part of the situation.
And you can’t pretend that it’s not part of the situation.
You have to find the right way of dealing with that situation.
So you have to listen to what’s actually happening and then you have to figure out how to make
And I think he thinks that we have too much freedom.
He thinks that you don’t have to listen to the situation, you can just tell whatever
story you like about it.
And I think that’s actually too tough.
I don’t think we have that kind of freedom.
And he writes these sort of incredibly moving letters when he’s trying to write The Pale
King, which is the unfinished novel that really sort of drove him to distraction.
At the center of the novel is this character who…
One of the characters at the center of the novel is a guy who’s doing the most boring
thing you could possibly imagine.
He is an IRS tax examiner.
He’s going over other people’s tax returns, trying to figure out whether they followed
the rules or not.
And just the idea of doing that for eight hours a day is just terrifying.
And he puts this guy in a enormous warehouse that extends for miles where person after
person after person is in rows of desks, sort of nameless, each of them doing this task.
So he’s in nowhere doing nothing and it’s got to be intensely boring.
And now the main character is trying to teach himself to do that.
And the question is, how do you put up with the boredom?
How do you put up with this onslaught of meaninglessness?
And the main character is able to confront that condition with such bliss that he literally
levitates from happiness while he’s going over other people’s tax returns.
And that’s my metaphor for what I think Wallace must have imagined we have to try to aspire
And I think that’s unlivable.
I think that’s not an ambition that we could achieve.
I think there’s something else we could achieve.
And the other thing that we can achieve that I think is something that he also is onto
but doesn’t write about as often is something more like achieving peak moments of significance
in a situation when something great happens.
And he writes about this in an article about Roger Federer.
He loved tennis.
Are you a tennis lover?
I’m not a lover of tennis, but I played tennis for 15 years and so on.
I don’t love it the way people love baseball, for example, I see the beauty in it, the artistry.
I just liked it as a sport.
Well, I didn’t play much tennis, but I hit a ball around every once in a while as a kid.
And I always thought it was boring to watch.
But reading David Foster Wallace on Roger Federer, you’re like, wow, I’ve been missing
And the article which appeared in the New York Times Magazine was called Roger Federer
as Religious Experience.
There you go.
And he says, look, there’s something astonishing about watching someone who’s got a body like
us and having a body as a limitation.
It’s like the sight of sores and pains and agony and exhaustion.
And it’s the thing that dies in the end.
And so it’s what we have to confront.
I mean, there’s also joys that go along with having a body.
Like if you didn’t have a body, there’d be no sex.
If you didn’t have a body, there’d be no sort of physical excitement and so on.
But somehow having a body is essentially a limitation that when you watch someone who’s
got one and is extraordinary at the way they use it, you can recognize how that limitation
can be to some degree transcended.
And that’s what we can get when we watch Federer or some other great athlete sort of doing
these things that transcend the limitations of their bodies.
And that that’s the kind of peak experience that we’re capable of that could be a kind
That’s a very different story.
And I think that’s a livable story.
And I don’t know if it would have saved him, but I feel like I wish he’d developed that
side of the story more.
Can we talk about…
And first of all, let me just comment that I deeply appreciate that you said you were
going to say something.
The fact that you’re listening to me is amazing.
Like that you care about other humans and I really appreciate that.
We should be in this way listening to the world.
So that’s a meta comment about many of the things we’re talking about.
But you mentioned something about levitating and a task that is infinitely boring and contrasting
that with essentially levitating on a task that is great, like the highest achievement
of this physical limiting body in playing tennis.
Now I often say this, I don’t know where I heard David Foster Wallace say this, but he
said that the key to life is to be unborable, that is the embodiment of this philosophy.
And when people ask me for advice, young students, I don’t find this interesting, I don’t find
this interesting, how do I find the thing I’m passionate for?
This would be very interesting to explore because you kind of say that that may not
be a realizable thing to do, which is to be unborable.
So my advice usually is life is amazing, like you should be able to, you should strive to
discover the joy, the levitation in everything.
And the thing you get stuck on for a longer period of time, that might be the thing you
should stick to, but everything should be full of joy.
So that kind of cynicism of saying life is boring is a thing that will prevent you from
discovering the thing that will give you deep meaning and joy, but you’re saying being unborable
is not actionable for a human being.
So okay, excellent question, deep question.
And you might think because of the title of the book that Bert and I wrote, All Things
Shining, that I think all things are shining.
But actually, I think it’s an unachievable goal to be unborable.
I do believe that you’re right, that a lot of times when people are bored with something,
it’s because they haven’t tried hard enough.
And I do think quite a lot of what makes people bored with something is that they haven’t
paid attention well enough and that they haven’t listened, as you were saying.
So I do think there’s something to that.
I think that’s a deep insight.
On the other hand, the perfection of that insight is that nothing is ever anything less
And I actually think that Dostoevsky and Melville both agree, but in very different ways, that
life involves a wide range of moods and that all of them are important.
It involves grief.
I think when someone dies, it’s appropriate to grieve.
And it’s not in the first instance joyful.
It’s related to joy because it makes the joys you feel when you feel them more intense.
But it makes them more intense by putting you in the position of experiencing the opposite.
And it’s only because we’re capable of a wide range of passionate responses to situations
that I think the significances can be as meaningful as they are.
So Melville, again, has this sort of interest.
Let’s just say the guilt and the grief in the brothers Karamazov.
Alyosha loses his mentor, Father Zosima.
It’s super important that he’s grieving.
He has a religious conversion on the basis of grieving where he sees the deep beauty
of everything that is, but it comes through the grief, not by avoiding the grief.
And Melville says something like, Ishmael says something like, he says, I’m like a Catskill
mountain eagle, the Catskills mountains nearby.
He says, who’s flying high above the earth, going over the peaks and down into the valleys.
I have these ups and these downs, but they’re all invested with a kind of significance.
They all happen at an enormously high height because it’s through the mountains that I’m
And even when I’m down, it’s a way of being up.
But it’s really down.
It’s just that it’s a way of being up because it makes the ups even upper.
Well, I guess then the perfectionism of that can be destructive.
I tend to see, for example, grief, a loss of love as part of love in that it’s a celebration
of the richness of feelings you had when you had the love.
So it’s all part of the same experience, but if you turn it into an optimization problem
where everything can be unboreable, then that can in itself be destructive.
I heard this interview with David Foster Wallace on the internet where it’s a video of him
and there is like a foreign sounding reporter asking him questions.
I think there’s an accent of some sort, German, I think, something like that.
And I don’t know, it just painted a picture of such a human person.
We were talking about listening.
The interviewer, if I may say, wasn’t a very good one in the beginning.
So she kind of walked in doing the usual journalistic things of just kind of generic questions and
just kind of asking very basic questions.
But he brought out something in her over time.
And he was so sensitive and so sensitive to her and also sensitive to being a thinking
and acting human in this world that just painted such a beautiful picture that people should
go definitely check out.
It made me really sad that we don’t get this kind of picture of other thinkers, all of
the ones we’ve been talking about, just that almost this little accidental view of this
I don’t know.
It was a beautiful one and I guess there’s not many like that even of him.
No, I think he was more than his writing ability, which was extraordinary.
He had developed a style that was, I think, unlike anyone else’s style, was his sensitivity
to other people and to sort of what he was there to pay attention to.
In one of his essays, I think it’s the one called An Incredibly Fun Thing I’ll Never
Do you know that one about cruise ships?
I think he describes himself as this sort of roving eyeball that just sort of walks
around the ship noticing things and he was incredibly good at that.
But I also worry that that reflects something that you find in Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov.
Ivan, I don’t know if you remember this part, when he’s away at school, at college as a
young boy, he makes money by going around town to where tragic events have occurred.
Someone just got run over by a carriage or something just happened.
Being the first one there, he always knows somehow where these things are going to happen
and writing about it, giving this really good description and then signing it eyewitness.
It’s as if Ivan’s understanding of his life is that he was supposed to be a witness to
He was supposed to see others but not get involved.
He never is interested in trying to keep the bad things from happening.
He just wants to report on them when he sees them.
And I think that he’s an incredibly isolated person, character, and it’s his isolation
from others, from the love of others and his inability, his desire not to love others because
that attaches him to someone that I think is really at the ground of his condition.
And I think that aim to be isolated, which many people have nowadays.
You see it in The Underground Man too, just sort of taking yourself out of the world because
you don’t wanna have to take responsibility for being involved with others.
I think that’s a bad move and I do worry that maybe, I mean, I never knew David Foster Wallace,
I have no right to comment on his life.
But he portrays himself in that one episode as a person who does that and I think that’s
Yeah, there’s some sense in which being sensitive to the world, like I find myself, the source
of joy for me is just being really sensitive to the world, to experience.
There’s some way, it’s quite brilliant what you’re saying that that could be isolating.
It’s like Darwin studying a new kind of species on an island you don’t want to interfere with.
You find it so beautiful that you don’t want to interfere with its beauty.
So there is some sense in which that isolates you and then you find yourself deeply alone,
away from the experiences that bring you joy.
And that could be destructive.
That’s fascinating how that works and in his case, of course, some of it is just chemicals
in his brain, but some of it is the path, his philosophy of life let him down.
And that’s the danger with Nietzsche too and gazing into the abyss.
Your job is a difficult one because doing philosophy changes you and you may not know
how it changes you until you’re changed and you look in the mirror.
You wrote a piece in MIT Tech Review saying that AI can’t be an artist.
Creativity is and always will be a human endeavor.
You mentioned BERT and criticism of symbolic AI.
Can you explain your view of criticizing the possible, the capacity for artistry and creativity
in our robot friends?
Yeah, I can try.
So to make the argument, you have to have in mind what counts as art, what counts as
a creative artistic act.
I take it that just doing something new isn’t sufficient.
We say that good art is original, but not everything that’s never been done before is
So there has to be more than just doing something new.
It has to be somehow doing something new in a way that speaks to the audience or speaks
to some portion of the audience at least.
It has to be doing something new in such a way that some people who see or interact with
it can see themselves anew in it.
So I think that art is inherently a creative act, sorry, a kind of communicative act that
it involves a relation with other people.
So think about the conditions for that working.
I talk in that article, I can’t remember, something about new music.
I think I don’t talk about Stravinsky, but let’s say Stravinsky.
Stravinsky performs the Rite of Spring and there’s riots.
It is new and people hate it.
It sounds like a cacophony.
It sounds awful.
It’s written according to principles that are not like the principles of music composition
that people are familiar with.
So in some ways it’s a failed communicative act.
But as Nietzsche says about his own stuff, we now can recognize that it wasn’t a failed
communicative act, it just hadn’t reached its time yet.
And now that way of composing music is like it’s in Disney movies.
It’s so part of our musical palette that we don’t have that response.
It changed us.
It changed the way we understand what counts as good music.
So that’s a deep communicative act.
It didn’t perform its communication in that opening moment, but it did ultimately establish
a new understanding for all of us of what counts as good art.
And that’s the kind of deep communication that I think good art can do.
It can change our understanding of ourselves and of what a good manifestation of something
of ourselves in a certain domain is.
And you use the term socially embedded, that art is fundamentally socially embedded.
And I really liked that term because I see like my love for artificial intelligence and
the kind of system that we can bring to the world that could make for an interesting and
more lively world and one that enriches human beings is one where the AI systems are deeply
And that actually is in contrast to the way artificial intelligence have been talked about
throughout its history and certainly now, both on the robotic side and the AI side,
it’s especially on the tech sector where the businesses around AI, they kind of want to
create systems that are like servants to humans.
And then humans do all the beautiful human messiness of where art will be part.
I think that there is no reason why you can’t integrate AI systems in the way you integrate
new humans to the picture.
There are just the full diversity and the flaws, all of that adds to the thing.
Some people might say that AlphaZero is this system from DeepMind that was able to solve
the game, it beat the best people in the world at the game of Go with no supervision from
But more interestingly to me on the side of creativity, it was able to surprise a lot
of grandmasters with the kind of moves that came up with.
To me, that’s not the creativity, the magic that’s socially embedded that we’re talking
That is merely revealing the limitations of humans to discover.
It’s like to solve a particular aspect of a math problem.
I think creativity is not just even socially embedded, it’s the way you’re saying is part
of the communicative act, it’s the interactive, it’s the dance with the culture.
And so it has to be like for AlphaZero to be creative, truly creative, it would have
to be integrated in a way where it has a Twitter account and it becomes aware of the impact
it has on the other grandmasters with the moves that’s coming up.
And one of the fascinating things about AlphaZero, which I just love so much is, I don’t know
if you’re familiar with chess.
I am, yeah.
So it does certain things that most chess players, even at the highest level don’t do,
which is it sacrifices pieces, it gives pieces away and then waits like 10 moves before it
pays you back.
So it does, to me, that’s beautiful.
That’s art if only AlphaZero understood the artistry of that, which is I’m going to mess
with you psychologically because I’m going to do two things.
One make you feel overconfident that you’re doing well, but actually also once you realize
you are playing AlphaZero that is much better than you, you’re going to feel really nervous
about what’s on the way, like this is the calm before the storm.
And that creates a beautiful psychological masterpiece of this chess game.
If only AlphaZero was then messing with you additionally to that, like and was cognizant
of us doing that, then it becomes art.
And then it’s integrated into society in that way.
And I believe it doesn’t have to actually have an understanding of the world in the
way that humans have.
It can have a different one.
It can be like a child is clueless about so many aspects of the world and it’s okay.
And that’s part of the magic of it, just being flawed, lacking understanding in all interesting
kinds of ways, but interacting.
And so to me it’s possible to create art for AI, but exactly as you’re saying in a deeply
socially embedded way.
Well, I think we agree, but let me just highlight the thing that makes me think that we agree,
which is that I think for people, for a community to allow themselves to recognize in a certain
kind of creative act, I’m thinking of Stravinsky here, but we could think of a chess thing,
to recognize in a certain kind of creative act a new and admirable worthy way of thinking
about what’s significant in the situation, you have to believe that it wasn’t random.
You have to believe that Stravinsky wrote that way because he was receptive to what
needed to be said now.
And so you said, if only AlphaZero could do all this by virtue of recognizing that this
was the thing that needed to be done, then it would be socially embedded in the right
And I think I agree with that.
First of all, it’s possible to do in a constrained domain, a game playing domain, go or chess,
go is more complicated than chess, but either one of them, because there really are only
a finite range of possibilities if you make the game end at a certain point, it’s a combinatorial
problem in the end.
Now, obviously, AlphaZero doesn’t solve the problem in a combinatorial way.
That would be take too much energy, you couldn’t do it, it explodes the problem.
So it does it in this other way that’s interesting, this pattern recognition way, roughly.
And in that context, it may well be that it can see, having had lots and lots of experience
in the training stuff against itself or against another version of itself, it can see that
the sacrifice here is gonna pay dividends down the road.
See, I put that in quotation marks, that’s to say it’s got a high weight to this move
here as a result of experience in the past where that move down the line led to this
So in that finite context, I think the game players can trust it and they talk that way.
It’s got a kind of authority.
They say, I’ve read some people who said about AlphaZero when it played Go, it’s like it’s
playing from the future.
It’s making these moves that are just outlandish and there’s a kind of brilliance to them that
we can’t really understand, we’ll be catching up to it forever.
I think in that context, it’s mapped the domain and the domain is mappable because it’s a
combinatorial problem roughly.
But in something like music or art of a nonfinite form, it feels to me like it’s a little harder
for me to understand what the analog of our trusting that Stravinsky has recognized something
about us that demands that he write this way, that doesn’t seem like a finite thing in quite
the same way.
So now we could ask the system, why did you do it?
We could ask Stravinsky, why did you do it?
And maybe it will have answers, but then it’s involved in a kind of communicative act.
And I think lots of times artists will often say, look, I can’t communicate better than
what I’ve done in the piece of work.
That is the statement.
Yeah, we humans aren’t able to answer the why either, but I do think the question here
is, well, first of all, language is finite, certainly when expressed through a tweet.
So it is also a combinatorial problem.
The question is how much more difficult it is than chess.
And I think all the same ways that we see the solutions to chess is deeply surprising
when it was first addressed with IBM D Blue and then with AlphaGo and AlphaGo Zero, AlphaZero.
I think in that same way, language can be addressed and communication can be addressed.
I don’t see, having done this podcast, many reasons why everything I’m doing, especially
as a digital being on the internet, can’t be done by an AI system eventually.
So I think we’re being very human centric in thinking we’re special.
I think one of the hardest things is the physical space, actually operating touch and the magic
of body language and the music of all of that, because it’s so deeply integrated through
the long evolutionary process of what it’s like to be on earth.
What is fundamentally different and AI can catch up on is the way we apply our evolutionary
history on the way we act on the internet, on the way we act online.
And as more and more of the world becomes digital, you’re now operating in a space where
AI is behind much less so, like we’re both starting at zero.
I think that’s super interesting.
Do you know this, do you know this author, Brian Christian, is that someone you’ve ever
That sounds familiar.
He’s a guy who competed in the, what is it called?
The Loebner Competition.
The Loebner Prize.
Yeah, the Turing Test thing.
And I’ll just tell you the story, but I think it’s directly related to the last thing you
said about where we’re starting in the same place.
He competed in this competition, but not, he didn’t enter a program that was supposed
to try to pass the Turing Test.
The Turing Test, there’s three people, there’s the judge, there’s the program, and then there’s
someone who’s a human, the way they do it.
And the judge has got to figure out by asking questions, which is the computer and which
is the human.
So little known fact, there’s two prizes in that competition.
There’s the most human computer prize, that’s the computer that wins the most.
And then there’s the most human human prize.
And he competed for the most human human prize, and he won it, he kept winning it.
And so he tried to think about what it is that you have to be able to do in order to
convince judges that you’re human instead of a computer.
And that’s an interesting question, I think.
And what he came to, my takeaway from his version of this story is that it is true that
computers are winning these contests more and more as technology progresses.
But there’s two possible explanations for that.
One is that the computers are becoming more human, and the other is that the humans are
becoming more like computers.
And he says, actually, the more we live our lives in this technological world where we
have to moderate our behavior so that it’s readable by something that’s effectively a
computer, the more we become like that.
And he says, it happens even when you’re not interacting with a computer.
He says, have you ever been on the phone with a call center?
And they’re going through their script, and that’s what they’ve got to do.
They’ve got to go through their script because that’s how they keep their job.
And they ask you this question, you’ve got to answer it.
And it’s as if you’re no longer interacting with a person, even though it’s a person,
because they’ve so given up everything that’s involved normally with being able to make
judgments and decisions and act in situations and take responsibility.
And so I think that’s the other side of it.
It is true that technology is amazing and can solve huge ranges of problems and do fantastic
But it’s also true that we’re changing ourselves in response to it.
And the one thing I’m worried about is that we’re changing ourselves in such a way that
the norms for what we’re aiming at are being changed to move in the direction of this sort
of efficiently and in an optimized way solving a problem and move away from this other kind
of thing that we were calling aliveness or significance.
And so that’s the other side of the story.
And that’s the worry.
But it’s very possible that there is, for you and I, the ancient dinosaurs, we may not
see the aliveness in TikTok, the aliveness in the digital space, that you see it as us
being dragged into this over optimized world, but that may be this is in fact, it is a world
that opens up opportunities to truly experience life.
And there’s interesting to think about all the people growing up now, who their early
experience of life is always mediated through a digital device, not always, but more and
more often mediated through that device, and how we’re both evolving, the technology is
evolving and the humans are evolving to then maybe open a door to a whole world where the
humans and the technology or AI systems are interacting as equals.
So now I’m going to agree with you.
You might be surprised that I’m going to agree with you, but I think that’s exactly right.
I don’t want to be the person who’s saying our job is to resist all of this stuff.
I don’t want to be a Luddite.
That’s not my goal.
The goal is to point out that in the supreme danger lies the saving power.
The point is to get in the right relation to that understanding of what we are.
That allows us to find the joy in it.
And I think that’s a hard thing to do.
It’s hard to understand even what we’re supposed to be doing when we do it.
Maybe I, more than you, am not of the right generation to be able to do that.
But I do think that’s got to be the move.
The move is not to resist it.
It’s not a nostalgic move.
It’s an attempt to push people to get in the relation to it that’s not the relation of
it controlling you and depriving you of stuff, but of your recognizing some great joy that
can be found in it.
When I interact with legged robots, I see there’s magic there.
And I just feel like the person who hears the music when others don’t.
And I don’t know what that is.
And I’d love to explore that.
Because it’s almost like the future talking.
And I’m trying to hear what it’s saying.
Is this a dangerous world or is this a beautiful world?
Well, I can certainly understand your enthusiasm for that.
Those used to be things that I found overwhelmingly exciting.
And I’m not sort of closed off from that anymore.
I mean, I’m not now closed off from that even though my views are changed and I don’t work
in that world.
But I think it’s interesting to figure out what’s at the ground of that response.
We talked about meaning quite a bit throughout in a secular age, but let me ask you the big
ridiculous question, almost too big.
What is the meaning of this thing we got going on?
What is the meaning of life?
You’re saving the softball for the end, is that it?
I don’t know what the meaning of life is.
I think there’s something that characterizes us that’s not the thing that people normally
think characterizes us.
The traditional thing to say and the philosophical tradition, even in the AI tradition, which
is a kind of manifestation of philosophy from Plato forward.
The traditional thing to say is that what characterizes us is our rationality, that
we’re intelligent beings, that we’re the ones that think.
And I think that’s certainly part of what characterizes us.
But I think there’s more to it too.
I think we’re capable of experiencing simultaneously the complete and utter ungroundedness of everything
that’s meaningful in our existence and also the real significance of it.
And that sounds like a contradiction.
How could it really be significant and not be based on anything?
But I think that’s the contradiction that somehow characterizes us.
And I think that we’re the being that sort of has to hold that weird mystery before us
and live in the light of it.
That’s the thing that I think is really at our core.
And so how do we do that?
I will say this one thing.
And I learned it from a philosopher, from a guy named Albert Borgmann, who’s a German
philosopher who lives in Montana now, taught in Montana for his whole career.
And I say this to my students at Harvard now.
He said, this is the way that I think about my life, and I hope you’ll think about your
He said, you should think about your life hoping that there will be many moments in
it about which you can say, there’s no place I’d rather be, there’s no thing I’d rather
be doing, there’s nobody I’d rather be with, and this I will remember well.
And I think if you can aim to fill your life with moments like that, it will be a meaningful
I don’t know if that’s the meaning of life, but I think if you can hold that before you,
it’ll help to clarify this mystery and this sort of bizarre situation in which we find
Sean, this conversation was incredible, and those four requirements have certainly been
fulfilled for me.
This was a magical moment in that way, and I will remember it well.
Thank you so much.
It’s an honor that you spend your valuable time with me.
This was great.
Thank you for having me, Lex.
I really, really enjoyed it.
Thanks for listening to this conversation with Sean Kelly.
To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description.
And now, let me leave you with some words from Albert Camus.
In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.
Thank you for listening, and hope to see you next time.