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Philosophy in Dark Times: Conversation with Sandy Grant

Sandy Grant is an alumna and don at the University of Cambridge in England.  I spoke with Dr. Grant about philosophy’s role in the public sphere, why philosophy is not a life hack, and whether we should have Chief Philosophical Advisors to Presidents and Prime Ministers.  

Sandy, you’ve become quite active in philosophical writing for public audiences. Can you talk a little about why and what you hope to achieve?

Skye, I’ve been writing things for the public in response to recent political events, hoping to get people to think about what they are doing. The existentialists raised questions about this kind of thing, most notably in their work on ‘engaged’ philosophy. More broadly their philosophy focused people’s minds on the responsibility of choosing, or actively taking up a stance. You talk about this too. Can you explain the idea that saying ‘I’m not getting involved’ is actually being involved?

During the recent election, a few people were saying that they didn’t like either candidate and so, as an expression of protest, they refused to vote. Politics affects everyone, and so we have a moral obligation to be politically engaged and to stand up for truth and against oppression. Passively resigning ourselves to apathy is not a very good strategy, and one that I think Jean-Paul Sartre would have condemned as “bad faith”.  What do you think? 

Non-voting is a great example. In a similar vein I have tried to call attention to the everyday use of language. I want people to think about how we choose to make the world in certain ways by our use of words. I’ve questioned this in my piece on ‘post-truth’ with the Times. There we see people choosing to pick up and use a buzzword: one that depicts what’s going on in a specific way, one that threatens to obscure their responsibilities to back progressive change.

In the Boston Review recently there was an article titled “Reading Yeats in the Age of Trump”. One poem stood out to me in particular, which reiterates the problem that you mention:

For how can you compete,

Being honor bred, with one

Who were it proved he lies

Were neither shamed in his own

Nor in his neighbours’ eyes.

Your article provides a concrete solution to this. Specifically, it is up to educators to call out sophistry and lies. In addition to bringing attention to the abuse of language, in what other ways do you think philosophy can be helpful to non-academics?

I wrote in a blog piece that “there are no books of wisdom” and “philosophy is not a life hack.” There I was trying to show that philosophy as a practice centrally involves thinking for yourself, rather than relying on somebody else doing it for you. This seems to me one of our distinctive roles as philosophers, and not cultural commentators, experts, or pundits. We’re not there to dish out ‘hot takes’ on x, y, or z, but rather to somehow inspire people to think for themselves about what they are doing. How though to do it? This enterprise seems to call for new ways of engaging people as active participants within the practice of doing philosophy…

And yet many people seem to be drawn to philosophy as a “life hack“. For example, there’s Ryan Holiday’s Stoicism: Practical Philosophy You Can Actually Use and Massimo Pigliucci’s blog and forthcoming book How to be a Stoic – just to name a couple. Stoicism seems to be particularly popular at the moment and – judging by attendees at the recent Stoicon in New York City this past October – especially to men. Why do you think this is?

I’ve seen news reports that philosophy is trending and even ‘cool’… so, these issues are ones for us all to address. Taking Stoicism as an example, perhaps it is readily repackaged as a life hack for a popular audience seeking consolation and coping strategies. That may explain its appeal to some people, because it can be sold as a convenience food. But perhaps there’s more to it. Stoicism was a philosophy for a time of slaves and when women were chattel, of fixed hierarchies. Perhaps it helped its practitioners to live as well as they could, given that status quo. But today the idea of not getting discombobulated about things you deem beyond your control risks quietism, or at least distraction. Maybe this appeals to those who think they need not take up a stance. You mentioned that Stoicon attendees were predominantly men. Well, it has that stuff going on about mastery of the emotions, and it trades on the elevation of the old bearded man as sage. That sort of thing might appeal to some men, those content to uphold the status quo. But we are in times of striking reaction against equality, and against the insistence that women’s lives, queer lives and black lives matter. Perhaps in these regards Stoicism is not just irrelevant, but perhaps it is the last thing we need… and maybe no modernizing gesture can rescue it.

In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir criticizes Stoicism for not going far enough. She says that it’s easy to say that earthquakes and grasshopper plagues are out of our control – although she was not considering these being a result of human-induced changes in climate. But we can’t resign ourselves to war or oppression like we resign ourselves to natural disasters. We have to pick a side. Some might say that this is a misunderstanding or oversimplification of Stoicism, since many of the original Stoics were actually activists and using it to deal with their frustrations. Beauvoir seems to be saying that the risk of Stoicism is that those who aren’t activists can slide into Stoicism as an excuse not to do anything. What are your thoughts on this?

I should like to debate Stoics on these matters and see what they can come up with. Beauvoir is raising Stoicism’s lack of potency in engaging big questions of our time. Given what we were discussing before, this is an important issue. If everyone is implicated and we all take up a stance, even by ostensible inactivity, these big questions matter. I don’t think an oversimplification or misunderstanding reply from Stoics would succeed because it accuses Beauvoir of a ‘strawman’ fallacy. But in cashing out that strawman claim against her I don’t see that reference to the lives of the philosophers counts. We don’t have records of Epictetus marching against slavery… but even if he had that wouldn’t get Stoicism off the hook. The objection from Beauvoir is that Stoicism’s argument about resignation to that we cannot control does not capture oppression cases. Stoics must answer to this. What I would add to what she says is this: oppression is a collective action problem. We can do something about it, but only if we act together. I tried to elucidate this point in my paper “Freedom and Oppression.” But Stoicism comes across as a mere operation on yourself, and one of a particular kind, one whereby you may honorably fulfill your roles. Remember too that Stoicism counsels a search for mental serenity by curbing various passions presumed to be noxious. Existentialism however seeks to deploy the passions in the service of progressive change. We need philosophies now that can inspire collectives. It seems to me that a revival of existentialism, but as a renewed philosophy for the now rather than as a history of ideas or biographical enterprise, is on the cards. Can there be a new existentialist movement?

In At The Existentialist Café–which was recently named the best philosophy book of 2016Sarah Bakewell proposes that we need existential philosophies more than ever because they grapple with issues such as oppression, freedom of speech, how technology shapes our identity, and to what extent we are responsible for ourselves, other people, and the earth. Certainly, there is widespread and pervasive anxiety about the direction that the world is going. Existentialism was born of political despair during the rise of fascism in the 20th century and, since history would seem to be repeating itself, I think Bakewell is right – that it would be pertinent to revisit the existentialists. It has been suggested that we need philosophers in the Pentagon, but what do you think about a Chief Philosophical Advisor to the President or Prime Minister?

Ha! Voltaire had ambitions of that order. One remnant of his efforts is his ‘Dialogue between a philosopher and a comptroller-general of finance.’ It is not much of a dialogue. It kicks off with some egregious flattery, with the philosopher telling the finance minister that he ‘can do a lot of good’, and that vanity isn’t altogether bad. Having warmed up the mark in this way, the philosopher then inflicts his bunch of papers on the politician and the dialogue abruptly ceases. This is a cautionary tale perhaps! Regarding a philosophy for the now, I don’t see this in a biographer writing about lives of past philosophers. And I don’t rate a book that remarks Beauvoir’s appearance, and that refers to her ‘boyfriend’, on its first page! Rather, I think it is a matter of contemporary philosophers doing work that inspires people to philosophize themselves, to think for themselves. Philosophy is for everyone. Let’s all have a crack at it.

I understand you’re writing a book on fun–is that right?  Sounds fun!  Should philosophy be fun? 

Yes, that’s right. No, it’s not a joke! I am loving writing it. It is on the one hand a project of reinvigorating philosophy, by reviving the ancient conception of philosophy as pleasurable pursuit with serious import. On the other hand it is a book that will offer readers a philosophy that plays with the prospects of a fun way of living or mode of existence… even in these times, perhaps all the more in these dark times.

You can find out more about Sandy on Twitter @TheSandyGrant, her APA Member Interview here, or her Aeon article on showing off here.  Skye Cleary is the Managing Editor of the Blog of the APA.

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2 thoughts on “Philosophy in Dark Times: Conversation with Sandy Grant

  1. Don’t want to spoil the fun! But I’d like to comment on behalf of those ne’er-do-wells—myself—who didn’t vote because, quote, they didn’t like either candidate. But, really, now: Was I supposed to like Trump?…

    I campaigned for Gore (2000) & Kerry (2004), and voted for Obama in 2008. Then, after Obama’s Cairo Speech and Arab Spring, I watched the West’s failed project for a Muslim “Color Revolution” turn into a catastrophe, when President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped to destroy the Syrian and Libyan governments, under the guise of democratic regime change—and when those countries predictably collapsed into chaos and anarchy, did nothing to stop the slaughter…

    I’ve watched the Syrian uprising degenerate into the Syrian civil war. I’ve seen the videos of Syrian protesters shot by snipers and the pictures of Syrians horribly tortured in Bashar Assad’s prisons. I’ve seen the videos of survivors of Assad’s gas-attacks (remember the red line?) and watched as Putin’s Russia carried out its terrorist bombing against Syrian civilians. I’ve seen the recent videos from Aleppo of crushed, mutilated children and bloody dismembered bodies in the streets. I watched the Syrian death toll mount to 450,000, 500,000 killed, including at least 100,000 civilians (women and children)… And as a witness to those war-crimes and atrocities, I consider the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry ethically and morally responsible for the consequences of their failed policies.

    After all that, I could not vote for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic status quo. And of course I could not vote for Trump. I cast a protest vote for Gary Johnson in 2012, but Gary Johnson doesn’t know where Aleppo is. And the Green Party discredited itself by taking down Gore in 2000. I therefore took the only ethically and morally engaged, politically responsible stance I could take. And cast a protest vote—by not voting, thereby refusing to consent to the hypocrisy and terror of the current system. But I still continue to send e-mails daily to senators, presidents, and all concerned, still hoping that somebody, anybody, will do something to stop the killing…

    And when I hear the American scholarly academic community speaking out against the greatest humanitarian disaster of the 21st Century: the Syrian catastrophe and the Slaughter of Aleppo—then I’ll be willing to accept chastisement about my ethical and moral responsibility for not voting, thank you.

    There, now. Wasn’t that fun!

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