Quassim Cassam was born in Mombasa, Kenya, and lived the early part of his life there, though he lived most of his adult life in the UK. His first tenured job in philosophy was at Oxford, where he taught for 18 years as a Fellow of Wadham College. Since then he has been a Professor of Philosophy at University College London, Cambridge, and his current university, Warwick. He has published four books including, most recently, Self-Knowledge for Humans.
What are you working on right now?
I’m writing a book called Vices of the Mind. It’s about epistemic vices such as closed-mindedness, gullibility, prejudice, and what I call ‘epistemic insouciance’. The first thing people usually say when they hear I’m writing about epistemic vice is that there couldn’t be a better time to be doing this. I started writing in 2016, which turned out to be a vintage year for epistemic and other vices in politics. For anyone looking for practical examples of epistemic vice, politics today is a gift that keeps on giving.
The idea of the book is that epistemic vices are blameworthy attitudes, character traits or ways of thinking that systematically obstruct the gaining, keeping or sharing of knowledge. I have a label for my position: ‘obstructivism’. I use real world examples such as Brexit and the Iraq war to build a theory of epistemic vice and give an account of specific vices. Many philosophers think that epistemic vices are character traits and I agree that some vices are. However, it seems to me that many of our most serious and fundamental epistemic vices are bad attitudes towards truth, knowledge and evidence or epistemically vicious thinking styles. I think this connects with the recent rise of ‘post-truth’ politics. Over the years epistemologists have paid a lot of attention to epistemic virtues but I’ve always found the vices more interesting and certainly more relevant.
In addition to writing my book I’ve also organised a couple of conferences, one on professional vices in modern medicine and the other on what I think is a completely new field, the epistemology of counterterrorism.
What are you reading right now?
I listen a lot to audiobooks. My all-time favorite is Jake Gyllenhaal reading The Great Gatsby. I’m currently listening to Keith Richards’ Life, read by Johnny Depp, Joe Hurley and Keith Richards. The books I’m currently reading, as distinct from listening to, are Objective Troy by Scott Shane, Imperium by Robert Harris, and Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World by James Ball. I would recommend all of them, and it’s interesting to read the three of them together.
What would your childhood self have said if someone told him that he would grow up to be a philosopher?
I was raised by a mother who was a devout Muslim and a father who was a devout Marxist. He won the battle for my childhood soul and I remember reading (though, of course, not understanding) a two volume edition of the selected works of Marx and Engels when I was about 11. I read a lot of Marxist literature in my teens and I still remember the look of shock on the face of one of my schoolteachers when he discovered that the book I was trying to conceal from him was Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky. At that time I would probably have thought that it would be quite cool to grow up to be a philosopher, but even cooler to be a political economist. I don’t think my teenage Marxist self would have been impressed by the kind of philosophy I’ve done for most of my career but might have found my current work mildly interesting.
Which books have changed your life?
I guess that would have to be the book that really turned me on to philosophy: Individuals, by P. F. Strawson. I read it as an undergraduate and thought: this is what I want to do. Quite a change from the stuff I had been reading as a teenager.
What’s your favorite quote?
My current favorite is something that Susan Stebbing said in 1939 in a book called Thinking To Some Purpose:
There is an urgent need today for the citizens of a democracy to think well. It is not enough to have freedom of the press and parliamentary institutions. Our difficulties are due partly to our own stupidity, partly to the exploitation of that stupidity, and partly to our own prejudices and personal desires.
Find out more about Quassim here.
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