Born and raised in Ohio, Eric Brown studied philosophy and classics at the University of Chicago, with brief but fruitful sojourns at the Universities of Cambridge and Pittsburgh, before he joined the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis almost twenty years ago. He says he has been, and continues to be, fortunate in many ways, but especially in family and friends.
What excites you about philosophy?
I fell for philosophy because it provided an excellent channel for two activities that I dearly loved as a teenager: reading and debating. I still very much like both these activities—trying to understand what questions or answers someone else is at least suggesting and trying to see how these are best criticized—but I’ve come to see that I should be more cautious about the how and when of debating. I’ve also come to be more invested in actually answering some of these questions, but only a few and not by much. What excites me about philosophy is the activity itself more than any specific questions, let alone some particular goal or answer.
You’re stuck on a desert island and you can only have one recreational activity. What is it?
Apart from rambling, especially with family and friends, swimming is my preferred form of exercise these days, and that might come in handy on a desert island. But if the island were so isolated that I would not be able to see another shore from it, I think I’d trade in swimming for reading. I cannot resist adding, however, that I doubt the premise of the question. I cannot read without also thinking about what I am reading, and does that count as a separate recreational activity? If I choose reading, am I somehow forbidden from putting the book down and losing myself in thought? And what about other things that I would have to do? I could not survive without gathering food and preparing it, but does the prohibition on more than one recreational activity require that I not enjoy the food-gathering and preparation, and find them valuable in themselves, apart from the sustenance they provide? There is good news here, I think. We are never limited to just one activity that can be rewarding and meaningful, undertaken for its own sake. Even if we take living to be a single activity, it comprises many others, just as cobbling or philosophizing does.
What’s your poison?
I’m going to have a hard time not boring you with this one. I have a drink in my hand or at my side most of my waking moments. Most often, it’s just water, but I am sure that water would be the hardest drink to give up. I also love coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon, beer with some foods and activities, wine with others, and when the time is right, a whisky or cocktail. Over the past several years, I have probably ordered an American IPA or a Negroni more often than any others in their categories, and I have long been determined not to make Keynes’ mistake, but my favorite drink is always the one that I think best fits what I am doing at the moment. You could call me an aesthetic particularist, if you liked to talk dirty.
What’s your personal philosophy?
Since it might by now seem that I am an unreliable interviewee, refusing the terms of the questions, may I first just say that I really like this one? I realize that some professional philosophers might find it slightly embarrassing or ridiculous, as I am pretty sure that I was once one of them. But not anymore. The love of wisdom can and should push us toward trying to understand how things are and how we should live, and we will have lost something wonderful if we surrender this for a more narrow, technical enterprise.
Whether we are self-consciously philosophical or not, the way we live manifests commitments about how things are and how we should live—our philosophy—and the work we self-conscious philosophers can do for ourselves, our friends, and our students in examining and improving this personal philosophy—the work we can do in shaping this personal philosophy in self-consciously philosophical ways—is more valuable, I think, than our professional journal articles. But of course it’s harder to quantify and thereby “assess” quickly, and we academicians are captive to the capitalist ideology now. I worry that the perversion of incentives away from developing a wiser personal philosophy and helping others pursue it is not just a moral failure but also a pragmatic problem for our profession. The more emphasis we put on our measurable outputs that we list on CVs, the more skeptical the public will (and should) be about the value of philosophy.
In any case, my personal philosophy is mostly skeptical on questions of theoretical philosophy and mostly Stoic on practical ones. I suppose this puts me in Cicero’s company. I am okay with that. While I don’t much care for the persona lurking behind Cicero’s writing or for his politics, I do find his skeptical and Stoic leanings congenial. In the eighteenth century, this would’ve been unremarkable for a philosopher to confess, but times have changed.
Who is your favorite philosopher and why?
Plato, and it’s not especially close. I cannot say why better than Bernard Williams already has:
It is pointless to ask who is the world’s greatest philosopher: for one thing there are many different ways of doing philosophy. But we can say what the various qualities of great philosophers are: intellectual power and depth; a grasp of the sciences; a sense of the political, and of human destructiveness as well as creativity; a broad range and a fertile imagination; an unwillingness to settle for the superficially reassuring; and, in an unusually lucky case, the gifts of a great writer. If we ask which philosopher has, more than any other, combined all these qualities—to that question there is certainly an answer, Plato.
Find out more about Eric here.
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