Robert A. Jaeger, '65

Robert A. Jaeger
When you first came to Princeton what did you think your major would be?

I arrived at Princeton expecting to major in mathematics or physics.  But my freshman math and physics courses quickly demonstrated that there were lots of other folks whose intuitive grasp of the material was much surer than mine.  At the same time I took an introductory philosophy course on Plato.  That got me hooked.

What made you decide to major in Philosophy?

Philosophy offered a new way of thinking about things.  The emphasis was not on facts, or proofs, or “stories,” but on a novel combination of imagination and rigor.  Imagination drove the search for bizarre counter-examples and new ways of looking at things, but the rules of argument always had to be obeyed.

Are there any stories about your experiences as a Philosophy major at Princeton that you would like to share?

Two quite different stories.  Story A: It’s a fabulous spring day in Princeton, wisteria exploding all over, and I’m in a small seminar room where today’s topic is Kant’s Transcendental Unity of Apperception.  All I can think about is, “What are we doing inside?”  Story B: In my senior year the Gauss Lectures were delivered by Noam Chomsky.  Those lectures soon became the book Syntactic Structures.  The lectures were fantastic, the audience was wildly diverse (undergraduates, graduate students, faculty from several departments, the works), and the post-lecture discussions were “spirited” but respectful.  I thought to myself, “If this is what the academic life can be, then I want more.”

What did you do immediately after leaving Princeton?

After Princeton I did a B.Phil. at Oxford, then a Ph.D. at Cornell, then I taught Philosophy at Yale during the 1970’s and early 1980’s.  Eventually I hit a wall.  The job situation in the humanities was terrible, and half the philosophers I knew were going off to law school, but I knew that law school would be torture for me.

So I went into the investment business.  Although I’ve never been a rah-rah alumnus, I got some very warm support from a group of Princeton alumni who had volunteered to talk to other alumni about career changes.  After many conversations with many people I got lucky and found a small firm willing to take a risk.  The firm comprised a group of exceptionally decent people who bore no resemblance to the stereotypical Wall Street shark.  We stayed together for 30+ years until I retired at the end of 2014.

What do you do now?

I’m now retired, so I get to spend more time doing things that I care about, which includes spending time on a Philosophy Department project.  In 2015, during my 50th reunion, I wandered over to the Philosophy Department’s wine and cheese reception.  I soon found myself talking to a group of folks who are smart, interesting, and have a passion for teaching.  That occasion reminded me that Princeton’s Philosophy Department is a high-quality institution that played a critical role in shaping my way of thinking about the world.  So I’m now very happy to be working with key members of the department to see if there are other alumni out there who might have similar feelings. [This interview was conducted in 2015.]

Final words?

When you reach a certain age you start thinking about how the different parts of your life fit together.  In my case, people are often mystified by the transition from philosophy to the investment business.  The explanation is not that philosophy teaches you how to find stocks that will go up.  Nothing teaches you that, not even a Harvard MBA and 10 years at Goldman Sachs.  But investing is a form of applied epistemology, shot through with problems about prediction, uncertainty, risk, rationality, perception vs. reality, and so forth.  Moreover, philosophy teaches you to be very careful with words, and very careful with numbers, and it teaches you that often, when you think you need more information, what you really need is a clearer view of the information that you already have.