When you first came to Princeton what did you think your major would be?
I did not have a clear idea – perhaps literature or classics. (I had studied some Greek in high school.) I am not sure that I really knew what Philosophy was when I entered Princeton.
What made you decide to major in philosophy?
Late in the confused and confusing fall semester of my freshman year (it was 1969) when it was time to sign up for spring courses, I had the idea that I should take a philosophy course. Perhaps that is what I would do with myself, though I still did not really know what Philosophy was… The course that I enrolled in was an introduction to the Philosophy of Science taught by Carl Hempel. At one point in his opening lecture while explaining what philosophy of science was about, he spread his arms wide in an excited gesture and said something about “understanding the nature of reality”. I thought, “Wow, this is for me!”, and I was hooked. (Intellectual excitement can be contagious.)
Are there any stories about your experiences as a Philosophy major at Princeton that you'd like to share?
There are a few stories that I should probably not share. But I can say that I really enjoyed being a Philosophy major (without wanting to underestimate the pressures and stresses of a Princeton education). I became good friends with a group of fellow majors and we spent a lot of time together discussing what we were learning in our courses or later trying to do in our senior theses. We did not always know what we were talking about, but that never prevented us from expressing our views with great confidence and in the process from having what we thought of as fun.
During senior year I often worked in my carrel in Firestone until the library closed. I remember running into a friend one night on the way out and thinking: workers heading home from the knowledge factory at the end of the second shift.
I had the privilege to study with some important philosophers. Paul Benacerraf advised my Junior Paper and Richard Rorty advised my Senior Thesis, and both were important teachers for me. (I later figured out that they had very different philosophical sensibilities.) I also took courses with George Pitcher, Margaret Wilson, Gilbert Harman, and David Hoy among others. To my later regret, I did not take courses with Tim Scanlon and Thomas Nagel, whose work I studied very seriously in graduate school and throughout my career.
What did you do immediately after leaving Princeton?
I worked as a carpenter and construction worker for two years, including a year in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, where one of my close friends from Princeton and earlier grew up and was working as a TV broadcaster. (People did that sort of thing in those days.) I left St. Croix for Cambridge, Massachusetts to begin graduate school at Harvard in the fall of 1975. (Talk about a change of scenery…)
What do you do now?
I am Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, where I have taught since 1994 (after teaching at a few other institutions). The focus of my research has been Kant’s moral philosophy. Curiously, when I was an undergraduate I did not see how there could be such a subject as moral philosophy and I did not understand why anyone would read history of philosophy, rather than contemporary philosophy. Now one of my main interests is the history of moral philosophy. (Interests change.) [NB: This interview was conducted in June 2014.]
As someone who teaches Philosophy for a living, I have a stake in the value of the philosophy major. By that I mean that it is important for people in my position that undergraduates find philosophy to be a valuable major, especially in an era when university education is often regarded instrumentally as pre-professional training. So I find it gratifying to read the comments of other alumni who chose the philosophy major for its intrinsic interest and who later found that the exposure to enduring problems and the analytical skills and methods of thinking that are part of the discipline have served them in many different career paths and areas of life. Philosophers tend to think differently from people in other disciplines and they often think about problems that are not taken up anywhere else. I think that it is a good thing that there are people who do this for a living. But I also think that it is a good thing for people who don’t end up doing it for a living to have some serious exposure to the discipline, and I am glad to see this belief confirmed in the reflections of other alumni.