From Lindrum's to Princeton, and Surfaces to the Hereafter: A Written Interview with Mark Johnston

Mark Johnston: 'If the sketch is accurate, Kant at least seems to have known how to properly aim.'

This profile is a complement to the profile with Mark Johnston published here.

How did you get interested in philosophy?

It all began in an underground cave in Melbourne, Australia. During my last two years of high school at St. Joseph’s, North Melbourne, I was spending most of my time a quick tram-ride away at Walter Lindrum’s Billiard Saloon—yes, that was the name of an august Melbourne educational institution established in 1923—on Flinders Lane. Earlier, I had skipped three years in school because my teachers, who were the Brigidine Sisters in grade school and the Christian Brothers in high school, used early promotion to the next grade as the cleanest way to get rid of smart-ass kids like me. So in sixth form I was fourteen going on fifteen. Instead of regularly attending school, I just read the books for the final exams, while headquartered at Lindrum’s.

School was slow, even oppressive, and anyway the plan at fourteen was to become world snooker champion. That ambition now seems quaint, indeed zany, even to me. But it was Melbourne in 1968, and the only thing that seriously counted for a boy was being really good at some game or sport. If you couldn’t be an Aussie Rules football player or a cricketer or a jockey or something like that, then at least there was snooker. In ’68 the hero at Lindrum’s was a hustler known as Scotty, a brilliant player, a natural, in some ways comparable to Hurricane Higgins or Alex Pagulayan, for those fortunates who know of them. Scotty taught me how to play.

Even as my snooker game significantly improved, the other regulars, who were all adults—mostly tough working-men along with a few dodgy bookmakers and some lazy journalists from the Herald newspaper—still treated me as a know-nothing kid. Which I was. Yet they were happy to gamble with me, typically offering to take on a handicap to lure me in. Invariably it turned out that it was I who should have given them a start. They put their losses down to bad luck, against a very lucky kid, and soon ponied up again for more punishment. Eventually, they stopped offering me a handicap, and I had to give them a start to get a gamble going. Even so they fumbled, except for Scotty.

Lindrum’s was a bracing introduction to the absurdities of adult pretension. Looking back, it was also a display of the power of what the theorist Rene Girard called mimesis: because we have no being in us, but only an open field of desiring subjectivity, we must learn what to want and value from the local others, who learnt it from still others, without anyone ever seriously considering whether what they learned to want by this history of habitual mimicry is actually worthwhile. Snooker definitely has its charms, but it is, after all, somewhat banal. You play it now because you once saw the adults playing it, and then they said you were getting good at it. How much of ordinary life is captured by that diagnosis?

In any case, to come back to philosophy, in 1969 there was a designated theme for the statewide English exam—Authority and the Individual. The reading list was a heady concoction, including as it did Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, Bertrand Russell’s Reith Lectures, and crucially for me, excerpts from the Platonic dialogs collected in the old Penguin edition, The Last Days of Socrates. Gosse was unreadable. Russell was clever but tedious. Plato was electric.

Especially so, since Lindrum’s was underground. You went from Flinders Lane down a steep flight of steps into a cavernous basement with twenty tables, lit only by shaded lights, one above each table. Shadows of the players were cast upon the walls, and the foolishness of adult male life, with its competitive preening, more than occasional violence, and constant self-deception, was openly displayed for those who had eyes to see. Everyone had opinions about everything, except the know-nothing kid, who somehow kept taking their money.

Inevitably, one day at Lindrum’s, between games, while reading The Last Days of Socrates, I came upon Plato’s myth of the cave, the myth of escaping from the moral and intellectual darkness of ordinary life. It wasn’t necessary to imagine the shadows on the wall that mesmerized the inhabitants of Plato’s cave. I could see them, right in front of me. And by then, thanks in large part to my education at Lindrum’s, I also knew that the real sun, the illuminating light which helps overcome mere opinion, mimesis and moral confusion, wasn’t to be found just by going upstairs onto sunny Flinders Lane, or even by pursuing a secure job in the warm suburbs of Melbourne.

Finishing high-school at the age of fifteen, I did not begin to learn a trade as my dad warned me I must, or become a professional snooker player as Scotty would have liked, or go to university as my mother urged. Instead, I went to Sydney to join the Columban Fathers, a Catholic missionary order that sent its priests to Japan, Korea, Peru, Chile and the Philippines.

Shock all around. Especially at Lindrum’s. “Wot! Johno is off to become a priest? Naahh.”

What led you to go to the seminary?

I seem to remember it had something to do with the light shining into the darkness and the darkness not overcoming it.

Did you do philosophy in the seminary?

Not in any real way. It was mostly scholastic summaries in bad textbooks, along with superficial rehearsals of Aristotelian syllogistic.

What really engaged me was the life of prayer and dedication to God. After just three months in the seminary my entering class began the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, the so-called thirty-day retreat. The regimen was forbidding. There were four sequenced meditations every day, each lasting two hours. For the whole thirty days, you spoke to no one except your spiritual advisor. The aim of the subtly sequenced meditations of the Exercises was to begin the transformation from self-will to radical abandonment to the will of God. (I won’t say how far I got with that.)

Then there were the vivid Ignatian ideas of seeing God in all things, and of acting solely for God’s greater glory. Central also was setting aside the secular mimetic form of life, in favor of direct experience of the Good, or God’s will for you. Ignatius was a genius in both psychological and spiritual matters, and many people who take the full Exercises find it to be one of the most important events in their life, even if they cease to be conventionally religious.

That was how I found it.

Why did you leave the seminary?

A good Catholic doctor “saved” me. In 1972 there was a flu outbreak sweeping through Sydney. The local doctor kindly vaccinated the priests and the seminarians for free. As sometimes happened in those days, the good doctor heedlessly reused needles. I contracted a liver-attacking infection that a priest had brought back from the Columban mission in Mindanao. It was never properly diagnosed, and I was badly ill, bed-ridden in fact, for more than a year, and for a year after that I was neither here nor there.

So I wasn’t made for the missions.

So how did you end up as a philosopher?

After I left the seminary, I worked at a number of fill-in jobs. I was a groundskeeper in Albert Park for a while. Then I sold train tickets at the front office of Flinders Street Station, with hordes of commuters coming at me, morning and afternoon. After that, I was hired at the South Melbourne Council, in the property tax or rates department. It was a good office job, which I loathed. At least at Lindrum’s your standing was dependent on actual displayed talent, not on where you were in some random hierarchical structure. So, at last, I decided to go to university, intending to pursue experimental psychology.

Fatefully, I took an introductory philosophy course which began with Descartes’ Meditations. The Meditations was eerily familiar. Not the content or the arguments, but the framework of meditation and personal resolution, along with Descartes’ explicit attempt to reorganize his will around the central purifying maxim of not accepting anything of which he was not certain. Then there was Descartes’ version of the familiar Jesuit anxiety concerning discernment of spirits: how do I know that it is not an evil demon who is making me think or see this? So the whole atmosphere of the Meditations was, for me, redolent of Ignatius’s Exercises. The epistemological problem that Descartes himself invents is resolved by his trusting that God is no deceiver. Of course, from the Ignatian point of view, Descartes’ Meditations is an evasive displacement, onto the epistemic realm, of the deeper problem of the Exercises, namely how to trust in the choice of a fundamental practical orientation of one’s will, particularly if that chosen orientation valorizes the Good over one’s own good.

Years later, I discovered it was no accident that I had immediately resonated with the Meditations. When he was young, Descartes spent eight years at the Jesuit college of La Fleche, where it was customary for the students to take the truncated eight-day version of the Exercises every year during Holy Week, in order to help them in their final choice of a way of life. The texture, images and flavor of the Exercises must have remained with Descartes.

To josh my colleague Dan Garber, I sometimes say that you can’t fully understand the atmospherics of the Meditations, and hence what it is really about, unless you take the Exercises. Dan thinks it an exaggeration, but Zeno Vendler, the only other philosopher in the analytic tradition that I know to have taken the thirty-day retreat, makes a telling case for that “exaggeration” in his “Descartes Exercises” (Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 1989).

In any case, I was hooked on philosophy from that first course on. There were excellent philosophers at Melbourne University, most notably Barry Taylor, Len Goddard, Eric Darcy, Douglas Gasking, Mary McClosky, Vernon Rice and Tony Coady, whose classic work on testimony you must know. David Armstrong visited Melbourne in 1976, while I was an undergraduate, and gave seminars on what would become his two influential books on universals and laws of nature.

At the beginning of his seminar series, David set out his not-to-be-questioned reductive materialist starting points by saying “If you are like me, you will believe…” But with his slight Australian drawl it came across as an appeal to fondness for him: “If yer like me, you will believe…” It was not hard to like David.

Come to think of it, the unintentional appeal to personal fondness was at least as good as several of the arguments David originally gave, back in the early sixties, for the basic materialist outlook which he had championed, along with U.T. Place, Jack Smart and David Lewis. The crucial premise, that mental states were nothing more than the inner realizers of functional roles, was itself the product of an implicitly materialist outlook. Certainly it was not a neutral upshot of an analysis of mental state concepts, nor anything like a full account of the nature of mental states. It seemed purely ideological when compared to the subtle discussion by Franz Brentano as to what what was constitutive of mental states.

And that name “Australian Materialism” was unfortunate, given the burgeoning consumerism in Australia in the sixties and seventies. As philosophy students at Melbourne University in the seventies, we used to say that just as there is “American Pragmatism”, which could be either the name for the work of William James and John Dewey, or for the crude commercial attitude that only the bottom line really matters, there is also “Australian Materialism”, which is a name for both the view that the mind is the brain, and for the attitude that the price of the stereo system is more significant than the quality of the sound that comes out of it. In both cases, there is a question about the cultural source of the polysemy that connects the philosophical doctrine and the vulgar attitude.

The materialism and the universals aside, there is a lot to learn from David Armstrong’s work, across a wide variety of subjects. Among his best philosophy is one of his earliest books, hardly read today—Bodily Sensations, published by Rutledge in the early sixties. That is a gem. And his paper on relational and non-relational accounts of identity over time was the inspiration for the distinction between perdurance and endurance, which I introduced in my dissertation, and which David Lewis took up, to some effect.

Frank Jackson, now rightly known as one of the nicest men you could ever meet, was a young professor at Monash back then, and totally ruthless in argument. I remember him ripping into Jack Smart at a paper after Jack had just retailed a translucent account of Quine’s rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction in order to undermine Len Goddard’s attempt to solve the Ravens paradox within the framework of relevance logic. It wasn’t just Frank. The atmosphere was full-on delight in the pugna verborum, where the person with the best arguments, independent of age or rank, was likely to win the day. It was Lindrum’s, rather than the South Melbourne Council. What mattered was actual displayed talent.

Even throughout the seventies, philosophy in Australia was predominantly an oral activity. Publication was secondary, at best. Barry Taylor, himself an avid Davidsonian, told me that Donald Davidson was a talented philosopher with some important ideas, who lamentably had acquired a tendency to over-publish! The Australian philosopher who had the reputation of being the deepest thinker was Frank’s dad, Cameron “Camo” Jackson, an Australian Rogers Albritton figure, who like Rogers published next to nothing.

I got to know Rogers himself later on, and the long hours of philosophical conversation with him were reminiscent of the Australian philosophical milieu in which I grew up. True, that milieu would now be described as unprofessional. But in some ways it was much the better for that.

Why did you go to Princeton for graduate school rather than Oxford, where many of your teachers went?

Yes, no one from Australia had gone to Princeton for graduate school in philosophy before. Barry Taylor never really forgave me for not going to Oxford. The easy part of the answer to your question is that Saul Kripke, David Lewis, Tom Nagel, Gil Harman, Dick “Diamond Jim” Jeffrey, Bas van Fraassen, Paul Benacerraf, Margret Wilson and Dick Rorty were all at Princeton when I applied. They, along with Donald Davidson and Michael Dummett, were the people I was reading in my last years as an undergraduate.

There was also a personal connection. Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, who twice visited from Rutgers while I was at Melbourne University, was indispensible in making the idea of going to Princeton an option that I could begin to fill out in my imagination. And Amelie’s seminars on the emotions at Melbourne seamlessly melded the modern history of Western reflection on the emotions with close analytic argument. It was eye opening. Australian philosophy had not yet acquired the respect for the history of philosophy that was already prevalent in the United States.

What great philosophers do you most admire?

I admire all the great philosophers. Philosophy is so hard and important that if someone is great at it then that person deserves admiration. But I have an affinity for Socrates, Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard. My estimation of Kant has grown since I discovered that he used to hustle at billiards (the carom game) when he was a student at university. His university friend Heilsberg writes this:

Kant’s only recreation was playing billiards, a game in which Wlömer and I were his constant companions. We had nearly perfected our game, and rarely returned home without some winnings. As a consequence, persons refused to play with us, and we abandoned this source of income, and chose instead L’Hombre, which he played well.

One thing the philosophers on my list have in common is an understanding, each their own distinctive understanding, of philosophy as a response to our sense of homelessness, to the feeling that this is not our true home, even if—as Schopenhauer thought—there is no true home.

For example, there is the opening of Spinoza’s Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect

After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile; seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else: whether, in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness.

Crazed, but splendid. If you are like me, when you read that you knew that you were confronted with a person of real seriousness, a person who has just made a demand on you to think again about the structure of your own life. Here at least, Spinoza is closer to the Exercises than Descartes ever was. And Spinoza’s final resolution of his sense of homelessness ends with amor Dei intellectualis, something he shared with Aquinas.

Why Kierkegaard?

Kierkegaard was the one of the fathers of 20th Century philosophy. Consider that, when measured by impact and the devotion of their followers and commentators, the two most influential philosophers of the 20th Century were Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Both were brought up Catholic. Wittgenstein nominally so, even though he was buried in the Catholic rite, thanks to his request as he was dying for “a priest who is not a philosopher”. Though Heidegger and Wittgenstein rejected organized religion, they were in their very different ways, religious thinkers, or perhaps religious thinkers manqué.

I mean that both looked to philosophy as a source of a kind of austere salvation. For the early Heidegger, that came in part from the radical individuating experience of confrontation with just one of the Four Last Things of standard Christian theology; as Heidegger styled it: one’s ownmost death—the very thing that the smothering memetic crowd, the They, can never take away.

Wittgenstein calls his own version of austere salvation “the feeling of being absolutely safe”. Rush Rees reports him as saying “I am not a religious man, but I cannot help seeing everything from a religious point of view”. But that just is what it is to be a religious person.

The influence of the radical Lutheran Christianity of Kierkegaard on the early Heidegger is obvious and widely discussed. Less noticed is that Wittgenstein deeply admired Kierkegaard. He writes: “Kierkegaard is the greatest thinker of the 19th Century. He was a saint.” There is a reading of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus as exhibiting something close to the outlook of Kierkegaard’s character Johannes Climachus, an outlook that find’s expression in the young Wittgenstein in the strange idiom that hypnotized him at the time, the idiom of logical atomism. The intent of the Tractatus is to draw the outer boundaries of objective thought, in order to show that objective thought fails to capture what is most important—the ethical and the salvific, understood as a profoundly accepting interior orientation towards everything that happens. That is the interpretation of the Tractatus which Wittgenstein himself offers to his friend, von Ficker:

The book's point is an ethical one. I once meant to include in the preface a sentence which is not in fact there now but which I will write out for you here, because it will perhaps be a key to the work for you. What I meant to write, then, was this: My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one. My book draws limits to the sphere of the ethical from the inside as it were, and I am convinced that this is the ONLY rigorous way of drawing those limits. In short, I believe that many others today are just gassing. I have managed in my book to put everything firmly in place by being silent about it.

That also expresses the core of Climachus’s claim that truth is subjectivity, namely that the most important form of truthfulness is not a deliverance of objective investigation but an orientation of the will in the face of truth.

As to Kierkegaard’s broad influence, one thing that is even less well known is that Jerry Fodor once adored Kierkegaard. The present Dean of the Graduate School at Princeton recently discovered that when Jerry applied to Princeton for graduate school his stated intention was to work on Kierkegaard’s philosophy. Even later in his life, Jerry was reported as saying that Kierkegaard was “playing in a different league from the rest of us.” I think he meant a superior league.


Turning to your work, how do you now think of your notion of response-dependent concepts?

Right, but this will be an abrupt change of key. I would distinguish de jure and de facto response-dependence. A concept is de jure response-dependent if its defining conditions of application turn on how we respond to the possible things that might satisfy the concept. So the concepts of being irritating and of being nauseating are de jure response-dependent. By contrast, de facto response-dependence is an extrinsic feature of a concept. There are concepts of features whose possession by objects is, as a matter of the nature of the feature the concept happens to pick out, response-dependent. That is, the feature is had by its possessors in virtue of certain patterns found in and among our responses. The concept of being red is like that, or so I would argue. The concept of being red is not the concept of habitually and by some standard light mechanism looking red to certain perceivers under certain conditions. However, it could still turn out upon reflection on all the relevant facts that the best account of something’s having the property of being red involves this: that thing, habitually and by some standard light mechanism, looks red to certain perceivers under certain conditions.

To take another case I find interesting, partly because of its connection with idolatry, consider the concept of an authoritative command. There is an old view that authoritative commands are authoritative just by virtue of their content, or by virtue of their content and the nature of the good, the right or the sacred. An example might be: Honour your father and your mother! Upon understanding it, and appreciating the good, the right or the sacred you just see that it has force. One pre-modern view is that all real authority is like that.

An opposing view, which highlights the potential “false necessity” or idol-making in this idea of authority, is that a command is authoritative only if and because there is a habit or disposition to show respect to it, if not to follow it. Both guilty lapsing and hypocrisy both might be understood as ways of showing respect to a command, while not following it. As taxes that vice pays to virtue they show, or at least feign, respect for the command.

On this opposing view, authority depends on, is grounded in, the inclinations of people to salute, or try to, or pretend to salute when the relevant flag goes up the flagpole. In more stilted terms, and simplifying a bit

It lies in the nature of authority and of a given command C, that C has authority if and only if and because the intended audience will have a habit or disposition to accept or at least respect the command. (A model for de facto response-dependence)

It should be clear that there are specifications of C for which the embedded biconditional is not a conceptual truth. For someone who takes the view that the authority of some authoritative command is intrinsic to its content and the nature of the good, etc. is not making a conceptual mistake. Indeed, we can come to realize, or discover, that the authority of some commands are de facto response-dependent, while others are not.

One way to discover this is to see that the authority of some commands have dissipated as the dispositions to respect them weakened. So the commands or demands of female sexual modesty prevalent in Victorian England have now lost their authority. It is not that they remain authoritative. It is not that teenage girls who guiltlessly wear bikinis on the beach are badly misbehaving.

How far can this debunking of the idea of inherent authority go? We are not going to debunk the inherent authority of all commands. “Value the truth!” and “Do not infer p from if p then q and q!” are examples. Disenchantment—the discovery that our responses are not demanded by some response-independent justifier—can only go so far. After all “Look to the facts!” is disenchantment’s own characteristic command.

Still, the authority of many commands, including most of those around which we are now organising our lives, is de facto response-dependent. What is the range of commands whose authority is not in this way dependent upon, or as people now put it, grounded in, our responses of acceptance, guilty lapsing and hypocrisy? To what extent are we victims of false necessity, of thinking of our collective practices as having response-independent justifiers?

One important empirical question for political theory is just how much false necessity is required for a particular social order to survive and provide security for its needy and less adventurous members. How far does an incredibly complex, yet to some extent cooperative, society like ours need to encourage the false idea that many of its demands are response-independent, that it’s central practices have independent justifiers, which not only underwrite but demand those practices?

For what it is worth, my own view is that complex social life is inevitably not life in the light of the sun but life in the cave, to borrow again Plato’s metaphor, and to take on board his pessimistic realism about the human condition. Life in the cave requires that there be a heavy helping of false necessity of one sort or another, i.e. persistent illusions to the effect that there are independent justifiers of our central social practices.

Only small groups can enter into the light of truth together. If political legitimacy requires at least counterfactual informed consent then the only loci of political legitimacy are smallish groups, like clans, where something like face-to-face accountability for a lack of truthful reflection has some chance of actually being implemented. Otherwise what holds us together is an idolatrous attitude to the social structure of command—an attitude supported not by informed consent, which would include answering the possibly disenchanting and destabilising question of response-dependence—but instead by what Noam Chomsky called manufactured consent; that is, by propaganda.

I also fear that the long supposed legitimation of immensely powerful national authority by mass democratic vote is now empirically proven to have been a chimera, and consequently that much of normal political philosophy in the analytic tradition has amounted to whistling in the dark. This fear is heightened by the cognitive science of biases and heuristics, including the unhappy empirical observation that we look for epistemic permission to persist in our cherished views, while requiring the demonstration of an epistemic obligation to give them up. We are not, on the whole, looking for relevant information on crucial practical matters. We are looking for confirmation of our biases. Whatever side we are on, we are hiding in the cave.

Sarah-Jane Leslie’s unnerving empirical work on both the psychological centrality and the “tonk”-like character of generic inference, intensifies this fear. When the evidence is just that some terrorists are Muslims, our default system of generalisation easily takes us to “Muslims are terrorists” and then, in effect, to “Characteristically, Muslims are terrorists.” That is the kind of thing we do habitually, and there is little empirical evidence that a university education makes it less prevalent, even though it may suppress certain instances of the inferential pattern.

So much for de facto response-dependence, what about de jure response-dependence?

When I began writing about colour and other manifest features in the mid-eighties, a common view, held for example by Christopher Peacocke, Colin McGinn and Michael Smith, was that biconditionals like

A surface is red if and only if it is disposed to appear red to standard perceivers under standard conditions

are a priori and necessary. There was an inclination to say that the source of this a priori necessity was the concept of being red and its “conceptual connection” with the concept of appearing a certain way. It wasn’t just that the concept of being red was a concept that de facto applied to a feature whose possession was grounded in, or metaphysically explained by, dispositions to appear. It was instead supposed to be a conceptual matter. The biconditional represented the sort of non-trivial conceptual truth that analytic philosophers since G. E. Moore had aimed for under the heading of “analysis”. In fullish dress, that would amount to something like this:

It follows from the natures of the concept of being red and of the other concepts employed in what follows that a surface is red if and only if it is disposed to appear red to standard perceivers under standard conditions

Partly under the influence of my teacher Saul Kripke, I was already deeply skeptical of this kind of idea. There are de jure response-dependent concepts where the relevant conceptual, because linguistically guaranteed, conditional holds. Here is the obvious example:

Something is nauseating if and only if it induces feelings of nausea.

But now if you now say that the ground or metaphysical explanation of being nauseating is being such as to induce nausea, you then fall foul of the missing explanation argument. Moreover, such de jure response-dependent concepts are, as I argued in “Objectivity Refigured”, few and far between.

In general, non-trivial analyses of concepts are few and far between. Back in the 1980’s, I had already argued against the adequacy of the analytic method of cases, the method of trying to arrive at a non-trivial conceptual analysis by considering our intuitions about real and imaginary cases and trying to summarise them in a bi-conditional. For example, when it comes to the concept of personal identity that method fails, in part because our criteria of application for the concept of being the same person are characteristic generics, which give us little or no guidance in the ingenious range of odd cases conjured up by the philosophical imagination. This skepticism deepened over time as I have learnt more how the psychology of concept use fails to underwrite many assumptions about concepts made by analytic philosophers. For more on concepts see the recent (2019) joint paper with Sarah-Jane Leslie “Cognitive Science and the Metaphysics of Meaning”.

How does what you called the “missing explanation” argument fit in?

The missing explanation argument was essentially the observation that de facto and de jure response-dependence are at odds with each other. Collaterally, it was an attempt to resist certain claims of conceptual equivalence.

People who endorsed de jure response-dependence about being red, often referred to that thesis as the dispositional view of colour concepts, to indicate that what was more conceptually basic were the dispositions, as if as a conceptual matter things get to count as coloured in virtue of their dispositions. But that cannot be so if the metaphysical explanation of something’s being red is the following