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Richard Taylor is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Rochester and an internationally renowned ethicist. Tim Madigan tracked him down to discuss Schopenhauer, metaphysics and the intriguing art of beekeeping.
How did you get involved in, of all things, philosophy?
I never had any philosophy in college. My mother’s pastor imagined that I would make a fine preacher, so after college I went off to the University of Chicago to study religion. This quickly convinced me of the absurdity of the Christian religion, but I did encounter philosophers there, for the first time, and I discovered Plato. Soon after Pearl Harbor was bombed I enlisted in the Navy, was commissioned, then sent to the Postgraduate School of the Naval Academy at Annapolis. This led to the Pacific submarine force where, before war’s end, I became a staff officer of a submarine squadron operating out of the Philippines. I filled the time on some of my lonely watches reading philosophy books, most of which I didn’t understand, among them Santayana’s Realms of Being. One of my fellow officers persuaded me to go to Oberlin College at the war’s end, and that, in turn, led to Brown University, where it was my good luck to find Roderick Chisholm, probably the world’s sharpest analytic philosopher. I could never take analytic philosophy very seriously, but I did love doing it, and seemed to have a knack for it. I started publishing papers while still in graduate school.
I understand you are also a noted beekeeper.
Indeed I am, and I suspect I’ll be remembered for my writings on honeybees longer than for my philosophy. It is something I began as a kid and it was a lifelong obsession. While philosophy tended to carry me off into the realms of nothingness, my association with beekeepers kept my feet firmly planted in reality.
You’ve written extensively on Schopenhauer’s philosophy. What got you into that?
I became convinced, by Schopenhauer, as well as from my deep interest in biology, that the Schopenhauerian Will is at the basis of all life. I still am convinced of this, and consider that Schopenhauer, together with some of the ancients, had a clearer perception of the world and humankind than any other thinkers did.
Schopenhauer was also one of the first philosophers to incorporate sexuality into philosophy
Yes, and while some of his views – especially on women – were absurdly extreme, there are also gems of truth there.
Probably your best-known work is Metaphysics, published in the early 1960s. Is it still in print?
Yes, and in its fourth edition. It still produces large royalty checks every six months. The explanation is that it’s provocative. I wrote it in about two months. My approach was to take some far-out themes – fatalism, the existence of God, free will, materialism, etc. – and ‘prove’ them with arguments that I for the most part find incontrovertible, even though I have no opinion one way or the other concerning their conclusions. That’s what analytic philosophy can do for you – except most analytic philosophers imagine that they are really proving something to be true!
How did you come about writing that?
I got a letter from Prentice-Hall asking if I’d like to do a book on metaphysics. I said “sure.” I had just gotten married for the second time and I went off with three kids and my new wife to a farmhouse in Ithaca and sat down and wrote Metaphysics that summer. This raises an interesting point because the book is an application of analytical philosophy to traditional metaphysical issues. I showed all kinds of things – none of which I really believed. For example, I knew that I could invent extremely clever arguments to prove the doctrine of fatalism. People would ask afterwards “Are you still a fatalist?” It never occurred to them to wonder whether I was a fatalist or not! I came up with many arguments in defense of theism, although I’m not a churchgoer. I could also prove that there is no soul. But the book caught on!
Have you updated the book?
Each new edition is a revision. In one of them I had a chapter on being and nothingness, which caused so much vomiting among philosophers that I dropped it.
It’s also one of the few books with a readable index. I find entries like “Animals, as metaphysicians,” “Mice, difficulty of getting rid of,” “Evangelists, how they stupefy with vain promises,” “Sparrows, how God notes their falling,” and so on.
Yes, I got rather carried away with levity when I got to the index. It has been published by itself in four places I know of, as diverse as Mother Jones magazine and The Christian Century. I do sometimes think that academic philosophers, including myself, need reminding of their own absurdity.
What are your general views about philosophy today?
Most of it seems to me vapid. Many academic philosophers cook up what seem to me to be artificial problems and then just kick them around among themselves. There are a few, however, who have something serious to say, one of them being Peter Singer. Thinkers whose views depart radically from the accepted, and essentially harmless, views of the academy usually have a difficult time. The secret is to pursue ‘scholarship’, which involves much toil but little original thinking. They never rock the boat, so university administrators love them.
It’s interesting that Socrates was the original gadfly, and his protégé Plato set up the first academy, a structured higher learning institution. So there’s been that difficulty from the very beginning – Socrates probably wouldn’t have fit well into Plato’s Academy.
Professional philosophers today engage in conceptual analysis. They sit around talking to each other. Now at one very well-known university, with a great reputation for its philosophy, when the philosophers have their seminars they not only don’t want the general public to attend, they don’t even want philosophers from other universities coming in. They want to keep it private. I taught there once, and was amazed by this. It reminded me of Hobbes’ comment about Oxford – he said it had become a philosophers’ playground. I was once in a group of academic philosophers who needed to respond to a query from the college dean as to what philosophy is. I suggested “the love of wisdom.” That produced much mirth and giggling all around.
One reason you are controversial is that you’ve written on offbeat topics. I’m thinking particularly of your book Having Love Affairs.
That book produced much embarrassment in my university. I learned a lot writing it, interviewing lots of people. Few people are aware that it is a defense of marriage and marital fidelity.
You’ve also written about politics, and issues on the judiciary. You’ve called the judiciary the modern-day priests.
Yes, in an article in Free Inquiry called ‘The American Judiciary as a Secular Priesthood.’ That was a neat idea I had – I’m very fond of it! When I look at that and then I look at the things I wrote on metaphysics, I realize there are similarities. Many professors tell me they use my metaphysics book to provoke their students, to stir things up.
That’s the gadfly approach.
My piece on fatalism, for instance – the arguments are extremely strong and for all intents and purposes seem incontestable to me, and yet I don’t think any person is likely to change his or her mind just by reading it.
Yes, it’s interesting that you can study these metaphysical arguments and intellectually be convinced by them, yet it has no effect on one’s life. Determinism or fatalism, how is it going to change the way you have breakfast in the morning?
So much of religious argument is simply a waste of time. I suppose the clearest proof you could have that there is no God is the 9/11 terrorist attack. If God is watching over us, how could He allow such a horror to occur? Yet it seemed to reaffirm people’s faith in some strange way. They flocked to churches afterwards. You know, in Metaphysics I gave several good arguments for God’s existence. One I picked up from someone at a cocktail conversation, a variation on the argument for design. We trust our cognitive faculties. Now, if they were just a product of natural selection, there’d be no reason at all to trust in your senses, but we do. We believe in our senses, and therefore they cannot be merely a product of natural selection but must have been given to us by God.
Actually, the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga uses a version of that argument.
Yes, I heard him give a paper on this and told him, “Look, I said this thirty years ago.” But, unlike me, he takes it seriously.
You’ve also written extensively on jurisprudence and ethics. I assume this was your more serious side.
You are right. I wrote my book Good and Evil during a sojourn in New Zealand. I realized afterwards that it was about the only recent book on what is now called ‘virtue ethics’. It was inspired by classical Greek philosophy, which has governed my life. The final chapter, almost an afterthought, is entitled ‘The Meaning of Life’. This, to my great joy, has created quite a stir, and I’ve written several pieces (including one for Philosophy Now) on that theme since then. I guess if there is anything I’m proud of, that’s it.
Lately you’ve been promoting Aristotelian ethics. What attracts you to that?
It is the classical expression of virtue ethics, which is my approach. Aristotle never asks what is morally right and what is morally wrong. He asks, What is a good man? And by that he meant, what makes some men better than others? What are their virtues, and how are they acquired? I think no one has answered these questions better than Aristotle, and this seems to me to be the only kind of ethics worth pursuing. But of course today it is, even among philosophers, politically incorrect to suggest that some people are superior to others. We’re supposed to think, absurdly, that all people are of equal worth.
Do you have a fear of death?
Actually, I was diagnosed about two months ago with incurable cancer. The prognosis is maybe about another year of life. Strangely, this does not disturb me, just as it did not disturb the Stoics. My life has been blessed at every turn, with a beautiful late-life marriage and wonderful children, two of which – Aristotle and Xeno – were born in my late sixties, after I had retired. I’m deep into writing a book, on marriage and divorce, and this keeps me too busy to give much thought to my mortality.
[Tim Madigan is Editorial Director of the University of Rochester Press, and a US Editor of Philosophy Now.]
• You can read Richard Taylor’s article on ‘The Meaning of Life’ from Philosophy Now Issue 24 on our website at www.philosophynow.org. You can also read a short story by him about academic life, on page 52 of the issue you are holding!