Adrian Moore is a Professor of Philosophy and Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Oxford, he is also a Tutorial Fellow of St Hugh’s College. Professor Moore’s main areas of interest are Kant, Wittgenstein, History of Philosophy and Metaphysics. In addition to that, he is also a life-long ardent Manchester City supporter, but don’t hold that against him! In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of topics from his radio show A History of the Infinite, to his favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It has been an absolute pleasure to interview Adrian and we hope you enjoy reading about his journey so far.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: It is context-dependent. If my interlocutor knows nothing about my background, then I say that I am a university lecturer. If my interlocutor already knows that I am a university lecturer, then I say that I am a philosopher. If my interlocutor already knows that I am a philosopher, but is curious about what a philosopher does, then he or she is about to find out by ostension—since any discussion of the nature of philosophy is itself a philosophical exercise! And the dinner party is about to go either extremely well or extremely badly.
Q: Could you tell us about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: I was born in Kettering in Northamptonshire, but my family moved to Altrincham when I was seven, and that is where I lived until going to university. Altrincham is a town with a population of about 50,000, just south of Manchester. So I guess that makes me a city dweller.
As a youngster, I had a very keen interest in astronomy.
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: I enjoyed English and mathematics. These were probably my best subjects. But timetabling restrictions meant that I could not combine them for my A Levels. I could, however, combine mathematics with modern languages, and that is what I did: my three A Level subjects were French, Russian and Mathematics (or more strictly Pure Mathematics With Statistics). I was never particularly good at science subjects, although I have always had an interest in them, and as a youngster, I had a very keen interest in astronomy.
Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
A: No. I did well enough at school, but I was at a school where it was extremely unusual not to do well, and my reports consisted mostly of undistinguished commendation.
Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: Yes. I have already mentioned that I studied French A Level. One of the set texts was Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques. That already whetted my appetite to engage in further study of philosophy. But that was not the text that provided my eureka moment. What provided my eureka moment was something by Descartes that we were asked to look at as background reading. I cannot now remember whether it was his Meditations or his Discourse on the Method, but I can clearly remember being utterly transfixed by Descartes’ willingness to doubt everything, and by his insistence that he could not doubt his own existence. I too had been willing to doubt everything, although always with a slight sense that this was not an activity for sensible grown-ups. Suddenly the enterprise looked entirely respectable, and I knew that I wanted to pursue it at university. I have subsequently reverted to the view that it is not an activity for sensible grown-ups. I believe that philosophy is for people who have never quite made the transition to adulthood. But that, I now think, is its appeal.
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: I was very lucky. I studied at Cambridge University—specifically, at King’s College—which was my first choice.
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: I studied Philosophy. There is absolutely no question but that I would select the same subject again.
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: There were so many. I was at Cambridge at a time when there were some truly outstanding figures in the Philosophy Faculty. The two professors at the time were Elizabeth Anscombe and Bernard Williams: I attended lectures by both of them. I also attended lectures by Casimir Lewy and Hugh Mellor. And I had one-to-one tutorials with Ross Harrison, Christopher Hookway, Jennifer Hornsby, Nicholas Jardine, Jonathan Lear, Timothy Smiley, and Michael Tanner. Every one of these people did a huge amount to inspire me. I suppose Bernard Williams’ lectures were especially captivating – although the person that I had the most contact with, in his capacity as Director of Studies at my college, was Ross Harrison, and to this day I recognize his influence both on how I think about the discipline and on how I teach it.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: The sheer fact that I had enjoyed my undergraduate studies so much.
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: I did both my Masters (the B.Phil. in Philosophy) and my doctorate at Balliol College, Oxford.
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: My thesis was entitled Language, Time and Ontology. It was concerned largely with the work of the great twentieth-century American philosopher W.V. Quine. I tried to argue that Quine’s views if pursued to their logical conclusion, force us to recognize pure mathematics as the only possible science—a conclusion that would have been an anathema to him. My diagnosis was that Quine had an insufficiently dynamic conception of language: for an expression to have meaning is for it to undergo a process, and Quine’s failure to give due acknowledgement to this led him to conceive all language in the way in which only mathematical language should be conceived.
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: Nothing of substance. Does that make me sound smug? Oh dear. Ah well, so be it…
Q: Tell us about your current research focus?
A: I have recently finished work on a new edition of my very first book, The Infinite. This new edition will include two new chapters and a new appendix. Working on it provided me with a welcome opportunity to revisit some issues that I hadn’t thought much about for some thirty years, and to explore some of the differences between how I now view these issues and how I viewed them when I wrote the first edition of my book. I am also bringing out a collection of my essays in metaphysics and the philosophy of language, and I am currently thinking about connections between these essays for an introduction that I plan to write.
Q: What do you believe is your single most important piece of research?
A: Hmm, well, I have written four books. The two most successful have been the first, which I have just been talking about, and the most recent, entitled The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics. I myself, however, think that my best ideas appear in the second and third of my four books, entitled, respectively, Points of View and Noble in Reason, Infinite in Faculty. Points of View is an exploration of the metaphysics of objectivity and subjectivity: it also champions the idea of ineffable knowledge. Noble in Reason, Infinite in Faculty is an attempt to do what its subtitle suggests, namely to develop some of Kant’s ideas about morality and religion (and to take these ideas sometimes in strikingly non-Kantian directions). If pressed, I would single out Points of View as my best book. That is the book in which I attempt to fashion the most basic and the most distinctive tools that I use in my other publications.
If I knew what was to be the great dramatic work of the future, I should be writing it.
Q: Within your area of study, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: Here I find it irresistible to quote Henri Bergson. He was once asked, ‘How do you conceive… the great dramatic work of tomorrow?’ And he replied, ‘If I knew what was to be the great dramatic work of the future, I should be writing it.’ Admittedly, there are all sorts of ways in which one can anticipate breakthroughs over which one has no control or to which one will make no contribution. But I genuinely do not believe that I can reasonably do anything other than sidestep this question.
Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be researching in 2116?
A: People talk a lot these days about the ‘post-human’, partly because of various technological advances with which human beings are having to contend. Since I believe that philosophy is concerned at a very deep level with the human, I think it is exceedingly important for philosophers to confront and to reckon with whatever it is that these people are talking about. Are we witnessing what Foucault thought we were already beginning to witness in the last century—what he called ‘the death of man’? I hope that one hundred years from now philosophers will have a good story to tell about this and that they will be exploring the implications of their story.
Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: Who knows? I have tried to overcome some of the divisions that still exist between—to use the customary but problematical labels—‘analytic’ philosophy and ‘continental’ philosophy. I have also tried to show what can be achieved in philosophy without excessive specialism of the sort that is in my view increasingly crippling the discipline. I would be delighted if my legacy were to encourage others to do the same, either through the example of my own work or through my teaching and mentoring—or indeed through my joint editorship of the journal MIND. Since 2015 I have been editing this journal with Lucy O’Brien, and one of our aspirations has been to broaden the scope of the journal and to broaden the potential readership of individual articles in it.
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: In 2016 I presented a ten-part series entitled A History of the Infinite for BBC Radio 4. I have been exploring the possibility of doing something similar for television. This may come to nothing. But I would love to do something along these lines if possible.
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: This is the hardest question of all! Perhaps—in light of my answers to previous questions—not to be overly concerned about the demands of growing up!
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: If this were someone who did not yet have job security, then I’m afraid I would have to preface my advice by warning them that the job market at the moment is very bad; and then the advice would be to be fully prepared for the possibility that their efforts to pursue a career in philosophy might not lead anywhere, in which case they would need to be able to look back on what they were doing now as something that had been worth doing for its own sake. If this were someone who did have job security, on the other hand, then my advice would depend heavily on the person’s individual circumstances.
Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: Without doubt Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. This is in my view the greatest philosophical work of all time.
Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: I cannot resist mentioning Descartes again, given my answer to the eureka question. Either his Meditations or his Discourse on the Method would be a great place for any novice to start. So too, of course, would many of Plato’s dialogues. And it’s still hard to beat Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy. I am by no means Russell’s greatest fan, but I myself read this book at a very early stage in my career and it definitely helped to get me hooked. So I am really spoilt for choice. Nevertheless, I have to choose, do I? Oh well, let’s say Russell’s Problems of Philosophy.
Q: Why do you think being a freethinker is important?
A: The cheeky answer is: ‘Read my book Noble in Reason, Infinite in Faculty’ The less cheeky answer, on which I attempt to elaborate in that book, is that there is, in each of us, a kind of nisus, more fundamental than any other, towards the very rationality that is the hallmark of ‘freethinking’.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: Oh gosh. This is going to sound very boring. I’m virtually tee-total. I would ask for something soft. Detractors may tell me that there’s already enough of that in my own work…!
If you’d like to find out more about Professor Adrian Moore you can check out his website and Wikipedia page.
Feature photo © Mim Saxl.
Books Recommended by Professor Adrian Moore