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A Conversation with Philosopher Gary Gutting

By Tasha Alexander
Guest Columnist
Chicago, IL, USA

Tasha Alexaneder
(credit: Charles Osgood)

Gary Gutting is a renowned philosopher, expert on Michel Foucault, blogger for the New York Times, and professor at the University of Notre Dame. He's also the world's most spectacular father, who gave me and my brothers an extraordinary childhood filled with classical mythology, the frequent reading aloud of great books, and lots of rigorous logical arguments. He was particularly supportive of my attempts to turn our house into a pioneer homestead when I was obsessed with the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, even when I insisted we couldn't use the air conditioner in the dog days of summer because it wasn't authentic to the period. His new book, What Philosophy Can Do, available from Norton, is his first foray into the world of commercial publishing.


TASHA ALEXANDER: You have spent much of your career writing, but in the academic world. How did you come to start blogging for the New York Times?

GARY GUTTING: Simon Critchley, the moderator of The Stone (the philosophy blog) asked me to write a piece, and I sent him one about teaching philosophy of religion at Notre Dame. It attracted a large number of comments, particularly since I'd criticized Richard Dawkins, a prominent biologist and leading atheist. I did a follow-up piece that drew even more comments, and, after a few more columns, the editor asked me to be a regular contributor. By now I've published about a hundred pieces in the Times.


TASHA ALEXANDER: What Philosophy Can Do springs from the columns you did for the Times, but it is a separate work. How does it differ from the columns?

GARY GUTTING: Each of the ten chapters is based on the columns but goes much more deeply into the topic. The idea is to show readers how to use the tools of philosophy to deal with topics of general interest. The first chapter, for example, is "How to Argue about Politics." Other chapters are on evaluating news reports of scientific studies, thinking through your religious beliefs (or lack of belief), understanding what a college education is for, coming to terms with contemporary art, and trying to talk about abortion without hating one another. 


TASHA ALEXANDER: Dealing with a blog means contending with comments. You have an enormous—and vocal—readership. How do you handle responding to their thoughts?

GARY GUTTING: Well, since there are typically 200-700 comments on a column, there's no way to respond to even a small proportion of them—and the Times doesn't encourage follow-up pieces in any case. I do try to respond to non-abusive personal emails, and these have led to profitable discussions with readers. 


Gary Gutting
(credit: Andrew Grant)

TASHA ALEXANDER: Although What Philosophy Can Do is your first book with a commercial trade publisher, it's far from the first book you've published. Tell us about the differences between writing for other philosophers and writing for the general public?

GARY GUTTING: The main difference, of course, is that in writing for the general public, I can't take for granted the background knowledge that professional philosophers bring to a topic. But I've come to realize that this is an advantage. Doing philosophy well requires carefully examining all your assumptions, and in writing for non-professionals, I have to explain things I would take for granted in academic discussions. This can make me notice questionable assumptions in the background "knowledge" that professionals share. 


TASHA ALEXANDER: Did you notice differences in the publication process between academic presses and the trade industry?

GARY GUTTING: I take it you mean apart from the fact that they actually pay you! Having two brilliant and successful novelists in the family—you and Andrew—had already given me a good sense of trade publishing. Then you introduced me to your wonderful agent, Anne Hawkins, who took me on and made the transition very easy. 


TASHA ALEXANDER: How do editors help shape a philosophy book? Was your relationship with your editors at the New York Times and at Norton different from those you've had with the people you've worked with at Oxford and Cambridge Presses?

GARY GUTTING: My academic editors did a fine job, but, given the technical nature of the material, almost always let me go my own way in developing my ideas. Trade editors are understandably more concerned with making sure that I'm reaching an audience of non-experts. Both Peter Catapano at the Times and Brendan Curry at Norton did a superb job. They aren't philosophers, so I was at first inclined to ignore their worries about whether my arguments were good or whether I'd properly explained some technical point. But I soon realized that even when they weren't technically right about an issue, there was almost always something that needed fixing. They had instincts for clarity and rigor that I could trust and that significantly improved my writing.


TASHA ALEXANDER: Philosophers are famous for disagreeing about everything. Do you think you can convince people to agree with you in this book?

GARY GUTTING: I do express and argue for my own views, but that's not the point of the book. People—including many philosophers—think that the goal of philosophy is to "solve the world" by providing decisive answers to the "Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything" (as Douglas Adams put it in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). It would be great if philosophy could do this, but it hasn't and probably never will. 


TASHA ALEXANDER: Well, then, what do you hope to accomplish with this book?

GARY GUTTING: Even though there are no proven answers, we all have our own convictions about basic questions of religion, ethics, politics, etc. Especially in a pluralistic society, we all face the challenge of developing and defending these convictions, as well as understanding and perhaps criticizing convictions of other people. Through centuries of grappling with the deepest questions, philosophy has developed powerful tools (ways of thinking and arguing) for meeting this challenge. These tools provide us what we need for what I call the "intellectual maintenance" of our deepest convictions. The purpose of my book is to help people learn to use these tools to maintain and perhaps revise their convictions.


TASHA ALEXANDER: I write fiction; you write non-fiction. There are times when I think non-fiction would be so much easier, as you have facts to help form the structure of your work. Other times, however, I am deeply thankful that fiction allows me to make things up. How do you feel about writing non-fiction?

GARY GUTTING: It's true that I can't just make things up. I have to start with known facts and argue logically for conclusions from them. But I think this also allows me a flexibility that fiction doesn't. If your plot hits a snag you can't work out, you may well have to take an entirely different direction. But suppose I'm developing an interesting line of argument, and then realize—as I often do—that it won't give me my conclusion. Usually, I can just go back and change "The following argument will show that . . ." to "It might seem that the following argument will show that . . ." and, when I hit the snag, explain why the argument doesn't work and discuss what this tells us about the question I'm discussing. In non-fiction, an argument that doesn't work can still move you forward, whereas in fiction a plot that doesn't work means you have to start over.


TASHA ALEXANDER: How do you attack a project? Philosophical writing requires a well thought out structure. Tell us about your process.

GARY GUTTING: My academic writing usually comes out of higher-level courses that I'm teaching. Working through important texts with students, I develop a set of notes that forms the core of an article or book I want to write, which I then develop and refine. My Times columns usually start with what I think is a neglected take on a current issue in a public discussion. For example, I approached the issue of gun control by asking not whether people should have a right to own guns but whether most people have any need to own a gun. Similarly, rather than asking whether there was any hope of making contact with intelligent beings on other planets, I asked whether trying to make contact might be extremely dangerous. Given a distinctive approach, I look for criticisms readers might raise to my ideas, and construct my argument to take account of them. Once I have a semi-reasonable draft, I ask my wife (also a philosopher—and your mother!) to look it over. As you know, she has a keen eye for crucial details, and once a piece passes her scrutiny, it's ready to send to the Times.


TASHA ALEXANDER: What is next for you? Will you do another book for us non-philosophers?

GARY GUTTING: I'm currently working on a book for Norton based on a series of interviews on religion with prominent philosophers that I did for the Times. After that, I'm not sure—maybe something on education.



Gary Gutting

Tasha Alexander


Tasha Alexander is a New York Times bestselling novelist and the daughter of Gary Gutting.

All opinions expressed in this article are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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