Agnes Callard: Aspiration | Who Shaves the Barber? #54

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Agnes Callard

There’s something puzzling about intentionally acquiring a new value: if we don’t already have the value, what motivates us to acquire it? This is best understood through an example: a young student takes a music appreciation class in order to learn to appreciate the value of classical music. She doesn’t already appreciate the value of classical music—if she did, she wouldn’t need the class. But if she doesn’t appreciate its value, why take the class? The class is hard work, after all: she must spend hours listening to music that she doesn’t yet appreciate!

Philosopher Agnes Callard calls this kind of intentional value acquisition ‘aspiration’. In this interview, we discuss a number of issues surrounding aspiration: how it is possible, how it begins, why one cannot aspire to be a gangster, and perhaps most surprisingly, how aspiration accounts for how we can author of our own lives. Along the way, we discuss the nature of motivation, future-to-past normative grounding, and the immortality of the soul. We end with a quick discussion of the value of public philosophy.

Special thanks to Jackie Blum for the podcast art, and The Tin Box for the theme music.
Click here for the full list of episodes!



Topics discussed

0:02 – Intro to Agnes Callard
3:50 – What is aspiration?
5:13 – What aspiration is not
17:27 – Moral skepticism and aspiration
24:04 – Proleptic reasons and motivation
45:13 – Starting to aspire and the direction of self-creation
55:40 – Future to past normative grounding, ontological commitment, and motion
1:11:52 – The value of aspiration, the good life, and the immortality of the soul
1:28:42 – The value of public philosophy


Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming (book)
Agnes Callard (YouTube channel)
Is Public Philosophy Good?

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In Praise of Sean Carroll’s Mindscape

Confession: for a guy who hosts a podcast, I don’t listen to all that many of them. I used to enjoy 99% Invisible, and I still recommend it. But for me, it doesn’t go into quite the depth I prefer for the medium. Others do go into quite a bit of depth, but get bogged down by (often political) dogmatism and pettiness from the host.

I’ve recently become enamored of the physicist Sean Carroll. He works primarily in cosmology and is known, among other things, for being a strong proponent of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. However, he’s also a generally curious guy with broad intellectual interests.

Carroll recently started a podcast, Mindscape, and it may be my favorite I’ve found so far. He tackles a wide variety of topics, always interesting, always fairly in-depth. He’s reasonable, smart, and not into politically-minded shit-talk. His most recent interview is with none other than my boss(ish), Tyler Cowen. But he’s also done some very cool interviews on the science of aging (and how we might go about indefinitely postponing aging), cryptocurrencystring theory, and other cool stuff.
Since I’m a philosophy, I especially loved his brilliant solo episode on why there’s something rather than nothing. I love this question (particularly Derek Parfit’s exploration of it). Carroll did a great job of offering a physicist’s insights into it, which was really educational for me. Example: apparently, if it turns out that the total energy of the universe is non-zero, it follows that the universe is infinite in time.…

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Jody Azzouni: Ontology without Borders | Who Shaves the Barber? #50

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Jody Azzouni

An old problem: I say, “Santa Claus is fat”. I am saying something true about Santa Claus. But (content warning) Santa Claus doesn’t exist. So what is it that I am correctly saying is fat? And what – if not its ostensive subject – makes the sentence true?

This problem is at the center of ontology. The most influential approach in the 20th century was offered by W. V. O. Quine, who argued that we’re committedto the existence of any object that we must quantify over in order to state the truths of physics in first-order logic. At first, this seems rather arbitrary. Why first-order logic? What makes quantifiers so special? Why physics? And what does what we’re “committed to” tell us about what actually exists? For roughly the first half of this interview, philosopher Jody Azzouni unpacks the thinking behind Quine’s famous criterion. In the second half, he expounds his own view: he rejects Quine’s criterion, and so sees no problem with referring to that which doesn’t exist. This leaves Azzouni open to embrace a radical nominalism, in which almost none of the objects we typically think of as existing really do. This is because, as Azzouni explains, “ontological borders” are projected. There is nothing “out there” that separates one object from another. The fact that our language is built around distinct objects tells us plenty about our psychology, but nothing about the world itself, which comes with “features” but not individual objects.…

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