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The Relevance of Philosophy to Life: an Interview with John Lachs

Pat Shade: I thought I would start with some questions about the work you have done in the past. Would you please describe either that work or body of your past work that most affects or helps you focus your current projects?

John Lachs: I was trained, as everybody was in the fifties, in philosophy that was essentially analytic. This was a sort of philosophy which did not so much have a specific set of subjects, because the subjects ranged from decade to decade, even from year to year, over a wide variety of issues, typically epistemological. But it was a way of doing philosophy that required clarity above all else. Even clarity above interest, even clarity above any relevance to anything. And I have come to prize that clarity as something that one must not give up under any circumstances. No matter how obscure or difficult the subject matter, still one must be clear about it and convey it with clarity to people who do not have that training. So that training led me to reflect on issues that are still with me, although I reflect on them very differently now, and my entire approach has changed significantly. I have in mind an abiding interest in human nature, which I now think of in terms of human natures rather than in terms of human nature.

When I first began publishing, it was on human nature, in the singular, specifically as that relates to the way that mind and body are related. And although I was no Cartesian dualist, I thought nevertheless that the way to think about human nature was to view mind and body as irreducibly separate, different. I shouldn't say separate; I should say different. And then to reflect on how in the name of the Lord they could ever somehow connect. The facts are obvious. It is clear that minds are connected to bodies, that in important ways they derive from bodies, they are influenced by bodies. But it was not all that clear as to how minds in turn could influence bodies, what there was left to mind after you have explained everything that needs to be explained and everything happens in terms of the physiology that is yet to come. I see nowadays that people continue to reflect in this way, although they call their philosophy by different names, neurophilosophy and the like. This no longer appeals to me but the continuing thread is that I am very deeply interested in human nature and try to understand who we are and what we can say about ourselves that is helpful, meaningful, sufficiently thoughtful, and maybe even true.

Shade: Are there any particular early works of yours that provide a springboard into the general issue of the mind-body relation?

Lachs: I have always been interested in ethics, and the mind-body relation naturally leads you to issues of emotion and the way in which emotion relates to the rational element of the human being. And the moment you talk about that, you are talking about ethics and the foundations of ethics in human nature. You are talking about moral psychology. And when you talk about moral psychology, it is only a step away from talking about all the really important moral issues. Those I have always been interested in. And, of course, for a while I was, and in a way I am now, very deeply interested in social and political philosophy. I used to teach courses that led to some publications on issues related to Marxism, to what one might imagine is a fruitful, and in those days I thought correct, way of organizing society. How much play to give to freedom and luck--that has always been of interest to me.

Shade: Was your interpretation more Marxist early on?

Lachs: My interpretation was never Marxist. My interpretation always gave a great deal of play to individual liberty. That just somehow seems intuitively right to me. And that may have deep psychological causes, as many things in life do, and as things in one's philosophy do, as James and others say. But I have always been interested in the individual and in liberty and rights.

Shade: Does that in some way relate to your interest in philosophers like Fichte, Kant, and Santayana?

Lachs: No, interestingly enough I was led to Santayana by sheer accident, because when I was an undergraduate there was a undergraduate senior seminar for majors. And it so happens that the book that was selected one year was a very famous work of the person on whom the chair of the department at McGill University happens to have written a dissertation. He wrote the dissertation under Whitehead on Santayana. He wanted all of us to read Skepticism and Animal Faith. And I fought that book for an entire year. I just thought that Santayana was cheating all the time. It just was not right. And in the end I fought it so hard that I got completely stuck on it, like a fly on fly-paper, when at last I understood what he was really talking about. So Santayana was a sheer accident.

And then Fichte was no accident, because I took Santayana's materialism, which I think is a very subtle one, extremely seriously. Having taken it seriously, I felt that it needed a challenge, and no one is a crazier and fuller idealist than Fichte. So I thought, "I am going to take this on and see if there is a serious challenge from that side." It took a number of years for me to think I understood Fichte, and every time I read him, I thought I understood him at the time. Later on, I realized that I had not really understood him. I now think I understand him, but I expect that next year I will think that I had not quite understood him this year.

Shade: What was the consequence of this challenge between Santayana and Fichte?

Lachs: The consequences were quite remarkable and unexpected, as interesting consequences normally are. I continued to stick with Santayana for a good while longer. But the subtleness of Fichte slowly penetrated my consciousness and I think made my philosophical approach to problems considerably more dialectical and I hope more subtle, interesting, and more fruitful than it had been. In the earlier years of my philosophical life, I was in very important ways a positivist, as Santayana is, seeing very clear distinctions between facts and values and the like. And that sort of thing just does not cut it when you talk the language of Fichte or Hegel.

Shade: Would you say more about some of the subtleties that you developed as a consequence of your study of Fichte?

Lachs: Not just Fichte but also Hegel. What I have in mind is this. That it does not really avail us much to get clear definitions. I am for clarity, by all means, but to think that you can reduce a concept to a relatively simple definition, and that you can somehow go somewhere that will be interesting and fruitful, just does not seem to me to be very plausible at the present time. And that is exactly what I used to strive for. I took old Socrates seriously; you search for the definition. You get the essence of the thing, and once you get the essence and the definition that somehow captures that essence, you are home free. That is how you do philosophy. When you read Hegel, you realize how incredibly flexible and supple concepts are, how they take you for a fool when you take them too literally and too tightly, how they are interconnected with one another, how they interplay in ways you really do not understand, how in other words, strangely enough, you really do not understand any part unless, or until, you understand the whole. That is what I learned from these folks. I really think that stress on context is terribly important and enriches one's philosophical approach significantly.

Shade: Did this emphasis on context, which you got from the German Idealists, lead to pragmatism?

Lachs: Yes, very much so. Of course, the full impact of that I never really felt until I understood Dewey a little better. I read Dewey when I was in graduate school, and I remember many a pleasant afternoon sleeping over him. I just could not make my way through the stuff, because it was so incredibly thick and boring. Then when Dewey really registered, all of a sudden I saw the continuity between what the German Idealists were doing and what he was doing. And I understood that context does not have to be the context of the Absolute or of totality.

Shade: You have given us a rich sense of your background. Would you talk about some of your recent work? You have a number of projects on which you are currently working or which you have recently completed. I would like you to describe each of these and perhaps note some continuities, common themes, and differences you think are important.

Lachs: The Relevance of Philosophy to Life needs to be prefaced with some background. I found myself doing philosophy not because I was interested in abstract problems, but because I was interested in very concrete solutions to human problems. In that sense I was doing what Dewey admonishes us to do, long before I even read Dewey. I just felt that there were problems that are terribly important, very profound and very difficult to deal with.

Shade: Is there something in philosophy's approach to those problems that made it more interesting to you than, say, psychology?

Lachs: I thought that none of the sciences really dealt with the level of generality with which I wanted to approach these things. When I went to undergraduate college at McGill, I did not know what I was going to take. I knew I did not want chemistry. I knew I couldn't do much math. So I presented myself, by accident, to the philosophy department and asked the chair who in the university was dealing with the sorts of problems I was interested in. And the problems were all the biggies: human nature, the relation of human beings to God, the meaning of life--all the usual thorny problems that young people are interested in. And he said, "You have come to the right place, because we deal with those problems. We do not resolve them, but we sure try to deal with them." And so I said, "Sign me on." These are the problems that have fascinated me. I am interested in them largely because they are problems for me, and problems for people I know, and problems for people I love and care for.

That background illuminates my interest in calling a book The Relevance of Philosophy to Life. Philosophy is centrally relevant to life; if it is not that, count me out, I am not interested. What about human life? Just about anything that is problematic, just about anything that requires treatment of a general, conceptual, thoughtful, critical nature.

This book is a collection of essays written over the years that range over a number of topic areas. It includes some medical ethics, because I have been working in medical ethics, holding very unpopular positions that I enjoy holding. And also some issues growing out of my book Intermediate Man, which has to do with a reinterpretation of alienation. Also included are some articles I have done in preparation for Human Natures. And then finally, it includes some more general reflections on such things as the means-end relation--the rat-race in which human beings are involved. There are reflections on current intellectual issues, such as Fukuyama's book on the end of history, which is an intriguingly Hegelian topic executed in a way that is not quite worthy of its predecessor.

Next comes In Love With Life. If I were writing it in German, I would call this a Lebensphilosophie. It is a philosophy of life and a philosophy for life. Its audience is meant to be very general, not philosophers only or even primarily, but ordinary folks with some education and a lot of drive to try to find out what sense life makes and how to enjoy it a little more. I would like to think that what it does is provide fairly sophisticated philosophical ideas in an accessible fashion to a general audience. I believe there is a substantial general audience of people in this country who feel the need for philosophy and who feel that philosophy has abandoned them. This book is addressed to that audience. I am writing it now. I expect it to be done by early spring.

I am also working on a project with Michael Hodges. It is a scholarly project, exactly the opposite of In Love With Life. The project compares and contrasts Santayana and Wittgenstein, two extremely unlikely brothers in the blood, two philosophers who really do not resemble one another to the casual eye. And yet if you look at them seriously and think about them and overlook the very difficult colloquial questioning style of Wittgenstein and the very poetic style of Santayana, all of a sudden you find that these are two people who are strikingly similar. And then one wants to show how they are similar, show where they are different, and try to give some account as to why they are similar and different. We hope to finish that by the end of the summer.

Shade: Is there a core of ideas which the two of them share that you are focusing on?

Lachs: It started with the notion that we were going to write an article on Santayana and Wittgenstein from the standpoint of their rejection of skepticism. But the moment you dig into that, you realize there is a lot more to it. There is an entire theory of human habits and human practices that both share. The language is different, even the words that are attached to the concepts are different, but the concepts are the same.

Another project, The Cost of Comfort, is an uncharacteristic story for me. I wrote Intermediate Man a number of years ago and wanted to write more in that vein, trying to explain alienation in language that is not value-laden and in language that is generally approachable, generally open to people who experience these feelings and experience the reality that we face in a highly industrial, highly populous society, but who themselves perhaps do not know the subtleties of philosophy. It is not that this is a book for the masses, but it is a book that attempts to bring clarity to a particularly obscure area of philosophical endeavor. And I thought that Intermediate Man had done some of that job, but not quite the way in which I had hoped. So I wrote The Cost of Comfort understanding the ideas a little better, extending them significantly to areas of applied ethics, medicine, advertising, and a number of other fields. And then I put it aside and for several years now have been fiddling with it in the word processor. And somehow I have been very reluctant to let go of it. I just do not want to push the print button. I say, "Well if I only had another six weeks to look it over . . ." I suspect what is behind it is that I think it is the last thing I am going to do in this area. I really have other interests, and I really want to get this right. What happened just recently is that a colleague called up and said, "Do you have anything that you want to put in a series that I am doing?" And we started talking and negotiating. And he said, "Come on now, you need to release this." So I signed the contract on it. But, foresightedly, I did not put the delivery date until the middle of next summer, because I want the six weeks, or maybe four weeks, to put it to bed just right. It will be published by Rowman Littlefield.

Human Natures is a project that is so large that I do not have a sense of how long it will take to get it done. It will be years. It has as its foundation a theory of different types of fact. It has an account of how we can combine a sort of realism that comes out of the American Critical Realist tradition, Santayana and others, with a kind of constructionist view that is typically Deweyan and pragmatist--how we can do justice to both but in different realms of conceptual life. Beyond that, it attempts to give a general account, I even want to say a metaphysical account, of the foundations of toleration, because the view that I want to defend is essentially an Aristotelian view in that perfection is a function of nature. The good is an outcome of who you are. But I also want to take seriously the idea that who we are is a moveable feast. We are not all the same; we do not all share the same kind of human nature. There is not a single essential human nature, but a whole variety of human natures. And then the difficulty becomes how one defines and structures those different sorts of human natures to permit perfections to show themselves.

Shade: I assume the metaphysical nature of this work is one of the things that sets your work apart from some of the neopragmatists like Rorty.

Lachs: Absolutely. Along with the insistence on the importance of action, which I do not find in the neopragmatists at all. I do not think that you can be a pragmatist without insisting on the idea of action, on the notion of practice, on actually engaging in critical endeavors to change things that need to be changed. Not just to criticize things that need to be criticized, not just, as Rorty says, to kibitz while the major players are playing, but to be in there doing the job that philosophers have always done, albeit not always well.

Shade: Would you discuss some of those actions you engage in?

Lachs: Well, I view my job first and foremost as that of an educator, which means very importantly as a gadfly. A gadfly who takes unpopular positions, not because they might be the right ones, but because their voice has to be heard. Who challenges what seems crazy or irrational in society, who stands up for values that need spokespersons, who stands up for what is humane and sensible. I try to do that in the university community, but I also try to do that in the community beyond. I think publishing, not just in philosophical journals, but in general all-purpose publications, for instance in such places as the Wall Street Journal, is of significance; philosophers ought to do more of that. So I believe in doing that sort of thing and try to do it whenever the occasion arises. Or the spirit moves.

Shade: This last question is perhaps a bit redundant, but it should bring our discussion to a nice close. Would you discuss the continuity between the work you have done in the past and what you are doing now, as well as identify in what tradition, or traditions, you would place your work?

Lachs: The continuity is the continuity of concern with human natures, and specifically now, more than ever before, from the standpoint of human fulfillment and human flourishing. That is what I think philosophy ought to be about for the most part; it is certainly what I want my philosophical endeavor to focus on.

In terms of the tradition, I do not want to be narrowly defined, and I do not want to define myself narrowly. One of the great pleasures of having done philosophy for many years is that I feel comfortable in moving from tradition to tradition. So if I want to talk about Spinoza, I think I have some sense of what Spinoza is talking about. It is not my tradition, but I have a certain appreciation for what he has to say. I would like to think that I can be eclectic without lacking unity. I mean by "eclectic," for instance, that I am more and more impressed by the moral insights that come out of Stoicism. I am very much impressed by some of the things that come out of Kant. But when all is said and done, it is pretty clear that the most comfortable tradition is that of pragmatism, although that is not a tradition, but multiple traditions. Not Peirce perhaps nearly as much as Dewey, and sometimes James. But it is not the individuals but a certain trend of thought, a certain approach to things, a certain vision, that attracts me. And that is part of the tradition in which I operate, though not slavishly, and not, I hope, from a historical standpoint of repeating what these folks have said.