Kieran Setiya teaches philosophy at MIT. He was born in Hull, on the east coast of England, studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Cambridge and went to graduate school at Princeton. After thirteen years at the University of Pittsburgh, Kieran Setiya moved to MIT in 2014. Kieran works on ethics and on related questions about human agency and human knowledge. His first trade book, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, was published last year and is now out in paperback. It has been reviewed in the Economist as “a delightful amalgam of self-help and intellectual inquiry”, the Spectator as “a concise, entertaining and humane guide through life’s most difficult territory”, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, and the LA Review of Books. Kieran Setiya’s work on midlife has been featured in Aeon, Hi-Phi Nation, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Kieran Setiya has also written about baseball and philosophy, philosophical progress, and the meaning of life. Please enjoy my interview with Kieran Setiya.
How do you describe your occupation?
I say that I am a professor. If someone asks where I teach, I say “MIT” but I stress that I am not a scientist. If they keep asking, I admit that I teach philosophy. That is usually enough for them to change the subject.
What is something about you that people might find surprising?
I love bookmarks, which I acquire and lose with an equal passion. My happiest recent find is a 1975-76 Harvard Bookstore calendar bookmark, which was left in a copy of Samuel Johnson’s essays held by the MIT library.
What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?
I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts by Mark Dery, a cultural critic who writes about contemporary America like Roland Barthes on speed. He has a brilliant essay on the sexuality of HAL in 2001. I am reading the book because someone told me it was very good, though I don’t remember who.
What was your favourite book as a child and why?
In early childhood, my favourite book was Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne. I identified with Eeyore. A high point of parenthood was my son’s brief infatuation with the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood.
When did you fall in love with philosophy?
I fell in love with philosophy, without knowing the word, at the age of six or seven. I remember staring at tree trunks in the school playground, wondering why there was anything at all. The thought that there might have been nothing induced a lurch of anxiety I now recognize as Sartre’s nausea. I fell in love with philosophy for a second time as a teenager, reading H. P. Lovecraft, the early twentieth-century pioneer of weird fiction. My obsession with Lovecraft – the first of many consecutive obsessions – led me to his letters and then to the philosophers he read. My obsession shifted to them.
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
I’m not sure I remember. It might have been Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, the first graphic novel to be long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.
Who would you say are the three philosophers that continue to inspire you?
This is very hard, since I have learned from a lot of philosophers. But if I am forced to pick, I will say Aristotle, David Hume, and Iris Murdoch.
What book have you found most inspiring, what effect did it have on you?
Veeck – as in Wreck by Bill Veeck and Ed Linn. Veeck was a World War II veteran and amputee who owned the Minor League Milwaukee Brewers from 1942-45, followed by a string of Major League teams. He was notorious for his publicity stunts, like having fans vote on manager Connie Mack’s strategic decisions by holding up placards, giving away giant blocks of ice on hot summer days, and installing an exploding scoreboard. Nowadays, baseball purists complain about the showbiz between innings at ballparks, which owes everything to Veeck, but it has brought a lot of happiness to a lot of people. Veeck wasn’t just a showman, either. He tried to integrate baseball five years before Branch Rickey by purchasing the hopeless Phillies and stacking them with Negro League stars but was prevented by the National League. He signed the great Satchel Paige to the Cleveland Indians in 1948. And he built a series of winning teams. For me, the story of Bill Veeck is a story of joy and courage in the face of hostility, frustration, and physical pain.
What’s the most obscure book you own; how did you discover it?
Not obscure but rare is a first edition of Intention by Elizabeth Anscombe, from 1957, which I found in Blackwell’s in Oxford several years ago. More obscure is a recent purchase: Where are the Thinkers? Stewart Lee in Conversation with Neil Jackson. Stewart Lee is a British stand-up comedian who is also one of my favourite intellectuals; the book is a pamphlet published by Post-Nearly Press and available in limited numbers online.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
10:04 by Ben Lerner, a splicing of autobiography and the novel that is formally ambitious, full of revision and repetition, and also very funny. Like an iceberg, its weight is mostly submerged; but you can tell it is there even on the first compulsive read. It is my most-gifted book of 2018.
What is your proudest achievement?
I don’t think I can answer that question. I am not good at being proud of myself, a quality of which I am not proud.
What advice would you give a novice, looking for an introduction to philosophy?
Read widely; don’t give up if you don’t understand something or don’t like it; philosophy is slow and comes in many forms. As for book recommendations: it’s a bit dated now, but Talking Philosophy by Bryan Magee is a lovely collection of interviews with prominent philosophers, recorded in the 1970s, that gives readers the illusion of being in the know. I read my copy so many times it fell apart.
If you were trying to impress a visitor, which book that you own would you leave on the coffee table?
I suppose the best answer is to look at what is on the coffee table now, since why would it be there if not to impress visitors? There’s The Great Pretender by Theo Jansen, an account of his attempt to build autonomous “living” sculptures, First Slice Your Cookbook by Arabella Boxer, in which you can flip the pages, which are divided into three, to mix and match a dinner menu, and Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon by Neal McCabe.
If an alien landed in your garden; which three books would you gift them to showcase humanity in the best possible way?
I gave this a lot of thought. My first choice would be At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft, to let the aliens know that we are scared of them, and that they might be more similar to us than they seem: “Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!” My second choice would be The Humans by Matt Haig, in which an alien is sent to occupy the body of a professor as part of a fact-finding mission from outer space and ends up falling in love with humanity. I hope they’d get the hint. Finally, I’d pick the Thesaurus by Peter Mark Roget, a quixotic attempt to organize our conceptual apparatus that might be useful to an alien intelligence. It is one of my very favourite books.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
So many! Thinking just of things I have read quite recently, I would include Nicotine by Gregor Hens, The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, and Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. They are all works of non-fiction that cross boundaries within the genre and they are all astonishingly well-written.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
In the Dark Room by Brian Dillon. He combines the intimate with the intellectual in inspiring ways.