Paul Russell has been a Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia since 1987. In 2015 he was appointed Professor of Philosophy at Gothenburg University and Director of the Gothenburg Responsibility Project (GRP). Apart from these positions Paul Russell has also held a number of visiting appointments at various universities, including Virginia (1988), Stanford (1989-1990), Pittsburgh (1996-1997) and North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2005). Among the various honours and awards that Paul Russell has received are a Fowler Hamilton Visiting Fellowship at Christ Church, Oxford University (2010) and the Journal of the History of Philosophy prize for best book published in the history of philosophy in 2008, awarded for his book The Riddle of Hume’s Treatise. He has also been awarded the UBC Killam Teaching Prize (2007) and the UBC Killam Faculty Research Prize (2014). Paul Russell interests cover the areas of free will and moral responsibility along with various topics in early modern philosophy. Within the area of free will and moral responsibility, he is particularly focused on the challenge of scepticism and theories of responsibility that appeal to reactive attitudes or moral sentiments. Paul’s most recent publication is The Limits of Free Will. Please enjoy my interview with Paul Russell.
How do you describe your occupation?
I am a Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia since 1987. In 2015, I was also appointed a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Gothenburg, where I also direct the Gothenburg Responsibility Project.
My way of life is complicated enough that there is no “typical day” for me. However, my usual routine involves waking up with a coffee, checking the news and my emails, and then, through the day, reading and writing relating to any papers or lectures that I am working on at that time. I also swim and walk our dog around the neighbourhood. In Canada, I am still teaching classes but in Sweden, all my work is research oriented – which involves attending meetings and conferences, as well as working on my own projects.
What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?
The novel I am reading right now is Moby Dick by Herman Melville. It is taking me a shocking amount of time to get through it, as there are many long dry sections about whales and whaling. It is, nevertheless, a genuine classic with interesting themes concerning fate and the battle between humans and nature – so it is worth the effort. I am also reading How To Live: A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell and Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne, both of which are very readable and interesting.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
That is hard to say, depending on what “reading” means here. When I was a small child in Scotland I had two books that I remember, one about the solar system and the other about a lighthouse ship. But it was mainly the pictures that I remember. The first books I remember actually reading, more carefully, were a series of biographies about American presidents when they were young children (I think it was called the “Liberty Bell” series). I suppose this was my way of adjusting as an immigrant in a new country. I also had a book about the sinking of the “Bismarck” (the German WW II battleship). Perhaps my favourite childhood book was Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
Both – unfortunately, I routinely mark-up books (against my father’s advice, which was to always “treat a book like a person – with respect”).
When did you fall in love with philosophy?
My father was a philosophy professor and I grew up with philosophy books and philosophers all around me. When I was in my early teens I read Republic by Plato and The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx. I have stayed in love with philosophy through the years but my attitude to philosophers is more mixed/complicated.
Around age 16 I read A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway, which I found a powerful and absorbing work (with a lot of pathos). I think that an intelligent teenager will enjoy this book and is old enough to appreciate its themes and concerns. At age 25 I would suggest The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It is probably a work that should also be read again at a later stage of life but it presents characters who represent a broad spectrum of outlooks on life – and it is a great story. If I was recommending a work other than a novel then I would suggest something philosophical such as On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (for 16 year olds) and, perhaps, The Genealogy of Morals or Beyond Good and Evil Friedrich Nietzsche, which would wake everyone up at that stage of life (at younger stage it may simply prove disturbing or encourage pretension).
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
David Hume – Hume is the greatest and most humane of the English-speaking philosophers. He is also someone whose work I have studied in depth and I have a slew of questions that I would love to be able to ask him.
George Orwell – Orwell is a fascinating figure and personality, and something of a hero of mine. His writings range from his memoirs describing poverty during the depression and fighting for the anarchists in Spain during the civil war to his great novel 1984. His defence of individual freedom and its foundation in clear, honest language is of huge importance for our own age.
Milan Kundera – he is a deeply philosophical writer and combines the personal with the large forces of history and the sheer contingency of human life and existence.
Mordecai Richler – Richler is my favourite Canadian author and he was a great raconteur (and a serious hockey fan), who called things as he saw them.
Hannah Arendt – her life embodies the troubled history of the 20th century and her relationship with Heidegger is one of the bizarre puzzles of philosophy. She would be a fascinating person to listen to.
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
I just purchased The Emotions: A Philosophical Exploration by Peter Goldie. This is a dimension of moral psychology that relates to several of my own philosophical interests and concerns, and Goldie has been an important contributor to these investigations.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
Reading a great work of philosophy or a great novel allows the reader to escape his or her own narrow concerns (even if they are serious and important) and enter a world of other interesting issues and concerns – and often it is liberating when the writer is amusing and entertaining as well.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?
Many of the best books that I have read have been sad and/or about difficult times and situations (e.g. Bird Song by Sebastian Faulks). I have enjoyed them but I am happy I am not in them. I suppose that the (harsh) humour of writers such as Kingsley Amis amuse me enough, without being too threatening, for me to be happy to laugh along inside the world of Lucky Jim.
What advice would you give a novice, looking for an introduction to philosophy?
Take the subject and the problems seriously, and treat the “professional” side of philosophy with considerable scepticism. Find an issue and topic that interests you (e.g. on religion, politics, mind, ethics, etc. and find a relevant, readable classic on the topic). I am not sure that “general introductions” to philosophy are the best way into philosophy but once you have found your way in, via some relevant classic, then A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton is an accessible and highly successful guide to the territory beyond that. An alternative route, that may suit others better, is through contemporary popular studies covering debates and issues relating to social justice, free will, evolution and ethics, and so on.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume is a philosophical masterpiece of enormous range and ambition. For the most part, it has not, in my view, been well appreciated or understood by the legions of philosophers and scholars who have written about it and/or cite it – so it should be read with fresh eyes. With regard to its significance for me, it presents a sweeping and systematic account of human nature and the human predicament as it concerns both our philosophical powers and our ethical orientation in the world. (I have also spent a huge amount of my own time and effort studying it and writing about it!)
Who would you say are the three philosophers that continue to inspire you?
David Hume, Thomas Hobbes, and Bernard Williams.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
One of the greatest pleasures I find in reading is reading something that makes me laugh – but still contains some insight into human life. Novels by David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury have proven to be especially therapeutic for me over the years. On a more serious note, the novels of Phillip Roth (e.g. The Human Stain) are important works of contemporary literature. Rebus by Ian Rankin is another favourite of mine.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
A friend of mine has recommended The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson. I am looking forward to reading it soon.