Stathis Psillos is a Greek philosopher of science. He is Professor of Philosophy of Science and Metaphysics at the University of Athens, Greece and a member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy—Engaging Science of the University of Western Ontario. In 2013–15, Stathis Psillos held the Rotman Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Science at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. Arguably, he is best known for his work in scientific realism and the metaphysics of science. Stathis Psillos is a notable defender of semantic realism about scientific theories (the view that theoretical assertions are no less meaningful than observational ones), and also a notable critic of semantic anti-realism about scientific theories (the view that theoretical terms of past scientific theories often fail to refer to anything) and structural realism.

Please enjoy my interview with Stathis Psillos.

When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?

I am a philosopher who specialises in the philosophy of science. I am fortunate enough to have philosophy paying my bills by being employed as a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Athens, Greece.

What are you reading at the moment?

At the moment, I am reading some technical philosophical books. In particular, I am reading Hume’s Problem Solved by Gerhard Schurz and Resisting Scientific Realism by Brad Wray. The first deals with the problem of induction, viz., the problem of predicting the future based on the past; the second aims to develop an alternative to scientific realism, viz., the view that science succeeds in revealing to us a, by and large, invisible-to-the-naked-eye world.

But I should add that I have recently finished two excellent books. One is Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan—a fictional story of how humans can cope, if at all, with artificial life; how morality might have to be reshaped and how human emotion can still get the better of human reason. The other is How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley, a careful but accessible study of fascism as a divisive ideology which is characterised by a number of attitudes (supremacy, disrespect for science and truth, nationalism, myths about the supposed glorious past and others) rather than by a certain suppressive state structure.

What’s your earliest memory of reading?

I don’t have a definite memory, but I do recall that by the age of six I was fascinated by Jules Verne’s stories and was reading some of them in abridged and simplified versions. I was particularly excited by Around the World in 80 days; in particular by the supposed late arrival of Fogg’s in London which turned out to be OK because of the time difference. I have a fixation with time which might well go back to this reading.

If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be and why?

Now, that’s tough. There are so many good books that young people should read. If reluctantly, I had to pick one, it would be a philosophy book: Discours de la Méthode by René Descartes. This was published in 1637 and changed the ways we think of ourselves, of God, of nature, and of knowledge. It was meant to be the introduction to Descartes’s scientific treatises, but it became a stand-alone declaration of faith to the powers of human reason and the advancement of a new method for understanding the world and our place in it. It’s really pleasantly deep—since it has many autobiographical elements. It’s got great philosophical as well as literary value.

Most people might know it because of the phrase ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I am), which, since the book was written in French and not in Latin, in order to secure a wider audience, was Je pense, donc je suis. But there is a lot more in it. It’s old but timely and whoever reads it carefully comes to understand why philosophy can be tough but exciting.

What is the worst job you’ve ever had?

Well, when I was studying in London I worked for more than a year as a security guard. I am grateful for this job to my friend Aya, since money was scarce and I needed to work. But it was quite hard and unpleasant especially since I had to guard mostly empty buildings in the City. I managed, however, to turn it to my advantage since it was always overnight and I was able to do a lot of reading!

Do you read as much as you’d like to?

Perhaps I read more than I’d like to. My job involves reading essentially and I spend a lot of my time reading books and papers, some of which, unfortunately, are mediocre.

What books do you feel are important reading for people on your career path and why?

Well, philosophy is vast and even a lifetime of reading is not enough to exhaust it. Besides, philosophical approaches are, at least occasionally, a matter of taste; hence there is little room for prescriptive judgements. Be that as it may, I think I would recommend the following: Posterior Analytics by Aristotle. This book defines episteme as a special kind of knowledge and sets the agenda for all subsequent philosophical theories of science.

The New Organon by Francis Bacon. Written in 1620, this book takes issue with Aristotle’s theory of knowledge and lays the foundations for the empirical method of modern science. The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy by Isaac Newton. Published in 1687, this book revolutionised science and the method of doing science. The System of Logic by John Stuart Mill is another gem. Published in 1843 is an exemplar of the eighteenth century encyclopedism as well as an ode to human liberty.

Science and Hypothesis by Henri Poincaré is an attempt (published in 1902) to delineate the contribution of the human mind to the scientific image of the word, especially in light of then recent developments in physics and geometry. The Logical Structure of the World by Rudolf Carnap is tough and demanding but it outlines how the world of science relates to the world of human experience. The Crisis of the European Science by Edmund Husserl is a major critique of science from the point of view of the life-world. Word and Object by Willard Van Orman Quine is a monumental attempt to show how there can be knowledge of the world based on experience. That’s a small sample of books I treasure. They are not for bedtime reading, but serious engagement with them is amply rewarded.

Is there a book that you’ve read more than once? What is it and why did you revisit it?

Yes, there is. It’s The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (Lathéorie physique. Son objet, sa structure) by the French physicist and philosopher Pierre Duhem. That’s, in my view, a hugely important book. It was published in 1906 in the midst of a major scientific revolution and when scientists and historians started to study the history of science. It presented a path-breaking account of scientific theory, torn between two views: on the one hand, theories are mere instruments for classification and prediction; on the other hand, theories reveal to us the blueprint of the universe. This book is still topical and every time I revisit it I find a new insight, a fresh argument, or an unnoticed idea.

What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?

It’s Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis. I like Amis a lot—he is the most stylish writer in English in my view. Time’s Arrow is a terrific book. It tells a story backwards in time, which is possible according to physics but so against our experience. The complexity of the narrative keeps you alert all the time. It’s funny and profound raising issues of moral responsibility and personal identity. The scene in which someone hails a taxi on the street, narrated backwards in time, is one of the funniest I have ever read.

What’s your favourite genre of book?

I read philosophy and I read literature. When it comes to the latter, I mostly read post-1950 literature in English, though I occasionally go back to earlier times. I am very much fond of the novels by Julian Barnes, Peter Carey, Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, Iris Murdoch but also of Dickens, and Conrad and Jane Austen.

What do you think a world without books would be like?

It would be a world without philosophy, history, poetry, science. A world with no past, with no imagination, with no sensitivities; a world with little variation and no culture; a world of oppression and exploitation.

Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?

Certainly! J M Coetzee. In my view, the greatest writer in English for many decades. I think I have read (and owned) everything he’s written. The Life and Times of Michal K (together with Disgrace) are odes to human dignity. Coetzee writes literary pieces as a philosopher and philosophy as a novelist.

Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?

I am afraid this is likely to happen. The younger generation is so used to flicking through screens rather than pages that the very idea of a material paper book tends to become alien to them. There are certain advantages to digital books—you can carry with you an indefinite number of them—but I am still predominantly paper-bound. I want my books to have pencil or ink marks, coffee stains, folded pages and broken spines.

What book do you feel humanity needs right now?

It will have to be a book about how to improve the human condition while reversing the climate change and redistributing wealth. It will be a book about a utopia that humanity is in urgent need of realising.

What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?

It’s a philosophy book: A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume. I read it when I was seventeen and made me want to become a philosopher. It was published in 1739 and was initially under-appreciated because of its scepticism. Hume replaced the traditional conception of reason as the master of human affairs with a view of humans as bound by experience and passions. In doing so, he challenged widely held beliefs about natural necessity, personal identity and the sources and justification of knowledge. Nothing was the same after Hume’s book. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant woke up from his ‘dogmatic slumbers’ and wrote in reply his own masterpiece: The Critique of Pure Reason.

Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?

I should mention:

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis;
Think by David Lodge;
The Missing Shade of Blue by Jennie Erdal;
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood;
The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing;
Auto-da-Féby by Elias Canetti;
Capital by Karl Marx;
Discourse on Metaphysics by Gottfried Leibniz;
and The Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm.

What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?

Milkman by Anna Burns has been sitting on my desk for quite some time. But most of next year will be preoccupied with books about the seventeenth-century science and philosophy; about mechanisms and causation in the sciences; and about the metaphysics of science. At some point, I want to read Ulysses by James Joyce, A Man with no Qualities by Robert Musil and Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes.

If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?

I tried my best.

If you’d like to learn more about Stathis Psillos, you can find him on his faculty page and Twitter.