FSPB: Hi, Manuel, thank you for joining us.
MV: My pleasure—thanks for having me!
FSPB: Congratulations on the publication of Four Views on Free Will. What is the general strategy of the book?
MV: The basic idea of the book is to give relative newcomers to the philosophical literature on free will a sense of what is going on right now, what the most promising positions are, and what follows from holding some or another view. Rather than having a single author lay all of this out, the thought was to have some of most prominent spokespeople for the major views do the talking, and also, to have someone decidedly less distinguished (me) represent one of the growing number of non-traditional takes that are banging around in the literature.
Each of the first four chapters of the book presents and defends a view on free will, and the last four chapters respond to and critique the other views. Bob Kane does his customarily excellent job of motivating libertarianism (the view that we have free will, but that it is incompatible with determinism), John Fischer makes plausible a species of compatibilism (the view that free will is compatible with both determinism and indeterminism), and Derk Pereboom shows why hard incompatibilism (the view that free will is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism) has become a real contender view in the past decade or so. I try to do my part with a view called revisionism.
FSPB: Could you give our readers a brief description of what ‘revisionism’ is and why you find the view appealing.
MV: Revisionism about free will is the view that the correct account of free will is one that departs in some significant fashion from important aspects of our commonsense conception of free will. As you can see, this is a “big tent” view— there is ample room to disagree about what commonsense comes to, and there are lots of ways one might think commonsense needs to be changed. On the account I like, things shake out this way: there is a widespread (but maybe not universal) thread of incompatibilist thinking in at least some aspects of ordinary concepts about free will. This incompatibilist thread is committed to a picture of agency where we are supposed to have (what the literature sometimes calls) “metaphysically robust” alternative possibilities. Moreover, our commonsense commitments may also involve some kind of emergent agent causal power. The bad news is that there are some good reasons for doubting that our commonsense picture is an accurate representation of the nature of our agency. The good news is that there are some excellent reasons for thinking that we were mistaken in believing that we needed incompatibilist powers (alternative possibilities, agent causes) for free will, and there is good reason to think that the powers we do need for free will and moral responsibility are common enough. To put it another way, we likely have free will and moral responsibility but what that comes to is a bit different than many of us usually suppose.
The main appeal of revisionism, I think, is that it can accommodate the intuitive pull of incompatibilism without thereby committing us to a picture of ourselves that looks implausible in light of science and our best accounts of metaphysics. More broadly, I think of it as a way to combine what seems right about both compatibilism and incompatibilism; there is some sense in which many of our practices of ascribing freedom and responsibility seem insulated from metaphysical concerns. At the same time, though, an account goes badly when it denies or tries to sweep under the rug metaphysical worries that inevitably crop up whenever humans have talked about free will. Revisionism allows us to make sense of how we might genuinely have those worries, but also how we might resolve those worries in a — sorry! — responsible way. That is, the principal cost is to the way we conceive of our agency, but not to our actual practices and attitudes. This is a cost, to be sure, but it seems to me that this is exactly the cost we should be prepared to pay any time we get involved in theorizing.
FSPB: Most of your published work is on action theory. Another area of interest to you, however, is Latin American philosophy. May we spend the rest of our time on that topic?
FSPB: Let’s begin with a simple survey question. Who are some of the more important figures in Latin American philosophy and what are the philosophical issues with which they’re concerned?
MV: In no particular order, here are a few of the “big names” from 20th century Latin American philosophy: Vasconcelos, Caso, Ramos, Zea, Villoro, Dussel, Mariategui, Romero, Frondizi, Ingenieros, Salazar Bondy, Deustua, Roig, Miro Quesada, Gaos. There are more, of course, and I’m confident that I’ve neglected to mention plenty of others who merit it. The work of these figures span social and political philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, philosophical anthropology, (roughly, what we would now probably call philosophy of action or agency), and various other fields in philosophy. More on that in a moment.
Before I get to that, though, I want to emphasize that these folks are all philosophers in any conventional sense of the term. I find that many professional philosophers in the U.S.— even otherwise extraordinarily well-educated ones who have lived their entire lives in a country bordering Latin America— have the expectation that Latin American philosophy is principally found in literary works with philosophical themes (such as the writing of Jorge Luis Borges), and are surprised to hear that it is not. (Let’s not speculate about why this presupposition is so widespread.) To be sure, there are philosophers in Latin American who think about philosophy and literature and who think that work like Borges’ should count as philosophy. And, especially during the late 19th century and the first decade or so of the 20th century there were a number of figures doing work that is partly philosophical, partly literary. However, most of what falls in the domain of “Latin American Philosophy” on any conception of it are either (1) problems that are recognizably philosophical — the nature of knowledge, whether and how much minority concerns should be of interest in a just political state, the fundamental nature of reality, and so on— or (2) figures who had these sorts of things as their concern. Moreover, unlike Chinese, Indian, and African philosophy, almost everything that is non-controversially Latin American philosophy is historically continuous with the tradition started by the Greeks, whether transmitted through the Iberian peninsula, developed in conversation with 18th-20th century Europe (and more recently, the US — including analytic philosophy), or some autochthonous philosophical movement that grew up in the context of having reflected on these traditions.
It may also be worth noting that there is a long history of philosophy in Latin America (dating back to at least the Conquest, on most conventional conceptions of what counts as philosophy), and philosophers from them until now have been concerned with a large array of issues. Indeed, trying to characterize Latin American philosophy over that span of time is a bit like trying to characterize European philosophy between, say, 1500 and 1900. There is simply too much variation there to admit of characterizations that are both easy and accurate. In particular times and within particular countries some concerns have been more and less salient. For example, over the past 200 years or so, social and political philosophy has been more important in many parts of Latin America than metaphysics and epistemology, and this has been reflected in the preoccupations of the major figures, the focus of various schools of thought, public discourse about philosophy, and so on. But there are exceptions here, too.
FSPB: Alright, now let’s get to a more contentious, skeptical question. Why is studying Latin American philosophy, in general, or these figures, in particular, important?
MV: Tell me what your answer is for studying philosophy in general, and I’ll likely give you the same answer for studying Latin American philosophy. If you think philosophy is valuable, it is tough for me to see what makes philosophy done in NATO countries (plus our friends in Australia and New Zealand!) uniquely good at achieving those goods. It isn’t as though doing philosophy in Spanish or Portuguese suddenly robs philosophy of its fruits or potential.
I’ll also say this: like any long-standing conversation about complex matters, the philosophical conversation in Latin America has developed a set of conceptual resources to address various puzzles. Some of these resources are a part of the Anglophone philosophical world. Some aren’t. It would be nice to have some of those resources in play in the Anglophone world, because a good many problems already had a rich tradition of philosophical work on them in Latin America. For example, work on race, ethnic, and national identity have long histories in Latin American philosophy. In the Anglophone world these issues were treated by philosophers as though they had appeared in the mid-to late 1980s in the U.S. for the first time in world history. Although things have improved over the past 10 years, much of the Anglophone philosophical work that has grown up around these things has a kind parochialism about it, and little sense of the history of discussions about these issues outside the U.S. context. Of course this is something of a caricature — there has been some very good work done in the Anglophone world on race by some wonderful philosophers, and it would be unfair to characterize the work of an entire subfield in this way. So I’ll say this: the more we know, the larger the body of conceptual resources that become part of our philosophical milieu; the more tools we have available to us for tackling the problems that vex us, the better off we are. Latin America philosophy is a toolbox that has rarely been opened by Anglophone philosophers, even when Latin American philosophers have been developing tools for certain problems for a very long time.
One response to this kind of story is to worry that the conceptual distance between traditions may be so substantial as to make access of those tools not worth the investment of resources it would take to get them. It is easier on us if we don’t have to bother learning about Latin American philosophy, especially if it costs us significant time (in the education of philosophers) and resources (in the hiring of scholars in this area). But, I think the shared intellectual inheritance of philosophy in Latin America with the rest of the Western tradition makes this concern less biting: it is isn’t as though we are talking about a tradition completely alien to Anglophone methods, concerns, terminology, and so on. However, I don’t want to give the impression that I think all philosophical problems have their solution in Latin American philosophy. They don’t. Moreover, there is a lot of bad philosophy being done in Spanish and Portuguese— as there is in English, French, German, and so on. And, I think increased interaction between Anglophone and Latin American philosophers would benefit not just the Anglophone world but the Latin American side, too.
Prospects for this are pretty bleak, though. As far as I know, there are no programs in, say, the Gourmet Report’s top 30 philosophy PhD programs in the US that have a single scholar with any expertise in Latin American philosophy. Without any scholars already being located in the elite parts of our profession, it is difficult for those conversations to happen, or for more scholars to be hired there. There simply isn’t anyone there to make the necessary case for the expenditure of a faculty line on the subject matter, and subsequently, to evaluate the work of any particular scholar in that field who might be considered for that line. So, we’ve got a nice catch-22 problem for the field’s reception. Remarkably, even in universities located in states whose demographics suggest some advantages to having scholars working in those areas, there is little movement to hire philosophers with an expertise in Latin American philosophy. For example, I cannot think of a scholar who works on Latin American philosophy in the philosophy departments of any research universities in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. I hope this is a defect in my recall, and I’d love to be corrected about this, but whatever the exact number is it is clear that the situation is not promising.
Interestingly, there was some interaction between philosophers in Latin America and the US in the mid 1950s to the early 1960s that showed up in the journals. For example Philosophy and Phenomenological Research published some pieces by José Vasconcelos, José Gaos, and others (in Spanish, even!), and for a while was running abstracts in Spanish of some of the English-language articles. The Journal of the History of Ideas carried a number of pieces by or on Latin American philosophy. Somehow, I don’t think PPR has any interest in revisiting that part of its history, but here too it would be wonderful if I were wrong.
FSPB: The phrase ‘Latin American philosophy’ is ambiguous. It could mean any of (at least) four things: (i) philosophy done in Latin American countries, (ii) philosophy done by Latin Americans (or people of Latin American ancestry), (iii) philosophy done about issues unique to Latin American, or (iv) philosophy done for the people of Latin America. Would you care to speculate on what motivates skepticism or indifference to the work you mentioned above “in NATO countries (plus our friends in Australia and New Zealand!)”? For instance, to what extent is it that people in those countries think of ‘Latin American philosophy’ as philosophy in the first or second senses – i.e., as philosophy done in Latin American countries or done by Latin Americans – and simply have a prejudicial, low regard for such work? To what extent is it that people in those countries think of ‘Latin American philosophy’ as philosophy in the third or fourth senses – i.e., as philosophy done uniquely about or for Latin America – and don’t see such work as relevant to their own research? And to what extent is it merely that people are simply ignorant of such work?
MV: Your four-fold distinction nicely recapitulates some of the moves that took place in the metaphilosophical literature in Latin American philosophy, in those debates about what constitutes “Latin American philosophy.” So, for example, there are indeed strands of philosophy in Latin America that explicitly pursue conceptions of philosophy done in the third and fourth sense. So, if one thinks that Latin American philosophy is concerned with issues unique to Latin America or done specifically for Latin America, it will seem that the interestingness of Latin American philosophy would be fairly limited to philosophers outside that cultural or geographic context. However, even if Latin American philosophy were that limited, unconcerned with issues that can transcend time and place, it isn’t clear to me that this would justify its virtually complete absence from U.S. research universities. Perhaps there wouldn’t be enough justification for widespread study of it, but if our elite institutions can house scholars who study some pretty obscure and culturally specific practices (I’ll leave it to readers to point to their favorite examples), surely something like Latin American philosophy, which has played a substantial role in the history of Latin American nations, should merit some study. And yes, I mean that last bit about the “substantial role in the history of Latin American nations.” For example, at one point a kind of Comtean/Spencerian “positivism” represented the official state philosophy of Mexico, and a group of similarly influenced figures in Brazil was responsible for the positivist motto — “Order and Progress” — making it on to the Brazilian flag. It is still there, bearing witness to the power of philosophical movements in Latin America.
Still, it is important to recall that the supposition of a kind of monolithic cultural specificity is false. Most strands of philosophy in Latin America have ambitions that are continuous with the mainline of the philosophical traditions with which we are familiar, so it seems to me this sort of worry can be addressed. There may be some bad press here that is getting in the way but I think this is rather unlikely. The biggest barriers to the study of Latin American philosophy aren’t beliefs about it being exclusively “culturalist” but are instead rooted in wholesale ignorance about it, combined with various institutional forces. And, in the absence of specific, intentional efforts to bring about change, universities are invariably victims of their accidental histories. The reception of Latin American philosophy outside of Latin American seems to have been a product of these sorts of forces.
Consider the story of both universities as a whole and philosophy departments in particular. When considering universities as a whole, one natural question to wonder about is why resources for Latin American philosophy didn’t become institutionalized in the way that happened for Latin American Studies more generally. When Area Studies programs (including Latin American Studies) really got going during the Cold War the funding for these programs tended to focus on politics, economics, and other fields that seemed to have the most connection to national security concerns. Philosophy didn’t really make the cut. A different kind of comparison emerges when you think about the fate of Latin American literature. It got a big boost with the “Latin American Boom” that gave us, for example, Gabriel Gracia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, and so on. I’m sure someone’s written on why that “boom” happened when it did and why it happened. Whatever the story, though, it is clear that nothing comparable happened in Latin American philosophy. So, Latin American philosophy didn’t share the more promising fates of its companions in literature and in the social sciences.
When considering philosophy departments alone, the forces at work are a bit different. The elite programs in the US in the postwar period were interesting places, but not particularly invested in expanding the scope of their curriculum to include philosophy done out of a particular subset of countries. Again, the why question here is interesting, but one whose answer I won’t pretend to know. I do think the language issue is something of a problem. That it is a problem emerges in several ways. First, even when we think of European philosophy, Spain is even more forgotten than Italy. If a European Spanish-speaking country doesn’t make it in, then Spanish (and Portuguese) speaking nations in Latin America will surely not make it in. Second, I know that early in my own graduate training — before I transferred to the place I got my Ph.D. from — I was told by the director of graduate studies that I would not be permitted to use Spanish as one of my two foreign language requirements, and that the only acceptable foreign languages for a philosophy Ph.D. were the big four— Greek, Latin, French, and German. After lots of back and forth I was allowed to use Spanish only on the condition that I would demonstrate that I would use it for actual philosophical work. This was, of course, a requirement that almost no one in my cohort would have been able to satisfy with the languages that they had selected among the big four. I say this not to ridicule anyone (the grad director was himself a product of such a system and surely trying to advise me in a way he thought most conducive to my long-term professional interests) but to make a point about the way graduate education is structured. If we aren’t churning out Ph.D.s with expertise in the relevant languages, it becomes much harder to get access to philosophical work written in those languages. It is even harder when we actively seek to discourage people from developing an expertise in those languages. So, language barriers are, I think, a real hurdle here. A related but different sort of barrier is the one I pointed to before— it is always tough to get the study of a new field going in any institution. Without experts already in house it is tough to build from there. One natural pipeline for the relevant language expertise would be people who already have some Spanish or Portugese language skills. But here U.S. philosophy departments face a kind of demographic problem— there are not a lot of such folks in Ph.D.s in the U.S., especially getting degrees from places most conducive to employment in elite, agenda-setting parts of the profession. So, the history and contemporary demographics of philosophy departments are surely part of the story.
I do want to acknowledge that is some quarters Latin American philosophy has a bad rap because of some of the subject matters and methodologies pursued in Latin America. There is a fair bit of nonsense out there among the various fractured strands of Latin American philosophy, and if one’s only substantial contact is with that nonsense then one might be forgiven for thinking that such work is better of left unstudied.
Whether there are also deeper, more nefarious forces at work — what you call a “low, prejudicial regard” — is hard to say. There is some evidence that in surprisingly public contexts people will disfavor Latinos, even when it comes to skills at tasks that are deeply information-dependent. Levitt and Dubner, in their popular book Freakonomics, provide one interesting example. They claim that, unlike women and blacks, both Latinos and older contestants tended to be kicked off by other contestants in the television show The Weakest Link in ways that reflected an undervaluation of their knowledge. In contrast, contestants displayed no similar bias against two other traditionally discriminated against groups: blacks and women. Levitt and Dubner hypothesize that, whatever our actual biases may be, that most of us are on guard against acting on biases against women and blacks when there is scrutiny on us. In contrast, public concern for discrimination against Latinos and the elderly is much lower, making it more likely that people will fail to guard against discrimination against these groups.
I’m not going to say that philosophy departments operate on principles akin to The Weakest Link, and I won’t even suggest that a “Latino-discounting” effect might hold in departmental hiring practices even when trying to pull off an affirmative action hire, and I’m definitely going to try to avoid thinking about what this might suggest for people who are both elderly and Latino, as I hope to be some day. All of these are implications that are beyond what a study of TV program can yield. However, if (and I do mean if) there really is something like this going on in the world at large, I don’t see any reason to think that we philosophers are especially immune to its effects.
Anecdotally, Levitt and Dubner’s suggestion does resonate with some of the experiences described in the last chapter of Jorge Gracia’s book Hispanic/Latino Identity, which discusses the situation of Hispanics/Latinos in philosophy. So, maybe a field tied by subject matter to Latin Americans will suffer some kind of polluting effect as a consequence. And, perhaps, Latinos who have interests or specializations in this field will be especially vulnerable to these sorts of effects. Whether this is the actual situation in the profession or not, I honestly don’t know. Indeed, I think it would be very hard to measure these things, since numbers of both Latinos in philosophy and specialists in Latin American philosophy in the U.S. are so few in number. Still, it would be great to get some sociologists on the case to see what data can be generated about these things (Kieran Healy, sociologist to the philosophers, where are you?). For my own part, I have been well treated by a profession not always positively regarded by people of color (and women, and those disabled, and so on). The grad program from which I got my degree never discouraged me from studying Latin American philosophy, and my current institution, the University of San Francisco, has been enthusiastic about my interests in Latin American philosophy.
FSPB: Do you have any suggestions for meaningful ways that those teaching lower division courses (e.g., Intro or Ethics) can incorporate work from Latin American philosophers into their syllabi?
MV: My comments here reflect my own research interests in Latin American philosophy— if you were to ask other philosophers whose expertise in Latin American philosophy differed, you would surely get a different answer. Moreover, my own preference is to to simply teach courses in Latin American philosophy, and to let the history and the problematics of different movements internal to Latin American philosophy generate its own introduction to philosophy. But if one wanted to try to incorporate elements from Latin American philosophy here are three ways one might do it:
First, one might do a unit on how our categories for thinking about people (1) change and (2) have powerful implications for how we think about moral standing, rights, and claims on governments. In this context, some of Las Casas’ work during the Spanish colonization of the Americas is interesting. He argues for the moral and political demands of native populations in light of oppression apparently licensed by Aristotelian natural slave theory. Pairing this with some contemporary work on the implicit norms of various social categories — disability, gender, race, ethnic affiliation, etc. — can make for an eye-opening unit for students. As I mentioned above, there is a large body of philosophical work in Latin America on these things, and you can find some of it in the anthologies I mention below.
Second, one could do a unit that focuses on an area that has been a veritable obsession of 20th century Latin American philosophy: metaphilosophical questions about what constitutes philosophy. Metaphilosophy hasn’t historically been an important element in how introductory courses are taught in the U.S., but there is a teachable body of work here that has application outside of the Latin American context— essays by Zea, Castro-Gomez, and others can be illuminating for getting students to think about the philosophical enterprise and the historical bounded-ness of different conceptions of what we are up to.
Finally, one of my favorite pieces to teach is Enrique Dussel’s Invention of the Americas. It is about the significance of the Americas for European self-conceptions in the early modern period, and about the way in which the rationality and interests of native populations was obscured. The clear implication of the book is that this basic arrangement of ignoring or denying the rationality and moral claims of marginal groups has not fundamentally changed up to our own time. The details of the argument are not always plausible or clear, but the perspective shift is usually a wrenching one for students. Students more frequently thank me for teaching that book than just about anything else I teach.
FSPB: If students are interested in doing research on Latin American philosophy, where would you suggest they begin?
MV: To quickly get a sense of what is out there, take a look at the entry on Latin American philosophy in the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. From there, perhaps the next thing to look at are some of the anthologies now widely available. Gracia and Milan’s Latin American Philosophy for the 21st Century has a broad range of excerpts, mainly of 20th century work. Mendieta’s Latin American Philosophy: Currents, Issues, Debates has a good selection of readings that tends to reflect a postmodernist sensibility. Nuccetelli and Seay’s Latin American Philosophy has a number of classic historical texts. My own preference is to encourage people to read complete works. Which ones one should read is partly a function of (1) the student’s interests (2) the student’s language skills, and (3) the availability of the texts. Many otherwise good libraries have very thin holdings in Latin American philosophy, so this latter issue is something that one oftentimes has to work around.
I find that many of the most interesting and important works remain untranslated (e.g., many classic texts by the figures I listed above), badly translated, or aren’t available with the kind of secondary apparatus that helps make the text useful to readers not already steeped in the author’s intellectual context. Clearly, there is a good deal of basic work that has yet to be done on making important texts adequately available to a U.S. audience. For that, though, we need more scholars and students of Latin American philosophy in the U.S. Things are getting better, but we have a long way to go.
FSPB: Thanks, Manuel, for taking time the time to speak with us.
MV: Thanks for having me, and best wishes to the readers of this terrific blog.
Manuel Vargas is the Director of the St. Ignatius Institute and an Associate Professor of Philosophy and of Latin American Studies at the University of San Francisco. He has been an Acting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University (2001-2002), a Visiting Assistant Professor at the California Institute of Technology (2003-2004), and a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley (2005-2006). His recently published book, Four Views on Free Will, is available from Blackwell.