Adrift Ever Since

A Self-Interview Inspired by the Reading Lists interview of Luciano Floridi

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When someone asks you ‘What do you do for a living?’ — How do you respond?

I am a Thinker for Hire. Currently, I advise the Republic of Haiti on ways to integrate innovative thinking into their efforts to recenter their economy towards higher productivity.

What are you reading at the moment?

Inroads: Paths in Ancient and Modern Western Philosophy by Murray Miles; I love returning to introductory texts.

I’m also on a Joseph Campbell binge. I just completed The Power of Myth and currently reading An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michael Toms.

When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?

I’d have to say books: The Bible; God and the New Physics by Paul Davies; Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; and a lot of arithmetic and plane geometry.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

An astronaut. Then Challenger happened. It now occurs to me that I’ve been adrift ever since.

When did you fall in love with philosophy?

I was 20. After two years of undergraduate courses in math and law, I left university to intern as a talent agent. I loved the music business but found most people in it to be pretty uninteresting. So I read more and stumbled upon The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. It set me on a path. I returned to complete my undergrad and did another degree in philosophy. In time, I realized like Quine that, “philosophy of science is philosophy enough”.

What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?

He’d be disappointed I’ve accomplished so little. But then again, he didn’t know what I would have to face.

If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education — which book would it be?

In fact, I was gifted Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss when I graduated from undergrad. That is a great one. Today, I would gift myself La langue hébraïque restituée by Fabre-d’Olivet.

Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?

It depends on what I’m reading. In bed and in a hot bath are my favourite places to read philosophy. Math and logic work best standing at a white board. Tech at a table with a laptop. Anything else can be on transit or at a café or anywhere I can sit.

Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far? How did it impact it?

The Stages of Economic Growth by W.W. Rostow. It was required reading in a graduate history seminar. It provided a succinct entry point into the world of economic ideas that motivated me to complete an MBA before returning for the philosophy doctorate. It led to a decade of advanced public policy work and is the reason I don’t need to accept just any postdoc opportunity to eat.

What advice would you give a novice, looking for an introduction to philosophy?

Read widely. Talk to people. Attend talks. It is useful to do the philosophy of X. So, choose an X to philosophize about. Change to Y; philosophize about Y. Etc. Eventually, the relevance of cross-cutting tools in logic and the philosophy of language become obvious. That is the right time to read a teaser like Philosophical Devices: Proofs, Probabilities, Possibilities, and Sets by David Papineau. Then “follow your bliss”, as Joseph Campbell advised his students to do.

Who would you say are the three philosophers that continue to inspire you?

Why three? Plato, Hegel, Pierre Duhem, Henri Poincaré, Wittgenstein, Paul Feyerabend, Arthur C. Danto, Ian Hacking, Susan Neiman.

Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?

No. But my father had a large and wide-ranging personal library. I associate book culture with him.

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

I would not recommend the same book for every circumstance, and almost never recommend philosophy to the uninitiated. I try to listen to what the person wants and recommend more of that. Lately, How to Stay Sane by Philippa Perry and The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell seemed to resonate. Signs of the times.

Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?

Non-fiction, overwhelmingly. When I read fiction, I like the short and trenchant texts like Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. The book is quite an achievement.

Do you think reading is important?

As an input into critical thinking, yes. Not for its own sake. It may be that some of us are reading too much!

In Power Systems, Noam Chomsky puts it like this: “And reading a book doesn’t just mean turning the pages. It means thinking about it, identifying the parts that you want to go back to, asking how to place it in a broader context, pursuing the ideas. There is no point in reading a book if you let it pass before your eyes and then forget about it ten minutes later. Reading a book is an intellectual exercise, which stimulates thought, questions, imagination” (p. 103). I would add that pursuing the ideas may (ideally would) break the reader out of the circle of ideas and into the realm of action. Chomsky himself has been motivated by his ideas (in ways that are not always clear for others to track) towards political activism.

Learning by doing is my favourite way of learning. Reading is just one form of doing. Teaching, building a startup, writing, creating an art work are just some examples of intellectually rewarding activities. The point is not to be a mere consumer but to consume in order to create.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?

Passwords to Paradise: How Languages have Re-Invented World Religions by Nicholas Ostler took me out of my comfort zone. In a good way.

Do you prefer real books or digital books?

I like to highlight passages, write questions or reactions in margins, caress and the bend pages. Physical books are all I consume.

Name a book that you feel everyone would benefit from reading and explain why.

How To Be a Genius: A Handbook for the Aspiring Smarty-pants by André de Guillaume is funny and spot on. If someone is offended by humour, then Connections to the World: The Basic Concepts of Philosophy by Arthur C. Danto is a gem. In a world of tech where most of us are illiterate, I highly recommend sitting at a computer and going through Coding by Nikhil Abraham et al. Beginning Programming by Greg Perry and Dean Miller is suitable for a slightly more advanced beginner.

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

Without a doubt, Republic by Plato. I am a philosopher at large and so believe it is useful to have held a “real” job to do the best philosophy. Republic is exactly adapted to this outlook. The reluctance Plato expected philosophers would have to engage with civic leadership speaks to me. I return to Republic often.

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

Books are like flowers: you pick ’em as you find ’em. I read continually.

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

Philosophy of physics, AI and machine learning, economic development. I expect these will continue to form the contours of my reading.

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

My Life, So Far.