Interview with John Hospers by Karen Minto

Q: Where did you grow up?

Hospers: I was born and raised in a small Dutch town near Des Moines, Iowa, settled by the Dutch in 1847. The first language I learned was Dutch, and almost everyone in the town spoke it, as well as English. The Dutch Reformed Church dominated the life of the town, though there was no religious training in the public schools. People were very industrious and hard-working. I don’t think anyone in the town was on welfare, and the average income of families was the highest in the state. There were tulip gardens all over the place, and every year in May they’d have an annual tulip festival—everyone in Dutch costume, scrubbing the streets, singing Dutch songs—the whole bit. More important to me were the dogs and cats I always had, and finding homes for stray animals.

Q: What early influences affected your intellectual development?

Hospers: The religious influence was very strong, and at first I absorbed it like everyone else. It was a long time before I knew of anyone who did not share the prevailing Calvinism. Later, I got to thinking about it critically more and more, and that is undoubtedly what started my interest in philosophy, though at that time I was unaware that there was a subject by that name.

In sixth grade I read every article on astronomy in the school’s World Book Encyclopedia, and then I borrowed every book on astronomy that the city library had. I would figure out when different stars and planets would rise, and stay up at night waiting for it to happen. The laws of physics and astronomy never let me down.

The Central College campus was just a block from our house, and I would go to the college observatory and show the college students the rings of Saturn and various double stars. When I got to college myself, the dean, who taught astronomy, delegated the job of teaching it to me. It was my first and best teaching experience—I prepared the tests, taught the class, preparing the lectures and discussions with care. Here I was, a 17-year-old, teaching astronomy to college seniors. Sometimes the dean would drop in and smile, telling the class “I’ll leave you to John—he knows more about astronomy than I do.” Whatever compliments I have ever received, this was the one that meant the most to me.

A cousin who planned to go on to Harvard to study English influenced me to major in that subject. There wasn’t a lot of philosophy being taught at the college, so in addition to taking the few philosophy courses, I took a major in English. I might have stuck with astronomy, except that no one thought that such a subject would lead to any professional future. Meanwhile, even prior to courses in philosophy, I was having more doubts about religion: the usual ones about how one could know that this religion possessed the truth rather than another, how one could get knowledge of God, and so on. What saved me was the reading of David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion—which I still think is the greatest book ever written on the subject. It reflected so many of my own thoughts that I knew I was not alone. I remember thinking, for example, that if God is both all-good and all-powerful, he would not let people and animals suffer. If he couldn’t prevent their suffering, he is not omnipotent, and if he doesn’t want to prevent it he is not all-good. We excuse a surgeon for inflicting suffering if he can’t cure the patient any other way, but an omnipotent benevolent deity would not have that excuse. That source of doubt was more important to me than the usual ones about where did God come from. I concluded with Hume that no attempt to get round this dilemma was successful.

I went on to get a Master’s degree in English at the State University of Iowa. I was all set to teach Shakespeare and Shelley, but I never got to do it: when I was offered a scholarship at Columbia University, I asked whether I could change my major to philosophy. That was okay with them, so it was in philosophy that I finally got my Ph.D., though I skated on pretty thin ice because of my comparative lack of background in philosophy. But the literature background prepared me well for a dissertation in aesthetics, which became my major field of study in philosophy.

Q: What philosophers did you most respect in graduate school?

Hospers: Hume and Mill. Also Plato and Aristotle, and to some extent Descartes and Locke. But Hume most of all—both his historical and epistemological works—which I admired as much for the beauty and clarity of his style as for what he said. It wasn’t until later that I got into contemporary philosophers such as William James, Blanshard, and most of all G. E. Moore, who was for a year my teacher at Columbia.

Q: What is your best philosophical work?

Hospers: Probably the aesthetics book, Understanding the Arts. The most famous section I ever wrote was the 100-page first chapter of Introduction to Philosophical Analysis,entitled “Words and the World,” which introduced a whole generation of students to philosophy via the study of language, and for which I am still best known. I also picked up some notoriety with my long piece in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Aesthetics, Problems of,” and even more with my 40,000-word article in the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Art, Philosophy of.”


Q: You used to be a determinist. Are you still?

Hospers: This depends on what the word “determinism” (like so many words ending in -ism) is taken to mean. Some people say that all events are predetermined by God; I see no reason to accept that view. Or that “it’s all determined by laws of nature”—if you knew all the laws and all the initial conditions, you could predict everything (as Newton did with regard to the planetary orbits). The problem is (one of many) that if you made the prediction and the predicted event didn’t occur, we would say, without any further evidence, that we hadn’t considered all the conditions—we’d take the very fact of the prediction going wrong as evidence that there was an error in our statement of the conditions. Thus the statement becomes what philosophers call a “functional tautology.” Sure, all our actions have causes. Do we really want to say that some of our actions have no causes at all? Freedom says “I cause my actions.” Determinism (in the unobjectionable sense) says “My actions are caused by me.” They are two sides of the same coin.

Q: How well did David Kelley defend direct realism in The Evidence of the Senses?

Hospers: I confess that I’ve never read it all the way through. Some years ago I was much more involved with problems of perception than I am now; his book came too late on the scene for me. But he writes with admirable clarity and doesn’t confuse one sub-problem with another, as so many writers do.

Many writers have defended direct realism, e.g. John Laird’s A Theory of Direct Realism. I must say I was never totally convinced by this view. It still seems to me that smells and tastes, and even colors, vary enormously from one percipient to another because of the differences in our sense-organs. Not only in our sense-organs, but in our state of mind: the dessert no longer tastes sweet after we have eaten something that tasted sweet just before. What does exist out there are certain chemical properties of the dish, and also of the human nose. But you can’t say that something has a property A and also doesn’t have it–only that it seems to one person that it has A, and doesn’t seem so to another. However, it may be that David doesn’t want to deny any of this. I’m afraid I’d have to go and spend some time with the book again.

Q: What did you think of Sciabarra’s view that Rand was a dialectical thinker, and absorbed her method of doing philosophy from Russian culture?

Hospers: Amen! That’s what I thought all along, and reading his book provided a confirmation I had greatly sought. “Dialectical” characterizes her method throughout, and helps to explain why Ayn and I came from different starting points, and conceived the issues differently. In view of this it’s amazing that we got on as well as we did. Her method was quite immune to the subtleties of language. Naturally, I believe that the method of philosophical analysis as done largely in Anglo-American philosophy is preferable; at least it gets the questions straight. I wish she had been exposed early on to the clarifying light of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. There is one book I would like to have gone through with her step by step: Alexander B. Johnson’s A Treatise on Language, published in 1836. He was never attached to any college or university, but figured out the fundamentals all by himself—truly one of the great figures of American philosophy. Very few people know about him, even today.

Q: What is the most profound thing that Rand got right in basic philosophy?

Hospers: Several things (I couldn’t pick out just one). That reality is there independently of us. That it cannot both be X and not-X at the same time in the same respect; that ideas can change the world, for better or for worse. That within limits, our destiny lies in our own hands.

She was right about value—though (she was probably unaware of it) the American philosopher Ralph Barton Barry had carved out much of the same domain in his Realms of Value. The deathless robot example had been used by Richard Taylor in his Good and Evil, to similarly powerful effect. Unlike Perry, Taylor drew from his working out of the concept of value a social-political ethics very similar to Rand’s, in his marvelous little book Freedom, Anarchy, and the Law, which I have occasionally used as a text in my political philosophy course. “All great minds run in the same channel,” it has been said—and while this isn’t true, more Randians should realize that other minds than Ayn Rand’s have had some of her most important ideas. The whole structure—the integrated system—is unique to her, but many of the ingredients have been created by others, often in unexpectedly subtle ways, and devotees of Rand should really appreciate this—they have often spoken as if hers was the only great mind that ever existed, and as if her ideas were spun directly from the head of Zeus.

Q: What is your vision of the future of Rand’s philosophy, say in a hundred years?

Hospers: I’m not in the prediction business. I’d say here what I always say in response to questions in ethics: “It all depends.” If free-market ideas and limited government really are the wave of the future, Rand will surely be seen as its Moses, leading the people into the promised land. But if the U.S. continues on the path to government-by-bureaucracy, Randian political ideas will remain what they are today, a discussion piece for a small but articulate minority. And in any future international crisis, the government will expand further and individualist ideas will tend to be drowned out.

Of course, her social-political philosophy is only a small part of her total philosophy, but it’s the part for which she is most famous. I doubt that her metaphysical views will take hold in the absence of her social and political ideas. They are the tail that wags the dog.

Q: What about the universities? Is getting Objectivism into the universities a valid strategic goal for the Objectivist movement?

Hospers: Universities have always been centers of statism, because professors believe they can do better when subsidized by the state than they could do in the free market. I don’t see this changing very much. Also, there are many technical issues discussed in philosophy departments on which Rand either has nothing to say or says something ill-informed because she had only a glancing acquaintance with what was going on in philosophy and other departments in the universities. Her review of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice without having taken the trouble to read the book, is a case in point. She didn’t do enough careful work in relation to views that she opposed.

Q: Do you have any advice to graduate students in philosophy?

Hospers: Be careful and be prepared for the worst. Most heads of departments don’t like Objectivist views (if they know anything about them at all), and one is less likely to be hired—and there are many more Ph.D.s being graduated in philosophy than the present market can place. So you might have to end up teaching something else. Or not teaching at all. Don’t go into teaching unless you are really dedicated. Most students would do better to go into something that pays, and study philosophy in their spare time.

Q: What is your assessment of the quality of liberal education in America? Has it got much worse?

Hospers: Yes, it has. Science departments are still tops, but the humanities have deteriorated. Much of philosophy is still pretty solid, though there is an emphasis on courses with popular titles that teach one very little about philosophical concepts. Much of it is just junk—instead of clarifying the student’s mind, it throws more words out, which the student takes down in notes, and the student may even fancy that she has learned something in philosophy. A lecture, it’s said, is something that goes from the notes of the teacher to the notes of the student without having gone through the minds of either. Philosophy has to be done slowly and carefully, from the ground up, Oxford-tutorial style, with the teacher correcting the student at every step of the way. The large lecture-hall courses in philosophy don’t begin to do that; they may give the student the delusion that something has been learned, and meanwhile a wonderful source of wisdom and guidance to living one’s life is out there and the student never gets a hint that it’s there. It’s a tragic situation—a waste of the student’s time. Literature courses have become corrupted in different ways: instead of a systematic study of Shakespeare or Milton, one just gets “impressions” and “interpretations” (the one supposedly as good as the other). When I studied Shakespeare you couldn’t get by with such drivel—indeed you had to know the material thoroughly, and every student had powerful responses to Shakespeare’s poetry, so that it would make a difference their lives. I used to commit passages of Shakespeare to memory, repeating them out loud while driving to school—I don’t think much of this goes on any more.

Most important of all perhaps is that this is the “first illiterate generation,” brought up on television and not trained to do anything with words—to write them, to combine them creatively in essays, and to read, read, and read. Some students still read a lot—though they’d rather look up a topic on the computer and pretend they know about it than actually look at a book themselves. But even graduate students I know don’t read just for the love of it. They will read on a topic if their graduate program requires it, but just to immerse themselves in books for the sheer joy of acquainting themselves with other minds—it seems to me that’s quite rare these days.

Last year I asked my ethics class to write a few pages on justice, before we discussed the topic in the course. Most of the papers were ill-organized and inarticulate, and the kids wrote as if “anything goes” in using language (do we believe “anything goes” when we’re trying to repair a car?). They thought they had done well—just putting down impressions—and thought I was “much too opinionated” in correcting them, though if I’d been conscientious I would have had to write more words in commenting on their papers than they had written in the papers. Then I saw a paper that was so clear, and had such elegant simplicity, that I could barely believe it—nothing complicated, nothing even taken from books, just the working out of a few fairly simple ideas. The girl who wrote it was from Korea and had learned English only six years before, in Korea. She had learned it “the correct way,” as a foreign language, paying attention to grammar and construction. How had this girl, who had had no philosophy course before, come to do better than any of the American-born students? I remembered that until after World War II, Korea had been controlled by Japan, and no Korean was permitted to embark on higher education. There it was—in a few years the Koreans have got way ahead of us (this girl wasn’t the only example), though we may still think we’re tops. The thought that scared me was, if they can rise so fast, we can fall pretty fast too. American students are near the bottom of the list in language, mathematics, and other subjects. How can we survive if we continue in the direction we are going?

Q: Why does Borders stock so much Continental philosophy and post-modern junk? Who buys that stuff?

Hospers: Instructors like to assign it, to mystify students and show them how much more learned they (the instructors) are. But I doubt that that’s the main reason. It’s the magic of words again. There are certain words in titles, such as “the meaning of life,” which turn students on, and they think they are getting philosophy just because the book is stocked on a shelf labeled “philosophy.” They are fascinated by the occult, and often identify metaphysics with occultism of some kind—with the mysterious or the mystical, with E.S.P. and “inner revelation” as the key to knowledge. What they actually learn from all this is: nothing. But bookstores stock it because the untutored and the unwary buy it.

Q: Did you see the Sense of Life documentary? What did you think of it?

Hospers: I was moved by some parts of it, especially those parts in which Rand in her inimitable voice speaks with conviction about the topics at hand—especially in the interviews in the New Orleans gold conference, which I hadn’t heard before. I was again bowled over by her ability to say something with simple elegance, and to trace so relentlessly the consequences of her opponents’ ideas. I wanted to tell her how much she meant to all of us.

The parts dealing with the early years were revealing and moving. One disadvantage was that the film was told solely from the point of view of her followers. It would have had a richer texture if it had described some of the ideas being discussed by those who honored her and cared for her but didn’t necessarily believe that every word was sacred scripture.

Q: What is your favorite scene in Atlas Shrugged?

Hospers: There are so many—how can I choose? I guess I’d have to say the scene between Dagny and the tramp in the train, on what happened to Twentieth Century Motors, and why. It’s such a great literary piece—and it presents, as she does so well, the consequences of acting on certain ideas—in this case “To each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” When I finish reading those ten pages aloud to the class, half of them don’t understand it or don’t care, and the other half is thunderstruck—they have been hit over the head with new ideas, which they have never heard before, and they don’t quite know how to handle it or what to do about it. Many a future Objectivist has taken root from that reading in my class—and I’ve done it annually for about thirty years.