Public Philosopher Agnes Callard
An overview and a bibliography
Last updated on 2023-03-24 with links to latest essays.
Agnes Callard is a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in ancient Western philosophy and ethics. She has been practicing public philosophy since 2018 or so.
I first came across her through her conversation with Tyler Cowen, and subsequently listened to various other conversations including with Ezra Klein, Violet Lucca, Matt Teichman, and Ben Callard. If you are into podcasts, you could sample one of these. Among these, the one with Cowen is most interesting, but none of them are as rewarding as reading her essays.
Last year she started recording a podcast with Robin Hanson, which is a series of open-ended conversations about a wide range of topics between two very differently weird intellectuals. It is more interesting than the aforementioned conversations, but I would characterize it as work product and not product, and also less interesting than reading her essays.
A few months ago, I started reading almost everything that Callard has written outside of academic journals. She quickly became my favorite contemporary essayist. Many of her essays are beautiful and insightful. Rather than using philosophy to explain a current moment, which might seem tenuous, she uses a current moment to introduce philosophical concepts, which I find timeless. At least that is how it felt when I reread some of them, though I wonder what they will be like in a decade. Below is a list of some of my favorites.
A couple of notes.
Essays written for mainstream outlets often have disappointing click-baity titles that make them seem shallower than they are. Here is an explanation that it is often intentional. Don't judge her essays by their titles.
Like my judgment about all the podcasts above, reading the paragraphs below will be less rewarding than clicking on any of the links and reading one of those essays.
Her best essays are personal. She is able to write about something very personal, in her unique voice, and convey something that is universal. She often says that she can be over-sharing, but she withholds certain details that make her writing more effective.
The Eros Monster: In this essay she describes the worst romance of her life, how she escaped it, and how she came to terms with it. The monster here is in oneself, and not external, not in the other person.
Half a Person: Abortion is a surprisingly common and perennially controversial topic in the US, so I had an opportunity to read several different things without ever seeking out. Most of them have a political slant, often contain far less light than heat, and are often boring for anyone who already knows what they think about the subject. The thought-provoking ones are almost always personal. This essay takes the prize, vividly conveying the contradictions and fraught decisions one may have to deal with, even when someone knows all the correct answers.
Do You Want My Garbage?: I value function more than form. Apart from personality, I can see the roots of it in my being a middle-class Indian, and results of it in choices I make about career or relationships or decorating my home. I often categorize something, say a controversy, as being mostly aesthetic and/or performative, and accordingly either more easily make up my mind or ignore it altogether. It results in underrating culture, and misunderstanding choices people make. In this funny and poignant essay, Callard explains the Western philosophical history of the relation between ethics and aesthetics, and argues that an aesthetic divide between two individuals is not only non-trivial but can be significant to their ethical divide. It pushes me to take people's aesthetic choices more seriously, and makes me pessimistic about its implications on relationships between individuals and peoples.
Who Wants to Play the Status Game?: The essay mainly deals with why we play them. She points to an apparently unsolved problem in moral philosophy: on one hand we want everyone to be treated as having innate worth, but on the other we want people to aspire for excellence as if that worth is to be acquired. We also run into examples of this dilemma in personal relationships.
I Don’t Want You to ‘Believe’ Me. I Want You to Listen.: This is a provocative essay that resonates with me and articulates a dissatisfaction I have experienced only after moving from India to New York. Examples are abundant on media and social media. The discomfort of an awkward silence or a bumbling utterance when the listener doesn't know the right thing to say, because there is perhaps no such thing, often has more value than a thousand supportive affirmations. Listening appears to be a common topic that Callard keeps going back to. Two other essays where she emphasizes our need to be listened to more than our need to be understood, are Why Am I Being Hurt? and Thoughts and Prayers.
What Does It Mean to ‘Speak as a Woman’?: This introduced me to the concept of informational vs managerial standing. I think of it as a context-sensitive counterpart to John Nerst's theory about couplers vs decouplers. The conclusion is somewhat dissatisfying because the explicit invocations of managerial standing are uneven – there is a spectrum from people who are unaware that they have this standing, to those who are reluctant to invoke it despite possessing it, to those who have mastered the technique. It may not be an issue in environments of high trust, but I have noticed many instances of scope creep. Another of her essays in the same vein is Should We Cancel Aristotle?. In it, Callard distinguishes between the speech of interlocutors, which according to her is to be taken literally, vs that of certain groups like political orators, whose speech additionally functions as messaging.
The Real Cost of Tweeting About My Kids: I think Twitter is not only a negative to its users, but also a negative to many individuals who aren't on it, the way passive smoking is. It has become common for academics to be active on Twitter, and Callard is one of them. In this essay, she contemplates the popularity of social media and the complicated feelings people have about it.
The End is Coming: In early 2020, people working in certain fields like health sciences, healthcare, and other essential work had an urgent purpose. The rest felt listless and were filled with thoughts of doom and gloom. In this essay written around that period, Callard contemplates her own helplessness, and tries to make sense of the role of people like herself in the world. Scientists delay the inevitable end of humanity. What can philosophers do? Her thought process and conclusion are heartwarming. I think this was her best essay related to the pandemic.
Why Philosophers Shouldn’t Sign Petitions: This was written before the controversial Harper's Letter, but I read it after and mostly as a unique rebuttal to it, because of the number of academics who had signed it. According to this tweet and a follow-up, Callard cites as example the petition against de-anonymizing Scott Alexander, an even larger petition and one also signed by many philosophers. Group-endorsed open letters have only gotten more common since then, often to denounce someone or something. It is an interesting perspective in general, and is worth consideration by people who are not philosophers.
What We Believe About Skepticism: This is not a new idea. Rationalists of all intensity are hopefully familiar with it, though they keep running into it again and again. We live with the assumption that we are right, and while it is possible to learn to be better at owning up to faults, it is harder to identify them ourselves. This is a limitation of self-reflection. We need a second person to point out when we are wrong. That becomes less likely in adulthood, especially in environments of low trust and for people with few close friends.
The Philosophy of Anger: This essay covers in depth what anger means in Western Philosophy, according to Stoics, Sentimentalists, and a few radicals (Nietzche, Girard, Foucault). It covers two arguments, one in favor of Grudges and another of Revenge. Callard's role here is mostly that of a mediator between Stoics and Sentimentalists. She argues that even though these groups come from opposing directions, they have a lot in common. I intuitively side with Stoics, so I find it a little unsettling, but still engrossing. This essay underlined to me how most philosophy I come across is Western, with at most a nod to Buddhism, and not even that to the rest. I wonder how differently philosophers from other traditions, traditions that cover a large(r) population, view universal topics such as this, and what kind of exchange if any exists between them. The essay The Wound is Real is a response to a rebuttal of this one.
Callard is a defender of higher education as an institution. My opinions about academia are less informed and weakly held, but this is the topic where I disagree most often with her. I imagine that her worldview from being part of centuries old institutions all her life and the need to preserve them is too far apart from my worldview from never being part of anything older than a couple of decades.
How to Politicize the Classroom: She discusses her ambivalence about politicizing the classroom, but eventually embraces the need for it. Colleges and companies are different settings, but I think culture in one can influence the other, because students in the former become employees in the latter. People care about different things, have different priorities, and those differences only widen as the size and diversity of a group increase. Discussing some things as a group can be more fraught and less effective than discussing among individuals, though in environments of low trust the former might feel more transparent. The idea that an individual should be able to not just seek but get attention from a group, about issues beyond what the group’s shared goals are, also remains alien to me. I may be misunderstanding the details of the problem being addressed here.
Publish and Perish: This is an explanation of the culture and inherent incentives that drive the current state of academic writing. But the main insight for me was a detour about the differences between science and philosophy, which are particularly interesting in light of assertions by various humanities of the scientific nature of their work.
The Real College Scandal: Callard defines the purpose of a university. She defends universities, especially elite universities, as symbolizing the idea of a stable intellectual community. She also explains what a noble lie is, a concept new to me. I am a beneficiary and a benefactor of her system. I think that as the number of academics increases, and consequently credentialism and claims of higher status (which are common on media and social media), it is a very difficult idea to endorse for everyone standing outside, especially everyone who knows that they will never have access to it.
The Problem with Letters of Recommendation: I found this useful more as an explanation of what recommendation letters are, how they work, why they are confidential, etc. It is a bizarre culture. Apart from academia being very hierarchical and conservative (not dynamic) when it comes to trying new things, I am amazed that the recent direction they choose to change in is towards being even less transparent and more gamifiable. In comparison, at (tech) companies, the recruitment and employee performance review processes are more transparent even when being private when it comes to individual decisions.
Is Plagiarism Wrong?: The difference between Indian and American classrooms in how they approach cheating and copying is an example of vast differences between cultures. This essay conveys an idea of why American colleges take plagiarism so seriously, and questions whether a convention is being confused with a moral rule. This feels a little like what I would have categorized as aesthetic, at least if the debate settles to considering this as a convention. Nevertheless, I think there is value in Indian classrooms adopting more of this American culture.
Callard's university page has an incomplete list of her works. Her MuckRack profile has a more complete list, but it includes many duplicates as well as things that she was given partial credit for (unsure why, probably editing). I have only read the following essays published in The Atlantic (1), Boston Review (5), Harper's Magazine (2), The New York Times (9), The New Yorker (2), The Point Magazine (23), and The Toronto Star (1).
2023-03-23: Should Philosophers be Profound?
2019-01-21: Don't Overthink It
2020-04-16: The Philosophy of Anger
2020-04-17: The Wound is Real
2020-12-21: A More Perfect Meritocracy
2021-07-26: Against Persuasion
2021-09-01: Breaking Points
2022-02-16: The Eros Monster
The New York Times
2018-01-08: Can We Learn to Believe in God?
2018-12-03: What Does It Mean to 'Speak as a Woman'?
2019-08-13: Why Philosophers Shouldn't Sign Petitions
2019-11-22: The Real Cost of Tweeting About My Kids
2020-03-31: Why Am I Reading Apocalyptic Novels Now?
2020-07-21: Should We Cancel Aristotle?
2020-11-30: I Don't Want You to 'Believe Me'. I Want You to Listen.
2021-05-17: What We Believe About Skepticism
2022-06-21: If I Get Canceled, Let Them Eat Me Alive
The New Yorker
2020-04-11: What Do the Humanities Do in a Crisis?
2021-09-25: The Problems of Marital Loneliness
The Point Magazine
2019-02-13: Is Public Philosophy Good?
2019-03-14: The Emotion Police
2019-05-09: Against Advice
2019-06-05: Persuade or Be Persuaded
2019-07-09: Spoiled Rich Kids
2019-08-07: Do You Want My Garbage?
2019-09-02: The Devil's Advocate's Advocate
2019-09-05: Half a Person
2019-10-21: Parenting and Panic
2019-11-20: Is Plagiarism Wrong?
2019-12-26: The Problem With Letters of Recommendation
2020-01-16: Who Wants to Play the Status Game?
2020-02-24: Thoughts and Prayers
2020-03-11: The End is Coming
2020-04-30: Family Feuds
2020-06-11: How to Politicize the Classroom
2020-07-29: Publish and Perish
2020-10-02: Acceptance Parenting
2020-11-24: Torturing Geniuses
2021-01-27: Anger Management
2021-02-13: The Other Woman
2021-06-28: Why Am I Being Hurt?
2021-08-15: The Real College Scandal
2022-07-15: Art is for Seeing Evil
The Toronto Star
2022-01-01: COVID predictions are about escaping unease
I shared this with Professor Callard. I was delighted when she responded appreciatively. She also tweeted about it. 🥲