Interview with Dagfinn Føllesdal
- Side: 46-79
- DOI: https://doi.org/10.18261/issn.1504-2901-2020-01-05
- Publisert på Idunn: 2020-03-18
- Publisert: 2020-03-18
We have Dagfinn Føllesdal (DF) here today to be interviewed by Øystein Linnebo (ØL) and Einar Bøhn (EB).
EB: Dagfinn, can you tell us something about your childhood, your upbringing in Askim, Norway?
DF: This is a question I appreciate; it’s the first time I have been asked about my upbringing. My parents certainly deserve a lot of thanks for what they did for my two younger sisters and me.
My father was a teacher, as were his father and six of my uncles and aunts. My mother was also strongly oriented towards teaching. However, they didn’t push me to do any one thing, but if I showed an interest in something they were always helpful.
ØL: But it was still a home with books around, and ideas being discussed?
In addition to literary classics, my father had two big series of popular books, which I devoured: The Great Inventions (six volumes) and The Great Discoveries (five volumes). Among his many other books there was, however, one that was much more difficult, but I was still able to understand some of it, and became fascinated with what little I could understand. This book contributed strongly to shaping my interests: Hermann Weyl’s Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science. My father had it in German only – the English edition came later. However, since the only foreign language that was taught in Norwegian schools during the German occupation was German, my knowledge of German was better than my knowledge of English until about 1949, when the expanded English version of Weyl’s book came out. In spite of its title, Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science is a popular book, written for a general audience, and although there were many parts that I found difficult, it fascinated me. Curiously, Weyl’s combination of mathematics, physics, and Husserlian philosophy has continued to appeal to me through my whole life.
However, I didn’t spend much time reading. My main activities were outdoors: playing football, hiking and skiing. When the German occupation ended in 1945, I took up orienteering. During the occupation, when detailed maps and compasses were forbidden, many of the older orienteers helped bring fugitives across the border to Sweden. However, from 1945 on it has been my favorite sport, and it still is. I was also a boy scout, and my scout leader, Egil Gundersen, who was active in the Salvation Army and crucial for its music programs, remained a close and inspiring friend until he died nine years ago.
ØL: Were you interested in mathematics in particular, or things related to philosophy, at that early stage?
DF: No... I was of course interested in the sense that when I became aware of something I wanted to learn more about it, so I did want to learn more about math, and I wanted to learn more about pretty much everything we learned in school: people and ideas, and also flowers – one of my best teachers had written his thesis on blue anemones. One little book I read was written by Carl Størmer, a very popular book called From the Depths of Space to the Heart of the Atom. And that fascinated me – my father had owned this book since it came out in 1923, but I didn’t read it until I was around 11 or 12. Størmer became professor of mathematics at the University of Oslo in 1903 at 28 years old, and little did I know that I would serve for two full years as his full-time research assistant, working mostly on solving differential equations. When I finished gymnasium, I was set on studying physics in Trondheim because a professor there, Harald Wergeland, had started a new study program called technical physics. He was the best physicist we had in Norway at that time. I learned later that he was also very interested in philosophy. I applied to go there and was accepted, but I first had to get one year of practical experience.
ØL: There was also a lot of competition, wasn’t there, to be accepted?
DF: It was a very attractive program, with lots of feedback on written work. This was uncommon in Norwegian universities at that time, and unfortunately it still is.
EB: But why did you end up wanting to do that as opposed to something else?
DF: The problems I found most intriguing were problems where I thought physics could be useful. There were cosmological problems, but even at that stage I was very interested in quantum mechanics. I thought: That’s strange, here you have a theory that functions perfectly well, all predictions have fit, not a single experiment has gone against it, and still we don’t really understand what this theory means. And I knew that Wergeland was very interested in the same kind of issues. Wergeland was a kind of philosopher-physicist.
I decided that instead of first taking practical training, then starting to study and then having to interrupt my studies for military service, I could get training during my military service, repairing radios and other electronic equipment.
ØL: Did you have to take academic or university studies before you could be admitted into the physics program?
DF: That’s right, because I was too young. I had to wait for a year and a half before I could get into the military. Then I thought: Well, if I want to do physics, it is important to have a good background in math. Many physicists shy away from important issues because they find the mathematics too difficult. So I decided to study mathematics. This normally took two years, but I finished in a year and a half in order to start my military service as early as possible. Instead of going more deeply into it, I wanted to get it done so I could turn towards physics.
I took these mathematics courses with people who you are too young to have met, but one you will have heard of was Viggo Brun. He was one of the great, old mathematicians. He worked on number theory and was remarkable because he achieved important results in an elementary way. He worked on problems where some of the main number theorists in the world had said, “They cannot be dealt with in that way,” but he was able to solve them. Viggo Brun was a very good lecturer and included much on the history of the different subjects in addition to technicalities. Another important math teacher was Ingebrigt Johansson. Pedagogically, he was very engaged, and introduced new kinds of exams – one was called “critic” exams. He wanted us to focus on the proofs, not just on the results. If, in an exam, you are asked to prove something and you are nervous, it’s a little bit unpredictable how you will perform. Instead, he gave us proofs – but there was something wrong with them. And you knew something was wrong because it could end with 2+2=5. The challenge was: What went wrong with this proof? It was a very good way of getting us to focus on the arguments, of getting the students to look at the proofs and arguments very carefully. Through that, of course, we learned mathematics. I think he should be highly praised for his pedagogical ideas.
EB: So how old were you when you began studying mathematics?
DF: I started the summer I became eighteen. At the end of the year and a half, I started my military service. That was at Jørstadmoen, and I learned how to repair radios, which was the practical training for Trondheim.
EB: What year was this?
DF: That started in January 1952. I got my artium [upper secondary school diploma] in 1950, and spent the fall of 1950 and all of 1951 studying mathematics. I did regular military service at Jørstadmoen and we had a fantastic teacher in electronics. He was an officer, no higher education, but he was so good at giving intuitive explanations and showing how it all worked. He was a model of someone who had never studied pedagogy but who had a very good understanding of the field, and found a way of structuring it and getting it across. He was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, actually.
ØL: So you were lucky enough to do intellectual things while in the military, to some extent?
DF: I had lots of time in the evening, so I decided to study while I was in the military. I was given leave to go to Oslo and take an exam in astronomy. In December I was done with my service, but I had then got a start on a third subject, mechanics, and decided to take that and become cand.mag. [B.Sc. undergraduate] instead of going on to four years in Trondheim. Thereafter I started on mathematics as a main subject, and at the same time got so involved in student activities (Oslo Students Sports Club; Student Week 1954) that I hardly had time for studies. However, in 1954–55 I got a fellowship to study in Göttingen and was very happy to be able to concentrate on studies with full support for a whole year.
EB: To study physics?
DF: No, that was mathematics, because that was really the only field I knew something about at the time.
ØL: And you chose Göttingen because it had great mathematics?
DF: That’s right. The fellowship was for Germany, and I thought Göttingen would be a very good place. I came to Göttingen in the fall of 1954, but I should perhaps have mentioned: When I came to Oslo as a student at 18, I had to take the examen philosophicum [university preliminary entrance exam]. At the first lecture, Arne Næss asked whether there were any students who would be interested in a job: to read the textbooks and propose improvements, and get paid for it. I thought it was perfect. Read what I was supposed to read anyway, and get paid for it. That’s how I got in contact with him. I got along with him very well. He was a fine man, very open. He was eager to receive proposals for improvements.
ØL: But you didn’t take any courses in philosophy other than the examen philosophicum?
DF: No. I studied regular mathematics most of the time, but studied examen philosophicum on the side. I got to know Næss through that, but I had no plan at all of going into philosophy. When I was at Göttingen, I studied mathematics, but I took one seminar on Nicolai Hartmann, on Hartmann’s aesthetics. That was a bit accidental, it was the only seminar offered in philosophy, and it was interesting, but didn’t really get me engaged in Hartmann.
EB: Was there a personal reason beyond the academic for why you went to Germany?
DF: No, that was for academic reasons. But I had met Vera two years before I went to Göttingen, and when I went home for Christmas we decided to get engaged and she came with me to Göttingen, where among other things we followed a very good lecture series on literary theory by Wolfgang Kayser, whose book Das sprachliche Kunstwerk I strongly recommend. Kayser gave much credit to Roman Ingarden and his book Das literarische Kunstwerk. Ingarden was an assistant to Husserl, but my study of Husserl started much later.
Another student of Husserl whose lectures I followed in Göttingen was the mathematician Kurt Reidemeister. At that time I had no knowledge of Husserl, but I learned later that Reidemeister had been inspired by Husserl, who had suggested a branch of mathematics that he thought had been underdeveloped, but which would be very interesting from his phenomenological point of view, and that was topology. I also took a course with Carl Ludwig Siegel on number theory, which was remarkably clear and insightful, and among my many good teachers, Siegel was the one I would rank most highly.
However, what I focused on was the mathematics directly needed for quantum mechanics. In Göttingen, it was customary to follow four lecture series each semester, and I picked all those that had a direct bearing on quantum mechanics. I also followed a very good seminar on quantum mechanics that Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker gave at the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Göttingen.
ØL: Oh, so the plan was still to go on to do physics, and just do lots of mathematics to prepare for that?
DF: Yes. And especially those branches of mathematics that were important for quantum mechanics. So that was with me all the time, trying to understand these structures.
ØL: But did you do a lot of other philosophy while in Göttingen?
DF: No, but I did read a little philosophy on the side. In particular, I read a survey of the history of philosophy, written originally by one person, Friedrich Ueberweg, but later expanded into several volumes with different authors.
EB: So where did your German skills come from?
DF: I knew German much better than English because I started with German in 1940.
EB: When the war started.
DF: Yes, because English was eradicated, we had to learn German, that was the first foreign language. So I had five years of German during the war, and a very good teacher. It was only in the fall of 1945 that I started learning English. And at that time I was too old. Some people are very talented, often also for imitating sounds, and they can manage, but if one has not started with a foreign language before one is 12–13, then one often has problems with the pronunciation. I experienced this the first time I ever participated in a public discussion in the US. This was the year after my PhD, in the spring of 1962. Ruth Marcus came to Harvard to give a talk on modality. She knew about me, but she thought I was just a supporter of Quine, who was also there. I raised my hand, and started to state an objection against her lack of a theory of proper names. I had argued in my dissertation that such a theory is crucial not only for the modalities, but for probabilities and very much else. However, after my first sentence, which went up towards the end, she interrupted and thought that this was a question. So I never got a chance...
ØL: You never got to the real question.
DF: No, she just started attacking Quine and his view.
ØL: But tell us more about the reading of philosophy while in Göttingen, then, and what came of that.
DF: Yes, to get oriented in philosophy I read Ueberweg, and I saw that the survey of the 20th century in Ueberweg opens with a chapter on Husserl, who was given credit for having put an end to the psychologism that had dominated philosophy in the latter part of the 19th century. Towards the end of the 19th century, psychologism had been taking over more and more within philosophy, partly because psychology was becoming a very popular field, with many new developments. Many philosophers became interested in this, and very many of the early psychologists were professors of philosophy. Actually, what happened in Norway was that we had two professors of philosophy until 1928. One of them was Anathon Aall, who was very interested in psychology. The other one was Harald Schjelderup, who also started as a philosopher, but in 1928 had his professorship changed to psychology. There was no replacement for Schjelderup, so that’s why we had only one professorship in philosophy thereafter. Arne Næss succeeded Aall, and when I was coming into philosophy there was no job to apply for.
I had read Frege – he was one of the philosophers who appealed to me. In 1894, Frege had reviewed the first volume of Husserl’s Philosophie der Arithmetik very critically – Psychologische und logische Untersuchungen, where Husserl was presenting an approach to the philosophy of arithmetic based on psychology. Husserl was working on the second volume of this work when Frege’s review appeared. Husserl then abandoned this work, and six years later, in 1900, he published a completely new work, Logische Untersuchungen, whose first volume is a sharp criticism of psychologism. So I started looking at this volume, and saw that Husserl’s arguments, one by one, are the same as those that Frege had directed against his view six years earlier. I also knew that at the time Frege reviewed him, Husserl was already struggling with the problems. So I never claimed that Frege was the one who turned him away from psychologism, but I did claim that Frege had a strong influence on Husserl’s criticism of psychologism, and I found it unjust that Husserl and not Frege got all this credit. I wrote this up and sent it to Arne Næss. And he was always – there was a question here: how was my relationship with him? – he was always very nice. He wrote back and said: You should use that as a master’s thesis, to get a master’s degree in philosophy.
ØL: Despite not having done any official coursework at all.
DF: That’s right. And I wrote back to him: You know, I really never sat down and studied philosophy. He said: Can’t you write a list of what you have read? So I wrote a list, which was a rather odd one: I had worked on Nicolaus Cusanus, for example, a good deal on medieval philosophers, a kind of mixture of all kinds of things. There was nothing by Hume, or by Kant.
EB: Kant’s ok, but Hume...!
DF: But then Arne wrote back: Oh, that’s long enough! When I came back to Norway, then, he insisted that I should take the magister ’exam on the basis of the thesis on Frege. And I remember that the trial lecture was far too short. I had not really given a lecture before. So I wrote down everything I was going to say, but I had no idea that it would last for only half an hour.
EB: And it was supposed to be an hour lecture?
DF: Three quarters of an hour. The committee was Næss and A. H. Winsnes. They were often thought of as enemies, but they were getting along pretty well. So they had talked, discussed my lecture a little bit, and then said “That’s ok”. So then I had my MA. But I did continue to study mathematics. And then I had to start hovedfag [major].
EB: In mathematics?
DF: In mathematics, yes. I still had the feeling that I ought to know more math.
ØL: But the physics ambition must have been put to the side that term to some extent?
DF: Yes, there were so many things I felt I ought to know in math before I could do proper physics. However, when I came back from Göttingen, without a job and planning to marry, I applied for a full-time job as a research assistant in ionospheric physics, working for Carl Størmer. So for the next two years, from 1955 to 1957, I worked full time, from 9am to 4pm, on the polar aurora, calculating the locations and directions of the rays from the sun that produce these beautiful displays.
ØL: Of course. However, you also wanted to get the foundations in order, correct?
DF: In the evenings I studied mathematics. And then I decided to work with Thoralf Skolem. He was a very nice person, very modest. Many advisers – Tarski is notorious for that – just impose their view on the student: Write about that, that’s it! Skolem never even hinted at anything like that.
ØL: Did more philosophical issues come up in the conversations you had with Skolem?
DF: Not much, not general philosophical issues. At that time, Skolem was getting enthusiastic about Emil Post’s work, and when I started reading Post, particularly his 1944 paper “Recursively enumerable sets of positive integers and their decision problems”, I came to share Skolem’s enthusiasm. Post wrote with such clarity that one could easily grasp his insights and see exactly what was needed to solve some of the problems he left open. One of these, in particular, Skolem thought might be suitable for a hovedoppgave [thesis]. So I focused on that problem – that was in March 1957. But a couple of weeks later we learned that the problem had been solved that fall by a young student, Albert Muchnik in Moscow. Shortly after, a student at MIT, Richard Friedberg, also solved it, independently of Muchnik. This meant that I would have to start on something new. In the fall of 1956, however, I had come across Quine, From a Logical Point of View. That was the first thing I ever read by Quine, and I thought: So that’s really how one should do philosophy: thinking through important issues and trying to make them as clear as possible. This had made me decide to apply to Harvard in order to study philosophy with Quine, and I had hoped to have my thesis and thereby my cand.real. degree before I left. However, if I was going to start on a new topic, I would have to turn down my Harvard fellowship. So in June I left for Harvard, together with Vera.
ØL: That’s a big switch, having done mathematics, primarily, for all these years, and then suddenly deciding to swap for philosophy?
DF: Quine wrote on language and communication and on fundamental issues, like “being” and “what is there”, and was always trying to get things clear. And I think the main strength of Quine as a philosopher was an acute awareness of something not being properly understood, and then trying to understand it better. This appealed very strongly to me.
ØL: So it was Quine who made you apply to Harvard specifically? Would you say it was Quine who made you switch to philosophy definitively?
DF: Yes, if I had not read Quine, I would probably have finished my math hovedfag, and then gone on to physics. It was still physics that engaged me, especially quantum physics. By the way, this is also what happened to Richard Friedberg, he left his work on Post and turned to physics, with a short interlude in medicine.
EB: So Frege didn’t do it, but Quine did?
DF: Frege and Quine were both masters of clear exposition. But I felt that Quine worked on fundamental issues that engaged me quite a lot.
ØL: So you arrived, then, with some background in philosophy but not that much, at Harvard. How was that, coming from a small country with a mixed background in the subject?
DF: First of all, we married in January in 1957, and then we received a letter from Harvard that I had been accepted. We came to Harvard, newly married, and went to the secretary of philosophy, and I said: I’m one of your new graduate students. And she said: No, these are the four people we have accepted this year and you are not on that list. We were there with one-way tickets. So she called around and found out that I had been accepted for the math department. They had read my application, where I had written I wanted to study for a PhD in philosophy. And they said: That poor Norwegian, he means a doctor philos., but of course in math, because his background is in math and all the letters of recommendation are from mathematicians. So they had sent my application to the math department, and the fellowship I got was in math. What was I supposed to do? I spent some weeks in the math department, then the two departments agreed that I could transfer to philosophy and keep the fellowship.
EB: When you switched from math to apply for a Ph.D. in philosophy, did you ever worry about the practical aspects of that, like job prospects?
DF: Well, I didn’t think about jobs. Of course, that might not have been too wise, but I was really just interested in working with Quine.
EB: Sounds familiar. Sounds very familiar.
ØL: It’s an amazing flexibility, also, to admit you to begin with a mixed background in philosophy. So how was that, just coming from the outside? You might have been the only foreigner in that cohort in philosophy?
DF: Well... Yes, I guess at that time I was probably the only one.
ØL: And all the others were coming with degrees in philosophy from elite institutions, presumably, and you coming from little Norway with a background in mathematics?
DF: It was traumatic.
EB: Who were the others?
DF: The one I had most contact with was Charles Parsons, who became a close and helpful friend. He had a BA from Harvard, and had already become a graduate student a year before I arrived, but we ended up getting our PhDs together in 1961. I was probably the only one who finished in four years, but the fellowship was for four years, and we started having children. The thesis had to be handed in by five o’clock on 3 April, and I knew if I didn’t get it in, I would have nothing to live on for the next year.
Among the other fellow graduate students were Gilbert Harman, Thomas Nagel, John Cooper, Margaret Wilson, and Tim Scanlon, who all went to Princeton after their Ph.D., so that half the Princeton department was recruited from a small group of graduate students at Harvard. Scanlon was basically a logician, but eventually started to teach ethics, and later he returned to a job at Harvard.
ØL: At Princeton they needed someone to teach an ethics course, and he volunteered. He found it so interesting that he gave up logic.
DF: That’s right. And then there was David Lewis, who actually took a course with me on Husserl’s phenomenology, where he wrote his term paper on Bolzano. And of course, later on, Saul Kripke came as an undergraduate when I was there, and he was very interested in modal logic. I was pretty much the only one at Harvard who was interested in his sort of things, because, as you know, Quine had a negative attitude to modalities. So for Kripke it was nice that I at least talked to him, and I also gave him a copy of my thesis when it was finished. It was on a new class of “genuine” singular terms that were needed in modal logic, and also in the theory of probability. Both Lewis and Kripke later went on to Princeton. And then in addition there was Barry Stroud, who went to Berkeley and on whose dissertation committee I served, and who remained a close friend and later even spent a sabbatical in Oslo. Burt Dreyfus, who called me his dissertation advisor, went to Berkeley, and actually Thomas Nagel first went to Berkeley and then came from Berkeley to Princeton. Seven people were recruited to Princeton, three to Berkeley, and Charles Parsons to Harvard. So that was pretty much the group.
ØL: An amazing couple of years of graduate students.
DF: And of course, I came there completely unprepared. It didn’t help to have read Cusanus. I’d just listen and listen, and try to read up on the things I heard about. But I was a complete outsider. They were always very friendly, and since I didn’t say much they didn’t discover how little I knew.
EB: Was it an active social environment?
DF: Well, intellectually.... we were together a little bit socially, but since we were having children, one every year pretty much, we couldn’t socialize too much. Also, my fellowship was not sufficient for a family with children, so I had to get summer jobs. There was nothing in philosophy, but I got an assistantship in applied physics that was renewed every summer, and I spent my summers calculating various properties of gases moving at high speeds under very high temperatures. The results of these calculations were published as books of tables. The tasks involved the same parts of physics and mathematics that I had used when I worked for Størmer, but at Harvard they had just developed the first electronic computers to do the calculations that I had done on a hand-turned calculating machine when I worked for Størmer.
EB: How many kids did you have?
DF: We had five at Harvard, and one after we came home. However, there was nothing to go back to in Oslo. Arne Næss was always a nice friend, but he was very impractical. He stayed away from administration, and he never proposed any professorship. One reason he wanted me to get my master’s was that he was hoping I could help teach ex. phil. because there were too many students and too few teachers.
ØL: Grooming you for teaching...
DF: And I think that has been very unfortunate for philosophy in Norway, that whenever there was somebody who was interested in philosophy and he was able to recruit them, then they ended up teaching and they got no proper education in philosophy.
ØL: And maybe got into teaching too early, without being given a chance to go abroad. But, back to Quine. How was it to work with Quine? He was really at the peak of his career, really active.
DF: Yes, he was of course active over very many years, but this was certainly the peak. When I went to Harvard to study philosophy, I went there to work with Quine, but learned that I had to take “prelims”. And that meant taking a lot of courses, there were prelims in ethics, epistemology, logic, and metaphysics. So I had to take these exams, which were pretty demanding exams, because I had to read a lot, and I had to understand all these things. The first two years I spent all my time preparing for prelims, which I understood later was very good for me, because it was important to learn some ethics and get a broader background. In philosophy, everything is interconnected. So in any case, instead of working with Quine, I had to take all these courses, and a lot of coursework, with papers. I had no experience from Norway, where one has no writing and no feedback, the only things I had written earlier, in addition to my little essay on Husserl and Frege, were what I wrote in high school, where I had particularly enjoyed writing physics, that was very easy, because once you understood the problem all you had to do was explain it clearly. But in philosophy and all those fields there is always more that should be understood… I did take a course with Quine the first semester, that was philosophy of language. Those were the last lectures he gave on the basis of the book that became Word and Object. That course required five term papers, plus the exam, and he wrote very full, kind and stimulating comments on the papers.
EB: Five papers per student? And how many students?
DF: That was a big shock, you know, coming from Norway, with no experience in writing. And then having all that writing to do – I wrote pretty much day and night. Quine gave very good and full comments, not just “ok” or the like.
I also took a seminar he gave that first term on Gödel’s monograph on the continuum hypothesis, which was very good. Charles Parsons was in that same seminar, but I was actually also a student of Charles Parsons. He was ahead of me as a graduate student, so when, in my first semester, I had to take a compulsory course in logic, Philosophy 140, he was Quine’s teaching assistant in that course.
ØL: It still exists.
DF: Quine taught it, but Charles Parsons was a teaching assistant for it, and after him, I took over as a TA. We had to hand in written work three times a week, solving problems. And Parsons was very conscientious as a grader. Quine uses a dot notation, with dots instead of lots of parentheses, and if I had forgotten one dot, Charles discovered it. So that’s what was happening even in the first semester. In that first semester I took five courses; normally it would be four, but they were so interesting. And of course, that made my situation even worse, because I had all that written work. But I worked harder. We also had our first baby that fall, Andreas.
ØL: How did you arrive at the topic of the dissertation, then? During these two years of coursework, you must have been thinking hard about what to do the dissertation on?
DF: Yeah, and there were many things I thought about. But then, when Word and Object came out in 1960, I had finished my prelims, which took two years, from 1957 to 1959, then I started thinking about a topic for my thesis. Then Word and Object came out and I of course read it, it had partly been gone through in that course already.
Quine had always been very suspicious of modalities – he felt there was something basically unclear about them. He had had several arguments against them from the mid-1930s on, pointing out various problems of modality, and in Word and Object he finally clinches the case because he shows that if you combine quantifiers with modalities, then you will get a collapse of modal distinctions. I read it, and that seemed to be a fine argument. I even formalized it, because in his philosophical writings Quine usually doesn’t give strictly formal arguments, but he explains them clearly, and doesn’t hide any difficulties, he really focuses on the important steps. So when I formalized it, every step in the derivation was completely acceptable to everybody at that time. But then I found out that exactly the same argument would go through if you didn’t use the necessity operator, but any operator that singles out from the group of true statements a proper subclass. Probability: you can prove that all statements have the same probability. Causality, epistemology, ethics… everything collapses. So then I thought “there must be something wrong with the argument.” But there was nothing formally wrong. Looking at the argument, I found the only way out was to see that you cannot deal with singular terms as having a sense and then referring to whatever fits that sense. They had to stick to one and the same object. My conclusion, then, was simply to argue that if you are going to prevent that collapse you have to give the singular terms a very special status. I gave a couple of formal proofs in the dissertation, which I tried to keep non-formal and easy to read, where I proved that you will not get inconsistencies if you have a combination of referential transparency – that is, singular terms keep their reference, with extensional opacity, that is, general terms can change their extension. But not conversely: You cannot require general terms to keep their extension, that is, extensional rigidity, and let singular terms shift their reference – then you get the collapse. So there was this one possible option. And I said, that is the one we have to take. Of course, the problem is how do these singular terms stick to the objects?
EB: So what did you call these singular terms?
DF: I called them genuine singular terms. Typical ones would be variables of quantification, pronouns, demonstratives. But one couldn’t treat definite descriptions like genuine singular terms, so they should be regarded as general terms that apply to one and only one object. Of course, there could be some descriptions that have gained the status of singular terms, but then they stick to the object, and that’s rare special cases.
EB: What we are all thinking right now is, what are the similarities and differences between your genuine singular terms and Kripke’s rigid designators?
DF: Well, they are supposed to be terms that keep their reference in all possible worlds. I did explain that.
EB: Because Kripke’s work came later, right?
DF: It came ten years later. I did talk to Kripke a lot when he came to Harvard, not about reference and singular terms, but we talked a good deal about possible worlds, because when Kripke was still in high school he had published a paper in the Journal of Symbolic Logic, which came out the year he came to Harvard as a freshman. There he has a completeness proof for S5. And I told him: “If you don’t talk just about possible worlds, but talk about one world being possible relative to another, then you get much more interesting structures, and you can get natural semantics for other Lewis systems, not just S5.” And I told him that this had been done in 1957 by Kanger in his doctoral dissertation, and also in two later papers by Hintikka. Kanger’s doctoral dissertation is hard to read, while Hintikka gives a normal philosophical presentation. So Kripke went to the library – the Widener Library at Harvard has pretty much everything. They had Kanger’s thesis, and of course they had Hintikka’s papers. Kripke borrowed Kanger’s thesis, and then he came to me and said “I am not able to read that thesis.” The problem is that Kanger does not use normal logic, he uses cylindrical algebra. Unless you know what he’s dealing with, you have to be very familiar with algebra in order to understand it. Kripke, coming from high school, had learned first-order logic, he didn’t know this kind of algebra… And Kanger was as unpedagogical as you could be. He starts on top of page 1 with formulae, just formulae and formulae, not explaining what he is doing at all.
ØL: To go back to Einar’s question: the account of singular terms. You had your view, then, involving the idea of genuine singular terms, early on. How much of that do you think influenced Kripke?
DF: Well, we didn’t talk much about it, because Kripke was so interested in the modalities, what he had done on S5, and Kanger and Hintikka’s work. In my thesis, I have a short chapter where I present the idea of one world being possible relative to another, giving credit to Kanger and Hintikka, but this is only because I needed to talk about possible worlds to present my arguments about singular terms, which was the central point of the thesis. When I had my thesis typed, I had an extra carbon, and got an extra copy in addition to the three I had to hand in and one for myself. I gave that extra copy to Kripke so that he got the whole thing. Two years later, he gave a talk in Finland where he presented what is now called “Kripke semantics”, which is this idea of possible worlds relative to one another, but there is no mention of Hintikka, no mention of Kanger at all. Still, he knew that these people had done it.
EB: And no mention of your dissertation either?
DF: No, no. But of course, my dissertation had this chapter where I explained the Kanger-Hintikka idea simply, but it was not my contribution. I wrote that this was done by Kanger and Hintikka. The main point of my dissertation, that of genuine singular terms, was not discussed by Kripke until ten years later, in his “Identity and Necessity”, but without mentioning my discussion.
ØL: So would you say that this is right: Both you and Kripke had the idea of what we nowadays call rigid designation, singular terms being rigid designators, but Kripke gave an account of how that can be? The causal account of reference that underpins…
DF: In the dissertation that I gave him, a main idea is that of genuine singular terms. I gave examples and arguments, but what he was mainly interested in then was simply Kanger and Hintikka’s notion of worlds being possible relative to one another. This is what Kripke wrote about two years later. But, there he doesn’t mention the problems of singular terms, that their semantic behavior is totally different from what Frege had held. He took up this issue only ten years later.
In my dissertation I used the term “two-sorted semantics”; you have one kind of semantics for general terms and sentences, and another for singular terms. And then I explained what that semantics was like, the behavior of these two kinds of terms. But I did not discuss how the singular term connected to its object. I had to hand it in, and this was the kind of question that I continued thinking about for several years. I thought of it as what you can call a normative view on reference – namely, when you introduce a singular term in a discussion, you thereby signal that you commit yourself to keeping track of that object that the term refers to. But the problem of how, in detail, you keep track of it, is rather complicated. I’ve written a few articles on it, but I haven’t written any kind of book, it’s just that there are so many issues coming together.
ØL: So you would say that it is much more complex than what Kripke’s account of an initial baptism and these chains of passing the name on, it is much more complicated than that picture can account for?
DF: If you have this baptism, how in the world are you transferring this reference to later? There are cases – Gareth Evans took up “Madagascar” as an example – where there are reference changes happening, and that shows that there is something about that connection that we need to clarify. An initial baptism is really just stating a problem.
EB: So how was Ruth Barcan Marcus’s work related to all this?
DF: In my thesis, there is nobody I refer to more often than her, because she was very early… she was the first one ever to publish anything with quantification into modal contexts. She, and Carnap at almost the same time, in 1945, presented systems of quantified modal logic. Barcan probably a couple of weeks earlier, at least her paper was published in the JSL in the issue before the Carnap paper was. I think they were independent of one another, but she was of course much younger. Then she continued working on this kind of semantics, she gives proofs for, you know, the Barcan formula and so on. In my dissertation, where I use the more general notion of relative possible worlds, there I also go through and show that the proofs for this Barcan formula and many corresponding formulae get much simpler when you have this kind of semantics. But she then gradually came to ask, “How do the variables relate to the object?” And she came to Harvard to give a talk on this in January 1962, that’s when I tried to raise a question… There, she suggests that the connection between the term and the object has to do with each object having an essence, so there is an appeal to essence. Then, when she wants to discuss more technical things, she uses substitutional quantification. So the only hint she has is that it is an essence. Kripke was there, and he agreed with her. But Kripke’s things on this, his baptism thing, came nine years later. There is an interesting paper in 1966 by Keith Donnellan: “Reference and Definite Descriptions.” And two years before Kripke, Peter Geach published a paper where he introduces the notion of baptism. However, neither he nor Donnellan is referred to by Kripke.
ØL: With the apostolic succession?
DF: Apostolic succession, yes. So that’s exactly what Kripke had two years later.
ØL: These ideas were in the air.
DF: Yes, I think they were in the air. But that was ten years after my dissertation, that proposal about baptism. And I didn’t talk about baptism at all, because I think that you have these problems with demonstratives, and they are very similar problems. I did write some papers where I suggested some ways of dealing with it, but I still feel that this is something I should do more of. Much has to do with this commitment – if you commit yourself to keep track of the object, then, using a demonstrative, a pronoun, or proper name, then how do you keep track of it? And there I found that Husserl actually had interesting views on that. But before I learned that Husserl had it, I did write a couple of papers where I say that we have some opinions about the object, and then we try to learn more about it in order to fulfill our commitments to keep track of it. We have to go into all the factors that enable us to keep track of an object, so that we can better fulfill the commitment we make.
ØL: How did Quine respond to all of this? As you said earlier, he had just completed Word and Object, really his main work, he was the dominant philosopher, and this was a very important part of that work. And here comes a young graduate student trying to undermine it?
EB: All of them did, Kripke, Lewis, you did, they all defended modality, which he was hostile to.
DF: You see, the other early defenders of the modalities, like Ruth Marcus, discussed only quantification into modal contexts, and said: Look, it works. Unlike Quine, they did not discover the problems connected with definite singular terms.
ØL: But did Quine try to defend himself, presumably, to fix the argument in some way? How did he respond?
DF: No, he gave up. Earlier, when people like Ruth Marcus and Carnap and so on, presented their systems that did not collapse, Quine would say that they simply did not include singular terms in their system, which is what gives you the collapse.
ØL: So you took Quine to give up on the collapse argument, while holding on to the general skepticism about modality?
DF: That’s right. Collapse would simply have been disastrous. Quine, too, admitted we need probabilities, we need to be able to talk about knowledge, and obligation, and all that. So he saw that there had to be a way of stopping the collapse argument, and that you could get around it by having this new, special way of treating singular terms. So he accepted that singular terms behaved quite differently from what Frege and all other philosophers of language had held. So he said, “Well, now we don’t get the collapse, and we can use probability and so on as long as we are clear about this,” but he continued to look upon necessity, possibility, and so on with dissatisfaction.
ØL: Were you inspired by any other thinkers to come up with this solution to, or this diagnosis of, the Quinean collapse argument? Did you draw on ideas from Frege or Husserl or…?
DF: No. Nothing I had come across. I just spelled out Quine’s argument formally, and said: Every step is completely in accordance with contemporary logic. There was only one step where you could conceivably do it differently, and that was this thing about the semantics for singular terms. And then I said, that’s the only thing that we can do anything with.
ØL: So really just on the basis of formalizing the argument, and very, very carefully going through each and every step?
DF: That’s right. So I didn’t have that idea first and then say, “Now we’ll see how it stops Quine”. It was rather that this was Quine’s argument, and there had to be something wrong with it. But everything was just accepted by all philosophers. And the only thing that I could think to give up was that. And that would give a quite different kind of semantics, two-sorted instead of one-sorted. And Quine was always very nice as an advisor. When Quine, like Carnap and many others, had been shown that an argument of theirs was fundamentally wrong, they were happy to be set straight. David Kaplan wrote a little memorial on Carnap, and recalls how he came to Carnap. Have you read Kaplan’s little thing? Carnap lived in Los Angeles, and David had already got his Ph.D., and had never dared to approach Carnap because at that time Carnap didn’t come to meetings and so on. Kaplan had discovered that there was an important error in one of Carnap’s arguments, and he thought, “Should I go to him and talk about it?” And he decided, well, I’ll do it a little into our talk. And he came to Carnap, and Carnap greeted him in a very friendly way, and David explained to Carnap what went wrong. And Carnap said, “Oh, I’m so grateful I won’t go to my grave with that misconception!” Kaplan writes this, very nice. And Quine was exactly the same, he was so happy to discover that he was now getting out of a wrong view. He fully accepted this idea of singular terms being quite different.
ØL: But what about your drawing on Husserl in this connection?
DF: Yes, as I said earlier, I got interested in Husserl as early as 1954 in Göttingen. But, as I mentioned, that was more because of comparing his criticism of psychologism with that of Frege, and finding out that he really repeated Frege’s arguments. And again without giving credit to Frege – I tend to react so strongly against people who present the same ideas without saying where they got them from. At the beginning I just found Husserl’s writing style very hard. So I didn’t discover that there was something philosophically interesting there until a good deal later. When I wrote on Husserl and Frege, I just focused on psychologism. But then I started looking more at Husserl, and tried to figure out what his later view actually was. Gradually I started to understand a little more of what went on there. When I came back to Norway, I was asked to write an article on Husserl for Vestens tenkere. And that forced me to look much more closely into Husserl’s view. And I found that it was really quite interesting. That he was hard to read, because of his long sentences, complicated terminology, but that there was something interesting there. Gradually I became more and more interested in it. Of course, I didn’t have much time to focus on Husserl during the four years of my graduate study, but I did talk with Burt Dreyfus and Charles Parsons, and I did see more and more clearly what I thought Husserl was doing.
ØL: And you lectured on Husserl even at that stage?
DF: That’s right. When I was asked to teach at Harvard, I decided: Why not teach a course on Husserl? I felt that there was so much of interest there, and that this deserved to be better known. So then I started studying and talking about Husserl, my first course at Harvard was on Husserl and phenomenology. Did I mention that I decided to start with seven lectures on Bolzano, because I thought Frege would be too easy for the philosophers and too difficult for the others, but Bolzano was new to all? Among my students at Harvard in that course, in addition to David Lewis, there was also Terrence Malick, who later went on to make films. He was a very good student, and he knew German, and there was nothing philosophical available by Bolzano in English at all. He was not even mentioned in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Since there was nothing on him in English, I picked out some selections from the Wissenschaftslehre, and asked whether Terry Malick would translate them into English, as his translation would be much better than mine. And he did that. So actually Terry Malick was the first translator of Bolzano’s philosophical work into English.
I always felt a little awkward speaking English, so I thought that I’ll at least have a manuscript, so I don’t have to think about content and language at the same time. I wrote out all these lectures, and that kept me pretty busy. And actually, another thing I did was that van Heijenoort, who edited a sourcebook in logic, wanted me to translate some articles for the sourcebook. We would discuss – every Wednesday there was a logic lunch at the faculty club at Harvard. That was van Heijenoort, Quine, Dreben, Charles Parsons, and Michael Rabin, when he was visiting at MIT. So we discussed with van Heijenoort who should be included in the volumes. There was some discussion about Tarski, but he was not included, mainly on the basis of Dreben’s opposition.
ØL: Which people are somewhat surprised by.
DF: But there was a lot of sympathy for Skolem, so several things by Skolem were included as important sources. Some of those were only available in Norwegian, so I translated them, but I also translated things by Bernays, Frege and some others. This also kept me busy, because my struggle with English meant it took time. That same fall, 1961, when I handed in my thesis in April, Max Black wrote to me from Cornell and asked whether he could have my thesis to publish in this little series of blue-covered books, where Hintikka’s Knowledge and Belief had been released. I said I would be very happy, so I sent him a copy of my thesis. He wrote back and said “It is a little bit technical to read, can’t you write an introductory chapter where you explain intuitively what you do?” And I said I would be happy to, but I had committed myself now to translating these things for van Heijenoort and also preparing my lectures. He didn’t want it without that preface, so it never came out. I regret that very much, that I should have felt so strong an obligation to these translations, for example, at exactly the time he needed them.
ØL: And it would have been nice to have that out at that early stage.
DF: That’s right. In any case, that’s what happened. Then I kept on working on these things by Husserl. I thought there were lots of interesting insights that could throw light on issues that were discussed by analytic philosophers. I was asked to give a talk on Husserl at an APA meeting in New York. I did give one, and now, since I was going to talk to philosophers I started by giving just a half-page outline of Frege, whom everybody knew, and used him to explain Husserl. That was published as an article in the Journal of Philosophy.
ØL: Yes, that generated a lot of controversy. To what extent do you think Husserl or ideas from Husserl can help with the problems that came up in your dissertation? Do you think Husserlian themes could help?
DF: Yeah. My main problem was I knew that singular terms had to, or were intended to, refer to the same object. If you didn’t keep your promise, then conversation would simply break down. It’s not that you’re guaranteed to refer, but you commit yourself. If you don’t keep your commitment, then conversation would break down. And then, Husserl, in talking of the noema, the way I interpret him, you have a lot of anticipations based on past experience and so on. Husserl calls them sedimentations from past experience. And these you make use of in trying to keep track of the object. You have a view of there being this object that you know something about, but there is much more to learn about it, and you have to interact with others and see what they can tell you about it. You try to adjust so that you can really get your conversation partners to focus on that same object. So you have lots of factors – the limitations of your own experience of it, Husserl says that the object transcends our experience of it, there is always more to learn about it, and you have intersubjectivity. A lot of Husserl’s discussion of intersubjectivity has to do with these adaptations.
ØL: You also comment on similarities between Husserl and Quine, which always strikes some people coming from analytic philosophy as surprising.
DF: Yes. Because Quine and I kept on discussing these things. He was always very open, you know, very willing. He was always eager to improve his view, like Carnap. Not at all occupied by defending his view and say “I was right” and things like that. So we did talk a good deal about stimuli, because I thought that was very unsatisfactory. I understood why he wanted it – in the first chapter of Word and Object, Quine talks about our learning language, about our life together with others, he talks about the object we perceive, and so on. But then in the second chapter, he immediately goes on to stimulations of nerve endings, and… Davidson later, much later, said that “well, that talk about stimulations is just the ways we are talking about the objects that we perceive, and not about the stimulations.” And I agreed that we don’t observe stimulations, we talk about them with others, but Davidson didn’t seem to be aware of how much complexity is built into our communicating with others about objects on the basis of what we happen to know about them. Quine understood it, Quine had that fantastic sense of something not being properly understood.
ØL: And Quine also having good reason to want to start with stimulations of nerve endings; these ordinary objects out there were posits for Quine. And we have a choice in what to posit. So, unlike Davidson, he didn’t just help himself to the objects that are out there as common causes of our perceptions.
DF: That’s right. While I was studying Husserl, then, in order to give my lectures, I talked with Quine about the same things. I really got him away from that talk about nerve endings. But Husserl talks about what he calls hyle, which are simply the experiences we have. Of course, when you touch something, you have experiences, and they are fundamental for your structuring the world in the way you do. What I found very helpful for understanding what the hyle are, would be kinesthetic experience, where you are not having nerve endings that you observe, surfaces and so on. But something happens. And Quine took this up, and in a paper I quote an example from him where he says, the strain of going uphill – you know, you move your muscles and you recognize that this is uphill, not through stimulation of nerve endings, but through… and this is exactly what Husserl means by hyle. So Husserl uses hyle for this kind of constraint on how you can structure the world.
ØL: So you like to see Quine’s talk about stimulation of nerve endings as constraints on theory building, in a way that Husserl also talks about constraints on theory building? And in both cases you need to structure in an active way?
DF: That’s right. So Quine, in the beginning, was too hooked on these irritations of nerve endings, but there were some problems that he was aware of. I don’t know exactly how your nerve endings are affected, so how do we get intersubjectivity? And I don’t even know how my own nerve endings are affected. There had to be something objective there, but there couldn’t simply be, as Davidson proposed, you just see that thing and he sees that thing and thereby we communicate. And it came out very well in a session we had at Stanford, where we invited Quine, Dreben, Davidson, and me, four people. And we sat together for a week, discussing all these kinds of things. Davidson was very interested in convincing Quine about this distal view, and Quine couldn’t accept it. Davidson took for granted things that Quine looked at as very problematic, the structuring that you make of the world. And Davidson couldn’t understand how Quine couldn’t see that things are…
ØL: Just to be absolutely clear: Again you see Quine’s reluctance to move in Davidson’s direction there as somewhat similar to Husserl’s ideas? So that the active structuring has to be accounted for, and you wouldn’t get that if you followed Davidson?
DF: Yes, that’s right. I was completely on Quine’s side, I thought that Davidson simply didn’t see the problems.
ØL: Did Quine appreciate this parallel between his view and Husserl’s?
DF: Oh yes. He appreciated all these things. He never sat down to read Husserl, he was not that kind of scholar… Quine gave one scholarly course, and that was because nobody taught Hume, and his colleagues said, “Now it’s your duty, you have to teach Hume”. So Quine sat down and studied the Treatise and gave a course on Hume, which turned out to be quite interesting. But normally he would not sit down and read Husserl or anything like that, even though he read German.
ØL: To summarize the discussion of Husserl here: What would you highlight as the most important things to learn from Husserl? If you’re talking to analytic philosophers without prior background in Husserl, or any continental thinkers?
DF: Normally with analytic philosophers I would start with Frege, and then explain how the notion of Sinn is a problem, how do you get the Sinn. And then I go on to Husserl, who talks about sedimentation. Actually, I did several seminars with Pat Suppes, who was very empirically oriented. And he thought that “sedimentation” is a good word for this fact, that you repeat in order to get habituated to it and so on. I thought that Husserl had really dealt with these issues, although in very complicated ways. There was a kind of similarity between Husserl and Quine in that they are both very aware of where the problems are and how to deal with them. And that was what I found missing in Davidson, he couldn’t see – Is there a problem here? Why doesn’t Quine accept? – it’s so obvious that we were talking from the external point of view.
ØL: But are there ideas from Husserl that you’d like to highlight as particularly valuable for analytic philosophy now?
DF: One thing is that I like the starting point to be in perception, and the structuring that’s going on, and then that structuring is really reflected in mathematics. Kant, Gödel, and Husserl all use this word Anschauung. Perception is just a special kind of Anschauung, but in perception there is a possibility of a structure built in. Everything we observe has structure to it, and then if you focus on the structure, you can find the same structure exemplified in some other piece of perception, and you could keep track of the structure and explore the structure. Then you are already into something repeatable, which would then be not a physical object, but a structure.
ØL: Something like a universal that’s repeatable?
DF: And then you have already got into the foundations of mathematics that way. Mathematics is simply a kind of study of structure. And some of those structures are instantiated. But when you reflect on them, and expand them, you find that lots of them are not really instantiated, but you could imagine what it would be like to instantiate them. So this is no big break, but in order to deal properly with perception you have to include these more abstract things at an early stage. That’s why Husserl uses the word Anschauung, as Kant does, for both things together.
And of course Husserl’s analysis of intersubjectivity, how we adjust and learn from others, and how we can find out that we are, in a sense, blind, because people around us report that they see things that we don’t see. In fact, I experienced that myself when I met Vera, because I noticed that her eyesight was much better than mine. Then, when I was going to get my driver’s license, I learnt that I really needed glasses. Her eyesight was normal, but mine was poor. Of course, there are much more complicated examples of how you learn to find out that you might be lacking some abilities that others have. And Husserl has very interesting examples – he always went into great detail, and was very aware of questions and detail. There are these 6000 pages by Husserl on intersubjectivity, edited by Iso Kern …
ØL: It’s kind of a daunting thing to do, to work on a philosopher who has written such a lot a material.
DF: You know, sometimes I regret it.
ØL: Have you read all of it?
DF: I’ve probably read two-thirds. I spent so many months in the archives. In fact, I found very interesting passages, and then the people running the archives said, “You’re not permitted to quote from any manuscript as long as it hasn’t been published.” And then I finally found some interesting passages that made me decide it is bad for scholarship if you deal with it that way, so I included them. And they were angry but they couldn’t do anything about it.
ØL: You were about to say that you almost regretted taking this on?
DF: Yes, because I spent so much time reading manuscripts. They are written in Gabelsberger shorthand and transcribed by careful and patient collaborators. I don’t read the Gabelsberger, but I know how hard it is to interpret it. In any case, I am not made for sitting there and working in an archive. I just did it because I had to document that my reading of Husserl was really right. So, one thing I regret is that I have taken on too many things. So I should probably, rather, have concentrated on this reference idea, and other philosophical issues, instead of spending so very much time on manuscripts.
Back to Norway
EB: When did you actually go to the University of Oslo versus Stanford? After your PhD, you went back to Oslo, or did you go straight to Stanford?
DF: After my PhD I got this job at Harvard. I taught at Harvard.
EB: Yes, so after these seven years at Harvard?
DF: Four years as a student, and three years as a teacher. We hadn’t even thought of the possibility before we went to Harvard, we were expecting Andreas, and we were set on going back to Norway and letting our children grow up in Norway. And then the problem came that Andreas was six, and we knew that if the children are going to feel at home in Norway we have to go home now. But there were no jobs. Næss, of course, he never proposed a job, although he was always nice. Actually, when I wrote my dissertation I gave him a copy, and next thing I knew it had been published by Universitetsforlaget [Scandinavian University Press].
ØL: Without explicit permission from you?
DF: Yes. He had nothing against me, was probably just hoping that I would come back to Oslo and start teaching ex.phil. because that was what they needed.
ØL: So what happened?
DF: Then the rector at the university at that time, Hans Vogt, he was a linguist, he was a very active rector, and then he had a friend at Harvard who had told him that we wanted to go back to Norway. And then he asked me “Is that right, that you want to leave Harvard in order to go to Norway?” And I said “That’s right, but there are no positions to apply for.” And then – you know the faculties send in their priority lists for new positions, and then at the senate they work these lists together into one – and the humanities had no professorship in philosophy at all, because Næss had never proposed one. But Vogt put in one high enough so that it came in a safe place.
EB: Was that a full professorship?
DF: Yes. It couldn’t possibly be a personal offer for a young person like that. I had to apply, but at least there was something to apply for. And then I got it.
I knew that my salary in Oslo was going to be about one-third of what I had in Harvard, and we thought we’d manage, but what I had not thought about was that prices in Norway are twice as high as in America. And that made it pretty impossible, how could we manage? Then in 1964 I was at a meeting of the Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science in Jerusalem, and I gave a talk there. After my talk, Pat Suppes, whom I had never met before, came up and asked whether I wanted to come to Stanford. I said no, we have just decided to leave the US in order to be in Oslo. And he said, we know that, but we will arrange it so that you can be at Stanford during the periods that are compatible with your teaching duties in Norway. So we accepted, and he also arranged that as long as the children were at home we should be at Stanford only during the summer, and that was possible because Stanford was one of the few universities that had a summer quarter, and that fit in exactly with the school vacation in Norway. So we left the day the school ended and came back the day the school started. And Stanford paid the travel for all of us.
EB: So who were your colleagues in Oslo at this time?
DF: In Oslo, the main one was Anfinn Stigen, who did Greek philosophy. And of course Egil Wyller also taught Greek philosophy, mainly Plato.
ØL: And they were employed as lecturers, then? And you and Næss were the professors?
DF: Anfinn Stigen had become a docent. But the others were lecturers. Eventually there were six lecturers in Oslo. You know, Næss has been accused of just focusing on analytic philosophy, and suppressing – you know, Slagstad and some others called him a positivist – but these six lecturers in Oslo show how open he was. Those who had worked with Næss, like Ingemund Gullvåg, they didn’t get jobs in Oslo. They got jobs in Trondheim and other places. But the ones who got jobs in Oslo were as different from Næss as you could get. That shows, I think, that Næss was interested in having a broad variety of people around.
ØL: So incredibly open-minded, but it must have been a difficult department to come up in, with so little common core?
DF: That was also a problem for my time for research, because I would normally get every seventh year off as a sabbatical. But I couldn’t, the first three times I had sabbaticals I couldn’t take time off because if I was off there would be no logic, no philosophy of language, no philosophy of science. I remember once three of my six colleagues, independently of one another, taught seminars on Fichte! That meant that I simply couldn’t take sabbaticals. So in order to keep building something up, I had to be sure I taught every year.
ØL: So this brings out how important an intellectual supplement Stanford must have been. But there must have been aspects of Oslo that you liked, given that you stayed on there…
DF: Yes, there were quite good students coming through. Especially after we introduced something called filosofi for realister. That was a good recruiting place – lots of people from mathematics, physics, biology and so on, came into philosophy. And you are one of them I think?
ØL: I did some of that, yes…
DF: There were others – Nils Roll-Hansen – many other people came into philosophy because they could combine it in that way with other things. So that helped. Most of them, of course, took philosophy and then kept on in their own field. But there were some who came and were very interested in philosophy, and wanted to switch to philosophy. And when they were very good, I recommended that they went to the US. Because I said, “You know, it would be tempting to work with you and be your advisor and so on, but it’s immoral. You won’t get the broad background that you need. Instead you have to go to a place which has a good broad graduate program, and which has a top person to advise you on what you want to work on.”
ØL: But that policy really has worked, when you look back now – many Norwegian philosophers in the philosophical community have been abroad, have been trained abroad.
EB: In the universities in Norway, a lot of the people who get jobs these days have PhDs from somewhere else.
DF: Yes, because as long as… we don’t really have a proper PhD program yet, because there you would make sure that everybody who goes for a PhD would have a background in ethics and all these things. I think that CSMN has been good for taking care of postdocs and people working on their dissertations, but has not been offering a broad background study. And I think we should try to do that now.
ØL: So what’s your own role in building the philosophy department in Oslo? You arrived in 1964 as one of two professors, alongside Næss, and Næss remained until… around ‘73?
DF: Until he had been professor for thirty years, then he could get full pension. He couldn’t get it immediately, but then he wouldn’t get more pension if he had continued, so then he retired, and started travelling around. He was pretty well off, I think, so he wasn’t dependent upon that income.
EB: And did you have all levels? You had the bachelors, the masters, and the PhD students?
DF: Yes. Well of course, in practice no PhD, because I said if you want a PhD you should go to a place where you can get a decent program. In fact, I warned people who wanted to go for a PhD that they should not stay. That it would just be detrimental. That’s what destroyed it when Næss was in charge. He just wanted people to teach ex.phil. And said “just work on your dissertation and give it to me when you think it’s finished.”
EB: How many students did you have at the time?
DF: Well, I don’t really have a figure. It might differ from one course to another. I did require written work. I taught introduction to logic, very much like Philosophy 140, and there I thought that it was important that the students solved problems.
Thor Sandmel was very interested in philosophy, and very good, he got a doctorate in philosophy, but he was confined to a wheelchair and could not speak or write, but could type. I talked to him, and we arranged it so that he got an assistantship, the students handed in work once a week and he commented upon everything. The students got excellent typed comments in detail on what they did, he was very conscientious and nice, and the students were very happy with his comments, and they got that every week. So I didn’t have to spend time going through all these exercises but just gave the lectures, and the students handed in work and got it back with comments. That’s how I wanted it to be, it was as close as you could get to the system in the US.
ØL: But you were there in Oslo during a period of great expansion, then? As one of two professors at the beginning, and then when you look back – I first encountered this system in the early ‘90s, with dozens and dozens of faculty? In those intervening twenty-something years, things had expanded enormously.
DF: There was this slight problem, because I tried to get all the best ones off mainly to the US, but there was of course always this need for teachers of ex.phil. And very many ended up teaching ex.phil., and they were appointed for one semester at a time, which was very bad for the career, for the family and everything. Then there were laws introduced so that you couldn’t be in a job for more than two years or so without getting tenure. So we got all these people who were tenured and who were teaching ex.phil. And although I felt, of course, that it would be unfortunate to have so many tenured people who lacked a proper background in the field, still there was no alternative. For human reasons, too. They really needed more stability in their lives. We got, I think it must have been about 25 people who got tenured positions teaching ex.phil.
ØL: So when and how were new professors brought on then? You moved from two professors to a much bigger group?
DF: Maybe the first one was Olav Gjelsvik, who came back from Oxford. We did propose jobs, we did propose research positions, and we did gradually get them. I don’t think we had somebody very, very good who couldn’t get a position in Oslo.
EB: So was Olav the first analytic philosopher, after you and Næss?
DF: I think he may have been the first one to get a job.
ØL: Well, Næss was replaced with Prawitz.
DF: Yes, Næss was replaced… And that created a lot of problems for me, because Skjervheim had applied. And at that time Wyller had been appointed professor. The committee consisted of five people, one was Wyller, the other one was Theunissen, a German, who had absolutely no idea about this analytic philosophy, and then there was Knut Erik Tranøy, Hintikka from Finland, and me. I should not have been on the committee, but they required somebody from Oslo. There were ten applicants or something, and some of them were very good. The problem was that Wyller and Theunissen clearly didn’t even open anything. There was Skjervheim, he was the applicant they thought should have the position. When they wrote the report, there was hardly anything worth saying on any others, there was just Skjervheim. Of course, the other three of us wrote detailed arguments why this and this and this in particular was very good. I wrote something nice about Skjervheim too, but several of the other applicants were exceptionally good, and I knew that with a committee divided two to three, our report would be handled by the university, and so we had to stress the good things. Of course we had to say something about Skjervheim, but what we stressed was mainly that he had not got a PhD yet. The faculty followed the majority, then. I regard the decision as perfectly correct, but it brought me a lot of discomfort… Especially that some critics thought I was against Skjervheim and his field of work, but I wasn’t against him. He was the only one beside me who had been working on phenomenology. I even lent him my office when he wanted it, and lots of other things. He was not angry with me, but there were some other people who supported him who really scolded me and used every opportunity to talk about this positivist…
ØL: But it’s remarkable, the development. Now we have had CSMN for nearly a decade, with huge levels of activity, and loads of good people, and recruiting strongly on the basis of that.
DF: I think centers like CSMN are a very good thing. It is particularly good that these “centers of excellence” last for as long as ten years. Until 1991 the Research Council had no project that lasted for more than three years. However, then they started the Ethics Program, which lasted for ten years. There had been a lot of interest in ethics, even members of the Parliament wanted ethics. So the Research Council appointed a committee, which proposed this program. Tore Lindholm, a philosopher who later became professor of Human Rights, co-initiated the program and sat on its steering committee for the whole period. I was not a member of the original committee, but they recommended me to head the program. I thought that would be very interesting. The first thing we agreed on was “there’s no point in giving out research grants to people who have no background in the field, even if they are very engaged in it, so we should create a program that starts by building up competence in ethics.” And then we asked: How can we best get a good program? There is much to learn from American universities on what makes a program good. So we decided to invite the best representatives of each main approach to ethics, have them give 24 lectures for students who, six months before the lectures started, had received a package of the best books and articles on this approach – and require the participants to write a paper at the end of the course that was commented on by the lecturer.
We started by giving one-year fellowships to applicants, and those who did very good work that year received a two-year prolongation of the fellowship. We wanted, and got, applicants not just from philosophy, but from all fields. In particular, we favored people who already had a very good PhD in some other field. We had one from Ås, for example, Deborah Oughton, who had a PhD in nuclear chemistry. She was a very promising person in that field, she had even won a prize in England for the best research work by a young researcher in England. She had a nice future out at Ås, she was interested in ethics and she wrote on ethics and risk. All these got fellowships – we wanted to give them to people who had a future in their field, not to people who had tried out a field and hadn’t succeeded and then thought philosophy might be something to fall back on.
EB: You know, I was a postdoc in the Ethics Program. I was among the last people in there, when it closed down.
DF: The idea was to continue the program through cooperation between the Norwegian universities. When we closed down, there was a ceremony with various talks. I gave a short talk where I said that if the program had been successful, then we should not notice that it had closed down, because then the universities would have taken over. One problem with the universities taking over is they do not cooperate so well, so they don’t have these kinds of joint programs.
Another small problem was that at that time, except in the philosophy department, nobody wrote dissertations in English. They wrote in Norwegian. In the Ethics Program we had a number of the best representatives for the various approaches to ethics come to give 24 lectures, and for each such course the students were obliged to write an essay that was read and commented on by the lecturer. We had one student coming from Trondheim, and he wanted to write his thesis on Nozick in Norwegian. That was before Nozick had promised to come. I told him, “Writing a thesis on Nozick in Norwegian, you cannot do that, the best people who are experts on Nozick read English, so write it in English.” “No, it’s not my own language, it’s so hard to write, it’s a handicap to write…” I said “Well, you cannot be a fellow in the Ethics Program if you do not write it – it should be written in a language that can be read by the best people. If you write on Kant you can write it in German, but...” So he reluctantly agreed. And when Nozick came, this student could sit down with Nozick, give him installments of his thesis and get very good comments from him. And he came to me afterwards and said he was so grateful that I had insisted on him writing in English!
EB: You seem to have been active in building a lot of institutional entities, like the Ethics Program, the philosophy department, and even CAS, the Centre for Advanced Study. You had some role in that, right?
DF: I felt that when Norwegian scholars had their sabbatical, they should go abroad, get to the best places in the world for what they were working on, and not spend the sabbatical writing a book here in Norway. So I was not for that kind of center. But then at a meeting, Gudmund Hernes proposed that the Academy should establish a center for advanced study. There was a great majority in the Academy for that. It was decided that the center should be established, but in the discussion I said: “If we are going to have a center, it should not be organized like all the other centers, where you invite individuals to come and spend a year writing a book. We should have groups, three groups a year, one in humanities, one in social sciences, and one in math and sciences. Those groups should be composed by getting together some of the top international people in the field, so that year the Norwegian participants would be in the best place in the world for that field that year.”
ØL: Despite being here.
DF: That’s right. And everybody accepted that. There is still no other center in the world, I think, that has this system with groups.
ØL: Yes, that’s been going strong for 25 years now.
DF: I think it would be a disaster if you had these people here who sat there for a year and wrote a dissertation or manuscript or something. Hernes was supposed to chair this place, but he became minister of education. So they asked me to take it. My first task was to see how we could make the best use of the building. I worked with an architect to find out how we should fit the right number of offices in, downstairs and upstairs, what kind of floors we should have, should we have a fireplace out there, how should we arrange the dining area, and things like that. I liked that – I didn’t mention that, but when I took my artium [upper secondary school diploma] there were two things I vacillated between. Philosophy was not one of them; it was between physics and architecture. I have a sister who is an architect, and a niece who is one too.
EB: You did all this organizational work in addition to your teaching in Oslo and Stanford? You didn’t get any time off teaching?
EB: So you had a full-time position in Oslo, part-time in Stanford, and you organized two centers in the ’90s?
DF: But I think it’s reflected in my writing, you see there were so many things I had to postpone that I really wanted to work on. So it was maybe not so good in that way.
DF: I don’t think about it as sacrifice, but at least I know it was bad for my writing. And of course, with many children, it’s just… I remember when I wrote my thesis at Harvard, we had had three children, and the second one, who was about a year and running around a lot, sat on my lap. Then I sat there at my desk at home, and wrote by hand, at that time we did not have laptops and so on. And, like me, he had some pencils and a piece of paper and he seemed to think that was very nice.
ØL: He writing his thing, and you writing yours. But that must have required an amazing amount of discipline, though, to get all that work done, even if it is not quite as much as you would have hoped for.
DF: You know, it was very nice to sit there. He sat on my lap; just the feeling of having him there, he didn’t disturb me or anything, he sat there and did what I did and seemed to enjoy it. We smiled to one another and scribbled on. These smiles filled me with warmth, and I sat there and could concentrate… In a way, it soothed my emotions down a lot to have him sitting on my lap. I enjoyed the children.
EB: Is that something you regret, having to do all this organizational other non-writing stuff? Do you wish you could have spent more time writing, perhaps?
DF: I think maybe the fact that I spent so much time on Husserl in the archives – that was a substantial amount of time, and I wonder whether that was time well spent. It was mostly to defend my interpretation against all these anti-analytic critics, and many of them had not worked in the archives at all. Many of the articles that have criticized my view on the noema refer to just one piece, namely to that master’s thesis on Husserl and Frege. However, in that thesis there is nothing on the noema at all, just a discussion of the criticism of psychologism. They are completely against this idea that the great hero of continental philosophy could have had anything in common with Frege. That was just unheard of.
ØL: There’s one question about the student uprising towards the end of the ‘60s. Should we touch on that briefly before we move on?
DF: That is an issue, because when I came back to Norway I wanted very much to start building things up. Then we got the radical student movement, and one thing I proposed immediately was, as I mentioned, that the students should start writing and get feedback on what they wrote. They should not just have an exam, where you write something and get back a grade and you never have any comments. Even in the grunnfag [foundation course], people should write an essay and get it back with comments. At that precise time we got the student uprising, and they said “This man comes from America, he wants to prevent us from doing political work, so he wants to commit us to…” So they were against having essays.
ØL: Things have changed.
DF: And my older colleagues, who were just giving their lectures, were also opposed, because commenting on what students wrote would give them much more work. So I was pretty much the only one. The only thing I accomplished was that it could be voluntary. Those students who wanted to could replace one of their exam days with an essay. And very many students – not the most radical ones, but a good deal – thought that was nice. They wanted to write an essay, but then the deadline came, and they had no experience in writing essays, so they didn’t get it done. So there was hardly anyone, maybe one or two students who ended up writing essays.
ØL: Did a lot of students want to work on radical political ideas in that period?
DF: Yes, quite a few. John Searle came here. Of course, as an American, he was greeted very negatively. The reason he was invited was that we had absolutely no money for visitors. Then NATO had advertised that they were willing to support guests from the US, they would give them a semester’s salary. Arne Næss and I talked about it, and we thought maybe Searle would be a good person to get: Good lecturer, would relate well to the students… And then he came.
EB: So he was here in Oslo for a semester? This was in 1969?
DF: Something like that, yes. Then the students found out that his salary came from NATO. And of course, NATO, that was bad. But there were no ties; we, and not NATO or the US, had decided who should be invited. But when the students learned that he came from the US, when he wanted to give his first lecture all the students had crowded the room and it was “No we don’t want to hear about philosophy, we want to hear about the Vietnam war and the awful things the US is doing in Vietnam” and so on. They didn’t know that Searle was very much opposed to the Vietnam war, and he was a very good debater. So they got completely frustrated, he just flattened them completely. Then they thought, well, debating doesn’t seem to be the way, so instead they blocked the room so that nobody could get in and listen.
And Næss of course got into a quandary, because on the one hand he wanted to be friends with the students, and on the other hand he had invited Searle. And you know, I didn’t like to be an enemy of the students either, but I think you have to stand by… Næss sat down with the students, blocking the lecture.
ØL: Having invited him.
DF: That was too much for Searle. He never forgot that. Whenever there was a chance, whenever he heard about Næss, he comes through with this – he criticized him for lacking civil courage. Some years later, Alastair Hannay was with Arne Næss at the Berkeley campus. When they were walking across the campus they met Searle, who was coming the other way. When he saw Arne Næss he stood in front of him and scolded him! You…. coward, who doesn’t want to stand up for anything, you invited….
EB: I understand that. You invite him over, and then block the entrance!
DF: You know, I had no problems with Arne at all, we were good friends, but he wanted to be friends with everybody, and this was a difficult situation.
EB: Let’s talk about some philosophical positions. What are the philosophical theses that you are the most convinced of, and that you feel the strongest for?
DF: If you take theses that are universally shared, I am usually pretty convinced of them. However, I feel strongest for those theses where I have a view that I think is fairly well founded, but is opposed by many. Frege was, for example, quite convinced that semantics should be one-sorted: singular terms and general terms have the same sort of semantics, they have a meaning that determines their object. Carnap and Quine and everybody else accepted this as unproblematic. However, I argued that we need a two-sorted semantics, and felt strongly about this.
ØL: But that is now quite widely shared?
DF: Yes, that’s quite widely shared. I think people now agree that singular terms are quite different from the others. One other thesis that I am fairly convinced of is that you can set forth normative positions in ethics without having to base them on religion. I argue that you may have to take a stand on certain religions, out of ethical considerations. If you look at discussions in religion, very many people think that you cannot have a basis for ethics except in religion. And then it becomes very tricky to see what is wrong with religious views on the use of violence and things like that.
EB: Do you actually think that the ethics must come prior to the religion?
DF: That’s right.
EB: So you can use your ethics to justify some religions over others?
DF: That’s right. It is not prior in the sense that first you get ethics and then religion. It means that you can take a stand on religion with the help of ethics, and you can take a stand on ethics without bringing in religion.
EB: I don’t think that’s very controversial in meta-ethics, but I think it is controversial in the philosophy of religion.
DF: Yes, I think some people look upon it as degrading for religion if you can justify ethics without it. One consequence of this view is that one thinks that non-believers are not entitled to have ethical views, because they cannot support them without becoming believers. That would be one consequence that I would reject.
EB: Are you a theist?
DF: I am a theist, yes. I am not a theist who deduces my view by argument, but I have not seen any good argument against theism. I feel that there are very important aspects of life, not only having to do with religious beliefs, but also with human relationships, that are closely connected with theism. I think that there is something very special there, which gives a kind of theistic attitude.
EB: So, when it comes to your theism, you think it is not so much a matter of belief as it is a matter of some kind of attitude?
DF: Yes. It is of course a matter of belief. But the central core is these other attitudes. There are so many important things in life that become part of this. One of them, very important, is the relation between human beings. Lifelong marriage, for example; I think that when one goes from one partner to another, there is something important missing in the way one experiences another being.
EB: Would you say that there are some values that go missing if you do not have a theistic view?
DF: Of course, you could still lead a very moral life. But I think that a good deal of the important facts in human relationships are intimately connected with that experience of there being something sacred, something very basic to our lives. Of course, theists are supposed to believe in a personal God whom you communicate with and so on. That is more difficult, I think. Not that I deny it, but I just…
EB: You sound almost like a Quaker.
DF: Yes. You know what Quine said about Quakers: “They believe that there is one God at most.”
EB: I am a big fan of Quakers. If I was to go that way…
DF: I am also very fond of Quakers. I think they have something of this thing that I described. The chair of Harvard’s philosophy department during the seven years I was there, Roderick Firth, was a Quaker. And he was a very fine human being.
EB: But are you a member of any organized religion?
DF: I am a Roman Catholic.
EB: But they have very particular beliefs.
DF: Yes, it’s very particular. One of my heroes is Bernard Bolzano, who was born in Prague in 1781 and lived until 1848. In 1804 he became a priest and was immediately appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Prague. However, his interests and contributions went far beyond philosophy. He made important contributions to mathematics, anticipating by 60 years fundamental results achieved later independently by Weierstrass, one of the most important mathematicians of the century, who was Husserl’s dissertation advisor in Berlin. Niels Henrik Abel wrote about Bolzano in a letter from 1826 and went to Prague, but never met him, since Bolzano by then had already been arrested for his Erbaungsreden, Sunday lectures in the University Church in Prague, which attracted crowds of students who were enthusiastic about his ideas on ethical and political issues in light of religion. He said that women should have the same right to vote as men, all political rights should be the same, land should belong to the people who till the land and not to people who live in the city and just pay them.
Metternich and the emperor feared a revolution against their regime, so Bolzano was sentenced to prison and forbidden to lecture or publish for the rest of his life. However, a couple who had an estate in the countryside proposed to the authorities: “Why don’t we take care of him? That will save you some expenses, and we’ll make sure he does not flee or violate the sentence.” And that was accepted, so Bolzano stayed at their estate and did excellent research in a number of fields, not only mathematics, theology and social and political philosophy, but also philosophy of science and ethics. His hosts had a child who died, and Bolzano wrote a paper on the Unsterblichkeit der Seele, trying to comfort them. Most of his work remained unpublished until 1980, when Edgar Morscher established a Bolzano Archive in Salzburg, which has so far published more than a hundred volumes of his work.
I have a thought experiment: If you had to spend your life on a desert island with a philosopher, whom would you choose? Of course, Quine was a very nice person, as a person and also to talk to. I don’t think Husserl would be such an engaging conversation partner, although he had very interesting views. But Bolzano, I think, would be really… He had all these well-argued and broad views, he was interested in so many different things, and did such excellent work in all these areas. And, as far as I can judge, he was a very nice, social human being.
EB: So, as a good Catholic, you wouldn’t pick Thomas Aquinas?
DF: It would be interesting with him, but he didn’t have all these very broad interests that I share with Bolzano.
EB: Could you say something about what you think the relationship is between religion and science more generally?
DF: I think that they at least should harmonize with one another. Pretty much everything in science would be relevant, but there are issues that are taken up in religion, such as the relation between human beings and so on, which is hard to get out of straight science. You could learn a lot about biology, social interaction, and so on, but still not get it all. But I think if there should be a conflict between science and religion, we should be on guard. There have been people who say “I believe because it is absurd,” and I certainly do not accept that view. In a way, Thomas Aquinas has a view I have – that when you are invited to believe in a religion you should ask “Is it reasonable? Does it conflict with our reason?” Because God has given us reason in order to be able to sort what is believable from what is not believable. This view of ethics and religion was shared by Bolzano. He said that when I judge what religious doctrine to believe, ethical considerations should be a factor. If one is invited to believe something that seems to have unethical consequences, such as I should cut the head off everybody who doesn’t believe what I believe, then one should be on guard. And one should also be on guard against less extreme religious doctrines.
ØL: So Bolzano really is a major source of inspiration for you in this domain of thinking about science, religion, philosophy, how they hang together?
DF: That’s right. I really enjoy Bolzano so much. He was also so clear-headed, very much like Frege. He wrote well, not quite as polished as Frege, nor as inventive as Quine, but still very well.
EB: What’s your take on ethics in general?
DF: To base it on empathy. That’s Husserl, of course, and Bolzano as well.
EB: David Hume, as well.
DF: That’s right. I often refer to Hume, because I think that he has been neglected too much in ethics. Hume said, of course, that you cannot give any reasons in ethics. But if you look more closely at it, it is because empathy has to play a very foundational role. And that is not quite covered by what we call “reason”. In a paper I combine reflective equilibrium, which was central in Rawls, with Quine’s view on reflective equilibrium in science. I agree completely with them. But for Rawls, the problem is if you have reflective equilibrium, what are the boundary conditions? I am very interested in boundary conditions in all fields, and that’s why I am interested in Husserl’s hyle, and Quine’s example about the strain of going uphill. For Rawls, the boundary conditions on reflective equilibrium would be the ethical intuitions we have, which are of course colored by the society in which we are brought up. Rawls argues that if one reflects on this – asking, for example, why should men be treated differently from women, and one finds no particular reason – then through reflection one can modify one’s view, and one arrives at considered judgments. But it is hard, often, to get rid of the views that you were impregnated with in your upbringing, and the best way, really, is to train your empathy. When something happens, and you see how it affects someone else, then you have to build up reflective equilibrium where the boundary conditions are empathy. So that was the point of that paper: You supplement Rawls with an even stronger emphasis on empathy.
EB: But do you think that that is a good ethical strategy when it comes to e.g. global catastrophes?
DF: Yes, I think so. It all comes down to how all the people who are affected experience what happens. And then, of course, you may have to go through social theory, economics, and so on, and find a course of action that minimizes the amount of suffering. So even Bolzano has these kinds of considerations; when it comes to weighing empathy against empathy, he has something like a maximizing utility view.
EB: Because some people would think that empathy might work well in close interpersonal relations, but less well when it comes to global catastrophes of hunger; you cannot start thinking of empathy with each one in these catastrophes, you have to think consequences.
DF: Yes, I think that empathy is the basis of it all. When it comes to global problems, social problems and so on, you have to think through the different options, and try to think about how they affect people. And especially how they might affect people who might not be good at letting their voice be heard. I use this example of planning: When I lecture at Blindern, I say, look at all the ways that a person in a wheelchair can get in and out of the buildings – now they have added places where you can get in and out with a wheelchair. But when the buildings were built, nobody thought about it. You had a couple of steps here and there, and for the person in a wheelchair these created difficulties. But – no wheelchair people were on the building committee.
EB: Architect coming forth.
DF: So: try to have everybody involved who would be affected by it, and especially think about people who don’t write much in the papers, who are handicapped in various ways, and try to make sure you get their experience into the picture, directly or through representatives who have empathic ability. What is important is to be moved to action, and Rawls thought that the only way to be moved to action is that you have trained your capacity for empathy, in your upbringing or later. It’s very difficult to build it up from scratch. But I think that if you start with empathy, you will get the motivation.
EB: Just one more question. Earlier we asked you about the theses you are the most convinced of. Are there any theses or claims that you think are obviously false? Any widely held theses that you think are obviously wrong?
DF: What has affected me most in my philosophical life, and something that I am fighting all the time, is this use of labels. “Positivism”, … maybe because it has been such an obstacle to all these things that I wanted to get changed, in the university and so on, and all the debates going on in newspapers. I think that the use of labels is just so detrimental. In Norway, “positivism” has been used as a label against almost all the things I wanted to… And in politics you have “Muslims”, “Jews”… I never use the word “Jew”. If I want to talk about the situation in Palestine I talk about the Israeli government, not that the Jews are responsible. And the same for all these other labels. When I see debates and so on with these labels, I turn against them immediately. So it is not a philosophical view, but it is at least an argumentative pattern that I react against.
ØL: There is a question about the so-called analytic/continental distinction. What is your take on that? I take it that is related to what you just said about labels.
DF: That’s right. I think that much harm has been done to philosophy by introducing those labels. Instead of learning from one another, one has rejected the other unseen. The fact that I often start my lectures on Husserl by building up from some main, simple ideas in Bolzano, that’s no problem – those who use labels have never heard of Bolzano. However, when I make use of Frege to explain some basics in Husserl, then label-users react. Frege, the hero of the analytic philosophers, and Husserl, the founder of continental philosophy. To think that there could be any connection at all is just awful, they think. This reaction reflects the fact that “continental philosophers” have hardly ever read much of what is going on in “analytic philosophy”, they say “it’s analytic, it’s really irrelevant to all the important issues in life”, and, conversely, the analytic philosophers say “oh, it’s pretty incomprehensible, it’s not worth wasting one’s time on”.
ØL: So you think we should simply forget about these labels and stop talking about analytic philosophy versus continental philosophy?
DF: Yes. That’s exactly what I say when some people praise me because I have bridged a gap between analytic and continental. I say “just drop those labels”.
ØL: No gap to be bridged, other than a cultural one?
DF: Yes. Several times I have said and written “labels close people’s minds”. And I think that is right, it has that kind of effect.
EB: We have a couple of questions left. Any philosophical regrets?
DF: Maybe, as I said, that I spent so much time in the archives. Already in the works by Husserl that I had read, including some in the archives, it is so clear from the texts that this way of reading Husserl just fits in with all the things, e.g. his use of quotation marks, and then I had to spend so much more time finding exotic passages that confirmed the view. I was in Köln, in the Husserl archive, and they published a volume in the Husserliana on Husserl’s philosophy of language, Vorlesungen über Bedeutungslehre it is called. I started looking at it, and said, “But here – in the original manuscript, there are quotation marks, have you left them out?!” I asked what had happened, I talked to the person in charge of the archive, and she said: “Well, we thought that there were so many quotation marks that they were clogging up the text.”
But it is a pity to have to spend so much time in archives. I’ve been there a relatively short time on each visit, but I have probably altogether spent a couple of years in the archives.
ØL: That’s a long time. So that’s the main regret looking back at your philosophical career?
DF: Yes. I think it is very good that some people work very hard in the archives and dig out things very carefully. For example now, with Gödel. But I wouldn’t want to sit down and spend another couple of years plowing through manuscripts.
EB: It’s just dawned on me – you started out studying mathematics, and went on to philosophy, but the plan was to study physics. Did you ever study any physics?
DF: I didn’t really study it properly, but I am still very interested in physics, and I did give a paper once in England, in Oxford, that may reflect this old interest. I gave a talk on philosophy of language, and put forth my view on how meaning is man-made. Afterwards, somebody from the audience came and said “I think what you say about man-made meaning is exactly how quantum mechanics should be interpreted”. I used MMM as an abbreviation, and my view is inspired by Quine. This person was Archibald Wheeler. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics several times; he is not alive any more now, but he started writing papers where he talks about the MMM approach to quantum mechanics.
EB: After your talk?
DF: Yes, after that paper, because he thought that label was so suitable for quantum mechanics. I hadn’t thought about it when I worked on it, but he pointed it out to me… And he invited me to come to his seminar, all the way from Norway – at that time he had moved from Princeton to Austin, Texas – to talk about this way of interpreting quantum mechanics. So I did that at a graduate seminar, and it was very nice. He devoted himself especially to this problem of how to interpret quantum mechanics, so he was strongly engaged by it.
ØL: But you don’t, in light of this, regret not going into physics?
DF: No. The only regret is that whenever I’ve written on physics, I’ve found it very easy. But I’ve found writing on philosophy very tricky. I’m never satisfied with what I write.
ØL: So how do you see academic philosophy today compared to when you started out?
DF: I feel that it’s not so different today. Some philosophers whom I enjoy reading are quite young, others are old classics, and I think that I appreciate them for the same reasons. Of course, we now know more – I think there is progress in philosophy, and that we now understand many issues better and know how to deal with them than we did earlier. For example, many of Quine’s ideas. So, even if I now have views that differ from the early views of Quine that I was fond of, I think that it’s progress, but I find it is the same kind of attitude that lies behind and that attracted me to Quine. That might be my biography.
ØL: So what about the enormous specialization that you have seen in philosophy over the past few decades? It used to be much more that any one philosopher was supposed to have a command of all of philosophy, and now even mastering your own discipline is a challenge.
DF: That is a problem, because the way I look upon it, all of philosophy is interconnected. At the same time, it is really impossible for a person to get himself into all the detailed insights you have in different parts of philosophy. I think one should at least have enough insight to know that whatever problems in philosophy one works in, there are many issues that seem to be relevant to these that have come up, let’s say, in ethics. I did talk to Quine about this, I said, “Now you have worked on the philosophy of language all these years, but you have never really gone into special issues relating to meaning and communication that deal with ethics, and it could be interesting to see to what extent your approach to language is able to handle these.” And he became interested, he said “I don’t really have a good idea of how to do that, but I’ll think about it’. And he wrote a couple of papers on that, but there were really no important breakthroughs or anything. But at least, maybe if one had worked enough on it –while I was at Harvard, Rawls often asked me, “What do you think Quine would say about that?” He felt that before he approached Quine with his ideas, he should be prepared for some of his responses. Another thing with Rawls, he clearly had this view that ethics cannot be done in a vacuum. And of course I have the view that epistemology and philosophy of language cannot be done in a vacuum. Both Quine and Rawls were eager to make sure that there were no big problems in their views if you look at them from other parts of philosophy.
ØL: So really taking into account the holistic character of philosophy.
DF: That’s right. I think we should always be aware that what we do in one part of philosophy is interconnected with what goes on in other parts, and we should at least know enough about these other parts to be aware that there may be some problems there. And then try to look into it, maybe talk to a friend who could guide you a little bit on those problems and so on.
EB: It’s sort of the virtue of philosophy, as I see it, to see the bigger picture as well, and not forget that.
DF: Yes. Were you there when we had that discussion where Herman Cappelen was starting with his view on how we should structure philosophy? He said that we should build up these “peaks”, which I agree with, but then he seemed to say that that is all that is needed, that you have the peak competence. He said that philosophy is such a broad field that you could have some people peaking in one thing, and then another. And I said, “You do really need to have enough broadness, whatever field you work in, they are all interconnected.” And I think that is the point: one should have these broad backgrounds, and know main issues in these other fields. Then, when you think of something in philosophy of language, ask, for example: “I wonder how that will work out in connection with those issues in ethics?”
EB: So I see that we have forgotten one question that we should ask. What do you consider your greatest philosophical achievement, if you had to summarize it?
DF: I do think that these reflections on how singular terms differ from others is one where I felt that I saw something that people hadn’t seen before. Of course, now that has been done by so many. I thought that what Gareth Evans did on this was more worked out than what Kripke did. Both were interested in the tie between the word and the object, and Kripke really confined himself to saying it’s a baptism, and now what happens after the baptism? But Evans claimed that the object referred to is the main source of information that is connected to the term. So if you have a term like Venus, then what you refer to is the main source of information about it. And I gave another paper in Oxford – Evans was my commentator, so in my paper I included some criticism of Evans’ view, and I was looking forward to seeing how he would defend it. And then he defended his view, but in the discussion afterwards Ayer took the word and said that he couldn’t agree with Evans. Because if a name – they talked mostly about names – refers to the main source of information, as Evans argued, then almost all of Ayer’s singular terms referred to his nanny. Because all his basic learning about the world came from her. Evans’s view had some problems, you know, and I think it is quite clear that the theory won’t work. But at least Evans gave it a good try. Another good thing is that Evans was always giving credit to people. Donnellan for instance, I try to give credit to him because I think he has been neglected.
EB: So you basically met all the great philosophers of…
DF: Well, I met the generation that I got to know. And of course, you meet later generations.
EB: So who made the greatest impression on you?
DF: Quine, probably. I thought that he was so remarkable in his ability to see when there was something there that was not properly understood. He was so aware of that.
ØL: Incredibly good at spotting problems and difficulties. And that’s really his lasting legacy, isn’t it, not so much the positive claims as to problematize all these different things. So take modality, really putting that on the table as a problem.
DF: That’s right. The analytic/synthetic distinction was central in Kant. Then the logical empiricists rejected a lot of things from Kant and German idealism. But they kept analytic/synthetic, that they found OK. And then Quine: “That’s a problem.” He was very good at this – coming up with very interesting solutions, working on these, seeing new problems and coming up with new constructive ideas. All the time when I worked with him I felt that he was so innovative and stimulating. Maybe what impressed me was that he had to be thinking very clearly about something before he felt that he understood it.
ØL: So Quine is the most impressive philosophical interlocutor you have had over the decades?
EB: Did you ever meet Russell?
DF: Oh, no. I think Russell was very superficial very often, but a master at hiding this – to others and perhaps also to himself – behind a sparkling style, he was one of the few philosophers who got the Nobel Prize in Literature. I was 37 when he died and could therefore very well have met him, but I never tried. Similarly, I’ve written some things on Heidegger, but I never made an attempt to meet him.
EB: Today we would just send an email and hope for an answer. The last question, the question of it all, the question of all questions: What do you think is the meaning of life?
DF: Maybe the meaning of life is to understand a little better these fundamental issues that are so important in so many fields, but in particular in the relations of humans to one another. Maybe.