Having graduated from St Anne’s College, Oxford, as an undergraduate and taught philosophy at Oxford Brookes University for the past ten years, Constantine Sandis is soon to leave the Dreaming Spires for a professorship at the University of Herfordshire. These are not the philosopher’s only plans for the future, however: working mostly on the philosophy of action and its explanation, Sandis is planning books on both the unregistered significance of action theory in normative ethics and the need for a philosophy of understanding. The Oxford Philosopher took a moment of his time to ask a few question about his own experience of philosophy as an academic discipline.
What was the first piece of philosophical literature you read from beginning to end, and have you revisited it since?
The first piece of literature was Gabriele Taylor’s Aristotelian Society essay ‘Love’, written the year I was born. I was seventeen and took it to the beach in Cyprus expecting something soft and soppy only to be confronted with heaps of propositional calculus. Gabriele has since told me that she regrets incorporating this formal logic which was just ‘showing off’. I had a chance to revisit the essay a few years ago when I was editing a volume on ‘Love and Reasons’ and think I understand it a little better now. As for an entire book, like many people, it was Descartes’ Meditations. I’ve revisited it many times since for teaching purposes and one always finds something new in it each time.
Is there a single philosophical figure who most encouraged you to pursue philosophy professionally?
‘Encouraged’ is probably the wrong word, but Jonathan Dancy really inspired me to do so.
Had this encouragement not been present, what would you have studied in philosophy’s place?
If it weren’t for Jonathan I would have probably continued to pursue a career in theatre, which I was deeply immersed in when I first met Jonathan as an MA student at the University of Reading. As an undergraduate it was Peter Hacker who encouraged me to continue philosophy. And before that it was reading bits of Nietzsche that made me want to study it in the first place. In fact my first degree at St Anne’s College was in Philosophy & Theology, and this joint interest ultimately arose from listening to lots of heavy metal as a teenager growing up in the ‘80s. That stuff was saturated with religious, metaphysical, and ethical themes. So I suppose I would have come to philosophy one way or another, as it was over-determined.
As a teacher in philosophy, do you believe the discipline can be classified in the way of other subjects? Is it a science, an art, or should it be counted among the humanities?
There are many mansions in its house, including one in which people debate how it should be classified. The kind of philosophy I’m myself most interested in is one united by a search for understanding rather than knowledge. I’m currently writing a book that is partly about the distinction between the two. But this is not to say that philosophy is or ought to be uniquely concerned with understanding. I don’t think it wise to impose conceptual straightjackets here or anywhere else.
Have you succeeded in applying philosophy to everyday life?
On occasion, but I’ve far more frequently found it to be a hindrance. Philosophers in the analytic tradition are trained to think of all problems as having hidden solutions which can be reached if only one is clever enough and knows where and how to dig. For better or worse, most everyday life situations are nothing like that. Wittgenstein maintained that philosophy isn’t like that either. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is to not assume that every question one can pose has a fixed hidden answer whose truth-value exists independently.
In what respect do you believe philosophy to be most valuable?
What philosophers are best at is making distinctions where others conflate. Yet we are also liable to turn blind to them when under the grip of a certain picture.
Sandis has had an active hand in the development of Oxford’s rich and diverse philosophical community and is responsible for countless students’ success in the discipline. He leaves for Hertfordshire in September.
Interview by George P. Simmonds