An Interview with Associate Professor François Schroeter

SHAPS congratulates François Schroeter from Philosophy on his recent promotion to Associate Professor. Originally from Switzerland, where he completed his PhD at the University of Fribourg, François joined the University of Melbourne in 2003. His academic work spans both Continental philosophy and Western analytic philosophy, with special interests in metaethics, moral psychology, Kantian ethics, and philosophy of race and gender – just to name a few. A passionate lecturer and supervisor and a keen collaborator, François has a rich academic history and a diverse body of philosophical work. With two new and exciting collaborative projects now underway, we anticipate more great work to come. Current PhD candidate Henry Dobson interviewed François to mark his promotion.

You’re fluent in French, German and English. At the beginning of your academic career you published exclusively in French and German. Today you mainly write and publish in English. Generally speaking, does being multilingual benefit your work, or can it be a hindrance?

Well, I used to be fluent in German. I would now need extensive help to write an article in German. To answer your question, I have long considered being an ESL speaker a serious handicap for my current research, which targets topics where you need to publish in English in order to get an audience.

The transition from writing in French to writing in English was brutal. The French language loves super-longwinded sentences lavishly embellished with an abundance of decorative adjectives. English, well, not so much. I remember Laura (my partner and now main co-author) using a red pen very generously to cut and restructure my English sentences. That was painful but absolutely necessary. I had developed my personal style in French and, now, I had to start over from scratch. There is also a real feeling of expressive limitation when you are not writing in your mother language. I guess I have now become accustomed to these difficulties and they don’t bother me so much anymore.

On the general topic of languages and philosophy, I read an interesting discussion thread a few months ago, initiated by colleagues in Barcelona. They talked about the difficulties for philosophers who have learned English as a second language when it comes to publishing in top English-language venues, where style matters a lot. Their worry is that ESL researchers end up being unfairly penalised and that, as a result, the international philosophical discussion is less open and diverse than it should be.

That interesting post raises a lot of important questions. One of them is whether elegance of style should really matter that much in philosophical research. I am not sure. Of course, we all like super-polished articles that can generate a quasi-aesthetic experience of awe in the reader. But should all papers published in top venues be able to generate that kind of feeling? Again, that’s not clear to me. In any case, I think it is important to keep in mind the obstacles faced by our ESL students (both at undergraduate and postgraduate level). I think we need to do more to help them on that front.

All this is not to deny, of course, that being fluent in foreign languages can be a substantial advantage in philosophy. For instance, it is very nice to read Kant, Hegel, Heidegger or Derrida in the original text. You get the feeling of engaging directly with ‘the real thing’. And, obviously, if your first language is not English, that means you have been raised outside of the Anglo-American culture, which is currently so dominant in mainstream philosophy. I think that avoiding a narrow Anglo-American cultural focus is something mainstream philosophy really needs to do. I see that happening now much more than 20 years ago. And that’s a very good thing.

Your early philosophical work focused on Continental (European) philosophy and Kantian ethics in particular but, over time, you have shifted towards Anglo-American-Australian analytic philosophy. What has been the main reason or cause for this shift and how do you position yourself in relation to these two fields of philosophy today?

I was sitting in a seminar of Jürgen Habermas in Frankfurt, very long ago, as an enthusiastic undergraduate student. Habermas – one of the most prominent figures in European Continental philosophy – was encouraging his students to learn the theoretical tools developed by analytic philosophers. I guess he must have made his point pretty convincingly! I think that was the historical trigger for my ‘move’ to analytic philosophy. But this transition had its roots in my previous work on Kant’s ethics.

Kant’s ethics got me interested in fundamental questions about moral objectivity, and analytic philosophy has a whole field dedicated to that type of question: metaethics. What attracted me in analytic philosophy was the sophistication, depth and rigor of its theoretical approach and the richness of its engagement with the empirical sciences. I was also very interested in core questions about the relation between language, mind and the world. And analytic philosophy has an awful lot to say about that kind of foundational issue.

At the same time the agenda of analytic philosophy has long been quite narrow. It used to be a little bit as if science and morality were the only two things that really mattered for analytic philosophers. That’s a caricature, of course, and to be taken with a grain of salt.

By contrast, the phenomenological/hermeneutical tradition in Continental philosophy had a much broader scope – starting with questions about phenomenal consciousness, which have for so long been neglected in analytic philosophy.

Thankfully, things have now dramatically changed. In 2022, we can find analytic philosophers writing interesting stuff on pretty much any philosophical topic. This is in stark contrast with what was happening in analytic philosophy in the ’80s and at the beginning of the ’90s. My hunch is that Habermas approves of that situation. The tools of analytic philosophy he was praising are now being deployed to explore an ever-expanding range of topics.

How would I position myself with respect to these traditions? Well, from a methodological point of view, I am clearly in the analytic camp. Analytic theoretical tools figure centrally in my work.

However, I think it is now becoming increasingly problematic to try to draw a sharp contrast between the two traditions, and that is a wonderful thing. If you go back to the ’70s, with people like Austin and Quine on one side and people like Derrida and Deleuze on the other, it is clear why the two traditions might have seemed hermetically sealed against each other.

But it would be an awful caricature to reduce the two traditions to a few quasi-antithetical historical figures. Both traditions are very rich, with multiple strands, and there are many points of overlap and mutual influence between the two.

My sense is that ideas are nowadays circulating quite freely between the two paradigms. Of course, there are still simplistic images floating around of Continental philosophers as mystery-mongers and analytic philosophers as logical positivists. But not so much among informed people, I think.

Take for instance an example I often cite to students when they ask me about the analytic/Continental divide in philosophy: Sally Haslanger [Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT)]. I am full of admiration for Sally. She was trained as an analytic philosopher, writing her dissertation on Aristotelian themes in metaphysics, from a thoroughly analytic perspective. From the start of her career, she was also very interested in feminist philosophy, and her research is now mainly concentrated in that area. Sally’s methodological approach to feminism is grounded in the best theoretical tools analytic philosophy has to offer (in metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, ethics, social and political philosophy, etc. etc.).

At the same time, she is fully on top of (and massively influenced by) key figures in the Continental tradition: de Beauvoir, Althusser, Foucault, Bourdieu, to name just a few. Moreover, her approach is not a collage of different potentially incompatible theoretical commitments: everything in her approach is fully integrated in a sophisticated and flexible theoretical framework. For me, Sally’s approach is a model for how to transcend the analytic/Continental divide in philosophy. And that integrative approach is the one we (i.e., Karen Jones, Greg Restall, Laura and I) are pursuing with her in our joint ARC project on [Constructing] Social Hierarchy.

To go back to your question about how I would position myself, I think the answer is: as a proud Australian philosopher. Australian philosophy has had a huge international impact since World War Two. Aussie philosophers are known for being unafraid to tackle big questions, in an innovative, empirically-informed, forward-looking way, with sophisticated analytic tools, and no patience for bullshit or pedantry. That ticks all the boxes for me. And given the current state of play in philosophy, that shouldn’t be seen as antithetical to Continental philosophy – think again about Sally Haslanger’s work, which also ticks all the ‘Aussie’ boxes.

A lot of my current work on normative concepts, for instance, is strongly embedded in the Aussie tradition in philosophy of language and mind, but it also has rich connections to important strands in the Continental tradition – indeed, to the views Habermas was advocating way back then, when I was a fascinated undergraduate in his classes in Frankfurt.

An additional reason for thinking that the label ‘Aussie philosopher’ is an apt one for me is that I’m now devoting an increasing amount of time to First Nation approaches. So far, Aussie analytic philosophy has failed to engage with the richness of First Nation philosophy. I use here the word ‘philosophy’ literally. For me, that is an incredibly shameful neglect which needs to be urgently addressed. Here again, I think that sophisticated tools of twenty-first century philosophy can help forge important bridges between traditional and First Nation philosophy.

Two of your close collaborators are Associate Professor Laura Schroeter and Associate Professor Karen Jones. What is the focus of these collaborations? Do you find that some subjects, topics, or philosophical problems are best tackled by collaboration more so than working independently?

I’ll start with an anecdote about the first paper Laura (who is also my partner) and I wrote together. We were at the ANU in Canberra, where Laura was on a postdoc and I was finishing my habilitation thesis. We were seriously stressed out by the depressingly bleak prospects of the job market which we’d have to face.

In this stressed environment, we decided to write a paper on a topic combining Laura’s expertise in philosophy of language and my expertise in metaethics. We agreed on all the arguments and all the conclusions of the paper. And, yet, writing it together turned out to be absolute hell. We just couldn’t agree on the packaging – the way to present the arguments, to write the key sentences, and to sharpen the key concepts.

Reflecting back on that time, it seems almost a miracle that we are still together and fond of each other after that traumatic event. So that should be a warning to anybody who thinks that co-authoring will be an easy solution to all writing problems in philosophy. And also a warning to those who might be contemplating co-writing with their partner. I remember Graham Priest (our former Boyce Gibson Professor of Philosophy here at Melbourne) telling me that while he had written papers with dozens of people, he would never want to write a philosophy paper with the person he was living with. There is some wisdom in that! Thankfully, Laura and I have gotten much better at the exercise of co-authoring – although there can still be, of course, occasional tensions.

Laura Schroeter and François Schroeter

To go back to your question about the focus of my collaborations with Laura and Karen. Laura and I have both been interested in the question of normative objectivity since we met at the University of Michigan (before coming together to the ANU in Canberra, where Laura was offered a postdoc).

Suppose we ask whether a specific type of abortion is morally permissible. There is something problematic in replying, well, the type of abortion in question is morally permissible according to the morality of leftist academics, but not morally permissible according to the morality of Christian fundamentalists. We want to know whether abortion is morally permissible tout court, not relative to the normative preferences of particular sub-groups. If we are simply asking what is morally permissible for a particular group, we are deflating the normative authority of morality – we are not taking morality seriously, as one metaethicist colleague has recently put it.

Like many philosophers, Laura and I believe this type of case illustrates our epistemic ambition with respect to moral questions. We are looking for answers to central normative questions that are potentially mutually justifiable to all concerned, not just to the members of a specific church or sub-group. Laura and I have been working on a model of concepts capable of explaining and vindicating – at least to some degree – this aspiration to inter-subjective validity.

For this type of ambitious project, I think collaboration is essential. When a topic touches on many fundamental issues, combining different types of expertise is a necessity if one wants to propose an in-depth articulation and defense of an original position. But the benefits of collaboration go well beyond combining complementary areas of expertise. Laura and I elaborate all aspects of our theories by trying things out in an ongoing discussion. The drafting of the papers and all the revisions are also always approached dialogically. Pretty much everybody I know in the profession now acknowledges that writing philosophy is a thoroughly social affair.

My collaboration with Karen has had a slightly different focus. Before getting to that, I’d like to say that sitting at a desk and writing philosophy with Karen is always a thrilling experience for me. After all these years, I am still in awe of Karen’s intellect – for me, she is one of the sharpest minds around in philosophy and, believe me, there is a lot of competition on that front.

Karen comes at issues in moral psychology and agency from a more sentimentalist tradition (emphasising the importance of emotions), and I come at them from a more rationalist tradition (emphasising the importance of intellectual reflection). As often in philosophy, when initially opposed theoretical frameworks develop, they then tend to become much closer to each other – so that it’s now often difficult to tell the difference between sophisticated sentimentalists and sophisticated rationalists.

Our first ARC grant together was focused on the prospects of sophisticated moral rationalism, and whether or not the rationalist/sentimentalist opposition is still a useful one in the twenty-first century. Obviously, the fact that Karen and I were coming at these questions from different perspectives was a key to the success of that project.

You’re passionate about teaching and learning philosophy. How do you approach teaching philosophy at the undergraduate level? What do you believe are the most important skills or qualities when it comes to teaching students philosophy in the classroom?

I am a philosopher, so I really like ideas. But over the years I have discovered that I like people more. And here at Melbourne we are blessed with fabulous undergraduate students. Talking philosophy with them is perhaps the biggest highlight of my job. When I talk to colleagues at other universities, they really envy us on that front. There are of course terrific students at all universities. But the depth of talent at Melbourne is exceptional.

I think the key to my teaching approach is really simple. It is to listen to students. The funny thing is that it took me so long to get clear about that. I think age might have helped here. I now really don’t feel that I have to prove myself, in the classroom or pretty much anywhere else. And that’s something relatively new for me.

Like I guess all academic disciplines, professional philosophy is extremely competitive. You are always made to feel you are simply not good enough. And I think that feeling used to interfere with the quality of my teaching. On reflection, I now realise that the pressure to prove myself (or to assert dominance?) always used to be in the back of my mind when entering the classroom. That’s now gone, and I think students can tell the difference. I hear they now feel that I care for them, and that I am always willing to learn from them, both as a philosopher and as a person.

So how do I implement this ‘listening’ approach? I think the flipped classroom model really helps. The video-recorded lecture material is just the background. My main role is now in the seminars, where students want to try their philosophical ideas on their peers and on me. This approach is of course time-consuming. In the philosophy capstone, for instance, we now get up to 150 students. That means five two-hour tutorials (capped at 30 students), for a grand total of 10 teaching hours per week. Yes, that’s draining. But it is rewarding, and I really feel that our students deserve it. They are really that good.

You recently started two new collaborative projects. Can you share some details about each project with us?

I have already mentioned our current big collaborative project [Constructing Social Hierarchy], which involves Sally Haslanger, Greg Restall, Karen, Laura and me. I am very excited about that project. It looks at how current tools in philosophy of language, mind, emotions, agency, etc. can help us understand the way social hierarchies are generated and maintained, with the hope of finding possible remedies.

Laura and I are especially interested in how conceptual structure – for instance, the way we store information with our concept of women – can contribute to social hierarchy (systematic female subordination, trans-exclusion, etc. etc.).

To give a bit of background here, there is currently a lot of philosophical discussion targeting the concept of woman. Many theorists are interested in questions concerning ‘conceptual amelioration’, or ‘conceptual ethics’: rather than investigating what concepts we do actually have, their question is about what concepts we should have – if, for instance we want to combat systematic female subordination.

One problem with that approach is that our current beliefs and concepts tend to be very sticky: it is really difficult to erase them and to replace them with new ones. So, one crucial question is how we can improve our conceptual system despite its general stickiness. That’s just one illustration of the types of issue we are interested in in this project. There is a lot more to come, of course. COVID has unfortunately derailed some of our broader collaborative plans – like, for instance, the organisation of a big international conference. But things are now back on track and the enthusiasm is intact.

The second collaborative project is with Kevin Toh, a specialist of philosophy of law at UCL [University College London]. Laura and I overlapped with Kevin at Michigan. We found that this really facilitates collaboration. Even if we disagree with Kevin on several issues, we share the same basic map of the philosophical terrain (for instance in metaethics), and that’s really very helpful.

How did the collaboration start? Many colleagues had alerted us (Laura and me) to the fact that our model of concepts had important affinities with Dworkin’s views on legal interpretation. A natural first step was to clarify the similarities and differences between our approach and Dworkin’s. There is no way to do that, of course, without having a specialist in philosophy of law on board. So Kevin’s participation in that project was crucial. We developed good synergies with him and there are many further important issues we’d like to explore in applying our model of concepts to the legal domain.

Interestingly, some of the work Laura and I have been doing on the concept of woman (in the project with Sally Haslanger) will be relevant for our work on legal concepts. There is now an exciting literature at the interface between philosophy of language/mind and psycho-linguistics on the topics of polysemy, contextual modulation, ad hoc concepts, etc. That new stuff is really important, we think, when thinking about the concept of woman. It will also be important when further developing our approach to legal concepts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been laden with moral and ethical problems ranging from the distribution of medical goods (e.g., vaccines), social lockdowns and the shutting of local and international borders. Has the pandemic raised any novel ethical problems or provided other insights which you had not been concerned with previously? Has the pandemic changed or affected your own ethical outlook in any way?

Well, I think my current domain of specialisation is metaethics (roughly, foundational questions about morality and normativity), rather than normative or applied ethics. So, I’m afraid I am not particularly qualified to provide insights into the host of ethical issues raised by COVID. But two things come to mind.

First, I read with much interest, like – I imagine – many other members of SHAPS, Peter Singer’s comments in the media about our government’s response to COVID. As one can expect, Peter applies to the COVID case the type of utilitarian approach he illustrated so brilliantly with his ‘child in the pond’ example (in his hyper-famous paper published 50 years ago).

In that paper, Peter asks you to imagine that you come across a child drowning in a shallow pond. We have strong intuitions that we are morally obligated to save the child in that case, even if stepping into the pond will ruin the new $200 pair of shoes we are wearing. But we don’t have similarly strong intuitions that we are morally obligated to pay $200 to Oxfam in order to save a child from death from malnutrition.

According to Peter, our moral intuitions are sensitive here to morally irrelevant factors such as proximity. The two cases are similar in that, we are assuming, your spending $200 will save a child in both cases, but we only feel a moral obligation in the case where we are directly confronted with the child in danger, not when [they] live out of our sight on the other side of the planet.

Peter suggests that we have made the same type of moral mistake in our responses to COVID. On the one hand, we spend huge resources to prevent the COVID deaths we can directly observe in ICUs. But, on the other hand, we discount all COVID-related deaths and negative impacts on wellbeing that will happen further down the road, simply because they are not salient to our attention now.

Now, unlike Peter, I am not a utilitarian. So I don’t think a calculation of utility simply determines what is morally right or wrong. Still I think that checking what impact specific policy decisions have on general utility is one important perspective to take into account when asking moral questions. So I think that once more empirical evidence is in about the long-term effects of both COVID and our responses to it (including lockdowns, etc.), we should take Peter’s worry seriously and ask ourselves the hard questions: in our COVID-responses, did we unfairly prioritise what’s directly visible over less obvious long-term effects? And we should certainly not expect any simple answers to such questions.

The second thing that came to mind has more to do with politics and epistemology than directly with ethics. As researchers we place a big emphasis on epistemic caution and on the regular updating of our beliefs in light of additional evidence. This is certainly something I have learned – sometimes the hard way – in my years of training as an analytic philosopher. “You must know what you don’t know, otherwise everybody will think you are a moron” is a popular motto in many analytic circles.

Yet, when you look at COVID responses, the public seems to expect governments to deliver a clear and simple message, even if the relevant evidence is not yet available, and to stick to their message and decisions, pretty much no matter what. That’s a bit of a caricature, of course. But there seems to be a clear incentive for political leaders to engage in what we, as researchers, would qualify as clear acts of epistemic vice. I have not thought further about these issues and I suspect there are many colleagues in our School who’d be much more qualified than me to talk about them. In any case, that seems to me to be an interesting and important issue, which I had never been vividly aware of before.

On a more personal level, how has philosophy assisted you in living and dealing with the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic? Are there particular authors, books or literature which you’ve turned to for consolation?

That’s again an interesting question. I think the answer is no, philosophy hasn’t assisted me during these challenging times. And that means, I guess, that philosophy is not for me a way of life or an exercise in wisdom broadly conceived.

As a philosopher, I rather see myself as an artisan crafting explanatory models. That kind of activity usually isn’t much help when confronting life problems. It can in fact be itself a generator of anxiety.

Indeed, some prominent philosophers have recently come out and talked candidly about their struggles with depression and about how recurrent features of professional philosophy (smartness obsession, status obsession, etc. etc.) may constitute serious mental health hazards. Peter Railton is an admirable example here. So it looks like we may have come a long way from seeing philosophy (or at least professional philosophy) as a source of consolation for the difficulties of life.

When it comes to consolation, for me a reliable source is music. I was trained as a professional musician (clarinetist) and I really enjoy listening to recent recordings in classical music, especially chamber music. The level of expressive and technical skill is now stratospheric.

Looking ahead, what will be the focus of your work going forwards? What excites you about this work?

I am very positive and excited about the road ahead. And I think there is one person who should be thanked for that. It’s Margaret Cameron, our Head of School, who has created in SHAPS a space where everybody feels respected and valued and where, as a philosopher, I can count on her support through the ups and downs of ambitious research projects.

I have already talked about many of the main focuses for the future – the social hierarchy project with Sally Haslanger, the project on legal concepts, the project to build bridges with First Nation philosophy. In addition, Laura and I have been working on a monograph on concepts for a while, which we hope to complete in the next couple years or so.

There are a number of reasons I am especially excited about this last project. But I guess the main one is perhaps that there is now so much exciting new work done in areas adjacent to our project – in psycho-linguistics, as I mentioned earlier, but also for instance in developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, etc. etc.

At earlier stages of our project, Laura and I often felt a bit as though we were ‘alone in the desert’ when developing our theory. Now we feel that we are embedded in a rich research network. This is partly due to the fact that there are now many more theorists interested in the kind of approach to concepts and cognition we are proposing. It is also due to the fact that as our own approaches develop, potential connections to adjacent fields become more visible. And having been around for a while also helps. We now have many more connections with colleagues working on related issues than we used to. All those social dimensions of our monograph project (and in fact of all our major projects) are really a huge motivator for me.

François Schroeter currently teaches the following subjects: The Foundations of Interpretation (PHIL30024); Philosophical Methodology (PHIL90024); Researching Ideas (ARTS90012) (Semester One); and The Philosophy of Philosophy (PHIL30007) (Semester Two).