Constantine Sandis On The Psychology Of Philosophy And Wittgenstenian Ethics

The lines between philosophy and psychology are always blurring, with many psychological practices having their origins in ancient philosophical work. Reconciling both disciplines is an ongoing process and Constantine Sandis has devoted his life to connecting these two worlds together.

Academic and author, Sandis has published a wide range of books and in this interview he talks about how philosophy helped him cope with cancer, the influence of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and more.

Great to have you on Stoic Athenaeum Constantine. What were your first experiences with philosophy and how did it shape your formative years?

Thank you for inviting me. I don’t have a vivid recollection of my first encounter with philosophy. My father read a vast library and I remember being intrigued by the relatively small section of philosophy books in it.

This included many books on Indian Philosophy (I was born in New Delhi, some ancient Greek Philosophy, several introductions to the subject (e.g., Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy), Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, a Greek translation of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra by the author Nikos Kazantzakis (who wrote a PhD thesis on Nietzsche), and fiction by de Beauvoir, Camus, and Sartre.

I also listened to a lot music from a young age and – as with plays and novels – was intuitively attracted to songs with loosely philosophical lyrics, whether it was Black Sabbath, Duran Duran, the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, or Jacques Brel.

 I didn’t study any philosophy in school because there was no such option, but it was pretty obvious to me that if I went to University at all, this was what I was going to study. The first philosophy books I picked out for myself, while in my last year of school, were Keith Ansell-Pearson’s An Introduction to Nietzsche as a Political Thinker and two volumes edited by Ted Honderich entitled Philosophy As It Was and Philosophy As It Is.

We were living in Nicosia and, there being no internet at the time, my choices were largely determined by what was available in the local English bookshop. But I chose the Honderich books in part because the second volume contained an essay on love by Gabriele Taylor who was a Fellow at St Anne’s College, Oxford where I had just been accepted.

I remember trying to read her essay on the beach in Ayia Napa in Cyprus, thinking it would be light and breezy and being stunned by all the formal logic it contained. I’d never seen anything like it before. It was like a secret world to which I lacked the key. She is a good friend now and recently told me that she regrets the pointless formalisation of her premises in that paper, but that’s another story altogether.

In your twenties you worked as a playwright and I find the connection between drama and philosophy to be fascinating. How would you say this connection has developed from the time of Aristophanes and Euripides? 

I share your fascination, but while I wrote plays that might be described as ‘philosophical’ (including an abandoned adaptation of Aristophanes’ Clouds, which I had entitled Neurons), and have written a little about action and responsibility in ancient tragedy, I don’t have a clear answer to your question.

I can only say this much: the ancient playwrights, raised more questions than they sought to answer. This was also true of early Greek philosophers, but is increasingly rare in contemporary philosophy. Mirrored on hard science, it is expected to proceed by way of proofs to ‘objective’ conclusions.

Contemporary theatre is similarly moving in a didactic direction, in ways that make medieval morality plays seem nuanced by comparison. I don’t know the history well enough, but arguably one of the turning points came with Seneca’s didactive plays (though Nietzsche famously pinpoints the fall from the Dionysian to the Apollonian much earlier, arguing that Euripides was already corrupted by ratiocination).

I have even seen productions of ancient plays that try to make a contemporary point and for me that ruins everything. A cynical way of looking at things is that the arts and humanities today are having to compete for what little funding they can get by promising ‘output outcomes’ with ‘measurable impact’. But I don’t want to exit the theatre with moral or existential certainties; the best performances leave the audience in a state of aporia.

My favourite playwright is Pinter, though I do retain a soft spot for Brecht. The latter may have had instructional goals, but he went out of his way to ensure that the audience wasn’t being manipulated emotionally.

Who are some of the philosophers that most resonate with you and how have they influenced you to take action in your life?

I’m greatly drawn to philosophers that engage with the psychology of doing philosophy. Historically, the three most obvious cases are Hume, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein. Working in the philosophy of action, some of my other philosophical heroes are Hegel, Anscombe, von Wright, Ricoeur, and my favourite living philosopher, Jennifer Hornsby.  

These four philosophers have collectively transformed my understanding of action and its relation to both psychology and ethics. But despite being philosophers of action, they have not directly influenced me to take action.

This is not because they have no interest in such a thing. On the contrary, all four have, each in their own way, explicitly addressed socio-political concerns. When it comes to taking action, however, my strongest influence is Rosalind Hursthouse.

I became vegetarian while teaching her wonderful book Ethics, Humans and Other Animals. I’m now vegan, and when I first met Hurtshouse in person I found out that she’d gone back to eating a bit of meat. But that’s philosophy for you.

You’ve stated you’re interested in the psychology of philosophy. How would you describe this phenomenon and how does it impact our perception of the world?

What it mainly impacts is my perception of philosophy. It makes me a little distrustful of a fair amount of it, especially some forms of practical ethics and religious/atheist philosophy. Broadly speaking, when you psychologise about philosophy, you ask what motivates people to think in certain ways about certain topics. The answer is rarely, if ever, as simple as weighing all of the arguments and using one’s reasoning skills to reach the most rational conclusion. More often than not, the psychological tail is wagging the philosophical dog.

People have a tendency to create arguments in defence of their pre-theoretical beliefs. Philosophical training can render people frighteningly good at this. This is dangerous for a number of reasons.

In their own unique ways, Hume, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein each seek to cure certain kinds of philosophical reasoning by removing, or at least altering, the underlying psychology. In this respect, they are the heirs to the ancient Epicureans, Stoics, Cynics, and Sceptics.

Wittgenstein’s particular brand of psychology of philosophy focuses on ‘the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language’. His philosophy thus seeks to motivate a kind disenchantment, urging us to abandon pictures we are in the grip of. The influence of both Gestalt theory and Freud are obvious here, even if the later Wittgenstein had valid criticisms of both.

Things get complicated because one of the philosophies whose psychology he investigates is the philosophy of psychology. We end up with a kind of psychology of the philosophy of psychology. But, crucially, none of these philosophers are seeking to replace philosophy with psychology. Rather, they advise that good philosophy can only proceed if we understand how human nature works. In effect, they are saying: ‘philosopher, know thyself’. Alas, this is much easier said than done.

You’ve published several books over your career and I’d be interested to hear which of them you found the most satisfying to produce from a writing perspective.

It’s always the first and the last. I don’t think I’m alone in that. The first, because it’s the hardest to write and the culmination of a lot of thought and work until that point.

In my case, this is my 2012 monograph The Things We Do and Why We Do Them which retains the name (but not much of the content) of my 2005 PhD thesis. The last to be published was a book on Bob Dylan at 80, which I co-edited with Gary Browning.

It came out last month and is different from what I normally do. It’s certainly the most fun I’ve ever had working on a book and I’ve got to know many wonderful people along the way. I’d like to write more on rock music in the future but don’t have any particular plans at the moment. In another life, I could have been a music journalist.

If you could go back in time and speak to any philosopher, who would it be and why?

It would have to be Wittgenstein, though I doubt he’d like me. Hopefully we could at least resolve – once and for all – all this business about how to interpret the concluding remarks of his Tractatus.

At times, I find it really weird that people can build entire careers based on the interpretation of a couple of lines that somebody wrote a hundred years ago.

In your academic work as a teacher, what techniques do you use to make philosophy more accessible to your students?

This is a hard question for me, because I’ve been on research leave over the past couple of years so I’ve not had to deal much with the challenges of remote teaching, beyond the odd class here and there. My teaching has always been highly interactive as I’m not a fan of lecturing at people.

I use the whiteboard a lot and encourage all those in class to do the same. I like thinking together with students and classes normally begin by asking the class to suggest things from the reading that they either didn’t understand, disagreed with, or simply want to talk about more.

While there are always a few basic things that I want to ensure we get through, the main agenda is largely driven by the students. I don’t believe in preparing for lectures: I believe in being prepared in some vaster sense. Of course, all this comes at a risk. Some lectures and seminars will not work as well as others because you’re relying quite a bit on the energy in the room, including your own that day.

But that’s a risk I’m prepared to take. Anyone can watch a recording of a lecture online. But you’re not doing philosophy with others when you watch it. That said, I’m not a fan of forcing students to speak. I may encourage them to do so but if a particular student learns best in quiet or even without attending, that’s fine by me, though I gather that in some educational circles this attitude is controversial.

Another project you’ve worked on is Lex Academic, which helps researchers and students in the publishing space. For those who’re unfamiliar with it, what inspired you to create Lex Academic and what is its purpose?

Our purpose is to provide researchers in the humanities and social sciences with proofreading, copy-editing, substantive editing, indexing, and translation services that are all expert-led. As researchers, we were frustrated by the generic proofreading on offer by people who don’t understand the subject.

All of Lex Academic’s editors are trained researchers in the fields they work in. Most of our customers are non-native speakers and our core mission is to help to level the playing field by supporting academics with great ideas and research who might be getting knocked back owing to linguistic bias in the publishing world.

Similarly, we also help researchers who are dyslexic, have ADHD and other conditions that may make it difficult for them to finalise manuscripts for publication. It is part of our mission to raise awareness about these difficulties and work alongside researchers who are disadvantaged by them.

Lex Academic’s origin story has a personal angle, too. In spring 2019, I was diagnosed with advanced melanoma cancer. This was followed by some pretty serious surgery and an immunotherapy treatment course that had to be stopped early due to COVID-19.

During those dark days, we had to re-think our financial security, and Lex Academic grew out of that during the first lockdown. Louise Chapman, my wife, already had considerable experience proofreading philosophy papers as a freelancer, so it was an obvious path to take.

I am now in remission and Lex Academic supports thousands of academics worldwide. I’d like to say all’s well that ends well, but neither story has ended yet. Lex have plans to develop a number of sister brands. At the same time, I’m still suffering from severe fatigue, which is a long-term side-effect of my treatment. Perhaps some of that Stoicism we both read rubbed off on us after all!

What’s it like being married to a fellow philosopher and how do you think philosophy can strengthen a relationship?

When I first met Louise, she was working on Kant and I was working on Hume. We were like Elizabeth Radcliffe and Richard McCarty in reverse! Nowadays, we are more like business partners than philosophy colleagues, but Lex Academic began as a service for philosophers and it’s nice to have that shared love.

I don’t have any strong views about the pros and cons of having a partner who is an academic within the same discipline. So I only speak for myself when I say that it’s really nice to be sharing my life with someone who is passionate about similar philosophical issues in moral psychology. We even wrote a paper together, on moral hydraulics, though Louise was the lead author by a long stretch.

What are some projects you’re excited to be working on in the future?

I have a few books about to see the light of day next year. The first will be Extending Hinge Epistemology, co-edited with my University of Hertfordshire and British Wittgenstein Society colleague Danièle Moyal-Sharrock. We recently delivered the final manuscript to the publisher, so it’s more or less out of our hands now.

There are also two volumes of my selected essays for which I need to finish writing the introductions. One is on the action and ethics and the other on Wittgenstein on other minds. It’s definitely a rewarding experience trying to figure out how different things I’ve written over the past 10-15 years may or may not fit together.

What I’m most excited about is the book I’m currently co-writing with Danièle. Tentatively entitled Real Gender, the book is a cis defence of trans realities. It’s definitely the most socially engaged writing I’ve done to date. I’ve written a few pieces in defence of veganism before, but nothing like this. One thing they have in common is the influence of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language.

Linguistic conservatives will say things like ‘it isn’t real milk if it’s not derived from an animal’ or ‘you’re not a real man if you weren’t born with certain biological features.’ The examples aren’t entirely analogous for reasons that are hopefully very obvious, but in both cases there is a psychological block to how language evolves alongside our practices.

We also find instances of bigotry masquerading as linguistic tautology. Philosophy is meant to question the nature of reality and our understanding of it, but it’s a sad state of affairs when philosophers will spout nonsense about us all possibly living in a computer simulation yet maintain with absolute certainty that transwomen are a sub-class of men.

After that, I look forward to returning to two related trade books that were put on the back burner when I got cancer. One has the working title How to Understand Others (Without Going Mad) and is long overdue with Yale University Press.

The other is called Wittgenstein’s Lion and will be published by Bloomsbury. The former considers obstacle to understanding others across periods, cultures, species, and so on. I argue that, contrary to popular opinion, empathy is not so much a cause of understanding others as it is an effect. The latter book pretty much devotes one chapter per word in Wittgenstein’s famous quip about the talking lion.

Both books build on research already published as articles, but I’m completely re-working the material into books that will be accessible to a non-academic audience. If nothing else, it keeps me off the streets, as my prolific teacher Peter Hacker likes to say.

Request a quote