Andreas Matthias on Writing About Philosophy
Dr Andreas Matthias teaches philosophy at an Asian university. Before becoming a philosopher, he worked for twenty years as a programmer at a German university. He is the publisher and editor of Daily Philosophy, author of multiple books, and one half of the Accented Philosophy podcast.
This interview was first published in Spanish on Filosofia En La Red and conducted by its founder, philosopher Miguel Angel.
I grew up in Greece; my mother was German, originally from a Czech family, and my father Greek. As soon as I finished school, I moved to Germany and, twenty years later, to Hong Kong. Now my family is also Chinese, so we are a Greek/German/Chinese mixture.
But I find that I tend to see Greece as my cultural home. It’s the country I identify most with. It’s an easy country to love, with its beaches, long summers, and that wonderful food. I sometimes feel that, to me, only Greek food feels like real food. Everything else is eating for survival. It works, but I rarely enjoy it. In the future, I hope to end my life as a small-time farmer on a piece of land in Greece.
I’m not good at earliest memories, or any memories at all. I sometimes forget what I did this morning, so it’s pointless for me to try and remember what happened fifty years ago. And, frankly, I don’t care. I’m always looking into the future, wondering what’s going to happen to us in a year, or five, or ten. It’s not anxiety – it’s a feeling of expectation. As if the best is yet to come. I know, it’s silly to think this way when you’re over fifty, but there you have it. One has to be silly to take a career in philosophy seriously.
That’s actually one of the bits I do remember. My father wanted me to be a lawyer, like he was. So he sent me off to Germany to study law. There I got into a class that was about the philosophy of law, and I was hooked. I didn’t care a bit about the actual laws. It was much more interesting to think about how the laws should be, or to learn how they turned out to be as they were. So I ditched law and studied philosophy instead. But I was never a good student. I was too restless to stick to one thing. In parallel with philosophy, I also studied chemistry, one semester of physics, German literature and, finally, a whole master’s degree in biology. So now I am (in theory) a biologist and philosopher. But I’ve forgotten most of my biology over the past thirty years, so it’s only on paper. It comes in handy when my kids ask me questions about science, though. I still remember enough to impress a ten-year old.
My father never really warmed to the idea, but that’s okay. I guess it will be the same when my son tells me he wants to be a lawyer or something. We always grow by alienating our parents, I guess.
Sadly, I never evolved, philosophically or otherwise. I only grew older and more frail, and the white hair gives me an air of dignified wisdom, or it would, if I ever combed it. Today I mostly feel that philosophy is missing the point and mostly wasting everyone’s time. The world has immense problems: the climate catastrophe, extinction of species, microplastics, pollution of air and oceans, wars, dictatorships, and the uncertain blessings of technology, particularly surveillance technologies and AI. I find it somewhat puzzling that academic philosophers can, in the face of all these disasters, discuss the finer points of a Gettier-type problem or the merits of neo-Aristotelian meta-ontology. If you don’t know what these are, consider yourself lucky.
In my opinion, all of humanity should finally come together and solve the existing problems before they kill us off. We know the problems. We even know the solutions to many of them. It’s not that hard to understand that fossil fuels cause global heating. It’s not difficult to grasp that private cars and intercontinental flights cause hurricanes, floods and droughts that kill hundreds of thousands every year. It’s not great wisdom to see that using five plastic bags every time you go to the supermarket is not going to be sustainable. The solutions are all known: restrict private traffic; stop using fossil fuels; stop creating more single-use plastics; stop the destruction of last forests on Earth and instead re-wild nature and plant more trees; make effective laws against pollution and surveillance, regulate AI and social media and, perhaps, ditch mobile phones; or at least, regulate them a lot stricter than they are regulated now. The problem is not that we don’t know what to do. It’s that nobody is willing to sacrifice anything for the benefit of a livable future.
And this is, I think, where making philosophy accessible to the public can make a difference. If we want democratic populations that are able to make the right decisions, we need to do a lot more in terms of showing people alternatives, showing them other ways to live, how to have values and attitudes that will make them happier instead of miserable. I find it unbelievable that today we still have flat-earthers, creationists, gun advocates and global-warming-deniers in such numbers in our societies. But also that young people grow up believing that a shopping mall is a good place to live out one’s youth. Movements like the “lying-low” craze, in which young people boycott their own workplace by intentionally only pretending to work are crazy. Not because they harm the employers (who often quite deserve it), but because they harm the young people themselves. What meaning and satisfaction can you find in life if your only goal is to escape work?
Being lazy, far from being something good, would be, for Aristotle, a total failure of a human being and the best way for someone to make sure that they will never reach true happiness.
Thankfully, the best minds of humanity have, over the past 3000 years or so, worked out many ways how we can live happier, more satisfying lives. As with the ecological problems, many solutions are already well-known. We just need to learn about them and follow them.
I don’t put much faith in academic philosophy, which, as I see it, has often become a playing field for careerists without a genuine interest in any kind of wisdom. “Philosophy,” as you know, means the love of wisdom in Greek. That’s a rare thing in philosophy departments of universities. Often, it is writers today who have more of that wisdom, or political and environmental activists. And perhaps it was always a bit like that. Socrates, the “father of philosophy,” was an activist too, and they killed him for that. And there have been countless lovers of wisdom throughout human history, too many to even mention a few here. For me, it’s figures like Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, or even, on a smaller scale, Tolstoy, Hermann Hesse, Hemingway and Ray Bradbury who are the real philosophers, the lovers of wisdom.
I always found continental philosophy infinitely more exciting than the analytical camp, but, unfortunately, all my teachers were analytic philosophers, so I never really understood Husserl, Heidegger or Foucault. I’ve tried reading them, but I couldn’t quite wrap my head around much of what they say. That’s perhaps my greatest regret regarding my philosophical education. I’d have loved to know more about continental philosophy, to be able to use it to solve problems. It seems to me to be a more natural, more potent tool than what the analytical camp has at their disposal. But, of course, there’s also a lot of nonsense there, like everywhere.
Regarding future trends, I’d love to see much more work in environmental philosophy, where little seems to be happening, especially considering how important this is now. We need a much more radical approach to deep ecology, together perhaps with a modernised critical theory that goes beyond classical Marxism. I always found the philosophy of technology and STS very interesting as an applied discipline that can, actually, say interesting and important things about the relationship of humans to artefacts. I’m thinking of technological determinism, autonomous technology, social constructionism… all these different theories of how technologies develop and interact with society. I loved reading Winner, Feenberg, Latour, and, of course, Jacques Ellul. Unfortunately, this area too seems to have quieted down a bit lately. I think that STS, together with some ideas from the Heideggerian tradition, might be a good way of making sense of our future. In this respect, I also found Hubert Dreyfus wonderful to read. He opened up the world of Heidegger to me, and you can get recordings of his lectures for free on the Internet. It’s incredible stuff.
Well, as I said, I had studied philosophy, but I’ve always been a computer geek. At 12, I was programming computers without ever having seen a computer – from a BASIC programming manual for some IBM mainframe that I’d found in a public library. This was the end of the 1970s, so there were no computers around for normal people. But I loved programming. Years later, when I got my first computer, a ZX81, which you plugged into a cassette player and a TV for a screen, I tried out some of my paper programs and they worked. This was a sign from above, I thought.
In the early 1980s, you could work as a programmer just because you knew how to make the machine do something useful. Nobody was asking for qualifications, because nobody had any, especially not in the provincial German town where I was studying. Back then, there weren’t any IT or computer science programs at universities. So I studied philosophy because I loved it – and I worked as a programmer because I loved that too; but programming made money, while philosophy didn’t. My programming allowed me to study philosophy for over 10 years. Another thing one could do back then in the 80s. Nobody kicked you out of university after 4 years or anything. You could study what you wanted, for as long as you wanted, provided you could keep yourself fed and clothed. I worked as a programmer by day and wrote my PhD thesis by night and on weekends, and it was a lot of fun!
Well, back then nobody thought about these things. Today everyone and their dog are writing about robot ethics; unfortunately also those who have no idea of either robots or ethics. It has become fashionable, and that’s often the end of serious study. For me, it came naturally: I was already a philosopher and I was also a programmer. So what was more natural than to combine the two and look for philosophy in programming? I remember that back then I was invited to talk to lawyers who all thought that I was nuts. Why would we ever need laws for robots? Nobody took robot personhood or responsibility ascription questions seriously. This was in the early 1990s. Today, it all has become mainstream philosophy, which is good. But unfortunately, it has also become too much talk and too much theory, while both the industry and the politicians are eager to exploit the technology to cement their power over us, to exploit and control their citizens, and to create new mechanisms of oppression and misery. I have become more radical as I age, I’m afraid. I think we need a new kind of Marxism, something modern that recognises the problems of our world, but that is equally strong and powerful as Marxism used to be in its day. We need to keep our eyes on a utopia that can only be reached through a revolutionary movement, not through the mechanisms that the ruling classes allow us to use. This is why I’ve always admired Greta Thunberg and the other young people who fight with her. Unfortunately, they don’t yet have the means to bring about effective change, and my generation has failed them.
That’s a complex issue, perhaps too much for one answer in an interview that’s already running too long. But we’ve already agreed that I’ll be writing a column in your blog, so I will certainly come back to this question in the future.
From what I said above, you can probably guess what I think of the evils of mankind. It’s us who are evil. Our machines are tools that can magnify both our greatness and our evilness. But the current social order, both in capitalism and in those societies that call themselves “communist” without being it, benefits only the powerful and creates misery for everyone else. Sometimes it helps to just take away the tool in order to minimise the harm done. The world would certainly be better off without easily available guns, without nuclear power and without private cars or ubiquitous plastics. But in the end, it’s not the guns or the cars that cause the damage: it’s the shooters and the drivers. But that’s also too easy. It’s the city planners who create cities that one cannot navigate except in a car. It’s the communities that are left to live in poverty and violence that both suffer from crime and create more of it.
It’s as Confucius said 2500 years ago: in the end, change has to happen on all levels of society. If the political system is rotten, then there’s little the individuals can do. We need to demand the power back that we should have as citizens, and we need to use it to create a better world for everybody.
Given how badly we’ve managed the world as humans, a takeover by machines seems like it might be the lesser evil. But seriously, machines have already taken over. Try to call your bank, and you will never get anyone on the phone who is authorised to do anything of any consequence to your account. The whole system of phone helplines and hotlines is totally automated in such a way that if anything goes wrong, there is nobody any more, no particular human being, who is responsible and whom you can identify and address. The computerised call-center connects you to some clueless customer service representative, who is some underpaid man in India who couldn’t care less about your problems. Those who caused the problems through broken programming, bugs, errors, or even bad intentions, greed, political biases: they are safe behind the walls of their bank’s headquarters, unreachable for you and everyone else.
Have you ever tried complaining to Amazon or Google about something? People’s lives get destroyed by having a big corporation terminate their accounts, and there is no one you can reach and talk to. This is the real problem. We have mechanised everything, and in that process, we have removed any way for a normal person to find someone who is responsible, in the sense that they would have “to respond” to the problem. No one responds any more. As a customer, as a citizen, you’re shouting into the dark. We don’t need to blame AI for that. We’ve done this ourselves. And this certainly will get worse as technology gets better.
I’m pretty disillusioned, as you can tell, about companies and the capitalist world order in general. If these companies say that they want people “who think,” what they really want is people who will have new ideas on how to make money, how to exploit loopholes in the laws, how to motivate the workers to accept another 20 hour shift without a bathroom break, or how to sell a utopian dream to consumers to make them part with their money.
Nobody wants to think about the fact that we need to terminate many of these companies immediately and entirely if we want to survive as a species. This world cannot afford to have Shell or Monsanto in it, or the companies behind the US opioid crisis, or the manufacturers of guns or TV shows like “Love Island”. If people actually thought, they would go out and do something. But it’s always easier to sit on the sofa for another day, and to watch TV or scroll through Instagram instead of thinking about what we’re doing. And I do include myself in that. I’m not much of a revolutionary. I’m good with words, but I do have a car, and I hate myself for driving it.
Well, it’s called “philosophy of love”, not “practical advice on love.” Whether love can be taught is a matter of dispute. Erich Fromm certainly thought that it can. But that’s not what I’m teaching. What I like to show students is how something that they think is so natural and fixed in its ways, can really be very different in different times and cultures. The ancient Greeks had a totally different view on love than we do today. From Plato to Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas, one can trace the concepts that later inspired the medieval mystics and still later the Romantic tradition. One can also look at other cultures and their traditions. One can look at animals’ mating rituals. From all these sources, one can try to illuminate the phenomenon more. What does it really mean to love someone? Why do we even do that? Where do our own traditions come from? And how does (again) modern capitalism pervert love into things like “Love Island” and the terrible charade that is Valentine’s Day? I find it touching to look back at what Francis of Assisi thought about love and charity. At Plato’s all-consuming eros. At the visions of Hildegard of Bingen or the over-the-top poetry of Kleist or Novalis. Or even Barbara Gowdy’s provocative stories collection “We so seldom look on love.”
I wouldn’t say that. Many people are perfectly happy without a philosophy of happiness. But philosophy can help us understand what we are looking for when we are seeking happiness. Many of us are mistaken in this respect, because, again, our capitalist system wants us to be mistaken. We are supposed to accept that consuming stuff will make us happy. That having a career will make us happy. So we seek these things, but these in reality only benefit others, not ourselves. Philosophy can help us clarify many of these points. It can show us, for example, that money does not make happy. There are many studies on that, both from economists and philosophers. It can show us that lottery winners and paraplegics are less affected by the circumstances of their lives than we would think. Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics: all of them have their own ways, their own recipes on how to live a happier, more fulfilling life. By the way, that’s just what my recent three books are about. If readers would like to have a look, here’s the link.
A Stoic is an adherent of Stoicism, an ancient Greek and Roman philosophy of life. Stoics thought that, in order to be happy, we must learn to distinguish between what we can control and what we cannot.
This takes about a semester or five books to explain (the last two in the series are coming out later this year). I won’t try to do it in one paragraph. As you’d expect, this is quite a difficult question, but there certainly are ways how we can make sense of it and improve our chances to actually live happy lives. Daily Philosophy has lots of articles on happiness.
As you can tell by now, I like to talk about my opinions :) I just felt that I’ve studied all this stuff, and humans really do know a lot about the world, but often all this knowledge is just kept within books and papers that nobody reads, especially those who would need it most. I felt that I want to give something back to society, to create a way for non-academics to access this wisdom, this knowledge that we have but that is not much talked about.
On the Internet, you see all these life advice and self-improvement sites; there’s an enormous hunger for wisdom and for meaning. But reading those Internet gurus is often like trying to still one’s hunger by eating only salty crackers. It’s not good for one’s health. In the history of philosophy, we have the full meal, from the hors d’oeuvres to the dessert. The modern gurus of the Internet sample an idea here, a fragment there, and this is all they have to give. True philosophers have spent their whole lives in pursuit of that wisdom, not by clicking together Instagram posts, but by living their full lives, often under conditions so harsh that we cannot imagine them now. Epictetus was a slave. Socrates was a decorated soldier who fought in real battles. Aristotle spent much of his life traveling through Greece, trying to find peace. Francis of Assisi gave it all up for the love of his God and rebuilt a ruined church with his bare hands. And the Desert Fathers went out to the harshest deserts of North Africa and Anatolia and lived out their lives in caves, like animals. All these women and men have a lot to tell us about determination, about happiness, about the meaning of life, and also about death, tragedy and loss and how to deal with them and go on living. I like the idea of putting their thoughts out there, and perhaps one day someone who needs just that little bit of wisdom, will find it in a random article on my site. We all need wisdom more than we know, especially today.
Of course, everything always changes. In the beginning, Daily Philosophy was a small, private blog. Now it’s an online magazine, with dozens of authors, mostly professors of philosophy from all around the world, who have supported the project by writing articles for it. We have had very high-profile interviews with important scholars. Since the beginning of this year, we have a free and a premium newsletter and an ebook magazine on Kindle. And I have published three books since last December. The goals are more or less the same, but the site has grown and I feel that it slowly gains a bit of visibility. The newsletter has created a lovely community, where members will occasionally post very thoughtful comments in discussions on philosophical topics. As the Internet generally becomes more rough and shrill, a place to be attacked and canceled, I feel that sites like Daily Philosophy and your own site Filosofia en la Red provide a kind of refuge, a place where thoughtful and kind people can still meet and talk about the world without threatening or screaming at each other – even when they disagree.
“Credibility” in whose eyes? I don’t much care what specialists think of my articles. A specialist on Kant is not my audience when I write an article on how to apply Kant’s thought to some problem that people have in their real, everyday lives. Of course, I do my best to present the material correctly and without errors, but in the end, the credibility I’m looking for is in the eyes of my readers, Daily Philosophy’s audience. If the site is useful to them, if it makes their lives a little bit better, if it gives them a moment of enjoyment or an insight that they can carry around for the rest of the day, then this is all I want.
There are hundreds of thousands of articles out there in scholarly journals that have one single citation – or sometimes not even that. This is sad, a waste of expertise, of valuable work. I know many philosophers who are disillusioned by the profession and have left it to become something else: programmers sometimes, farmers, early retirees, young people who leave the job market to travel the world instead. If all you do in your life is thinking about a minuscule point in meta-metaphysics over and over again, then I can see how this might eventually drive you to abandon philosophy. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Thinkers like Camus, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre remind us that one can have, at the same time, a career in philosophy and a satisfying life of meaning and influence in society. For me, there is nothing credible about having twenty articles with zero citations each in some obscure journal. But if a reader writes me to tell me that my book helped them navigate a difficult moment in their life, then this is all I want.
I am not sure. Personally, I find it quite difficult to attract new readers to my sites and books. Daily Philosophy grows every month, but incredibly slowly. We have now, after two years of posting a new article every 2-3 days, around 20,000 monthly pageviews from around 10,000 readers (Update: since the interview was conducted, we’ve gone up to 35,000 pageviews and growing). I sometimes read what other creators are doing, and I see that some start a new site, say, with car reviews or cooking recipes, and they get 20,000 new readers every single month. This is a bit depressing, of course. It might be me who’s doing something wrong. Or it might be the topic. Or perhaps it just needs patience. Anyway, Daily Philosophy keeps going at its own pace, and I’m always trying to find new ways to reach audiences. I’ve just yesterday started posting on Instagram, and I’m now working on a re-launch of my Youtube channel. Two more books are coming, and I’m working on the Accented Philosophy podcast.
The thing is to keep trying. As someone said, those who are successful in the end are simply those who didn’t give up. And I keep reminding myself that having 10 or 20 thousand readers every month who read two pages each is not a bad thing. It’s a stadium full of people who come to read what we write, who decided to give philosophy a chance to entertain, to enchant, to educate them. Perhaps one should not always compare oneself to Justin Bieber. I’m grateful for every single reader and every subscriber to the newsletter, and to have a chance to give something to tens of thousands of readers every month is a very good reason to be happy.
The same is true of the magazine (you can get a free copy here if you’re interested). Every month, it costs me about 4 hours in total to put together the magazine from the articles on the website and to have everything up on Amazon and published on Kindle. The whole layout of the books and the magazine is created by programs from templates that I wrote once and can re-use endlessly. There is no manual formatting involved in any of these processes. But I’m not a hard-working man, sadly. I’m always looking for ways to get away with doing less work in order to achieve the same results.
It also helps that I have few other hobbies. I’m occasionally writing scifi and children’s novels under various pen names, but I don’t have a TV, I’m not listening to any podcasts, I’m not using any social media myself. My phone I use mainly to read my email and The Guardian. I cannot imagine ever scrolling down a Facebook page or an Instagram feed. These things just don’t interest me. I like to read, of course, and I can spend hours and hours reading everything I can get my hands on, from old novels and science fiction to books on castle architecture in the Middle Ages, permaculture guides and histories of philosophy. I also watch a bit of Youtube on the topics that interest me, particularly gardening and hydroponics. But even this I try to do mostly at night, before sleep, when I’m lying in bed. My days are mostly spent teaching and typing, playing with my children and tending my little rooftop garden. I love to cook, by the way, and I’m the main cook in our family. This is a kind of relaxation for me. After spending a few hours typing, I can get up and make a nice dinner for us all. But I am really a lazy person. Some days I can spend half an afternoon playing Sudoku, for example – a guilty pleasure that I find relaxing.
I don’t employ any writers for Daily Philosophy. I’ve occasionally received articles from so-called “content writers,” but they always sound just like that: stuff written by “content writers”: indifferent, shallow, and often full of errors. I made a video recently about a program called Jasper.AI, that can generate whole articles on any topic that are almost indistinguishable from text written by a human. And it occurred to me that these are actually only indistinguishable from text written by a “content writer,” not by an educated and passionate human being who wants to communicate with other human beings about a topic they really care about.
I’ve been lucky to have had a few philosophers initially show interest in Daily Philosophy and to send me articles to publish. You see, for academics this is the usual way we work: we just write for free and get our stuff published in journals (if we are lucky). Our income does not come from publishing articles, but from a university salary. So the whole business of academic publishing is not as money-oriented, as far as the authors are concerned, as it is, say, in self-publishing on Kindle. This allows some authors to be generous with their content. I also found that many, especially older academics, when they are past the frantic stage in their early careers where they have to publish to survive, tend to be critical of the whole academic business. They realise that their love for philosophy, that initially drove them to become philosophers, is not fully satisfied by the academic environment they are in. They want to communicate with the public, they want to contribute to society more, but there are very few ways to easily do so. You cannot just send an article to the Guardian and hope they’ll publish it. You can post it on your homepage, but who will read it? It’s hard for academic authors to reach a wider audience.
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Daily Philosophy addresses this need to some extent. If you send me an article, and it is correct, interesting, passionate and well-written, it is very likely that Daily Philosophy will publish it. It will get a good chance to be read by those tens of thousands of readers who come to our homepage every month. So I found that Daily Philosophy does provide a service, and since we don’t ask for any money, we are trusted by authors and readers. I’m putting a lot of effort into not appearing commercial or scammy. We have many authors returning again and again with new articles every few months, because they feel that they are part of something worthwhile, they are making a contribution to education in a way that they cannot so easily do otherwise. And many of our authors are also our readers. They read and comment on each other’s articles online, they engage with the readers in the newsletter comments, and we all get to know each other and talk to each other in a nice, civilised way. I see me, the authors and the readers as a kind of big family, a group of friends who have the same interest and we help each other pursue it.
Of course, this entirely excludes “content-writers” or advertisers who occasionally send me articles for money or publicity. I don’t accept any of that. This would be a betrayal of my group of friends that is Daily Philosophy.
I don’t know, and I’m not sure how much recognition it really “deserves”. But it seems that philosophers have always complained of not getting the recognition they deserve. In part, that is well-earned. If you write about whether this table in front of you exists or not, it’s obvious that you’ll have trouble getting popular recognition. Much of philosophy is too stuffy, difficult, and forbidding to the casual reader. We are trained to reference other works from within ours, so we create these webs of connections and references across time, and this makes an article very hard to read for the beginner who doesn’t know all the people I’m referencing. Writing understandably and interestingly about philosophy is a separate skill from being a good academic philosopher, and it’s not a skill that is trained in universities.
On the other hand, philosophy has always existed. It has been there in every country in the world, in every age. In the darkest moments of the Third Reich, there have been philosophers thinking away in concentration camps. In the shallowest social media apps, you will find philosophy accounts somewhere that publish thoughtful posts.
Perhaps we shouldn’t expect everyone to be interested in philosophy. It’s more like a specialist medicine. Does, say, an antibiotic get the popular recognition it deserves? No, I sometimes go years without taking any antibiotics, as do most of us. But it’s there. It’s always within reach and when the time comes, it can save my life. And I’m grateful for that. I think that’s philosophy. It’s like an antibiotic for the troubles of life, always there when you need it.
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