Jonny Cottrell grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne, and was educated at Oxford and NYU. He is now Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. His research focuses on early modern philosophy, especially that of David Hume.
What excites you about philosophy?
Engaging with classic works of philosophy and the problems that they introduced. For example, my first encounters as an undergraduate with Descartes’s Meditations, Locke’s Essay, and Hume’s Treatise and Enquiries were among my most intellectually exciting experiences. Now studying these texts is part of my job—what amazing luck! Working on early modern philosophy satisfies my long-standing love of history and literature (which I owe to my parents and high school teachers), as well as my love of philosophy, its central problems, and its rigor (which I owe to my university teachers and classmates). Bonus: through my students, I can vicariously relive the excitement of first discovering the great works of early modern philosophy, year after year.
What is your favorite thing that you’ve written?
The first section of my paper “Minds, Composition, and Hume’s Skepticism in the Appendix.” In the Treatise section “Of personal identity,” Hume argued that (as far as we can conceive it) a mind is just a system of causally related “perceptions,” but one is prone to mistake one’s mind for something more—an indivisible thing that persists unchangingly throughout one’s life. Less than two years later, he published an appendix, where he confesses to finding a “very considerable mistake” in this section. What mistake? We don’t know! Hume says little to explain, and what he says is cryptic. Section 1 of my paper argues for a general kind of solution to this puzzle: Hume’s mistake concerns his metaphysics of mind, not just his psychological account of why we mistake our minds for something more than they are. The following sections argue for a specific solution of this kind. I’m proud of those sections, too, but I’m most proud of Section 1. For better or worse, I’m still completely convinced by my argument there.
What are you working on right now?
A paper on Hume’s skepticism, which Miren Boehm has invited me to present at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee later this year. I’m grateful to Miren for the invitation, and for the incentive it gives me to collect my thoughts on this topic. If my current work pans out, the paper will focus on the relationship between reason (the mental faculty) and reasons (considerations pro or con) in Hume’s “sceptical doubts” about induction. I don’t yet know where it will lead, which is part of the fun: I have a working hypothesis, but I’m not sure if the texts will bear it out. (If they don’t, I guess my talk will go: “Here’s why this hypothesis fails…”.)
Which books have changed your life? In what ways?
I loved Catch-22 when I read it in my late teens. There are novels that I enjoy having read, but I think that’s the one I most enjoyed actually reading. It’s important to me partly for that reason, but more because it’s one of the first books that my wife and I bonded over. When we met in our early twenties, we each regarded it as our favorite novel. I remember talking on an early date about how funny we found the saga of Milo’s syndicate. (But I can’t recall the other details of Catch-22 at all well now. I’ll have to re-read it.)
Descartes’s Meditations and Bernard Williams’s book Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry also have a lot to answer for. Studying Descartes’s work together with Williams’s commentary, during my first year at Oxford, made me feel like I was witnessing a meeting of great minds across the centuries. It was tremendously inspiring. I think that, more than anything else I read as an undergraduate, this pair of books made me want to pursue philosophy and its history.
I must have bored my friends terribly about how much I loved Williams’s book, because—although none of us had ever met him—they wrote to him at All Soul’s College and asked him to send me a birthday card. (They sent him a blank card and said something like “Our friend Jonny won’t shut up about your book on Descartes, and it would mean a lot if you wrote this birthday card for him.”) A couple months passed, with no reply. But then the card arrived, with an apologetic note: “Sorry if this has taken too long—I was away—until yesterday.” This was in the spring of 2003, and Williams must have known that he was dying; he passed away just a few weeks later. But he still made time to write a birthday card to a complete stranger. It says, “With very best wishes from Bernard Williams. Good luck in philosophy!” I have it in my office at Wayne State.
What would your childhood self say if someone told you that you would grow up to be a philosopher?
He’d probably say, “What’s a philosopher?” (And I still don’t know the answer to that question.)
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