I was editing my interview with Nathalie Ashton until half past midnight. Before that, I had met up with Naomi Thompson, whose talk I was chairing tomorrow, to chat about philosophy and before that I nearly fell asleep during a meditation course.
Another humdrum Monday night in the life of a PhD-candidate in philosophy.
Editing a podcast is intensely mind-killing so when I woke up less than 8 hours later I felt somehow great.
I jumped out of bed.
I wasn’t even drunk — not that I knew, at least — but for some reason I felt so good.
Was it because I’m going home in less than a month? Because it was my sister’s birthday today? Because I’m going to apply for a doctoral fellowship shortly and now my life has a purpose again? Because I will release my first podcast tomorrow?
I flew to the shower.
“Maarten, stop looking for a reason, the whole thing you’ve been working on is feeling good regardless of external circumstances.”
After two minutes, I had the first fruitful thought about my research.
Six hours later I raised my voice to quiet the audience and announced Naomi and chaired the Q&A.
There were not enough questions. I had to fill the gaps. So I did. It did not make me nervous. I just did it.
“Did I take any nootropics today?”
During the wine reception, someone asked me about my new research topic. For the first time ever I was able to explain it. During my entire PhD, I haven’t been so excited about it.
Last week, my mentor, she’s not in philosophy, asked me what meta-ethics is. I mumbled some abstract story about reasons — complicated enough to avoid follow-up questions from non-philosophers.
No more of that crap.
Derek Parfit is one of the greatest philosophers of this age. He died last year. I’ve never met him, but he supervised my supervisor, so he’s in my ‘philosophical family tree’. He thought about the same questions.
Meta-ethics is, I believe, incredibly profound. It investigates what reasons we have to care about something. It’s about what it is for something to ‘matter’ and about why things ‘matter’.
And because it is so profound, I always feel a particular kind of shame in admitting that this is what I do. Like I would somehow be more qualified to decide what matters than the person I’m talking to.
But fuck it.
Jeff McMahan tells this story about Derek Parfit when he was hospitalized a couple of years ago:
“A nurse, having noticed how many visitors Parfit had had, exclaimed, “Jesus Christ had only 12 disciples — but look at you! You’re clearly a very important man. What do you do?” “I work,” Parfit replied with a smile, “on what matters.””
This shall be my new narrative. I work, on what matters.