Sense and Nonsense in California: A Conversation with Markus Gabriel

By Andrea CapraOctober 23, 2022

Sense and Nonsense in California: A Conversation with Markus Gabriel
MARKUS GABRIEL, born in 1980, is a philosophical overachiever. Multilingual and widely published, he became full professor of philosophy at the age of 29 and since then has been chair in epistemology and modern/contemporary philosophy at the University of Bonn. Markus has also held a number of visiting positions all over the world, including at UC Berkeley and the New School.

When I first met him, I thought he was erudite yet refreshing and quick-witted, amusing yet somewhat arrogant and irritating. That’s why I wanted to get to know him better. Our acquaintance developed over his monthlong stay at Stanford’s Humanities Center in March 2022, mostly over drinking and dining sessions, which allowed us to skirmish about topics such as geopolitics, artificial intelligence, and the New Realism, of which Markus is a prominent representative.

The following conversation spans a number of Markus’s philosophical ideas. He in Germany and I in New Jersey, we chatted over Zoom about why he believes, among other things, that the world needs to become more enlightened. And while the correlation may strike as a bit overdone, it is perhaps no coincidence that we took California and its luminosity as this exchange’s background.


ANDREA CAPRA: Markus, we first met in Stanford, California, and workshopped a recent paper of yours dedicated to what you call “New Enlightenment.” What is the New Enlightenment?

MARKUS GABRIEL: It is the idea that through large-scale cooperation between the humanities, the social sciences, and even other fields of expertise if necessary, we are able to discover normative facts that are guiding for nonacademic sectors. New Enlightenment recouples the knowledge that is generated by the humanities and social sciences with the socially relevant causal mechanisms of implementing ideas in other social sectors, including technology, politics, the arts, and business. This corresponds to an important aspect of what we traditionally call “Enlightenment,” but it transports it into the current moment by recoupling systems that have become, unfortunately, disconnected over the last centuries of modernity.

Thinking about Enlightenment in California brings to mind both critiques of European Enlightenment composed in the state, such as Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, as well as enlightenment as a form of spiritual awakening, colored by New Age tints. Why did you choose California as a place to discuss the necessity of a New Enlightenment?

As a contemporary European intellectual with roots in Germany, I find California to be a very appropriate place to call for a New Enlightenment, especially as my call counteracts Adorno and Horkheimer’s claim that there’s a necessary dialectics of Enlightenment. I am very sympathetic to the cultural industry as a tool of thinking that expresses the contemporary moment, which is something that does not exactly make me an Adornoian or Horkheimerian. And I’m very sympathetic to many of the other things about California that Horkheimer and Adorno opposed in that book, such as the role of non-Western thought and practice in the outmost Western part of the United States, or as the widespread fantasy of California as the realm of the lotus eaters. Those are things I love about California! I’m entering California with a taste for its landscapes and histories, and also at a different time of California’s development. At the same time, we need to steer clear of a kitsch version of Buddhism or other Indian traditions as well as of a mindless hedonism. Let’s call this “American Hinduism,” similar to how Peter Sloterdijk talked about Eurotaoism. American Hinduism would be the idea that chanting in Sanskrit without understanding a word of it in a nice four-star hotel somewhere near the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge is somehow enlightening. There is an Asian tradition of Enlightenment, including real Buddhism, which I very much respect. In fact, I want to fuse it with the New Enlightenment, but the common ground is a commitment to insight and not a commitment to moody adjustment to good lighting conditions. We all know that the sun in California is a crucial social factor — but I wouldn’t say that we should adore the sun: that would just be a lazy way of replacing Adorno.

There is a bit of “Schopenhauer in California” in this.

That’s right! Very much, yes. My first deep philosophical love as a teenager was Schopenhauer. And California is so beautiful — I wonder what Schopenhauer would have thought of it. I’m a paradoxical Schopenhauerian optimist: I think that we can overcome many of the obstacles that Schopenhauer identified without becoming saints, which was Schopenhauer’s ultimate recommendation for transcending the limitations of our earthly conditions.

Well, you are not a fatalist, and there is always more than a tint of fatalism in Schopenhauer. But let’s go back to the real California, which was, and to some extent still is, a land of experimentation in alternative lifestyles. This status has exerted some attraction on European philosophers as well, which we see in the case of Michel Foucault’s experience with psychedelics in Death Valley or involvement in San Francisco’s leather and sadomasochist scene. You are a philosopher, and I wonder if you see any connections between the act of philosophizing and your own lifestyle. Or, in other words, is doing philosophy the same everywhere as long as you can carve out some time for thinking and writing, or is one’s general lifestyle, just as Peter Sloterdijk argues in You Must Change Your Life, a determining factor in the exercise of thinking?

I think there has to be middle ground between two extremes. One would be the notion that philosophy is just an idiosyncratic expression: this would be an extreme reading of Nietzsche, according to which, at the end of the day, philosophy is only style. The other extreme says that, well, philosophy contains no style: philosophy is a kind of mathematics, but even more general. I think both are wrong. Why not say that philosophy is a stylish form of mathematics, or, to use an old term, metaphysics? What makes philosophy similar to physics is a form of objectivity. Arguments, logical analysis, conceptual analysis: this is all objective. However, one’s choice and preference for concepts is always going to be tied to a type of normative judgment. The selection of just the right type of concept is going to be normative, and philosophy makes this explicit. One’s choice of philosophical options — for example, is there a free will or is there no such thing? — not only depends on the facts but also on one’s deepest commitments in life. Spelling out one’s commitments and analyzing them by using philosophical tools, methods, concepts, etc. is, therefore, both truly objective and tied to one’s core subjectivity. I do think that, indeed, there is something such as a “deep philosophical style,” but its goal is to express something universal. I believe that the two can be combined.

Ultimately, I believe that philosophy might be the discipline where the idiosyncratic style, including a lifestyle and a life form, expresses something universal. There has to be this middle ground. A lot of what I do is very personal, very idiosyncratic, very Kierkegaardian-existentialist. I’m a neo-existentialist. This means that I believe that to be a human person means to live life in light of a self-portrait. We think of ourselves in particular ways: some of us believe that they have an immortal soul, some that they are going to be reborn, and others that they are nothing but their brains. How we think about ourselves plays an important role in who we are. These self-portraits can be analyzed and compared. This analysis, then, makes objective something that is very subjective, and that requires a certain style of thinking. What I do in philosophy (and this holds for every single philosopher) is both about me and not about me — or, as Hegel would put it, philosophy expresses the “I that is we and the we that is I.”

What’s the difference between philosophy as a “stylish form of mathematics” and mathematics proper? Some people would say that mathematics is, at its best, extremely stylish and elegant.

Mathematics is a practice whereby you fully transcend yourself. You get the skills and the demonstrations, and at first you don’t understand them. Then, later, light begins to slowly illuminate the completely objective topics. Mathematics is never about the mathematician; philosophy is always also about the philosopher. It involves the thinker of those thoughts, whereas mathematics does not presuppose the thinker. Another difference is that in philosophical training, it’s important that the student understand the nature of every stage at that stage. In mathematics, conversely, it’s very important that you don’t understand the nature of the stage: just follow the rule blindly. That’s part of the skill. There’s something really Zen Buddhist about mathematics: You don’t understand this now, but trust me, in six months you’ll get it. Philosophy doesn’t have this: If you don’t understand it now, you’ll never understand it. Philosophy cannot accept the moment of deferral to the future, which is why both teaching and research in philosophy are slower and, in some way, even more honest than mathematics.

You are saying that there should never be a suspension of disbelief in philosophy.

Yes, never in philosophy. To put it paradoxically, part of philosophy is that you can never trust a philosopher.

This brings to mind the titles of your publications, which I find to be intriguing and, at the same time, somewhat irritating. I Am Not a Brain or Why the World Does Not Exist seem to explicitly taunt the reader. Yet these books are clearly written, and do not presuppose an in-depth knowledge of philosophical jargon to be understood. In fact, some even include a glossary for quick reference to concepts that may not be immediately familiar to nonspecialists. Who is your audience, and what do you hope to accomplish with these publications, titles included?

The function of the title, which plays a huge role in what I’m doing, is to attract people by provoking them. Of course I provoke. Why not? And I provoke in particular through the titles I choose. Then, beyond the title, there are demonstrations, which are in principle designed to be accessible to anybody interested in philosophical topics. In principle, almost everybody with some degree of literacy should be able to understand my demonstrations, but that does not mean that my demonstrations are less than demonstrations. My books are, as it were, accessible math books. Right now, I’m working on an accessible “philosophy of quantum mechanics” book, to figure out to what extent the deep mathematics of quantum mechanics can be explained in this way. Maybe they can’t. I don’t know yet. In any case, my audience is anybody willing to follow rational argument. I like to think that my books are characterized by a spirit of radical honesty: I don’t want to hide anything. I don’t want to play the card of authority of any kind. Of course, I can write books that five people would understand and that’d be fine, but my goal is to talk, in a certain sense, to absolutely everybody.

Something that I find remarkable in the way you think, write, and talk is that you can comfortably move across the two sides of the rift between continental and analytic philosophy. This split may be a cliché — and yet, it strikes me as very alive in the way American academia structures departments and curricula: in most institutions, it’s easier to find a Deleuzian in a comparative literature department than in the philosophy building. There is also something interesting in that Richard Rorty taught for most of his early career in the philosophy department at Princeton, but ended up as a professor of comparative literature at Stanford. What do you make of the analytic-continental split, and where do you see yourself?

Yeah, it is an important question. Let me be, as it were, very German: we invented all this. Frege and Heidegger are German, and so are Carnap and Husserl. The tradition I grew up with as a student, first in Bonn and then in Heidelberg, was one that had already, even at the beginning of the century, superseded that distinction. To use a metaphor that some of my Heidelberg supervisors liked, I think that what we call analytic philosophy is the nervous system of the body of philosophy, while continental philosophy is the beating heart. You need both: the heart of a continental philosopher and the nervous system of an analytic philosopher. Analytic philosophy as a tool, method, and set of instruments should always be at your disposal. Yet that set of instruments serves the function of articulating, spreading something that can never, ever be captured or expressed in those terms alone. Analytic philosophy’s shortcoming is that it doesn’t know how to generate philosophical content, which is why it tends to be parasitic on other disciplines. Analytic philosophy, by its nature, needs science, mathematics, linguistics, and various other things at any given moment. Continental philosophy is amazing at generating content: it’s one of the best content machines, but it’s often very bad at doing this in a disciplined form. Since Hegel, combining form and content has always been the master game of philosophy. I wanted to do that my whole life. If on my gravestone it said He unified analytic and continental philosophy, that would be sufficient for me. (That is, if I have an immortal soul, otherwise I won’t care.)

How did your education prepare you for this — let’s use an understatement here — ambitious task?

Well, I was lucky to receive a lot of great training. As a graduate student in Heidelberg and then as a postdoc at NYU I was trained in hardcore analytic philosophy, but my earlier philosophical upbringing in Bonn and Heidelberg was as continental as it gets. In the morning, I sat through the most Heideggerian of all Heidegger and Celan reading groups, sometimes even with Derrida present. In the afternoon, I attended Oxford-style analytic philosophy lectures. Something like that was my regular day as a graduate student at the University of Heidelberg. It has always been my goal to unify the two in my own life, especially in the figures of Frege and Schelling. Frege and Schelling are some of the best philosophers who ever lived: one, Frege, is a founding figure of analytic philosophy; the other, Schelling, would count, by most analytic philosophy standards, as completely unintelligible. He’s the Deleuze of the 19th century. Yet I think it’s possible to unify the two. I even think that there could be a completely analytic reconstruction of Deleuze and a completely Deleuzian reconstruction of Bertrand Russell.

One of your books where the amphibious nature of your profile becomes very clear is The Meaning of Thought. In it, and in dialogue with an array of analytic thinkers, you affirm that human thought is a sense organ — something that one does not read every day in analytic philosophy, where organs are usually discussed in thought experiments centering around disembodied brains in vats. Jokes aside, why should we consider thought a sense organ?

We tend to draw distinctions between sensing and thinking, and the reason for this goes as far back as Plato and Aristotle. Here’s how the idea usually goes. Sense organs have their proper object: smelling is for smells, hearing for sounds, seeing for colors and shapes, and so forth. They have their proper objects, whereas thinking unifies these objects. If I think of a particular wine that looks yellow and tastes a little bit citrusy, then my thinking unifies the citrus taste and the yellow color. The idea was that since thinking synthesizes different sense impressions, it cannot be a sense organ itself — but that’s a straightforward non sequitur! It assumes that a sense organ is a sense organ because it has a proper object that can be synthesized in thinking. Why not assume instead, and this is my starting point, that thinking is an additional sense organ? Namely, the synthesizing sense organ, which is something that Aristotle explicitly entertains when he coins the concept of common sense (koinē aisthēsis in Greek, which will then become sensus communis in Latin, and “common sense” in English). The very idea of common sense, for 2,400 years, has been exactly the notion of thinking as a sense. That’s Aristotle preserved in the English language. I accept this idea, but I say that Aristotle made a mistake when he concluded that thought is not a sense. He should have developed and argued for the idea that thought is a sense — something he entertains in only two places in his work. So, what does this mean? How do we then understand a sense? A sense is a fallible way of being in touch with a mind-independent reality. In thinking about mathematics, we are in fallible touch with a mind-independent reality. If I make a calculation mistake, which is very easy in complex mathematics, then I get reality wrong. If I miscalculate a linear operator in quantum mechanics, I just make a mathematical mistake. Why not think, then, that I’m in touch, as a thinker, with a reality that cannot be grasped by any other sense?

Some of the most discussed forms of intelligence, at least in Silicon Valley, are artificial ones. In your book you also argue that your definition of thinking can assist us in better understanding how much “artificial” and how much “intelligence” may be present in artificial intelligence. How so?

One way of thinking about artificial intelligence is to ask, What’s the relationship between artificial intelligence, embodiment, and human biology? According to my perspective, we can say that there’s a deep relationship between intelligence, thinking, and embodiment, precisely because intelligence is a sense organ. Therefore, if we want to consider that an AI system truly thinks, it has to replicate the real biological properties of the human organism. I think that current AI systems, on a hardware level, do not yet sufficiently imitate real-life thinking because we haven’t found the biological correlate of thinking. No one knows what the neural or biological correlate of thinking as a sense organ is. As long as no one discovers the exact biological grounding of the thinking sense organ, there’s not going to be real progress towards human AI. My criticism of AI is that it is not biologically grounded, a criticism which should be understood as an imperative to do better in AI research.

One of the most discussed topics of AI-related news this past summer has been Blake Lemoine’s “working hypothesis” that LaMDA, a Google chatbot based on large language models, had achieved sentience. Now, Lemoine, besides being a senior software engineer at Google, identifies as a Christian mystic, and this was something held against him as a mark of gullibility in the debate about LaMDA’s sentience. Yet, on what apparently is the opposite end of the spectrum of beliefs, Silicon Valley is also home of a host of fully secular, hyperrational solutionists, who consider AI a self-evident betterment of human messiness, potentially on its way towards technological singularity. These seem profoundly philosophical questions rather than engineering problems — don’t you think?

These are important questions at the frontiers of contemporary and future technological progress, and real philosophers should be in the working spaces together with the AI system builders. We need new forms of cooperation to talk seriously about this. The minimal criteria for judging whether an artificially constructed product of human industry (that’s what “artificial” means for me: a product of human industry) could be sentient is that it has to resemble the relevant parts of the biological grounding of intelligence. That means that we need to identify those relevant parts, and I don’t think that we have accomplished this so far. For this reason, if any AI that we build right now were sentient, this would just be a coincidence. The likelihood that we can do that, right now, approaches zero. If it happens, it will be a surprise. We are not in the control seat of developing sentient AIs because we are too naïve about their biological grounding and too naïve about thinking as long as we still oppose cognition and perception. If we continued working together and really started searching for the neural or, say, bodily correlate of thinking (which is different from consciousness!), we could find it. And if we did, only then could we start modeling the biology of it, rather than thinking in terms of the further development of always smaller chips. Why think that we’ll find intelligence with nanotechnology? That’s just an assumption about the nature of this technological project. It’s a dogma, the Silicon Valley dogma, which should not be about silicon, after all. I’m very technology-friendly, but I think that technology right now fails at even trying to do the right thing in order to achieve truly sentient AI.

But something can be branded as protosentient even in the absence of sentience, can’t it? Through storytelling, sentience can become a self-evident and inevitable step forward. It’s a great story, and a lucrative one as well — a story that can be sold, and that helps sell products even if it conflates ontology and narrative.

Sure, but a lucrative story is not necessarily a true one.

Talking about lucrative things, you call yourself a philosopher, and nowadays philosophers are not exactly the most in-demand professionals. There appears to be, however, an increasing interest in the field of ethics, also driven by private company hires (AI ethics, medical ethics, and so forth). Some think tanks too, such as the Los Angeles–based Berggruen Institute, are also becoming major players in the field. Where is the “profession” or the “role” of the philosopher headed in our society? Do you see philosophers ultimately becoming synonymous with ethicists, at least outside of academia?

The tendency you describe is extremely prevalent. There’s high demand for what people think ethics is. Real ethics, however, is a subdiscipline of real philosophy, and what should be in high demand is real philosophy in action. That’s why I recently accepted the role of academic director at the Hamburg-based New Institute, a place that creates projects with societal relevance on the basis of cutting-edge research in the humanities and social sciences. We are thereby implementing the idea of a New Enlightenment in a privately funded institution which combines theory and practice. Rather than ethics narrowly construed (or simply misunderstood), the idea underpinning the New Institute is to integrate real philosophy with other humanities disciplines in order to serve this function. For instance, economists, philosophers, ethicists, and technology-savvy people in Hamburg discuss which types of socioeconomic indicators other than GDP really represent human well-being and flourishing so that we can then implement them in the business and policy world by developing new models of human happiness. The current demand for ethics is, at the end of the day, a demand for philosophy. Philosophy is typically called “ethics” in its practical side, but I think that we should realize that theoretical philosophy serves exactly the function that people expect from ethics. Philosophy as such (and not only ethics) should be in that position, and I predict that it will be — hopefully, in part as a consequence of my own activity. I also do predictions here. I think that we can change society in a positive way by moving philosophy from the margins of society to the center. In another context, I work on an interdisciplinary project on AI certification principles, which are grounded in the philosophy, and not just the ethics, of AI in order to discover normative guiding principles for a better digital transformation.

Ethics is, in any case, a fundamental part of your work. In fact, you resolutely affirm the existence of moral facts against nihilism or relativism. How does one recognize moral facts, and how does one avoid being wrong about them?

The lowest hanging fruit is the recognition of what I call self-evident moral facts. They’re so obvious that we don’t usually dispute them, such as Don’t kick newborn human infants down the stairs. Nobody does this. There’s no cultural disagreement between us and the Russians about that. We may disagree about waging war on Ukraine, but there is no disagreement about throwing newborn children down the stairs. So there are some “obvious moral facts,” as I call them. In general, a moral fact is a true answer to the question: what ought we to do or not to do in virtue of our shared humanity? There’s something that I owe every human being, just because we are all humans. This might be very little, which would mean that ethics is a minor discipline, or it might be a lot, but we don’t know because we have not turned ethics into a respectable science. Not yet. Turning ethics into a respectable science would mean being able to characterize it as what I call an “algebra of normativity,” to quote the philosopher Robert Brandom. An algebra of normativity looks roughly like this: take an obvious moral fact, combine it with nonmoral facts, and compute the nonobvious moral fact.

For instance, imagine we knew everything about the COVID-19 pandemic, including the economic consequences of various forms of shutdown, of wearing masks, of vaccines, whatever. And we knew the obvious moral facts such as Don’t close schools since school closure is a serious human rights violation. At the same time, we know that we might move some teaching online in order to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Our algebra would have to figure out which form of school closure is compatible with both the epidemiological, nonmoral facts and the moral fact that all children have the human right to be educated. Imagine we combined all of this — then I think we could figure out the objectively correct solution for the pandemic. It may well be that there are three equally good solutions, but the number will be way below n where n is infinite. There’s an objectively morally correct way of solving the pandemic problem. We didn’t even try to figure it out, which is why we are not in an enlightened society. Instead, there were and are political fights about that solution, which is a side effect of the historical moment where the pandemic hit us all, a moment where a lot of postmodern Trumpist denialism of facts made it hard for the fact-oriented parts of society to recognize the negative ethical side effects of many of the medically recommendable decisions that were taken. I don’t know the ethically correct solution to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I know there is one, and that already makes a huge difference. Ethics, if we started doing it truly professionally, would be a huge new business because it would allow us to extend the solution to deep social problems, such as the climate crisis that is going to be with us for a long time. I think we haven’t even started. Some of the early Enlightenment thinkers, Condorcet and so forth, tried exactly that, and then it stopped as the humanities were decoupled from the natural sciences. In that sense, I think that, yes, ethics is a very important subdiscipline of philosophy, but you cannot be good at that subdiscipline without being good at philosophy itself.

You mentioned Condorcet, a thinker who would be, using your terminology, a “naturalist” — someone who believes that human beings are fully describable in the terms of natural science.


And in your books, you do challenge naturalism. You speak about an infinity of fields of sense (to put it in layman terms, of possible approaches to a given situation) as something that inherently prevents reaching a vantage point that would allow one to fully master complex, nonlinear, opaque phenomena, such as the human being. You call this hypothetical vantage point “view from nowhere” — whose possibility of existence you categorically deny. How do you make this cohere with what you said about the possibility of an “objectively morally correct way of solving” a complex phenomenon such as the COVID-19 pandemic?

This is a crucial point. We need to reduce the transfinite, or what I now call “the hypercomplexity of fields of sense.” Reality is not just a form of complexity: it’s hypercomplex, and no mathematical model will be able to represent reality as such. Now, someone would say, “What about a particular reality?” If this holds for all of reality, that there’s no whole, why would you think that in this particularly contentious case of moral normativity, we will be able to exist in something that uncannily resembles a view from nowhere? The answer to this is the human life form. I think that the human life form, our biological existence, is a reduction of hypercomplexity to a much smaller set of possibilities. In that sense, ethics is much simpler than philosophy tout court. It is, in a certain sense, a fairly simple subdiscipline of philosophy. It’s just that we haven’t really even started doing it — but compared to ontology, ethics is simple. That’s the assumption. It narrows down reality to just one smaller aspect of it, and that hypercomplexity reduction is supposed to do the trick.

Let’s talk more about “philosophy in action.” You teach at the University of Bonn and collaborate with a number of other institutions interested in public outreach and engagement such as the already mentioned New Institute. Do you see any significant differences between Europe and the United States as far as professional philosophy is concerned?

Yes, some very clear differences. Public discourse, policy-making, and deep institutional structure formation are much more disassociated from philosophical and humanities discourse in the United States than in Europe. Almost anywhere in Europe — in Italy, France, Germany, Scandinavia, you name it — philosophy is more deeply integrated into nitty-gritty institutional structures: you’re much more likely to meet a bureaucrat from a German ministry who wants you to talk as a philosopher than in Washington, DC. This is a very serious cultural difference. Take the current German government: both Christian Lindner, the Minister of Finance, and Robert Habeck, the Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Action, took philosophy courses. Peter Sloterdijk recently gave the wedding speech at Lindner’s marriage. Our health minister, Karl Lauterbach, is also a trained philosopher. Throughout the pandemic, I had on various occasions talked about the philosophy of the pandemic with him. The current German government is for the most part composed of individuals with humanities degrees — not practitioners, not natural scientists. That says a lot. It’s similar in other European countries, and that’s a deep difference. It’s not very likely that Joe Biden wants to have a deep philosophy conversation with someone about his China politics. Nancy Pelosi would not consult with me about whether she should go to Taiwan, but that would happen quite naturally in Europe if you achieved a certain degree of visibility. It’s a Pan-European phenomenon, and I am including Russia here, for better or for worse. Philosophers, as far as I can tell, have not yet reached this status in the United States.

It appears to me that the United States had a period of flirtation with philosophers around the 1960s and ’70s, when intellectuals such as Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky became public figures in a very strong sense and deeply influenced the New Left. Today philosophy seems to be more impactful on the right. Many people would consider Peter Thiel, who studied at Stanford with René Girard and whose power in the GOP is ever-growing, to be a cryptophilosopher.

That’s true. It’s very interesting that the parts of American politics that strike many people as nonprogressive and undesirable are, in a certain sense, more informed about philosophy than the Democrats. No doubt that in the Christian fundamentalist camp you’ll find a lot more philosophy than one would expect from the perspective of those who think of themselves as progressive. Here’s a recommendation to American progressives: why don’t you borrow that intellectual practice from the other side? The presence of philosophical interests makes some of the Republican strategists in the United States more intelligent, at least on some fronts, than they should be …

I wonder what Richard Rorty, who grew more and more politically outspoken about the left’s struggles after he moved to California, would make of this recent development … Markus, you have been to California several times, and you keep coming back. What does California mean to you? 

I believe that the first systematic expression of my philosophical views happened when I was a visiting professor at Berkeley. I wrote my book Fields of Sense in the early morning sun of San Francisco’s Noe Valley. I would get up at five a.m. because of the Californian sun, and I would write before getting on the BART to go to Berkeley to teach. Then, more recently at Stanford, I rediscovered a deep point of connection between philosophy and poetry. Much has been said about their relationship, but something that I learned at Stanford, even more than about science and AI and all of the things that people associate with that university, is the deep connection between poetry and philosophical thinking. Surprisingly, Stanford and Silicon Valley are great places for discovering poetry. A chapter dedicated to nonsense in my forthcoming book Being Wrong is also grounded in a certain kind of Californian experience. What I call “nonsense” is a disconnection between moments or “fields of sense.” Yet, two fields of sense are never fully disconnected; they are connected as soon as we grasp them together in thought and consciousness. They somehow morph into each other once we see their connection. And this fusion, or “con-fusion,” as I call it, generates creative nonsense. California is a series of nicer and not-so-nice bubbles. The social and regional bubbles of California can be very different, but what they share is this bubble character. Until this year, I had no in-depth experience of the Stanford–Palo Alto–Silicon Valley bubble, and I admit that I really loved it. I love its climate, smell, color, temperature — all these very physical properties that make California enjoyable on this climactic, ecological level. What makes California enjoyable as a bubble, a kind of gigantic spa for humans, has expressed itself in Silicon Valley in a way I hadn’t experienced yet.

To put it bluntly, and this is something that I realize only thanks to this interview, I discovered the importance of “sense” in San Francisco and the importance of “nonsense” in Palo Alto. This structures my whole thought. So I owe a lot to California.


Andrea Capra is a Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton’s Society of Fellows, and a former semiprofessional esports player. He holds a PhD in Italian from Stanford University, where he wrote a dissertation on horror’s phenomenology in modernity and its representation in literary texts beyond the horror genre.


Featured image: Stuart Walker. Composition no. 61, 1939. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Patricia and Phillip Frost., CC0. Accessed October 11, 2022.

LARB Contributor

Andrea Capra is a Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton’s Society of Fellows. He holds a PhD in Italian from Stanford University, where he wrote a dissertation on horror’s phenomenology in modernity and its representation in literary texts beyond the horror genre. A former semiprofessional esports player, he also publishes on technological and political topics.


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