Interview with Peter Boghossian, author, cultural critic, former professor of philosophy at Portland State University, Visiting Fellow of Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), and one of the invited speakers of the MCC Budapest Summit 2022.
You are primarily known as a philosopher. So, let me ask you first, what made you interested in philosophy, and especially in the philosophy of critical thinking and scientific skepticism?
That is a good question. I have always loved the work of Socrates and I have loved the idea of just this one guy walking around, asking questions. I mean, it is a really cool thought, a cool way. And so, Socrates was my gateway drug, and I progressed from there. But interestingly, it did not get any better. I mean, Socrates is the man. He was pretty remarkable. And so, I think that my fascination was not merely with Socrates, but how he asked questions, the kind of questions he asked, the kind of responses he got. That is basically it.
You have become quite famous for being one of the perpetrators of a very elaborate hoax in academic circles. And of course, I am talking about the ‘Sokal Squared’ project, in which you (along with James Lindsey and Helen Pluckrose) submitted a bunch of ridiculous, bogus articles to progressive sociological journals, and a shocking number of them were approved for publishing after going through the peer-review process. So, how did you find the results of your experiment?
I had hoped that people would wake up—to use a pun on woke—and say, wow, there is a corruption of scholarship
Well, I guess I am hopelessly optimistic. I had hoped that people would wake up—to use a pun on woke—and say, wow, there is a corruption of scholarship! We need to address this, in research of race, gender and sexuality… We need to know about this because it is part of the human condition, but we need to do so with the best available tools we have. So, with the best available science, we need to try to falsify those results. But instead, many people double down and that is understandable, when you have jobs for life. If I can use a martial arts analogy, it is like somebody who had put in an insane amount of time and money and effort into a martial art that was fantasy-based, you know, the one-touch-knockout type. And then they saw the one-touch-knockout master fight an MMA guy, and they got the crap kicked out of them. So, what should the response be to that, right? The response to that should be wow, why did that happen? What am I doing wrong? The response should not be, well, my astrological symbol was out of sync, right? I mean, I was hoping that there would be more honesty about it… So, in 2018, it pointed to a problem, and then Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsey’s book, Cynical Theories, explained that problem and now each of us are doing our own thing. But the experiment did obviously prove that there is a big problem in academia.
But instead of most of the journals acknowledging that problem, you were accused of ‘research misconduct’ for experimenting on human subjects without approval. To me, that sounds crazy.
One thing that was interesting in that in one of those papers I intentionally plagiarized Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And I was brought up on charges of plagiarism. And I said I did it, I am guilty. I fully admit to plagiarizing Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And remember, those were charges they brought up against me, right? I admitted that I did it and they did not find me guilty because if they found me guilty, that would have meant that the literature accepted Mein Kampf! Basically, that would have meant that they were Nazis.
Last fall you quit your teaching job at Portland State University. Did you do it as a from of protest? And if so, did the fact that you had left and your open letter of resignation have any positive effects on the worrisome trends that you see on Western campuses?
I did it because it just compromised my integrity to be there. Regarding its effects, I have no idea if it did in Portland. But externally, I think it had a lot of impact. I mean, the letter went around the world! Many, many professors wrote to me complaining, thanking me, telling me that they feel the situation is hopeless. They do not know what to do. I was getting dozens and dozens of letters a week after the announcement, from various faculty members throughout the country that they want to go, they do not know what to do, etc. So, internal to the University of Portland, I have no idea, but external to university, for sure.
Just briefly, what were your main problems with Portland State University that, I suppose, you also see at a lot of other universities?
Ideological capture. The institution had been captured by a very particular ideology. And that was the discourse, the dominant narrative. And it was not just a pocket here or a pocket there, but it was wholesale. Let me give you a very specific example, if I may. So, the president of Portland State University came out with a statement saying that the primary mission of the university was racial justice. Really?! Really not finances, not student excellence, not teaching excellence, not research? There is literally a dozen other things that could have been more important, but racial justice is the highest priority of the institution. And this is a public institution. This is not a private institution where you can go off and do whatever you want. This is what taxpayer money gives you.
I am also interested in your books. The first one was A Manual for Creating Atheists and the second was How to Have Impossible Conversations. Both of them are connected to another term you coined, which was ‘street epistemology’. Can you explain what you mean under this term?
Epistemology is a word that you hear in the academy. It just means ‘how you know what you know’, ‘coming to knowledge’. But it is a very academic word. Most people who are native English speakers have no idea what the word epistemology means. So, I wanted to couple that because that is what Socrates did. He did a kind of street epistemology. He took epistemology onto the streets and of course, there were no academies back then. There was no university system. And so, street epistemology is the way to take Socratic tools, specifically, and ways of thinking about knowledge from various and diverse fields, like hostage-negotiations, cult exiting and applied epistemology, etc. It is a way to take that from the academy to the street. And it becomes a technique of talking to people who you could even fundamentally disagree with, but in an open-minded and non-confrontational manner that allows you to have those ‘impossible conversations’. So, for instance, I am going do a debate with Rod Dreher later tomorrow. Rod is an Orthodox Christian, I am an atheist. Rod is a conservative, I am liberal, although I am not even sure I know what those terms mean anymore. But that, you know, could be an impossible conversation. Like, if that guy does not want to talk to me, I do not hit him in the head with a bat and then tie him up and then start talking to him. If someone does not want to talk to you, there is no conversation, right? So, an impossible conversation is a conversation that you think you cannot have with someone because the political or moral gap between you two is just too big. And that is why I wrote How to Have Impossible Conversations because people needed the tools that they were not getting in the academy.
You just mentioned that you are liberal, that is another thing I wanted to ask about. Being an outspoken critic of the progressive mainstream has made you widely celebrated by the right-wing political establishment, mainly among Republicans in America. But, what about your personal political beliefs? I happen to know you endorsed Andrew Yang in 2020, for instance, so it would be hard to assume that you were a conservative.
That would be hard, yes. But that is the crazy thing. I have not really changed. I have tweaked some of my beliefs but have not fundamentally changed any of my beliefs. I am for gay marriage, for instance. I am for homosexuals who want to live like anybody else. I am pro-abortion, which I know most Hungarians are not, but I am. I have not started suddenly believing in God and that some guy walked on water, I just do not believe any of that stuff. And so, I have not really changed. I believe in more regulations on certain types of guns, such as automatic, assault rifles and so on. I have not changed my beliefs about anything, but the left has gone crazy. I mean, they have gone further to the left, but they have been like my friend Gad said, you see his book here everywhere, The Parasitic Mind, they have been parasitized, like if progressive leftism was a parasite living off on this group people. So, my whole journey is rather like that cartoon Colin Wright made. It is really interesting. It is like through 2008, 2012, 2021, he is standing in the same place. The right is standing in the same place. But the left continues to go further and further down the line, it is insane. So, that is why I said, I do not really know what to be liberal means anymore. I am constantly told that I am a conservative, but I have not changed really. My views are exactly the same. I think, maybe some of it is that they think that if you are willing to have a conversation with someone, then you are conservative.
So it is not just conservatives who are being disenfranchised and silenced these days, but also people on the center-left?
Yes, there is absolutely no question whether that is true. You know, many of the people who consider themselves broadly liberal have drifted to the far left and many have become woke. And many of those people who have not, have been like, okay, this is too crazy. I mean, this is just too insane. And those people have gone to the right. I have many friends who did. I predict that—unless the Democrats knock this crap off about everybody’s identity—I predict that you are going to see wide scale Republican victories. Maybe both during the midterms in 2022 and later in 2024, we will see what happens. But there is no question that many people who formally considered themselves liberals have now been pushed into the conservative camp. I am not one of them. But they have done so because the left has lost their minds.
In certain public spheres and especially in academia, free speech seems to be in grave danger these days, while in some corners of the internet it is almost non-existent. How big of a problem this actually is and do you think there are possible solutions?
Things like due process, Miranda rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech… these are not conservative issues. And the fact that the left has framed these as conservative things is insane to me
Well, before even talking about solutions, this is not a conservative or a liberal thing. I mean, every person who wants the possibility of leading a good life, to flourish in society, should want to have every right to criticize their government (no matter who is in power), to criticize any of their institutions, to criticize certain policies even if they otherwise support the government. So, you need that right, as a citizen. So, I just wanted to frame that answer in saying that this is just simply not a conservative or liberal, right or left thing. You know, things like due process, Miranda rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech… these are not conservative issues. And the fact that the left has framed these as conservative things is insane to me. That just shows how insane they are. Now, if there is any solution to this crisis is a harder question. First, I think, we need to support people who fight the establishment, who stick their necks out, who take risks. Second of all, as I said on my panel, we are trying to build new things. We are trying to make new things. And it is essential that what we are trying to build succeeds because if not, there is no alternative. People are stuck with woke institutions. That is why Joe Rogan has to succeed. He has to succeed. We cannot let these people take Rogan down because if he goes down, then only the traditional woke media legacy and Fox (which is a kind of propaganda machine too) remain. So, we have to have those independent, sincere, honest, truth-seeking voices out there. I mean, just think about the campaign to take down Rogan. He is attacked by people in politics, media, showbusiness… It is utterly flabbergasting! One guy, who was former MMA and smokes pot, has a podcast that dominates everybody else. So, Rogan is the line in the sand. I mean, if Rogan goes down, then you got big problems.
He is under especially severe attack now because of allegedly giving platform for COVID-19 misinformation. For me it seems that even covid has become too politicized by the left, and they leave no room for any discussion.
It has become, yes. Niall Ferguson writes about that in his book Doom, about how this should not be a political issue. I mean, a mask either works (if worn correctly) or it does not, but we need to be honest about whether it does or does not. I do not know much about the scientific side of the pandemic and that is why I do not talk about it generally. But the point is not to talk about the pandemic, but to talk about how we talk about the pandemic, which is we have to give people the best available evidence and we have to be honest. And if we do not know, we have to say, that we do not know. And one of reasons they are going after Rogan is—and again, I do not know about area—that he had people on who went against the narrative and they cannot stand that. And the response to that, by the way, should not be that ‘Oh my God, Joe Rogan’s a Nazi!’ The response should be ‘let’s have our own experts on, who are not Republicans or Democrats, and we will give them a long form interview in their own language, tell them to speak as plainly as possible to present people with the evidence for why the expert that Rogan had on is incorrect’. That is the response. The response is not ‘you f*cking Nazi!’ The response is not ‘this guy’s responsible for slavery, genocide, mutilation…’ No, that is insane!
This response basically shows that even covid, as an issue, has undergone a change which many other issues in leftism did too. This is the substitution theory you also mentioned in an other interview, meaning that the decline of religiosity in many cases meant substituting it with political causes, and defending them with religious zeal. I mean, if people regard the ever-changing science of covid as religious dogmas, they do not need arguments to support it, they just need to defend it at whatever cost.
Yep. And that is why you keep getting the one tool they have in their tool-box, racism. They do not like you, you are racist. They tried to pull it on a Joe Rogan, but it did not work. But they just pull that tool on anyone. You know, you write about critical race theory, then you are racist. As opposed to like ‘What’s your argument? What evidence do you have for that?’ Substitution theory is like the Old and the New Gods in Game of Thrones. The New Gods emerged simply because people stopped believing in the Old ones, and something like this is happening. Religion is losing ground throughout the West, but its place is not being taken by a universal morality like the atheists thought it would happen, but instead its being replaced by the religion of the woke.