Spotlight Series

Each month, we sit down with a member of our research team to learn more about their areas of expertise, what the turning points have been in their career, and what inspires them in their daily lives…

John Divers

Professor of Moral Philosophy (1837); Head of Department

John Divers joined the TCD Department of Philosophy in June 2021, having previously been a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield and (more recently) at the University of Leeds. He is currently an editor of Thought: A Journal of Philosophy (Wiley Blackwell) and a past President of the Mind Association.

What is your current area of research?

The same as it ever was – modality. You’d think that an account of the world that was completely accurate about everything would be good enough for us. But in various parts of science, we seem to be asking for more. Not only how things are, but how they must be, might have been, would have been.

I’m with the great American philosopher Quine in thinking that these modal questions are instrumental. They help us in some way to find out how the world really, actually, is but musts, coulds and woulds are no part of the facts about the world in itself.

What question or challenge were you setting out to address when you started this work?

In my undergraduate days I was a Marxist and was convinced by the great Marx scholar, Scott Meikle, that the metaphysics underlying Marx’s political economy is Aristotelian essentialism: it’s a theory about the essential properties of categories such as labour, labour power and exchange value.

I then wanted to explore whether Aristotelian essentialism was a sustainable position, in light of contemporary analytic philosophy, and discovered Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity.

Share a turning point or defining moment in your work as a philosophical researcher?

I met the great David Lewis shortly before his untimely death when I was but a callow youth of 39 years. I asked him a question of detail on a minor point (about his indexical interpretation of “actually”). He paused, then said …”Good. I hadn’t thought of that.” That was enough affirmation to last me a lifetime.

Briefly, what excites you about your research?

In recent years, my focus has been on the recent history of philosophy. There are key articles and texts that I must have read dozens of times and I still learn and discover important things every time. I’m reminded of the saying about reading being like having conversations with the geniuses of the past.

What do you like to do when you are not working?

I’m not going to lie. I live in the city that has the best pubs in the world (Dublin) and I love spending time in them with the most amazing variety of people that you end up talking to. The craic!

What are you currently reading?

Outside of philosophy? The Singularities by John Banville. I hope he’ll be the next great Irish writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Do you have a favourite movie?

Three come to mind. The Man Who Fell to Earth (directed by Nicolas Roeg, and starring David Bowie). Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. And Fellini’s Amarcord.

Is there a work of art that inspires you?

Welcome by John Coltrane. And, even though I’m an atheist, Salvador Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross. Glasgow Corporation bought it for the people of Glasgow in 1952 and hung it in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery. That in itself is inspiring!

What would people be surprised to find out about you?

Until I was 30, and all through my time as a student (undergrad and postgrad) I played drums to make a living – in about every kind of band, venue and circumstance you could imagine. I’d like to think I’m a bit better at Philosophy than I was at drumming. But that wouldn’t be hard.