Interview with Academics #4: Justin P. Holder

[ID: a photo of Justin P. Holder]

Justin P.  Holder – DPhil Philosophy (in progress), MSt Study of Religions (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford). BA Philosophy (The University of the West Indies , Cave Hill).

  1. How did you come to philosophy & your particular specialisations and/or interests?

When I started as an undergrad at the University of the West Indies, I entered as a Literature in English major. At the time, my life ambition was to be a novelist, and the only reason I went to university in the first place is because my father insisted that I needed to get a bachelor’s degree – he didn’t care what kind. Literature seemed like the obvious choice, even though I never liked studying it in school. During the orientation event, I listened to the head of the Department of History and Philosophy give his pitch for those disciplines and I decided on the spot that I would probably be much better at doing either of those. When I registered for my courses a few hours later, I chose only history and philosophy courses. In fact, I did decide to try one poetry course, but I dropped it after one lecture.

During my first semester I realised that my lifelong compulsion to think hard about fundamental and often esoteric subjects was refined into a profession as academic philosophy. My opinions on things I cared about started to develop more quickly than they ever had in my life previously. I was still interested in history and politics, and took courses in those fields, but I realised that I was essentially a philosopher. I also vividly remember how I felt when, during a philosophy lecture, I realised that the person in front of me was being paid to stand there and talk to us about this stuff. I decided that not only would this be a fulfilling career path, but it would be much more secure than my fiction writing ambitions (I was right on the first count and wrong on the second; if it is a more secure path it’s not by much).

It was during the summer after my first academic year that I was looking for something interesting to read and came across a book I had bought a few years before (just because it had a cool title) at a Tibetan Buddhist meditation retreat centre in the forest in Nova Scotia, where I was attending an Aikido summer camp. I discovered that this book was a commentary on another philosophical text, so I decided to seek out the original. It looked very interesting when I found it, so I bought it on my ebook reader (I’ll plug here how vital ebook services were and are for readers in developing countries – we never had big bookstores and importing physical books was impractical and expensive, if possible at all).

The book I bought was Jay Garfield’s 1995 translation and commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK). The arguments I found therein radically transformed my outlook in metaphysics. It was the most powerful piece of philosophy I had ever read, and I decided that I needed to devote myself to understanding that work and its implications. Nine years later, this is still the case. While I was at UWI, I emailed several of the scholars whose work I relied on to learn about this field, asking for advice. One of those people was Jan Westerhoff, who is now my supervisor and the reason I applied to Oxford.

My work revolves around reconstructing and developing the wisdom of Nāgārjuna’s MMK (not just Garfield’s take on it, of course). I’ve gravitated towards doing so in the philosophy of science and scientifically informed metaphysics, and I intend to stick with that angle for the foreseeable future.

  1. What have you learned about philosophy that you might not have initially expected?

Picking back up where we left my undergraduate self, I quickly became disillusioned with academic philosophy after discovering Nāgārjuna. I mentioned before that I saw it as a professional refinement of the impulse towards critical reflection. But how refined could it be if an undergraduate was only likely to come across work as brilliant and relevant as Nāgārjuna’s by accident? I love the nature of academic philosophy, but it is handicapping itself by being usually blind to amazing philosophical sources outside of the so-called “Western canon”. This upsets me not just as someone researching such a source but as someone who cares about the aims and health of the world’s philosophical community. Great philosophy is done on the shoulders of philosophers who came before. The full potential of the philosophical community can only be realised when the entire philosophical heritage of the world is tapped into.

All that said, I was incredibly lucky to have the philosophers I did looking after my undergrad programme. When I got into the Madhyamaka stuff (Madhyamaka is the name of the philosophical tradition rooted in Nāgārjuna’s thought), they had no idea what it was all about, but they treated it like any philosophy they might not know much about coming from an undergraduate: they read my discussion of it, considered the arguments I put forward, and judged whether they were any good. That work got me into a graduate programme with an expert. Open-minded philosophers can make a real difference.

  1. What would you want to share about your experience studying for graduate degrees far from your home country?

Needless to say, that experience is going to be very specific to where you’ve come from and where you’ve gone, plus other issues such as class and race. So, I can’t say how generally relevant my experience is. With that disclaimer, I’d say it was a very good idea to seek out the few other Caribbean people here at Oxford. Finding that familiarity in an unusual environment was energizing (and it’s therapeutic to laugh at the strange experiences we inevitably have).

  1. What motivates you to stay in academia (or at least pursue further degrees)? If you have encountered obstacles, what supports have you found, would you recommend, and how did you manage to persevere?

As idealistic as it sounds, I want to stay in academia because I genuinely care a lot about the issues that I’m studying. I want to learn more, get deeper insight, and share that with other people who care about these things. Academia is where I can do that as a career.


As for obstacles, they mostly revolve around what I mentioned about pursuing niche, non-Western research, and money. The combination of these made it very difficult to pursue the career I wanted. I don’t know if I’ve managed to persevere yet. I also don’t know if I have any generally helpful advice to give beyond ‘do your best to know what exactly you’re getting into’. The world is complex and the farthest thing from fair, so do your best to find out what pitfalls might be awaiting you, and have contingencies planned. Unfortunately, you might not get the results you’re looking for even if you do everything right.

  1. Have you had any particular models or favourite philosophers who’ve guided you? If so, could you share some information about who, how, and why.

If I were to call anyone a role model it would be Noam Chomsky. His contributions to linguistics and philosophy are incredible (the latter haven’t yet gotten the attention they deserve) and his tireless political commentary has been utterly transformative for me and countless others.

I think it would be right to say that anything I accomplish as an intellectual will be from standing on the shoulders of Chomsky and Nāgārjuna. They have shaped my fundamental stances and intuitions more than anyone or anything else. That goes both for my academic philosophical work and (especially in Chomsky’s case) the more public-facing political and social issues that have always demanded a substantial amount of my time and attention as an adult.

  1. How have your expectations about what you want to and are able to study in academia changed over time?

I think I’ve mostly covered this, but one thing I didn’t mention is that I originally was dead set on doing graduate study in a philosophy department since I wanted to do philosophy. As it turns out, I’ve done most of my graduate studying so far in a religion department doing just the kind of work I wanted to do. I realize that this isn’t very rare in academia generally. People often cross over to departments and degrees bearing names they don’t entirely identify with in order to do the specific work they do entirely identify with. That’s true in the humanities, the sciences, and all subjects. As ironic as this is, it makes sense. The labels on academic disciplines weren’t passed down from heaven – they are just loosely identified areas of interest. The key is finding the right people, not the right name on the door.

  1. How does your experience of studying relate to what you are studying? (How, as a philosopher, do you relate your philosophizing activity to the life you are living as an academic here and the dimensions of your life beyond this?)

There isn’t any connection, really. In my work, I try to get into the most basic questions about reality. Those kinds of issues aren’t going to have any non-contrived relationship with specific life circumstances. I suppose I could speak about how Madhyamaka metaphysics fits within Buddhist teachings and how those have influenced my life, but that seems like doing too much here. Suffice it to say that Buddhism has significantly transformed my perspectives in life, even though I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist.

  1. You study Buddhist philosophy in the Theology & Religion Department. Could you explain how you understand Buddhist thoughts’ relations to the ‘religious’ and ‘philosophical’ appellations and how you navigate this at Oxford and beyond?

Actually, I’ve just recently received news that my application to transfer to the Philosophy Faculty was approved. This doesn’t affect the nature of my project at all; in fact, my active engagement with both departments will remain basically the same, I think. I only changed because I think the “Philosophy” title may be somewhat more useful in pursuing future opportunities.

In line with what I wrote above, the line between the categories of ‘religion’ and ‘philosophy’ can be fairly arbitrary. That’s true not just in Buddhist philosophy, but “Western” philosophy, too. Thinkers like, for example, Descartes and Kant were explicitly religious in much of the philosophising. Perhaps, if one wanted to make a reasonable distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘philosophical’ thought, the former would be that which is contingent on the prior acceptance of some religious text or dogma for its value or coherence while the latter would not. Both the Christian and Buddhist traditions have plenty of work in both categories. It’s evidently not very difficult to navigate this distinction when it comes to Christian thinkers and I don’t think there is any more (or less) cause for concern when discussing the thoughts of Buddhists.

  1. What advice would you give to undergraduate students who are either/both minorities hoping to pursue philosophy further or/and interested to study philosophical topics less commonly recognised as philosophy by the establishment we encounter not only at Oxford but at many philosophy departments in the Euro-American universities and beyond?

For non-white people going to white-dominated universities, one thing to be on guard for is philosophers insisting that you defend positions which seem obvious and morally basic to you. Part of that is the nature of philosophy: the goal is to make airtight cases for your theses, so you need to consider any way someone could undermine what you’re saying. That means, if you’re philosophising about society and human behaviour, you may have to engage with positions that are an affront to your dignity and the dignity of your community. White supremacy tips the table against you here, as Anglo-American philosophy has been debating society through a white lens for hundreds of years (since it became important for white intellectuals to justify and motivate the brutalising of non-white societies). Therefore, the most familiar ideas – those so thoroughly discussed that you don’t have to do much of the justification and framing yourself – will be those that sit comfortably with whiteness, and the most unusual ideas will be the ones that don’t. This means that you’ll need to do a lot of extra work if you want to philosophize about, or even from the perspective of, communities of colour.

This sort of thing is the reason I’m quite happy to be doing metaphysics. Arguing about whether chairs are real or not is much less likely to be traumatic or infuriating for me than arguing about, say, whether cultural factors are the dominant cause of poverty (the answer to that will be obvious to some readers and not others).

  1. Could you tell us more about some of your favourite developments or moments in your current studies? 

I really like that I’m getting more and more involved in the philosophy of science. It has always been important to me to get a deeper understanding of scientific knowledge and debates – especially in physics. Along with my move to the Philosophy Faculty, I’ll be officially co-supervised by Adam Caulton, an excellent philosopher of science and person. I now have the dream team looking after my DPhil: Jan Westerhoff for the Buddhist philosophy side and Adam for the philosophy of science. I really couldn’t hope for a better arrangement to do exactly the work I am most excited about.

  1. What would you like to do after your PhD?

Hopefully enter a smooth academic career where I can research and teach the subjects I care about with a decent quality of life! I hope that’ll start with a good postdoc opportunity.

  1. How would you recommend students navigate balancing passing their degree and finding the time and resources to learn beyond their curriculum about liminal or totally silenced topics?

That’s contingent on a lot. For me, since Madhyamaka changed my fundamental (and therefore generally relevant) assumptions so much, I was able to incorporate it into many of my course essays. That allowed me to keep reading it as part of my regular degree. But even if you’re in a similar situation, this strategy only works if the people marking your work are open-minded (thanks again, UWI Cave Hill philosophy faculty!).

If the atypical subjects you’re interested in are irrelevant to your normal coursework, it will be more of a challenge. It will be worth talking to the people running your course about your interests. Many academics are excited to see students taking initiative and will try to accommodate you somehow.  If all that falls through, I don’t know what to tell people other than to consciously manage your time and don’t be too hard on yourselves. The good news is that resources usually aren’t hard to find nowadays, and sensitivity to this issue is on the rise.

  1. You’ve mentioned that you’re familiar with revolutionary thought, especially in colonial contexts . What would you want to share about this with philosophy undergraduates here and what further reading do you recommend on both these topics and Buddhist philosophy?

I mentioned that Noam Chomsky is something of a role model for me. Part of that status comes from introducing me to anarchism. Far-left political thought and praxis have been major interests of mine since my first year in undergrad. Naturally, I’ve spent some time with the topic in the context of my home, the Caribbean, and my ancestral home, Africa. Obviously, there’s a lot that could be said about this. The one thing I’ll say is that any revolutionary movement should be judged by how much direct control it gives working people over their society’s resources. When a revolution leads to working people taking orders from government officials instead of private managers, it hasn’t brought on major change to the society’s class structure.

For political reading recommendations, I’ll go for two relatively under-discussed topics. The first is Workers’ Self-management in the Caribbean: The Writings of Joseph Edwards, edited by Matthew Quest. Joseph Edwards was a Jamaican labour organizer with libertarian socialist leanings. His writings are a gem for the Caribbean left, which, unfortunately, is often bogged down in Marxist-Leninist trappings. Especially refreshing is his Rastafari perspective and framing, instead of the usual fare from Western-trained intellectuals. The book was published by a small press, so its availability isn’t great, but it’s worth tracking down.

Second, I’d encourage everyone to be familiar with the history of the Ruvuma Development Association in Tanzania. There’s an easily accessible article on this by Michael Jennings entitled “’Almost an Oxfam in Itself’: Oxfam, Ujamaa, and Development in Tanzania”. It has a brief overview of how the RDA successfully implemented the spirit of Nyerere’s Ujamaa village system (i.e. networks of communal villages organised around an African sense of familyhood), only to ultimately be dismantled by the state due to its autonomy from the state.

For introductions to Buddhist philosophy, there are Mark Siderits’ Buddhism as Philosophy and Jay Garfield’s Engaging Buddhism. Siderits’ book is accessible even to people with no prior training in philosophy or Buddhism. Garfield’s is directed towards people who are already familiar with Anglo-American philosophy.

For Madhyamaka specifically, there’s always Siderits and Katsura’s translation and commentary on the MMK. And a more systematic presentation of (one interpretation of) Nāgārjuna’s thought can be found in Jan Westerhoff’s Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka.

For my own thoughts on what Madhyamaka is all about, there’s my essay “A Kantian Reading of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā: the philosophical basis and advantages” in the journal Philosophy East and West.

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