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A conversation with Brian O'Connor

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 3 ('Identities'). 

Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.

What was it that motivated your book on idleness?


It was actually an accident that brought me to it. I have always been interested in the German Idealists (Kant, Hegel, Fichte, and Schelling), and I was interested in exploring what these philosophers meant by autonomy, as the idea of autonomy is thought to have formally originated in Kant’s philosophy. And as I was working my way through Kant’s texts, I came across this sudden and unexpected denigration of idleness in his Groundwork. He talks about how individuals like us in the modern West could find the life of the South Sea Islanders (as he calls them) an appealing idea but that ultimately our sense of rationality and our obligation to make the most of ourselves would mean that we could never make this a way of life for ourselves. And I struggled to make sense of this claim, and in the process discovered that there were other philosophers from that period also making various claims against idleness. There was a pattern of prejudice against idleness that I couldn’t make sense of, so this is what got me going.


In the book you describe idleness as a “complex phenomenon” but most of us would not think of it in this way; rather we would think of it as something like sitting around and not doing much. Do you have a definition of idleness that would give us an insight into this complexity you claim for it?


What makes idleness complex is the position it holds in our set of social values, not least the fact that it is regarded as a social evil of some kind. It could, of course, perfectly well be described in the way that you do but this would raise the question of why so many philosophers and social theorists worry about it. As for a definition, we tend to think of non-productivity as central to idleness but non-productivity does not necessarily entail idleness from every perspective. Conversely, many see certain forms of activity and productivity as examples of idleness, most notably academics in philosophy departments sitting around reading books! Whether an activity is to be considered idle depends very much on the interest of the person judging it.

In the book, I align idleness most closely with laziness, as opposed to other related terms such as leisure or play. If we look at leisure as an example of what many people think of as idleness, it’s a perfectly respectable activity in organized societies – it’s legislated for and encouraged. Its legitimacy emerges from its incorporation into the work model itself. It allows the worker to recharge the batteries and come back to work refreshed. Patterns of productivity are closely studied by numerous experts, and leisure is seen as a necessary part of maximizing productivity.  Insofar as I equate idleness with laziness (understood as something like non-instrumental or goal-oriented activity), I don’t want to pretend that there is anything I can say to defend that as a model of behaviour but what I do try to say is that I am not sure I can see any good argument against it.

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell famously wrote in praise of idleness. But he was also an aristocrat and idleness has often been seen as a kind of aristocratic luxury that is not really open to those who have to make ends meet. Do you think idleness will always remain an elitist phenomenon?    


I think it’s true that there is something relevant in Russell’s aristocratic background but this does not entail that idleness is therefore something only for aristocrats; rather his aristocratic background arguably gives him the confidence to withstand the pressure that others would feel to fit in with the imperatives to be successful in terms of the 20th century’s version of the commercial world. Russell has the confidence to call this out. His version of idleness is not an aristocratic one that relies on social inequality and privilege, and this is what makes it so appealing. The kind of idleness that interests me always has this subversive character. It stands very firmly against many of the ideals by which we measure success in the modern world, not least productivity and social esteem. 


Early on in the book, you refer to what you call “the worthiness myth”. Please could you say a few things about what this entails?

Most of us would agree that there are some ways of living that are worthier than others, for example that someone who benefits humanity in a great way is living a more worthy life than, say, a greedy banker. We are used to thinking like this and it seems fairly uncontroversial. But what about the kind of imperative that philosophers might give us when they ask, “Are you making yourself worthy of your own humanity?” Different philosophers have different ideas of what this may involve but what tends to unite them is that it always involves an extraordinarily onerous and burdensome effort to move beyond what you happen to be satisfied with, and moreover beyond what you could reasonably be expected to achieve.


So I think it’s mythic in the sense that it’s hard to find evidence for what kind of life is fully worthy in those terms, and yet, like other myths, it’s something that stands over us as a kind of obligating force.

Where does Kant stand in terms of this?


Kant is very determined that we understand ourselves to be exceptional beings in contrast with any other feature of nature. Indeed, he believes that there is a certain kind of design in human beings such that we are thrown into the world but, unlike other animals, we can never really be satisfied with adapting to the basics of this world, for example a modest, unambitious survival. There is, Kant claims, something in the human being that would be unable to accept this: we would not feel good about ourselves as a species if we just accepted living in rudimentary conditions, with no organized community, no moral practices, and so on. This inner voice drives us on in its restless way to build a society that is noble enough for beings like us, and for Kant if we ignore this inner voice we would be going against what we know to be the right thing to do, and would thus open ourselves to the charge of irrationality. Of course there is nothing controversial or inherently problematic about any of this but I am interested in the point at which this restlessness tips over into something that is potentially harmful for us as individuals and for the societies in which we live.

Bertrand Russell (wikimedia commons)

You mentioned irrationality just now. For Kant, acting in accord with dominant social practices is an exercise in rationality. But it’s not at all clear that the two are linked. Please could you say something about this aspect of his thinking?


I don’t think that Kant successfully makes that link but it’s a link that many socially affirmative philosophers have tried to make in that they want to think both that society is fundamentally a good thing and that individual freedom is fundamentally a good thing. But needless to say it’s not always easy to unite those two ideas! Kant endeavoured to tie them together, and I think his effort fails because he has a very grand notion of our moral freedom in which we really are beholden to nothing but the rational moral law. Yet at the same time he also has some notion that it’s imperative to us as social beings to make ourselves useful. But of course there’s nothing intrinsically moral about being useful. It’s true that if no one made themselves useful you would not have a very functioning society but it’s nothing other than expedient to the functioning of society that you be useful; it’s not intrinsically moral. Kant’s effort to tie them together is a very typical project of the Enlightenment in which we find numerous attempts to integrate individual and society, but those two tracks do not always unite very cohesively.

Immanuel Kant

We find the same kind of questions being addressed by Hegel, but with a very different account of the relationship between the individual and society. Please can you say something about this?


Like Kant, Hegel also wanted to solve the issue of how we unite the interests of the individual with the interests of society, and arguably he does so by placing a much greater emphasis on the interests of society. Whereas Kant is genuinely troubled by the difficulty of integrating moral beings with the needs of society, Hegel tends to diminish the interests of the individual. This has led to criticism of Hegel as a precursor to totalitarianism, as the individual is seen to disappear into a faceless mass, but I don’t think this is a fair criticism at all. Hegel was the first philosopher to take seriously what it means to be an individual who is socialized, who cannot really understand themselves as a self-making entity whose values and experiences are explicable solely by reference to their own original efforts. For Hegel, we are all always already formed in a society of values, and if there is a community of people all of whom have needs, then the only way in which those needs are going to be met is if there are individuals who are willing to see themselves as occupying a social space in order to serve the needs of others. For Hegel, we are naturally socialized towards working towards fulfilling these needs. This is not a picture of work as a blind or servile activity, but rather as a social contribution – we are in a world where we are already formed as workers so idleness is merely a fantasy of escape.  


This is brought out by Hegel’s criticism of Diogenes who revelled in being an idler, in being dirty, and in generally performing many acts designed to shock and subvert the dominant social values of his time. Diogenes is certainly taken by many to be an excellent role model for those wishing to depart from any overbearing models of social expectation, but Hegel considered his whole performance to be nothing but an empty, negative reaction. For Hegel, Diogenes is not actually achieving anything aside from simply directing his energies confrontationally against the dominant values as he understands them. But he is not free of them as they negatively inform everything he does. 


Hegel also discusses “the barbarian” as another figure existing on the fringes of society. What was his main point in bringing up this example?


In Hegel’s text, the barbarian, like Diogenes, is an idler. This may bring to mind an image of a primitive pre-industrial society, but the barbarian in Hegel’s account is even lower than that. He is lazy and solitary, an individual who is probably barely recognizable as Homo sapiens because his isolation has deprived him of just about every developmental opportunity we have when we are in a community. Hegel uses these kinds of examples in part to point out their impossibility for us. He’s the most historically minded thinker in the sense that he did not believe that we can find inspiration from the past. This set him apart from many of his contemporaries in Germany at that time. Schiller, for example, championed the Greeks for their organic and, in his view, perfect civic order. But Hegel always believed that historical forms move forwards, and whilst we can see what was attempted in the past we can’t, and shouldn’t, try to reproduce it because we are where we are and our institutions demand more of us.

Georg Hegel

In the Hegelian picture, it is difficult to see how idleness can be in any way promoted without falling flat on its face with regard to society’s demands on the individual to work.


I agree that it’s not feasible to say something like, “OK, let’s now promote idleness as a new way of life.” It’s just not realistic for us given how we are socialized. However, I don’t think this stops us from entertaining what it is that idleness represents that seems to be so fearful for the philosophical defenders of the way we do things now. We can critically engage with why they find idleness so worrying insofar as it represents a subversion of the obligations we have to ourselves to make ourselves worthy of our humanity in some sense, or our obligations to others as socialized beings. Our instincts may always be too strong to take idleness seriously but we can certainly take on those philosophers who tell us that we should reject it on the basis that it fails to live up to certain philosophically itemized ideas of what counts as good and bad; we can certainly see if we can free up some breathing space for idleness as a concept.


To return to the theme of autonomy, I was hoping you could say something about how you think that idleness can offer an alternative conception of freedom to autonomy. 


To people who don’t read much political theory, the notion of autonomy will seem very strange, and I think rightly so. In this account, there is an ordinary everyday way of being free and most of us have it. But there is an even better way of being free which is called autonomy. The autonomous person is someone who tries to figure out what motivates them, whether those motivations are the best ones they could have, and who tries to regulate their behaviour in accordance with what they regard as a better way of fulfilling themselves.


Autonomy is presented as highly rational (and therefore desirable), but it is clearly also a very burdensome way of living. There’s no more “going with the flow”; rather, autonomy is a kind of self-subjection, an ongoing self-critique, a constant effort to form yourself going forward into the future. For the tradition of thinkers who buy into this notion, idleness is clearly a threat because in the idle view of life you don’t need to take all of those things so seriously; there’s really nothing intelligible about this constant process of self-analysis and self-subjection. Only philosophers could offer us a conception of freedom that is such gruelling work!

What do you feel are the consequences of a process of socialization that ignores or overlooks idleness?


I think we can see many harmful and destructive consequences in our everyday life. Symptomatic of it in our world today is overproduction, overwork, stress, and excessive anxiety about social esteem, and I don’t think that most of us who are caught up in this have any idea of how to turn it off. If you live in an environment in which individuals become successful, and proud of their financial holdings and the status it gives them and the consumer luxuries it affords them, and then if this world collapses you see individuals who don’t tend to say, “Oh well, that’s a shame. I enjoyed it while it lasted”; rather, you see them experience something like personal devastation as they cannot really detach their identities or sense of worth from the world of social esteem. Their identities are interlinked with success or failure in those terms, and the fact that our society makes us vulnerable in this way to self-contempt by obligating us to play the game of social success in its terms strikes me as a morally bad thing. The socialization has gone deep, and I don’t think it is necessarily the way that human beings have to be or always have been.


I’m not here to suggest what we should do but rather to offer critical reflections on a process of socialization that seems to have departed more and more from what we might call happiness. Even if behavioural change in these matters may be difficult, I think it’s important to try and understand what moves us and how things might be different.



Brian O’Connor is professor of philosophy at University College Dublin. His latest book, Idleness: A Philosophical Essay, was published last year by Princeton University Press.


Interview by Anthony Morgan. 

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 3 ('Identities'). 

Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.