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"Philosophy, Memoir, and Revelation": A Conversation with Andy West

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").

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Andy West’s book, The Life Inside: A Memoir of Prison, Family and Philosophy, explores the meaning and importance of teaching philosophy in prisons. His work brings him into contact with people within the criminal justice system for whom questions about freedom and fate have a keen and painful relevance. It also pushes him to engage with his own family history: his father, uncle, and brother all spent time in prison. In this interview, he talks to Adam Ferner about the kind of knowledge produced in prisons, and the emotional toll it takes to ask and answer philosophical questions in these spaces.


Adam Ferner (AF): In my mind this interview goes a certain way. We share these intimate truths with each other and talk about our struggles with mental health, and obviously it’s brilliant. At the same time, I’m aware you’ve already done that sharing in the book itself, and I know this all takes a toll. I also know there are things about myself that I don’t want people knowing and the same will be true for you. So I suppose, my first question is: What do you want out of this interview? If it’s just book promotion, I can tell the readers it’s a brilliant book (which it is!) and they should go out and read it immediately.


Andy West (AW): The promotion interview is about shoehorning in soundbites and slogans. I think people read long-form interviews in a journal like The Philosopher because they want to know who the author is beneath their schtick. They want to see what they look like in a moment of doubt or aporia. In terms of vulnerability, the book – so the readers are telling me – is a very vulnerable piece of writing. That wasn’t a programmatic intention. I didn’t sit down and think, “I’m going to be vulnerable now”. That’s just where the material took me. It could have gone another way if I’d framed the story differently, if I’d written a more analytic book. I like vulnerability, as long as it’s organic and not overly intentional. It becomes weirdly grandiose or ideological then. You and I are two people who have a lot to say to each other and that’s so exciting, and we should do the interview on that basis, rather than using any format as such – the promotional interview, the vulnerability interview, the provocative interview etc.


AF: The book, and the prospect of this interview, made me think a lot about the role of the questioner. You describe these lessons in prisons. Typically, the format of the lesson is that you lay out a situation or a puzzle (the Ship of Theseus, say), then you ask your students questions. You ask a lot of questions and your students give wry and funny and sometimes very frank answers – which frequently run against the kind of answers you would get in a university seminar room. There is an intimacy to their answers that you don’t see with the standard university student. They’re emotionally engaged – it’s not just about problem-solving. Questions about free will and hope have a very specific valence in this context.


I also noticed that it’s quite rare for you to answer their questions. You’re guarded and what results is something like a Socratic dialogue – but unlike in Plato, you bring the power asymmetries to the surface. You are free to come and go and ask your questions as you like, and because of that freedom you don’t tend to share information about your private life.


I want to know where you think knowledge is being produced here and I want to know what you think the costs of this might be, because another thing that comes out really clearly is that asking difficult questions and entertaining painful thoughts can exhaust our mental resources.


AW: I’ve worked with people who are doing an indefinite sentence who get in deep when you ask them, as Aristotle did, if it’s possible to have time without movement. I knew a man who spent months being locked up for 23 hours a day. He told me he believed he was free where it mattered most – in his mind. When I told him about how the former slave Epictetus thought you could still be free even under the tyrant, he told me all the ways he believed that was true. For some, being in prison spurs them towards philosophy. That setting has an existential urgency. You ask a philosophical question in prison and the temperature on that question is much higher than it would be if you asked it on a gentle Tuesday afternoon on a university campus.


For some, being in prison spurs them towards philosophy. That setting has an existential urgency.

But that inner-searching is risky for people – I think you’re right to highlight that. There’s a character in the book called Dris, who had stopped coming to my class. I saw him on the landing a couple of days later and told him that he is missed in the classroom. He said, “I’ve got a job in the kitchen.” It’s hard to get a job in the kitchen and the philosophy course is only going on for three months, but this kitchen job will get him through the next three years. I asked him what he did, and he said he washed the pots, rinsed them, dried them up, and put them away. He asked what we did in class. I said we looked at luck and the question of moral luck in particular. When we look at where we are in society – if we’re a judge, if we’re a prisoner – how much does that depend on luck and how much does it depend on personal responsibility? I said, “What do you think about luck?” and he said “I don’t. I wash up. I rinse. I dry up. And then I put things away.” Then he said “Luck will have you looking out the window. It’s like thinking about hope. Hope will have you looking out the window. I don’t think about luck or hope. I wash up.”


I think that’s one of the things you do in philosophy: look out of the window, thinking of possibilities and asking oneself: “What if…?” A phrase I’ve heard on the landing of every prison I’ve been in is “Keep your head in jail”. Many people survive prison by not thinking about what could be happening outside. They try to embrace the necessity of what’s going on here and now rather than what could be going on. But it’s hard to keep your head in jail if you’re looking out the window, thinking of other possible worlds.

I also wonder if the fact that the majority of people in prison come from working-class backgrounds influences how people meet philosophy. I had a class recently where we were teaching about consequentialism, and one of the people in the class just laughed. I said, “Are you okay?” and she said, “Who sits around thinking about this stuff? People actually call themselves ‘consequentialists’!? And they have all of these thoughts? Isn’t what you think just decided by your upbringing? You-do-as-you-do, and you-know-what-you-know.” I recognize that from my own background having had family in prison and how that makes you fatalistic. You just think, “Things are what they are” and feel like it would be hubristic or, as in the case of my student, laughable to think they could be something else.


AF: You mention Dris, but there’s Martin as well, another student of yours. There’s a passage where you write, “It’s as though he thought it was too late for philosophy”. I’d forgotten this and only saw it when I was looking back through my notes, but I’d underlined this sentence and next to it I’d written, “Do I think this too?” I suppose I’m wondering what it means for it to be “too late for philosophy”?


AW: Martin was a man in my class who radiated shame. You could talk to him about Nietzsche or Hannah Arendt or Lucretius, but for him nothing was going to change the fact that he was in prison and that, in his view, he deserved to be there. I talked to him about Nietzsche’s idea of guilt as being the drive towards life turned in on itself and made punitive and corrosive. He tutted and said, “Nietzsche sounds like a clever boy”. Later, I pushed him further and he asked me, “Was Nietzsche a harm-causing individual as well?” Because he thought of himself as a bad person, he discredited the possibilities of his own thought. Shame can be so annihilating of your potential in that way. It makes you look at the good things in life and think that it’s too late for all that.


AF: I was very moved by your account of the rupture you experience when, after visiting your brother in prison, you go into school and you think, “None of this is real, how can this be real?” In the book you go on to say you found something in Descartes that resonated with this experience. I found that one of the most compelling reasons to be interested in Descartes – and it tells us something about Descartes as well, because the Meditations was written after the death of his daughter; it’s a spiritual memoir. One of the things you do brilliantly in the book is help us understand what it’s like to examine these questions when you’re at the coalface of reality, as it were.


Philosophers have often situated universal abstract questions in a personal concrete context without knowing they are doing so because they often come from certain backgrounds.

AW: Philosophers have often situated universal abstract questions in a personal concrete context without knowing they are doing so because they often come from certain backgrounds. The existentialists talked about “perusing projects” and Aristotle wrote about “achieving excellence”. These preoccupations are implicit in life for the affluent and educated. I’m not doing anything very different in drawing on personal stories, it just looks like I am because my personal context is quite extreme by the standards of your average person in a philosophy department – though not by the standards of your average prisoner.


AF: In the book, you describe your negative reaction to a doctor, Paul, who you meet at a party. Paul assumes he understands the reason behind your work in prisons; using a standard psychoanalytic formula, he figures that you are trying to save your students because you want to save your father. This exchange prompts you to conjure up fantasies where you belittle Paul and get the best of him. I know that you, like me, are interested in psychoanalysis, so I was wondering what you thought about the relationship between memoir and psychoanalysis?


AW: The psychoanalyst and the good memoirist believe the same thing – you are not the master in your own home. Paul is a doctor, elegantly dressed in black, who looks at me over the top of his glasses at a dinner party and says, “Oh, your dad was in prison and you teach in prison – are you trying to save these men?” I say no to him, but later on in the book I have these fantasies about belittling him. As a memoirist, you’re going to be faced with situations where all you can do is be honest about your own conceitedness. If you can’t do that then maybe you’re better off getting a job as a salesman.


I hardly ever tell my students that I have family in prison, that my dad, brother and uncle were inside, because I’m worried they might think I’m trying to ingratiate myself, that I’m trying to say I understand, when I really don’t. I’ve always had this sense of not knowing what it was like inside prison, ever since I was six years old and was outside a prison, while my brother was inside. So I don’t tend to tell my students that I have a horse in the race. One of the few times I told a prisoner about my dad being inside, the man just looked down at his feet with awkwardness and embarrassment. He had a son. Even for the most extreme “bad boys” and those who claim to love it in prison, the subject of their kids is kryptonite. The superman crumples. It was very intense for me, representing that pain for someone, being the object of their projection. Now that I’ve published a book about my history, I’m going to get that much more in prison. I wonder if that will make for a more interesting philosophical exchange or not.

I’m glad to see that the boundaries between philosophy and memoir are becoming more relaxed.

AF: I was lucky enough to read an early draft of the book and I remember reading it and sending you messages saying how much I was enjoying it, and also – having read a lot of the personal material – hoping you were okay. And I remember wondering if it was appropriate for me to ask if you were okay. If you’ve been trained in analytic philosophy in the way that we have, you’re encouraged to care about the arguments and not the author. This has always struck me as one of the discipline’s biggest failings – it dehumanises texts and discourages us from asking these important questions. And it is one of the book’s strengths – it situates philosophy in human relationships, identified by the subtitle, “A Memoir of Prison, Family and Philosophy”. Can you tell me more about the importance of “memoir” there, and the importance of memoir in philosophy?

AW: Some might say The Life Inside isn’t really philosophy, perhaps because it’s too icky with the stuff of real life, whereas philosophers tend to be an antibacterial lot. I think it’s a work of philosophy because it features philosophical conversations that provoke insight, knowledge and doubt for the figures involved and also for the reader. But on the whole I’m glad to see that the boundaries between philosophy and memoir are becoming more relaxed, with books like John Kaag’s Hiking with Nietzsche and Lea Ypi’s Free. I think the fear is that some people assume that philosophy is about transcendence but memoir is facticity, to use de Beauvoir’s terms. There’s an assumption that if you have personal investments, you won’t be able to think properly. That’s the Kantian or Platonic attitude about how the personal just creates noise between you and the particular. I think objectivity is about being aware of how your history and stance are present in your argument and discerning when that is offering more insight from when it is restricting your viewpoint. Memoir is earthed and intimate and therefore feminine, and philosophy is the serious business of abstraction and universals – it’s a man’s game. And I don’t want to be confined to either of those extremes. I want it all.


AF: One of your key roles in the book is as a teacher. Standardly, it’s the teacher who imparts information. This is turned on its head slightly when we’re thinking about Socratic dialogue, where you’re drawing ideas out under the pretence of learning things from the students, but on the standard model the teacher doesn’t really learn anything – it is the student who does the learning. I’m wondering what you learned from these encounters. I feel like I learned a lot from reading about them, and I think I’m relatively well-versed in the topics you discuss. Obviously there’s a lot about the internal workings of prisons, but I learned about philosophy as well.


AW: I think I got closer to these texts that I was bringing in. Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a story about two men, Didi and Gogo, standing next to a dead tree on a waste-land, waiting for a man called Godot to arrive. They’ve been waiting there for a while and they don’t know when Godot will arrive. At the end of the first act, a child comes and says, “I’m sorry, Godot won’t come today, he will surely come tomorrow”. In the second act, they wait and wait, and at the end, the child comes again and says, “I’m sorry, he won’t come today, but he will surely come tomorrow.” Then the play ends. It’s sometimes called the play in which nothing happens – twice. There was something about discussing that in prison with people who are doing time, in the same way that Didi and Gogo are doing time. That was really interesting. There was someone in the class on an indefinite sentence, so he doesn’t know if he’s going to be let out. He might be let out this year, or next year, or in four years time, or in twelve years time – he has no idea. I asked him what Didi and Gogo should do. I was expecting him to say things like, “They could meditate” or “They could try and entertain themselves” or that they could just do all the things they actually do in the play, like fight and play and sleep. Instead, he said, “I would just ignore the kid. When that child comes, just don’t listen to him.”


This taught me a lot about hope. Beckett is telling us about the cruelty of hope. Hope is relentless, hope is what kills you in Beckett. Didi and Gogo keep saying they’re going to leave, but they never do. So I felt like I learned more about what Beckett was doing, but also about how hope is not always what you need when you’re doing an indefinite sentence. There’s “keeping your head in jail” and then there’s that lower circle of prison, where you ignore the child.


I have no interest in putting forward a thesis that memoir is actually philosophy and philosophy is actually memoir. I’m happy to cannibalise both.

In terms of philosophy, I have no interest in putting forward a thesis that memoir is actually philosophy and philosophy is actually memoir. I’m happy to cannibalise both. I want to use philosophy to help me produce a good piece of writing, rather than feeling like I have to play the company man for philosophy. But what I’ve learned is that both philosophy and memoir work on the page when you sense that the writer is doubting themselves. A memoirist who is too self-assured is basically just trying to chat you up, and you won’t stay with them after six or seven pages. Likewise, philosophers generate some of their best ideas out of scepticism or uncertainty.

But what really ties my preoccupation with memoir, philosophy, and prison together is revelation. Firstly, I think memoirists are in the business of revelation. You don’t think of a plot and then sit down and churn it out. You get halfway through a sentence as a memoirist and you go, “Oh no, that’s not honest. Oh no, that’s a mask. Oh no, it didn’t happen like that.” Things are being revealed to you during the writing. And I also think philosophy reveals. One thing I say in my classes is that a reason to do philosophy is to find out what you think. Most of us don’t really know what we think about things until we start talking about it. By asking people in prison about freedom, hope, shame or forgiveness, they reveal something to themselves. In turn, writing about this reveals something of the particularity of that individual and their situation. Every prisoner in the book is different. There’s no such thing as “The Prisoner”; there are only prisoners, flesh and blood people. I wasn’t interested in writing them as archetypes.


This connects with the third thing I wanted to reveal – the prison itself. Going into prison to visit my brother when I was six or seven and then coming out, it was like I’d seen something that no one else could see. It was as though everyone else was blind. I thought, “Everyone else needs to see this place”. But of course we don’t see because prison is obscured, not only physically by the walls but also by ideology and our own projections. I tried to write in a way that might get past that. Inside I was still saying “Everyone else needs to see this place”.


AF: I think I’m much more cynical than you are about the power of philosophy, but I think that’s because I have a much less capacious understanding of what philosophy is. What you’re saying about reason and revelation makes me think of the classic debate around epistemic authorities. Do we trust the philosophers, or do we trust the priests, the people who have a conduit to God? You’re not engaged directly with that as a problematic, but you are interested in how we come to learn stuff and how we produce knowledge – and one of the things I found so affecting about the book is that you reveal things in the way you’re describing them, but not through a process of rational argumentation. That’s good for me. I feel like rational argumentation is fragile in so many ways. It’s not that I don’t think you can learn important things through careful reasoning, but I feel that far too often the exclusive focus on careful reasoning is to the detriment of truth. I think there is so much that is true in the book, which isn’t born out of an argument. That’s one of the things that struck me about the structure of the book. It’s doing so much work. As I said before, it’s not quite free association, but it is sparking questions in a reader.


A strong theme that emerged for me was mental health. There’s a lot there about obsessional acts. Putting one’s mental health in conversation with philosophical topics feels incredibly productive but is not something that can be compassed by a rational argument, necessarily. A lot of this discussion crystallises around a figure you refer to as the “executioner”. In some ways he’s a reverse super-ego, telling you not to live by your father’s value system. I want to know more about how the conversation with this relentless figure is part of the philosophical work.


AW: It’s interesting what you’re saying about reason and revelation there. I have always stepped away from revelation in the religious sense, because of all the metaphysical baggage. But when I was younger I took a lot of instruction from James Joyce’s The Dubliners for its epiphanic structure. Perhaps those lessons are still latent in how I write. I think the modernist’s epiphany is like a secular version of revelation.

The “executioner” is this psychological enemy in the book. He’s a punitive voice in my head who has been with me since my dad went away. It’s this fear that I am fated to be like my dad and go to prison, and that this has been written in stone and there is nothing to be done about it, that it’s just a matter of time. “If you haven’t done something now, you will do something.” I hear it particularly at moments of happiness, when receiving a gift from a friend, or on a summer day on the beach with loved ones. It tinges those joys with desperation and dread, as if they were like the final meal before going to the chamber.


You could just call it anxiety or what gets called “Pure OCD” – feelings of shame and dread that push me to perform mental rituals in search of reassurance. But in the book I never use these kinds of terms as medicalised language would have really missed the point of the story I was trying to tell. I was telling a story about myself as someone who has been affected by the criminal justice system and by having family who were criminalised – and the executioner is one of the arms of the criminal justice system. The word “OCD” is just too decontextualized, so using it would have negated the socio-political genesis of my anxiety. I didn’t want to gaslight myself like that.

Likewise, as the story charts my freedom from the executioner in my head, I tried to do it within the context of the prison system. I was meeting people who lived inside a six-by-eight cell who were finding ways to transcend their shame or had found a way to live in spite of it. I wanted to learn something from that.


I was meeting people who lived inside a six-by-eight cell who were finding ways to transcend their shame or had found a way to live in spite of it.

AF: This leads onto my final question. Reading that early draft, I felt worried about you, about everything that’s happened. I also felt uncomfortable expressing care because you’re a man and I’m a man, and there’s something vaguely illicit about demonstrations of masculine tenderness. I’m just thinking about what it feels like for you when I say it makes me sad that you’ve been through all of this, and whether or not it comes across as patronising? It’s meant as care but, personally, I hate it when people express care towards me. It makes me feel deeply uncomfortable.


AW: I have to admit that my responses to readers are sometimes insecure, contradictory, and quite silly. I did an interview recently on the radio and the interviewer was really wonderful, and really got in deep about the book with me, but afterwards when we debriefed she said, “Andy, I read your book and – I just want you to be happy.” I thought that was sweet and I thanked her. But at the back of my mind there was this voice saying, “Oh no, I thought she considered me a serious writer. I thought I’d crafted a decent story that grappled with life’s big questions. Have I just written a 300-page trauma dump!?” But then sometimes I engage with interviewers who look at it purely as a text, like how you’re supposed to investigate things as an analytic philosopher, and inside I’m thinking, “Listen mate, it was really hard to write this book. Can you please go a bit easier on me! Don’t you just want me to be happy?”

Like I said, I was just being the fragile writer, but I also think it says something about how we’ve separated memoir and philosophy into feminine and masculine categories, how we recognize transcendence at the expense of facticity – and vice versa. In my more secure moments, I’m really pleased that I’ve written a book that straddles these dualities.



Andy West is a senior specialist at The Philosophy Foundation, as well as Philosopher in Residence at HMP Pentonville, and the author of The Life Inside: A Memoir of Prison, Family and Philosophy (published in paperback by Picador in 2023). Twitter: @AndyWPhilosophy


Adam Ferner is a writer and youth worker based in London. His latest books include The Philosopher’s Library (with Chris Meyns) and Notes from the Crawl Room. Website: adamferner.com

 

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").

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