Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij is a reader in Phiosophy at Birkbeck College, London researching immigration attitudes, prediction markets and epistemic values, virtues and norms.
In 2015-16 Kristoffer set-up and ran a philosophy in prison programme in South London. I spoke to him to learn about his experiences of this work.
Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij. Image by Birkbeck College, University of London
Ciaran: Hi Kristoffer, so to start could you tell me a bit about your personal and philosophical background?
Kristoffer: I started out wanting to be a journalist actually, one of those foreign correspondents who get to go to war zones, read up on their history, and write interesting stories that help us understand what’s going on. Think early Robert Fisk. But, in order to go to journalism school in Sweden - that's where I'm from - you have to first study for one year at university. So, at an open day I stumbled upon a philosophy session and fell in love.
Of course, being Sweden, education is free so you don't have to think too much before you take the plunge. So, I started off doing philosophy and ended up doing it for, I think, something like two-and-a-half years, before a friend of mine told me that there were no jobs in philosophy so I decided to return to my original plan and go to journalism school. I did go for a year but I couldn't really shake philosophy, so I ended up applying to graduate school and I got in, in Gothenburg. I dropped out of the journalism programme and that marked the end of my very brief career in journalism!
Anyway, after my first year in graduate school I ended up at New York University on a Fulbright scholarship, and while I was there I started reading and then got in touch with Hilary Kornblith, who became my supervisor once I formally transferred over from Gothenburg to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Ciaran: So, perhaps we will come on to some of your applied philosophical research later on but I wanted to focus first on your work doing philosophy in prisons. Could you explain a bit about the philosophy in prisons programme you were a part of?
Kristoffer: Well, first of all, ‘programme’ sounds very impressive, but it was just me! What brought it about was an initiative that was introduced by Chris Grayling in 2013, when he was the Prison Minister. He had this idea that he was going to crack down on 'perks and privileges' in prisons, and one thing that involved was that prisoners would no longer be able to receive books in the mail - books supposedly being a privilege.
Many people, including me, thought that was a deeply misguided policy. I got me thinking about whether there was a way to bring philosophy books to prisoners. Then I started thinking about it more broadly as a programme where I would go into prisons and do philosophy sessions with the inmates. I think that one thing that was driving me too was this sense that, from a purely selfish point of view, when we teach students we teach a very specific segment of the population - the segment that ends up at university - and while that has come to be an increasingly diverse group, it’s still not particularly representative of the population at large. In particular, I wondered if, since there’s this homogeneity, the way we teach and the assumptions that we get used to making when teaching, maybe they're more parochial than we like to think. From a pedagogical point of view, I was interested in testing that hypothesis out by going into a situation where you might find that fewer of those assumptions are being shared. That was one of my motivations.
To cut a long story short, it took about a year to get the whole thing up-and-running. There were several false starts but, finally, I got lucky and got an in at Brixton Prison. Through an alum working at Pentonville I ended up being put in touch with a person at Brixton who was very excited about the opportunity and she opened up all the necessary doors and managed to slot me into their existing language provision. That was very convenient since it meant I didn't really have to commit to developing anything formally, say, by setting up an Access module or the like. I could just go in and do the sessions. In a sense, it was the most fun way to do it because I didn't really have to write anything up in terms of lesson plans, I didn't have to do any assessments, I could just go in and do the philosophy classes and it was absolutely fascinating.
Ciaran: After you managed to get it set up and you were going in, how long did it run for?
Kristoffer: I think I was doing it for about six months or so, then my son was born and I didn't have time to continue, so I ended up roping in one of my former students, Joe Bowen, to do a final set of sessions. Since then, I haven't been able to make it happen again. But I still very much have the ambition to, at some point, get something up-and-running again. What I would really want to do is something on a larger scale. The ideal situation would be something like the Bard Prison Initiative, that would be the best version of it, but even short of that just something where it's a few more people doing it in a few more places. Hopefully, at some point I can do that. It was extremely interesting and rewarding, in addition to being extremely exhausting, just because of the format you have to do it in.
Ciaran: And that was despite the relative autonomy you had given, as you said, the lack of required processes and assessments and so on that are normally in place?
Kristoffer: Yeah, that's right. What was exhausting about it was, first of all, that the sessions were long, about four hours, just because of how free flows work in prisons. There are certain set times where inmates can move around, and between those times they have to stay where they are. So, the sessions have to happen within those slots. Teaching anything for that long takes a lot of energy, and all the more so when you have to motivate a group of students, many of whom might not really have any intrinsic desire to be there; a lot of them might just show up because the alternative is to remain in their cell and they prefer that even less.
More than that, you deal with a lot of different forms of learning disabilities, often undiagnosed. So, you have to cater to that and also to different levels of education and the variety of challenges that these bring up, all at the same time. It teaches you a lot as an educator. You end up doing a lot of things where you then wish you had done them differently. So, for the next session, you have a lot of things that you're planning to do differently, only to have the process be repeated for another set of things you need to fix - which is also what makes it all extremely rewarding.
Ciaran: In your article recounting your experience in The Philosopher's Magazine, you mention that prisons get requests a lot, not all of which are perhaps of value to inmates. Was there something of distinct value for you about doing philosophy with them? (It may not be quite different from what you would answer if someone asked what the value is for any student, of course.)
Kristoffer: There are certain things that people get to do in prison, certain forms of training that they receive. But my impression was that these communicate very clear expectations about where inmates are coming from and where they will be going once they leave. It’s all very vocational. Maybe there's a sense in which that's completely reasonable, but whether or not that's so, those offerings are simply not in my skill set.
Instead, I felt that what I could contribute was a type of philosophy session that would, hopefully, be interesting and intellectually stimulating. More still, though, I hoped I could use philosophy to make them feel a greater degree of confidence in their intellectual abilities and possibilities, irrespective of whether I was overestimating them in so doing. Because I decided early on that I would happily overestimate them for the purposes of at least having them feel that they were being treated as people who have the full right to be in these types of intellectual environments - to pursue other opportunities than the ones that are explicitly catered to in the prison environment - and to have the full right to seek out these types of environments in the future too, if they so wished.
So, speaking to their confidence and self-worth was another thing that I was hoping to do and I tried to craft the sessions in a way that would do that. That’s why I had Kent (the university where I was at the time) pay for the books that the inmates then got to keep. This was all to make them feel that this was a serious learning environment and to engage them in a way where they would feel that they were completely worthy interlocutors in these longstanding discussions in philosophy, and that their particular viewpoints and beliefs mattered.
Now, at the same time, I also wanted to inculcate this thing that we do in philosophy, where we learn to uncover and question our assumptions. So, it wasn't just an attempt to go in and validate them, it was also a matter of being able to call things into question, and try to offer them a space and framework for doing that in a constructive way, and with each other and not just with me - to essentially have a philosophical conversation, with all the bells and whistles we associate with that. So those were some of the things that I wanted to do independently of the particular content that we covered.
Ciaran: One thing that comes up when I talk to people about their public philosophy experiences is how it compares to their experience of traditional philosophical practice in an academic environment. What we've tended not to explore as much, however, is what people's pre-existing conceptions were of philosophical practice in the first place. It can often be quite difficult to articulate, but could you detail your approach?
Yes, that’s a good question. In general I find that people have a lot of pre-conceived notions about what philosophy is about, and that this sometimes gets in the way of having an interesting philosophical conversation. Of course, there are a lot of academic areas where people don’t really know what’s going on. But I think philosophy is in the awkward position of people thinking they know what we’re up to even if they’re badly mistaken, which means that any conversation then has to start by clearing up a bunch of misunderstandings.
What was interesting about teaching in prison though was that I didn’t get the sense that people had any particular ideas about what philosophy was. So there wasn’t that initial hurdle of first having to correct misconceptions about what we were to be doing together. Instead we could get straight to doing philosophy, by engaging with the readings and with the ideas and arguments in what we were looking at, which was nice.
Ciaran: It came across earlier that for you the experience affected your ideas about pedagogy rather than philosophy. Is that fair to say?
Kristoffer: Well, to some extent. We’ve touched on some of the pedagogy already, but as for philosophy, I think you can connect it to this broad discussion about the value of philosophy. There's almost an insecurity that seems to be felt in some parts of philosophy that drives this desire to answer questions like what is its value, what does it contribute, and so on. One thing I found from these sessions is that, much like me and many other people, the inmates found philosophy extremely interesting and stimulating. They found that philosophy, for them, raised a lot of fascinating and meaningful questions. I don't know if it answered any but it certainly made salient a lot of considerations they could bring to bear on thoughts and feelings that they had. And I thought that was nice. I think any proper answer to what the value of philosophy is - whatever philosophy is - has to include that fact. A lot of people find philosophy extremely fascinating and that's enough to justify at least part of its existence. Assuming such a justification is needed, which I'm not sure about.
Ciaran: Your mention of how the sessions connected with the thoughts that the inmates had brought a quote from your Philosopher's Magazine write-up to mind for me. You said:
"I quickly realised that they’re rarely listened to, so the Socratic practice of asking questions gets construed as an invitation to share their concerns and worries. I have to balance my desire to talk philosophy with also being someone that every now and then just listens, without thereby having the sessions deteriorate into a series of rants.”
Kristoffer: Yes, that was going on as well. When we in philosophy are asked about our views, we have been taught to treat that as an invitation to offer reasons. Of course, if you haven't been involved in that practice, then what you're hearing is simply someone asking you to report your thoughts. And if that happens in a situation where people very rarely ask for your thoughts - they spend most of the time telling you what you can or cannot do - then you will want to get certain things off your chest.
So that certainly happened. And I didn't want to just shut that down as it was something that I was offering them, whether I had realised it going in. Of course, it's not necessarily something I'm trained to do, but I wanted to make sure I was at the very least being respectful of where they were coming from, if only by sometimes just not talking for a while. Even if that didn't qualify as doing philosophy in the way that I'd imagined, it was something that happened for completely understandable reasons.
Ciaran: I wanted to get your take on what might be a common assumption about doing philosophy in prison. One thing that stands out is the way in which a prison setting diverges from traditional academic spaces of philosophising, and perhaps at first glance, deliberate philosophising spaces generally. However, in conversation with Free Range Philosophers, philosopher Nancy McHugh, who has done great philosophy in prisons work, emphasised that:
“Because [...] [we work] to develop symmetry between the students [...] it provides the conditions that we can engage in critical inquiry [...] and thus gets to the very heart of the philosophical enterprise [...] whether in a carceral setting or [...] my traditional university setting, [classes] tend to be very dialogic. [...] Thus in many ways my teaching didn’t need to change to fit [our philosophy in prisons] model”
This suggests we ought to question the underlying assumption that prisons are so rigidly divorced from the wider world. Alan Smith, who did philosophy in prisons for over a decade, highlights in his book, Her Majesty’s Philosophers, that:
“This [...] was not ordinary Adult Education, this was a situation of such diversity of knowledge, experience and circumstance that my only durable option was to try to find a place inside it. Although, saying ‘it’ makes the situation sound like a single unitary whole where there was a place for me to find. The situation was always changing, not only when people came and went but also when some kind of crisis blew up. Things from outside: children, marital upsets, family deaths and so on”
Smith seems to be highlighting a kind of tension here - there is something “not ordinary” about this environment, yet, through the diversity of inmates and the “things from outside”, it was at the same time coloured with all the variety that life can bring.
What is your perspective on this - did you find that there was something unique about the effect of the prison environment on philosophising?
Kristoffer: No, I don’t think so, so maybe I’m with Nancy here. We talked earlier about some respects in which it might be different to the type of teaching I might do at a university, where circumstances will be different, but it sounds like Alan is raising questions about the students having complicated lives and things getting in the way, and that's absolutely true. But I don't think that's different, at least not different in kind, from what happens at a university. I teach at Birkbeck where there are a lot of mature and part-time students. So a lot of students are balancing busy and complicated professional and personal lives with evening study and that can get difficult, and you have to be accommodating.
I think another thing that I didn’t find particularly unique - although maybe I’m reading too much into your quote from Alan here - was that I never tried to get to know my students in prison. For example, I made a conscious decision never to inquire into why they were there as I felt that had nothing to do with what we were doing. And I also felt that for me to inquire into it would just be a bit exoticising. There’s a barrier there. Just as in the case with my university students, we're not 'friends' - which doesn't mean that we're unfriendly! But it means that I'm inhabiting this particular role that comes with certain responsibilities that might require there to be a certain separation of sorts, which there wouldn't be in other settings where I'm not wearing that particular hat.
That said, I certainly would not stop people when they wanted to share personal things, partly for the reasons we talked about earlier: if that was something I could do for them, I was more than happy to be the person that listened to them. But, I never pretended that that would make us close in any way, or that I would thereby be providing a professional service - which I'm not trained to provide.
Ciaran: You mentioned briefly earlier the effect of free flows in prisons - the periods where inmates are able to move around - and the demand that makes on you as a teacher in that environment compared to a conventional university class. It is closer, at least in that respect, perhaps, to the long philosophical conversations people often have with others outside of that class environment. So, there are at least some ways in which a possible presumption of some, that a prison is going to be a very different place to do philosophy, isn't quite right.
Kristoffer: I think, with the free flows, that was just one of those facts on the ground that I found to be an interesting challenge because it forced me to be a better teacher for longer. It forced me to develop more pedagogical stamina. It put the idea of running a lecture or seminar for an hour or two in perspective and forced me to just be more creative in how I teach and keep people's attention.
So getting back to the more selfish, personal reasons for doing it - because of the challenges that it would involve - I felt this would be an opportunity to put myself in a situation where I would have to work harder to teach. So, I guess that's how I felt about that constraint. In a sense, it felt like less of a constraint and more like an appropriate challenge of the kind I was seeking out going in.
Ciaran: So, stepping back from your experience with prisons, there's a couple more general questions to pose. Much of what motivates these interviews is a recognition of a meeting of two developments. One is the recent push for greater engagement by academic philosophers with the public and another, going on quite independently from philosophy, is a perception of despair towards the health of the public sphere; be it distrust in the press, social atomisation, decline in traditional public fora and so on.
There is a lot of great efforts being made by philosophers inside and out of academia to do their part in remedying this, so it seems important to document the experiences of those engaged in this work right now. With that in mind, how do these two developments play a role (if they do at all) in how you've thought about the public philosophy projects that you've engaged in? Both the work in prisons but your philosophical work more broadly speaking.
Kristoffer: I think we've covered that with respect to the prison work. There were moral reasons in play for me, or a sense that there was some sort of injustice being done and something I was interested in doing in response to that. There were also some more personal reasons for doing it. Both types of reasons played a role in some combination, but maybe the latter are more fundamental than the former, at least if you think about it in terms of “would I have done this, if it weren’t for that?”
Something similar is going on for other work I’m doing now, on immigration attitudes, for example. It’s partly driven by a sense that the way things are going with respect to this topic is worrisome on a societal level. Or, alternatively, it has now become evident that things are bad, even though they might have been bad for a very long time. But part of the reason is also deeply personal. My wife is of Indian descent, and over the years she’s helped me see things through her eyes that just aren’t going to be obvious to a white boy growing up in Sweden. And my son is mixed-race, which also puts a personal and emotional light on some of these questions and the events that are unfolding right now.
Perhaps those are the reasons that fundamentally drive me and then the other reasons are the reasons that things might be getting funded, the reasons that things might be being recognised as valid questions to ask and try to answer on a national or international level. So, to the extent that I'm doing public philosophy - whatever that means, maybe philosophy that engages with non-academic actors - there’s certainly a general concern about society, including about the general intellectual wellbeing of society. But ultimately what's driving me might be something more personal. I don’t think I would’ve been doing this type of work, were it not for how life has turned out on a more personal level, and for marrying the person I did in particular.
Ciaran: So, we've touched on this last question somewhat already, but just to focus on it a bit more, how have your various public philosophy projects affected you yourself, not with respect to you as a philosopher? For some people who go through the academic philosophy world, they see philosophy very much still as something that's continuous with being a person; being curious, having a drive to know, and so on. For others, though, they might have a more rigid view i.e. such-and-such is philosophy, and philosophy is just this thing that I do. The latter don't, perhaps, often realise that philosophy is something very much rooted in a lot of what it is to be a person.
You don't come across as someone who sees themselves in this way, of having a self-conception that "I'm a philosopher and here's the rest of my life". It seems quite continuous for you and that it's not as if this public work has brought out a realisation that shatters this conception.
Kristoffer: It's a great question and I'm not sure I know exactly what I think about it. I think, for sure, all the work I do in philosophy is driven by things which are very central to me and that goes for the full range of things that I do, from the very heavily academic and theoretical to the much more practical stuff. And I think, maybe if I felt very strongly about the borders of philosophy I would have to decide what part of me was philosophical and what part of me wasn't. But since I don't really have a strong view of the borders of philosophy I can comfortably say that either all of that is philosophy or nothing is! It doesn't really matter to me.
That said, in the beginning, probably out of a lack of professional self-confidence, I felt a strong need to justify what I was doing with reference to philosophical orthodoxy. But, I think as the years went by, I thought less and less about the supposed boundaries of philosophy and was simply liberated by the fact that, as a philosopher and as an academic, you have a lot of latitude in terms of what you work on and how you decide to work on it. And now I’m in a position where I think very little about what philosophy is and what exactly is the relationship between, say, philosophy and the empirical sciences. There's an evolving set of questions that I find fascinating and worthy of answering and some of those questions - for example, some of my work is on foundational questions about epistemic normativity, value and, virtue - can be addressed using ‘traditional’ philosophical tools, in the sense of the tools that I think, statistically, a lot of philosophers are using. But other questions I'm very interested in require a lot of input from people outside of academic philosophy. Are those things still philosophy? I don’t know. But I do know I don’t really care anymore. Sure, I am a card-carrying naturalist, but that’s probably more a consequence of what I do than the other way around. So it’s not really that I have some fundamental theory about what philosophy should (or shouldn’t) be that’s driving me. Or if I do, it’s not one I’ve explicitly formulated to myself – and that fact isn’t keeping me up at night. I think it’s simply a question of having a certain trajectory for reasons you might or might not have fully understood, which doesn’t stop you from analysing them retrospectively in the way we’re doing here, of course.
Ciaran: Right, but it seems that you had this expansive view early on.
Kristoffer: Yeah, or early enough at least, and I think that over time I just became increasingly comfortable in affirming that expansion in some way. I think that's true. But, at the same time, I don't know if I define myself as a philosopher - however you understand that. I think there are certain traits that I define myself in terms of, that have driven me to become a philosopher and that have driven me to, as I said, be interested in and want to answer these particular questions in these particular ways. But I don't think, for example, if, one day, I left academic philosophy to do something else, I would have an identity crisis. Or I should say: I hope that’s true! I don't know - it might turn out that if I did I would, in which case - guess what! - it was very central to my self-conception that I was a philosopher in a very specific, academic sense.
Ciaran: It seems, given what you've said, that that would come as a surprise to you.
Kristoffer: I think so. I think there are certain things that happen to coincide with being an academic philosopher that I just thoroughly enjoy. For example, I absolutely love the idea of sitting down and reading the canon and thinking about what these people were up to, and this was partly behind the philosophy in prisons stuff too. And if you're a professional philosopher, that's something you get paid to do, and in many other areas that's definitely not something you get paid to do. More generally, I have the privilege of following my own sense of what is interesting and relevant and I'm grateful that being an academic is a profession where you can do that. For example, there are few other jobs where you can have such a broad portfolio of projects and interests, and be able to parade that fact as opposed to hide it. Another employer might tell you, "Well, that's all very interesting but you should really be doing your job". So, in academic philosophy, within reason, those things will be looked upon as good, as something that should be encouraged and which will lead to some benefit, not only for you intellectually, but also for the department and university, as your employer.
So these are things that coincide with being an academic philosopher that I really enjoy, and were I to wake up tomorrow and not have it, I would miss that, but I'm not sure if that would be to miss philosophy so much as to miss a particular professional setup that is, in many ways, extremely privileged.
Ciaran: Indeed and, regarding the coinciding of things in a professional philosopher's role, that's a very clear explanation. With respect to your work in prisons, it seemed at one point during the discussion earlier that you had an understanding of what you were doing as almost 'teacher first, philosopher second'.
Kristoffer: When you just said that it made me think... well, I think it might be another instance where it’s a case of - and this is going to sound strange - being 'Kristoffer first'! It gets to this idea of, well, do I think of myself as a teacher? I teach but I don't think I think of myself as a teacher. Do I think of myself as a philosopher? Well, when I introduce myself in terms of what I do, that's what I say, but it's a kind of shorthand, albeit one that’s actually not particularly helpful in giving people a sense of what you’re up to! The same goes for ‘public philosophy.’ If that’s something I do, I don't do it because I feel that I’m a public philosopher. I also don’t have this general view that there needs to be more public philosophy. Because do I feel that more of my colleagues should do more public philosophy? I don't know, I don't have strong views on it. As a consequence, views about that are not defining how I think of myself or driving what I'm doing.
I guess we’ve touched on this several times throughout the conversation. I theorise for a living, but not so much about what I am or the exact nature of what I’m doing. I don’t know if that should worry me. If I had to justify myself, I think I would point to the large amount of data there is on how bad we actually are at knowing our own motivations and what drives us, and how good we are at confabulating about it when asked. So I can certainly tell stories in certain contexts for certain audiences that will sound very plausible - and I’ve probably done some of that with you here! But I think, ultimately, what’s going on is the not particularly exciting fact that I'm driven by what I find personally interesting and relevant and important, whether subsumable under some unifying label.
Ciaran: Well, that’s probably the best drive to have! That about wraps it up - thanks Kristoffer, it’s been a pleasure to hear your thoughts.
Kristoffer: No problem, I enjoyed it. Thanks for taking time to do this!