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An Interview with Distinguished Professor Duncan Pritchard, FRSE on Family, Sense of Self Over Time, Philosophy, and the University of California, Irvine (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/03/08


Professor Duncan Pritchard is UC Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. His monographs include Epistemic Luck (Oxford UP, 2005), The Nature and Value of Knowledge (co-authored, Oxford UP, 2010), Epistemological Disjunctivism (Oxford UP, 2012), Epistemic Angst: Radical Skepticism and the Groundlessness of Our Believing (Princeton UP, 2015), and Skepticism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 2019). He discusses: family background; a sense of self extended through time; inability to distinguish influences; lack of influential mentors; the influences of Graham Greene, Patricia Highsmith, JG Ballard, Anthony Burgess, Robert Aikman, and Shusaku Endo; the importance of reading fiction; formal postsecondary education; tasks and responsibilities with becoming a distinguished professor at the University of California, Irvine; provisions of  UCIrvine; and current research. 

Keywords: disjunctivism, Duncan Pritchard, epistemology, Irvine, knowledge, luck, philosophy, skepticism, University of California.

An Interview with Distinguished Professor Duncan Pritchard, FRSE on Family, Sense of Self Over Time, Philosophy, and the University of California, Irvine: Distinguished Professor, University of California, Irvine & Director, Graduate Studies, Philosophy, University of California, Irvine (Part One)[1],[2]*

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background or lineage, e.g., surname(s) etymology (etymologies), geography, culture, language, religion/non-religion, political suasion, social outlook, scientific training, and the like?

Professor Duncan Pritchard: There’s nothing remotely interesting in my family background. I know this because some years back a cousin of my father’s traced the Pritchards (an Anglicized contraction of the Welsh term for ‘son of Richard’) back to 1066 (incredible I know, but don’t ask me how he did this; I was too young to know the details). He was disappointed to discover that none of us ever amounted to anything. (I’m not sure what he expected. Perhaps statuette feet in the shifting sands with the inscription: ‘I am Daffyd Pritchard, Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and Despair!’) I must admit that I don’t find it disappointing at all; in fact, I think it’s rather funny. In any case, in the grand scheme of things, no-one ever amounts to anything, so it’s actually quite useful to have a lineage that removes all doubt about this. There’s no religion in the Pritchard family, except of the ‘Church of England’ variety, which is to say no religion at all. (There’s an old joke back in the UK: ‘Are you religious?’ ‘Good God no! We’re C of E.’) There’s no real politics either, except of the apathetic kind—I can’t remember anyone ever offering any sustained political arguments around the dinner table growing up. I’m from working class stock from a place called Wolverhampton, in central England. The area is known as the Black Country, on account of the industry and mining that used to be there, though there’s none of that now—it’s a very deprived, post-industrial urban sprawl. Very depressing, though this is mitigated a little by the fact that Black Country folk are the friendliest you could ever meet (though the local accent is usually regarded as by far the worst in the UK), and that makes going back there bearable. Plus all my family are there. (An odd fact about the Black Country is that people tend not to leave, even though there are zero opportunities there. Whenever I go back the first question anyone asks me is why I left, as if this were mysterious. Jeez, I currently live next to the Pacific Ocean in Southern California—does it really need an explanation?) My father worked his whole life, bar a brief spell in the army straight out of school (as was common in those days), in a local factory; my mother worked as a secretary in a local school. One of my earliest memories is the desire to leave Wolverhampton at the first opportunity. I rank it as one of my greatest achievements that I succeeded.

2. Jacobsen: With all these facets of the larger self, how did these become the familial ecosystem to form identity and a sense of a self extended through time?    

Pritchard: Looking back, I think I have learnt the most from the (fiction) books I’ve read. Certain authors in particular have been particularly influential: Graham Greene, Patricia Highsmith, JG Ballard, Anthony Burgess, Robert Aikman, and Shusaku Endo spring to mind. It’s notable that many of these authors are pretty rootless, as that’s the way I feel too. I think I’m also drawn to writers who have a sense of mystery about the world, who think that there is a place for something beyond the natural. Unusually, I think, there’s both a kind of fideism and a kind of scepticism (Pyrrhonian, I would later discover, on the model of Montaigne) that runs through me like the text you get in a stick of seaside rock (I think it’s called rock candy in the US). It was there before I even knew what it was. I’m not sure how uncommon it is, but I occasionally come across people with the same affliction.

3. Jacobsen: Of those aforementioned influences, what ones seem the most prescient for early formation?  

Pritchard: I’m not confident that I can distinguish between the ones listed in terms of influence.

4. Jacobsen: What adults, mentors, or guardians became, in hindsight, the most influential on you?  

Pritchard: I’m not sure there was anyone, to be honest.

5. Jacobsen: As a young reader, in childhood and adolescence, what authors and books were significant, meaningful, to worldview formation? 

Pritchard: Please see above.

6. Jacobsen: What were pivotal educational – as in, in school or autodidacticism – moments from childhood to young adulthood?  

Pritchard: As I noted above, I think I’ve learnt the most from reading fiction.

7. Jacobsen: For formal postsecondary education, what were the areas of deepest interest? What were some with a passion but not pursued? Why not pursue them?

Pritchard: I stumbled into philosophy (I had originally wanted to be a writer, but that was a bullet dodged, as frankly I’m not talented enough to pursue that), but once I had stumbled upon it I was hooked. I basically realized that it was really ideas that interested me. I was fortunate to get a scholarship to study for my PhD (unusual in the UK, but essential for someone with my background), and thereafter I somehow managed to inveigle my way in academia. I’m very lucky to be able to make a living doing that which I’m especially suited to doing.

8. Jacobsen: As a distinguished professor at the University of California, Irvine, wtasks and responsibilities come with this position?

Pritchard: One thing that is wonderful about UCI is how there is a real ‘can-do’ attitude that permeates through the campus. This has meant that I’ve been able to indulge a lot of my interests here. For example, I have a long-standing concern, both in terms of pedagogy and from a research perspective (e.g., epistemology of education and philosophy of technology), in digital education. Almost as soon as I arrived I was able to run a project to create two interdisciplinary MOOCs (= Massive Open Online Courses), on ‘Skepticism’ and ‘Relativism’ (the latter led by my colleague Annalisa Coliva). I’ve since been given funding to enable me to start a new project that brings the intellectual virtues into the heart of the UCI curriculum as part of a series of online modules that I am helping to develop. This project is a collaboration with colleagues in Education, and will soon result in some cutting-edge research in this regard, which we hope can form the basis for a major external funding bid. I’ve also been encouraged to create a new online masters program devoted to Applied Philosophy, which is an exciting and growing field where UCI has special expertise.

Relatedly, there is a real enthusiasm for innovation in teaching at UCI, which I think is wonderful. I’ve been able to develop new online courses and embed them into the curriculum. It’s been great to see how the students have responded to working with the virtual learning environments that we have created.

In terms of my other commitments at UCI, I run the Philosophy Graduate Program, which like the Department of Philosophy is going from strength-to-strength, and I am the Director of a new research cluster (soon to be a research center) devoted to ‘Knowledge, Technology and Society’. I also have a UCI-wide administrative role devoted to fostering digital education, as part of the Division of Teaching Excellent and Innovation.

9. Jacobsen: We have some relationship with one another through the University of California, Irvine, through the institution without formal contact. What does UC Irvine provide for you?

Pritchard: As noted above, this is a wonderful work environment for someone with my professional interests, both in terms of the great research that takes place here and also the enthusiasm and support for pedagogical innovation. I think it’s also worth mentioning that being at UCI is advantageous in lots of other ways too, such as the beautiful campus, and the amazing location (I’m still not used to the fact that the weather is always beautiful, with the spectacular beaches, and much else besides, so close by).

10. Jacobsen: What are the main areas of research and research questions now?  

Pritchard: I’m currently working on a range of research projects, some of them intersecting in various ways. I have a longstanding interest in scepticism in all its forms, including contemporary radical scepticism and the history of sceptical ideas from the ancients to the early moderns (especially with regard to Pyrrhonian scepticism, both in its original expression in antiquity and its later manifestations, especially the work of Montaigne). The later Wittgenstein is an abiding interest of mine, especially the hinge epistemology that is inspired by his remarks in On Certainty, both with regard to the sceptical problematic and concerning its implications more generally. On the latter front, I’ve developed an account of the rationality of religious belief (quasi-fideism) which draws on hinge epistemology, and also on the work of John Henry Newman, whose philosophical writings are a side-interest of mine. I’ve done a lot of work bringing philosophical attention to the notions of luck and risk, and their applications to a range of debates (e.g., in epistemology, philosophy of law, aesthetics, ethics, and so on). I continue to work on a range of topics in mainstream epistemology, such as theory of knowledge, virtue epistemology, understanding, the nature of inquiry, epistemic value, epistemology of disagreement, social epistemology, and so on. Finally, I also cover some topics in applied epistemology, such as the epistemology of education (e.g., the role of the intellectual virtues in education), epistemology of law (e.g., legal risk, legal evidence), and the epistemology of cognitive science (e.g., the epistemological ramifications of extended cognition).

My last proper monograph was Epistemic Angst; Radical Skepticism and the Groundlessness of Believing, Princeton UP), which came out at the very end of 2015. Last year saw the publication of a short book I wrote on scepticism (Scepticism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford UP). I’m under contract to complete a more advanced book on scepticism with my colleague Annalisa Coliva for Routledge in the near future. After that, I tentatively have three book projects in mind (though I’m not sure what order I will attempt them): a mid-length book articulating the quasi-fideist proposal; a book on luck, risk and the meaning of life (which I’m hoping to pitch at the general educated reader if possible); and a substantial monograph exploring the role of truth of truth in epistemology, with the goal of bringing together a number of central epistemological debates under a common theoretical umbrella (the intellectual virtues, epistemic value, epistemic luck and risk, and the nature of inquiry).

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Distinguished Professor, University of California, Irvine; Director, Graduate Studies, Philosophy, University of California, Irvine.

[2] Individual Publication Date: March 8, 2020:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020:


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