Five Questions with Professor Thomas Barrett on Music and Philosophy

Illustration by Esther Liu

Noe Padilla
News Editor

Thomas Barrett is a new assistant professor in the philosophy department at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB). He’s only been teaching at the school for a year at this point in time, and he specializes in philosophy of science, philosophy of physics, epistemology, and logic. In an interview with The Bottom Line conducted over email, Professor Barrett answered a few questions about his life and study of philosophy.

Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

What got you into philosophy of science?

“When I was in high school I wanted to be a professional musician. I was in a lot of bands. We ‘gigged’ around Southern California and I did a lot of home recording. My dad was (and still is) a professor at UC Irvine in the department of logic and philosophy of science. His graduate students would always be over hanging out at our house, and I got to know many of them very well. A bunch of them played music too, so in the course of hanging around them I somehow got the impression that graduate school gave you a ton of free time and flexibility to play music. This meant that my plan upon entering college was: Go to graduate school (in something — who knows what) so that I would have enough free time to pursue the music thing.

I ended up taking a philosophy of physics class from Craig Callender during the fall of my sophomore year at UC San Diego, and I loved it. So I decided that I wanted to go to graduate school in philosophy. It was fun being able to talk to my dad about philosophy. But then I just got super into logic and philosophy of science — it’s really fun — and that interest gradually overtook my interest in music. So eventually I decided to just go all in; instead of being a professional rock star I now wanted to be a professional philosopher. 

I’ve actually always thought of the philosophy thing in terms of the music thing. Music obviously has a huge performative aspect when you’re playing shows, but so does philosophy. You have to give talks and lectures, and these are performances of a kind. I still think of them like ‘gigging’. And recording a song is very similar to writing up a philosophy paper. You spend all this time working carefully, crafting this piece. You start with some basic idea, but it takes a ton of time to write it out, produce it, tweak it to get it just how you want it. So in hindsight it’s easy for me to see how the music thing morphed into the philosophy thing.”


What is your favorite fiction book?

“‘Once a Runner’ by John Parker. When I was in graduate school, I started running competitively. My wife and I lived a block from Central Park, so I started jogging around the reservoir to burn off graduate school stress and get to know my way around the park. Over the course of a few years running became a huge part of my life, and I started taking it pretty seriously. Anyway, these days I read this book at least once a year. It’s a trashy running fanfiction that definitely caters to a particular kind of competitive runner, but I love it. There’s a scene at the end of the book where Cassidy (the main character) is racing the mile. Reading it makes me cry every time!”


Who is your favorite philosopher?

“I have two: my dad (who, as I mentioned above, is a philosopher at UC Irvine) and my best friend J.B. Manchak (who is also a philosopher at UC Irvine). I talk or text with both of them — though we don’t often talk about philosophy — pretty much every day.”


Who were your favorite bands while you were in college?

“Going into college during September 2008 I was really into Bright Eyes. Case in point: I saw a photo of Conor Oberst where he had a leather shoelace tied around his neck. So for most of my first year of college, I too wore a leather shoelace tied around my neck. 

On my iTunes my most-played songs from my college years 2008-2012 are, in order: ‘The House that Heaven Built’ by Japandroids, ‘Holiday’ by The Hotelier, ‘Red’ by Taylor Swift, ‘Dancing on My Own’ by Robyn, ‘Should Have Taken Acid With You” by Neon Indian, and ‘Prom Night’ by Chance the Rapper.”


How would you describe your first year teaching at UCSB?

“It was great! I get to think and talk about philosophy and live in Santa Barbara. What could be better than that?”


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