Philosophy of a prize-winning procrastinator

Oct. 26, 2011, 3:02 a.m.

Joining the elite company of the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania (who rolled a tank over a parked car in an attempt to deter illegal parking) and a group of doomsday forecasters (who have all incorrectly predicted the end of the world), professor emeritus of philosophy John Perry was awarded a 2011 Ig Nobel Prize.

Philosophy of a prize-winning procrastinator
(Courtesy of John Perry)

“Well, it’s about as prestigious as a Nobel Prize, but much rarer,” Perry joked. “It’s just like the Nobel Prize except the cash isn’t quite as much — as a matter of fact, it’s zero.”

Perry won the award for an essay published 15 years ago titled “How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done.” The essay explains how procrastinators can exploit their procrastinating tendencies, delaying seemingly more important tasks by doing less important ones, to make themselves “effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.”

“For some reason the essay seems to have been liked by a lot of people, many of whom write me every week and say it has helped them,” Perry said. “I didn’t write it to help people, I just wrote it to get through a dark and depressing afternoon when I was down about being a procrastinator…so that’s nice that people like it.”

While the Ig Nobel Prize is Perry’s latest claim to fame, Perry is well known in philosophy circles as an influential, widely published author. He has published over 100 books and articles on topics ranging from philosophy of language to philosophy of mind to metaphysics. His work is so well respected that in 2007, other authors published a compilation of essays about his work.

In the introduction to the book, “Situating Semantics: Essays on the Philosophy of John Perry,” the editors praise Perry as one of the few modern philosophers who has bridged the gap between the modern approach to philosophy, which emphasizes highly specialized study over “larger syntheses” of ideas into a unified worldview, and the broader approach to philosophy used by philosophers like Immanuel Kant, John Locke and Martin Heidegger.

After 37 years of teaching at Stanford, Perry recently retired, but he is still working on several projects and plans to keep an office at the Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI). He co-wrote a book about the philosophy of language, entitled “Critical Pragmatics: An Inquiry into Reference and Communication,” which was published in September. He is now working on a book in which he argues that freedom and determinism are compatible.

“If the laws of nature say if you have a strong desire to do something and can’t see any reason not to do it, you will probably do it. Does that mean you didn’t do it freely? That’s what the book will be about,” he said.

Additionally, Perry is preparing the second edition of his book “Reference and Reflexivity” for publication and researching the properties of questions with linguist Daniel Flickinger Ph.D. ’88. He plans to teach weekly graduate seminars at UC-Riverside in the winter and spring and continues to co-host “Philosophy Talk,” a radio show in which he and fellow philosophy professor Kenneth Taylor discuss a wide array of philosophical issues.

“We’ve discussed free will, Confucius, Buddha, Plato, Descartes, skepticism, the existence of God–everything,” Perry said. “We’re working on a show…called ‘Thinking Inside the Box’ which is to try to discover if there’s anything philosophically interesting on television…so far we’re looking at House, Terra Nova…that’s a lot of fun and we really appreciate Stanford for supporting our endeavor to do it.”

As extensive as Perry’s philosophical work is, his participation in the Stanford community has gone and continues to go beyond his papers and books. Perry was a resident fellow in the Wilbur dorm Soto in the late 1980s and early 90s. He served on a freshman education committee in the late 1970s that started the Western Cultures program, a precursor to the Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) program. He encouraged senior research scholar Edward Zalta to take on a project that became the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and he continues to advise graduate students. He has also served as director of CSLI and chair of the philosophy department.

“Probably people have told you that Perry is really entertaining, he’s really funny…but also on the other side he’s a really serious and dedicated teacher and advisor,” said Wes Holliday, a fifth year Ph.D. student who took many of Perry’s classes and was his undergraduate thesis advisee. “He’ll read your work in full, give really thoughtful comments, be really supportive and encouraging even if you’re arguing against his views.”

Holliday also praised Perry for the way his views on individual philosophical subjects fit together into a comprehensive general philosophy that complements the findings of science. He said “Situating Semantics” explains the way Perry’s philosophy forms into a coordinated whole.

“[The book’s essays] describe in some broad way this idea that Perry has talked about all these different philosophical issues, but his views fit together,” Holliday said. “He’s trying to make sense of these concepts like consciousness, free will [and] identity, in a way that jives with what science tells us.”

Associate professor of philosophy R. Lanier Anderson called Perry a leader in the philosophy department, praising his “amazing talent for bringing philosophical ways of thinking to the wider public.”

Despite his many contributions to philosophy and to the Stanford community, some know him only as the humorous author of “Structured Procrastination.”

Does this bother Perry?

“No,” he said. “It neither rankles nor pleases me. It’s just kind of intriguing. Would I love for something I wrote in philosophy to suddenly become a cult item and make me incredibly famous? Well, yes, that would be sort of a blast, but it would probably get old quick. But no, I don’t think it demeans my more serious work. I have a sense of humor.”


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