Today's interview with a philosopher who shares his passion outside of philosophy is Tomas Bogardus, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He works mostly on the mind-body problem and the rationality of religious belief, and has a forthcoming paper on whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Let me know at helenldecruz at gmail dot com if you'd like to be featured!
- Can you tell me something about your side-interests/hobbies, and how you got into them?
Most of my free time is spent hanging out with my wife and daughter, and that’s what I enjoy most. Aside from that, these days, I have three main hobbies. I’ve been surfing for about twenty years now, and being near the ocean was an attraction of my current job at Pepperdine. My commute into Malibu takes me down the coast through Ventura and western Malibu, and there are lots of surf spots on the way. When I have some extra time and the waves are good, I’ll magically compress a longboard or a funboard into my Honda Accord and make a little surf stop on the way to campus.
My wife, my daughter, and I live at a bit of an elevation now, close to Los Padres National Forest, and it gets cool at night, so I’ve learned from my neighbors how to hunt, butcher, and season firewood. (Don’t worry, the trees have all fallen naturally.) On one of these adventures, I happened into some really beautiful and rare wood from a giant Catalina Ironwood tree that had died in the drought. The wood has a shimmering ochre color, it’s super dense (hence, “ironwood”), and looks almost like copper when it’s sanded and finished. After burning more of the wood than I’d like to admit, I decided to try my hand at shaping it into little hearts and triangles, and gifting them to my wife and daughter who display them around the house. At first I had only a circular saw, which I’d run with one hand while guiding the wood with my other hand. By the grace of God, no fingers were lost during that reckless confusion. Things have progressed a bit now, I have better tools, and some of the necklaces I’ve made are featured in a local store here in my hometown, and on the website of a chic local clothing line. (You can see some by following the new ojai_holtz account on Instagram.)
But the hobby I’m most into these days is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). Originally, around the middle of the last century, BJJ was developed to be a complete system of self-defense, focused mostly on grappling, and designed to exploit leverage rather than strength so that smaller people could stand a chance against larger aggressors. These days, it’s evolved into more of a sport through the introduction of various rules to allow for safer training (for example, no punching or kicking, and no slamming).
I wrestled in high school, and I practiced a bit with/got way outclassed by the wrestling club at the University of Texas for a couple years while I was in grad school, and since then I’d been missing grappling. In 2015, a BJJ gym opened up near my house, right on my commute (ojaivalleymma.com, run by BJJ blackbelt and former MMA fighter John Jensen). I was pretty intimidated by the prospect of walking into the gym, since I’m squarely middle-aged and I didn’t really know much about BJJ. But every day on my commute my head would crane as I passed the gym, and I’d wonder about it. So almost a year and a half ago (November 2015), I decided to mosey on in. It was one of the best decisions of my life.
I got hooked instantly on BJJ, training several times per week, watching YouTube videos in my free time, and telling everyone within shouting distance how awesome jiu jitsu is. (I most often train without the “gi,” i.e. the kimono, so it’s a bit more like wrestling.) I entered a tournament last August, as a “white belt,” i.e. newbie, and did pretty well (first in my weight class, third in the “absolute”/open weight division). I’ve done a couple tournaments since then, competing at the next level up (“blue belt”). I lost both of those matches, but I managed to keep it competitive at least, and those guys definitely would have just flat-out taken my lunch money a year ago, so I’m feeling alright with the progression so far.
Here’s a video of what no-gi BJJ looks like, as done by one of the very best, Keenan Cornelius: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRYdFNuNGPw
- Do you have goals that you want to achieve (e.g., getting to a certain level/winning in a certain kind of competition?)
My main goal is to just get a little better every day, and to stay in good shape. BJJ will really get you into good shape, and I recommend it to everyone: young and old, male and female, small and large. It’s an excellent workout, and it’s fun while you’re doing it. Personally, I can’t handle treadmills or lifting weights, or at least I can’t really sustain that habit for very long. That sort of workout is just so mindless and repetitive, that I can’t stay motivated to do it. But BJJ is high-stakes problem solving, and it really engages your mind. And it’s a good way to make friends, which is sort of surprising. Training to kill one another—in a friendly, safe, and respectful way—is actually a good way to bond. So I’m enjoying that: making friends, staying in shape, and learning some practical self-defense.
- Does your hobby relate to philosophy at all? Any crossovers?
YES. I think it’s no coincidence that philosophy borrows metaphors from the martial arts. We grapple with arguments, wrestle ideas, etc. (And didn’t Plato pick up that “πλατύ” nickname from wrestling, for his “broad-shouldered” build?)
The first similarity that comes to mind is this: something we learn in philosophy is the value of sharpening our ideas against resisting opponents. So many times I’ve thought I’ve had a view or an argument worked out perfectly—watertight, bulletproof, QED—but then I presented it at a conference, or I got a really incisive referee report, or I just talked it through with a philosopher friend, and I came to see that my ideas were built on sand. But that’s priceless! It’s given me the chance to improve my views and my arguments, and to develop ideas that actually work.
BJJ is similar. Some martial arts—I’m looking at you Aikido—never train against resisting opponents. In Aikido, that’s due to a principled rejection of competition. In Krav Maga, it’s because groin kicks and eye gouges don’t make for safe training. But without training against resisting opponents, the martial art becomes more of a choreographed dance, where your training partner knows what you’re attempting to do and will cooperate, perhaps unconsciously, while you drill techniques, and you end up unreasonably confident in your martial art. (Like this guy, who was so confident in his mystical martial art that he put up $5,000 against any challenger. The result was downright tragic. Warning: there’s a kick to the mouth and some other things.)
So that’s one similarity: through philosophy as well as BJJ, one learns to value training against resisting opponents. Another similarity is the problem-solving aspect of BJJ and philosophy, the way there are moves and countermoves and countercountermoves, and how one navigates these choice points in real time, while sparring in BJJ, or while having a philosophical back-and-forth discussion. To take just one example, studying philosophy of religion might make you more adept at deploying the Problem of Evil. You learn the strongest version. You anticipate that people will respond to e.g. premise 2 by going “skeptical theist.” You learn what skeptical theism is, along with, say, three objections to it that you sharpen over time. And this goes on and on, eventually forming a large flowchart, or web, of argumentative strategy. You see how a response you deploy here will make you more vulnerable to another objection over there, and so on. This process can continue indefinitely. (Perhaps you even make a career out of it!)
It’s similar in jiu jitsu. Perhaps you know a good “snap down” into the front headlock position. You might develop three main attacks from the front headlock position, anticipating for each one a few ways your opponent might respond, and preparing a few answers for each of those responses, and so on. Soon, you have a large flowchart, or web, of grappling strategies. And you see how deploying this strategy over here will make you vulnerable to some other response over there from your opponent. And this goes on indefinitely. In fact, Jean Jacques Machado, a living legend BJJ practitioner, is said to have defined BJJ like so: “I do this, then you do that, then I do this…forever.” And isn’t that a decent summary of the history of philosophy?
- How do you make enough time for your hobby?
Olympic Gold Medalist Dan Gable says that, once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy. I think there’s a lot of truth in that; even the very small degree of “embracing the grind” with wrestling I did when I was younger has made everything later in life seem easier in comparison. And after teaching three courses per semester (and two in the summer) during my last three years of grad school, while writing a dissertation, working to publish like my life depended on it, raising a sleep-averse newborn, and being flattened by the job market for four years—goodness gracious, after doing all that for years, everything these days seems easier. I feel like I’m in cruise control now. Those rough years made me very efficient at prepping classes and grading; I’ve hit a groove with those. I research and write just a little less than I’d like, and I’m pretty quick at reading background literature, writing up outlines of papers, and then churning out the paper itself. Much of the rest of my job consists of responding to emails, and I type quickly. So it’s really not too difficult to find a few hours per week to pursue some hobbies. There are twenty-four hours every single day, and raising a newborn helped me appreciate how much time that really is. So why not use some of those hours to mosey on in to a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym? You won’t regret it!