Interview with Herb Morris
Herb Morris ‘51, UCLA undergraduate alumnus, was interviewed by Sabine Tsuruda. Herb is professor emeritus in the UCLA Department of Philosophy and School of Law, and his research focused on legal and moral philosophy. His current research is at the intersection of literature, art, and philosophy, and his latest book is Disclosures: Essays on Art, Literature and Philosophy (2017). Sabine is a J.D./Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy who received her J.D. in 2016, and is completing a dissertation on the moral, legal, and political philosophy of work.
ST: Let’s start from the beginning. What initially attracted you to philosophy at UCLA as an undergraduate?HM:
I think my interest in philosophy may have arisen because of events that go back into my very early childhood. I was six years old and kept a secret from my mother and father that I regarded as very significant. I felt that my not telling the truth was keeping from them something of importance. I felt guilty and apart from them in a way I had not before. From that day onwards in my life I felt that I was outside looking in. Even though I was very successful, popular, and good at sports, life felt like a mystery to which I did not have an answer. I began to read voraciously at about the age of ten. I read Dostoevsky’s novels while in high school.
I started off at UCLA as an economics major and then as a political science major. These disciplines didn’t seem to provide me with the kinds of answers I was searching for. Life was a puzzle for me. After a course I took at UCLA called “Logic in Practice,” taught by Abe Kaplan, I thought philosophy was an area that might hold for me what I was seeking. So I decided to switch my major.
ST: Did you feel like you found some of those answers while you were an undergraduate?HM:
No, I remained as befuddled as ever. I think this sense that life was a puzzle led me to an orientation that favors the outsider, takes on strange philosophic views or puzzles in literature or in art, and tries to make a case out for their making sense in some way. This search naturally led not just to literature but to psychoanalysis. The psychoanalytic interest was one that I’d had even when I first started teaching philosophy. But it became a much more intense interest when I met John Wisdom in 1957.
ST: Your interest in psychoanalysis really started when you were teaching. Was there something about teaching in particular or a subject matter you encountered?HM:
It was the subject matter. I was interested in the status of psychoanalytic claims, the nature of the unconscious, what weight we should give to criticisms of psychoanalytic claims being reliable interpretations. John Wisdom saw this connection between philosophic reasoning, legal reasoning, psychoanalytic interpretation, and literary interpretation—all of these things for Wisdom were areas where there was room for rational discussion, although the traditional views of corroborating empirical claims and deductive claims were not applicable. So that really appealed to me because of my interest in literature and also my interest in philosophizing about strange things that people were saying, like “We’re all guilty and guilty for all men,” as Father Zosima said in The Brothers Karamazov. I wanted to show that there was some truth in that, that we should see what was being brought to light.
ST: So after you finished at UCLA you went straight to law school.HM:
Yes, but particularly in the first year I had a great deal of ambivalence as to whether I should return to philosophy or remain in the law school. I remember vividly studying for the first-year exams by reading poetry in the Yale Sterling Library. It was probably my way of coming up with an excuse for failing my first-year exams by saying I didn’t really study. I got on to the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and reading his poetry. Ironically, it turned out to be the very best preparation for taking the exams.
ST: How so?HM:
I remember so vividly the last two lines of a sonnet of his that I simply did not comprehend at all. And I can remember the lines:
. . . shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
–Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Windhover” (1918)
I finally made out what it meant, and it induced me to read the hypothetical questions on the exam with the care that was like the care I was bestowing upon Hopkins. This led me to the view that we have to make very clear what the question is before we start to answer it. And the consequence is that I did extremely well on the exams, which diminished the ambivalence I was feeling, so remained at Yale.
In my third year I was selected as a legal research instructor, basically teaching lawyering and legal research skills, legal writing, and some jurisprudence. I picked up a lot in the way of knowing how to write. Actually, the person I give the greatest credit for the care I bestow in writing was Bob Yost. I took a course [of his] at UCLA as an undergraduate, and he announced at the beginning of the course that there would be a midterm essay, no more than three pages, and a final essay of five pages—he would not read a word more—and he gave me a D+ on my three-page Descartes paper. But no one, up to then, or subsequently, had ever gone over anything I wrote with the degree of care that he did. He left no word, sentence, connection between sentences, without a comment as to where he saw something that was unclear, deficient in its expression, what have you. It was the shock of my lifetime and the best shock that I had ever received. And that’s stayed with me and I’ve done it with students of my own—I give them, but not up to his standards, the Yost Treatment.
So that was a great experience at Yale largely because I was reading, reflecting, and writing. I was somewhat prepared for Oxford, but not quite prepared for someone like Herbert Hart. I hadn’t known about Hart at all. In fact, I can’t reconstruct why I was so attached to going to Oxford—I think it was largely a kind of romance, and I knew I didn’t want to practice law.
ST: How come?HM:
I was just interested too much in ideas. What gave me the greatest pleasure was writing and researching.
I subscribed at Yale to the logical empiricist view of meaning—that propositions were only meaningful provided that they had a possibility of verification as being true or false. And then my first term at Oxford, Hart recommend that I sit in on J.L. Austin’s lectures on performatives. It was something like the shock that I had with Yost’s response to my first writing assignment. It taught me such humility. I thought I’d been dealing, not just in my everyday life, but for three years in law school immersed in performative utterances, regarding them as obviously meaningful, even though I subscribed to a theory of meaning that ruled them out. And so this was one of the more illuminating events in my life. The mismatch between some theoretical position I had assumed and what was staring me in the eyes. Yost, Austin, Wisdom, and certainly the late Wittgenstein were strongly formative influences on me.
ST: After your time at Oxford you returned to UCLA.HM:
I was studying and working on my D.Phil. thesis under Hart, and it was the spring of 1956. My wife and I went to the American Express in Florence, Italy, and there was a letter from Don Kalish—a blue aerogram—and we opened it standing right beside the Arno river. In that letter Kalish said the department was offering me a tenure-track position. I was stunned by this. But then it was also the case that I now had the prospect of having a law degree from Yale and a D.Phil. from Oxford in legal philosophy, and I don’t think there was anybody in the country at that time with that combination. I got an offer from Stanford and an offer from UCLA, and there was no question for me that I would return to UCLA. These were my teachers and I felt I would be at home.
ST: A little earlier you mentioned that you often found more philosophical satisfaction engaging in literature than more traditional philosophical texts. What about literature in particular?HM:
I initially found myself using literature as a springboard for philosophic reflection. Probably my most influential philosophical paper is “Persons and Punishment,” and I couldn’t get that paper off the ground at all until one day I thought of this novella, Traps, by Durrenmatt. And so I wrote a brief summary of what I saw taking place in that novella, and with that I wrote for two days without break, and I had the paper. I never dreamt I was formulating a theory of punishment. But that’s how it came about; just from that novella.
The same with Father Zosima’s claim [in The Brothers Karamazov] that we are all guilty, and guilty for all men and for everything. I thought, “What in the world does that mean?” And then I was off and running and wrote a paper on shared guilt. Likewise with the tale of Adam and Eve and my paper on lost innocence. So there’s something in literature where there’s often a kind of perplexing statement or narrative that grabs me. Another example: Jesus’s enigmatic statement, “If the salt hath lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?” That’s the sort of thing that fascinates me.
ST: You’ve mentioned to me elsewhere that you’ve organized a reading group with former students from your Philosophy in Literature class.HM:
Yes! Some of the most satisfying experiences that I’ve ever had have been the group joining me at my house for dinner. And so far, we’ve read and discussed for four or five hours Anna Karenina, Gide’s The Counterfeiters, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and we’re about to do War and Peace.
I remember in one of the scheduled office hours for Philosophy in Literature, a couple of the students came in and in the course of our discussion, in which I really enjoyed the exchange, the students asked, “So what is the answer to the question, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’”
ST: What did you say?HM:
I said, “How can you ask that question when we’ve had this two-hour discussion? Can you think of anything that is more gratifying, has more of a point to it, than what we’ve just engaged in? The playfulness, the imagination, the exchange of ideas, the total forgetting of oneself? If someone were to ask, ‘How would you like to spend the remaining hour of your life,’ what would you choose but being together with those whom you care for, talking about what most matters?” That’s the answer.
ST: Do you have any advice for current teachers about how to foster an appreciation for the humanities in their students?HM:
I would say that it’s important to give some examples of attentiveness, first of all, of focusing in on something, and then to actually show—not talk about—but show by how you approach this thing that you’re focused on, in order to illuminate what there is in it, whether it’s a passage in a poem, a philosophic comment that’s puzzling, or something in a painting, whatever it is, it’s something that’s concrete that can remain with the person. Because I think that’s where the real excitement lies. It’s not the accumulation of knowledge about, you know, what is Plato about in the late Dialogues, or what is Aristotle’s theory about this, that, and the other thing. It’s rather the particulars.
One of the things that’s actually worth thinking about is “God is in the details.” What I’m affirming is that’s right. God in the sense of a life force that emanates from the details, that comes out of the concrete. I think it’s actually part of the truth of phenomenology, that it’s this attentiveness to the concrete experience as contrasted with some abstract term or general theory. That’s one of the things that’s been more evident to me; it’s been a strange period in my life the last half dozen years where I’ve felt more creative than I’ve ever felt in my life. And the reasons for it are that I felt myself so enraptured by particulars. And this ties in with a fascination with this now popularized movement of “mindfulness,” about focusing on the contents of what’s in your head, which very few of us bother to do.
Interview with Barbara Herman
Barbara Herman is Gloria and Paul Griffin Professor in Philosophy. Her research interests are moral philosophy, Kant’s ethics, the history of ethics, and social and political philosophy. Her article “We are Not Alone: A Place for Animals in Kant’s Ethics” will appear in the forthcoming volume of essays Kant on Persons and Agency. She was interviewed by Daniel Ranweiler. Daniel is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy.
BH: Let’s start at the beginning. You have an interesting way that you came to philosophy from undergrad. Could you say a bit about your academic trajectory?DR:
I went to Cornell with the thought of either majoring in mathematics or being pre-med. It was pretty clear by my junior year that though I was fascinated by and interested in mathematics, and got good grades, I didn’t have the chops for it. It struck me that it was not a thing to do unless you could do it well. I was also serious about doing pre-med, but then I made a decision pretty early on, though after taking organic chemistry, that the whole process of going to medical school would take forever. (Little did I know how long it would take to do other things!) And so I wound up being focused on history and literature and math. I was ok with being all over the place so long as things stayed interesting. I took philosophy courses as an undergraduate and really didn’t like them. I couldn’t shake the sense of its being about cleverness, and while I could be clever, I didn’t like where it took me. I was interested in ideas; I liked thinking about thinking, about the way people thought about all sorts of things. I was also interested in narrative. I wound up with a double major in mathematics and history and thought I would go on in history, primarily intellectual history, in graduate school.
BH: And so you went on to Harvard's Ph.D. in history?DR:
I did. But, there was another intellectual fork in the road: I thought, to do intellectual history the right way would be to think about the way ideas made their way into culture (Fritz Stern was my hero). That meant thinking about the thought of middle-level thinkers. And did I really want to do that? So I thought, better to do straight-up history, and worked with David Landes, a great social and economic historian. But again, I got stuck. This time by what I saw as the unavoidable underdetermination of historical narrative by facts. And that just drove me mad! You do all this research, collect all this data, but you can tell the story this way or tell it that way, and you kind of hope something will force the balance of considerations—and I just thought, “Oh no, I can’t do this!” (I was both unforgivably arrogant and very naïve.) Fortunately, I had friends in the philosophy department at Harvard who were very excited about what they were doing. I began auditing some courses—Stanley Cavell, John Rawls—that simply stunned me. They offered ways of thinking that inspired me (then, and now). So I did something which in my later adult life struck me as ridiculous: I went to the chair of the philosophy department, Rogers Albritton, and sort of said, “You know, is there any chance…I mean, what would it take to transfer into the philosophy department?” He looked at me slightly cross-eyed and asked, “Have you ever done any philosophy?” And I said, “Actually as an undergraduate I did. I took several courses, including the pro-seminar for the major with Keith Donnellan.” And he said, “Why don’t you get the papers that you wrote for it?” So I called my mother, got her to find the papers from the course that had initially sent me out of philosophy—the cleverness course—and gave them to Rogers. And . . . the answer was “Yes.” So there I was, a philosophy graduate student.
BH: What was it about the Rawls and Cavell courses?DR:
I think the slowness. Questions didn’t get set aside. There wasn’t a sense that “Of course that’s a problem, but that’s not the argument we are chasing.” I felt what distinguished philosophy in the way that they did it was that the hardest questions were always the questions to worry about: if you could ask the question—if it was a well-founded question—then it was worth spending as much time as the question warranted.
BH: Given that philosophy is often talked about as being so male-dominated, and you're one of these women pioneers in philosophy, I'm curious to know: what was your experience like? Did you feel self-conscious about what you were doing at that time?DR:
Well, I certainly felt self-conscious about what I was doing, as a woman, and I certainly felt that the institutions had to change. But there’s something about the way in which, even when I was younger, I negotiated things that didn’t provoke overt sexist reactions to me. So no, I didn’t have as hard an experience as other women did. By the time I finished being a graduate student at Harvard, there were more women (I had been maybe the second or third). Numbers made a difference, but even so, being a woman at Harvard wasn’t easy. That I had an easier time surely had a lot to do with the particular people I worked with—Rawls and Cavell. I never felt that either of them had anything other than respect for me. (It also helped that I had a very active political life outside the department.)
BH: Did you also feel that going into your first position at MIT?DR:
Yes, I thought MIT was all right for me too, but the big difference there was Judy Thomson. It’s a whole other experience to have a senior woman philosopher as a colleague. She didn’t have an easy time as a woman in the profession, and I am sure that contributed to the ferocity of her support for me. I can’t express how much that mattered.
BH: Do you have any advice for UCLA students?DR:
Women have to work at making themselves be present to others as equals. To speak: to always be prepared and to speak effectively. I know that many undergraduate women feel undervalued in the classroom, and that many of them find it difficult to get into the conversation, or feel talked over. Many get depressed or angry, and neither helps. The best advice we can give is: even so, make yourself talk! Just make it happen. Come to class with a question written out and make yourself ask it. And if you make yourself do it, over and over, it will begin to happen more easily. It’s not fair, but it can be done. As an undergraduate, I was shy about speaking up. I still am. I work against it. If I go to a talk in the department I think: “Oh no, I have to ask a question.” Since I have to, I do it. I’ve gotten better at it, I think. So my advice is: take advantage of the opportunity to work on skills. You can survive embarrassment. The same advice goes for women graduate students as well. You wind up taking yourself more seriously.
BH: Why Kant in particular?DR:
I love the close reading of hard texts, and I’m pretty good at it. My attraction to Kant’s ethics is almost hackneyed: it’s about the ideas of autonomy, independence, a kind of authority of self that’s earned by getting things right. Kant is very good about the creative tension between individual and society in a nicely pre-Hegelian way. It’s a powerful moral vision, especially for women, even if Kant himself wasn’t the most attractive human being. There’s a strong Kantian current in feminist thought coming out in Catharine MacKinnon and a strong connection of Kant as a root to understanding some of the ethical dimensions of Marx.
BH: What sort of work are you doing now?DR:
One of the (unintended) legacies of Rawls has been to create a division between political and moral philosophy. Partly this came from a concern of his, late in is work, to have a conception of political philosophy that didn’t depend on buying into shared moral premises. I respect that concern for the diversity of moral views. But I think the unintended consequence—the thought that you can do normative thinking about interpersonal morality without imbedding it in an account of social and political norms (and vice versa)—is a mistake. They are inextricably connected, both in the way that we live and the way that we should be thinking about the way that we live. So if we’re going to be thinking about killing and letting die—even the trolley is someplace—I want to understand more about the social and political understanding of the value of a life. I don’t think in terms of intrinsic values, but of values as connected to norms of people living together, working things out in a rational way. Right now I am trying to finish a book, called The Moral Habitat, that works out a Kantian ethics that keeps the political and the interpersonal together as a unified moral project we have in common. Political notions of property and law shape the way we see what we can do, down to such smaller matters as giving gifts and expressing gratitude, being friends, and providing help.
BH: Last question: what do you love about UCLA philosophy?DR:
A lot! I came to UCLA because there were people here I thought I would learn from, and that’s been true. I thought it would be exciting to be colleagues with people like Tyler [Burge] and David [Kaplan], and that I would become a better philosopher by learning from them. I admire the ambition of the department to be a community of equals. There is all through the department a level of seriousness about the subject that is very high. Faculty and students are interested in fundamental questions; they are willing to take their time. People don’t publish a ton of stuff just because they can. So for me, it’s being in a community where I share its deepest values (or so I think). And I love that very senior faculty teach a lot of undergraduates—that they are committed to teaching undergraduates. I think it’s a great gift—we’re good teachers, and it’s wonderful for students at any level to see philosophy done at its best. I shouldn’t leave out the graduate students—wonderful teachers and philosophers I learn from all the time. So at UCLA I get to be a student and a teacher. What could be better?
Interview with Calvin Nomore
Calvin Normore, professor at UCLA since 1996, has just been named the first Brian P. Copenhaver Professor. His research focuses on medieval and early modern philosophy, the history of logic, and political philosophy, and he is currently working on a book manuscript entitled Descartes’ Ontology of Everyday Life, co-authored with Deborah Brown. He was interviewed by Ally Peabody. Ally is a second-year student in the Department of Philosophy. She is particularly interested in ethical, meta-ethical, and ontological questions involving moral standing.
AP: What brought you to philosophy and what made you want to become a professional philosopher?CN:
I grew up in a small town in Newfoundland, but it was the biggest town for a good distance around. There were no bookstores, but there were two drugstores that had little revolving racks of books and there was a public library. I was going to a Roman Catholic high school so I knew there was such a thing as philosophy from school. In the drugstores I found two books, one was Jacques Maritain’s A Preface to Metaphysics and the other was a collection of selections from Aristotle. I brought them home, and I didn’t understand either of them but I could tell that these were heavy-duty stuff on first reading. At the public library I found a couple of things of Bertrand Russell’s including his Why I’m Not a Christian and parts of his autobiography, and I read those and I decided “OK, I want to be Bertrand Russell.” And so I set out to be Bertrand Russell. When I went up to university I wanted to do math and philosophy. But I had the following relationship to math: I liked having done it but I didn’t actually like doing it that much. Whereas the philosophy I liked actually doing, so I moved more over into philosophy. But I didn’t intend to become a pro at all. I think the thought never crossed my mind in those days. Even when I was in graduate school, for a lot of my fellow graduate students at that time, being an academic wasn’t what they wanted to do particularly. So that all came much later, by accident again.
AP: Can you tell me a bit about your career trajectory, where you did your graduate studies, and how you wound up here?CN:
In my senior year as an undergraduate, at McGill, John Trentman gave a seminar on John Buridan’s Sophisms on Meaning and Truth. In the course of that seminar I got introduced to the work of Arthur Prior. And Prior said that there was interesting modal and tense logic to be found in the medievals. So I decided I’d study the medievals, and the best place to do medieval at the time was the University of Toronto. But the year I arrived I fell in with young faculty members who weren’t doing medieval. … I basically was working on contemporary stuff for the first while but then slowly got back into the medieval stuff. Hans Herzberger agreed to supervise my dissertation and so I did that.
In my second to last year as a graduate student, York University suddenly needed a fill-in so they hired me. I taught there for two years, before I finished my Ph.D., and it was grueling. I’d go in at eight in the morning and I’d just hang with the students til six in the evening, go home, write lectures, and come in and do it again the next day. After two years of that, I didn’t think I could manage it so I decided to become a computer jock. I got a postdoc at the University of Alberta, and I went out not intending to do any more philosophy, really, but to re-tool as a computer guy. My supervisor said “OK I’ll support all of this but you’ve got to let me put you in for one academic job.” So he put me in for a job at Princeton. After they looked at the application, my supervisor told me, “The people at Princeton don’t think you’re a scholar.” This really pissed me off. So I took a paper that I had done when I was a graduate student and I put it in an envelope and sent it with a very short note saying something like, “You might be interested in this.” And then five months later they called me up and offered me the job.
AP: What do you like about being at UCLA, what do you think is unique about the department and the culture here?CN:
The thing I love most about UCLA is that I’ve always thought that anything is possible. You come up with an idea; you can make it happen. It’s that sense of open possibility that really excites me.
AP: Can you tell me what you like the most about medieval philosophy? What’s exciting about it to you?CN:
Remember I got into medieval because I’d discovered that Prior thought that it was an interesting moment in modal logic, and that’s what I ended up writing my dissertation on. The more medieval philosophy I read, particularly the people of the fourteenth century—people like Scotus, Ockham, Gregory of Rimini, John Buridan—the more they seemed to resonate; in a way the earlier medievals and later folk didn’t seem quite on the same wavelength as what was happening in philosophy when I was a young scholar, but these medievals did. So I didn’t get into it to do history, I got into it to do philosophy, and these folks seemed to me to be doing crackerjack, first-rate philosophy of a kind I recognized.
AP: When you decide to write a book or an article, how do you decide what you want to write about? Do you come across it in teaching?CN:
Sometimes, I write it because somebody wants me to write it. But typically, what happens is when I finish something, a there’s some bit of it that’s not worked out yet, that seems not right to me. So that just sort of nags at me for a while, and then if there’s an opportunity, to say give a talk or something like that I’ll say “Ah this gives me a chance to work on that.” So I’ll announce a title for a paper that doesn’t exist, then I’ll have to write the paper to fit that title.
AP: Do you enjoy doing kind of extracurricular reading, like non-fiction, fiction, and if so what have you been reading lately?CN:
I’m reading less extracurricular material than I used to. I used to be a kind of encyclopedic science fiction reader. Many years ago I lived in a building in Toronto that was then called Rochdale College, it was a quite exceptional place. You can Google it and see why. Judith Merril, who was a science fiction writer and editor, was living there and she used to put together an annual anthology of science fiction. For a while I read almost all of the major and even minor science fiction that was coming out. More recently I haven’t been interested in doing that so much, but there are couple science fiction writers whom I try to follow pretty religiously which are Richard Morgan and Hannu Rajaniemi.
AP: What is some advice you might have for an undergrad who’s interested in majoring in philosophy or continuing to study philosophy at the graduate level? And what’s some good advice you received during your academic training?CN:
I think the most important thing is to do what you really love. Because particularly now, it’s harder than it was when I was a student and a young faculty member. I had a colleague for a while, who had two sayings, one of which I thought was completely true and the other which I thought was completely false. So the one I thought was . . .
AP: Don’t tell me which one is which!CN:
I’ll tell you what the two are . . . one of them was “Publish early and often,” and the other was “There’s room in philosophy for words other than last words.”
AP: So the completely false one is “Publish early and often,” which kind of goes along with the whole UCLA ethos.CN:
That’s part of what I love about UCLA. I love the idea that there is room in philosophy for words other than last words. I mean you’re engaged in an ongoing discussion with people, you have to put your side of a discussion out there, a conversation, not just the end product of the conversation. So that’s an important thing to keep in mind—lots of people get writing blocks of one kind or another, and the writing blocks are often not writing blocks, they’re blocks about saying something that you might have to take back.
AP: It’s almost like by putting it on paper you’re committing yourself to it and that’s not how it actually needs to be. It is okay to be wrong sometimes and to change your mind.CN:
That’s right. I mean some of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century are notorious for it.
AP: Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you wished I had? Any last words—even though we have just learned that we don’t need to have a last word.CN:
I think there is something. As I was saying, I got into academic life by a kind of accident, but I didn’t get into philosophy by an accident. That is, from those early days in Corner Brook, philosophy seemed like what I really wanted to do. But the business of being an academic didn’t seem obvious. And I think people should keep in mind that philosophy is not fundamentally an academic matter. There are lots and lots of ways you can do philosophy, and being an academic is just one of them. And there are lots of things that philosophy helps you do besides teaching. So one shouldn’t think that studying philosophy is like studying engineering or something. Or perhaps even engineering isn’t even a good example of this, but it’s not vocational training, it’s something else, and it’s important to keep that in mind. I was looking at a website yesterday, a Canadian website in which they were talking about the advantages of tertiary education, because this is now becoming a debate again in Canada. And the question was besides the private advantages in terms in increased income, what does it give you? And they were discovering all kinds of strange things. For example, we live longer. Who would have thought it, right? So who’d have thought that philosophy was a path to a long life? Nonetheless it turns out there are all these correlations because I think one thinks about how to live well. Maybe occasionally one takes one’s own advice.
Interview with Josh Armstrong
Josh Armstrong is Assistant Professor of Philosophy. His research focuses on philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and cognitive science. His research articles include “Coordination, Triangulation, and Language Use” and a paper entitled "The Problem of Lexical Innovation," which recently appeared in the journal Linguistics and Philosophy. He has also published a review for The Los Angeles Review of Books. He was interviewed by Torsten Odland. Torsten is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy.
TO: When and how did you first become interested in philosophy?JA:
I was first introduced to philosophy in my junior year of high school. I went to a religious high school here in Southern California, and it required all students to take a philosophy of religion class. The teacher (who, incidentally, was also my teacher for a rock climbing course) focused the class first on arguments for and against a traditional monotheistic God and then on issues related to cross-cultural variation in religious ideas and practices. I absolutely loved the topics of the class, as well as the teacher’s quasi-Socratic style of running it. That summer another student named Chris Weaver (who is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois) and I decided we wanted to do a reading group—we read Alvin Plantinga’s God, Freedom and Evil and a book by Marilyn McCord Adams [a recently deceased emerita member of the UCLA faculty]. I remember being blown away by the thought that one could engage with large, systematic questions about the world in a way that was both technical and clear. I was totally hooked.
TO: How did you decide to pursue philosophy as a profession?JA:
Prior to that philosophy class my junior year, I was a very bad student. I was not really planning to attend college. I was planning, instead, either to get a job driving a big rig (I had recently got my commercial driver’s license) or working for the city. As my interest in philosophy grew, that same philosophy of religion teacher suggested that I might want to go to college and get a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. I asked him what people typically do with a BA in philosophy, and he replied, “Go on to get Ph.D.s in philosophy.” Since I knew I wanted to do philosophy for as long as I could, I basically decided on the spot that I would make getting a Ph.D. in philosophy my plan. I had heard of this school in Michigan called Calvin College because of its connection to Plantinga; I applied late and with bad grades, but somehow they let me in. The rest, as they say, is history. One of the fortunate things about not giving yourself many options is that it can make otherwise complicated decisions quite easy.
TO: Are there any moments in your philosophical education that strike you as a turning point—where you began to think about things differently, or ask different sorts of questions?JA:
I got introduced to logic and semantics very early on in my philosophical education. I think this played a pretty big role in shaping my subsequent interests and philosophical dispositions. I recall reading Grice’s paper “Logic and Conversation” midway through college, and being very much taken in by the project of attempting to anchor semantic properties in facts about rational agency situated in a social context. I think this encounter with Grice lead to my deep and abiding interest in figures such as David Lewis, Donald Davidson, and Ruth Millikan, along with UCLA’s own David Kaplan and Tyler Burge.
TO: Can you tell me about the philosophical community at Rutgers? What did you appreciate most about studying there?JA:
Rutgers was a really wonderful place to be a graduate student. There was a lot of extremely high-level philosophical work taking place on a lot of really different issues, both at Rutgers and in the tristate area as a whole. Perhaps the thing about Rutgers that I most appreciated was the opportunities it provided for interdisciplinary research, both in the sciences and in the humanities; so, for example, I received a certificate in cognitive science, and I spent a year on fellowship at the interdisciplinary Center for Cultural Analysis. All this allowed me to develop a pretty broad conception of the subject matter of philosophy, while also cultivating my specific interests in mind and language via direct conversation with leading figures in cognitive science such as Lila Gleitman, Randy Gallistel, and Alan Leslie. In particular, the program left me with a clear sense of the kind of distinctive contribution philosophy can make to issues of wider intellectual and cultural interest; it also gave me a sense of the philosophical rewards associated with a serious understanding of other fields.
TO: Are there things you would do differently if you were a grad student again?JA:
I had this idea of how the processes of philosophical research took place: it involved reading, thinking hard about ideas, formulating some claims or arguments in your mind, and then, at long last, writing up the results. It turned out that this picture was something of a myth, at least for my own case. So, I wish that in graduate school I had treated the act of writing philosophy as closely tied up with the process of doing philosophy. It’s hard to write good philosophy if you rarely write at all. It took some time for me to realize that the reason I was frustrated with my writing was that I simply wasn’t practicing enough.
TO: Are there interesting ways in which the philosophy departments at Rutgers and UCLA differ?JA:
The UCLA Department of Philosophy has a long and illustrious history, with deep continuities in its areas of strength over that time. In this sense, I think that the UCLA department has a pretty detailed sense of itself. This is less true of the department at Rutgers (though, of course, not completely untrue).
TO: As a professor, you have two roles that seem to be distinct: the role of a researcher and that of an educator. Do you see them as distinct kinds of philosophical activity? If not, how has your experience teaching related to your work?JA:
I don’t really see my roles as researcher and as educator as being distinct. One’s grip on the subject matter of one’s own research area is improved through the process of teaching. Likewise, I think it is an important part of my job as an educator at UCLA to bring my research to bear on my teaching—to give students a sense of what it is like to do research and to participate in an area of active research. To give a concrete example, I recently taught an upper-level class that explored challenges that the social practices of free-ranging baboons create for traditional philosophical conceptions of social convention. The students’ interest in the material of the class was excellent. But I think it would be extremely difficult to teach such a class in a pedagogically appropriate manner if I weren’t also engaged in research related to the topic.
TO: Can you tell me about some of the questions or subjects that really puzzle you?JA:
Philosophers have tended to work with a consumerist conception of language according to which the central properties of natural languages are pre-given or established by a long sequence of complex historical or cultural relations that are outside of the control of individual speakers and hearers. This is often phrased by saying that natural languages are governed by social convention. But speakers and their audiences often play the part of inventor, innovating or changing the language in ways that have not been established by prior convention. Indeed, Rousseau (and then Russell and Quine) famously pointed out that, on pain of regress, natural languages must have first been established by invention without the prior existence of linguistic conventions. Much of my work thus far has been focused on both better understanding this basic tension and on developing a dynamic understanding of social convention that successfully relieves the tension.
TO: Can you tell me about some of the projects you are working on now?JA:
I have ongoing projects related to the dynamic treatment of social conventions, including a project that attempts to integrate my broadly social conception of language with some of Noam Chomsky’s discussions of the human language faculty, or what has sometimes been called “universal grammar.” But my main area of focus recently has been with developing an understanding of communication that is responsive to what is known about the social practices of non-human animals (particularly other primates). Episodes of animal communication—say, the warning calls of baboons—do not happily belong in either of Grice’s categories of natural meaning or his category of speaker meaning. Such alarm calls are agent-based, audience-dependent, and capable of genuine misrepresentation, but they’re not guided by intentions on the part of the speaker concerning the manner in which the effect of the call on the audience is achieved. Most philosophical discussions have either focused on a notion of communication suitable for describing the natural world generally or a notion of communication that uniquely applies to human agents. My current work attempts to understand the nature and evolution of distinctively animal forms of communication and social interaction. The central idea is that there are forms of reciprocal dependence (or co-evolution) between creatures’ states of mind that suffice to enable the reliable exchange of representational content without the presence of anything like the kinds of speaker-intentions Grice and his followers appeal. I think that reflection on the social lives of non-human animals encourages a philosophical picture that doesn’t over-intellectualize the cognitive capacities mediating communication, but doesn’t under-intellectualize those capacities either.
TO: What’s something, unrelated to your research, that you like to read?JA:
I tend to read history when I’m not reading stuff directly related to my research. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of paleoanthropology and a bit on the cultural pre-history of capitalism.
TO: Are there any books in your area that you think would be interesting to a non-specialist?JA:
I’ll do something a little different. I’ll suggest one book related to my area that is not technically philosophy, and two books in philosophy that are not technically in my area. Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution by Rob Boyd and Peter Richerson provides a useful and accessible discussion of a topic of general philosophical interest. The Seasons Alter by Evelyn Fox Keller and Philip Kitcher and The Racial Contract by Charles Mills both provide accessible philosophical discussions of topics of enormous moral and political importance.
Interview with Gabbrielle Johnson
Gabbrielle Johnson is a sixth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy. She received the UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award in 2016-17. Her dissertation is within philosophy of psychology and concerns the structure and content of implicit bias. David Dixon is a philosophy major and chief editor of the UCLA undergraduate philosophy journal Meditations.
DD: What brought you to philosophy and when in your life did that happen?GJ:
I came into college not knowing anything about college. I was the first in my family to go to college and, in fact, my dad hadn’t finished high school. The only reason I applied to college was because my high school counselor had pressured me to. So, I submitted exactly one application—to Ohio State University—the day it was due.
I started as a math major, then I switched to political science. Then I took a philosophy class taught by Robert Kraut.
If you’ve ever met Professor Kraut, you’d know it’s a bit of an understatement to say he’s a boisterous person who makes his opinions clear. Students would enter thinking there’s no right answer to these philosophical questions, but he taught us early on that there was, that there are better or worse ways to approach the issues, and by being systematic and rigorous we can be confident that the answers we arrive at are the right ones. I was fascinated both by the philosophical method and how he employed it.
The final push came one day when Professor Kraut asked me, in the middle of class, “Are you majoring in philosophy?” And I was like, “No.” And he responded, “You are now. Come see me.”
DD: What brought you to UCLA?GJ:
However little I knew about college, I knew even less about graduate school. My advisor, Ben Caplan, had done his graduate work at UCLA. He helped give me a perspective on what the philosophical circuit is like and which schools are best for which topics. So, I was vaguely aware of UCLA and its prestige. I applied to as many schools as I could afford. But, my top choices were MIT, Rutgers, and UCLA.
I definitely wanted to come to L.A. Just moving from rural Canton to Columbus was a huge culture shock for me—I thought Columbus was “the big city”. The prospect of going to Los Angeles—an even bigger and even farther away place—was very enticing for me.
I’m happy at UCLA. As a grad student you become more aware of problems in the profession having to do with inclusivity, department atmosphere, and graduate student-faculty dynamics. Thankfully, the department does well in taking issues seriously, making sure we’re familiar with them, and working to ameliorate them. I often say to prospective students that while I’ve been here, grad students have raised some serious issues, which happens in every department. And, like in other departments, there’s been some disagreement about how to handle the issues. But one of the things I’ve never had to deal with—and that grads have told me they have to deal with in other departments—is convincing people that the problems deserve attention.
DD: Yeah. That sounds definitely to the credit and merit of the department. Let's move on to some more about you. Tell me about your research.GJ:
My area of specialization is philosophy of psychology, particularly perception and social cognition. My dissertation is on implicit bias—which has recently gotten a lot of hype both in public and academic spheres.
Essentially the idea is that there is mounting evidence that individuals who claim to have only egalitarian beliefs about members of marginalized demographics might harbor so-called implicit, or unconscious, attitudes that are at odds with those beliefs. These attitudes—that are unconscious but nevertheless affect what we believe about and how we treat other people—are what we call implicit biases.
A lot of the current work on implicit biases focuses on the normative issues surrounding the phenomenon, their various moral implications. Because I come from a hard-nosed philosophy of psychology approach, with roots in philosophy of language, I’m more interested in the structure and content of the mental states themselves.
The speed at which implicit bias became a popular conversation topic did it a disservice, because I think people picked it up and ran with it without thinking about the issue carefully. Throughout public conversations of implicit bias, I am disheartened to see the level of confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the topic. I’m hoping my work can contribute to a more careful understanding of the issue.
DD: It sounds like what happens to a lot of scientific findings after over-optimistic press coverage...GJ:
Definitely. People like to talk about how implicit biases could be responsible for overt discriminatory behaviors. And that talking point became popular, shaping public discussions of implicit bias. And it’s true: I do think they have a role to play in shaping behaviors; and understanding how this happens is deeply interesting, but also nuanced. So, when meta-analyses of tests like the Implicit Association Test or IAT began to show that these tests’ ability to predict behaviors were not so robust, the pendulum of popular opinion quickly swung back in the opposite direction. Now I think people are too quick to dismiss the possible effects of implicit bias as over-hyped. Probably the right answer is somewhere in the middle.
DD: You brought up the IAT. I've read recently that it doesn't have the kind of predictive validity or explanatory power that many people thought. Does the work you're doing on conceptualizing the content of implicit attitudes help in an interdisciplinary way to design better tests?GJ:
Absolutely! I’ll give you a mundane example—though I obviously don’t mean to ignore or trivialize the relevant social issues. Suppose you run a graphic design firm and you want to know how your employees feel about broccoli. And so you give them a test—a simple feelings thermometer that asks them to rank their attitude toward broccoli on a scale. Then you see that, in general, people rank their feelings high. What can we conclude from this test? It would be problematic to conclude that they think broccoli is tasty, since they might have given a high ranking to broccoli due to its vivid color, despite the fact that they think it tastes terrible. So, getting clear about the content of the attitude—whether it involves adjectives like “tasty,” “pretty,” or “healthy”—requires more finely turned calibration of the tests.
Many of the relevant meta-analyses weren’t controlling for subtleties in the purported content of the attitudes. It’s as if they were checking how well the employees’ rankings on the feelings test predicted their behavior of eating broccoli while they were on a diet. If you were someone that only ranked it high because it was a beautiful color (but you did not care for the flavor and were unaware of its health benefits), then we shouldn’t expect a strong correlation. So, getting a match between what we think the content of the attitude is and the sorts of behaviors we think the content predicts is crucial. That’s how I hope my work will help—by providing the theoretical resources to calibrate the tests that are ultimately within the purview of social psychology to dream up and to put into effect.
DD: I hear you just won the university’s top award for teaching. Can you tell us something about your approach to teaching?GJ:
I have two guiding principles in my approach to teaching: mindfulness and transparency. Since the classroom is full of students from diverse backgrounds, I want to be mindful of the different teaching practices that work best for each of them. I then try to adopt teaching methods that level the playing field for disadvantaged students. I also encourage my students to be mindful in this way by being transparent about my motivations for various teaching strategies. By sharing my reasons for choosing particular discussion topics or adopting specific methods, I cultivate an open and honest forum for class discussions. In the end, my students and I work together toward achieving classroom aims, and everyone takes on a little bit of responsibility for and ownership of that goal.
DD: Could you talk about the kinds of services and extracurricular activities you’re involved in outside your research and teaching?GJ:
Last year I served as the Teaching Assistant Coordinator (TAC). My favorite aspect of the job was teaching the department’s training seminar for first-time TAs. It involved sharing some of my own experiences—telling them some things I was nervous about my first time, and what they can expect. I also taught about broader, pedagogical topics: creating an inclusive classroom, combating stereotype threat or imposter syndrome, or engaging students beyond lecture. I’ve really enjoyed being a part of that. I’m proud that our department fosters an environment where people take teaching seriously.
I also started the Minorities and Philosophy (MAP) Chapter at UCLA with help from Femi Taiwo and Jennifer Kanyuk (and Kim Johnston’s been a big participant in keeping it going!). The first issue we wanted to confront was the “pipeline problem” in philosophy: male and female undergrads enter philosophy in roughly equal numbers. But then women “drip out” of the discipline to the point where only about 20% of tenure-track appointments go to women (and only 15% of philosophy Ph.D.’s are awarded to people of color).
One of my interests going into MAP was concern for philosophers like me who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. As far as I know, the numbers aren’t available for that sort of thing, but national collegiate trends for continuing education for individuals from those backgrounds isn’t promising. We created a graduate-undergraduate mentoring program. As mentioned, I knew basically nothing about higher education when I was an undergraduate. For me, just having someone to talk to about opportunities was pivotal in my decision to continue my education. That’s what I wanted to make available to these students as well.
I also helped found a youth outreach program at the LA LGBT Center. Every two weeks we hold a seminar at the Center. Participants are roughly at high school level. Most people don’t get exposed to philosophical thinking until college, and not everyone gets that opportunity. So it’s a chance for students to engage in critical inquiry. For example, we will bring up a philosophical topic like, “What is justice?” And then we’ll do some abstract thinking about what it takes for something to be just, and have them relate that to their own experiences with say, police violence or LGBTQ discrimination. They really enjoy it. One of the regulars recently told us that he registered for classes at Santa Monica Community College. His philosophy course was the first one he chose. Seeing that the program has made a difference in these individuals’ lives has been really rewarding.
Interview with Amy Kind
Amy Kind ’94, UCLA philosophy graduate alumna, was interviewed by Jacob Reid. Amy is professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College. Her research focuses on consciousness, imagination, metaphysics, and philosophy of mind. Jacob is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy, with research interests in metaphysics and epistemology of memory as well as collective agency and collective memory.
JR: I have always been curious as to how people get into philosophy. I once spoke to an undergrad who had switched from physics to a philosophy major. She said that, before the beginning of her second year, she didn’t even know philosophy was “a thing.” Was that you at all?AK:
What happened to me was a little different from that. I got my first exposure in high school where I took a class called “The Shaping of Western Thought”. The teacher had an M.A. in philosophy and we ended up reading a lot of philosophical figures. It made me not necessarily want to be a philosopher, but it made me want to take philosophy in college. I took an intro to philosophy course my first semester at Amherst. I don’t think I did super well but I liked it. I just decided to take another philosophy course and then another. All of a sudden I was like, “I’m a philosophy major.” Even then I wasn’t sure that I was going to go on to graduate school in philosophy. I was also totally interested in journalism. I did a summer internship at a local newspaper and ended up having to write obituaries all summer! Then . . . I thought I would go to law school. Between my junior and senior year of college I determined there was no way I would take both the LSAT and the GRE. I made my decision then. I chose philosophy and there has been no looking back.
JR: Was there anything specifically that attracted you to philosophy?AK:
I think it must’ve been something about the reasoning that I found myself attracted to; the kind of logical reasoning and so on. I think I just had a natural affinity for philosophical questions and methods and the way things were done. I know people take different routes in, but especially for me, some of the puzzles, like the mind-body problem and personal identity, some of those questions just spoke to me. I just love thinking about them and that’s where I ended up.
JR: What is your particular area of research recently?AK:
While I was at UCLA I wrote my dissertation on imagination and my first published paper was on imagination. For a few years I was interested in questions of consciousness like qualia and phenomenal consciousness. I just needed to put imagination aside for little bit. I have since gone back fully to imagination. That is what I consider my primary research interest right now. I’m interested in all sorts of questions but I’ve been really interested lately in questions about learning from imagination and ways in which we can use imagination in philosophy.
JR: For people such as myself, who know next to nothing about imagination, what are the issues? Are you concerned with epistemic justification concerning imagination?AK:
People working on imagination occupy several different areas in philosophy. One place in which it’s become important is in aesthetics. There has been a lot of attention to imagination and its role in our engagement with, and the creation of fiction. Then there’s a different area of interest that comes from the philosophy of mind. There are questions of cognitive architecture and what role imagination plays there. How does it relate to perception and belief? Then there is this question about what role imagination can play in our epistemic lives. Can we get epistemic justification from imagination and if so how? One place in which it is common to look to imagination as playing some kind of epistemic role is in thought experiments. We perform a thought experiment and discover that something is imaginable or conceivable (I don’t mean to equate the two). Then, from the premise about what we imagine we draw the conclusion that such and such is possible and possibly shed light on some philosophical theory. Lately I’ve been interested in seeing if we can extend the epistemic role of imagination beyond that. For example, can we learn claims about other people? To what extent and how can we use imagination to draw justified conclusions, say about other people’s states of mind? Or to what extent and how can we use imagination to draw conclusions about worldly situations that we are not encountering in perception or in the development of new technology? I’m not an epistemologist so I tend not to approach it from the way an epistemologist would approach it. Sometimes I sort of lose patience for certain distinctions epistemologists are very fond of. My epistemic interest is a little more ‘big picture’. It looks like there’s all this we can do with imagination, so let’s try and see what we can do with it.
JR: Are there other disciplines that you draw from? Do you feel it’s important to keep up with relevant non-philosophical literature?AK:
I think that anyone working in philosophy of mind today better have some familiarity with the empirical literature. One can be more empirically oriented or less empirically oriented, but to ignore it altogether seems like a foolish approach. So I do try to be as familiar as I can with the relevant literature. I don’t consider myself to be one of the hard-core empirical philosophers but I also think that whatever flavor of philosophy of mind one is doing, one better at least know something about whether or not one thing is consistent with some other thing! Likewise with respect to what I was saying about imagination. I do some reading especially in the cognitive science literature. I guess I’m not a super interdisciplinary person but I aspire to be more so. With respect to teaching and that question, one thing I tend to draw on, which is maybe not another discipline but I do like to use, is science fiction. I think there are a lot of philosophical questions which can be made accessible by way of science fiction. That’s the geek in me coming out.
JR: That ties into something else I wanted to touch on! I was going to ask about recommended reading. What are your science fiction oriented reading recommendations?AK:
I don’t think I have any hidden gems, but the short story on which the movie Arrival is based, “Story of Your Life,” is a really great story if you’re interested in questions about time, free will and so on. Other than that, my students are always laughing at me because I’m always talking about Harry Potter. It’s like the one thing that I know that they’ve read so I draw a lot from that. I also draw a lot from Philip K. Dick, and I’ve taught using Abbot’s Flatland before. As far as viewing is concerned there’s Star Wars and Star Trek.
JR: I am really interested in drawing from Harry Potter! What’s an issue or question to explore through Harry Potter?AK:
First off, I think all the time travel is done in a cool way. It is done in a way differently from a lot of other time travel stories. Another thing that I think is really cool is the ‘pensieve’ and what it says about memory and its relation to questions about the extended mind. Dumbledore keeps his memories in his pensieve and we can think about it like his extended mind. Then, this doesn’t really relate to the theme of the book, when I’m teaching about imagination something that comes up is the paradox of fiction. There are questions about whether, and to what extent we can feel genuine emotion about fictional characters given that we know they don’t exist. If you had a fear of a bear that was running around your neighborhood and found out that there wasn’t in fact a bear running around your neighborhood, and you continued to fear the bear running around your neighborhood, we would consider you to be irrational. Your fear would be irrational because you know that the thing doesn’t exist. Of course, when it comes to fiction, we do feel emotions about things we know don’t exist. This is what’s known as the paradox of fiction. Since everyone is familiar with Harry Potter, they know exactly what I’m talking about. When I’m teaching the paradox of fiction I almost always use the example of Dumbledore’s death. When you read about it you’re likely to be upset about it or cry and so on, but it’s hard to treat that as not a genuine emotion. It seems pretty darn genuine! Also, it’s hard not to think it’s rational. What kind of monster would you be if you were happy that Dumbledore died!?
JR: To wrap up, for people who are new to philosophy or are contemplating graduate school in philosophy, what is the best advice that you have received or wish you had received?AK:
I’ll say a couple of different things. We have a lot of pragmatic (in a good way) students here at Claremont McKenna. They are concerned about their future and they want to make rational choices. In general, what I say to them is that what you want to do when you choose a major for college is to choose something that you love! You’re going to be studying this! I say that the best reason to major in philosophy is because you love it. The worst reason not to major in philosophy is because you think it’s not going to be useful to you. We can talk about all the ways in which it’s useful to you, and it will be useful to you, but you should choose your major because it’s something that you love. One can’t ignore the practical stuff altogether but one should try to make sure that what one is doing is something one loves. I think the other thing is that philosophy can be discouraging. It can be hard and all of us should make sure that we don’t get too easily discouraged. I remember when I was an undergraduate I got back a paper from a professor and the comment on it was, “Yuck! Couldn’t be worse.” It would have been easy to decide at that point philosophy wasn’t for me. Luckily, for some reason, I just kept going and didn’t take that as ultimate discouragement. I guess I would say to anyone that is considering a career in philosophy is that there are going to be discouraging moments along the way. There are moments where we all feel inadequate and where it feels like an impossible climb. I would just encourage people to not give in to those moments and to remember how much philosophy has to give and how much we have to give philosophy. So stick with it through the tough times!