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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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!