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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.