Tyler Burge is the Flint Professor of Philosophy. His areas of interest include language and logic, mind, perception, epistemology, Kant, and Frege. He was interviewed by Gabbrielle Johnson, a seventh-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.
GJ: What made you become a philosopher? Was it something you've always felt an affinity toward?
: I felt an affinity to it, but I didn’t know that I was feeling an affinity to it. I went to college having read some philosophy. I took Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason
off my father’s shelf and read some of it, struggled with it. It was kind of amazing, even though I didn’t understand it. But when I went to college, I majored in various other things.
First, I thought I’d be an English major, then a history major. Tried to be omniscient, didn’t realize at the time that this wasn’t possible, and found though toward the end of my career at Wesleyan, where I went to college, that all my papers in history, many of them were history of science, history of philosophy, history of this, that, and the other-were in effect philosophy papers.
I decided, maybe I should go to graduate school in philosophy. At the time, I hadn’t taken a single course in philosophy. I had taken two individual studies, one in Hegel, one in Kant, but not a single course. I graduated without a major, really, the nearest thing was the history major. The history department under petition just declared that I was to be counted a major. I was kind of an outstanding student and they kind of let me do what I wanted to do, because they figured I was going to work hard. But I didn’t put together a coherent program. In effect, I guessed I might be interested in philosophy. I applied to graduate school at only two places, Yale and Princeton, and got into both of them, and I chose Princeton. When I was going to look at Yale, having been admitted, I talked to Bob Stalnaker-he’d gone to Wesleyan, was educated at Princeton, and was teaching at Yale. He took me off to the side and whispered to me, “Go to Princeton.” I went to Princeton, without any background in philosophy except having read some history of philosophy on my own. I felt hopelessly behind and unable to follow what was being said in the seminars. I still remember feeling that I couldn’t find the verb in the sentence. It was like hearing a foreign language. Of course, it scared me to death, and I just worked as hard as I could to get through it.
GJ: It seems like the style was different to you-what about your initial instincts about your love of the field turned out to be right?
: It wasn’t just style. I hadn’t had any discipline in philosophy at all. I’d read philosophers and the history of philosophy, but I didn’t know how to think philosophy. The big questions drew me. I was religious when I was very young, and I lost it, but I still had an instinct for big questions. They weren’t very focused, but I thought ontology was interesting, and I thought skepticism was an interesting problem. Maybe some form of the mind-body problem interested me, but it wasn’t very coherent.
GJ: Would you say Kant has influenced you the most of any philosopher?
: I have a kind of love-hate relation to him. I absolutely detest the idealism in Kant, the idea that the known world is a mind-dependent thing. That’s not true. The moon is not dependent on the mind in any way. On the other hand, I think he made many deep contributions that are still modern, and I admire his seriousness, complexity, and depth. I would be hard put to know who influenced me the most, maybe Frege, just about as much as Kant, and in more specific ways, but probably those two. Descartes, I admire, and, of course, Aristotle, I don’t think I understand Aristotle as well as I do the other three.
GJ: Tell us about the sort of research you're working on now.
: I’m trying to finish a large book, which is a kind of sequel to my book Origins of Objectivity.
It was originally intended to be a book that discussed the crossover of what I think of as the main boundary in the mind. I think the sub-propositional aspects of the mind are the lower parts of the mind, and the propositional aspects of the mind, the upper parts. For example, the lower part is perception, and upper part is thinking, reasoning. But when I began writing the book, I realized that I had too much leftover from my study of perception in the first book, and had learned a lot about the science in the interim. I found myself writing almost entirely on perception and what I call perceptual-level representation, which includes perceptual memory, certain types of imaging, perceptual anticipation, perceptual learning.
These are all similar in taking their materials from perception. Then there is low-level action, guided non-propositionally by perception. All of these mental capacities are similar to perception in being non-propositional. Low-level action causing mental capacities and these other satellite capacities borrow most of their representational resources from perception. So, obviously perceptual memory retains things from perception. Many representational capacities in mental causation of action are borrowed from perception. It’s a study of that level. Near the end, there is some serious discussion of how the higher levels of cognition interact with the lower level.
GJ: What aspects of the higher-level cognitive capacities are unique to it? What have humans gained from developing these capacities?
: Essentially, the propositional capacity, which I think is not present at the lower level. What does that involve? It’s rather technical to explain it in detail, but it involves a kind of capacity to abstract, from representing things in the immediate present or retaining things or anticipating things or learning things from the immediate present. I think the distinguishing feature in propositional structure is something like a main verb phrase. Main verb phrases in language and the analogs in thought do not serve singular reference in the way that perception does. Perception functions fundamentally to pick out things, particular things, in the present, and characterize them. The main verb-phrase-like structure in all propositional structures is a kind of abstraction from reference to things in the present. The topic of, I hope, my next book, after the one I am currently writing, is to connect this main-verb-phrase-like predicational capacity, which shows up in language, also thought, with propositional reasoning. I think there is a deep connection between those two factors-the main-verb-phrase like predicational structure and the capacity to carry out simple deductive inference or inductive inference that relies on propositional structure. This combination is, I think, new at the higher level.
GJ: Could you say a bit about how you take psychology and philosophy to complement one another?
: In general, when philosophy is discussing a topic that science has something to say about, it should be well-informed about the science. Science has a lot better track record at tracking and helping us know and understand the world than philosophy does. Philosophy has tools, and it asks questions, that science does not. But just as a matter of which has shown itself to be a better tracker of the world, I think science would have to win, hands down. Science does not discuss all aspects of the world. I think you will not find very much in science about the topics of ethics or political philosophy or legal philosophy or aesthetics or even about knowledge, per se. It gives you knowledge, but it doesn’t reflect on knowledge the way philosophy does. However, where science does have something to say about a topic, it seems to me that philosophy has to, in good faith, take it seriously. On the other side, I think some science, especially the less mature sciences like psychology, parts of biology even, can benefit from philosophy because philosophers are trained to ask big questions that scientists tend to push into the background. That is, they try to work on more specific, well-formed questions.
GJ: What is your response to certain traditions in philosophy that deny the initial claim that these are topics science could speak to, that empirical science, especially empirical psychology and philosophy, especially philosophy of mind, are just asking fundamentally different questions. Maybe one is more introspectively oriented, whereas another is more based on observation, and there's just a clear divide between the methodologies that would be effective in those two areas.
: There may be a clear divide in methodology between the way some philosophers do these things and the way scientists do them. However, I don’t think there’s anything at all to be said for the view that they are discussing different topics. Philosophy of mind is about the nature of mind and psychology is about mind, for example, about perception as a type of mental capacity. I don’t think anyone has ever denied that, until the last 20-30 years. Science has a lot to say about it. Philosophy is, I think, just kind of”playing in the sandbox” so to speak, if it’s not taking the science into account. Same with theory of knowledge. Of course, epistemology is interested in normative issues that the science often doesn’t focus on. But the normative issues are how best to guide our beliefs or to form our beliefs so as to get knowledge. If you don’t know anything about beliefs and just make it up independently of what we might learn from science, your norms may not be very relevant to the way actual knowledge-acquisition is carried out. So, I feel I don’t have much sympathy for that kind of view.
Introspection, I think, is something that even science, for example, psychology, makes some use of. But I think it’s important not to overrate introspection. It can give you insights, but usually they’re not as deep as insights gained by using wider methods. It’s not true that psychology can’t do introspection or that philosophy has to use only introspection. Each discipline should use both. I think the same thing applies to action theory. I think a lot of so-called moral psychology works with an uninformed view about psychology. I think that philosophy has to make use of what science has to say about action.
The humanities do contribute questions about human life and human experiences that the sciences do not raise. It’s important for the humanities–including philosophy–to continue to raise those questions.
GJ: What would you say to an undergraduate who feels that they have to choose between pursing an education in a STEM field or in philosophy, especially given the growing political sentiment that an education in humanities isn't as useful or practical as an education in applied sciences.
: The humanities do contribute questions about human life and human experiences that the sciences do not raise. It is important for the humanities, including philosophy, to continue to raise those questions. Those questions can actually fructify science itself. Sometimes science probably will never get around to dealing with some of the questions. If everybody went into the sciences it would seriously limit our training and thinking hard about aspects of the world and of human experience. Humanities will always have a place in serious education, and scientists themselves should be exposed to questions of the humanities. I don’t like super-blinkered, early specialization, especially in undergraduate education in the sciences. Still, I do think that more people ought to go into sciences because their doing so would make the world be better, faster, through applied science than through humanities.
I think people who have the capacity and the interest to do sciences do well to pursue them. It is part oflife that we in America need more of.
GJ: What in your opinion have been the greatest achievements in philosophy of mind and language over the last century?
: The topic of philosophy of mind and language through the 20th century and into this century has been primarily the nature of representation, of how mind and language should be understood in connecting to what they represent, connecting to the world. The first great genius on this matter who connects to modern work most directly is Frege. And Frege’s initial distinction between reference-that
is, connecting to the world-and sense-something
like a way of representing the world-is really basic for understanding all of these issues.
There is a lot to say philosophically about each of these notions, and neither of Frege’s notions maps perfectly onto anybody else’s. But the basic idea of that distinction between way of representing, which has to do mainly with the psychology of language and the way the mind perspectively connects to the world, and the actual connection to the world-distinguishing those two things, I think, is an absolutely central achievement. Another achievement of Frege’s was to get the basics of the structure of language and inference down. Frege was the discoverer of modern logic and he did it in the service of trying to understand ideal inference. The structures he proposed were fundamental for understanding representation, generally.
The defeat of positivism in the middle part of the century was a major achievement. W.V. Quine and Hilary Putnam, who received his Ph.D. from UCLA in 1951, are the main heroes here. A major achievement in the philosophy of language beginning in the late 60s and extending into the 70s is the understanding of reference as not depending, in many cases, primarily on description. The heroes here are Keith Donnellan, who was a member of this department, Saul Kripke, and Putnam. David Kaplan played a role in this achievement as well. Those figures produced a kind of revolution in the philosophy of language. There was a second revolution, which applied some of these ideas again to mind, which I associate with my work. This work shows that, like singular reference with proper names, representation of all sorts depends much more on a kind of brute interaction with the world-think of the world as stamping itself into the mind-than on what the individual knows. Both the point about singular reference by proper names that Kripke and Donnellan established and this point about the natures of mental states depending on relations to the environment, emphasize low-level sensory causal interactions with the world in making the mind what it is and de-emphasize background knowledge. The background knowledge is nonessential to much of the determination of the nature of representation. I think that is a further achievement.
I want to mention two other achievements that occurred in philosophy. One of them is the change in the philosophy of science in the 1960s from trying to do philosophy of science from the armchair, to grounding the philosophy of science in the study of actual sciences. The heroes here are John Earman, to some extent Thomas Kuhn, who changed the history of science so as to focus on the way science actually operates, and, again, Putnam, who was a major force in this change. The other main change that I admire occurred in moral and political theory. This change was initiated by John Rawls. It produced an absolutely fundamental quantum leap in the quality of discussion of moral and political theory between the early part of the 20th century and now.
GJ: What are some of the most pressing issues in philosophy right now?
: I’m hoping to contribute stuff on perception. I’m so burrowed in on that topic that I’m afraid I don’t have much of an overview of what else might be going on. I tend to think of philosophy of language as in a bit of a normal-science holding period. I think philosophy of psychology is a very exciting area for future development because so few philosophers have done it competently. Here’s an area where serious reflection on the sciences is just beginning. There seems to be a wonderful range of questions that are unexplored. If we can get enough talented people thinking hard about those topics, fm quite confident there will be new and interesting philosophical results.
GJ: I've heard you say that in the history of philosophy, in particular philosophy of psychology, there's been a lot of progress with respect to the nature of representation, but that there's been a comparative dearth of understanding and complete comprehension of consciousness. Can we expect to see developments in the study of consciousness?
: I certainly think that it is a good thing that people are beginning to study consciousness by studying the psychology of consciousness. The trouble is that there isn’t very much impressive work, even in psychology, on this topic. I think that it is extremely hard, and I’m betting it’s a 100 years off before really interesting breakthroughs occur. It could be 30 or 50 years. I’m not as optimistic that we are on the threshold of some new insights in that area. The area became extremely popular in philosophy in the 1970s (or 80s, I suppose). A lot was written and as I look at it 30-40 years later, it feels to me as if, well yeah, there are some insights there but there is not an impressive yield in that amount of time.
GJ: What brought you to UCLA?
: The sunny weather played a big role. I had an option in New England and in the Mid-West, but I didn’t want to live in cold weather anymore. I thought Los Angeles seemed attractive, a vibrant city. I was impressed with some of the talent that the department had–Alonzo Church was here, David Kaplan was here. The university was gearing up to make some new appointments. I would have to say probably Los Angeles and the weather, though!
I’ve taught at other universities and–they’re good, they’re fun to teach at. But the sense at UCLA of people just straining to be exposed to new and interesting things, for me, is really thrilling.
GJ: What is unique about the UCLA department and culture?
: The most important thing that I like about the culture is that there is not an attempt to fit in with the rest of the profession. I think that the profession is not entirely healthy it is trying to publish too much too fast. There is a kind of careerism, even in some of the most impressive and important departments, that neglects the fact that the central focus should be the subject itself. UCLA is purer than much of the rest of the profession. As a whole, the emphasis on doing the work well and trying to see deeply into the problem and not rushing publication, caring about the subject in and of itself, all of those are values that I think are quite centrally UCLA still. It makes it different from the majority of departments in the profession. I don’t think we’re unique in this respect, but I think we’re unusual.
GJ: What class at UCLA have you most enjoyed teaching, and why was it so memorable?
: It would probably be the Kant course. I sat down with the help of some students, such as Houston Smit who played a big role in this, and figured out some basic things about Kant that are not out there in the literature. Over several years, I tried to understand Kant’s way of thinking-his basic technical terms and what his project was. I think I saw some things that felt like I was one of the first people to have seen. Over the years, I was able to make this into a communicable unit so that undergraduates could be exposed to the thinking of this great philosopher, without their being overwhelmed. Of course, there is vastly much more background theory in Kant that I don’t have time to teach. And there is, of course, much that I, myself, do not understand. But the sense of conveying this important difficult stuff to undergraduates and their feeling that ‘wow’ factor in hearing it–I enjoy that.
GJ: Do you think there is something unique about the undergraduate population at UCLA that makes that sort of endeavor possible?
: I don’t think it makes it possible, but I think it intensifies it. There is an enthusiasm and openness to life in our student body that is quite different from the student body at, say, Stanford, Princeton, or Harvard. The variety of economic and personal, ethnic, cultural backgrounds of our students is unbelievably attractive. The diversity is great, so the sense of really opening up to something new with these smart students is a bigger jump. The feeling of, “Wow, this is new, this is wonderful,” is kind of more out there for more of our students than for students from most other universities. I’ve taught at other universities and-they’re good, they’re fun to teach at. But the sense at UCLA of people just straining to be exposed to new and interesting things, for me, is really thrilling. I think that is part of what I love most about UCLA-the diversity of the student body.