Interview with John Carriero
John Carriero, Professor of Philosophy, was interviewed by Ally Peabody. Ally is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy. She is particularly interested in ethical, meta-ethical, and ontological questions involving moral standing.
AP: So, what brought you to philosophy and made you want to become a professional philosopher? And, how has philosophy enhanced your life?JC: I started out as a math major. I think a lot of philosophers start doing something else. There are a lot of routes in; it could be political science or English, but I was in math. Then I took a history of philosophy course from Ed McCann. I found it fascinating, and it felt to me, because you know we were fairly rigorous and looking at arguments carefully, a little bit like what I was doing in math. But the subject matter seemed just so much more interesting. Immortality, the self, free will, can somebody knowingly do evil? After that—I was hooked. It was a yearlong course, and I think I changed my major right in the middle of that year. Over time, I’ve come to think that philosophy is a lot less like math than I used to, but it was a natural route.
I don’t know whether philosophy has enhanced my life in any direct way, but I find that I run into former philosophy majors all the time (my dentist was a philosophy major, my previous primary care physician did philosophy and history of science), and I think philosophy majors are a little bit more open to thinking about things, a little less prone to taking things on authority, a little more reflective. As a group—it’s hard to generalize, but I think they’re a little more curious. And I think that’s all to the good, and contributes to a happier life.
“I am trying to help students, or in some cases force students, to get down to that intuitive level where they just get a feel for what this argument is all about. Over the quarter I’m hoping to move them to thinking about whats underneath the words.”
AP: That’s awesome. I was actually pre-med, but majored in philosophy, and ended up being much more passionate about it than the prospect of being a doctor. So, how did you end up here at UCLA?JC: So I came here in ’92, ’90…. I never get the years right.
AP: You had to get out of that Boston weather.JC: Actually, ’94. There were a number of possibilities, and I felt that this was the best department. We had a young family, we were a little bit wondering about the culture shock of the West Coast, but we decided to give it a chance. The things I like best about the department, I think weren’t as obvious to me at the time. At the time I could tell it was an awfully strong faculty with a great tradition; the grad students I met here were sharp. But what I hadn’t realized was the freshness of the undergrads. Sometimes when you teach at a private school there’s a kind of jadedness or a sense of entitlement, where students always knew that they were going to be going to university and weren’t all that excited about it. Here, lots of students were the first in their families to go to college, and there was an enthusiasm. Intellectually, it was an open environment, and it was a place that took philosophy seriously without taking itself so seriously. And that was quite welcome. I really found that much more conducive to my own work and getting things done.
AP: : It is a very happy department. When I was comparing departments, I was very glad to finally come here and find out that everyone was as great as I had heard. It was last minute for me.JC: It’s a department with a real sense of community.
AP: Yeah, people are around a lot. So, to talk about your research: you spent a lot of time working with figures like Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, who are central figures in early modern philosophy. Your research draws heavily on their intellectual history while remaining strongly philosophically-oriented by asking questions about things like epistemology, sensation, the relationship between contingency and necessity, etc. So my question is: when you work on these early modern figures, what draws you to a particular philosophical problem? What does your process look like?JC: So in terms of process, I’ll begin with the end of the question, and I might be a little different from some of my colleagues in this, but many of my papers begin in the upper-division courses where there are things going on in Spinoza or Descartes—the people I’ve done the most work on—that I feel like I only half understand. Then I try to explain it to students, students ask questions, react, and maybe I’ll teach the course several times, and gradually the pieces start to fall into place. When that happens, it’s not just that you iron out some problems in the texts, but the philosophy starts to get more interesting. It’s been very nice on the quarter system, to spend a whole course on Descartes’ Meditations or on Spinoza’s Ethics. I’ve written a book on the Meditations, I’m trying to write a book on the Ethics, and I don’t think that’s an accident. Additionally, when I’m writing a paper, my first audience is my colleagues; it’s not other early modern specialists. I have to be able to show or make manifest the interest of the philosophy in the paper. Before I’m happy with it, it has to be the kind of thing that I can with a clear conscience think, “Yes! This is something that this or that colleague ought to be interested in.” So they’re the people that I’m writing for first.
I don’t know whether a particular philosophical problem is what attracts me. What I end up writing on is more a sense that something is going on in a text that seems very interesting but strangely elusive, and I want to try to get at what’s happening. So it’s a little bit less like “I don’t understand how A and B fit together,” it’s more, “I think there’s something happening here, I want to figure it out, and I bet if I got this right it would help me understand some other things.”
AP: That’s a really interesting approach. What other philosophy have you been reading lately, and do you enjoy extracurricular reading (fiction, non-fiction, anything like that)?JC: So mostly I’ve just been reading Spinoza recently, and some of the secondary literature. Outside of philosophy, for various reasons I’ve actually been reading three things at once. I just finished a memoir, Once Upon a Country, by the Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh. He was interested in Islamic logic, and was at Harvard around the same time I was in grad school there. I don’t know that I knew him, but I’m sure we had some mutual acquaintances because some of the people doing logic would come over to the philosophy department. Then, in a more religious vein, I was reading Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor who’s got quite an interesting take on things. I’m a Catholic myself. And then I’ve restarted—and it looks like this time I will probably finish—War and Peace.
AP: Oh, wow, finally!JC: Yeah, finally, right, right. Of the great Russian novels, I’ve read Brothers Karamazov a few times, and Anna Karenina. But I’ve never made it through War and Peace. When I have time, I like to read, and to read from disciplines outside of philosophy.
AP: And when you read those things, do you often find yourself thinking about philosophic ideas or relating it to your research? Especially Tolstoy.JC: Well, they help, indirectly. But not quite, I think, in the way the question imagines. So it’s more connected to this idea about philosophy—that you could get through a good Ph.D. and somehow not really know very much—because philosophy proceeds at a certain level of abstractness. What many of these works remind me about is just the complexity of the concrete reality. In Nusseibeh’s case, he’s a moderate trying to convey a nuanced picture of the Middle East, a picture that’s sensitive to its history and to the motivations of the various factions. There’s just so much that’s happening that I hadn’t known about. Sometimes I deliberately choose things that will sort of pull me back to earth. I feel Spinoza is that way. He’s got this abstract geometrical proposition stuff, but other parts of his writings are awfully concrete, and he has a pretty good eye for the everyday. In a way this also moves me away from more philosophical authors like Tolstoy.
AP: That’s why it takes 17 times to get through War and Peace.JC: Right.
AP: Let’s now switch gears to talking about teaching. What classes do you teach here, and what are your goals in teaching undergraduate students? What’s your favorite thing to teach?JC: So, I teach 100C (History of Early Modern Philosophy) every year, and then I teach a course in the upper division. Lately I’ve been teaching a Spinoza class on the Ethics, but next year I’ll be co-teaching a Descartes course with Calvin Normore. I also teach a graduate seminar. This quarter it’s on sensation in early modern philosophy, and we’re having a lot of fun with it. In general I’ve been enjoying the upper-division Spinoza course a lot.
My undergraduate teaching goals vary, but lately, when I’m teaching Spinoza, quite a bit of what Spinoza is doing, whether or not you agree with it, is quite intuitive. I’m trying to help students, or in some cases force students, to get down to that intuitive level where they just get a feel for what this argument is all about. Over the quarter I’m hoping to move them to thinking about what’s underneath the words. For one kind of assignment, I ask my students to write a paper that’s very different from an exam. I direct them to some text I haven’t talked about in class, and they have to explain the argument. Sometimes it’s not so obvious what the argument is, so that can be a lot of work. And then they have to critically respond to the argument and agree, disagree, make it better, find problems for it. Many students find that quite daunting and haven’t really, it seems to me, done a lot of that kind of work before, and often their first instinct is to turn it into a crypto-exam. So they just write three or four pages of stuff from the lecture that’s sort of relevant but doesn’t really address the topic, and then they devote a single page to their critical section, where they basically say, “I agree with Spinoza” or “I think he’s wrong.” So it’s scary for them, it’s like taking off the training wheels. There’s not a particular A-paper that they’re supposed to emulate, there’s a lot of different A-papers. To do well on the paper, almost all the students will have to have parts where they’re not really sure they’re on the right track. We try in the course to make it easier by having copious office hours and encouraging them to talk ahead of time about their papers.
AP: : On that note, what type of advice do you have for undergrads who are interested in philosophy?JC: The thing I would tell undergrads is that they need to be much more active about their education at a big place like UCLA than they would be at a smaller school. In theory, our courses are four units, so they should be spending 12 hours a week on each course. So what does the 12 hours look like? They listen to me for four hours, they go to section for an hour, that’s five hours. And there’s maybe an hour of reading. Where does the rest of the time come? And I think that’s going over their notes, trying to understand the material at this intuitive level, no doubt coming up short and being puzzled. And then going to office hours or bringing questions to section or bringing questions to lecture. So they have to really be active in a way that if you were in a small college, or small class, the professor would be prodding you.
AP: Right, or even in a different discipline.JC: Right, and one problem here is that many of my students seem to me to be overcommitted, taking too many courses, five, six courses, alongside significant jobs and extracurriculars, and they can’t do what I’m describing. So I’d advise them to take three or four courses they can really focus on, and then if they have extra time, do some auditing. I think a lot of students don’t think of auditing. Even as an undergraduate I did a fair amount of it, where I felt like I could just show up, kind of learn by osmosis.
AP: The sponge method.JC: Right, and when I was busy I wouldn’t show up. Some things you can’t audit—a foreign language, a math class—but you can audit a philosophy course. Many of my colleagues are wonderful lecturers, so much so that if you just popped in once you would benefit that day even if you had done nothing else. So I would say, do that.
AP: Was there any good advice you received at Harvard as an undergrad or grad student?JC: I think the auditing I did was something that my teachers recommended. It was emphasized that doing fewer things in depth was much more valuable to your growth than doing a lot of stuff, even doing it reasonably well but not very intensely.
Interview with Mark Rubin
Mark Rubin ‘98, UCLA philosophy graduate alumnus, was interviewed by Dan Ranweiler. Mark is a Principal Software Engineer at Yahoo. Dan is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy.
DR: Why did you choose UCLA for graduate school?MR: My advisors at Princeton pushed me to visit UCLA, and so did Kit Fine. And after that visit, there was no doubt in my mind where I was going to go. Literally, the first seminar I sat in on, I witnessed one person make a point and another person say, “You know, I think if we take what you said literally, everything you said has to be false, and I can prove it.” And then they did! And then they said, “But I think you said something interesting that I’ve never heard before and it was really fascinating,” and they resurrected this person’s argument by tweaking it a little bit, giving them complete credit, and pulling something beautiful out of it. I had really never seen anything like that in a philosophy seminar before. It was a beautiful pursuit of truth, and humility, and cooperation. The person whose argument had been resurrected was very grateful. And I just thought, “Wow, this is the kind of philosophy I want to do.” I hadn’t even realized people were doing it. And I saw that consistently. People were friendly, but more importantly, they generally were just more interested in the truth than they were in winning an argument.
DR: What were your interests when you started?MR: I knew I really liked metaphysics in general. I had a background in logic and theoretical computer science—automata theory, theory of computation, etc. So I suspected I might do some of that since there were so many people at UCLA in those areas—e.g., Alonzo Church, David Kaplan, Kit Fine, Joseph Almog, among others. I liked philosophy of language, too, and assumed I would do that as well. I think the big surprise for me was that I had at best a moderate interest in ethics when I arrived. But at UCLA, I learned that ethics could have such an interesting overlap with the metaphysics I was interested in.
DR: Who did you work with at UCLA and what were they like?MR: I took some Kaplan courses and I took the required first-year seminars and interacted with whoever was doing that. But I really fell into working with Joseph Almog, who I think retired a few years ago. He was a very interesting character. I loved him—he was very good to me—and very fascinating.
Interestingly though—I mentioned ethics—and Gavin Lawrence’s first-year seminar in ethics had a deep impact on me. I went in as a super Humean relativist, and came out as an Aristotelian, Philippa Footian objectivist. And that was shocking to me! I went in thinking that it was completely obvious that Humean relativism was right and nothing else makes sense, and I left thinking that I was completely, 100% wrong.
DR: What convinced you?MR: Logic! Reason! How do I put it: there was this metaphysics side of me, and I never thought before about how the two could dovetail. Gavin was just really good at understanding where the relativist impulse comes from, and in a very nonthreatening way, he would just dismantle it over and over again with the same kind of moves. After a while you sort of got to see them and know what the move was for whatever you were about to say. The more he did that, the more I thought about it, and the more I thought he was right. I just became completely convinced.
DR: Do you have any fun anecdotes or memories from your time at UCLA?MR: There must be no end of anecdotes. One thing about Joseph Almog is that he had been in the Israeli army and he was very physically fit. I was at UCLA during the Northridge earthquake, and there were lots of aftershocks. You would be sitting somewhere and the whole earth would tremble. Joseph liked to meet at Italian cafes. One day, I was sitting at this coffee shop waiting for Joseph, and I’m sitting outside watching him walk toward me. Then suddenly we have one of these aftershocks. I remember seeing this glass window he was walking by bulge out and genuinely bow. I was horrified that this thing was right about to explode all over Joseph. And he turns, looks at the thing, and he sees it come out at him. Without skipping a beat or changing his gait, he just looks forward and continues to walk at exactly the same pace. I remember asking him “Did you see that window almost explode on you?!” And he just said something like, “If you’ve walked the streets of Beirut, nothing fazes you anymore.” I don’t know if that’s the funniest or most bizarre Joseph story, but it was definitely representative of something about him.
“When you hear other people’s views, I think most philosophers instincts are to think not just what’s good about them but about whether they’re true and if you can come up with a counterexample. And If you’re a good programmer, I think most of your programming life is spent thinking about the counterexample.”
DR: What sort of general advice do you have for undergrads? for Ph.D. students?MR: For undergrads, one of the best lessons I learned was from Kit Fine. I wanted to take some time off after undergrad and was feeling really burnt out, but was worried about delaying any of my admissions offers for fear that they would disappear. And Kit just said: “Look, you have a good background, your professors think well of you, it’ll all be fine.” I stressed out so much about whether this or that grad school would be a perfect fit for me, or whether I would get in here or there, or if I delayed, I would lose some opportunity. And I was just way too anxious: it would all be fine. You have the skills and talent and personality that you have. And if you go to the wrong grad school, you can always change later! Every decision seemed so irrevocable and so portentous, and it’s just not true. It can be stressful being a grad student because often it may feel like your intellectual reputation is at stake or your future is at stake if you don’t perform well in this or that venue or with this or that paper—and it’s just not true. I wish I had had the ability to tell myself: “Just let it go, you are who you are. You’ll be good at some things, bad at others, but it will all be fine.”
“I hope the attitude of pursuing truth in a friendly way over winning the argument remains … I realize how much value there was in not trying to win, but in trying to understand how to get to the truth and to value that process more than winning.”
DR: What type of work are you doing now and how does your background inform that?MR: I’m a software engineer—a programmer. I’ve programmed for different kinds of devices and platforms, but currently program for Android, which I like a lot. And I’ve thought about how philosophy informs my current work a lot lately, because it’s one of the questions that is most interesting for me when reflecting on my life. Obviously programming, computer science, and analytic philosophy have exactly the same roots: Church, Turing, Russell, Frege, Tarski—mathematical and analytical philosophy and the history of computer science start with many of the same theoretical underpinnings and many of the same people. For example, I studied Tarski and he was primarily a logician and mathematician, but wrote these articles relevant to philosophers interested in logical consequence and logical truth (what I wrote my dissertation on). But I think what most surprised me when I became a professional programmer is the amount of time you spend dealing with things going wrong, rather than right. You always think first about how to get the basic feature done, but then you have to reflect on all these ways in which it will go wrong. You learn quickly that most of your programming is not for the positive case: it’s figuring out what could go wrong and how to protect yourself from it. And that is very philosophical, I think. You think of your argument or opinion, but most of the time you’re thinking: what’s wrong with this? Or what are other people going to say is wrong with this? And when you hear other people’s views, I think most philosophers’ instincts are to think not just what’s good about them but about whether they’re true and if you can come up with a counterexample. And if you’re a good programmer, I think most of your programming life is spent thinking about the counterexample.
The other interesting thing is that as you grow in seniority as a programmer, people become more dependent on you, looking for advice, help, to review code, etc. You have to explain why you advocate doing something in your code one way rather than another. And it never would have occurred to me that the ability to explain a point clearly is as helpful as it is as a programmer. You know, as a philosopher, it’s just part of who you are. You work hard on making yourself clear and on writing in a clear way. It was a surprise to me that I have this skill that people really need in my industry.
DR: What did you love about your time at UCLA?MR: I hope the attitude of pursuing truth in a friendly way over winning the argument remains. It was great for me as a philosopher, but it really changed me as a person. I had been much more competitive intellectually with people—more than I probably care to remember. For me, an argument was something that was to be won, and maybe even all arguments, not just philosophical ones. And when I realized how much value there was in not trying to win, but in trying to understand how to get to the truth and to value that process more than winning—that really stayed with me my whole life.
Interview with Monika Zemsky
Monika Zemsky ‘95, UCLA philosophy undergraduate alumna, was interviewed by Jordan Wallace-Wolf. Monika is a mitigation specialist. Jordan is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy, pursuing a joint J.D./Ph.D. His research interests include action theory, ethics, and law.
JW: So you were a UCLA undergrad and you majored in philosophy?MZ: Yes. I also did a degree in Medical Ethics.
JW: Did you come to LA from somewhere else or are you from LA originally?MZ: I’m from San Francisco.
JW: Did you come here just for college or were you here before?MZ: No, I went to Sarah Lawrence in New York and studied fine arts. When my mother fell ill, I returned home to take care of her and got interested in medical ethics. I ended up taking a class at Berkeley with Sam Scheffler, a moral philosopher who knew Seana Shiffrin and recommended that I study with her. Once my mother was healthy I defected to Los Angeles.
…Frances Kamm came and taught a class. I was lucky enough to sit in on a lot of graduate seminars. Ruth Chang. She was amazing. Kit Fine. Tyler Burge. Barbara Herman. David Pears. A philosopher of science I admired, named Marc Lange. So many!
JW: And so you went on to study law?MZ: I went to Georgetown, and I hated it.
JW: What was bad about it?MZ: I was ill-suited, and terrible at it. When I was studying philosophy at UCLA, it was the first time in my life that I was surrounded by my intellectual heroes. My professors were superstars who made me want to be able to think like them. I found law school very cynical; so many 22 year olds worrying about their retirement funds. I was resented for asking abstract questions, philosophical questions. There was this whole contingent of people who just wanted to pass, and whose efforts were devoted to test-taking strategies.
JW: So when you asked questions that kind of rocked the boat?MZ: Anyone who asked questions did. And we were pilloried (until exam time). I was accustomed to the UCLA philosophy faculty, who seemed invigorated (and maybe even motivated?) by student curiosity. Each of them could singlehandedly electrify all of Los Angeles with their cerebral wattage, much less respond to anything I wanted to test, or push against.
JW: They can always riff with you, if you have a thought that is not developed yet.MZ: Their response, it was like having an intellectual parent or something, eons ahead of me, but generous with their efforts. They provided a really good structure within which to let me work my ideas out.
JW: Tell me about what you do in Los Angeles.MZ: I’m a mitigation specialist for capital cases. My job is to corral and develop the arguments against imposing death in capital proceedings. Because the decision to try a case as a capital one turns on prosecutorial discretion, the mitigating evidence I develop is first aimed at persuading the DA that the death penalty ought not obtain. If this doesn’t succeed, I work on mitigation (any reason not to impose death) evidence for the penalty phase of trial.
“One of things that strikes me is how principles are [considered] a liability to what we think of as success … I didn’t encounter that at UCLA.”
JW: What are the clients like that you work with?MZ: My clients are all poor and Black. (My 10-year-old son recently asked me why I only work for Black people! I got to try to explain the legacy of slavery and racism on our culture and legal system. Heady stuff!) The things that they have in common are at least: inadequate access to education, medical and mental health resources, massive abuse of every color you can imagine (sexual, physical, psychological traumas). I am convinced that poverty is a public health threat.
JW: Tell me how you think philosophy has changed the progression of your career?MZ: I think it’s the reason that I do what I do. Trying to hold true to principles and not giving in to the pressure to be a hired gun. Really sticking to the things I believe in. It’s hard because there is so much external pressure to not be that way and not to think about what the good, virtuous, and meaningful life is…One of the things that strikes me is how principles are [considered] a liability to what we think of as success. It really limits you in a certain kind of way. I didn’t encounter that at UCLA.
JW: Yes, it takes a lot to say "there are all these images of what's presented to me as valuable and worth doing and a lot of it is dead wrong or partially wrong." Does philosophy play a role in your daily life as well?MZ: Yes—my son is a vegetarian on ethical grounds. I’m not but he is.
JW: Where do you think he picked that up?MZ: I think a lot of children have strong ethical impulses very young, but maybe it’s just that I’m more indulgent because I live in a culture that is more accepting of different ways of being (or eating). And also because thinking about ethics is so close to my heart, I’m so thrilled that he has taken an ethical stance. It makes me feel validated, I suppose
JW: What advice would you give to undergraduates at UCLA who are studying philosophy?MZ: I would not give advice to anyone [laughter]. But, relish that time where people really take what you believe seriously and are intellectually generous and are excited by your questions and your ideas. I see now that I have had to seek out and cultivate that in my friendships and my professional relationships because that is not how the world necessarily is. At UCLA I was so excited to go to class and try things out. I just feel like that is such a rare thing for me now. Unless I make it happen myself.
JW: What are you reading these days?MZ: I just read The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy, a writer for the New Yorker. A lot of the books I read – memoir, biography and also fiction – tackle questions of: how do you sustain yourself creatively and intellectually as a woman while having so many other things thrown at you? I also just started reading Joan Didion’s re-released book, South and West, her chronicling a trip deep into the American South. She’s got such an Angeleno sense of geography, and for work I go to the South. And I’m starting to write about my work and about my experiences.
JW: Where did you travel to recently in the South?MZ: I’ve spent a lot of time in Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas.
JW: What is your funniest memory from studying philosophy?MZ: I just remember my boyfriend one year got University TA of the year and the reward was not to have to TA for a year.
JW: Ah, kind of self-defeating? Is that the idea?MZ: Yes, it seemed ironic. And there are all the philosophical jokes that only philosophers get.
JW: Tell me one—I don't think I know these.MZ: A philosopher of language was giving a talk and made the point that in all languages a double negative is a positive but a double positive is never a negative, and a famous figure in the back row [Sidney Morgenbesser] raised his hand and said, “yea yea.”…There’s just one other thing that I want to say.
JW: Sure.MZ: As the death penalty has gotten more attention and exculpatory DNA evidence has become so much more documented, people always want to know if I work on the Innocence Project. And I think that though the Innocence Project is tremendously important, of course, this has done a sort of disservice to the ultimate philosophical question of whether we should have the death penalty, so now I have started saying that I’m working on “the guilt project.” Because the point is that someone has done these horrible, horrible things and you can’t avoid that. You have to look directly at that truth. That is something I find deeply compelling and important.
Interview with Laura Gillespie
Laura Gillespie is a seventh-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy, completing her dissertation this spring. She was interviewed by Austin Beltrand. Austin is a philosophy and neuroscience double major and the president of the Undergraduate Philosophy Club. He graduates this spring.
AB: Where are you from and how does it compare with Los Angeles?LG: : I’m originally from the rural Midwest – from southern Illinois. But I moved here from Boston where I lived for about a decade. I’m very attached to Boston. It’s an intimate city and an academic city. But I have to say—I’ve really fallen in love with Los Angeles. LA, despite its reputation as a city of actors and producers, is mostly a city of writers and artisans—set designers, set builders, studio musicians, make-up artists—active, unionized creatives working hard to get their projects out into the world, in front of an audience. I don’t know of another city like that—of people making a living doing creative work. So it’s kind of cool because that tracks in a way what I’m trying to do, which is do essentially creative writing. And I’m trying to do it in a way that ends with actually getting things out there in the world to be read. So I find that energy to be enormously helpful in terms of my academic work, even though LA, unlike Boston, is supposedly not an academic city. The vibe here—there’s just something to it that makes sense to me and that I find enormously energizing in doing my own work. And of course there’s the fact that living here a person can find more than 3 hours of energy a day even in that long stretch of January, February, March. I have like a full year of all-day energy.
AB: What brought you to philosophy and how has its study enhanced your life?LG: I started studying philosophy because I was required to study philosophy for a sophomore year honors seminar when I was an undergrad. I was an English and Political Science major at the time and came in kicking and screaming. I thought that philosophy was a lot of people wasting time on self-indulgent crap while the world was burning. As I began to dig in, though, I had this realization that if at that moment I’d had the power to bring about all the changes in the world that I wanted to see, I would probably make a pretty big mess, because I actually had no clear idea how things should be. I began to see some value in setting aside a part of life to work some of that out for myself. I became very interested, in particular, in stuff about free will and responsibility, which is more or less where I have stayed. How has it enhanced my life? Well, it has certainly brought me into conversation with a lot of wonderful and interesting people. And I can say now with a little more precision what it is I think about a thing or two.
AB: What do you love about UCLA?LG: There’s an approach here both to philosophy and to professional relationships that has just always felt right to me…I just think that there’s a lot of warmth, and a lot of heart, and a lot of dedication to ideas and getting things right. There’s a sense that the questions we’re all here to answer are important, but also that the human people who inhabit the place are important. That’s a really hard balance for a department to strike. Anyway, no department is perfect, but I’ve been able to absorb so much here, just from looking around, about the kind of philosopher I’d want to be, and the kind of teacher, and the kind of advisor. How many people get to learn from their heroes? I’ve been very lucky.
AB: What other disciplines, if any, do you draw from in your teaching and your research?LG: The older I get, the more I draw from literature. I have found that teaching philosophy works best when we start from an account of experience and then we come to see how just that human experience gives rise to certain pressing questions. This helps students orient themselves towards the problem—helps them make better-informed judgments about what the relevant questions are, how we might go about answering them, and what kinds of considerations bear on those answers. There’s just something about facing the problem in abstract, third-personal terms—like, “Abortion: yay or nay?”—that orients us to the problem in the wrong way. Things go better when we can think about a certain experience one might have, try to work out what the contours of that experience look like—what it feels like to be in the position of having to make that choice. Some people seem to think that this clouds the philosophical question, but I think it’s what makes the important questions visible. Literature provides me with a rich set of resources for illustrating a certain experience where that can be a starting point for a conversation in a way that I think a text—where the experiences come to us already theorized—can be unhelpful or misleading. So I try root students in experience, to get them really thinking about their own experience, and engage their own moral imaginations, but oftentimes we’re talking about experiences not everyone has had, or can imagine, so a good literary account of it is often a good place to start.
AB: What is your research about?LG: My research is largely focused on issues about response to wrongdoing and moral failure…. My dissertation approaches questions about what might justify punishment, but rather than thinking about state punishment I try to think about the place and possible value of punishment in a certain interpersonal context. What value is there in punishing children? What role does hard-treatment play in our mature personal relationships? If we look at the very best cases of how hard-treatment functions in human life more broadly, we get a deeper sense of both what that kind of treatment is and what range of legitimate purposes it might serve. I try to show that punishment’s value across a range of contexts, both interpersonal and institutional, is reparative. Where punishment is justified, I argue, it will not be as a good in itself, nor as a tool of the aggregate good. Neither will it be justified because it serves the interests of either the punisher or the punished. Punishment, where it is permissible, will be permissible because it works to restore the relationship between punisher and punished, which I’m conceiving of as being itself something of value.
“Expend less effort struggling against your weakness, and more on seeking opportunities that maximize your strengths. You can work on your weakness but they will never be your strengths, and the world provides many different opportunities for helping others and self-actualizing, and you’re allowed to pick the ones that play to strengths you have. One needn’t always be overcoming.”
AB: Describe your upcoming job!LG: I’ve accepted a position as a post-doctoral fellow at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics and Society at Stanford. The McCoy Center brings together scholars from a range of disciplines. They have people there with philosophy backgrounds. They have people there with political theory backgrounds. They have people with education backgrounds, psychology—a range of subjects. I’ll be working there with Stanford faculty from across these fields, and with eight or so other postdocs, participating in a couple of writing workshops and teaching a little in the spring. I hope to focus there on developing a relationship-centered account of state punishment.
AB: What philosophy have you been reading?LG: I have been reading two books. I’ve been reading Tommy Shelby’s Dark Ghettos, which I began reading for a seminar that Barbara [Herman] is currently teaching. The book is riveting, so I kept reading despite not being able to finish the seminar (Sorry, Barbara!). I have also been reading Sarah Shulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse. Shulman isn’t a philosopher, and the arguments get pretty shaggy, but she has some very interesting things to say about the proper place of conflict in human life, whether at the level of the interpersonal, or the international. A fun set of books to read together.
AB: What philosophical reading might you recommend for the reading pleasure of alumni or undergraduates?LG: Well, it’s neither strictly speaking philosophy, nor what I would call “pleasurable” in any simple sense, but the piece of writing most on my mind lately is David Grann’s new book Killers of the Flower Moon, about Oklahoma’s Osage tribe, and a large-scale plot by white Oklahomans to rob the Osage people of their oil money. It’s a story that feels important to read both as a citizen, with a responsibility to understand the history of this nation, and as an ethicist thinking and writing about interpersonal wrongdoing, and the ways that we learn to move past it. What’s so incredible about it is the excruciating intimacy of the betrayal. These men married Osage women, had children with them, and then, years later, began to kill them, one by one, along with their extended families… But it’s also the story of Mollie Burkhart, one of the central targets of the plot, and of her extraordinary strength of character. Important and satisfying to read. And honestly, Grann is just a wonderful journalist and storyteller.
AB: What would you say to your undergraduate self?LG: I would say to her, expend less effort struggling against your weaknesses, and more on seeking opportunities that maximize your strengths. Because you can work on your weaknesses but they will never be your strengths, and the world provides many different opportunities for helping others and self-actualizing, and you’re allowed to pick the ones that play to the strengths you have. One needn’t always be overcoming.
Interview with Daniela Dover
Daniela Dover, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, was interviewed by Sarah Beach. Sarah is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy, specializing in meta-ethics, social and political philosophy, and feminist philosophy. This interview was conducted over email.
SB: Why philosophy?DD: I knew I wanted to be an academic by the end of the first semester of college. As soon as I saw what it was like to be allowed to just read and write and think all day, I knew I wanted to keep doing that, if I could get away with it
SB: When did you realize you wanted to do philosophy for a living?DD: I only got into philosophy toward the end of college. I majored in classics, focusing on 5th century Athenian authors like Thucydides and Aristophanes. I think I chose philosophy over classics largely because I liked how it wormed its way into the rest of life. Thinking about novels I read or movies I saw could count as philosophy. And I could do philosophy by having conversations with my friends. It could become continuous with everything else I cared about.
SB: Who were your favorite philosophers when you first encountered philosophy? Who are your favorites now?DD: Spinoza was my favorite in college. Now, I’d probably say Plato. Among more recent authors, I love Iris Murdoch. My interest in philosophers tends to be inversely proportional to how much I agree with them, so the ones I love most aren’t necessarily the ones who would figure in my written work.
SB: How would you characterize your approach to doing philosophy?DD: I keep an eye out for things that a lot of people around me seem to believe but that don’t sit well with me. Then I try to explain why these ideas bother me. I generally stick to ideas that are prevalent in the culture at large, not just in the philosophical literature. I’m not very interested in arguing against something that only philosophers believe. But I’m also not eager to come up with philosophical defenses of commonsense views. I find the way we live now deeply unsatisfactory, and philosophy for me is primarily about articulating that dissatisfaction and recruiting others to share it and to look for something better.
“I try to help students get more comfortable with “Living in the questions,” as Rilke Says, Rather than trying to settle on answers. I want philosophy to give them a sense of freedom and possibility.”
SB: And your approach to teaching?DD: My fear is always that students will use philosophy as a tool to build sturdier defenses of what they already believe. In the aggregate, that would ensure that philosophical education is just propping up the status quo. I try to help students get more comfortable with “living in the questions,” as Rilke says, rather than trying to settle on answers. I want philosophy to give them a sense of freedom and possibility.
SB: What do you think is the most unusual or controversial philosophical claim you endorse?DD: I’m a pacifist. It’s not something I would defend in my philosophical work, because I don’t think I could defend it on an abstract level. But it structures my thinking about a lot of things
SB: What do you work on?DD: My current project is about the important role played by adversarial conversations in friendship and love, and about how recognizing that role might change our thinking about the self.
SB: What advice would you give to yourself as a graduate student?DD: I wish I had spent less time trying to get myself interested in debates that ultimately bored me, just because they were currently treated as important in the field.
SB: If you could change some things about the discipline, what would they be?DD: I would make the discipline much more diverse, both demographically and ideologically.
SB: This is a question I often get asked: what, if any, practical impact can philosophy/philosophers have on the world?DD: The most immediately practical thing philosophy can do, in my mind, is to loosen the grip of the ideas that reinforce unjust social arrangements.
SB: What are your non-philosophical hobbies?DD: I like spending time outdoors. Lately I am getting more into rock climbing, although it still terrifies me.
SB: What non-philosophical stuff do you read?DD: I read novels and poetry, history, and some sociology and anthropology, when I can.
SB: A recent album, TV show, or movie you’re currently into?DD: This isn’t recent, but the last movie I saw that really astonished me was Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies.
Interview with Michael Rescorla
Michael Rescorla, Professor of Philosophy, was interviewed by Andrew Lavin. Andrew is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy. His research interests are in the Aristotelian tradition and in the philosophy of perception, action, and cognition.
AL: I know you came most recently from Santa Barbara, but where are you from originally and where else have you taught?MR: I grew up in Philadelphia mainly and then I went to school in Boston, I attended Harvard for both undergrad and grad school. Then I got the job at UCSB, where I taught for about 13 years before coming here.
AL: So would you advise undergraduates to consider pursuing graduate study at their undergraduate institution or to prioritize other schools?MR: As a general rule it’s probably better to go somewhere else. I had a good experience, but I think most people would say in general it’s better to go to a different school. I had a good working relationship with my advisors as an undergrad. I liked what they were doing, and I thought it was a good idea to continue working with them. Additionally, being in Boston, MIT is just down the street so I could take a lot of classes there and get exposure to some other viewpoints.
AL: So what got you interested in philosophy originally?MR: I got interested in it in high school. At that age like many people I was interested in Nietzsche and the like. After that I became more aware of analytic philosophy—for example, I got interested in Wittgenstein and even some Quine and Putnam. By the time I got to college I already had a pretty good idea that I wanted to pursue philosophy.
When I started at Harvard I took deductive logic from Warren Goldfarb and that blew me away. To see all the different modes of expression and different patterns of reasoning that one can capture using this pretty simple calculus. That was a pretty eye opening experience—that you could bring this sort of scientific rigor to the analysis of argument and reasoning. After that I got hooked on more formal approaches to philosophy.
I was also very interested in math. I minored in math. One of the things I’ve always loved about philosophy is that you can dabble in different areas. I feel like you could never get bored with philosophy because if you got bored with one topic you could move onto almost literally any other topic that one might be interested in and attempt a philosophical analysis of it. One of the reasons I decided to pursue philosophy as a career is the fact that there’s such an inexhaustible range of topics.
AL: So what is your research about more broadly and then what are you working on right now?MR: Most of my research in one way or another centers on the mind’s capacity to represent the world. Historically, most philosophers have felt that this is a really central feature of the mind. And in modern cognitive science you find this old idea being vindicated. You find some pretty powerful theories of perception, deductive reasoning, action, navigation, etc. And these theories are couched in terms of this notion of mental representation.
A lot of my work is trying to look at cognitive science, or other areas like say computer science or even probability theory, to see how representation ends up playing a central theoretical role and to look at how that might shed light on traditional philosophical debates about mental representation.
The other focus of my work has been Bayesian Decision Theory, which originated with Rev. Thomas Bayes a few centuries ago (he’s a rough contemporary with Hume). He used probability theory to codify our reasoning about matters about that are uncertain–it might rain tomorrow or it might not—and he wanted to codify this kind of reasoning very rigorously. The key theorem that he discovered got named after him: Bayes’s Theorem. The decision theory based on that theorem is called Bayesian Decision Theory. It gets used in economics, medicine, engineering, cognitive science, and robotics. A lot of my work is about how Bayesian tools get used in cognitive science. I focus especially on the representational and normative foundations of Bayesian Decision Theory.
“I have a paper right now asking : What are mental representations how should we understand these things? What kind of role they really play in cognitive science theorizing?”
AL: What exactly do you mean by "normative foundations"?MR: Bayesian Decision Theory has norms governing how you should update beliefs about probabilities given new evidence. For example, there’s a norm that says given new evidence of a certain kind, here’s how you should reallocate probabilities or here’s what your new probabilities should be. By “norm,” I mean there’s a rule for what you should do. And I have some work I’m doing right now on the topic of why we should follow these norms.
AL: Do you have any projects or papers you're working on right now?MR: One idea that people have had, one that goes back at least to the medieval era, is that people have mental representations. In other words, they have items in the head or mental items that represent the world. I have a paper right now asking: what are mental representations? How should we understand these things? What kind of role do they really play in cognitive science theorizing? I look at some case studies where I think they play a role and try to elucidate how we should understand representations in these cases. I try to cash out what all this talk of mental representations comes to. I see that as one of the key foundational questions for cognitive science. Mental representations are entities that some philosophers find to be very natural and intuitive but others find to be a very strange and implausible. I try to give a conception of mental representations that is fairly anodyne. One that large swaths of people should be willing to accept.
AL: So, recognizing that there could be something to worry about for a certain conception of mental representations, but trying to show that if we understand it in a different way then everyone should be on board with it.MR: Yeah, some people, such as Fodor, have attributed a lot of properties to mental representations that we might not want to attribute to them. And that’s part of the reason why these items have been so controversial. I think that there’s a relatively noncontroversial notion of mental representation that maybe not everyone, but lots of people, should be willing to accept.
AL: Philosophically what have you been reading?MR: I haven’t had a lot of time outside of the cognitive psychology and philosophy of psychology that I read for my work. I’ve recently been reading the last chapter of Kathrin Kozlicki’s The Structure of Objects, where she explores the notion of structure as it arises in music theory, linguistics, chemistry, mathematics, logic, and some other fields. It’s really illuminating
AL: What about your non-philosophical reading?MR: I read a lot of online political articles and the like. I have two young kids though, so when I’m reading something not work related, I always feel like I should be reading something that relates to my research.
AL: If you had to recommend a philosophical piece for some beach reading, does anything come to mind?MR: One book that I like a lot which is also quite accessible to almost anyone who is interested in philosophy is Making Things Happen by James Woodward. It’s about the nature of explanation, especially causal explanation. Pretty much anyone with some philosophical training can pick it up, and it goes through a lot of examples and is written in a very accessible and enjoyable way. I think that’s one of the best philosophical books in the past fifteen or so years.
AL: Do you have any advice for undergraduates interested in pursuing graduate study in philosophy?MR: It’s good to take a range of philosophy classes so you get a sense of all the different topics people are working on right now. What you’re interested in right now might not be what you’re interested in in the future or what you end up writing on. I also think it’s good, though, to take classes in areas outside of philosophy that bear on what you’re interested in. For me, I was interested in the philosophy of mathematics, so I ended up taking a lot of math. If you’re interested in philosophy of mind, then you should take courses in cognitive science and psychology, if you’re interested in political philosophy, then you should take political science and economics classes, and so on. Philosophy interfaces with a lot of different disciplines, so your undergraduate years are a good time to get exposure to them. It’s good to have a balance where you not only take a good range of philosophy course, but also courses outside of philosophy that will help make your philosophy better.
AL: Any advice for undergraduate majors interested in pursuing other career paths?MR: Fortunately, it seems like most employers know that a philosophy degree is good training and preparation for a lot of fields. For people interested in law, law schools know that philosophy is great training for work in law. Clear reasoning, clear writing, and clear thinking are all invaluable.
There’s a sort of cliché in popular culture that philosophy majors are unemployed and destitute and that philosophy is a useless degree, but I think the data speaks quite to the contrary. Philosophy majors do quite well in the job market. American philosophy departments have emphasized teaching these skills that are very transferable and that are useful in almost any field that you might go into.