Interview with Gavin Lawrence
Gavin Lawrence is Professor of Philosophy at UCLA. His research focuses on ethics and ancient philosophy. His article “The Deep and the Shallow” will appear in a forthcoming edited volume entitled Phillippa Foot on Goodness and Virture. He was interviewed by Jenna Donohue and Professor Seana Shiffrin. Jenna is a fifth-year student in the Department of Philosophy. She is interested in topics in ethics, meta-ethics, and their intersection.
JD: What initially brought you to philosophy?GL: Desperation. No, I was set a task of writing on history, about Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and began to be interested in philosophy of history. I went and I talked to a friend of my parents, Jane Degras, who had played chess with Stalin’s son; a leftist of the 30s, a chain-smoker. She was really interested in history and got me going and got me to read E. H. Carr’s What is History? I was intrigued.
JD: Tell me a little about your current research and what you are reading.GL: I just sent a paper off about a passage in Plato’s Republic, which I’m excited about, on the art of compensation and what role, if any, incentives may play in practical reason. I haven’t published on Plato before. I am working on a new project on Rousseau, whose mind I find interesting and very challenging.
I’ve found my philosophy more historically illuminated these days. I’ve gotten back into the Republic so I’m reading a lot of Thucydides and Aristophanes. Aristophanes is informative to what Plato does; it sort of intrigued me. The other project I have is to read through Eric Hobsbawm’s volumes of modern history. I’ve read the early one on empire. He’s a very illuminating person. I’ve been reading recently Ste. Croix’s The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World; it’s a Marxist view, an antidote to the philosophers who are just about historical facts. I like reading Marx’s attempt to read history as a sort of transgenerational progression. It’s not that I really believe in it. I always feel that it’s rather like Aristotle who constructs a metaphysics of actuality up to God. Marx is constructing a metaphysics of process in which history is turned generational process of advancement rather than a chapter of accidents. I find there’s a very suspicious but very illuminating idea. There’s some truth in it but it isn’t clear how quite to capture that truth.
JD: Tell me about some philosophers you admire, who are different than you, who think differently than you do, but who inspire, excite, or anger you. If you could have dinner with any philosopher, dead or alive, who would it be and why?GL: It’s funny. I don’t have any philosophers that anger me. Every great philosopher excites me—partly because of the challenge. If I had to dine with two philosophers, I would choose Hume and Kant, both reputed as great conversationalists so they wouldn’t let me have a word in—frightening. And Plato I would take to Starbucks for coffee because I would be interested to see if the coffee had much effect on him.
JD: 30 years is a long time to be in one place: you must love it here. What are some of your favorite things about UCLA? Why do you love the philosophy department?GL: It’s been the most amazing place for me across over 30 years. I’m privileged to belong to it. I love its atmosphere of seriousness and commitment. I think that a lot of this is due to senior colleagues, to David Kaplan, to Tyler Burge, to Barbara Herman, for creating and maintaining this atmosphere.
I want to emphasize the family feel of UCLA. There is this incredible feeling that we are in it together, that we are on an endeavor together. It’s doing a serious subject seriously without competition. It’s incomparable, the seriousness without competition. You can discuss your ideas and receive thoughtful criticism, but always in a constructive way, at the service of your work getting better. It’s important that it’s passed on to the next generation because it really is a beacon in philosophy.
JD: Outside of philosophy, what are your hobbies and passions?GL: I feel like a real estate agent: philosophy, philosophy, and philosophy. Apart from that . . . opera, traveling. My reading has changed somewhat. I read more historical things: I was always told that this would happen to one as one got older. And it’s true. But occasionally there are certain things I never read as a young person, like George Eliot. I’ve met my level with George Eliot who is just so philosophical. She is to me the most philosophical novelist, a great philosopher. It’s sort of a wonderful world to have opened up to one. Of course there’s Middlemarch but Ramona is what I’m appreciating at the moment; it’s what she loved the most.
JD: What was the question in the philosophy of history that grabbed you then?GL: I think I’ve always had this trouble about generality and particularity. I didn’t want to be a historian because of the particularness—you know they’re just facts. So I was attracted to generality, but then . . . Thucydides’ message was entirely on writing about human beings forever, but through the particular. And Plato in his dialogues does say the same thing, only kind of in reverse. They’re both jamming up the particular and the general against each other. And perhaps that’s been my deep fascination.
JD: Do you think Hume and Kant would get along over dinner? They’re often pitched as such opponents.GL: Oh no. They’re completely congenial. Rousseau—if you added Rousseau to that mix, then you would have a very troubling dinner party. So I would not invite Rousseau—I might go on a solitary walk with him. But it would end up in dispute. He would need to talk all the time. He sees himself as the new Plato, the Plato for the new age, covering all the platonic topics, one by one, and reinterpreting them for the modernists.
But all these guys are just so remarkable. You read them, and it makes you want to cry. When you go back to the history of philosophy, it’s like that. It’s a privilege to read them, it’s a privilege to teach them. And teaching philosophy of politics recently, teaching Kant’s histories of universal cosmopolitanism—it’s just 9 pages of utter brilliance and utter challenge that sets a challenge to German philosophy for the next generations. Both Hegel and Marx rise to the occasion of writing a philosophy of history under the idea of cosmopolitanism.
JD: What do you think of cosmopolitanism?GL: It’s the only place we have to go to as a human race. We are human; we have to be human together. Some form of cosmopolitanism is inevitable. The United Nations—it tries—it recognizes the commonality of humanity. How exactly best to express the commitment is unclear; you realize that that’s our challenge. But there is no doubt that this is where the human march has to go.
JD: That’s interesting. Do you find looking back that there was a philosopher that when you were young, you didn’t appreciate in a way that you’ve now come to?GL: Yes. When I was young, I thought that Hume was a sort of mechanical philosopher. He had these sort of tests, and he was kind of mechanical and boring; there was really nothing to be said. But now, I see him as someone caught in a certain sort of psychology of mind, which is absolutely wrong and obviously wrong—but, he never kind of got trapped by it. He was always busting out of it, always asking the deepest questions, within his constraints; it was just remarkable. I think if I had to take one philosopher on a desert island, it would probably be Hume. He’s a remarkable—it’s so rare for a philosopher to mature so young. It’s like a mathematician. His greatest work was done by the time he’s 24. And he’s a challenger, and philosophy is about asking questions. He threw down so many gauntlets.
“It’s the only place we have to go to as a human race. We are human; we have to be human together. Some form of cosmopolitanism is inevitable.”
JD: I’m interested that you say this about Hume because many see him as a skeptic and I think of you as an anti-skeptic.GL: [There are] two strands of skepticism, the philosophical strand [and] holistic skepticism.
Hume is a curious bridge. There is skepticism about his whole world picture which is God-dominated, which suggests holistic skepticism. But he’s a naturalist, and within the naturalism, there is no skepticism. I mean, there is, there is only a modest skepticism about how hard it is to find out the real facts in science, and “Have I got the truth?”—that modest skepticism that one might have. “I’ve been describing this life of this caterpillar or this butterfly . . . now, have I got it right?” There’s that, a proper naturalistic skepticism.
JD: An epistemic humility.GL: Yes, a humility in front of the difficulty of knowledge in that thing. But not humility in front of metaphysical knowledge.
JD: I know you treasure undergraduate teaching. What do you find special about it?GL: I love the UCLA undergraduates. I deeply respect the undergraduates because so many of them have to put themselves through their education. I had a very privileged upbringing myself in Oxford and then a privileged initial teaching career, and I was so pleased that my advice was to come to UCLA rather than Harvard, which is like Oxford . . . to come into a big state school and sing my heart out. The undergraduates are so interested. I try to rise to the occasion and to make them interested. I want to inspire them to think for themselves—to be free, which is what philosophy is about. I often say to them in the beginning in the introductory class that it’s very difficult because you’ve been taught subjects where you learn certain facts, but philosophy is about learning to stand in mid-air without any foundation and to feel comfortable there. It’s a very difficult and discombobulating experience.
I once remember Philip Clark, a former graduate student of ours, saying to me that the very best informative course he ever had in his college was something that he didn’t like at the time. And then 5 or 6 years on, he remembered it as the only course that really resonated with him. I bear it in mind constantly. I teach what I think are good values, what I think the kids need to learn, and it will resonate, I hope—if not now, then later.
“It’s incomparable, the seriousness without competition. You can discuss your ideas and receive thoughtful criticism, but always in a constructive way, at the service of your work getting better. It’s important that it’s passed on to the next generation because it really is a beacon in philosophy.”
Interview with Emily Rosenfelt
Many of UCLA’s undergraduate philosophy majors aspire to go to law school and to use their philosophical training in the field of law. A career in law can take many paths, and there are many ways of being a lawyer. To highlight some of these varied paths, we feature short profiles of four undergraduate alumni who are currently lawyers. We hope their stories will inform and inspire those students who dream of a career in law.
All of the interviews were conducted by Jordan Wallace-Wolf. Jordan is pursuing the joint J.D./Ph.D. in our Law and Philosophy Program. He has completed the J.D. and is currently writing a dissertation on privacy. Emily Rosenfelt ’05 is an attorney with the Los Angeles Alternate Public Defender.
JW: Please tell me a little about what you do.ER: I am a public defender [in] the Alternate Public Defenders Office. I represent people in all different types of felony cases—from child abuse, to murder, to gang cases, to assault and robbery. One of the things that I like about my job is that I spend many, many hours with the people that I represent, just talking to them, not always about cases, but just about life. The prosecutor, the district attorney can’t do that because their job is to follow the evidence where it goes, and then their job is ultimately, if they believe the charges are true, to convict my client. They often have a very shallow view of the defendants. Defense attorneys in general come away with a much more nuanced understanding of who the person is, you see there are these complexities and different reasons for the way people act. And they’re not as black and white as they’re made to seem.
JW: Is there a particular example that you could share?ER: A lot of my clients have children that they’re very close to, and that they’re good parents of. For instance, in my current trial, and this is all a matter of public record, there are about 14,000 pages of Facebook records that were subpoenaed. The only Facebook records that the prosecutor is focusing on are the ones that suggest that my client is a gang member. However, there’s hundreds and hundreds of Facebook postings of him talking about potty training his three-year-old son, and coaching the flag football game for his 11-year old. You really see that people are not one dimensional, that they have these rich complex ways of being that are not as easy as “bad gang member” and “good contributing member of society.”
JW: How did you get interested in philosophy?ER: There was this book I found when I was very young, probably fifth or sixth grade, at a used book store, called Ten Theories of Human Nature. I found it just amazing that there were all these different ways that different people and different places had thought about humans, and whether they’re good or bad, or why they act the way they do, how they ought to act. I just thought it was so interesting that there was such differing perspectives on kind of this core question of who we are.
JW: What area of philosophy did you mainly study?ER: I took all the required courses—logic, and history and all that. I particularly liked ethics and moral philosophy. That’s probably why I became a public defender, is because I felt like all of the very important questions I was studying in moral philosophy, they were very interesting, but I felt like I needed to engage more with moral philosophy on a practical level. Representing people accused of very serious things, is kind of practical philosophy, a sort of moral philosophy in action. I’m taking a lot of my beliefs that I have about the dignity of every person, the right of every person to be heard and viewed fairly, that I feel like I’ve gained from studying philosophy, and using that in my work and my daily life.
JW: Did these ideas about the right of every person to have representation and to get a fair trial push you towards criminal work as opposed to other potential civil areas where people need representation? The stakes are very different.ER: You hit the nail on the head when you said the stakes are different. Often in moral philosophy you’re dealing with these thought experiments that involve these very heavy situations. To me, those questions and those thought experiments were more interesting than some other areas of philosophy that I studied. That’s probably why criminal law is more interesting to me than some of the other areas of law I could have gone into.
After I graduated from UCLA, I worked for Teach For America. I was assigned to the Mississippi Delta in Arkansas, to teach second graders. The town that I worked in was very segregated still in 2011-2012. All of the students in my class were poor and Black. So many of them had parents that had been very negatively impacted by the criminal justice system. It was heartbreaking to me to see these little seven year olds already at such a disadvantage compared to, at least in this town, their white peers. “Oh my goodness,” I thought, “I want to try and be on the other side of this and try to help.”
“Representing people accused of very serious things, is kind of practical philosophy, a sort of moral philosophy in action.”
JW: Did philosophy affect your approach to teaching?ER: One of my favorite professors at UCLA was Barbara Herman. She had a very amazing way of making each person feel fully heard in her classes. Even if one or two people dominated the discussion, she was very good about making sure that each person had time to say what they wanted to say, and felt heard and understood. And I tried to do that with my second graders, I did my best. Another way philosophy impacted my teaching is that I went into it thinking of them as little moral beings capable of all these different ways of behaving, and fully capable of thinking about the motives for their actions and why they do what they do. That really helped me. I didn’t just see them as noisy little children, I thought of them more fully.
JW: A final question. Is there anything about philosophical study that has changed your daily life in some way? The way you relate to something that you do or what you read?ER: I think I see things with a broader perspective than I would, were I not to have studied philosophy to such a degree. I have had clients that have been sentenced to prison for life. And that is very hard. But, having training in philosophy, I know there are a lot of philosophers who lived whole lives in monasteries, or who lived [a] very cloistered life in one small town and took a walk each day and that’s it. There are still ways to live a meaningful, important life even in difficult conditions, meaning even if you’re in prison for life. I’ve tried to convey that idea to the clients that I’ve had that have been in that situation, because I really believe it. Reading philosophers can actually help with that. Several times in the past I’ve bought different philosophy books for clients at their request, and I think it helps for them to have it brought into perspective that my life is not over just because I’m in here. I still have my mind, and that can still to some extent, give me freedom.
Interview with David Pettit
David Pettit ’72 is Senior Attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Jordan is pursuing the joint JD/PhD in our Law and Philosophy Program. He has completed the JD and is currently writing a dissertation on privacy.
JW: Tell me a little bit about your background.DP: I graduated in ‘72 from UCLA with a degree in philosophy and in ’75 from UCLA Law School. I’ve been a litigator my whole career. I’m now at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is one of the big green environmental groups. I do litigation here, also some policy work, largely in the areas of air quality, climate change, environmental justice, the intersection of all of those.
JW: Is the defendant almost always a government regulator? Or do you have defendants who are corporations or persons?DP: We do occasionally go after industry. Often, where we’ll sue a regulator, we’re basically in the business of law enforcement. When regulators don’t do their job, then we step in. Often, when you sue a regulator over some decision, the project proponent gets involved in the litigation. I have a case now involving a rail yard project near the Port of Los Angeles, and the actual defendant is the City of Los Angeles, but the railroad that wants to build the project is heavily involved in the litigation. We are suing under the California Environmental Quality Act, CEQA for short, and to file one of those, you have to name the real party in interest, which is always the project proponent.
JW: What is the nature of the project? The railroad that wants to build this yard, they're the proponents of the project?DP: What it is, is what’s called an inter modal yard. Cargo comes in from China in big cargo containers, they’re 40-feet long, and they’ll be full of iPads or something. Many of those containers stay local, but about half of them go to the mid-west where they’re then distributed locally there. Those containers go by rail, rather than truck, which is something we support, because rail is more efficient in the emissions standpoint. Vastly more efficient.
But one of the issues is where you put the box onto the train. Ideally, in our view, that happens at the dock, where nobody lives. But, historically, there are a few near-dock rail yards. And this project is to add another one in an environmental justice community, which is a low-income community with predominantly people of color, near the Port of Los Angeles. What happens is, the box shows up on a boat, and it gets put onto a diesel truck, and that diesel truck takes the box four miles where it would then be put onto a diesel train. So, you’ve got diesel pollution at least two ways, one from the trucks, and one from the train. This project proposes to add two million truck trips per year to this local community. Our view is, build it on-dock where nobody lives, don’t put it in an environmental justice community.
JW: I want to ask you how philosophy plays a role in your job. Does it give you different skills and do they help you?DP: One thing I got out of my philosophy department experience was the ability to rigorously analyze an argument and see, not only how the argument proceeds, but what premises it’s based on. And that skill I use every single day in my job. I read a brief from the other side and I may think, “This is totally wrong,” but I can’t write a responding brief that says “Hey, judge, this is totally wrong.” You have to explain why, and there’s a pretense in our legal system that things are based on fact and logical application of law. So, you write briefs in that sense. You say, “Well, here’s the applicable law, here’s how it applies to the facts in front of us, and here’s why our opponent’s brief is incorrect.”
JW: What did you find interesting in your time as an undergraduate at UCLA and what you recommend to undergraduates to get the most out of what UCLA?DP: I was most interested in mathematical logic, and theory of language, theory of science, philosophy of science, philosophy of language, and I did take a class from Alonzo Church which was pretty scary. I had several majors before I wound up in philosophy, and, I guess my advice would be figure out what you like and then go for it hard. I took graduate classes while I was still an undergrad.
JW: How would you advise someone who's trying to decide whether they would be interested in law school? And a second question: if someone does determine they are interested in law school, how would you recommend they prepare to succeed at it?DP: I thought that the level of intellectual rigor in law school was a joke compared to the work I’d been doing in undergraduate. I was taking graduate courses in set theory and the like, and it took me a while to really figure out that law school was a professional school, and they were teaching you a trade. So, I think you need to adjust your expectation from some grand, intellectual adventure, to learning how to do the job. Which I think is what law school is really about.
JW: Do you have any advice that you'd like to share about how to find an interesting career and grow in it?DP: I was lucky enough, at UCLA, to get into the clinical programs where I was going to court with real cases in my second year, and the first time I did that, I loved it. I’ve always been a competitive guy, I played a lot of basketball when I was younger, and law is competitive. It’s intellectual, instead of banging people around under the hoop, but to me it’s the same kind of thing. And the first time I went to court, I thought, “This is it, this is what I want to do.” I feel comfortable in court, I’m good with conflict in chaos, I just like it.
Interview with Matthew Heyn
Matthew Heyn ‘00 is Deputy Attorney General with the California Department of Justice. Jordan is pursuing the joint JD/PhD in our Law and Philosophy Program. He has completed the JD and is currently writing a dissertation on privacy.
JW: Describe your current job for an audience not familiar with law.MH: I’m a Deputy Attorney General with the California Department of Justice. I represent California and its agencies in all aspects of civil litigation. Civil litigation is a wide area of practice that encompasses everything except putting people in jail. For example, I currently represent the State and its agencies in litigation arising out of the 2015 oil spill in Santa Barbara. I also represent the Department of Insurance in a hotly-contested dispute as to whether an insurance company should be required to give rebates to the purchasers of homeowners’ policies.
JW: What do you find most satisfying about it?MH: It’s intellectually challenging and righteous work. Every day I go into the office and resolve difficult and important problems for the State of California. I use reason and argument to persuade courts and clients to do the right thing. And, I’m given a tremendous amount of discretion in how to get the State and its agencies to a favorable result.
JW: Has your overall career path been altered by philosophical study?MH: Yes. At UCLA I focused my studies on ethics and political philosophy. Because of this, I place I high value on doing meaningful work and the importance of justice in the well-functioning state. John Rawls said “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.” If Rawls is right, then lawyers have a vital role to play in a well-functioning state and I believe it is a privilege to be part of the mechanism of justice. I spent the early part of my career in some very prestigious and high-paying positions. It was great training. However, three years ago, I made a big transition to work for the Department of Justice. Now I work for justice and it’s fun and gratifying.
JW: What did you most enjoy about undergraduate and where did you put most of your focus?MH: My undergraduate years felt like a magical time. I remember being overwhelmed by the opportunity to explore in a world of ideas. I didn’t have to train for anything specifically. I could just engage in the joy of learning new things. I could have world-class geniuses tell me the fundamentals of their area of study and a little bit about what they were working on. I loved it.
JW: How would one go about deciding whether to go to law school?MH: It’s a huge financial and life commitment, and not everyone enjoys practicing law after law school. Just because you go to law school, doesn’t mean you have to be a lawyer, but it’s the usual path and too many people go to law school without giving careful thought to whether they would enjoy being a lawyer.
Someone who thinks he or she might be interested in working in the law should try to get an internship or a part-time job that gives him or her some exposure to what lawyers do on a day-to-day basis. The best way to end up in a life that you like is to find someone who has that life, see if it really is enjoyable (even in the concrete details), and see how he or she did it.
JW: And how would one go about preparing for law school if one decided to go?MH: A philosophy degree is great preparation for law school. Most law schools teach the law primarily by have students analyze judicial opinions, which are in the form of arguments. Philosophy students in law school have an advantage because they are taught how to rigorously analyze arguments. Philosophy students know how to read slowly and charitably construe opposing positions. That is very valuable.
JW: What did you do in law school and what would you recommend for students who want to attend?MH: First, I worked hard in law school. Unlike during undergrad, I didn’t have a part-time job; I treated being ready for my classes as a full-time job. So I studied 40 hours per week (more during finals, less during other parts of the year). Working hard is critical in the first two years; less so after that.
Second, I took classes that I found interesting. I think that helped me do well in my classes. When I care about the subject matter of a course, I can internalize it better. For some classes, I still remember the details because they were so important to me when I was a law student.
Finally, I got involved in worthy organizations. In law school there are a lot of opportunities to use your knowledge to do good. If you don’t use those opportunities, you are not going to get a full educational experience. Moreover, the extracurricular organizations will give you opportunities to get to know your classmates, who might be your referral sources, colleagues, or business partners for the rest of your career. (I met my wife in law school.)
“If Rawls is right, lawyers have a vital role to play in a well-functioning state and I believe it is a privilege to be part of the mechanism of justice.”
JW: Last question: how has philosophy affected your life outside of work?MH: I continue to read philosophy, in books and articles. I enjoy puzzling over new ideas and discussing them with my friends who are trained in philosophy. Also, I recently took a great online philosophy course. Philosophy has lent itself well to me examining and re-examining my own life. I like to think about whether I am living a good, meaningful life. Philosophy and my faith facilitate that.
Interview with Corina McIntyre
Corina McIntyre ’12 is a corporate associate at Debevoise & Plimpton. Jordan is pursuing the joint JD/PhD in our Law and Philosophy Program. He has completed the JD and is currently writing a dissertation on privacy.
JW: Can you describe your current position?CM: I’m a corporate associate in the New York office of the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton. I’m in my first year, which means I’m in my first set of rotations in the corporate department. I am working in the Corporate Intellectual Property group. Next year it’s unknown where I would rotate. It would be another department in the corporate group, something complementary to what I’m doing now, mergers and acquisitions, or private equity, or capital markets. This category of firm is referred to as Big Law. We have an offices in New York, Washington, DC, and then a number of other offices internationally. We’re a very New York-centric firm, we’ve got over a thousand people that support just the New York operation alone.
JW: Tell me about what comes your way in the current rotation that you're in, Corporate Intellectual Property. What sort of cases do you see, or what sort of clients do you have?CM: 85% of the work that I do is mergers and acquisitions, M&A. Our firm represents a lot of private equity clients that are purchasing companies in all kinds of industries. That could be software. That could be manufacturing. It could be insurance, healthcare. In my current rotation when I work on M&A transactions, almost always I’m working on the intellectual property, information technology, cybersecurity and data privacy aspects of that transaction.
JW: Tell me a little bit how you got interested in intellectual property. I think many people see it as kind of a niche legal area.CM: Many people say, “You can only do IP if you were an engineer or could be patent bar eligible.” That’s wrong. I actually learned when I did my summer associate position here at this firm, at Debevoise, that it would be possible for me to practice IP even though I didn’t have an engineering or science background. For anybody that is interested in intellectual property, you don’t need to write that off as an option just because you don’t have that engineering or hard sciences degree.
JW: I want to ask you about philosophy as it plays a role in your career. How do you think the skills of philosophy, or the training that you got there, applied to your job?CM: One of the ways that on a daily basis the philosophy degree helps me is the attention to detail that you get. It comes up on the job. In reviewing and drafting contracts, it is seemingly small things that really matter. They’ll be seemingly small things to the non-corporate lawyer that is. Philosophy students and philosophy graduates have this mental willingness to explore all kinds of possibilities.
JW: Where did you put your energy as an undergraduate? And also, what advice would you give undergraduates about how to get the most out of their undergraduate studies?CM: I was a transfer student, so I only got to do my junior and senior years at UCLA. I’d also taken time off after high school, so I wasn’t even straight through, I was now kind of nearing my mid-20s. By that point, I’d already gone through the back and forth in terms of figuring out what I wanted to do for next steps and a career path. There was absolutely no question that I was going to law school.
I did the Astin Fellows Civic Engagement program at UCLA, I did JusticeCorps, I was heavily involved in UCLA Pre-Law Society, as well. They were beneficial to my law school applications, but I enjoyed those experiences so much. They were so valuable to me in terms of finding meaning outside of being in the classroom. The advice that I would give to current students is that you already are going to be spending so much time in the classroom and in the books, make sure that that is not all you do while you are at UCLA.
Interview with Olufemi Taiwo
Olufemi Taiwo is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the UCLA Department of Philosophy. His dissertation is Autobiography. He has accepted an Assistant Professor position at Georgetown University. David Reyes ‘18 is a philosophy major and presented at UCLA Undergraduate Research Week in May 2018.
OT: What brought you to philosophy? The ideas, thinkers, people around you? What is it that you saw in this discipline?DR: I guess the circumstances of me growing up. My parents emigrated here from Nigeria in the ‘80s, and I was growing up in conservative southwestern Ohio. So on the one hand, I knew about all these anti-black stereotypes and [had] one unrepresentative view of America from [the] pretty affluent suburb I grew up in. And then I knew that there was something up with Nigeria—it was “underdeveloped” were the terms people used—and all this next to the fact that all the Nigerian people I knew were hyper-educated, in skilled professions, or had advanced degrees. So stack any two of those up against the other one, and you get pretty confused. I guess you could say that was my first set of philosophical questions. “What’s up with all these things?” I majored in political science and economics, and the way that those fields were studied didn’t give me the answers I thought I wanted. So I thought: “Where do you get to question some of the assumptions that seem to me to be working out in problematic ways?” And that was philosophy.
OT: What is your current line of research, or what is the big research question or the big idea you focus on?DR: I guess the big question is: “How do we be free? How can we be free?” My dissertation is about figuring out what ‘free’ means. And I ask questions that follow up on: “What does unfreedom really look like on the level of individual actions and how does it show up? ” I think it’s kind of obvious to everyone how being in prison makes you unfree, how living in a despotic regime makes you unfree. But I always thought unfreedom was a little sneaker than that. So how does living under the wrong set of social norms make you unfree? How does living under the wrong set of public information make you unfree?
There’s stuff that I’m doing parallel to some discussions in philosophy of language. You get critical philosophers, race, and feminist philosophers asking “In these kinds of conversations that men have with women here’s how we think unfreedom shows up.” But also, less obviously, “What language we use, how does that constitute a source of unfreedom, or unequal distribution of freedom?” Then the philosophers of language asking questions like “What is an assertion? How do people respond to assertions that other people have made?” Then on the epistemology side “What’s the rational way to respond to assertions?” So when you combine those three conversations, I think you get an interesting question of how our epistemic practices and how our linguistic practices and how our regular practical practices all relate to political structure and social structure.
OT: I believe you taught in prisons? And I’m curious about the idea of teaching philosophy to [the] underserved. What is it like? What is it like for you? What do you see? How does it develop?DR: To me, teaching philosophy is a fundamentally political kind of project. At the end of the day, what philosophy means, what being a philosopher means, it’s a way of being in the world that is constitutively opposed to domination. The good idea lurking in this whole ‘everything’s about argument’ idea is that, if someone wants you to believe something, and closely related to that, someone wants you to do something, you’re owed an explanation. You’re owed a reason. I think it’s a way of fundamental mutual accountability, that’s what philosophy is about. I can’t just tell you to think the same [as me]. I have to explain to you why I think [what I do]. I have to show you what’s good about this thing, I have to convince you.
My understanding of the education system is that it’s a system that teaches some people how to comply and how to be the best compliant people, and about teaching other people how to generate the rules they should comply to. I think you have a complicated relation to that fact if you’re teaching philosophy but teaching it in places which are functionally exclusionary. And so I think one of the things we should do with this complicated situation we are in is to find opportunities to teach philosophy to people who aren’t invited to engage with the world in terms of non-domination.
OT: Can we pivot towards your activism? What is it that drives you? Other than these large questions.DR: I think the good thing about philosophy and the way philosophy has affected how I think about this is—the idea of conviction or the idea of principle. And the idea of solidarity that you get out of those things. I’m a cis het black male. Conversations about racism, yeah I’ve got stories for that. Conversations about transphobia, little less in my personal experience, unless I’m the guilty party, right? But a little less to feel personally victimized on that side of things. And the lesson of principle is if it’s the same world that’s causing this stuff, how can I dismiss that because it doesn’t apply to me, but then ask white people to [care] when I’m talking about racism? I think that kind of reasoning everyone recognizes to some extent, but I feel it—I have an emotional relationship to that kind of reasoning that makes sense because of what I do, philosophy of principle. The argument has a claim on me because of how I articulate myself in the world that it might not have just because it’s true.
OT: How does your activism connect to your teaching, specific classes that you teach, or that you’re interested in teaching?DR: I’d say it’s very direct because one of the things you’re constantly asking in activism is “What’s important?” “Why is it important?” and “Who is accountable for this?” I do political philosophy, and those are all political questions. So if nothing else, I’m constantly doing political philosophy in activist spaces. It’s a space where I’m learning more about what I study.
But I think that even apart from that, there’s a direct intellectual link in the sense of, one of the things that results from having a deeply unequal education system is that the space of what’s known politically or what’s understood politically is more narrow in the halls of academia than anyone’s really in a position to understand unless they do political work outside of academia.
OT: How difficult is it politically in an academic institution to really discuss your activism, specifically the political thought that drives you?DR: I don’t think it’s as difficult as often advertised. I found that if you present things along the model of curiosity, as opposed to advocacy—I think that some activists won’t like that I put it that way because it plays into the idea of a view from nowhere that people have rightfully criticized. But the fact that maybe there’s no view from nowhere doesn’t mean the view has to be from the particular things you think because you should decenter yourself. I just don’t feel any kind of pressure or threat from presenting ideas except that they might be wrong. But usually I think things are right just because I think people thinking carefully should come to that conclusion. And if they won’t, it’s because of something that’s not my responsibility. So I think presenting things in a way that’s just saying “Here’s some interesting ideas, not let’s play with them as if they were toys, because in what I do the ideas matter, but let’s have an exploratory relationship with these ideas.”
“Teaching philosophy is a fundamentally political kind of project. Being a philosopher is a way of being in the world that is constitutively opposed to domination.”
OT: What advice do you have for incoming students who might walk into a philosophy classroom for the first time?DR: Number one, join a union. Form a union if you don’t have one. Stay curious by any means necessary. And that’s less a suggestion about how to succeed at philosophy in a classroom or a professional sense and more that these are the conditions on which philosophy is worth doing. Be curious about something you otherwise don’t care about. Try to find the connections between things you think you don’t care about and the things you know that you already care about. Because if you were to ask year-two Femi if he would be studying semantics and would be having questions about that, he would have yelled at you. Then pounded the table and left. But here I am.
Interview with Sam Cumming
Sam Cumming is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UCLA. His research focuses on philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, literature, and film. His co-authored article “Conventions of Viewpoint Coherence in Film” appeared in Philosophers’ Imprint in 2017. He was interviewed by Tristen Cardwell. Tristen is a first-year student in the Department of Philosophy. She is interested in topics in philosophy of language, logic, and philosophy of mind, especially self-reference and self-consciousness.
TC: I know you received your Ph.D. from Rutgers. But where did you do your undergrad degree?SC: I’m from Melbourne, Australia, and I did it at the University of Melbourne. I was also an English major when I was an undergrad, and I mostly satisfied things in that major until my third year when I went on exchange to UC Berkeley, and that’s where I got a lot of the philosophy part of my degree done.
TC: What research have you been working on lately?SC: The things I’ve done in the past have been on traditional topics in the philosophy of language like attitude reports, and content. And I’m working on a fairly mainstream topic in the philosophy of language right now, which is about different kinds of lexical meaning. So I’m looking at on the one hand words that have definitions that provide necessary and sufficient conditions for something to belong to the extension of that word, versus words that are vague.
So, a vague predicate does not come with such a definition. A word like ‘tall’ is not defined as so many feet and inches in height, though it does tell you—this is part of its meaning—that height is the dimension relevant for applying ‘tall’, and also that a greater height is a better reason for applying ‘tall’ than a lesser height is. And then finally, there are words that are open-textured, where no set of dimensions or features is fixed as the basis for applying the word—you can always add more—and so their meaning is even weaker than the meaning of a vague word.
Another thing is this project with Gabe Greenberg [another UCLA Department of Philosophy faculty member] and Rory Kelly, on what you might call discourse-level semantics of film. Film describes a space that in some sense encompasses and is larger than, say, the small chunks of space that you actually see in the different shots in the film. There’s some bigger space in which it’s all embedded. And there are rules that we’re uncovering, or just sort of regularities or conventions by which filmmakers indicate to the viewer what the spatial relationships between the shots are. You might have thought, oh, the camera is just like some viewer. And you imagine that, when the camera takes different positions, that viewer is moving around in the scene. But, if that’s true, then the viewer is teleporting instantaneously to all different parts of the scene. But what these rules show is that they can’t just teleport anywhere. There are certain constraints the filmmaker can suggest that will allow you to anticipate exactly where the viewer is going to teleport. Even though it’s teleporting. It’s not just moving its head from one side to the other or doing something that a normal viewer could do. It’s teleporting to a different part of the scene, but the filmmaker can indicate where or at least what angle that transition is going to be. So those are some of my immediate projects….
TC: What is your favorite course to teach?SC: The Aesthetics of Poetry is something that I’ve enjoyed teaching the two times I’ve taught it so far. Another is Meaning and Communication. It’s an introduction to issues in philosophy through the lens of language or through the lens of meaning and communication, but one that doesn’t presuppose logic. Philosophy of language, historically, is entangled in logic, and the upper division courses in philosophy of language all have the first course in logic as a prerequisite. The previous assumption was that your pathway to philosophy of language was via logic. And perhaps because it wasn’t my own pathway to philosophy of language—
TC: Sure, not mine either.SC: Yeah. I don’t have anything against logic. I like logic. But I think this class shows that most, if not almost all, of the issues in philosophy of language can be approached without knowledge of logic, without really talking about entailment or anything like that.
A favorite I taught in the past, and might revisit, was a class on narrative, where we broke down narratives and saw how they worked. Now narrative is something you can’t avoid. And just like in the case of edited film, there is a lot of invisible structure there, which a bit of investigation can bring out, and then you can process it with more awareness. So I didn’t have to ask in that class, “What are you getting out of this, what’s useful for you?” I’m sounding very utilitarian. That’s not really at all how I think about philosophy in general, but it’s how I think about teaching from time to time.
“Film describes a space that in some sense encompasses and is larger than, say, the small chunks of space that you actually see in the different shots in the film. There’s some bigger space in which it’s all embedded. And there are rules that we’re uncovering, or just sort of regularities or conventions by which filmmakers indicate to the viewer what the spatial relationships between the shots are.”
TC: Could you elaborate on how you think about philosophy in general?SC: I think philosophy grows out of, and should try to never lose touch with, this predicament we find ourselves in—whenever it is we become conscious of it; my son is only almost three, so he’s not there yet; but maybe around six or seven, I’m not sure. Anyway, I read about this reality TV show, Darkness, where they drop people into a subterranean labyrinth and leave them there without any lights, and they have to somehow find their way back to the surface. It’s a metaphor for our predicament in life (the show’s producer was a philosophy student, as it happens), except that in life it’s worse, there isn’t a way out of the cave. We are dropped in with our animal instincts and desires, but those don’t make any provision for the concept that there isn’t a way out. Instead we have to develop ourselves in a way that is available to us, luckily, because we are human. We have to come to terms with the fact that there’s no way out; we try to make sense of it, emotionally and rationally, somehow. One of the literary critics we look at in my aesthetics class, Yvor Winters, sees this as the purpose of literature; it articulates a way of coming to terms with some part of life, a stable attitude integrating emotion and reason. And he makes the point, in passing, that philosophy does this too, in its own quite distinct way. You might think that philosophy is more focused on the rational side of this, but it’s obvious—especially once you consider traditions outside the contemporary analytic one— that the emotions are addressed too.
TC: So how about advice for students? Grads or undergrads.SC: Well, if you ask people for advice, they’re probably going to tell you what worked for them. Keep in mind that it’s a good source of brainstorming for solutions to your problem, but it may not be something that you need to follow, because the chances that it applies to your case are unknown. But one thing that I had to learn, that I was worried for a while about: dawdling, in some sense, and taking too much time to get through. You might think, on the whole, it’s better to get things done as quickly as you can. But you can put a lot of pressure on yourself that way. I think in philosophy you can definitely be a late bloomer. And so I think it’s okay to explore various other things that you’re interested in and then maybe come back to philosophy. Even if it means you put whatever academic life you foresee for yourself on hold, if you can. I don’t think that’s a bad idea, just slowing things down. I know people who regret having gone through various stages of whatever—it doesn’t have to be an academic career—very fast, focusing on that to the exclusion of other things, and then regretting that they didn’t spend those years doing something different. So I don’t really have regrets of that form. So that’s something.
Interview with Sherrilyn Roush
Sherrilyn Roush is Professor of Philosophy at UCLA. Her research focuses on philosophy of science, epistemology, and philosophy of medicine. Her article “Closure Failure and Scientific Inquiry” appeared in Res Philosophica in 2017. She was interviewed by Sarah Beach. Sarah is a third-year student in the Department of Philosophy. She is interested in meta-ethics, social and political philosophy, and feminist philosophy.
SB: Where are you from? Is this your first time living in Los Angeles? If so, how are you liking it so far?SR: I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, sometimes referred to as “Pennsyltucky.” It’s now Trump country, though it was a Democratic stronghold when I was growing up; it’s former rust belt, underprivileged, and a little backward, but proud, and very beautiful. This is my first time living in Los Angeles, although I lived in California for 8 years when I was at UC Berkeley, and I’m liking it very much. I like the sun and the heat. And the activity, it’s great, a vibrant city.
SB: What did your parents do?SR: My dad was a steel worker when I was growing up, until the third great Johnstown flood, in which the steel mills were destroyed, and then he did what he could, mostly construction, and then he was elected a District Justice, which is like a justice of the peace, and he did that for 24 years. Until he retired, and now he plays golf. My mother was a secretary, then an insurance agent, and now she’s retired, and she does not play golf.
SB: When and why did you decide to become a philosopher and did you consider doing anything else?SR: Well, I never really decided to be a philosopher. I do remember deciding to go to graduate school, but I was thinking “This is a worthwhile thing to do until I figure out what I’m gonna be when I grow up.” And then, I guess I never figured out what I was gonna be, and ended up . . . I never imagined I was gonna be a philosophy professor. In college I started out in pre-med and then I moved to bio-chemistry, and then I moved to physics, and then I moved to math, and I graduated in math and did a philosophy major on the side. I think one difficulty I had was that I couldn’t see one field of inquiry as more important or more choiceworthy than another. So, philosophy was attractive because it seemed to be a place where I didn’t have to choose. I could always study anything I thought was interesting.
I think there’s also a matter of temperament. I think I always was kind of, what’s the word? Probing. So, before the age of 5, I almost never spoke. My parents were worried that there was something wrong with me. But when I did surprising things happened. I was about 4 years old I remember seeing the landing on the moon, Walter Cronkite, the Eagle has landed. As part of that, the view of the Earth from space, and I saw the continents. And I remember suddenly realizing how many houses there were on Earth. And how it’s not possible that Santa Claus would be able to get around the Earth and all the houses in one night. And I was electrified by this. And I told my mother all of this and I said “There’s no Santa Claus, is there?” And she just looked at me, shocked, and said, “I don’t know!” And I said, “I knew it!”
I think I haven’t trusted authority since. And this Santa Claus business made me a terror when I went to school, I was telling all the kids there was no Santa Claus and the teachers wanted to spank me. But I had to share the truth, right?
SB: What was your first encounter with philosophy as an undergrad like and what texts or authors were you into as an undergrad?SR: My first philosophy course was in Medieval Jewish and Islamic Philosophy. And that made me a major. I think that it was attractive because I was trying to figure out how to reconcile the scientific part of me with the religious part of me, and how science and religion relate. This is a big theme in medieval philosophy. I thought it was neat that it was Jewish and Islamic rather than Christian, which was my own tradition. Kind of mind-expanding for me. What was I into when I was an undergrad? Aristotle. A lot of Aristotle. In fact, I took Greek classes in order to be able to read Aristotle in Greek. And science and math.
SB: Where did you go to graduate school, who was your adviser, and what was your dissertation about?SR: I did my Ph.D. at Harvard. My main adviser was Hilary Putnam [a UCLA Ph.D.], also Robert Nozick and Simon Saunders were on my committee. And Nozick was a very inspirational figure for me. My dissertation was about the material conditions of knowledge, how the physical universe must be for there to be knowing beings like us. I made transcendental arguments with empirical premises, to argue that there could be a bias in the evidence about the universe that’s available to us, and so a limitation on our justification for generalizing from our evidence. I was into physical cosmology at the time—the 1990s were a very exciting period in that science—and I had studied Kant with great enthusiasm in grad school. This was my response to him.
SB: Tell me about your present philosophical interests and the central questions with which your work is concerned.SR: My interests are mostly in philosophy of science and epistemology. And mostly about rationality, evidence, knowledge, method; I use probability a lot as a tool.
At the moment, I’m working on an argument about why we should have consistent beliefs, and the argument is that we should have consistent beliefs because if we don’t then we can mislead others about what our beliefs are. Because others will be assuming we’re consistent, and if they hear us profess belief in p, they’ll infer that we don’t believe ~p, and get a false belief about our beliefs. And since we know that they’ll do that, we’re being untruthful. Because we know how they’re going to interpret us, we’re responsible. So the idea is that you derive a norm of consistency from the moral norm of truthfulness; because you ought to be truthful, therefore you ought to have beliefs that are not liable to mislead people about what your beliefs are.
SB: I typically think of the requirement to have consistent beliefs as an epistemic requirement—something to which you need to conform if you’re an epistemically rational agent, but not necessarily a moral requirement. It doesn’t seem I’ve done anything wrong if I irrationally believe I parked my car in the driveway and I parked my car in the street, for example. Do you think epistemic requirements in general can be justified by moral considerations?SR: I suspect not, that seems right, but this surprised me, so maybe there’s more to it. This is a popular area these days, seeing relationships between epistemology and ethics. Generally the goals are different, so, roughly speaking, beliefs aim at the truth, morality aims at the good. But there are these areas of overlap, including another thing that I’m working on in the topic of epistemic injustice.
We commit epistemic injustice when on the basis of an identity characteristic, like race or gender or disability, we accord less credibility to someone’s testimony than they deserve. That idea seems clear enough, but when you ask, “What would epistemic justice be?” the natural answer is that to do justice would be to follow your evidence. There’s a problem with that view, though, which is that statistical correlations are also evidence and there are correlations between things like being male and being an orthopedic surgeon—95% of orthopedic surgeons are men. So it seems like following our evidence requires following these things that are going to lead to conclusions that—you know, Jane’s going to be thought less likely to be qualified as an orthopedic surgeon than men, because she’s a woman. Justice seems to require not using that evidence, but how can we justify ignoring evidence?
In the paper I’m writing I’m explaining why, or when, statistical evidence is not good evidence about the individual, based on a probabilistic concept of evidence that I developed in my book on tracking. The issue about how to use statistical evidence on—the individual case comes up in a lot of other areas too. Like in medicine, where we use epidemiological evidence in treatment decisions about individual patients.
“I’m working on an argument about why we should have consistent beliefs, and the argument is that we should have consistent beliefs because if we don’t then we can mislead others about what our beliefs are.”
SB: I’d like to transition here to some questions about the philosophy discipline. It’s no secret that women and minorities are seriously underrepresented in philosophy. See, e.g., this statistic from the New APPS blog: “Overall, from 1973-2014, 96 philosophy programs had 24.20% women (among all graduates) and 8.05% non-white (among U.S. permanent residents and citizens) Ph.D. graduates.” Why do you think this is and what do you think we should do about it?SR: I think there are a lot of reasons but mainly implicit bias and the effect that that has on performance. So in implicit bias we misjudge people’s talents, and judging people as untalented affects their opportunities, and affects their performance, as we learn from empirical psychology. So it’s a downward spiral. I think we have to really, really fight against implicit bias and, given what it is, that’s not something that you can achieve just by a voluntary decision to change your judgment. We have to make procedures of judgment that bypass bias, for example by blinding processes of judgement as much as possible. That’s one thing we can do. And also, trying to be alert to ways in which what we do and the way we behave are not necessarily the way things have to be and things can be different, and to be open to that.
SB: What has is it been like to be in a field that is so male dominated? Have you faced any challenges?SR: Mm. It has not been easy. I have experienced sexual harassment repeatedly, and long-term bullying. But I think—and that stuff’s difficult, really difficult—but I think something that is more common, that kind of grinds you into the ground at a slow pace, is a conversational culture. Things that seem small but when they’re repeated ten times a day they really build up, like being interrupted all the time, and the fact that having the skill to interrupt and not be taken to be [rude] is a very gendered thing. Like being invisible. Like having what you said be attributed to someone else, this just happens again and again and again. Like being discouraged by people explicitly. Like, really? Do we need to do that? I get discouraged enough all by myself.
SB: Is there anything you would change about the discipline?SR: One thing I wish we would do more of is to think more constructively rather than destructively. It’s almost a reflex when a paper is presented that the way to respond is to come up with objections. And of course that’s useful but I wish we also cultivated more positive ways of responding. More encouraging development of ideas, to let ideas breathe and work with the person on them rather than having public philosophy be an adversarial enterprise with all the creativity happening in private, with an individual fretting alone. I wish the profession were a little bit more like that. And some places are a lot more like that than others. I’m happy that this is one of them.
I also wish that we did more that made our work have an impact on the way the world is. I think philosophers have a tendency to studiously avoid doing anything that might have practical significance. I wish we weren’t like that.
Interview with Nathan Salmon
Christian De Leon
Nathan Salmon ’79, UCLA philosophy graduate alumnus, was interviewed by Christian De Leon. Nathan is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research focuses on the philosophy of language, the philosophy of logic, and metaphysics. Christian is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy, with research interests in philosophy of language, ethics, and political philosophy.
CD: You did your undergraduate and graduate work at UCLA. Was that deliberate, or just how things happened to work out? Did you find that there was a big difference after the transition?NS: I was a philosophy student at UCLA through the 1970’s. I transferred there from a community college in 1971 and earned my Ph.D. in 1979 while I was a faculty member at Princeton. Once I was offered admission to the UCLA philosophy graduate program in 1973 I couldn’t fathom going anywhere else. The transition from college to graduate school is typically a phase transition but in my case it was completely continuous. The only change I noticed was that as a graduate student I was suddenly allowed to address my teachers by their first names—except for Alonzo Church. Church was an amazing man in many ways. Even his colleagues and other leading logicians normally addressed him as ‘Professor Church’.
CD: What was the department like, academically and interpersonally, while you were here?NS: The 1970’s were part of a golden age of philosophy at UCLA, especially philosophy of language and philosophical semantics. The Philosophy Department in the 70’s was a magic kingdom, in some respects not unlike the one only a few miles down the California coast in Anaheim (which, being a child of the playground that is SoCal, I knew extremely well). In the early 70’s the UCLA Philosophy Department seemed more a combination analytic-philosophy boot-camp and fictional theme park than a university department. In the classrooms of Dodd Hall and pouring out into the halls was a potpourri of scholars, idiosyncratic characters, and hangers-on. In addition to the typical bearded philosophy graduate students, there were affluent, clean-cut San Fernando Valley kids, unwashed, pot-smoking hippies, affluent San Fernando Valley hippies, clean-cut Montague grammarians, a couple of disciples of Prof. Church, fast-talking intensional-logic aficionados, Frege junkies, pipe-smoking wannabes, an undergraduate analytic philosophy guru said to be David Lewis’s favorite UCLA student, and other assorted philosophy-philes. Many of these people were strikingly intelligent. By the initials ‘LSD’ they didn’t mean the psychedelic drug; they meant Church’s Logic of Sense and Denotation. They dismissed Lewis’s philosophical cosmology of a plenitude of isolated alternate universes (which Lewis misidentified with the modal metaphysician’s possible worlds) as metaphysics gone mad. The students were quite adept at constructing derivations in the delightful deductive apparatus of Donald Kalish and Richard Montague’s textbook. The faculty were especially interesting. Don Kalish would march on Janss Steps protesting the Nixon administration or America’s involvement in Viet Nam, and the same day deliver a brilliant lecture on equivalents to the axiom of choice. Direct reference was all the rage. Students and faculty alike voraciously devoured Saul Kripke’s rich, new masterpiece, Naming and Necessity. Owing largely to David Kaplan, Saul was a frequent visitor at UCLA. Frege’s theory of Sinn and Bedeutung and Russell’s theory of descriptions were taught, regularly and rigorously though in distinctly different ways, by Tyler Burge, Church, Keith Donnellan, Kaplan, and Kripke—with Kalish sometimes expounding on alternative logics of ‘the’. I learned the basics of the philosophy of language and philosophical semantics from all of them, in an academy nestled under bright blue skies just across Sunset Boulevard from Bel Air.
Prof. Church was in many ways the spiritual figurehead of philosophy at UCLA in the 70’s. He had a genuinely great mind. Invariably dressed in suit and tie, Church was a formal man, very much a man of respect. Students attending his lectures—I among them—rarely addressed him at all, and then only after raising one’s hand and being called on. Speaking with him was made more difficult because he was hard of hearing. Yet Church seemed to be quite a nice man, even jovial. A man of few words, he spoke in tight, exquisitely well-constructed paragraphs. Church had a palpable distaste for inexactness. His course lectures were meticulously clear and magisterial recitations, whereby the audience was afforded an opportunity to absorb wisdom from a true master. He covered all material, from simple and rudimentary to advanced and arcane, at exactly the same pace. His calm precision was cognitively comforting, even soothing, in itself a thing of genuine beauty.
CD: Any fun anecdotes?NS: I once asked Church who his own philosophy instructors had been. “I confess I never took a philosophy course,” he chuckled. “One might say that I’m in the Philosophy Department under false pretenses.” I have known many good philosophers who did not have the opportunity to learn directly from Church. I have known none who would not have been better philosophers had they done so. I learned many technical lessons from Church. More importantly, Church taught me the value of exacting precision—which is not to be confused with technicality or a formal methodology, and which is often in short supply even where it is indispensable to the undertaking at hand. In philosophy generally, and in metaphysics and the philosophy of language especially, lack of precision often protects the devil lurking in the missing detail. Frequently—and even only once is too often—excessive vagueness is tactical. Church would have none of that.
Don Kalish told his meta-logic class a charming tale involving his legendary and extraordinary collaborator, Richard Montague. Montague was slated to deliver a technical result at a meeting of the Association of Symbolic Logic. When the time came Montague declined to present. Instead he announced to the audience that he had received word the problem in question had been completely solved by some high-school student in Omaha, Nebraska. The high-schooler who had stolen Montague’s thunder: a whiz kid by the name of ‘Saul Kripke’.
CD: What do you wish you had known earlier in your time at UCLA?NS: I have learned to distinguish sharply between the discipline of philosophy and the profession. It would have been useful to me to have learned earlier than I did that professional philosophy does not place as much value on genuine philosophical insight as it should, or even on just plain getting things right, while at the same time it places far too high a premium on such things instead as novelty, intentionally creating a buzz, and certain forms of intellectual pretentiousness and/or arrogance. Philosophy is a great discipline, but much of the profession is, as they say, not so much. In fact, the discipline has suffered at the hands of the profession. My knowing that earlier on would not have made the slightest difference to how I work in philosophy, nor should it, but when I became a professional I would have had a better feel for my profession, and would have adjusted my attitudes (not my style) accordingly.
“Don Kalish would march on Janss Steps protesting the Nixon administration or America’s involvement in Viet Nam, and the same day deliver a brilliant lecture on equivalents to the axiom of choice.”
CD: Any advice for undergraduate or graduate students pursuing philosophy?NS: I’ll leave it to others who might be more disposed to advise regarding success in the profession. Regarding service to the discipline, I would say this: Strive to leave something good behind. Read the first half of Chapter 0 of Church’s Introduction to Mathematical Logic and strive to write the way he did. Above all, seek to designate the True in your assertions; resist any and all temptation and pressure to designate the False … as well as nothing (or the Neither). With intellectual endeavor generally, that is generally the right thing to do. With Philosophy in particular, it is basically always the right thing to do.