Yohana (John) Abughattas
Andrew Lavin is a fifth-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. Yohana Abughattas (B.A. ’19) is interested in moral and political philosophy.
YA: When and why did you first become interested in philosophy?
AL: I’ve always been interested in questions about the way reality is put together. But it wasn’t until I took an intro to philosophy class at community college that I figured out that there was a particular way of trying to answer some of those questions that appeal to me. There were a lot of tools that philosophy had to offer—its rigor and precision.
YA: What’s been your favorite thing at the department of philosophy at UCLA?
AL: The department puts a lot of work into creating a sense of community especially among graduate students, but also between the faculty and graduate students. I really appreciated that, and the faculty in general are just top notch. During the first year as graduate students at UCLA, you get to invite the faculty members out to dinner. That was a really great way to know some of the faculty. A conversation with any of them about anything, even if it’s way outside of their wheelhouse, is always fruitful and helpful.
YA: Can you tell us about your research projects?
AL: My dissertation is on a concept of normality. Sometimes we’re saying somethings like dogs are mammals. It’s a conceptual fact and it’s necessary—it couldn’t possibly not be true. If we were talking about a dog that wasn’t a mammal, we would be talking about something entirely different. Other times, we’re doing this merely statistical thing where all we’re doing is telling or judging that there’s some statistical frequency, prevalent in some feature of a population. But then sometimes we say something like dogs have four legs. We know that not all dogs have four legs. However, it seems like what we’re saying is true. What we’re saying can’t mean the same as all dogs have four legs. It doesn’t seem to mean most dogs have four legs or a great number of dogs have four legs, or anything like that. It doesn’t seem to be the kind of judgment that is universal or a mere statistical judgment. It’s a judgment I like to call a normality judgment. It ascribes a normal feature, condition, relation, activity to a kind of thing.
THE DEPARTMENT PUTS A LOT OF WORK INTO CREATING A SENSE OF COMMUNITY ESPECIALLY AMONG GRADUATE STUDENTS, BUT ALSO BETWEEN THE FACULTY AND GRADUATE STUDENTS.
– ANDREW LAVIN
YA: Would that be similar to the idea that there is something essential about a dog having four legs, but that it’s not necessary for a dog to have four legs?
AL: Yeah that’s one way of putting it. I’m very influenced by the Aristotelian tradition where they’re happy to talk about essences. But, many analytic philosophers have taken a sort of Lockean approach to thinking about essences in a way that I’m uncomfortable with. ‘Essence’ becomes associated with necessary properties or constitutive properties. It’s not constitutive of being a dog to have four legs because you could be a dog that doesn’t have four legs, while still being a dog. Whereas it is constitutive of being an even number that you are divisible by two. So, I’m a little hesitant to talk in terms of essences.
YA: Jumping over from research to teaching, which philosophy class do you enjoy teaching the most and why is that?
AL: I’ve taught logic and critical thinking the most. It’s good for undergraduates to get a chance to think explicitly about the structure of arguments, how reasons and evidence are related to conclusions, and how we make inferences. Also, they get a chance to learn in an explicit way about things like cognitive biases, intellectual humility, and intellectual honesty.
YA: What is the most interesting philosophical claim or argument that you’ve encountered?
AL: I think the idea that our mental capacities are fundamentally representational capacities is a troubling, interesting, and compelling idea.
YA: For non-specialists, what books or articles would you recommend?
AL: I like introducing people to philosophy by the history of philosophy. Many people fall in love with philosophy after reading Nietzsche. Maybe people should read The Gay Science and just struggle with that. Simone de Beauvoir is fantastic. Read the The Second Sex or The Ethics of Ambiguity. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are a fantastic, accessible, historical introduction to stoicism. The book I engage with the most in my dissertation is Bernard Nickel’s Between Logic and the World. It’s a theory of generic sentences, sentences like “a dog has four legs,” or “dogs have four legs.”
YA: Now that you’re completing your dissertation, what’s your goal? Where do you take philosophy now?
AL: I’m hoping to teach philosophy. I’m teaching at a few schools here in the Chico area and looking out for tenure-track positions. My most exciting project is beginning a podcast on philosophy, called Reductio: Adventures in Ideas. I’m styling it as a Radiolab for philosophy. I’ve begun producing some episodes and I’ve applied for a grant through the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund podcast production for the next couple of years. I want it to be a very engaging, highly produced, highly edited narrative, almost cinematic introductory podcast about philosophy. Anyone can subscribe and come to understand what philosophy is and why it is interesting. What are the fun thought experiments and interesting tools of analysis that we get? Our website is www.invertedspectrummedia.com.