In this interview, J.D. Trout, John and Mae Calamos Professor of Philosophy at the Illinois Institute of Technology, talks about keeping a secret worm farm in his dresser, opera, clamming, contemplating purgatory, catching muskrats, the death of his dedicated and courageous single mother, living with his self-centered aunt and uncle, jail, cocaine, and choral singing, working at a waste treatment plant, Gricean conventions and informational relevance, luck and gratitude, learning that some people use summer as a verb, Philosophical Gourmet Report, misleading promotional materials from Boston University, Cornell and realism, drinking Olympia beer at Chanticleer, meeting his wife, softball, working with Richard Boyd, developing a popular philosophy of science anthology, moving to the Bay area and working on his dissertation in absentia, auditing classes with Dretske and Searle at Berkeley, coping with feelings of powerlessness in academia, working at Loyola, servicing DACA students, the pressures of working at an institution with a Jesuit mission, leaving Loyola, well-being, Lucinda Williams, Wondrous Truths, the problems with analytic epistemology, empathy and politics, the drama of language, anti-naturalism and other disconcerting trends in philosophy, his last meal, and what J.D. stands for…
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in several places. My natural father was from Cleveland and I was born and lived there, in South Euclid, until I was 6 or 7. My mother got cancer when I was 5 or 6, and my father left. So, soon after that, my mother moved me, along with my brother and sister, to Fairless Hills and Levittown PA. She didn’t have health insurance, and needed to be closer to her family in Trenton so that they could help care for her. Eventually we moved in with her sister and her sister’s husband and, when my mother died when I was 11, they became my legal guardians. They moved to Newtown, PA when I was 14, and I stayed there until I graduated from high school.
What did your parents do for a living?
My father began as a tile setter. My mother was a homemaker, and briefly, after my father left, she worked at an ice cream shop. But before she had children, she was a WAVE in the Navy, during the Korean War.
What were they like?
My natural father was abusive. My mother was great – just the right amount of encouragement and discipline. And her affection for us was unreserved and boundless.
As a little kid, what did you do for fun?
That’s easy – sports generally, and fishing specifically. Every spare moment, I was fishing or dreaming of living off the land. (I was pretty sure I could have taken care of everyone on Gilligan’s Island, and at age 8 I would explain how to anyone who would listen.) I read as much as I could get my hands on about fish and the natural world. And it impressed me how useful knowledge could be. I lived in an apartment complex with lousy clay soil, and could never find earthworms. So I read up, and grew them in the top drawer of my dresser. (My mother discovered my little caper, and instead of punishing me, she let me line the drawer with vinyl contact paper and keep my worms.) We lived near a decent sized pond called Lake Caroline, and I used to fish for carp, catfish, and the occasional perch or bluegill. When I was 8 or 9, every Friday night I would set my Baby Ben alarm clock for 5:30AM and just after sunrise I would walk across a highway to the lake. I would spend as much of the day there as I could, running back home from time to time to check on my mom, whose cancer was progressing. In the local gravel pits, you could often catch calico bass and perch. I also did some salt water fishing. My mother’s father had built a small cinderblock bungalow on Long Beach Island, a barrier island off of the New Jersey coast. We would spend part of every summer there. My brother and I used our paper route money to buy a used cedar Garvey with a 6 horsepower Johnson outboard, and that’s what we used for clamming and fishing. Clamming brought in money. At 12, I could clam until exhaustion (my limit was about 4 hours) and bring in about $20. It was hard work but good money for a 12 year old in 1972.
When I was a kid, singing was also a real source of joy. Our household was unmistakably Italian-American. Opera had a high-profile, much of it schlocky Mario Lanza stuff. It was great to always have music playing, and to grow up in a community that thought singing, for boys, was muscular and commanding. I was surrounded by a first and second generation Italian family who loved music, people who were as proud of Enrico Caruso as they were of Rocky Marciano.
Did you get into any trouble?
I didn’t get along with my aunt and uncle, and so I would stay on my own as much as possible. Down the shore, I would drift for hours on Barnegat bay, fishing the bottom for fluke or the surface for snapper blues. Aside from the occasional sea robin or oyster cracker, everything you caught was not just edible but delicious. And since I caught it, it was also free. You could even walk over to the ocean and tear mussels off of the jetties. We’d cook the fish, clams and mussels on the barbeque.
I didn’t get into much trouble as a kid, despite being largely unsupervised. My guess is that singing and sports crowded out a lot of the damage I could have done. I wasn’t much disposed to get into trouble anyway. Most of my youth, both early and late, was spent with friends, laughing and playing sports together. When I did get into trouble, it was small stuff. I used to set muskrat traps near a canal that ran along the Delaware, and once I caught a plain old sewer rat in one of the traps. Not knowing the difference, and hoping to start a coat for a girlfriend, I skinned it, salted the pelt, and stretched it across one of my mom’s cutting boards, pinning it with some of her hat pins. I hid it under my bed and when it got gamey enough, my mom asked what I was up to. I told her and she shook her head, laughed, and told me we’d come up with a different gift for my girlfriend.
Gross dude! What were your aunt and uncle like?
The aunt and uncle who raised my brother and I after my mom died were pretty out of their depth, and made a lot of impulsive and poor decisions when it came to us, probably because they didn’t have any idea of how to be instant parents to an 11 and 13 year old. But they were selfish and needlessly mean in ways that would be petty to rehearse. Their poor decisions didn’t result from being unforgiving. On that score, I was much more less forgiving. When I left for college 7 years later, I never returned home.
Ever consider contacting your father? Your aunt and uncle? I’m not saying you should! I recently friended my deadbeat dad on Facebook, talked to him a bit, instantly regretted it.
Yeah, I can see that route to regret. I have run into a number of people who had a similar disappointment. It may be the result of a focusing illusion. You know how cool you are, and you can only imagine that the absent father has spent his life regretting all he’s missed out on. After all, what he’s missed out on is you. Of course, that’s not what they are focused on. Absent fathers are absent for a reason. They quickly start living a new life, and you aren’t a character in that story. Better to just start writing your own story, without bitterness or regret. In my case, my father’s absence protected me from his bad influence, and concentrated my mother’s flawless guidance. I suppose I would contact people from my past if I felt I was missing something. But I don’t. On the contrary. When your life is this good, why tamper?
Agreed. When you were living with your aunt and uncle, was college in the picture?
When I was fourteen, my last grandparent died and my aunt and uncle, now my legal guardians, moved to a nicer suburb in upper Bucks County in PA. There, I met kids who seemed to have their eye on going to college. When I first noticed that trajectory, I remember thinking that going to college seemed like a good way to stay out of jail. That may sound outlandish, but not only had no one in my family been to college, some of them had been in jail. Up until the time I was 15, I am not sure I had conversations with anyone who had been to college, except my teachers and the family doctor. It was at a time when my uncle – my mother’s brother – and one of my 1st cousins, spent a lot of time in jail and embroiled in the court system. A lot of assault charges, stolen property, that kind of thing. But I “was good at school”, as my family would say, without trying very hard, and I really liked to read and learn generally.
Do you think you were drawn to school and teachers because your household wasn't so great?
No, I wasn’t really drawn to school or teachers. I liked to learn, but I did a lot of daydreaming in school. And I didn’t really feel close to any teachers, though I really enjoyed learning from the ones who were engaging. The institutional nature of school seemed undesirable and somehow inevitable, but I learned enough interesting things every day that it was tolerable.
Was there something about you or your life that guided you, but not other members of your family, away from trouble? Smarts? Talent? The early influence of your mother?
It is true that some family members found trouble and I didn’t. But I don’t get much credit for that. Most of my early success, such as it was, I owe to my mom, first of all for doing what so many women do: staying with her children when their husband abandons them. That kind of unacknowledged courage and profound decency deserves more attention. (And the fact that single mothers are scrutinized for proper care of their children – when fathers are, so disproportionately, nowhere to be found – should really haunt citizens who are so comfortable with easy blame.) While my mother only lived until she was 43, in the short time we were together she impressed on me clear standards of behavior about issues that mattered. She once noticed that I was a little too puffed up after a solo I performed, and she told me “I am proud of you, but don’t ever brag. It could make other people feel bad.” And she was right. It does make people feel bad, even when they see bragging for what it is. She was almost unfailingly kind, but if condescended to, she wouldn’t suffer silently. She once turned to me and said, in a stage whisper with the offender still present, “She thinks her shit doesn’t stink.” I treasure that she let me in on those moments rather than “protecting me” from them in some way, because it helped me to know that it was ok to at least THINK those things, and perhaps, sometimes, to SAY them. And it is.
I was able to steer clear of trouble in part because I was involved in activities that crowded out a lot of the unpleasantness that kids face. Choral singing is incredibly wholesome, and doing it well imposes a discipline that frustrates the temptations of idleness in a permissive world. I know that sounds Victorian, and it is, in a way. But it is also a contingent fact about humans that they form (mal)adaptive preferences, learning to like the often objectively bad practices in their orbit. Staying busy with work and singing, and having thoughtful, captivating, and funny friends, left little time or desire for idle, pointless wondering about whether my life could be better if I learned to steal money, enjoy cocaine, or sleep till noon. None of that ever sounded very fun to me, nor was I much in the orbit of its pull.
Hey, there’s nothing wrong with…sleeping until noon. I totally relate to what you are saying, here. Still, can any of this be chalked to nature rather than nurture?
If my abbreviation seems dismissive of psychological considerations, there is a principled reason for it. Maybe because of Gricean conventions about informational relevance, more detail would be misleading, as though I landed on my feet in adulthood because each of these little harms to me in my youth were corrected by the healthy choices I made as I matured. But that’s not really true. I have been absurdly lucky at nearly every turn. I got a public education in the 60s and 70s, from very bright, energetic, and talented women (perhaps when sexism had shut them out of legal, medical, and other more lucrative and prestigious professions). It was also at a time when there was a lot of federal and state funding for capable kids. In 9th and 10th grade I was in a state-funded “gifted” course that covered a lot of the philosophical classics, and I had belonged to a group of students who enjoyed that kind of programming and attention. There were many other strokes of luck. Although my aunt and uncle regarded the expense of voice lessons as a deal-breaker, a good voice teacher who had heard about me from a friend gave me lessons in exchange for heavy yard work. My exceedingly kind and gentle voice teacher was older and unable to keep up her property. It was no problem for me. With that training, at 16, an audition secured me a spot in a scholarship program that summer at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts studying voice. It was an incredible experience that I would never have been able to afford if it weren’t for the scholarship. There, I was surrounded by stunningly talented kids in dance, theater, photography, voice, and every instrument in an orchestra. And while I was responsible for my own college bill at age 18, the aid I received for vocal performance made the expense manageable. The luck continued. When I ran out of money at the end of my freshman year, I got a job working at a hatchery in Doylestown, and within weeks began driving a truck, delivering day-old chicks to farms in other states. That was a very lucky break. It was a steady job. I had plenty of friends who couldn’t find a job and ended up trying to get money in other, less savory, ways. I got lucky again two years later when, through my best friend, I got a great summer job working waste treatment at Staley, a corn-processing plant. (Once on night shift, while simply keeping a pump full of gas as it emptied out a wastewater basin, I read all of Rousseau’s The Social Contract). Summer workers at Staley were non-union, but because of a generous union rule that required that anyone who walked the shop floor get paid at least as much as the lowest-wage union worker, I got $9.73/hr in 1981. I kept that summer job for 4 summers, until I went off to Cornell for graduate school. I was objectively lucky to have gotten these jobs. They involved hard work, of course, but everyone I grew up with was working hard, so it didn’t seem unusual. I also worked in food services during the semesters in college. But studying, taking exams, and writing papers never felt anything like carrying a door of a ’64 Rambler across the junkyard in the middle of winter, spending hours loading eggs or chicks on and off of a truck, packing corn, clamming, or taking waste water samples in a factory at 2AM. Forty years later, I still can’t talk about what I do as “work.” That would be embarrassing. The story is different for adjuncts and faculty with heavy teaching loads. I savor how unusual my position is. Almost all of my occupational obligations, from graduate school on, have been in accordance with my inclinations.
I also feel bad calling philosophy “work” or even complaining, and I’m not tenure track, 5/5 load. No matter how slammed I am, it isn’t lugging logs of wood or tossing bales of hay. I love it!
Oh man, 5-5? It would be better if there were 4-3 loads with wood lugging and bale-tossing mixed in, but I guess those deals aren’t offered. Yeah, in my own case, these summer and other job opportunities were strokes of luck, and they still exert a powerful positive influence on my life. In addition, walking away from an unhealthy family life at 18, for good, has been a gift that keeps on giving. These events weren’t carefully curated by me, nor did any powerful vision of mine bend the world to my will. And not only did good fortune find me, but many disasters evaded me. While working summers at Staley, I hung out a lot with my brother. We would drink and play cards into the early morning at a neighbor’s house, and friends would drop in all the time, many of them dancers who worked at the strip clubs my brother owned. It was a lot of fun, but now it is easy to imagine multiple and close possible worlds in which I was one beer or bourbon away from a very different future.
Right. It seems fair to say that some of us are in more danger of hitting bottom than others, but I get it. We should all foster humility in the face of moral luck! What does your brother do now?
I think he is a jeweler now, and I imagine he continues to own strip clubs. But I didn’t stay in touch with him. He had all of the racist and sexist trappings of the folks I grew up with in Levittown. Eventually, it was a fraught path not worth navigating, particularly once I had a family of my own.
So, before you get into your grad school experiences, where did you go to college, and why?
I began at the University of Virginia, because it was the best combination of quality and cost. I transferred after a year to Bucknell, because my girlfriend was there and at the time it was probably a sideways move academically. Also, Bucknell was where I had attended Governor’s School for the Arts that one summer in high school. So it felt familiar. While Bucknell is an expensive private university, by 19 I had established financial independence (and so could demonstrate need) and as a result they gave me a lot of financial aid. Bucknell enjoyed a very good faculty, who seemed hungry for students with genuine and deep interests. It was a great time to be a student there.
Favorite classes, teachers or books?
I audited almost as many courses as I registered for. I audited courses on quantum mechanics and macroeconomics, and did independent studies on the philosophical foundations of special relativity, European social theory, and the scientific basis of psychoanalysis.
I liked most of the courses I took, especially those in geology and history. But philosophy really grabbed me. I expected to like philosophy, though, because my interest in it pre-dated college. I had a Jesuit-trained intellectual history teacher in high school, and he introduced us to Anselm’s ontological argument and Kant’s Categorical Imperative. We also read Hobbes’s Leviathan. I loved all of it. The issues seemed so majesterial. The idea that you could unearth the basis of rights by exploring what you owe to a State gave such order to a world full of anger and caprice. It seemed like there were deep, foundational questions you could ask about any field of study.
Did your rough background not have some sort of effect on your philosophical interests or were you just driven by innate curiosity (or whatever)? Where does that come from you think?
I think I am probably naturally curious, and I bet most other philosophers are too – perhaps academics generally. I would also bet that having a rough background, as you put it, can leave one with little patience for academic posturing, though I am not sure whether qualifying for free lunch in elementary school or learning how to box makes you any less likely to consider abstract issues. I remember when I was 7 or 8, when studying Catholic doctrine for Communion, I wondered if you (or your soul, that is) would stay in purgatory forever if no one prayed for you. In math class, we were doing a unit on Geometry (what is a line? what is a ray? etc.). And I used to lie there at night thinking things like, if (without grace) you could stay in purgatory for eternity, then how do you ever get out. The timeline for purgatory looks a little like a geometric ray. The distinct starting point of the ray is the moment of death, but life after death (and life in purgatory, I thought) could go on forever. And if that is right, then lighting a candle for a deceased love one, or praying for them (or, as in medieval times, paying indulgences), wouldn’t reduce your time in purgatory. Once the starting point is fixed at death, it didn’t make sense to me that you could get years off of eternity, because those years would have to come off of the end that extends infinitely. I don’t know whether that boxes Catholics in, or whether there is some Scholastic nicety that evades the worry, but struggling with that concern was certainly an exercise in abstraction. And it was a wonderful thing to think about at a young age.
But I don’t think any of these abilities are especially unique. I was surrounded by friends who were similarly fascinated. Most of them had more than the usual demands on their time – working jobs or doing sports. But they were, as far as I could see, naturally capable of thinking deeply and foundationally about issues, and many of them were inclined to do so.
You were 'good at school' but did you feel out of place in college?
I’ve always felt at home in a classroom. But socially, I had a lot of rough edges. In college, there were a lot more people around with composure and polish than I was used to, and it was hard for me to not see those features as the fussiness and ineffectualness of the leisure class. Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t an animal. I had learned norms of politeness from my mom, and performing in church and competitive choirs had left a residue of civility, but that was superficial. So I was socially pretty clueless. I suppose I could have felt uncomfortable by the wealth of many of the students, but I have never been very good at recognizing the potentially intimidating cues of wealth. I do remember working the grill one Saturday night at the Bison (a snack bar at Bucknell), when a beautiful student ordered a burger and began chatting with me. We were talking about what we were going to do after finals, and it took me a while to realize that she was using ‘summer’ as a verb. I told her that, at 13, I had worked a fryer one summer in a chicken place in Ship Bottom on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, and asked her if she had a place she went for the summer. She asked me “On which continent?” I don’t think she was trying to be mean or snotty. I had simply and incorrectly assumed that even really lucky people still only have one additional home. And I think that remains true. But there weren’t many “what do I do with this small fork?” moments. Instead, I noticed the many undesireable effects of wealth. I would notice that many students didn’t seem to pay attention to budgeting, that they were bad at it, and irresponsible in a way that made them vulnerable. They made long, expensive phone calls, bought retail, and buckled under intense parental pressure at school to do well, presumably to compensate their parents for the big tuition bill. I was free from parental pressure, had little reason to call long distance, and did most of my shopping for clothes and necessities at places like Marshalls and Unclaimed Freight. It was incredibly liberating.
Consider doing anything besides philosophy?
Before deciding to go to graduate school, I first eliminated vocal performance as an option, but not because I was anxious over my long-term prospects. In fact, as a description of my subjective state, I felt completely certain that I could be a successful baritone, performing operas and art songs. And objectively, while always a difficult route, that path is easier for men than women. There are so many shockingly talented sopranos, whose enormous talent is evident before 18 years of age, that sopranos have to be truly superb to enjoy even occasional success in auditions and competitions and, later, to be noticed as a professional. On the other hand, the common expectation is that a young baritone with little more than a lively tone and a decent range can, in the right hands, be developed into a significant talent. And if you had an especially nice, ringing tone, or that deep buzz in the lower register, doors will magically open. You may not be a Sherrill Milnes, but you could still make a decent living. Those prospects had certainly been confirmed by my experiences until that point. Still, I decided not to pursue vocal performance, because it didn’t feel creative enough. Increasingly, I felt I was just interpreting other people’s creations (whereas writing philosophy felt very creative), and it was hard to believe that applause and the more visceral pleasures of performance, controlling the placement of your tone and your dynamic expression, would be enough to sustain my interest. And gratefully, a life without a career in vocal performance does not prevent you from singing and enjoying music anyway.
Interesting! Do you still sing nowadays?
On and off. Some years back I sang in a choir of Russian Jews in Skokie. I was the token Gentile, but I had a low C and then some, and that smoothed the path. It was truly interesting to be raised as a baritone-bass in an Italian-American setting, in which the tenor is revered, and then land in a Russian choir brought to tears by a bass line.
So, why did you decide to study philosophy? Did this not feel like a risky move? What was your plan? When did you decide to go to graduate school?
I went to college knowing that I was interested in philosophy, so I assumed that philosophy courses would be among those I took. I took philosophy courses in every field, but I especially liked philosophy of science, metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind. Outside of philosophy, I loved psychology, geology, and history (especially medieval). I double-majored in philosophy and history, and it didn’t feel risky at all. When I was a senior in college, I took the LSAT and the GRE, and was considering further vocal training at a conservatory. I also was not bothered in the least by this uncertainty. In the end, I had some good law school options, and some acceptances at Philosophy departments. It wasn’t easy to identify good places to apply to, or decide on a place to attend. The philosophy department at Bucknell back then was small, and mainly devoted to teaching. As devoted as the faculty members were, they didn’t stay in touch with professional movements in the field, and had little idea of what the good departments were in the country. So I didn’t have much guidance on that score. When I was considering grad school, in the early 1980s, the truly distinguished liberal arts colleges had drawn their faculty from truly distinguished graduate programs. And the advice they gave was regulated accordingly. Take one step away from those colleges, though, and a capable kid with a serious interest in philosophy could be at sea, relying on faculty advice that was impressionistic, outdated or hopelessly idiosyncratic. If there had been a Philosophical Gourmet Report back then – a real service to many thousands of young people over the years in precisely my position – I would have been spared a nearly abortive year of graduate work at Boston University. (I say ‘nearly’, because Louise Antony and Joe Levine were passing through BU at the time, and they were wonderful mentors that year.) I loved living in Boston.
Why wasn’t BU a good fit?
They had people on their promotional materials, like Alasdair MacIntyre, who weren’t actually in residence. And they didn’t honor the aid commitments made at the time I committed. So upon my arrival it was pretty clear I wouldn’t be staying. Fortunately, I never had difficulty finding things to be interested in, so I managed to make that year useful. I took a good course from Tom McCarthy on Habermas, which stayed pretty close to the text, and audited a mercifully clear course on Hegel taught by Seyla Benhabib. Louise Antony taught a fabulous traditional Epistemology course, and I enjoyed a fantastic independent study course on Mental Representation from Joe Levine, who was sharp and funny and completely free of pretense.
How did you end up at Cornell?
I was almost out of money and was determined not to go in to debt studying philosophy at Boston U. So I worked lots of overtime the next summer at Staley and saved most of my income. The same friend who got me the job at Staley was in a Neuroscience PhD program in San Francisco and had a spare room, so I hung out there for the year, reading all of the philosophy of mind and science I could get my hands on, preparing a NSF predoctoral fellowship application, and polishing a writing sample (a paper I had written for the independent study with Joe Levine – it was a critical response to a then-prepublication copy of Fodor’s “Why Paramecia Don’t Have Mental Representations”) for another run at the philosophy grad school market. I got the NSF and this time around got lots of nice offers. I was looking for the best combination of Philosophy and Psychology, and Cornell was strong in both.
Many people report doubts about their abilities as philosophers early on in grad school. Did you ever doubt your abilities?
I imagine everyone has their moments of doubt, but I didn’t have many. It’s not that I thought I was smart, it is that I never thought that being the smartest mattered. In fact, like so many philosophers, I take joy in thinking hard about a topic. But I also like thinking hard about it for a really long time. As a graduate student in Ithaca, I would regularly stay out late with friends, often getting home at 2 or 3 in the morning. Once home, I would continue writing a term paper, or begin reading an influential metaphysics article.
I went to Ithaca College (same town)!
Well, then you know that there isn’t much to do there. I used to hang out at Chanticleer, downtown, and at The Connection, where, for 25 cents in the juke box, you could listen to BOTH Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody”, and the Scorpions’ “Still Lovin’ You.” A pitcher of Olympia beer was $2.35. And free popcorn. It was nice in one sense. At 24 and with an NSF, graduate school didn’t need to be a financial struggle. In fact, I had learned how to live so cheaply that I was able to save enough of my summer earnings and my Sage Graduate Fellowship to pay off most of my college loans, which were small already. Also, when I was 24, I met my wife. Frankly, once you have all of this good fortune, it is nearly impossible to fail, or even thrash around much. And I have done OK, but an honest person might wonder why I haven’t done more with all of these advantages.
How did you meet your wife?
My wife, Janice Nadler, was a senior philosophy major when I was a first-year grad student at Cornell. She had done a fair bit of undergraduate coursework in engineering and physics, and liked the technical and argumentative aspects of philosophy. We were in some of the same classes – Dick Boyd’s Philosophy of Science class, and Sydney Shoemaker’s course on Parfit’s Reasons and Persons.
What does she do?
Janice is a law professor at Northwestern University Law School and a Research Fellow at the American Bar Foundation. She does research on a wide range of issues, from the psychological basis of compliance with the law to food law. She has a PhD in social psychology and a JD from Berkeley. In a way, her PhD was a natural outgrowth of the work she did as a public defender in Manhattan.
Who did you hang out with and what did you do for fun?
Besides Janice, I had 3 close friends, British and Canadian – Richard Farr (now an independent writer), Brian Penrose (now at Witwaterstrand, with whom Janice and I saw an AC/DC concert at a place in Binghamton), and Phil Gasper (now at Madison Technical College). But Cornell had a lot of nice and talented graduate students, and freshly minted PhDs back visiting Ithaca. Jennifer Whiting, a tremendous athlete, had come back one summer, and played on our softball team (the team name was “Summer in Hell”, an homage to Fred Schnieder and the Shake Society). Alan Sidelle, ever the kid from Brooklyn, had a beautiful, even swing, and a wicked arm. Once, from left field, he threw a guy out at home on a rope and I didn’t have to move my glove to place the tag. Dick Moran and I once went trolling for Lake Trout and Landlocked Salmon in Cayuga Lake. We caught one of each. David Brink often met us for beer. I was really lucky. In the 22 months I spent in residence at Cornell, all of these talented people passed through or were in residence, and they couldn’t have been nicer. None of them had an ounce of smugness or intellectual bully in them. They were always willing to talk Philosophy, and always happy to wonder about things.
What was trending philosophically at the time?
At the time, moral realism was trending at Cornell (and, as I recall Dick Boyd joked, at the Vatican and in Tehran). So were debates about scientific realism, folk psychology, and supervenience. A lot of folks were exploring the nature of natural kinds, and of species.
The Philosophy of Science anthology - how did you get involved in that project, and why does everybody I know own a copy? It's a national treasure!
It’s funny. Near the end of my first year in grad school, Phil Gasper and I were lamenting the lack of current and comprehensive anthologies in the Philosophy of Science. We both saw ourselves teaching the topic soon, so we sketched out a sample Table of Contents over beer. At the time, I think we were just coming up with a wish list of articles we would use in a Kinko’s reader. But Phil, who was in his third year, took the Table to Dick, who had also lamented the pedagogical challenges facing those who teach the Philosophy of Science. Dick not only reworked the list, but was so enthusiastic about it he suggested we write up a book proposal and send it to the Stantons, legendary editors at MIT Press. I couldn’t believe my luck. I give Dick a lot of credit on taking a flyer on us (or at least on me – Phil had already made his bones as a philosophy grad student). It was also Dick’s idea that we write very substantial introductions to each section of the anthology. He supplied a heuristic that guided us as we wrote those intros: We aimed to write for a philosopher in, say, ethical theory who, as part of her duty in a small undergraduate college, teaches the occasional philosophy of science course. The introductions were designed for non-specialist instructors, and for earnest students who got stuck on the primary articles. It is nice that it sold well; there was obviously an unmet need.
Favorite classes and teachers in grad school?
Dick Boyd was a captivating teacher. He was, of course, very smart, but everyone there was. What I remember most is that he got really excited about reconstructing the positions he disagreed with. I think that helped me appreciate that careful reconstruction is a really central skill of philosophers, though I wish I could muster the same enthusiasm for it that Dick has.
Nick Sturgeon taught an excellent course on The Empiricists. I was also fortunate to have taken a course on the Philosophy of Socrates from Gregory Vlastos when he visited Cornell. I also took a great courses from Frank Keil in the Psychology Department, and Roger Shepard when he was visiting. I took nicely done courses on Marx and on Philosophy of Social Science from Dick Miller. I was a TA for Gail Fine’s Intro course, which focused on Modern philosophy. That course was a model of rigor and clarity. But without question the course I enjoyed the most was a Schopenhauer and Nietzsche course that Allen Wood taught.
In my second year of grad school Janice got into law school at Berkeley. While my committee clearly preferred that I stay in town so they could curate my philosophical training before the job market, having fun in the Bay Area with Janice seemed like a sure thing. Impressing my committee in Ithaca, while possible, seemed a misty hope, or at least fraught with uncertainty. Trading that fun for a hope grounded on bloodless professional aspirations seemed, I don’t know, undignified for an adult.
What did you do?
Janice and I moved to the East Bay, where I wrote my dissertation in absentia from Cornell, and we had a great time. We lived in Oakland, bought a used Yamaha 400XS, and we both rode it all around the Bay Area. While there, I audited courses with Fred Dretske (who was visiting Berkeley), Benson Mates, Charles Chihara, and John Searle. In Psychology, I sat-in on two courses with Eleanor Rosch in the Psychology Department. I attended a summer program at Stanford on the Phonetics/Phonology interface. It seemed like there were interesting developments wherever I went.
What was Searle like?
I was of course grateful that Searle allowed me to sit-in on the class. But there was something cartoonish about Searle’s lectures. It seemed like he was trying to imitate someone, but I think that was just him. He seemed a tissue of mannerisms, pacing back and forth, relentlessly over-enunciating. Intoning in a way that discouraged disagreement. It’s funny. Cornell had the reputation of being the only college or university Wittgenstein had visited in the U.S., and Wittgenstein was also known for eccentric performances expressing disdain for views he found counterintuitive or semantically puzzling. But that was three decades before I was there. When I was a grad student there in the 1980s, metaphysics was not only taken seriously there, but the effort to frame solutions with theatrical appeals to “powerful intuitions” that would be “clearly irrational to contest” would have been met with deep suspicion at Cornell, a kind of philosophical superficiality, a mix of bluster and insecurity. Authoritative about one’s phenomenological impressions, and incurious about the actual data. And the effort to dissolve durable metaphysical problems with semantic flourish would have been greeted with clever mockery. So there wasn’t much to engage with in class, I felt.
Dretske was teaching a seminar to help him work over the final draft of his Explaining Behavior. He was a very kind, clear and indulgent teacher. He was also very discerning. He listened patiently to students’ questions, and would reply with very incisive questions. I sometimes chatted with him outside of class and liked him a lot. He had an engineer’s interest in practical matters. When I told him about the speech perception experiments I was doing at Stanford, he would become very engaged, and had lots of questions about the source of the effects, and what it might mean for a theory of information. It was no wonder I liked his Knowledge and the Flow of Information so much.
What was your dissertation on?
I wrote a dissertation that advanced a scientific defense of folk psychology. The central idea was that ordinary patterns of belief and desire attribution were central to scientific communication and practice, and that, given the notable theoretical success of sciences like biology, chemistry, and physics, the theoretical posits of folk psychology – intentional states of various sorts – are likely to not only evade elimination, but, at worst (from the point of view of intentional realists like me), face smooth reduction to neuroscience. Preserving their explanatory role in scientific success virtually guaranteed their ontological retention. But intentional states come in different varieties and degrees, and I was interested in the idea that the primitive, early stage perceptual states of speech perception were also, in some sense, intentional. I began to formulate anti-individualist arguments that focused on the integration of cross-modal information in speech perception, and this stimulated ideas for novel experiments that I then ran at Stanford, and later published in Language and Speech with a linguist then at Stanford named Bill Poser. And I published some of the philosophical lessons of speech perception in Philosophical Psychology some years later. I was lucky to have been working mainly in the philosophy of science, because the intellectual culture in the philosophy of mind demands great patience for philosophers inclined to assimilate all scientific results to familiar philosophical categories.
Who did you work with? What was the process like?
Dick Boyd chaired my dissertation committee, and the other members were Sydney Shoemaker, Bob Stalnaker, and Frank Keil. There is a pedagogical lesson in the way I arrived at my dissertation topic, a lesson that I would recommend to others. Because I knew I wanted to defend a dissertation proposal soon after my coursework was completed in my second year, Dick and I agreed on an enterprising arrangement. Rather than wait for the muse to speak to me – a luxury I didn’t think I could afford -- once every two weeks I would give Dick a 2-page precis of a dissertation topic, and we would meet for an hour and discuss the argument I had laid out. By the end of the first semester of my second year, I had written 6 or seven such pieces, all in the philosophy of science, naturalistic epistemology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of social science. In addition to the sheer fun of talking with Dick so regularly, this gave me an incredible leg up on my dissertation proposal. In effect, for each topic I had two weeks to think about whether my interest in those specific issues would sustain me, what the particular obstacles might be, and whether I would have much original to say about the topic. At the end of that semester, I picked one of the topics that seemed most promising on all fronts, and wrote my dissertation proposal while completing my coursework. I defended it in the summer of my second year and, as I mentioned, left for California to write the dissertation in absentia. This arrangement was no doubt a burden on Dick, but the intensive reading and focus over the semester was very effective preparation for the dissertation. In some ways equally important, our bi-weekly meetings turned out to be good practice for the main tasks at job interviews: Setting the stage for your research, boiling down your work to a few clear sentences, and gaining comfort with all of the relevant literature.
Intense process! Any advice for grad students?
I don’t know whether my experience holds any general lessons, but I can say that I was liberated by the fact that, no matter what path I chose, the risk was entirely my own. I had no family ties of any kind at the time, and no worries at all about the prospects of poor financial compensation; I knew that I could be happy with very little money, and easily cultivated inexpensive tastes in entertainment, recreation, and the necessities of life. (If I recall correctly, Ron Mallon said something similar in an interview – in effect, that growing up with little money frees you to pursue interests for their intrinsic merits. Because you know you can happily live on little, the prospect of having little isn’t as threatening. That was my experience exactly.) I already had a Class II vehicle license, and knew I could always make money driving a truck, having done it at a junkyard and a hatchery.
Coors light forever! Do philosophy grads usually know what they’re getting themselves into?
I regularly find myself in conversation with graduate students, postdocs, and young professors on this topic. So often they share with me their anxieties about embarking on a profession in which they have so little control over their salary, their course load, and their service requirements. In the corporate environment of an undergraduate teaching college or university in which the employment of adjuncts and full-time instructors announces the expendability of tenure-track faculty, so many young people in philosophy, understandably, feel frustrated and powerless. They know it will be years before they will be making a decent salary, and that raises will be low. They know that raising salary issues with their employer will be deemed crass and mark them as perhaps uncooperative, or not adequately intrinsically motivated. While that stance by an administration is unfair, it is also entirely predictable. So I always encourage young people to stay in close touch with the things, both in and out of philosophy, that bring them not only joy but money. Try to do things that make you feel powerful and try not to position yourself in a way that could make you a victim.
Of course, bringing in extra money demands time – teaching summer or JTerm courses, online courses, doing your own repairs and improvements on your house, writing a textbook or a trade press book with a royalty advance or at least the expectation of future royalties, etc. – and this is only possible if the research expectations of your job are light, or if you write easily and quickly. So here is my advice: If your hope is to be tenure track in a decent department, the writing requirements will be nontrivial. There is little chance that truth can be finessed. So, if you don’t actually, positively, enjoy writing and/or you procrastinate, spare yourself that agony and choose another field whose necessary task is one you enjoy and perform easily (or pursue an academic position that doesn’t demand much research).
Brutal, dude. Brutal.
Of course, after a PhD, you shouldn’t HAVE to live on the tight budget that so many young faculty do, and after spending years in graduate school studying, writing, and teaching, you have amply demonstrated your devotion to having and sharing a life of the mind. No institution should doubt your commitment to its pursuits simply because you are vigilant about compensation, to pay off loans, start a family, buy a home, have a functional car, and so on. Of course. My point is that, institutional facts are typically impersonal, and while kind deans may commiserate with young faculty, given their charge, it is unrealistic to expect adventitious remuneration in the disciplines. “Hey Kiddo. Nice paper in Synthese. Here’s an extra $1000.” I have had many colleagues who say they don’t expect this kind of appreciation, but then act angry or crestfallen when they receive their 1.5% raise. After all, completing that Synthese paper may have competed with their kids’ birthday parties and soccer games, nights out and vacations. Such is the academic life, in which there is no barrier to using personal time for professional ends. You would have written that paper anyway, but perhaps not with the same urgency.
So, do you have any advice man? You’re bumming me out!
The best remedy for these anxieties, in my view, is to be effective. Think of ways that you can pay yourself. I am lucky. My family was in the trades, and I learned to save money by doing many of my own car and home repairs. Over the last 25 years, I would estimate I have saved at least $50,000 repairing plumbing, electrical, and generally performing tasks that are typically hired out. And I have increased the value of the two houses we lived in during that time by at least that much by finishing a basement (in which my wife tiled the shower), turning an uninsulated mudroom into a proper nursery, etc. You get the idea. My wife’s job schedule is less flexible than mine, and her job’s daily demands are greater. But let me be clear about this. Many people can’t take this route to effectiveness, either because they don’t have the background or because, for many reasons, they don’t have enough time or the physical capacity for this work. I am not blaming people who don’t or can’t; I am offering encouragement to those who can. Many institutions control your choices in various ways, and bend your time to their aims, by suggesting that you must serve limitlessly or else you have not adequately demonstrated your devotion to the mission. It is satisfying and empowering to ignore that narrative, and spend part of your life adding to your income in the many palpable ways that are not prohibited by a contract. And if you love doing the labor, all the better. I have been healthy, and I like writing just fine. So the most time-consuming aspect of my job was eased.
Great! You seem well adjusted.
While I have always felt lucky to have an academic job, I have always been at places that might be thought of as teaching institutions. Until recently, my job history is not a story of academic privilege. Even so, my schedule is far more flexible than those of most people in the country. I cannot emphasize enough to young people how wonderful it is to raise a family, or just frolic without children, when you have so flexible a schedule. My kids are in their teens now, and my job has never competed for time with my family. I have coached my daughter’s softball team, coached my son’s baseball team, and when they were younger, read to them nightly and played with them daily, And, I am always available, or can quickly work something out, if the kids get sick. There is nothing to not like about this story. I had mentioned that heading for graduate school was an easy one to make; for reasons like this, it was also an easy one to live with. But then again, I am lucky.
I hear you. So, what was the job market like when you wrapped up? Any bad interviews?
The job market then seemed grim, but it was undoubtedly better than it is now. I really enjoyed interviews and flyouts. They almost always felt good, so you would have to ask the interviewers in particular cases whether it was a bad interview. It was fun to talk with other people about their views, of course, but it was especially nice to talk about my own views in territory completely in my command. Also, I hadn’t travelled a lot, and so it was fun flying to different parts of the country. Finally, I loved giving talks, and meeting new people. I still do.
Everyone has bad interview stories, and usually they are pretty funny. Some of the stories depict pathetic displays of arrogance and insensitivity and, while it is understandable that candidates get offended by poor behavior, it isn’t personal. In my experience it is usually because the interviewing department either is disorganized or otherwise doesn’t know what it is doing. Candidates should still be alert to that behavior, because it is revealing when an interview committee allows the poor behavior.
You went through a few positions before settling in Loyola. What made you stay?
But before I landed at Loyola, I probably bounced around the normal amount. I have liked the students wherever I have taught. I had a Mellon Postdoc at Bryn Mawr, two years at Stevens Tech in Hoboken (while my wife was a public defender in Manhattan), and one year visiting at Virginia Tech.
Well, the Loyola department recruited for a cognitive scientist, and they let me do whatever I wanted. The students at Loyola were smart and earnest, capable, and in general sweet as the day is long. Teaching them was one of the real pleasures of being at Loyola. Also, Loyola was home to the Parmly Hearing Institute, so I could do speech perception research right across campus. But that is only part of the reason I landed there. Chicago is a great city, and it was a large law market for my wife. In fact, when I was visiting at Virginia Tech, Janice and I laid a map out on the living room floor, and put pushpins in the seven or so cities we most wanted to live in. I applied for jobs in those cities, and Chicago had a pin in it. My wife could get a job in any of those cities, and so could I, if not in philosophy, then driving a truck or doing construction. We were done moving.
How did you get involved with the Parmly Hearing Institute?
When I got the offer from Loyola, I was already aware not only of Parmly’s existence, but its distinction as a center for comparative sensory research. Bill Yost, an expert in psychoacoustics, was the Director. He was both very kind and very smart. It turned out that Parmly had long wanted to have a speech perception person there, but couldn’t devote resources to a dedicated line in that narrow field. So he was delighted that I would be joining Parmly through a salaried position in a disciplinary department. Until Parmly was shut down by the university in 2010, it was the absolute picture of a vital and supportive research community.
Compared to when you first started teaching, how much better are you now? What have you learned about teaching?
I can’t say I trust teaching self-assessments. All I know is a like teaching. I believe teaching self-assessments are subject to the kinds of large distortions documented in psychological work on autobiographical memory. In that literature, it is clear that everyone wants to believe that they are (well) above average, and that their story traces an upward trajectory. I don’t know that I am any better now as a teacher. I have changed, but my impression is that students have as well. And I don’t know that I have adapted to changes in students that would be required in order declare victory.
So, you were at Loyola for a long time. A few professional highlights?
Well, I did the Romanell Lectures there (the book – All Talked Out: Naturalism and the Future of Philosophy based on those lectures just appeared), and wrote a lot of books there. Also, since 2000, I taught a really fun Judgment and Decision-Making course that enrolled over 200 (typically psychology and neuroscience) students per semester. The course focused closely on the relation of judgmental biases to social policy and to happiness. In my 25 years there, I regularly taught independent studies courses when students needed a course on a particular topic.
Recently, Loyola opened Arrupe College, dedicated to serving a diverse group of underserved students, many of them DACA students. This is a tremendous idea, and Loyola has devoted itself to this project with dignity and resolve, despite the relentless assaults on vulnerable populations by the Trump administration. And I am grateful that I will be serving a much larger and even more diverse population at Illinois Tech, where my work and teaching will be focused on the applied lessons of philosophical naturalism.
Why did you leave Loyola?
It was definitely time. Like many Catholic Departments, Loyola’s Philosophy Department was always heavily continental, with a smattering of distinguished analytic figures like Paul Moser, Heidi Malm, and Tom Carson. The department tried to fly the flag of pluralism, but that flag was really a fig leaf, and we could never pull in the same direction. Not all departments at Loyola were that dysfunctional. I had colleagues in Psychology and Political Science who enjoyed their department life. But the Philosophy Department was very troubled, and by all reports, experienced that way by its active members.
Was it like that in the beginning?
When I arrived at Loyola in 1992, it was a different place. It featured a Research I trajectory and the Parmly Hearing Institute. But that changed, especially in the last 10-15 years. Loyola is now squarely in the business of teaching undergraduates, using existing TT faculty, adjuncts, term instructors and graduate students. The graduate programs, much smaller now than in previous decades, are there to serve undergraduate teaching needs and occasionally to train young Jesuits or credential graduates to teach at small, often Catholic, colleges. For faculty devoted to teaching AND research, and trained in the dominant philosophical tradition in the English-speaking world, it became increasingly difficult to live with the department’s reckless insensitivity to professional norms: non-tenure-line, limited-term instructors teaching graduate courses; tenure and promotion with little refereed work; little faculty control in hiring decisions (but much university control in the form of “consistency with the Jesuit mission” essays demanded from job applicants); expensive, private tuition courses taught by (inexpensive and often inexperienced) non-PhDs; and so on. The Administration even informed the Philosophy Department what graduate students can be accepted based on area of interest. I will leave out the causal details, but they are not complicated nor a secret. In short, the University Administration made procedural changes to control the Department’s hiring and enforce its Catholic identity. Again, not all departments experienced these measures equally; this played out much more oppressively in the Philosophy Department, which always had more of a Jesuit presence and role in the Jesuit education than other departments. With a Department that couldn’t find its way, and an administration that was increasingly imposing and capricious with its faculty, there was little to keep me there when the Illinois Tech opportunity came along: to work at a distinguished engineering school, where science is valued and respected. As well, most of my work is applied now, and the interests of Illinois Tech are aimed at taking deep and hard theoretical ideas and forging them into lessons that can improve lives. And yet, if the Illinois Tech opportunity had not come along, I would have still been at Loyola, and would have continued to feel grateful to have a steady job teaching young people and writing.
I still have friends at Loyola -- Paul Moser, Tom Carson, Heidi Malm, as I mentioned. And plenty more both inside and outside of the Philosophy Department. So I am lucky that it is just a cross-town move. For 25 years, I taught undergraduates I really liked, and course materials I controlled, at a university in a beautiful location on Lake Michigan, in a tremendous city where my wife has a very fulfilling job. How many people can say that? And now I get to start a new chapter. Pretty lucky.
It seems like a lot of the stuff you do, the stuff on well-being and decision making for instance, has a practical dimension? Does the content of what you work on have an effect on your relationships with your family, and vice versa. Do you talk philosophy with your kids? Your wife?
My interests do have a practical dimension, and I take seriously the practical lessons that can be drawn from solid scientific research. I try not to be too preachy, but we do try to remind each other how lucky we are, to have a sense of gratitude. Some of the lessons are by now lore: pursue experiences and not things. We don’t talk much philosophy around the house, but everyone in our family knows that ideas are important, and we talk about ideas all the time. When the kids were little, I would sometimes ask them questions about what all physical things seem to have in common. They would always act as though I was up to something; it made them suspicious. So we usually sneak up on foundational issues.
There it is again: Gratitude! Why'd you primarily work on philosophy of science and epistemology rather than, say, aesthetics or history of philosophy, you think?
That’s an interesting question. Because I have always been kind of a wonder-junkie, and there is no shortage of things to wonder at in aesthetic fields like art, music and dance. The vexing faces of Modigliani women. The haunting, beautiful loneliness of E lucevan le stelle. The earthy, hypnotic dances of Orff’s Carmina Burana. Aesthetics would certify you to spend your time wondering at it. For me, though, the beauty of art washes over me. I love it and value it, but I have never felt I could say anything very authoritative about it that was both true and not drably descriptive. What chamber of the universe is unlocked by Frederick Leighton’s “La Nanna” or Marcel Duchamp’s “Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy?” or Lucinda Williams’ “Essence”? There may be an answer to that question, but I am sure I don’t have the words for it. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing, or that using our reactions to these pieces cannot be the basis of theory-building about the role of art in well-being or in education. But I am saying that I am destined to be an observer and appreciative consumer in those fields, not a theorist.
On the other hand, I always felt I could get traction in issues in the philosophy of science and mind.
If you could only save two or three things you have written, what would they be and why?
The first would have to be “Scientific Explanation and the Sense of Understanding”, an article I published in Philosophy of Science in 2002. That article crystalizes my reaction to formal, prematurely normative, philosophy of science. Much of 20th century philosophy of science, wonderful as it was, focused on criteria for scientific respectability that I would regard as aggressively normative. The idea was if you violated these criteria, your practice wasn’t properly scientific. That was the motivation behind the verifiability principle, the Deductive-Nomological model of explanation, the principle of falsifiability, and so on. You can only stand in admiration of the honest self-criticism among philosophers of science during that period. They tested all of their normative proposals rigorously and persistently. But some of these proposals second-guessed the explanatory practices of working scientists, and did so a bit recklessly. There is something to be said for counting as scientific an explanation that an appropriately credentialed scientist offers. “Scientific Explanation and the Sense of Understanding” attempted to tell a descriptively accurate story about how explanations that scientists actually give guide scientific inquiry. It develops an ontic account of explanation, and ultimately inspired a book, Wondrous Truths. That book argues that scientific realists should embrace a kind of radical epistemic contingency of the history of science. Given how unreliable the sense of understanding is in our acceptance of explanations, when it does advance science in part because, for contingent reasons, we hit upon a theory that is approximately true.
Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment (co-authored with Mike Bishop). It was incredibly fun to write this book with Mike Bishop. This selection is worth some elaboration. When we were about 16, my oldest friend and I were fishing on a footbridge over a canal, as a big catfish slowly floated downstream with his mouth wide open at the surface (the catfish eventually swam away). I had fished a lot by then, and had never seen this behavior, especially from a bottom-feeder (though I have seen another bottom-feeder -- carp -- fight for bread tossed at the surface). We just looked at each other, jaws dropped, shocked and puzzled by the strange vision. Was it gasping for air in the oxygen-deprived water of a hot summer day? Was it mocking us, daring anglers to drop a line in? For Mike and me, the drifting, gaping catfish was the passing show of traditional epistemology. We had a shared sense that the fundamental tenets and methods of high analytic epistemology were very peculiar, and I think we both felt like outsiders, laboring in the foundations of knowledge but unwilling to pay the price of entry into what was then regarded as serious scholarship in epistemology. We weren’t alone, and we weren’t the first, of course. Truly gifted philosophers, like Hilary Kornblith and Stephen Stich, had already broken the ice, and proceeded with more patience and diplomacy than I could muster. But I did extract a simple lesson from that collaboration: When you see a catfish float by with his mouth at the surface (or some philosophical correlate to it), it is always more fun (and makes you feel more certain in your perceptual convictions) if someone else is there to greet your amazed stare. And that is just one reason it is important to have a community.
Totally. It’s a great, subversive, book! Short, and to the point. Anything else?
The Empathy Gap: Building Bridges from the Good Life to the Good Society. When I published The Empathy Gap, and “Paternalism and Cognitive Bias” four years earlier, the influence of cognitive biases on policy-making was very understudied. And while psychological findings have made some inroads into policy-making, mostly through behavioral economics, those findings are still radically underused. They have enormous promise to guide humane and effective policy. We now know that the procedures used to make legislation and policy preserve and amplify biases that lawmakers have. Lawmakers continue to pretend that they can reliably make good law about the sick when their own health is well-protected, about the poor when their own wealth is assured, about working people when their own raises are guaranteed, about food security when their stomachs are full, about education when their children’s college savings are already locked in, about social security when their own retirement trajectory does not depend on it, that they avoid the corruptions of political money when their own conflicts go unprosecuted…
Preach! I’m sorry go on…
The circumstances in which policy is made are not inert. Even the mere order of items on a voting agenda influences the amount of money allocated to each cause. But grown adults continue to tell themselves that they can be responsible to a constituency because they can imagine what it is like to be poor, to be unemployed, to belong to an ethnic group different from your own. That’s not empathy; that’s voyeurism. It is not impossible to use imagination in responsible policymaking, but it is barely shy of impossible, and that fact should be memorialized in procedures that both forbid lawmakers from trying, and force them to yield to the voluminous empirical evidence of their severe moral limitations.
Awesome. If you could make anything you wrote disappear, what would it be?
There is nothing I have written that I would make disappear, though I have written lots of stuff that has never appeared. I once signed a petition that complicated my life. It probably wasn’t worth it. If you want to know why, I will tell you over beer at a conference.
Any interesting projects on the horizon?
Well, I just completed a gut rehab or our children’s bathroom, but I think I am done for a while.
For more academic projects, I am also working on a few papers on science and values. These mostly concern using scientifically informed choice sets to improve judgment. This strategy has much better outcomes for the general public than relying on existing choice sets dictated by corporations or rich cranks who, either directly or through lobbyists and think tanks, capture the votes, allegiance, and (what remains of) the dignity of elected politicians. The more we can focus on the science of well-being, the less we can be exploited by cynical political rhetoric about what people really want and what is good for them. Some of this work will connect psychology to administrative law. It will also look at models of science-based policy-making in Europe, which has a better track record than the U.S. of protecting children, the sick, and the aged. When you can ignore science and expertise in policy-making – including the science of well-being – it is easier for both cynical, and merely ignorant, politicians to claim that people really want a health plan that allows them to risk destitution from a preventable disease,
Educating people in moral principles doesn’t make them ethical, and I don’t think trying to educate the general public in the esoteric details of global warming or ocean acidification makes people appreciate science-based policy. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, I don’t think the aim of science-based policy should be educating the public. But the long-term health of science-based policy does depend on a respect for science, even when that very science tells the public that its intuitions, gut reactions, and overall sense of things are unreliable. Public policy education in the arcane details of science is nice, but as a recipe for preparing people for citizenship, it is too wedded to an 18th century Enlightenment vision of decision-making. Science is theoretically arcane, and even specialists in one field, like physics or chemistry, are rendered helpless novices in areas like program evaluation or the subtle contours of psychological discounting.
Right. Anything else?
Among other projects, I am also working on an unusual one about the drama of language. The complexity of spoken language processing is truly humbling. It is also an excellent model of how difficult it is to spin theories about the mind from reflection on experience, even when that reflection is described as just a place to begin. The nature of experience matters of course, but our interpretation of experience – in this case the content of speech experience – is properly subservient to the many processes that produce it. Most philosophical explorations of mental processes that focus on the phenomenology of experience treat that content as monolithic, or at least characterized by a few introspectible properties, much like visual content that has phenomenologically detectible dimensions of saturation, intensity, and hue. In any phenomenological experience in spoken language perception, there are dozens of components that contribute to the experience, and the limits on attention and memory that render phenomenological measures crude can obscure its actual complexity. Philosophical analysis can be a tool in understanding, but it is largely a housekeeping measure. Using it as your main investigative tool permanently stunts your prospects, even when you promise to “take seriously”, or read about, empirical results. At any rate, my hope is that I can compose a project of lively examples and language effects that are clearly explained and fill you with wonder.
Another unifying theme: wonder! Are you optimistic about the future of philosophy?
I am not optimistic about philosophy as it is traditionally practiced in Philosophy Departments in the U.S. But I am enthusiastic about the rate at which other disciplines, like psychology, concern themselves with foundational problems in the field, problems typically or historically thought of as philosophical.
Do any trends concern you?
The only distinctively philosophical trend that concerns me is the persistent anti-naturalism in traditional Philosophy departments. All of the other trends that concern me in philosophy are shared by many other disciplines, particularly in the Humanities – their proneness to fetishize cultural identity, their celebration of detachment from practical concerns, their constant alertness to, and search for, insult to their sensibilities, etc.
What was your election night like?
Like most people in our demographic, we spent it with friends and sat there, agog, as we drank beer and planned a course that, despite it all, would allow our children to maintain the feeling that their optimism and skills would be rewarded, and that their efforts to help others could be successful.
Best philosopher you disagree with most?
Hume. He is a beautiful writer, and discusses the same issues that captivate me: causation, empiricist epistemology, and moral psychology. Although my views would be described as “anti-Humean”, there is no other dead philosopher I would rather hang out with.
Tell me a joke!
Ask me after the midterm elections.
What does J.D. stand for?
John Dewain. There. I said it.