In this interview, Joshua Knobe, professor in the Program in Cognitive Science and Department of Philosophy at Yale University, talks about his childhood, where he engaged in experiments, met his lifelong friend, Eugene Mirman (stand-up comedian), as well as his wife, Alina Simone (writer, indie rock singer, BBC contributor), his long, unusual path to college, working on history of philosophy, taking a break in Europe to work and focus on the European tradition in his spare time, coming back to the states and working with Bertrand Malle (while living in a forest near the university), how musicians informed his attitude towards his career in philosophy, what it was like working with Gil Harman on his dissertation, his first gig, self-doubt, the combative and adversarial aspects of philosophy, pretending to be Cleopatra, and his last meal…
What was your childhood like?
The only thing about my childhood that was at all striking or unusual was my parents, who are just about the nicest, most open-minded people you are ever likely to meet. I know that everyone says that, but in my case, it is actually true. All of my friends were a little bit blown away by my parents' kindness.
Where did you grow up? What did you do for fun?
I grew up in a pretty ordinary suburb, with not too much going on, and I tried to keep things interesting by engaging in a series of increasingly ridiculous projects. I learned the Latin names of all the local trees. I learned how to ride a unicycle. I learned some electronics and figured out how to wire up my room so that the light automatically went on when you opened the door. But despite all my efforts, life was still fairly humdrum and boring most of the time.
What do you think explains your parents' extraordinary open-mindedness and kindness? What did they make of these ridiculous projects? Did you ever go too far?
My parents' kindness and open-mindedness is one of those miraculous phenomena for which no explanation ever seems quite adequate. The only time one of my ridiculous projects ever began testing their limits was when I was heading off to college. We lived in Massachusetts, and I was going to college in California, so I decided that it would be a good idea to go there by bicycle. My parents' friends all told them that they shouldn't allow me to do this, but they held firm to their policy of extreme open-mindedness, and in the end, I did end up bicycling across the country.
How long did it take?
I took a slightly roundabout route, and the trip ended up lasting six weeks. But that was actually less than I expected, so I arrived early and school hadn't yet started. I ended up spending that extra time living in this incredibly Californian commune that focused on environmental issues.
What did you do for fun in high school? Did you like school?
I felt pretty alienated for a lot of the time I spent in high school, but then in my senior year, I met this woman and completely fell in love. Twenty-three years later, we are still together, and she has really transformed my life in all the best ways. Much as there might have been some things about high school that were a little bit boring or dreary, I would definitely have to say that it ended up being a pretty good deal on the whole!
Did you have any idea what you wanted to do in college?
I had always been obsessed with philosophy, even back in high school, but odd as this may seem, I didn't quite understand that it was something you could study in college or pursue as a career. I just assumed that philosophy was something you did on your own time. Then I thought of school as this completely separate thing that could never connect up with your real interests.
Where'd you go to school? What did you major in?
I went to Stanford. They had this program where you could create your own major, so I invented a major called 'ethics.' The idea was to take courses on ethical issues in a number of different disciplines: philosophy, psychology, religious studies, and so on.
By now, this sort of interdisciplinary approach to ethics has become a completely ordinary part of academic philosophy, but back in the 90's, things were a little bit different. If you were interested in the idea that empirical facts about human psychology could inform ethical questions, you couldn't really study that kind of research by taking courses in contemporary moral theory. Instead, you had to focus on work along those lines by figures from the history of philosophy (Aristotle, Hume, Nietzsche, etc.). As a result, my undergraduate work in philosophy was almost entirely devoted to historical scholarship.
Did you consider not going to college?
When I was in high school, I didn't really consider the possibility of not going to college, but once I got to college, I felt pretty ambivalent about everything that was going on. So my college career consisted of this crazy back-and-forth where I kept leaving but then coming back again. First I left for a while and got some jobs working in Germany and France.
What were you looking for in Germany and France? What did you do?
My reasons for getting a job in Europe had very little to do with the practicalities of what it would be like to actually live there and everything to do with my overblown, sentimentalized, borderline worshipful attitude toward the European philosophical tradition. Like many young people who are obsessed with philosophy, I guess I had this sense that it might be a good idea to leave academia for a while, support myself with some other job and try writing philosophy on nights and weekends. So I got this job working for a computer company (translations and such), and I wrote a long thing about the concept of authenticity. Needless to say, the stuff I was writing was completely awful from a philosophical point of view, but I found the whole experience deeply fulfilling somehow.
Did you return to school and the states?
I came back for a few semesters, but then I left again and ended up living for a while in a tent in a forest near the university.
How did you swing living in the forest and going to school?
During the time I was living in the forest, I wasn't actually enrolled in the university. Instead, I had left school again, this time for a slightly different reason. I had been doing some experimental research with the social psychologist Bertram Malle, who was then a graduate student. He was pursuing a truly inspiring research program, and I wanted to devote myself to it in a more serious way. So I came up with a slightly preposterous way of doing this experimental research full time while keeping my expenses to an absolute minimum. I left school for a semester, stayed in a tent in the foothills, and arranged with a nearby co-op to get free food in exchange for some cooking and cleaning. Bertram was an extraordinary mentor, and he really went out of his way during that time to do everything he could to help me learn how to conduct empirical research.
Is it fair to say that many philosophers are suspicious of the interdisciplinary approach?
I sometimes hear people say that, but that hasn't been my experience at all. In my experience, philosophers are actually very open to interdisciplinary work. Basically, they just want to hear the argument -- how this specific method might prove helpful in addressing this specific philosophical problem. Of course, they may end up concluding that your argument is no good, but the problem usually comes down to something about the details. It's only very, very rarely that I've heard philosophers issuing blanket rejections of the whole idea of an interdisciplinary approach.
How do you respond to the blanket rejection reaction?
I know that there is a widespread sense that some kind of reactionary 'old guard' is trying to reject all interdisciplinary work, but that really has not been my experience at all. In fact, when I am talking about interdisciplinary research, I usually find that the interdisciplinarity itself never gets mentioned at all.
Suppose you are talking about your latest experimental studies, and you start off by saying, 'The point of these studies is to help make progress on these complex philosophical questions involving the semantics of epistemic modals.' Then you launch into a substantive discussion of different theories about epistemic modals and the ways in which your experimental results might bear on the debate. At that point, philosophers always have the same reaction, which is to actually engage with the specific points you are making about epistemic modals. I can't remember a single time when someone instead said, 'I don't even have to think about the specific points you are making about epistemic modals because I already know a priori that experimental results are never relevant to philosophical questions.'
What drew you to it the interdisciplinary approach?
My path into this kind of work was actually slightly different from the one that many other people followed. Some people start out being drawn to the idea of conducting quantitative empirical research, and they eventually decide to do this kind of research by pursuing interdisciplinary work in philosophy. That was not at all the path I took. Instead, I started out with an interest in the idea that we could get insight into philosophical questions by thinking about what human beings are actually like. At first, I was mostly drawn to the work of figures who pursued that approach through decidedly non-empirical means (Kierkegaard, Spinoza, and the like). Then gradually, over a period of years, I came to feel that the best way of pursuing this traditional philosophical approach might be by going out and running experiments.
Among the historical figures in philosophy, who were the harbingers of the interdisciplinary approach, you think?
My sense is that this basic approach is not something that comes out of one or another specific philosopher, but rather something one finds quite consistently throughout almost the entire history of philosophy. All the way from Plato and Aristotle up through 19th century figures like Mill and Nietzsche, one finds the idea that philosophical work should be informed by some understanding of what human beings are actually like. All of these figures were concerned with questions about how the mind works and how facts about the mind might relate to philosophical questions about ethics, religion, and so forth. It is true that there was a period in the 20th century when some people felt that these issues fell outside the domain of philosophy, but that view strikes me as a quite recent development, and one that is perhaps on the wane.
What was Malle working on?
Malle was interested in trying to understand the basic concepts people ordinarily use to explain human behavior. Of all the projects he was working on, the one that most influenced me was one that might initially seem perfectly straightforward. We conducted a series of studies aimed at trying to understand the distinction people draw between behaviors that are performed intentionally and those that are performed unintentionally. At the time, I didn’t see this work as being at all connected to philosophy. It was published in a social psychology journal, and I expected that it would be of interest only to social psychologists.
Learn anything living in the forest?
I wish I could say that I learned some profound life lesson during that time, but to tell you the truth, I emerged feeling just as confused and uncertain about everything as I was when I first went in.
Did you finish up school? What did you do when you were done?
Despite all this, I did manage to graduate in the end. After I got out of school, I had a series of random jobs. I was working with homeless people, teaching English in Mexico, writing computer programs that helped low-income people get housing, continuing this social psychology research with Malle as a research assistant.
Where did you go to grad school? Were you prepared, you think?
I went to Princeton. I guess I counted as adequately prepared by the standards of the time, but I wasn't even close by the standards one typically finds today. At that time, philosophy grad students were not expected to be anywhere near as professionalized as they are these days. When I look at students today, I am blown away by how much more professionally prepared they are than I ever was. I often see undergraduate students performing at a level that I would only have been capable of as a fourth or fifth year graduate student.
As a grad student, were you worried about the job market?
I lived pretty far from campus and hardly ever came in. As a result, I was woefully ignorant about just about every aspect of the profession. The people I spent time with were mostly people I met through my wife, which meant that they weren't so much academics as people in indie rock bands. It might seem odd, but the truth is that I hardly ever thought about the job market. Maybe it was a function of the people I was spending time with. People in bands tend not to have any real expectation that they can turn the things they're doing into a successful career; they just want to make some music. In a similar way, I had this sense that I should be writing philosophy all the time, but I had no real view either way about whether doing that could help me get a job.
Oh, so what does your wife do? She’s a musician?
She used to be an indie rock singer, but now she has shifted into writing, and she is working as a contributor to this BBC radio show called 'The World.' I'm afraid I can't resist the urge to shamelessly plug some of her stuff here. If you ever want to hear some of her indie rock stylings, you might try Riot Act. And if you are interested in her writing, take a look at her incredibly funny memoir You Must Go and Win.
haha no problem…I’m assuming you had to do a long distance thing, was that rough?
It was horrible. I have never missed anyone so badly in my entire life. Luckily, I had a chance to spend the next two decades making up for lost time.
In grad school, how did you evolve philosophically?
I actually went through a pretty dramatic shift about halfway through my graduate career. I had been doing experimental work all along, but I had always seen it as a kind of sideline. My core identity was much more wrapped up with questions at the intersection of the history of philosophy and a priori moral philosophy. Then, one day, my friend Dan Moller took me aside and told me that I was making a terrible mistake. He told me that this experimental stuff, which I had always regarded as just something I was doing on the side, was clearly the most valuable thing I had done thus far. So he urged me to switch my perspective and start thinking of this more empirical work as the core of what I was doing.
I emerged from that conversation convinced that he was right. So I suddenly switched over to focusing on experimental philosophy full time. That became my dissertation project.
Gil Harman is a monumental figure and he was your dissertation advisor. What's he like?
I feel like Harman's whole approach to advising came out most clearly in a conversation we once had about some technical question in the philosophy of mind. I was trying my best to defend a particular view, and Harman was going after it with objection after objection. At some point, it was becoming clear that my attempts to defend the view against these objections were completely falling apart, and at that point, I said, 'But Gil, this view I'm trying to defend -- it is actually your own view! It is the view that you yourself have defended in a whole series of articles.' Harman looked at me quizzically and then brushed aside this point, saying 'That's just some other guy.'
What he meant was that the right way to think of it was that there were these two different people who just happened to have the same name and to look a lot alike. One was the philosopher Gil Harman, this monumental figure who had defended various views in his published work. The other was my advisor Gil Harman, who was not committed to any specific views and was just trying to teach me how to be a better philosopher.
Basically, Harman did everything he could to make you feel like you weren't really the student of that monumental figure, that the monumental figure was just 'some other guy' whose papers you could read if you wanted to but who had nothing to do with what you should be doing in your work as his grad student.
Where did you get your first gig?
My first job was at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I stayed there for four years. It was an incredibly exciting time. On one hand, the fields of experimental philosophy and empirical moral psychology were just getting started in a serious way, and we had this feeling that a whole field of important new questions was now opening up. On the other, the UNC philosophy department had a very distinctive culture, which put an enormous emphasis on kindness and respect. I think the excitement really arose from something about the combination of these two elements. We were turning to these brand-new questions, and we had very fundamental disagreements about how to answer them, but no matter how heated these disagreements became, we were all pretty convinced that it was important to be nice to each other.
Aren't you buddies with the comedian Eugene Mirman? How'd that happen? I get the impression he's an amateur philosopher.
I met Eugene in high school, and we quickly became close friends. He has really meant a tremendous amount to me. (In true Eugene style, he appeared at our wedding as the maid of honor.) You are completely right to say that he is a true philosopher, and I think our friendship actually had a lot to do with me getting into the topic in the first place.
Why is philosophy one of the least diverse disciplines, you think? How can we fix our diversity problem?
This is a very difficult question, and I certainly wouldn't want to pretend that I know the correct answer. Judging just from my own personal experience, though, it seems like one thing that makes a real difference is kindness. Philosophy tends to be a strangely combative and adversarial discipline, with even graduate students trying to score points by proving other people wrong. I wonder if our discipline would be seen as more welcoming if we tried a little harder to be nice to each other. (Of course, the only way to know whether a hypothesis like this one is correct is to conduct serious empirical research.)
If you could go back in time, and give yourself advice when you were living in a tent, what would it be?
Unfortunately, I feel just as lost and confused as ever, and I fear I wouldn't be able to give my former self any definitive advice about how to live. If anything, I guess I'd be curious to know what my former self would have to say about what I ought to be doing now.
That’s sort of surprising. I mean you’ve had a big impact on the discipline and you’re in a pretty plum position at Yale. Your wife seems awesome. Why do you feel lost and confused?
Of course I’m very grateful for my job and for my family, but I always have a lot of doubts about myself and about my work. That’s probably the kind of thing that never really goes away.
How do you see the future of philosophy?
I’m very optimistic about the future of philosophy. Back when I went to graduate school, philosophy was dominated by a relatively small number of figures working on a relatively limited number of questions. That has all changed. Now we have a real profusion of different ideas and approaches. More and more, I see students coming up with new questions of their own, rather than working within a dialectic set up by more established figures. It's an exciting time to be in the field.
Nowadays, what do you do to unwind?
I have a four year-old daughter, and she is objectively the cutest and most fun person in the universe. These days, she is obsessed with ancient Egypt, so we spend a lot of time running around the living room pretending to be Cleopatra or Anubis or whatever.
Haha that’s great…last meal?
I actually just came back from getting a burrito.