In this interview, Justin Clarke-Doane, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, talks about being a juvenile delinquent in the Midwest, coping with chronic illness, detention, alternative music, his 5 favorite albums, poetry, how high school theater helped him academically, becoming interested in philosophy of mathematics, Asian religious thought, and classical Indian philosophy as an undergraduate, making friends and skipping class at NYU, junk food, staying out late, learning to take care of himself, working with Hartry Field, living in Australia, Birmingham, and Beijing, how his philosophical views effect his life, Peter Unger, Steven Hawking, upcoming projects, the future of philosophy, and his last meal...
Where did you grow up?
I grew up throughout the Midwest. I was born in Illinois, moved to Missouri, moved to Indiana, and, finally, moved to Ohio.
What did your parents do for a living?
My dad worked for a phone company (GTE), and my mom had various jobs related to law.
Siblings? Did you get along?
I have a sister, who is four years older (but five years ahead in school). To the extent that we interacted, I guess we often didn’t get along (we get along now). I think I must have annoyed her. She would scam me in return. One prank involved a “grab bag”. In exchange for doing her a favor, she’d let me grab something out of a bag whose contents were hidden. But the bag was full of stuff she stole from my room! I figured out what was going on pretty quickly, but kept playing. I couldn’t resist the suspense!
Was your family religious?
No, it was peculiarly non-religious among families in my community. We never went to church. But unlike some non-religious families, my family had no alternative ideology. My mom claimed to believe in God. My dad sometimes did and sometimes didn't. I think our avoidance of church was mainly attributable to laziness.
There was one source of religious thinking in my family. My grandfather, a remarkable autodidact (and one of the funniest people I've met), was a Unitarian minister. I don't think he believed in God. But he had interesting views on the Bible which he would share with me.
As a kid, what were you interested in?
Not school! As a young kid, I was very interested in sports and the outdoors. My interests shifted somewhat in adolescence. I got sick, and almost died, when I was 12, and this resulted in a permanent stomach problem. I think that this aggravated my teenage melancholy, and, inevitably, I got interested in making music.
How did you get sick? Was it painful? How did you deal?
I just got a virus. But it caused nerve damage, and this resulted in “gastric dysmotility”. Basically, this means that my stomach permanently thinks that I have the flu (smart stomach!). It can be painful. For a while I didn’t deal (see: delinquent). But these days I just accept it.
How did your delinquency manifest itself?
In lieu of the details, let me just say that one's cartoon of a delinquent adolescent in the rural Midwest is probably not too far off base.
Oh you aren’t going to get off that easy! Give me some deets…
I’ll give you a boring detail. I skipped a lot of class. I'm pretty sure I only passed the 7th grade because one of my teachers liked me (I was getting straight Ds – even in gym!). One consequence was that I wasn’t allowed to go on a bus trip to Washington D.C. as a graduating 8th grader. I'd received too many detentions. In fact, I passed the limit while still in 7th grade.
That’s not so bad. What type of music were you interested in?
In my adolescence and early teens, I was mostly interested in "alternative" (is that still a thing?). By playing around on the piano and my best friend’s bass, I eventually got interested in jazz. After that, my interests continued to broaden. I used to hate it when, in response to the question "what kind of music do you like?", someone answered "everything!". But, more and more, I have come to answer that way. I am extremely picky at the level of individual songs, and even parts of songs. But I love some song (or part of a song) from pretty much every genre.
In high school, what were your 5 favorite albums?
Maybe something along the lines of:
Haha…What else were you interested in?
Besides making music, I had the other inevitable interest: writing poetry. Then, at the age of 14, when I was about to enter high school, my sister and mom encouraged me to audition for a school play. My sister has terrific musical facility, and had success in theater, musical and otherwise. Unfortunately, there were few things in the world that seemed to me more unpleasant than getting up on stage. But I eventually capitulated, and, in fact, participated in all twelve productions put on by my high school during my four years there. To my surprise, I was very successful in theater (even being asked to do some professional theater), despite often hating it.
One of the funnier effects of my involvement in theater was that I became “popular”. I was even voted Homecoming King and onto the Prom Court. But it was downhill from there.
What was your favorite role as a high school student?
That's tough. Rapunzel's Prince in Into the Woods was certainly my most absurd role.
Did you start thinking about what you wanted to do for a living…
Until late in high school, I had very little conception of what I wanted to do. (I certainly had no idea that one could be an “academic” for a living.) I think I assumed that I'd be an actor or musician, working service jobs as well. Things changed as I got more involved in theater. Theater people were not like my delinquent friends! Two of the three valedictorians from the year ahead of me were fixtures there, as was the salutatorian of the year behind me. They were in the “smart kid classes” and did their homework during down time. One of the valedictorians even aspired to attend Northwestern. I was intimidated, but also intrigued. I started edging my way into the “advanced” classes, and enrolled in some classes at a nearby community college as part of a high school post-secondary program. These convinced me of something transformative: there is something to be gained from school! Who knew? I started applying myself. By late in high school, I was intent on continuing my studies in college.
What colleges did you apply to? Where did you get in?
I think I only applied to a few places (though I looked into more). I wanted to go somewhere strange, if possible, but money was a big factor, as it is for most. I applied to Reed, and got in, but it was too expensive. I vaguely recall applying to Oberlin and being rejected or waitlisted, but wouldn’t have been able to afford that anyway. I think I applied to Ohio State. And then somebody at my dad’s work told him about New College of Florida, and it sounded awesome to me, so I applied there.
So you got into the New College of Florida…what was the atmosphere like?
It was radical -- at least coming from where I was coming from. It was also intimate. Despite being a public school, the college only had 650 students (I think it now has about 800). The academic structure was out-there. There were no college-wide requirements, no grades, and no sports. Everyone wrote a very substantial thesis. In principle, you could major in anything, if you could find professors to sign off. People did their own thing. I met a lot of very creative people there.
What did you do for fun?
I worked on musical projects. I was also an accompanist for an improve troupe. I did a lot of dancing at New College’s “Palm Court Parties”. I did a little acting. I enjoyed Florida’s sunsets.
Were you homesick?
Not really. It was good for me to be out of the Midwest for once. But I did miss the rural Ohio aesthetic (still do). I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for barns and the Waffle House.
Did your illness put a damper on your social life?
I remember thinking that it did. But who knows? Maybe it helped in ways that I’m not yet positioned to understand. I am impressed by how hardship can be a blessing in disguise.
Least favorite classes?
I took a history of political thought course that I thought was pretty lousy (despite liking the readings). But that’s about it.
Probably one of my math classes (not sure which), Indian Buddhist Thought, and Metaphysics.
Ah, how did you get into philosophy?
It's a cheesy story. I didn't take any philosophy during my first year in college (and didn’t know anything about it). But I took a lot of math and Asian religious thought, among other things. The latter introduced me to philosophical questions, and the former suggested a method by which I might pursue them. I become preoccupied with questions about time. I wrote up a proof that time can't be beginningless and endless, given certain assumptions. I showed it to my math professor, and he said it was OK, but that I should talk to the analytic philosopher (there was only one – himself a New College graduate), Aron Edidin. I had never met him, and felt that if I was going to ask him to look at my incompetent “proof”, then I should at least enroll in his class. So, I did. That class was metaphysics, and the first topic was time. I was hooked (and, thankfully, he never read my "proof").
What was your undergrad thesis on?
It was on the philosophy of math. I tried to develop the idea that natural numbers are properties of collections (an idea I no longer accept), focusing on Benacerraf's argument from multiple reductions (which re-arises in the context of property-theory), the connection between pure and impure uses of numerical terms, and the ontology of collections. I wasn't especially interested in the philosophy of math then (I am now), but in order to finish my philosophy/mathematics major I had to write philosophy and math theses. My choice was between writing two (very substantial) theses, or writing a combined thesis (while taking 3-4 classes a semester).
How did you explain your decision to major in philosophy to your parents!
To their credit, I don't think that my parents really cared much what I majored in, so long as I took care of myself. But they did seem suspicious when I said I planned to go to graduate school. I think that they thought that that meant that I'd have to go into debt. Also, what kind of pretentious jackass says he wants to be a “philosopher" (and what does that even mean)?
Where did you apply to grad school and why?
I applied all over the place – NYU, Ohio University's Masters program, Wisconsin-Madison. Basically, I didn't know what I was doing, and would have been happy to study philosophy anywhere, so long as I got a stipend. My feeling was: even if I never get a job in philosophy, getting paid to work on philosophy for a few years is a lot better than continuing to work at the Sleep Inn! (This is essentially still my attitude. I regard it as an outrageous privilege to get paid to do philosophy.) By that point, I was sufficiently preoccupied with philosophical questions that I knew that I was going to be working on them whether or not anyone paid me to.
There was one consideration that constrained my choice of where to apply, however. I was very interested in Asian, especially classical Indian, philosophy (even though I’d never taken any philosophy courses per se on Asian material, having exclusively taken religion courses on it with John Newman). So, I applied to UT, Austin, where Stephen Phillips teaches, and to Duke, where David Wong teaches. (I also began an application to the University of Liverpool's now defunct Masters Program in Indian Philosophy, where Jonardon Ganeri, taught, but discontinued it when it became clear that I wouldn't be able to get funding as an American.) At the end of the day, I decided not to attend a program with strengths in Asian philosophy. But I maintained a strong lay interest in the subject, and one of my long-term goals remains to learn Sanskrit and Pali.
Where did you get in?
This was also pretty all over the place. I think I applied to around 10 places, and got into about half of them, with no particular rhyme or reason.
So you ended up going to NYU. Did you feel prepared?
In one sense I felt very prepared, and in another not at all. I felt very prepared in the sense that I felt ready to do my own work. I knew how to write a substantial paper, and to work out my ideas. I felt not at all prepared in the sense that I knew pretty much none of the contemporary jargon or literature. I had read the standard historical figures, and canonical analytic and continental ones from the early-to-mid 20th century (not to mention a good amount of classical Indian and Chinese literature). But I had a lot to learn. Example: what in the world is “content”?
Was it what you expected?
No. In many ways it was less intimidating than I expected. For example, NYU was quite welcoming, and egalitarian. People were mostly open and down-to-earth. In other ways, however, it was intimidating. In particular, many people’s backgrounds blew my mind.
I wouldn't describe graduate school as difficult. (College was harder for me, given the bridge I had to cross. For example, when I arrived, I hadn’t even taken trigonometry. But my first math class in college was an introduction to Real Analysis.) My main problem was reading all the stuff I hadn't read. I had terrible concentration problems growing up, and didn’t manage to read my first full book until I was about 17. I was still in the process of overcoming these problems early in graduate school. (Even today, if you offered me $1000 to summarize a piece of airport fiction, I’m not sure that I could. The more “passive” the reading required, the harder it is for me to concentrate. This is one reason why philosophy suits me OK – I actually prefer dense and technical reading.) Also, I probably would have benefited from doing something else for a year between college and graduate school. I was generally restless, and didn’t go to many classes.
Why didn't you go to class? You were going to NYU for god's sake!
Bleh – I know! I guess I just hadn't habituated myself to learning that way. During the roughly five years I'd committed to getting serious about school, I'd mostly been studying stuff on my own. Funnily enough, I’ve started going to classes in the last couple of years. Now I love them!
Were people friendly?
Yeah, people were great. That's something that really stood out to me. The day I arrived, locked out of my apartment, a group of graduate students and faculty took me out to dinner to welcome me. I lived with a classmate (Jeff Sebo) my first year, and with two other program mates (Sinan Dogramaci, David James Barnett) my second year. All of these people remain friends, as do the other people who were in my cohort (Jonny Cottrell, Gina Rini, and Jennifer Logan).
Exciting living in the big city?
NYC was fun (still is), but only after I got used to it. I had never been there before I moved, and for a good year or two I couldn't for the life of me figure out why anyone would want to live there. There was no real quiet (in Ohio’s sense) -- anywhere -- and nothing but cement and bricks for as far as the eye could see. Also, everyone took themselves so seriously! But the city soon got under my skin. (It didn't help my feeling of alienation that I had spent the summer between college and graduate school living in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, working for the Appalachian Mountain Club.) I met my wife here, and have lived all over Manhattan and Brooklyn. I now consider it home. In fact, I've now lived here longer than I've lived anywhere else.
What did you do in your spare time?
I guess I "went out" a lot -- probably too much. As a newcomer to NYC, I felt that there was a lot to experience. I also did a bit of music, but had trouble adjusting to the practice space situation here.
Favorite classes? Least favorite classes?
My favorite class might have been proseminar, with Jim Pryor and Roger White. I got to know my cohort, and Jim and Roger gave us lots of feedback. I also enjoyed Sharon Street’s seminar on metaethics, Stephen Schiffer’s seminar on skepticism, and Ted Sider’s seminar (at Rutgers) on metaontology. It sounds like a cop-out, but I don’t think that I disliked any of my classes.
What was the proseminar with Pryor and White on?
I think we covered pretty standard stuff in analytic philosophy. I remember reading Quine's "Two Dogmas", Kripke's Naming and Necessity, and Lewis's "New Work for a Theory of Universals", for instance.
How did you choose a dissertation topic? Who did you end up working with?
I had disparate interests. One in the philosophy of set theory. Another was on methodology in metaphysics. And the final one was on an analogy (and lack thereof) between ethics and mathematics that I'd been working on. I went with the first topic for a while, then briefly flirted with the second topic, only to switch to the last topic. Since the last topic cross-cut ethics and the philosophy of math, there was no obvious person to ask to be my adviser. But Hartry Field, whose work I greatly admired (still do), had written on epistemic normativity in addition to mathematics. Moreover, I came to find that I worked well with him. He was pretty hands off (which I liked), but was very responsive and searching. So, while we didn’t meet that much, whenever I sent him something, I knew that I could expect prompt and incisive comments.
What was the job market like when you finished? Any job market horror stories?
It was terrible! There were lots of horror stories. While my tentative impression is that the market got gradually better with the economy, I could easily list a handful of outstanding philosophers who still can't find work despite extraordinary output. I’m sure we all could.
Where was your first gig? How did it feel to land your first job? Any unforseen challenges?
My first job was at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. I was nervous, but exhilarated. I appreciated the new responsibilities, like working with graduate students, not to mention the paycheck. But I was fortunate. Monash turned out to be a fantastic place, philosophically and personally. Also, my wife and I love Melbourne. It's regularly deemed "the most livable city in the world". That designation struck me as vacuous. But it's true! You don't need a car. The standard of living is very high. It's on the ocean. And people are super nice. What’s not to like?
The main unforeseen challenge was administrative. I’m quite bad with fancy technology these days. I’ve never given a powerpoint talk, and don’t have a smartphone. (I say “these days” because I was a computer nerd in my early teens.) Monash makes significant use of online systems for teaching. Some of my colleagues really capitalized on these, but I initially felt out of my element. Thankfully, my colleagues were patient as I sloooooowly learned the ropes.
How do you balance research and teaching?
I learned something counterintuitive about myself. If I don't have a lot of work to do, I get lazy. I had no teaching obligations at the University of Birmingham, where I moved after Monash, and I had trouble getting my act together. But weigh me down with teaching and admin, and somehow I can get some writing done! Anxiety appears to be my chief motivator, sadly.
I hear you. Before you finally settled in at Columbia, you've been to bouncing around the planet including the stint at Birmingham. Learn anything? How did your partner deal?
My partner and I were both excited about moving. Neither of us felt glued to our hometowns (she’s from the San Francisco Bay area), and we each have quite a bit of wanderlust. The main thing we learned is probably that we can be happy living in all manner of environments.
Birmingham was lovely. It has an outstanding philosophical atmosphere, and we made some truly great friends there. We stay in touch with a number of my former colleagues there.
What was Paris like? China?
Contrary to popular belief, Paris ain't so bad. Beijing was also amazing. What I wouldn't do for that food...
Low point of your career? If you could go back in time and give yourself advice then, what would it be?
I felt pretty lost – personally more than philosophically -- mid-way through graduate school. While I wouldn't have taken my advice, I might tell myself to take better care of myself.
When you say you didn’t take care of yourself, what do you mean?
I had no money, and didn’t spend the little that I had well. I lived off junk food, and was staying out late. I felt socially isolated, despite regular social interaction. There was drama back home. I think I could have used a leave-of-absence – or a move to Inwood.
I’ve been there. Do your philosophical views have an effect on the way you live your life?
Not so much my views on, e.g., metaphysics! But my views in ethics and epistemology do have an effect on the way I live. For instance, I don’t think that robust notions of moral or epistemic responsibility makes a lot of sense, and so I try to avoid blame. I fail badly. But I do try.
High point of your career?
Geez – now, maybe? Of course, I have ambitions.
Any interesting projects on the horizon?
A lot of my work has been devoted to trying to bring prima facie unrelated areas of philosophy into useful dialogue. I think that it’s by drawing connections between such areas that we can ultimately address the big-picture questions that attracted us to philosophy in the first place. In that spirit, I am presently working on a positive account of paradigmatically a priori areas of inquiry. The view is “pluralist”, but not antirealist in any ordinary sense. I think that typical questions of math, logic, morality, and modality, are roughly like the question of whether the Parallel Postulate is true, as a pure mathematical question. They may have mind-and-language independent answers in a context. But there is a sense other answers are equally legitimate.
Let me sketch the idea in the case of modality. Consider the question of whether water is necessarily H20. The standard view is that Kripke taught us that it is. Of course, it’s not logically necessary. But that’s not “real” necessity. Logical necessity is “merely epistemic”. I disagree. The reasons to regard Kripke’s notion of necessity as real are equally reasons to regard all manner of stricter notions of necessity as real too. Moreover, I do not believe that there is a strictest notion of “real” necessity that one can define. There is a family of cross-cutting, ever stricter, notions of necessity, all on a metaphysical par. In a sense, then, the question of whether water is necessarily H20 lacks an objective answer. It is metaphysically necessary that water is H20. It is not, say, logically necessary that this is so. And that is all there is to say about it.
Such a view is metaphysically inflationary but methodologically deflationary. Just as it would be misconceived to try to determine whether the Parallel Postulate is “really” true, as a pure mathematical conjecture (rather than as a hypothesis about physical spacetime), so too, I believe, is it misconceived to try to determine whether it is “really” necessary that water is H20.
The view above bears on diverse topics, including the epistemic significance of disagreement, the “reasons/shreasons” problem, indefinite extensibility, and multiverse debate in set theory.
Interesting stuff. Anything else?
I have been thinking about undermining evidence. I have been trying to develop the idea that all such evidence, E, must be modal. For instance, E might undermine our belief that p by giving us reason to believe that we might have easily had a false belief as to whether p, or by giving us reason to doubt that had it been the case that ~p, we would not have believed that p (using the method that we actually used to determine whether p). I do not deny that there are non-modal defeaters – namely, rebutters. But I am doubtful that, say, learning that the explanation of our belief that p fails to imply that p ought to lead us to give up that belief absent “direct” reason to doubt that that belief is modally secure. If that’s so, then standard formulations of “genealogical debunking arguments” are unsound, and common views on higher-order evidence are false.
Also, my colleague, Katie Tabb, and I are working on a project concerning responsibility and psychopathology. We argue, in effect, that there is no difference between “addicts” and non-addicts which could explain why addicts are less blameworthy than non-addicts for their addictive behavior, and turn this into an argument for skepticism about moral responsibility.
Finally, I have been thinking about recent criticisms of philosophy from non-philosophers like Stephen Hawking and from philosophers like Peter Unger. While I think that these criticisms are generally misconceived, I believe that there is much to be learned from taking them seriously.
Agreed. How would you explain what we do to a 5 year old?
I’d say that I get paid to ask “why?”.
How do you see the future of philosophy? Does it come to an end or go on forever and ever?
I think it goes on forever. It's not as if there is any avoiding philosophical assumptions. Nor is it as if those assumptions will ever be beyond intelligible dispute. So, we can either maintain them in ignorance of ways in which they might be questioned, or not. I think that there will always be people who can’t help but seek understanding, where this appears possible. Moreover, there are likely to continue to be periodic practical benefits of the inquiry for others, however inadvertent.
Favorite curse word?
Do you really get different answers to this? “Fuck”, of course.
Popular answer! Favorite movie?
This is quite embarrassing, but I love the movie, Lonesome Dove.
Chinese take-out, and a soft-serve ice-cream cone with rainbow sprinkles.