Thanks for doing this interview with us today, Jason. Can you tell us a little about how you came to study philosophy?
I grew up in Syracuse, New York. My father was a sociology professor at Syracuse University. He had started out a PhD program in philosophy, but left when he was told that the questions he asked were never interesting (he subsequently unfailingly described academic philosophy as “that discipline in which the interesting questions are not considered interesting”).
Well, I can’t say I completely disagree! In any case, what did your father teach?
He taught the theory courses in the Sociology Department at Syracuse – Durkheim and Weber, of course, but also Aristotle and Hegel. He was an implacable foe of analytic philosophy and economics. Naturally, my brother became an economist and I went into analytic philosophy.
I grew up in the kind of household in which it was impossible not to know that philosophy existed. My father read Rousseau’s Confessions to my brother and me when I was quite young. He also read many of Plato’s dialogues to us when we were young. As I discovered later, he was constantly quoting the Nicomachean Ethics without what I would today describe as appropriate attribution. Much of my reading as a youth was Frankfurt School – Origins of Totalitarianism, that sort of thing.
What happened when you went to school?
I was an undistinguished and uninterested student in school. However, I was intellectually engaged by friends and family. There were groups of bright kids with whom to interact, which made up for the poor Syracuse city public schools.
Did these kids become academics too?
Many of them did, yes. My best friend from youth is now a topologist at Franklin and Marshall, and we enjoyed discussing math together. My brother and almost all of his friends went into philosophy or the social sciences. My brother majored in Philosophy at Amherst before going into Economics. All three of his closest friends – Peter Levine, Christopher Kutz, and Christopher Sturr - ended up with PhDs in Philosophy. Chris Sturr wrote an impressive dissertation on Ideology Critique under Allen Wood at Cornell, and I was fortunate enough to be on his committee. The topics they chose to work on within philosophy seem to me to reflect the general focus on coming to some sort of theoretical understanding of the tragic events of the 20th century. This was a pervasive obsession of many people coming of age around that time.
I’m not going to say I’m obsessed with the horrors of the 20th century, but it does leave an impression… In any case, you came to leave home early.
Yes, I left Syracuse when I was 15, when I won a Congressional exchange scholarship to Germany. I spent a year in High School in Lünen, a working-class town much like Syracuse, right outside of Dortmund. I came back an anarchist and a punk, with a penchant for quoting Bakunin.
I need to do a course on the anarchists some day! Okay, so you’re back from Germany. What about undergraduate days?
I went to three universities in four years. I started out at SUNY Binghamton. Things clicked for me when I took Jack Kaminsky’s upper-level Philosophy of Language class in my second semester there. It changed my life. I resolved to become a philosopher.
What did you think that entailed at the time?
I still thought of Kant and Hegel as the core of philosophy. So I transferred to Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen. I started studying at Tübingen at the age of 17. I supported myself with odd jobs, including cleaning the bottoms of public buses from 8 am until noon three days a week.
And I thought cutting grass on a landscaper’s crew was tough! We could start a Wiki on “crappy jobs philosophers have had as students.”
I would finish up there, and then go to Klaus Hartmann’s seminars on Hegel and Rudiger Bubner’s lectures on Kant. Fortunately for me, Gianfranco Soldati was at Tübingen at the time. I took three seminars with him, on Frege, Husserl, and the early Wittgenstein. I was particularly affected by Tugendhat’s Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die sprachanalytische Philosophie. Dummett’s Ursprunge der Analytische Philosophie had just come out in Germany, and that provided sort of a template for me for my future studies – it forged a bridge between the German Brentano tradition and the analytic philosophy I so enjoyed.
I can see something like a trajectory forming. Easy in hindsight I guess.
I also sat in on some of Manfred Frank’s lectures. There was a lot of discussion of self-consciousness both in 19th century German Philosophy, and in 20th Century Anglo-American Philosophy. I read Evans’s Varieties of Reference with great fervor, and found it considerably clearer than Schelling. I realized I needed to do a whole set of classes I probably couldn’t find in a German University. So I decided to go back to University in the United States. By that time I knew what I needed to learn – a whole lot of logic, and continue my education in the history of analytic philosophy. I was limited by my financial situation to the State University of New York, so I transferred back to SUNY Stony Brook in 1988.
OK, tell us about Stony Brook then, please.
At Stony Brook, I had the immense good fortune on my first day to run into the newest junior faculty member, Peter Ludlow, in the hallway of the philosophy department. In my first semester there, we did a reading group together on Evans’s Varieties of Reference. I did four semesters of logic, and two independent studies, with Gary Marr. Ludlow also sent me over to the Linguistics Department, to obtain a solid background in Linguistics. Richard Larson had just arrived from MIT, and was chafing to subject students to MIT-style discipline in semantics. I had him almost all to myself. I absorbed massive quantities of syntax, semantics, and logic, while continuing research on my own into early analytic philosophy.
What about graduate school? How did you end up at MIT?
I applied to graduate school from SUNY Stony Brook. My writing sample was a (poor) attempt to figure out what was going on in sections 29-31 of Frege’s Grundgesetze. At MIT, George Boolos got very excited about the writing sample, which everyone else at the time must have found bizarrely recherché (like a writing sample on Peano, I imagine). I was accepted only at MIT Philosophy and Stony Brook Linguistics, and chose the former.
What was MIT like in those days?
I went to graduate school thinking I wanted to work on Frege’s philosophy of mathematics. I was part of the early analytic community in Cambridge, which included Richard Heck, Ian Proops, Sanford Shieh, and Alva Noë. I worked closely with Boolos and Richard Cartwright on Frege, and attended Burt Dreben’s classes (Burt actually wrote for me when I went on the job market). In the summer after my second year, Heck and I translated much of Frege’s Grundgesetze. Shieh, Heck, and Michael Glanzberg also introduced me to the world of Dummett-groupies, which I enthusiastically embraced.
Who were some of the other students?
The graduate students in my year at MIT included Daniel Stoljar, Kathrin Koslicki, and Josep Macia. Daniel opened up an entirely different outlook on philosophy to me – the Australian view of the world, where David Lewis occupied the role that Dummett had always occupied for me. I have learned a huge amount from him over the years. Kathrin mixed semantics and metaphysics, and Josep was the first of those Barcelona-trained philosophical logicians and philosophers of language that litter the hallways of philosophy departments nowadays. The Harvard grad students who deigned to slum it with us were Tamar Gendler, Michael Glanzberg, Alva Noë, and Ian Proops. Tamar was writing a dissertation on meta-philosophy, intuitions, and thought experiments, at a time when nobody else in the world was thinking about it. I regret to say that we gave her a lot of grief about it at the time.
What else was happening at the time?
I remember sometime that year Boolos coming back from Europe, filled with tales of a Hungarian philosopher who could explain why donkey anaphora was philosophically important. Zoltan Gendler Szabo joined the graduate program the subsequent year. Richard Heck was hired at Harvard, and in his very first Philosophy of Language class he had a political philosophy graduate student who insisted in her term paper that descriptions were predicates. Every time I encountered her we would argue for hours about descriptions. The subsequent year, Delia Graff Fara left Harvard for MIT, which at the time was considered career suicide.
How did you come to specialize in philosophy of language?
The philosophy of language and semantics community at the time in Cambridge was absurdly impressive. Among the faculty, Irene Heim, Bob Stalnaker, and Jim Higginbotham taught regular seminars on semantics and attended reading groups we organized. Tim Williamson, then unknown, came over as a visiting professor midway through to teach a terrific seminar on vagueness. It was difficult to resist working on philosophy of language. So I shifted my research focus from Early Analytic Philosophy to Philosophy of Language, and wrote my dissertation under Bob Stalnaker. There was a lot of attention at that time to the kind of issues about the semantics-pragmatics divide that came to inform my central projects in the philosophy of language. Heim and Stalnaker taught an extraordinary seminar together on anaphora, for example, and of course Stalnaker leans heavily on a certain view of pragmatics to defend his possible-worlds account of semantic content. I also took the opportunity to hone my defenses of Fregean views of content against Stalnaker’s formidable battery of arguments. I have drawn on my graduate school exchanges with Stalnaker my whole career.
You mentioned your background in German philosophy, particularly Brentano and Frege. How do you see your relation to the usual way of talking about analytic and continental philosophy?
There is no distinction between analytic and continental philosophy. But obviously there is a distinction between the average department of comparative literature and the average department of philosophy. As an assistant professor at Cornell I taught a graduate seminar on the Brentano tradition – we started out with Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, continued through Meinong, and ended with Husserl’s Logical Investigations (in particular Book V). I interspersed material in contemporary philosophy of mind to show the contemporary relevance. The work I’ve done on the book I’ve just written, which is on knowledge how, has reminded me again how pointless it is to make distinctions between two supposedly distinct traditions, traditions which just happened to co-occur at the same time about the same topics among the students of the same people. The doctrines people attribute to Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger about skilled action are just the doctrines that Ryle propounded. The enactive mind view is as much Ryle as Merleau-Ponty. Carnap and Heidegger were engaging with and responding to the same intellectual and cultural forces. Russell was trained in philosophy by Hegelian Idealists. And so forth.
I’m very much looking forward to your new book (Know How [Oxford, 2011]), since as you mention, the relation of know-how and know-that is central to many of the most important debates in phenomenology, philosophy of mind, enactive cognitive science, and so on. Can you say a little more about your new book?
The importance of propositional knowledge to intelligent action is the major theme of my work over the last decade. The motivation for my first book involved a thesis about the value of knowledge, namely that it was constitutively connected to practical deliberation (I am still working out the nature of these connections). Starting in 1998, I had been thinking about knowledge how. In 2001, I co-authored a paper with Timothy Williamson arguing that knowing how to do something is a species of propositional knowledge. Since this time I have been working on a book on the topic, which I’ve finally completed. Really, the book is more about knowledge tout court and its objects rather than one of its species, knowledge how. I want to explain what knowledge is, and also what the objects of knowledge are, in such a way to make it clear that intelligent behavior is behavior guided by knowledge of rules (it is here where the Fregean view of content, filtered through the work of Gareth Evans, comes in). The book is in the first instance about knowing how because it is pretty clear that intelligent behavior manifests our knowledge how. So if one can show that knowledge how is a kind of propositional knowledge, then one is well on the way towards showing that intelligent behavior is by its nature behavior that manifests our knowledge of rules.
Well, that thesis is certainly going to start some discussion going among the embodied / enactive mind crowd! Let’s back up a little to see you how got to this point. Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
My major project in the philosophy of language has been to defend a view about the distinctive nature of linguistic communication, how it differs from (say) winks, nods, and kicks under the table. I seek to show, by detailed analysis, that what is intuitively said by an utterance is conventionally constrained by linguistic rules. Basically, I’m arguing that what is distinctive about linguistic communication is that it leaves much less to the imagination than other forms of communication. I’m trying to show that one can allow for the effects of extra-linguistic context on what is intuitively said by an utterance of a sentence, without compromising the sense in which what is intuitively said by a sentence is conventionally determined. The project is intended as an antidote to Wittgensteinian skepticism about the systematic nature of linguistic representation. It is collected together in the papers that make up my book 2007 Language in Context. In moving to Rutgers in 2004, I joined a community of interdisciplinary scholars whose central research focus is the interplay between aspects of communication that are conventionally determined or constrained and aspects of communication that are not. In short, we are a group of faculty and graduate students who are all focused on the degree to which different forms of representation convey information in a manner controlled by conventions.
But it’s not just philosophy of language for you, is it?
Indeed. Though I worked initially a great deal in philosophy of language, and continue to do so, my interests have always been spread across all topics in philosophy – perhaps because I started out as a historian of late 19th and 20th philosophy, a field that concerns so many different areas. I also tend to be problem-driven, rather than field-driven, and most problems cut across fields. My first book, Knowledge and Practical Interests, was in fact squarely in epistemology, arguing for the thesis that epistemic properties and relations have a practical dimension to them. I was helped in thinking through this project by my acquaintance with debates in feminist theory by scholars such as Genevieve Lloyd, who, at least on one reading argue that properties such as rationality are gendered, and hence not “pure” or “objective.” Thinking through this work when working with Chris Sturr at Cornell exposed me to the conceptual options for a thesis of the sort I advanced in this work, that epistemic properties and relations are not “pure” (to use the vocabulary of Jeremy Fantl and Matthew McGrath).
What would you say was the most frustrating aspect of your career so far?
My first project in the philosophy of language was concerned with defending a view that Dummett had about semantic content – that there were many sentence-level semantic contents that were not propositions, the objects of assertion and belief. This project was quite abstract, and basically nobody had any clue whatsoever what I was doing at the time. Only now, given the recent relativism debate of the last decade or so, is it possible for people to look back at those papers and understand what I was doing. Not being understood was a very frustrating experience, and I basically abandoned that project. I haven’t faced that problem since with any of my work.
I suppose that some philosophers are thrilled with the prospect of not being properly understood. I really disliked it. Perhaps this makes me shallow, but of course being shallow is a quite reliable way of achieving contentment.
I suppose it’s obligatory to quote Nietzsche at this point: “superficial out of profundity!” But we should end on a positive note. What’s been your most rewarding experience?
The most rewarding experiences of my professional life come from two sources. First, teaching is immensely rewarding, especially when one has the kind of very gifted graduate and undergraduate students that I have been fortunate to be graced with thus far in my career. Secondly, it’s just very rewarding every time someone informs me that they learned something from reading my work.