Thanks for doing this interview with us, Laurie. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. How do you experience solitary study and writing?
I love solitary writing. Facing a challenge or a problem in my work and then overcoming it—when this actually happens—is one of my favorite intellectual experiences.
What about collaborations?
I have also done collaborative work with Ned Hall on causation. We have a blast, wrangling through ideas and then co-writing chapters in our book. After we talk through the ideas, one of us will write a draft, then the other will rewrite/heavily revise, and then the other will rewrite/heavily revise, and so on, until it’s done.
What about conferences?
As for conferences, I like small, m&e focused ones the best, where I can talk to other metaphysicians and hear about their projects. They always give me great, very pointed feedback on mine. I learn so much from other philosophers.
What is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine?
I am a creature of routine. I like to start writing about half an hour after I get up in the morning, usually after a coffee. For some reason, in the morning, things don’t seem so intractable. Some days, if I’m unlucky, I only get a couple of hours to write. At other times, I get the whole day. It depends on how much else is going on. Travel is disruptive but ultimately productive if I get feedback on my stuff or hear about other metaphysicians’ ideas.
Let me ask another question about daily practice, if I may. In what ways, if any, do you integrate art, science, politics, and other areas of life such as cooking, or listening to music, or physical / spiritual exercise – what have you – into your philosophy?
Actually, I keep those things quite separate from philosophy. I like it that way.
How did you come to study philosophy? Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
I was bookish, and moved around a lot. Mostly I grew up in extremely boring suburbs in Chicago without much to do but read books. I’ve always hated TV, even when I was a kid.
How about your school days?
I went to Antioch College, after a brief stint at Illinois Benedictine College (IBC). IBC wasn’t for me and I fit in better at Antioch, where I could pretty much do whatever I wanted. I majored in Chemistry and Biology, with an emphasis on the theoretical side. I loved organic chemistry and physical chemistry. Organic was all about puzzle solving, and once you got a sort of feel for how molecules combined to generate other molecules, there was hardly any memorization involved. Discovering the mechanism depended on having the right intuitive feel for the way the molecules would interact.
Did you study any philosophy at all as an undergrad?
Not really. I enrolled in a political philosophy class at IBC and dropped out when it became clear that I wasn’t going to do very well. Antioch didn’t really have a philosophy department when I was there. It was more like a religious studies department, with a focus on Buddhism and related philosophy. To be honest, I thought the philosophy classes seemed too easy, so I stuck with the science, because it was more rewarding. As a result, I never took a philosophy class as an undergraduate apart from the one I never finished.
How then did you decide to do philosophy?
It was strange: I had always been strongly attracted to philosophy, even though I knew very little about it, and received no encouragement at all from any of my undergraduate professors (in fact, when I switched tracks, some of my science professors were quite angry with me). The clincher was when I visited Harvard to interview for medical school. About half way through my visit, I went to a café close to Harvard Square for a coffee. As I looked out the window, I realized that I wanted to be part of the sort of intellectual community that I sensed was at Harvard—but I wanted to be a part of it as a philosopher, not as an MD. So I went back home and withdrew all my medical school applications.
Once you decided you wanted to do philosophy, how did you prepare yourself for graduate school, having never taken any classes in it?
To get into a PhD program in philosophy after college, I had to do some philosophy. So I enrolled in Antioch’s independent-study MA program, which had no formal classes: you designed your own program. First, I went to India and studied Buddhist philosophy at a monastery.
Wow. How did you like that experience?
It wasn’t for me—many of my questions to the teachers, especially those about the reality of the external world, were met with stonewalling answers like “you must just have faith in the teachings.”
What next? How did you come to study Western philosophy?
I came back from India intending to take a different sort of approach. Quentin Smith, who was visiting Antioch at the time, agreed to supervise me, and I worked on a paper for him on the philosophy of time. I then wrote to a number of well-known philosophers, asking each of them if they would supervise a course-by-mail, consisting of my writing letters to them about their work, getting responses from them, and ultimately providing comments on a paper I wrote. Nancy Cartwright, Lynne Rudder Baker and Nathan Oaklander agreed to do this for me. They were all extremely generous with their time, and I owe all three of them, along with Quentin, an enormous debt.
Fascinating! I’ve never really heard of an approach like that. You’re right, those people were very generous to take on a project like that. So the paper you wrote was a success, then?
The paper on the philosophy of time got me into Princeton, and into pretty much everywhere else I applied. I arrived in the fall of 1993, never having heard of David Lewis or most of the other philosophers in the department.
And when you got to Princeton?
David Lewis was my supervisor, and he was the single most important influence on me. He was the best of all possible teachers and mentors.
I’m trying very hard not to make some lame Leibniz / possible worlds joke, but you’re not making it very easy! How about your time at Princeton then?
After a couple of years of acclimatization, I settled in and began to work on my dissertation. I was thinking of doing something on indeterminacy and Quine, but I was also sitting in on a seminar of David Lewis’s on causation. Jonathan Schaffer and Cian Dorr were in the same seminar, and Jonathan and I spent hours arguing about the nature of causation, especially about how to understand preemption. As a first year student, I had met Ned Hall just before he graduated from Princeton, and we stayed in touch, discussing all the issues about causation coming up in the Princeton seminar and in his seminars at MIT. It was a live issue at the time: David was revisiting and revising his views, and there was a lot of activity on the topic. So I began to work in that area.
What was the outcome of that seminar on causation?
For the Princeton seminar, I wrote a paper on causal preemption and developed a new way to think about causal dependence and a corresponding counterfactual semantics, and David liked it enough to use it in the development of his new view of causal influence.
That must have been very gratifying.
It was a great working group to be part of, with a lot of productive, multilateral exchange between David, Ned Hall, Jonathan Schaffer, John Collins, and me. I think everyone involved saw it that way, including David. After writing the paper on preemption, I decided to write a paper extending the view to address issues about transitivity. Shortly after that, David told me that I basically had enough for a dissertation already – and so to quit other dissertation projects and just get my PhD already. To be honest, looking back, I think I could have used another year in graduate school, but if David Lewis said I was done, who was I to quibble?
Yeah, I’d have to say it would be hard to resist that kind of advice from someone like that! So what did you do next?
At about that time, Ned and I decided to write a book on causation based on the discussion we’d been having. We’ve continued talking and wrangling about causation since grad school, and we’ve finally finished the book that captures much of this discussion. It’s coming out with OUP next year as Causation: a user’s guide.
What was your early professional life like?
My first job was at Yale. It was fantastic. The undergraduates were absolutely the best I have ever taught. I was asked to co-teach a modern history of philosophy course with Bob Adams, Michael Della Rocca, Allen Wood and Keith DeRose. It was amazing: I learned more history in that semester than in six years of grad school.
Ah, yes, History of Modern Philosophy is the boot camp for both philosophy students AND professors! To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, it concentrates the mind wonderfully to know you have to get up in front of some smart students and start talking!
My colleagues were kind to me: they assigned me the Hume and the Mill portions of the class lectures. The connection to Hume via the metaphysics of causation is obvious enough, but I’d also written about Mill’s views on how we understand poetry and other aesthetic experience. The historical perspective of many of my colleagues made them receptive to some of my weird ideas about fundamental metaphysics (which resulted in a paper, “Logical Parts,” which came out in Nous in 2002, and is reflected in my current work on a one-category ontology).
That’s the ideal, to have a teaching and research synergy like that. What other early publications stand out in your mind?
My first publication was in grad school. It was a descendant of the philosophy of time piece I’d used as my writing sample in my application. I guess my breakout piece was a chapter from my dissertation, “Aspect Causation,” that came out in the Journal of Philosophy in 2000.
How about the professional side of your early career? Did you feel supported? Early career experiences can be very alienating, but from what you’ve said about the team-taught HMP class it seems you avoided that.
After two years at Yale, I moved to Arizona, but also spent three years at the ANU (moving back and forth). At every single one of these places, my colleagues were wonderful and supportive. At Yale, the department had been rebuilt, and everyone was excited to be part of the new faculty. I feel very lucky, actually: I’ve spent my entire time as a faculty member in very collegial, supportive and friendly environments.
What about tenure?
Tenure wasn’t stressful at all for me. I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t get it—instead, I viewed it as a chance to have my work read by some of the best metaphysicians in the world. I only wish I’d been able to read their critical comments about my projects in my tenure letters, since I think their thoughts about my ideas would have given me invaluable feedback. But that’s not the way the tenure process works, of course.
I think that’s a near-universal feeling, to want to read your tenure / promotion letters! I can’t tell you the elaborate James Bondish plans I’ve made to sneak in late at night to the department office, find just the right file drawer, use my junior spy camera … But let’s move on. Something I’m asking everyone, sort of a poll if you will, is about the so-called continental-analytic split. How do you negotiate this conflict? Are there signs of a rapprochement? What suggestions do you have to overcome this division in the profession?
I have no idea. That said, I think phenomenology is fascinating whether it’s done by Husserl or by contemporary philosophers of mind. I’d like to see more connections made between psychology, phenomenology and contemporary metaphysics. I’m very interested in the nature of experience and in the metaphysics underlying that experience, but in a post-Kantian (as in “non-Kantian”) way.
Yes, that’s been my experience, that the use of phenomenology in the enactive or embodied mind school of cog sci has been an important bridge-building chance. Be that as it may, philosophy and other humanities are under increasing pressure to justify their existence in universities on short-term economic criteria, sometimes in number of majors or tuition income, sometimes in terms of outside grants. How is this pressure manifest at your university? How do you respond to it, practically and theoretically?
There isn’t much of this sort of pressure at UNC, or at least, I don’t feel it. UNC is a great university and they realize that it is important to let people develop their ideas without pressure to “apply” them in some economic sense. That said, I do think that one way to help philosophy is to make it more attractive to undergraduate women. If more women were made to feel at home in philosophy, philosophy departments would have more majors, and get better university support. I think some departments have failed to see how these two issues might be connected.
Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
I have a bunch of different views, but one central idea is that there are no primitive, fundamental, non-qualitative individuals. The fundamental entities of the world are purely qualitative, something like Aristotle’s qualitative forms. These fundamental entities are the building blocks of the world, cemented together by composition relations.
Well, I love Aristotle, so I’m really looking forward to reading some of your work along those lines! Let’s move to a conclusion here. What would you say is the most rewarding experience of your professional life?
I love it all, except for grading undergraduate essays.
You wouldn’t have to say “can I get a witness” more than once with that! Finally, what are you looking forward to doing next? What are your short and long-term projects?
Apart from the project on a one-category ontology, I’ve been working on a number of issues concerning temporal experience and the ontology of phenomenal feel more generally. I’m very interested in the deep-level ontological structure of experience, and I have some papers recently out—with some more in the works—on this topic.