Today’s New APPS Interview is with Kris McDaniel, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Syracuse University.
Thanks very much for doing this interview with us today, Kris. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you?
I love philosophy and I recognize that I am extremely lucky that I have a job that lets me do it. I have the usual work-related anxieties that I suspect a lot of us have, especially ones relating to writing. When working on something I worry that it isn’t very good but that someone will beat me to it.
I’ve never heard of such a thing. But let’s push on: what about the rhythm of your writing?
I tend to write in bursts. When I find myself with something to write about, the bulk of the paper is generated in an initial flurry, followed by months of tedious rewriting. Once a decent draft comes into being, I pester people for comments. Eventually something gets sent off to a journal. And then I wait for the next burst, always with a bit of anxiety that the most recent burst is the last.
Well, so far there’s always been a next time. Let’s hope that continues! What about co-writing?
My first professional presentation (at the pacific APA) was co-written, and I’ve published two papers that were written with my colleague Ben Bradley. I enjoyed the co-writing process and experienced less of the usual writing-related anxieties as well.
What is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine?
A long time ago, I had a routine. Now I have a hyperactive dog and an eleven-month daughter; I’ve been (and still am) her primary caregiver for the last 9 months while my wife finishes her postdoc at Geisinger Medical Center. This semester I have research leave, and my wife and I will switch roles for a bit. So I’ll need to figure out a new routine then.
What about the relation of reading and writing?
I try to maintain a regular reading schedule, and I usually type notes on what I read. This helps me maintain practice as a writer even during ‘dry spells’. And I try to read broadly as well, rather than only in the areas in which I am ‘actively researching.’
What about time of day?
I prefer to work in the mornings and in the evenings because this is when I feel most calm and awake; I get twitchy around noon and sleepy around four.
I like listening to music while reading, but nothing with words in a language I understand. I usually listen to Liszt, Bach, or Satie, or whatever my colleague Andre Gallois suggests.
I don’t drink caffeine. I have bouts of bad insomnia, so I stay away from the stuff. I almost never drink alcohol for the same reason.
And you call yourself a philosopher! OK, so no caffeine and not much alcohol. What about other areas of life such as cooking, or physical / spiritual exercise?
I bake transcendentally ideal cookies, but they are empirically really fattening. I think about philosophy while walking my dog. One of my favorite things to do at conferences is jog with fellow philosophers and talk philosophy as we jog.
I used to love that too. Age and torn cartilage has made that pretty hard to do anymore. What else from extra-philosophical sources informs your work?
For better or for worse, the direction of influence for me is that philosophy impacts my life in various ways, but not much of what happens in my life impacts my philosophical work. One exception to this is my becoming a father. I’ve been thinking more about gender (I have a daughter), familial bonds and special duties, and I’ve become interested in the ways in which parental love differs from other forms of love. I haven’t written anything on these topics, and it is unlikely that I will, but they are certainly on my mind more.
If I recall correctly, agape in the “eros, philia, agape” series is based on parental love. So there’s something for metaphysics to ponder I think, selfless love.
I’m curious if anyone’s metaphysics has changed as a result of becoming a parent.
There’s been a lot of work in feminism on rethinking individuality or embodied identity and difference, if you will, through the experience of pregnancy and childbirth. My wife teaches Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born in this regard.
I’ll have to check that out!
Another form of embodiment is certainly musicality! Catarina did a fun series of interviews with your group, The 21st Century Monads. (Here’s a link to their page: http://people.umass.edu/phil511/monads/.) Anything you want to add to that here?
I also like to write music about philosophy. (This is another example of philosophy impacting my life asymmetrically; I haven’t written any philosophy about music.) For those who might be interested, the 21CM are a three-person group consisting of me, Ben Bradley, and Carrie Jenkins. (We really enjoyed the interviews you link to, and want to thank Catarina and NewApps again for conducting them.) We cover all sorts of topics and historical figures, as well as problems within the profession in general.
What’s the future for the 21CM?
I had a bit of a bad break at the start of the year (actually, multiple ones – broken right elbow and forearm, and hairline fracture on the left elbow), which I am still recovering from. So we won’t be releasing any new music for 2011, but we’ll probably have some new tunes to release in 2012. So stay tuned!
Let’s shift gears a little. How do you integrate teaching and research?
I usually don’t integrate the two. I like to teach on things that are not directly related to whatever it is I am currently researching on. Sometimes down the road that leads to research, but it usually doesn’t. Maybe it would be less work if the two were more closely integrated, but I also might get burnt out on whatever topic I’m teaching and working on. I’m not sure.
How did you come to study philosophy? Did you have any exposure to it in high school?
I don’t think I knew what philosophy was in high school. I kind of think that bits of Plato’s Republic were assigned in some class I took, but that’s about it. I really liked Isaac Asimov. I was more of a music and theatre person. I played in bands and performed in plays and musicals.
What about college?
I became a philosophy major (at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, Washington) after taking Hud Hudson’s introduction to ethics class my sophomore year. It blew my mind!
I think that has to happen for everyone. Without that thrill of developing a new way to think, who would bother with philosophy?
That is definitely true. I know that I became pretty obsessed. For the next two years, most of the classes I took were in philosophy, which meant that I spent the last year of college taking a lot of general education classes with freshmen. I also spent a lot of time in the library reading outside of class. I remember trying to read David Lewis’s On the Plurality of Worlds the summer of my sophomore year and feeling a bit down about how little of it I understood. That book and Peter van Inwagen’s Material Beings were my first real introductions to contemporary metaphysics. I had an easier time with van Inwagen’s book; except for a few parts in the introduction and the last chapter on vagueness, I felt like I understood most of what was going on.
Yeah, you can only get hooked on something that’s over your head, but not too much!
The philosophy department at Western was like a second family; the professors there were very involved in the intellectual development of their students, and a lot of the students formed close intellectual and emotional bonds. I found the environment to be both nurturing and philosophically intense.
A nurturing yet intense environment. Ideal, but not easy to pull off. Credit must go to the professors there.
An indication of the kind of education I received at Western: a friend of mine and I co-wrote a paper that was accepted for presentation at the Pacific APA during my senior year; and in my senior year, I wrote the first drafts of a paper that was published the next year in Phil. Studies.
That is something to be proud about!
In a lot of ways, majoring in philosophy at Western was like attending a good graduate school. I got really lucky. And I feel a lot of gratitude towards Hud Hudson, Frances Howard-Snyder, Andrew Cortens, Tom Downing, Ned Markosian, Neil Feit, and Phil Montague.
What about graduate school?
I had similarly good experiences at UMass-Amherst, where I did my Ph.D. under Phil Bricker. I made lifelong friends there, and I am still in regular contact with most of them. And I met my wife my first semester at UMass. So again I feel that I really lucked out. UMass was a really good place to do both metaphysics: Phil Bricker, Lynne Baker, Jonathan Schaffer, and Angelika Kratzer were on my dissertation committee, but I also learned a lot from classes and conversations with Bruce Aune, Fred Feldman, Ed Gettier, and Gary Matthews.
So it was another positive experience. You’re leading a charmed life!
Things worked out a lot better for me than I had any right to expect them to, and I am very cognizant of that.
You’re a specialist in metaphysics, but you have other philosophical interests than just the latest round of articles, including some continental traditions.
I am interested in the ‘early phenomenological tradition’, which includes Brentano, Husserl, Twardowski, Meinong, Stein, pre-1930s Heidegger, as well as Kantian and post-Kantian German idealism, both of which a lot of contemporary continental philosophy seems to draw from.
Indeed, that’s certainly one of the main streams of thought.
I’m also interested in post-Kantian British idealism, which, and correct me if I’m wrong, seems to have been less influential on contemporary continental thought?
Yes, I’d have to say I’ve never read FH Bradley et al., though of course I should if I wanted to know what exercised Russell and Moore so much!
There’s a lot of cool stuff in Bradley’s Appearance and Reality. One semester, I taught a grad class – I think titled Early 20th Century Philosophy – in which we read bits of Brentano, Meinong, Husserl, Bradley, McTaggart, Frege, Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. It was intense.
Yes, reconstructing the “parting of the ways” is very important. I know my friend Jon Cogburn has a lot of respect for Michael Friedman’s book on Carnap, Cassirer and Heidegger.
I like that book too. I’m always happy to learn more about the figures and historical periods that interest me, and this includes the impact that they’ve had on contemporary thought. For example, does my colleague Fred Beiser count as a continental philosopher? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. What matters to me is that I get a lot out of talking with him about, e.g., Lotze.
I’m pretty liberal about labels; if someone says “I’m a continental philosopher,” that’s good enough for me. Of course, that liberality just kicks the can down the road and sets up a whole series of questions about distinctions within the group of “continental philosophers.”
I guess I’m happy to be liberal with labels too. I self-label as an ‘analytic metaphysician’ in contexts in which it seems like that label communicates something useful about what I am working on. But a lot of times the labels aren’t useful. Simon Glendinning has a good book on why it’s at best unhelpful to lump all the people typically called ‘continental philosophers’ under that label.
I’m a splitter not a lumper myself. I co-edited a book with Paul Patton called Between Deleuze and Derrida and I was a splitter even there.
Whether living or dead, who I seek out as philosophical interlocutors are people who are insightful and make honest attempts at communicating their insights, and who primarily care about getting things right rather than acquiring status or scoring points.
Yeah, there’s something just plain demeaning about using philosophy in that way. Socrates didn’t die for our sins for us to do that to our calling.
Anyway, enough unpleasantness. Let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. Where are you now? Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
Over the past 10 years, I’ve focused mainly on puzzles and arguments in metaphysics involving the structure and persistence of material objects, the nature of properties, and the ontology of possibility and necessity. I haven’t developed a single core idea on any of them; rather I tend to revisit the puzzles from different angles, and then try out different strategies for resolving them. I hope my work is creative in a good way.
What are you looking forward to doing next? What are your short and long-term projects?
I have two book projects I am looking forward to working on. Fortunately, I have a research semester that is just beginning. One project is writing an introduction to metaphysics.
Will you have a historical dimension here, or is it a contemporary survey?
The introductory book will be primarily a contemporary survey, designed to be accessible to as wide of an audience as possible while still covering ‘core’ topics in contemporary metaphysics. We’ll see how well I succeed when it’s done, I guess.
What about the other book?
The other project is a ‘more scholarly’ book on being, which will address very ancient questions such as: are there different ways to exist? What are these different ways? Do some things exist more than others? This book will contain discussion of some important historical figures – that would in fact be hard to avoid given the topic – but the primary goal is to defend a set of metaphysical views rather than a provide a definitive interpretation of these historical figures.
Yeah, the whole univocity vs analogy of being line of thought is right at the heart of the history of metaphysics. This could be a very interesting way to bring continental and analytic work together I think; certainly anyone versed in Heidegger and Deleuze is going to be able to relate to this question.
I have a number of published (one of which discusses Heidegger in some detail) and unpublished papers on these topics, and it is time to bring them into a unified whole; so it is somewhat ironic that the tentative titled for that unified whole is the Fragmentation of Being. (Which sounds a bit like the name of a heavy metal album, now that I think about it.)
Now I know you’re going to inspire a series of Jon Cogburn posts with that last line!
Thanks again, Kris, for doing this interview with us.
Thanks for inviting me. It was fun.