Today’s New APPS interview is with Rebecca Kukla, Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Fellow at the Kennedy School of Ethics at Georgetown University.
Thanks for doing this interview with us, Rebecca. You’ve written a well-known book, ‘Yo’ and ‘Lo!’: The Pragmatic Topography of the Space of Reasons (Harvard, 2009), with our own Mark Lance. Tell us a little about your collaborations.
I find collaborative writing and all forms of philosophical interaction extremely pleasurable. When I collaborate and it goes well (as it certainly did for the book), I definitely feel like the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In the midst of collaboration, I can think in ways I simply couldn’t on my own; it is very exciting. I find solitary writing excruciatingly painful and a huge test of my will power, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it. There is nothing that makes me feel as fulfilled as writing. I’ve never bought into this idea that it’s somehow obvious that pain is bad, even subjectively. I’m totally down with pain.
To adapt the old line about politics, you may not be interested in pain, but it’s interested in you! Tell us something of your daily practice if you would.
As a single mom with various complicated family commitments, I always have to struggle to be really efficient with my work time. So my ‘daily practice’ is more or less to fit in philosophy whenever I can possibly find the time and am not too exhausted. I work very early in the morning, very late at night, and at any time I can find in between. There are always massive quantities of caffeine involved, and very little sleep.
But you’re not a hermit.
Not at all! I also have always made it a real priority to have an active social life. I hang out with friends several nights a week, spend lots of my day talking with people both online and in person, etc. There is literally nothing in this world that I enjoy more than having passionate, serious philosophical discussions with friends, liberally lubricated with food and alcohol. My very best friends in the world are philosophers who argue hard and who, like me, are not the best at letting a point drop. So my social life is exhausting but truly productive!
How did you come to study philosophy?
Both my childhood and my childhood relationship to philosophy were nonstandard. My father is a professional philosopher of science - André Kukla. He is also a quirky guy - an unreconstructed hippie nomadic draft dodger who survived WWII in a basement in Belgium and whose family was pretty much wiped out by the Holocaust. He had next to no parenting of any kind, and sort of had to make up how to be a father as he went along. His main way of interacting with my sibling and me when we were kids was through doing philosophy and math with us, both formally and informally.
At night we would call out ‘rap!,’ which was, for some reason, household code for a request for my dad to explain some classic philosophical or mathematical argument to us before bedtime. This was how I learned about the old and new riddles of induction, Cantor’s diagonal proof, and so forth. We had a special bell sound we would make when one of us noticed a potential infinite regress. In December of 1999, my dad emailed me to invite me to come spend New Year’s Eve with him, watching the emeralds turn bleen.
I also spent a lot of my very early childhood drawing and reading in the back of the classroom as my dad lectured, and when I was nine or so he started paying me $20 a batch to grade his multiple choice/short answer exams. (I got in trouble, though, for putting happy faces and bunnies on the exams of the students who did well.) So I grew up pretty much drenched in philosophy.
Indeed. Most of the interviewees get turned on in undergraduate courses, though a few find their way to philosophy in high school. I think you’re the first person I’ve interviewed who had a parent who was a professional philosopher. What else would you say was nonstandard?
My parents explained to me when I was six - when I came home from school asking if it was true that I was Jewish and what that word meant - that being Jewish meant being a Marxist and an atheist. It took me about 15 more years to figure out that others defined the term differently.
That’s putting it mildly.
When my brother came out as transgendered and announced he was going to rabbinical school, my dad told me that he really didn’t see what concern it was of his who his kid wanted to sleep with or what he wanted his body to look like, but the whole organized religion thing was really freaking him out.
You have to have some limits, after all!
My mother bounced from career to career and eventually settled on being a yoga guru who wears a bindi and has disciples (despite being a Jew from Newark), so she hardly added normalcy to the whole Kukla family operation.
How about the towns you lived in?
I was a completely itinerant child, based in Toronto and in Volcano, Hawai’i but never living at one address for more than eight months. I became exhausted by the whole thing by the time I was 14, and when my parents left for a trip to Bali of unspecified length that year, I stayed in Toronto and got my own apartment, supporting myself with a job at the local independent movie theater and occasional waitressing jobs (‘occasional’ because I was the worst waitress on earth and always got fired promptly).
Luckily there are lots and lots of restaurants in Toronto!
Yes indeed, although there are several I am still embarrassed to enter when I go back to visit! Anyhow, I basically devoted myself to rebelling against my inevitable philosophical destiny - I finished high school very early and spent a couple of years trying to be a professional ballet dancer, then went to the University of Toronto and became a math major.
But your destiny won out in the end.
Yes! I gave up on math because the required classes were all at 8:00 am, but stumbled into Jim Brown’s Philosophy of Math class (and into baby logic that same term) and that’s it, I was hooked. The exact moment at which I knew with certainty that I would be a professional philosopher is very clear in my mind: Jim Brown invited me to a day-long symposium on philosophy of math, at which Hartry Field and Penelope Maddy (among others) were talking. I was 17 or maybe just turned 18, and I just sat there swimming in the completely definite new knowledge that this was going to be my career, Electra complex be damned.
Poor Sigmund: usually invoked in just that tone!
I should mention: My 10-year-old has a philosopher-mother, a philosopher-father, a philosopher-grandfather, and a rabbi-uncle; it will be interesting to see how being uber-drenched in philosophy as a child shapes him!
Maybe he’ll be the one who ends up as a mathematician! Anyway, so you’re at U of T and now you know you’re going to be a philosopher.
Yeah, I think Eli is not going to be a mathematician. Right now he is pretty committed to being a film maker or an urban geographer. Anyhow, the University of Toronto had over 50,000 students when I went there. People loved to complain about how ‘big and anonymous’ it was. But I couldn’t have asked for a better undergraduate philosophy education. There were so many philosophy classes offered each year that the department published an annual book listing them.
Sort of like the Yellow Pages!
Yes, very pre-Internet! I knew all the other majors who were serious about philosophy, and they formed my primary social community. I got a HUGE amount of attention and support from my professors, as did all of us in that group. They made sure I was invited to talks, dinners, workshops, etc.; they took an interest in my work, helped me ‘professionalize’ myself, helped me get papers ready for publication, advised me in detail about grad schools, and so forth. I am forever indebted to that department.
You were at Pitt in something of a Golden Age for the program, right?
I was so lucky to go to the University of Pittsburgh when I did (1990-96); it was a very special and exciting time to be there. One semester, in the middle of my coursework (in 1992 I think?), Bob Brandom was offering a seminar in which the whole point was to work through the penultimate draft of Making it Explicit, and at the same time John McDowell was offering an equivalent seminar on the penultimate draft of Mind and World. They went to one another’s seminars, and the room was packed, and we got to watch and participate as they hashed out those two books with one another. Totally exciting.
Who did you work with most closely at Pitt?
Tragically, the two people at Pittsburgh who had the most direct philosophical influence on me both passed away recently, both earlier than they should have: John Haugeland, who was my dissertation director, and Iris Young, from whom I learned feminist philosophy and through whom I became interested in the social constitution of personal identity, which has been a career-long interest of mine.
I reference “Throwing Like a Girl” as often as I can. You also do bioethics in addition to your philosophy of language and other work. How did you get into bioethics? You have a gender angle there too, don’t you?
Yes, well I was always interested in understanding how our social identities were material and embodied, and you can’t think about that well without thinking about gender. Although gender is only one dimension of embodied social identity, feminist philosophy offers particularly rich and well-developed tools for thinking about that kind of issue.
My interests in bioethics and philosophy of medicine didn’t emerge until several years after grad school (and they were in addition to, not as a replacement for, my earlier interests in social epistemology, philosophy of language, and eighteenth century philosophy). My interest in embodied social identities became exceptionally personal when I was pregnant, and found myself absolutely fascinated by the material culture of pregnancy and prenatal care, and also with the science of reproduction - what ideologies are built into its methodology, how its results are disseminated and communicated, and so forth. So yes, my interest in gender was relevant to my interests in bioethics and medicine from the start. In 2003-2005 I did an interdisciplinary postdoc in bioethics and health policy at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and this gave me a whole other roster of mentors and collaborators. It also brought me into close working contact with biomedical researchers and public health folks, which I believe has enriched my work greatly.
Then there’s your wine knowledge.
Yes, for whatever perverse reason, in 2007 I finished the Sommelier program at Algonquin College in Ottawa, so I have that odd little bit of educational background too.
I can’t imagine you’re too impressed by the cash bar at the Eastern APA then.
I no longer go to the smokers, for all sorts of reasons. I can find the people I want to see by texting them. But no, there is never anything remotely worth drinking at those events.
What was your early professional life like?
It’s a little embarrassing how many places I’ve taught - I’ll skip talking about most of them.
I started out first teaching at Middlebury College, which was completely unlike anything I had experienced as an urban second-generation-hippie rebel who had lived off of free two-day-old donuts for extended stretches of time. I absolutely loved my students and colleagues at Middlebury. It was such a treat having well-prepared, happy students and enjoying the pleasures of a tight little residential academic community. The teaching load was very humane, and the research expectations just high enough to keep everyone pushed and stimulated.
Sounds great. But I sense a “but” coming on …
But I believe I would have gone bat shit crazy in short order if I had stayed at a school and in a town that small and remote and homogeneous for a long time. (Can I say bat shit crazy in this interview?)
You just did!
From there it was a long, complicated path, including all sort of dramatic plot turns involving romances, betrayals, tragic illnesses, and much more, that brought me to where I am now. ‘Nuf said! I’ll just add that I am totally happy and all tenured and promoted up at Georgetown and finally done with bouncing around!
Insert obligatory Tolstoy reference here! One of the real mistakes that people make about Deleuze is thinking “nomadism” has to do with moving in physical space. Very often you’re a better nomad staying in one place! Let’s move on. What were your first publications? Is there one that stands out as your breakout piece? How did your early research relate to your dissertation?
I put my dissertation in a folder with a skull and crossbones on it the day after I defended, and never looked at it again. You won’t get me to talk about it!
I promise I won’t look it up on microfilm (showing my age with that!) Did you have something you’d consider a breakout piece?
I don’t know yet what my breakout piece will be! My first publication ever was a tiny piece I co-authored with my dad when I was 18, which came out in Analysis. Adorable, right?
I guess it’s not Tolstoy this time, but an apple and tree allusion we need?
My first publication on my own was a paper called “Cognitive Models and Representation”, published in British Journal for Philosophy of Science, which I wrote when I was an undergraduate and used as my dossier paper for grad school applications. I don’t believe a word of it.
You’ve got to get Eric Winsberg back to work on that time machine thing of his!
Unfortunately, as I understand it, we can travel to the past in Eric’s time machine, but we can’t change that past no matter what. So I am stuck having said false things in print. I am pretty sure that when Nietzsche wrote about the eternal recurrence he was actually talking about fretting over one’s early publications!
This is something I ask everyone. The relation of continental and analytic philosophy has been fraught with tension for many years. How do you negotiate this conflict?
I used to identify, back in grad school and early in my career, as someone invested in “bridging the analytic/continental divide”, but I have increasingly come to think that that project, as such, is pernicious; it fetishizes and moralizes the divide and its interest and importance, and falsely represents it as an exhaustive cut.
I’m very sympathetic to that approach.
I think there are all sorts of differences in key texts, rhetorical strategies, and ways of framing questions between continental and analytic philosophy, and also lots of areas of overlap and productive dialogue, and lots of stuff that just doesn’t fit into either camp.
The same could be said of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language, 17th and 18th century philosophy, Oxford-style analytic philosophy and Rutgers-style analytic philosophy, and so on.
And whatever it is that’s done at Pitt and by Pitt grads!
Well yes, although we are not a monolithic group ourselves! Anyways, the differences are real, but that it is a divide is a sociological fact about professional allegiances and identities. Often times, you hear people who are into ‘bridging’ act as if there is something wrong with people who don’t pull from both sides of the ‘divide’. Think how odd this, and how reifying of the importance of the distinction! We don’t insist that everyone who writes on philosophy of mind or philosophy of language ‘bridge the divide between them’ in their work, nor that everyone who works on either French or German philosophy bridge the divide between them, or whatever.
Okay, I see where you’re coming from here.
But at the same time, anyone who dismisses a whole part of philosophy out of hand, refusing to see how it might be worthwhile or relevant to her own work, is a professional bigot and her work probably suffers as a result. If you work on philosophy of mind and you think that anyone who sounds like a philosopher of language is automatically dumb and has nothing to teach you, then you’re a bad philosopher, both professionally and intellectually. But if you happen not to use any philosophy of language in your work, that’s fine. I’d like the continental/analytic ‘divide’ to become the same way.
I think there’s absolutely no reason why everyone should play with both, and nothing morally or politically righteous about doing so (even though my own work does this routinely). Neither continental philosophers nor analytic philosophers are a politically oppressed or disadvantaged minority; no one owes it to either ‘side’ to read or use their work as a matter of justice.
Well, there are hiring and citation networks that pretty much keep lots of CP out of mainstream schools and journals, but that’s more professional than moral as you say.
Right. There are lots of complicated professional pressures, many of them less than rational. But that’s just not appropriately compared with political oppression of the sort faced by disadvantaged minorities, and one often sees that rhetoric. At the same time, if you dismiss everyone on one side or the other as useless/dumb/irrelevant/mean, then you’ve got a problem. I hope that eventually, concern with synthesizing continental and analytic philosophy will be something that belongs to a past, transitional generation.
Amen. Let’s look at the institutional side of things. Do you see a role for the APA in helping us today with all the challenges the profession faces?
This is an excellent question and I don’t know the answer. The APA is a complete dysfunctional disaster on just about all levels, at this point, it seems to me and to many others. I’ve just agreed to be on one of four committees devoted to trying to overhaul the organization.
Excellent! What are you going to focus on?
The only firm idea I have about it at the moment is that APA has to get its nose all the way out of the job market. It needs to attract people - and their membership dues and registration fees - by being philosophically and socially exciting, not by being something that we are all forced to go to against our will come job season.
Again, amen to that.
I don’t need to repeat here all the reasons why the whole APA job scene is practically a human rights violation. There are successful models out there that don’t rely on coercing people to attend by monopolizing the route to employment.
Let’s hope so! Many thanks, Rebecca, for this fascinating interview!