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a kill bill philosopher

Gillian Russell interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Gillian Russell is literally a kick-ass philosopher of language and logic. Here she goes all Bride vs Gogo over the sexyness of philosophy of language, about not letting the analytic/synthetic distinction get left behind, about how philosophy could make more progress than it does if it had more textbooks, about why logic is not dry, about tea drinking and shooting New Zealanders, killing bulls with a single blow, about the philosophers who do martial arts, about viciousness, the awesomeness of Kill Bill and Tarantino, about not burning her armchair and why philosophers are basically omniverous. This one’s got swag.

3:AM: What made you decide to become a philosopher? Were you always worrying about logic, truth and language even when little or did something happen?

Gillian Russell: There were a lot of things. Becoming a philosopher – at least becoming a professional philosopher – takes a long time, and so there are a lot of decision points. Among other things, I really liked the fact that philosophy allowed me to combine my interests in science and mathematics with my interests in the humanities. I loved the breadth. And of course, I desperately admired many of my undergraduate philosophy teachers – David Archard, Stephen Read, Peter Clark, Fraser MacBride, Iain Law, Sarah Sawyer.

But here’s something a bit more personal: growing up in the UK I had a Saturday job as a teenager – I used to work in Boots the Chemist – and when I was in university I had a lot of summer jobs. Most of these were just fine, it’s not as if I was sent down a coal mine or anything, but they were incredibly boring. I straightened shelves, I worked tills and switchboards, I served fast food, I organised people and libraries, I did data entry and filing. I liked the people, and I worked hard, but mostly we were all just waiting for the day to end, and it impressed upon me pretty strongly the downsides of working just for the money, if you aren’t really interested in the tasks you are completing. I didn’t really have any objection to working hard, in fact, I was really looking to work hard, but I felt like, unless actively went after something better, there was a lot of boredom in my future. Those experiences meant that I was really on the look out for something that was more stimulating.

And I found philosophy interesting. You know I was reading Caitlin Moran‘s autobiography last year – it’s called How to Be a Woman – and she says that as a teenager she finally figured out what love is when she fell in love with Buck Rogers. She says “I discovered what love is, and found that it’s just feeling very…interested. More interested than I had been about anything before.” If I were to say that I fell in love with philosophy, well, that’s what I would mean. And it was sort of a relief, I think. Because a lot of the alternatives weren’t really holding my attention.

Anyway, once I found something interesting I was prepared to pursue it and hang on. One you start down the path to doing philosophy – as your undergrad degree, or PhD, or even once you’re a professor – there are always going to be lacklustre days, or stressful days. There will be a teacher you don’t like, or a required class you don’t want to take, a committee you don’t want to chair or a paper you’ve lost interest in, and that kind of thing can sap your motivation. But it’s that initial fascination, and the promise of it returning, that gets you though.

3:AM: The sexy stuff in philosophy for the media seems to be freewill or whether my hands are conscious and is there a meaning to life and things like that but philosophers always seem fascinated with so much more. You work in logic and philosophy of language at lot. What’s the appeal of these realms?

GR: Ah, you know, language always seemed pretty sexy to me! But I guess one part of the appeal is that you get to use some mathematical techniques – logic and stuff like that. I enjoy that. And another thing is that I was deeply impressed by a few papers in the area while I was a student. Tarski’s “Semantic Conception of Truth“, Carnap’s “Empiricism, Semantics and Ontology” and later on things like Kaplan’s “Demonstratives“. So I guess I always dreamed of doing work like that. And of course, in the philosophy of language there’s always this thought, first, that the problems in language might be more tractable than in some other areas (free will, ethics, the meaning of life etc.) and second, that solutions to problems in the philosophy of language might be useful in solving problems elsewhere. Those two things together make the philosophy of language quite exciting; you feel like you could stumble on something that’s both really new, and really big.

3:AM: You begin your book on the analytic/synthetic distinction with a very striking line ‘ Sometimes it seems as if the debate over the analytic/synthetic distinction didn’t get resolved, so much as left behind.’ Before we get to why you say that, could you just sketch what this distinction is supposed to be and why non-philosophers should pay attention to it.

GR: Well, I don’t know that everyone needs to pay attention to it. There’s a lot of cool stuff out there, you can’t get around to everything. But I do think it is pretty interesting. The analytic/synthetic distinction is a distinction between two kinds of true sentence. Some sentences are true in virtue of two things, what they mean, and the way the world is. “Snow is white” for example, is true in virtue of meaning what it does (if it meant what the sentence “2+2=5″ means it would be false) and the fact that snow has the colour that it does (if snow were black, that would be enough to make the sentence false too.) Sentences that are like that are called “synthetic.” The analytic sentences are meant to be different, they are true in virtue of their meaning alone. The kind of examples that people sometimes give are things like “all bachelors are unmarried” or “all squares have four sides”. To know that such a sentence is true, you don’t have to go out and do surveys, and ask the bachelors whether or not they are married, or count the sides of squares, you just need to know what the sentence means, and then you’ll see that in order to count as a bachelor, you have to be married. Similarly, to count as a square, you have to have four sides.

Historically, the idea has been important in philosophy because it suggested an epistemology, or a methodology, for mathematics and other formal sciences, such as logic. A lot of philosophers have thought that the way that we come to know mathematical truths is different from the way we come to know truths in empirical sciences like biology and physics. That’s pretty reasonable on the face of it; in mathematics we don’t collect data, or do experiments like we do in physics, and you can’t establish that every integer is the sum of two primes by checking some sample cases and generalising from there. So one thought is that maybe mathematics proceeds by unpacking meanings, essentially, by investigating the consequences of definitions. It’s more interesting, more complicated version of the way we know the truth of something like “all bachelors are unmarried.”

3:AM: It is kind of one of those issues that gets to be involved in lots of issues isn’t it?

GR: Yes, that’s right. It’s not just mathematics, but logic, ethics, philosophy of science. Anywhere you have standard definitions, you might want to say that some of your claims are analytic. This is one of those things I meant about philosophy of language having application all over the place. We use language everywhere, so once you have an idea there, there are lots of different areas in which you can try it out.

3:AM: A key issue is the question which has got to be mind-messing – how can a contingent sentence like Kaplan’s ‘I am here now’ be analytic whilst a necessary and true one in virtue of its meaning like ‘Hesperus is Phosphorus’ – is not?

GR: Well, yes, but you probably have to be quite involved in the philosophy of language before you get worried about that particular problem! But you’re right, traditional accounts of analytic truth hold that analytic truths have a distinctive kind of modal status, they express necessary truths, i.e. say something that is true in every possible world. It’s not too hard to see why. If a sentence is true in virtue of its meaning, then the meaning is sufficient to guarantee the truth, so no matter what the world is like, it will be true, which is just to say that it will be true in every possible world—necessary.

“I am here now” is tricky because it’s a standard example of a sentence whose truth seems to be guaranteed by its meaning, even though what it says is not necessary. (I didn’t have to be here now – I could have been somewhere else, and there are other possible worlds where I am.)

“Hesperus is Phosphorus” is tricky because it might not seem, on the surface, to have its truth guaranteed by its meaning (it isn’t quite like “all bachelors are unmarried” for example) but most philosophers these days would say that it expresses a necessary truth. (That’s because we all read Naming and Necessity as undergrads, and Kripke is pretty convincing on the topic.)

Anyway, on the account in my book – Truth in Virtue of Meaning – “I am here now” is analytic, but “Hesperus is Phosphorus” isn’t – but you’d probably want to have a look at the book for the details.

3:AM: So it’s an issue that involves two giants of philosophy from the last century, Quine and Carnap. They fought about this issue. Carnap defended it and Quine attacked it. Can you say something about how this went and why you think it wasn’t resolved.

GR: I think the study of language really took off after the Quine/Carnap debate had fizzled out. Lots of things that were relevant to the debate came on the scene – rigid designation, direct reference, indexicality – but the topic wasn’t really picked back up again with any seriousness. When people talked about the analytic/synthetic distinction debate they still just talked about the old papers from Quine, Carnap, Putnam, Chomsky, Katz etc. It wasn’t until Boghossian’s Nous paper that people really started seeing what would happen to analyticity given our new discoveries about language.

3:AM: I always thought that Quine won, the distinction lost and science became a triumph.

GR: Well, all reasonable people are pro-science, but I’m not sure that has quite as much to do with Quine as you suppose! Carnap had a big role in encouraging scientific thought within philosophy, and Carnap and the Vienna Circle were a big part of what made Quine and his work possible. And you know, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to be the kind of philosopher I am today without all of Quine’s work to get logic taken seriously in our discipline. We don’t all agree with each other, but in many ways we’re part of the same tradition, and that tradition is squarely pro-science and pro-mathematics, something that we clearly owe Carnap some thanks for.

As to whether Quine won or lost on the analytic/synthetic distinction, I suppose that depends on what you mean by “winning.” Does it mean convincing the majority of philosophers? (Is it like winning an election?) If you look at the 2009 PhilPapers survey it says that 65% of respondents “lean towards or accept” the existence of the analytic/synthetic distinction (though I expect that those numbers would have been much higher prior to Quine.) Does it mean getting it right? I think both Quine and Carnap were onto something – some of Quine’s points are basically right – but also that they were working at a time when the study of language was quite underdeveloped. You needed better tools for resolving the debate than either of them had access to.

3:AM: Returning to the quote from the opening of your book, are you saying that this issue is no longer being left behind?

GR: Well, I like to think of my own book as addressing the old issue with new resources, so yes, I’d say the issue is no longer being left behind. I don’t know that many people are reading my work though! It’s hard to get people to read your stuff.

3:AM: And more generally, is this a more typical process in philosophy than might be thought. It’s not so much that an issue gets resolved but rather ideas are like shape-shifters, becoming gradually uninteresting after a while but re-emerging in a new guise later as killers again. It’s a different kind of morphing than Kuhnian paradigm shifts because it’s not about incommensurates, more to do with philosophers getting bored, or happy to move on without closure or whatever? So I guess this question is about how we might think about progress in philosophy. Can you say something about all this?

GR: You know, I think philosophy could make more progress than it does. Progress needs more than just a few brilliant people, and a few great, original texts. If all you have are a few brilliant manuscripts coming out of a generation of philosophers, they’re going to be forgotten, or only read by a few specialists, who only write stuff that is read by even fewer specialists, and then all it takes is one politically expedient budget cut, or the end of a grant, or just for someone to get sick, and it is all lost again. Once you get beyond the very beginning stages, progress requires the ability to build on what has come before and that means we have to do a great job of training our students. I think one of the things that drives progress in mathematics and the sciences is the existence of good textbooks.

It really doesn’t matter, in physics say, if few working scientists, engineers or mathematicians ever read Newton’s Principia Mathematica, or Einstein’s original papers, because the key lessons have been distilled into really clear, excellent textbooks that are used to train thousands of students each year. In philosophy we have a tendency to privilege the original texts. And it’s good to read original texts, it’s part of getting a general education. But good ideas and arguments rarely appear in their clearest form first time around. So I think one thing that would really help philosophy make more progress would be the presence of more really excellent textbooks. It’s clearly something that helps in logic. Certainly my own teaching and understanding in logic has been massively helped and speeded up by the existence of great textbooks. And that means that all my students are at a better standard than they might have been otherwise.

3:AM: Now you are a hard-core logician writing papers with titles like ‘Indexicals, context sensitivity and the failure of implication’. This at first seems mighty dry.

GR: It’s really not. I could explain it to you over a pint and it’s not like I’d be explaining Greek grammar or something. You could explain it to teenagers and they’d get it. Bright teenagers, anyway.

3:AM: Is it like in all philosophy, the initial dryness a non-logician might feel disperses once the big picture of the philosophy of logic and language is understood?

GR: I think so. Anyway, a barrier to implication – or you might call it a barrier to entailment – is a thesis that says that no set of sentences all of a certain kind X entails a conclusion of some other kind Y, or informally, that you can’t “get” a Y from an X. The most famous example in philosophy is Hume’s Law, which says that no set of purely descriptive sentences entails a normative conclusion—”you can’t get an ought from an is.” Hume’s law is really controversial. It was endorsed by (among others) the famous ethicist RM Hare, by Karl Popper, and by Frank Jackson, but rejected by Max Black, A.N. Prior and John Searle. But there are other barriers to implication in philosophy too. For example, you can’t get general claims from particular claims: no matter how many individual black ravens you observe, the general claim “all ravens are black” will never follow logically from your observations (unless you can add a general premise – maybe something like “I have now seen all the ravens”.) So there is a particular-general barrier. Another barrier that Hume talked about is the past-future barrier: no claim about the future follows logically from a set of sentences purely about the past. And there are others. There’s a modal barrier: you can’t get claims about how things must be from claims about how they actually are. And an indexical one (that’s what the paper you mention above is about.)

These other barriers aren’t nearly so controversial, they’re kind of a part of the background picture against which a lot of philosophers work. But Hume’s Law, as I mentioned, is controversial and has often been challenged. And the way you challenge a thesis that says that no set of premises of kind X entails a sentence of kind Y, is by presenting a valid argument with premises of kind X and a conclusion of kind Y. So to challenge Hume’s Law you need an argument with all descriptive premises, but a normative conclusion:

One of AN Prior’s attempts is quite famous. It’s this:

Premise: Tea-drinking is common in England.
Conclusion: Tea-drinking is common in England OR all New Zealanders ought to be shot.

This might look a little odd if you haven’t studied formal logic, but the conclusion is a classical consequence of the premise by the rule of disjunction introduction. One way to think about mine and Greg’s work on barriers is as using the similarity between all the different barriers to constrain conclusions in the controversial cases. The thought is that if it is sensible to give up Hume’s Law on the basis of the argument above, then it ought to also be sensible to give up the particular general barrier thesis on the basis of this analogous argument:

Premise: Raven A is black.
Conclusion: Raven A is black OR all ravens are black.

Now, I don’t know how you’ll feel about this, but my sense is that to give up the particular-general barrier thesis on this basis would be kind of missing the point. There’s clearly something correct about the claim that you can’t get a general claim from particular ones, and we just need to refine it a bit. Maybe get a little clearer on exactly what counts as a “general” or “particular” sentence. Anyway, it turns out that once you do that you can prove the particular-general barrier thesis for first-order classical logic. So that’s kind of nice. And if this sort of refinement works in the particular-general case, why not in the more controversial Hume’s Law case?

Anyway, that’s a short introduction to the project. I’m writing a book on this right now.

3:AM: You wanted to kill a bull with one blow by the time you were fourteen. What is it with logic and martial arts?

GR: Oh I don’t know. I suppose you might think the martial arts attracts self-aggrandising assholes, and philosophy…well.

I should point out that I only wanted to be able to kill a bull with one blow – no actual animal-killing was desired.

3:AM: Graham Priest is another top philosopher with this going on too.

GR: Yeah, actually, I’m a big fan of Graham’s. Both the martial arts and philosophy could do with more of his type. And there’s Laurie Paul, Chris Mortensen, David Velleman, Damon Young, Koji Tanaka, Audrey Yap, John Greco, Trish Peterson, Massimiliano Vignolo, Carlo Penco and John Dorris – I’m sure I’m forgetting some, it feels like I’m always running into philosophers who do martial arts.

3:AM: You wrote a great essay ‘Epistemic Viciousness in the Martial Arts.’ You link epistemic viciousness to false belief formation. Can you say more about the link between viciousness, epistemology, logic, philosophy and kung foo?

GR: OK, so the “viciousness” in the paper title is viciousness in the slightly old-fashioned sense of “possessing of vices.” There’s a standard thought in the martial arts – certainly in the martial arts that people in the West think of as exotic, like karate or shinto muso (as opposed to archery and wrestling) that training in a martial art is supposed to make you a better person – more morally virtuous.

Lots of martial arts exalt their founders as paragons of ethical virtue, as well as great fighters, and their websites suggest you will become a better person as a result of your training, even that your kid will be less likely to take drugs if you send him to class. Anyway, my paper argues that whatever the moral virtues of training in the martial arts, it has a tendency to encourage epistemic vices such as gullibility, inappropriate epistemic deference to senior students and history, and reluctance to take a look at other sources of evidence (such as research in sports science and anatomy, emergency room and crime statistics, and even other martial arts.)

The paper came about because I was struck by the number of smart people who picked up weird beliefs in the dojo; engineers who believe in ki or even “touchless knockouts”, university students who tell newcomers that “strength isn’t important in fighting” and over and over again people who overestimate the efficacy of years of fine-grained study in response to real world aggression. The martial arts is full of middle class professionals who hope/believe that training twice a week for two years makes them safe. They’re not stupid people, but … but humans are weird about violence. Anyway, I could go on about this stuff for hours…

3:AM: Is ‘Kill Bill’ more philosophical than we thought?

GR: I think “Kill Bill“‘s awesomeness might be independent of its philosophical content. Also of it’s martial arts content. It is pretty awesome though. I’m not really into film, but I like Tarantino.

3:AM: You reviewed Tim Williamson’s book ‘The Philosophy of Philosophy’ and wrote about the several reasons why philosophers have tended to be reluctant to engage in philosophizing philosophy. Xphi seems to be a branch of philosophy that now continually engages with raising questions about the suppositions of philosophers about many areas of thought. Have you been convinced that perhaps some of the intuitions even in logic may be less pure and rational than philosophers have taken them to be? As a logician, are there reasons for joining Josh Knobe and burning your armchair?

GR: I think philosophers are basically omnivorous. They’ll take whatever data you throw at them – from surveys, history, chemistry labs, Hadron colliders, mathematics, film studies, whatever, and run with it. And I hope I’m open to whatever comes my way. Josh has interesting and challenging results and it’s good to use that work. But as a matter of my own personal temperament, when we did physics in secondary school, and sometimes the classes were “theory” classes and other times the classes were “experiment” classes, the theory classes were always just more interesting. Theory classes were examining the relationship between energy and matter. Experiment classes were melting ice in a bucket and counting the drips and trying to get your lab partner not to fuck it up. If someone else is happy to count the drips, I’ll happily use the data. But I’d rather someone else did the experiments.

3:AM: So when you’re not philosophizing, what books, films, music do you find inspiring or enlightening? Are you a martial arts film buff?

GR: Well, I read a lot, but I’m not always looking for enlightenment. And I probably consume more martial arts books than films. Personal favourites include Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear, Grossman’s On Killing, Ellis Amdur’s Duelling with O’sensei and the classic that is Jack Dempsey’s How to Fight Tough. If you don’t know it you should probably just go and order that last one right now, it’s amazing.

I’ve lived my whole life with headphones on. If I go deaf I’ll probably consider it worth it. If it killed me at 40, I might still consider it worth it. Anyway, I’m looking forward to the new Franz Ferdinand album.

3:AM: And finally, for the 3:AM crowd, which five books (other than your own which of course we’ll be dashing away to read straight after this) would you recommend if we wanted to get further into your philosophical world?

GR: OK, I think each of these make great general reading, in no particular order. Some of them are essays, rather than books, but I hope that’s OK. Also, there are seven.

1. Bertrand Russell – Problems of Philosophy
2. Thomas Nagel – Mortal Questions
3. “Empiricism, Semantics and Ontology” – R. Carnap
4. “If God is dead, is everything permitted?” – E. Anderson
5. “The Semantic Conception of Truth and the Foundations of Semantics” – A. Tarski
6. “Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language” – S. Kripke
7. Adam Morton – On Evil


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 27th, 2013.