:: Article

the relentless naturalist

Rebecca Kukla interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Rebecca Kukla is chillin’ rad philosopher always thinking about the pragmatic topography of the space of reasons. She thinks philosophers have thought too much about statements broadcasting information and should look elsewhere like Plato, Rousseau and Nietzsche did.She’s suspicous of semantic theory, thinks McDowell wrong to think we are accountable to objects, thinks squirrels illustrate something important, finds certain ubiquitous risk communication both unhelpful and damaging to moral agency, is a relentless naturalist who thinks we should teach everyone to be scientifically and statistically literate, doesn’t mind being called a naturalised Kantian and has a great deal of sensible stuff to say about the scandal of gender inequality in academic philosophy. All in all, this is slick fuggly jive.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Were you always wondering and brooding?

Rebecca Kukla: I think I have always already been a philosopher. My father, André Kukla, is a philosopher of science, and I grew up hanging out on the University of Toronto campus and sometimes in the backs of lecture halls. When my brother and I were little kids, we’d call out ‘Rap!’ (for some reason) when we wanted my dad to explain some sort of philosophical puzzle or argument to us at bedtime. By this means I came to know about Cartesian doubt, both problems of induction, Cantor’s diagonal proof, and other such goodies before I was ten. When anyone in my family spotted an infinite regress, we would shout out a little bell sound we had made up. All-in, I think that by the time I was an undergraduate I had been rendered thoroughly unfit to do anything but philosophy. I was training to be a professional ballerina for many years, and when I started at the University of Toronto I was a math major. But I was too short to be a successful ballet dancer and the math classes for majors were all at 8:00 am, so by my second year I succumbed to my inevitable fate and switched to a philosophy major. I started University when I was quite young, so by the time I was 18, I was submitting papers for publication and visiting prospective Ph.D. programs. My very first philosophy publication was a little paper in Analysis that I co-authored with my dad, which came out when I was 19.

Although the writing was probably long since on the wall by then, the class that conclusively converted me to philosophy was an undergraduate philosophy of math class taught by Jim Brown at the University of Toronto. The man is a brilliant teacher, and decades later I still try to model my undergraduate teaching after his.

3:AM: In your 2009 book ‘Yo and Lo! The Pragmatic Topography of the Space of Reasons’ you and Mark Lance challenge some fundamentals of 20th century philosophy – that semantics of language is relevant to fundamental philosophical issues, and that declarative assertion is the paradigmatic instance of linguistic acts. You unfortunately missed the Sellars centenary conference in 2012 but collaborated with Mark Lance on the paper he presented there which seems to pick up on some of the issues of the book. Can you say why these have been thought to be so crucial and why you think it’s a mistake to think they are?

RK: We argue that philosophers have disproportionately focused on impersonal declaratival statements designed to broadcast information, whereas in fact such statements make up a relatively small part of natural language. We think that some other kinds of speech acts – in particular, calls or hails to a second person that establish mutual recognition (“Yo!) and calls to a second person that direct shared attention to a part or feature of the world (“Lo!”) are at least as fundamental to how language enables communication and coordination as are impersonal declaratives. We also argue that privileging declaratives masks a bunch of philosophically important features of and distinctions within language. To give just one example, most speech is directed at someone(s) in particular, and this directionality of speech acts, which we think is pragmatically crucial and not reducible to other features of them, is hard to notice or analyze if you just look at impersonal, fact-reporting speech.

As for why there has been this focus on declaratival speech, and on semantics rather than pragmatics… Well, I think that modern philosophy of language was really born at the turn of the last century and in its early decades, when philosophers maximally valorized science, and took themselves to be engaged in a quasi-scientific project themselves. And it looked to them like ‘real’, unproblematic discourse – scientific discourse – was made up of impersonal declaratives. (I actually think that scientific discourse is much more complicated and pragmatically diverse than that, but let’s put that aside.) So such speech became the paradigm in need of analysis. There are plenty of earlier philosophers – Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche leap to mind – who did not think that the main discursive job of philosophy was to state impersonal facts, and who likewise thought that language had all sorts of central defining functions other than fact-stating.

Meanwhile, if you think that you only really need to understand impersonal declarative speech acts in order to understand language, then attending to the pragmatics of language can seem marginal or unimportant, given that you think that all the speech acts that really matter have roughly the same pragmatic form. In that case, it can seem like the only really important way that speech acts differ from one another is in their semantic content.

In recent years I have grown more and more suspicious of semantic theory altogether; the philosophical study of semantics is hard or impossible to sever from quasi-mystical questions about how language ‘hooks onto’ or ‘reaches out to’ the world, which I suspect are just ill-formed questions that create unnecessary philosophical mystery. Language is a material phenomenon that is essentially in and of the world – it doesn’t need special ‘hooking on’ properties. I prefer to stick to pragmatic questions. I have a forthcoming paper co-authored with Eric Winsberg (“Deflationism, Pragmatism, and Metaphysics”) where we take this up much more rigorously.

3:AM: Are you arguing with other philosophers like John McDowell and resisting his claim that we are accountable to objects when we make epistemic commitments and that instead we are accountable to people? Is McDowell wrong on this?

RK: Yes, ultimately I think that all this talk that circulates around some corners of philosophy about being ‘accountable to objects,’ and them having ‘authority’ over us and ‘holding us’ to things, is just metaphorical language. It is time to either cash out the metaphors or admit that they are obfuscating. I am enough of a humanist to think that objects don’t literally say or demand anything and they are not literally moral agents of any kind. We don’t owe them anything. It is people (and perhaps some non-human animals – I am not coming down on that issue) who engage in the sorts of normatively structured practices that generate possibilities for holding accountable, having authority, and the like. But the thing to remember is, we human agents hold one another accountable, exert authority over one another, and so forth, with our bodies, in a material world. It’s not like objects in the world are in some sort of special value-free void outside our normatively structured practices. Our practices are ineliminably worldly and object-involving. And if we engage with objects inappropriately or wrongly or sub-optimally, material reality will get in the way of successful practice. I claim that this is all we need in order for the world to impose the normative constraints we need it to impose.

3:AM: Doesn’t it just leave people ‘spinning in the void’ when they don’t answer to the world in their epistemic practices? And isn’t there an ethical norm requiring that we care about people getting it right? Wouldn’t this be problematic for your position?

RK: No, the world doesn’t ask us any questions or demand anything of us, so we don’t need to answer to it. The idea that we are ‘spinning in the void’ seems to me to be based on a bad dualism of us vs. the world – a dualism generated by philosophy (or perhaps by religion, or both). We don’t have to do anything special to be in the world. I mean, where else would we be? If you believe false things or fail to execute practices skillfully, you’ll quickly get tripped up by the material stuff you’re trying to cope with.

3:AM: Some normative commitments are just about coping with objects and people – like pea shelling. I think this is the practice you use to illustrate an important contrast between engineering practices and epistemic ones where we have to get things right independently of just coping. Is that right? Why are Squirrels important?

RK: You have in mind a forthcoming paper by me and Mark Lance called “Intersubjectivity and Receptive Experience.” In it we contrast epistemic practices with what we call engineering practices, although the epistemic practices are not ‘independent of just coping,’ exactly. Here’s the point: practices like pea-shelling are both normatively structured and world-involving. The peas themselves – their size and shape, for instance – constrain what can work as an effective method of pea-shelling, and there is nothing mysterious about that. And non-human animals can participate in that kind of normative practice just fine. That is, they can engage in what we call engineering practices – practices for which the standards of correctness are internal to the practice itself. For engineering practices, there is no meaningful question about whether their agents ‘get the world right’; coping successfully is the only standard of success there is. If you are trying to shell peas and the peas get shelled then your practice is a success; there is no further question about whether the practice got the world right. A non-human animal – a super-squirrel say – might have incredibly intricate, conditionally structured practices of this sort, involving elaborate coordination and sophisticated communication with other super-squirrels, and still be just an engineer.

But some of our normatively structured practices have a special layered pragmatic structure to them that opens up a possible gap between successful coping and epistemic accuracy. For instance, such practices involve a commitment to taking other, different sets of practices that yield different results as in conflict with ours. It’s no skin off my back if they shell peas in New Jersey differently than we do here in Washington, DC, and no skin off the grey squirrels’ backs if the fox squirrels store nuts differently than they do. But if my standards of evidence and justification and my resulting beliefs are different from yours, then I am committed to taking one of us as wrong; we are disagreeing even if we are both coping just fine using our respective practices. That is, in the case of epistemic practices, we have distinctive meta-practices for revision, negotiating difference, and the like. We argue that it is these higher-order pragmatic constraints that distinguish epistemic agents from super-squirrel engineers.

3:AM: Proposition 65 is the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 which requires the state of California to publish a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects and other reproductive harm. You’ve asked questions about the ethics and politics of this haven’t you. Can you say what the issues are that you address?

RK: From my point of view, what is interesting about Proposition 65 is not the published list of chemicals. It’s the reproductive risk warnings that it requires be affixed to every single building or product that hasn’t been proven to be free of all the 750-plus chemicals on the list. In effect, pretty much all public spaces and almost all products in California end up with a Prop 65 warning, which just says that the thing or place may cause reproductive harm.

More generally, I am interested in a certain kind of risk communication that I find especially unhelpful, and that I think can do damage to people’s moral agency. Many risk warnings – the Prop 65 warnings are an especially pure example – warn individuals about the presence of a risk, but don’t give them any of the information they would need to reason meaningfully about that risk. Furthermore, these warnings often seek to mitigate or cope with risk by targeting individual behaviors instead of the structural features causing the risk to start with. So for example, technically, the Prop 65 warnings just tell women that there has not been proven not to be anything in a building or product that may cause some sort of reproductive harm. What are they supposed to do with that information, exactly? In fact, there is such a warning on the door to the UCSF prenatal clinic – one of the most prestigious clinics in the country. How are women to balance the ‘risk’ of entering the building against the potential benefits of getting top quality prenatal care, if all they know is that there is some vague threat of harm? This is useless information, from the point of view of practical reasoning. But in the mean time, it does help to make pregnant women fearful that they are ‘selfishly’ damaging their babies at every turn. It propagates the idea that it is individual women’s personal responsibility if their baby has a defect – rather than, perhaps, the responsibility of the builders who didn’t bother to test their materials because they knew they could protect themselves by slapping up a warning instead, or the responsibility of the EPA to set tighter guidelines.

I have argued repeatedly that pregnant women and new mothers are especially targeted by this sort of useless risk communication, which induces individualized blame and guilt but doesn’t usefully guide action. To give just one more example: almost all drugs come with a warning that pregnant women should ‘weigh the risks and benefits’ of taking them because they may cause harm to the fetus. They come with this warning because they are, in the overwhelming majority of cases, simply untested on pregnant women. This means that women have literally no idea whether they are doing more harm to their fetus by taking a drug or by letting their fetus stay in a sick, untreated body (even putting aside the risks to their own health of forgoing treatments). However, they do get the message that it is their job to somehow ‘do what’s best’ for their fetuses, rather than its being the job of society to obtain better information about the real risks and benefits involved.

3:AM: Is a resistance to scientism a thread in all your work?

RK: Well I am not quite sure what you mean by scientism, as the term gets used in a variety of ways, but my first impulse is to say no, quite the opposite. A great deal of my research is on the social epistemology of science, especially large-scale medical research (multi-site clinical trials and the like). While I examine scientific practices and methods with a critical philosopher’s eye, the reason I bother to do that is because I find science so powerful and interesting. When I have written on motherhood, I have stressed the ethical importance of sticking to evidence-based advice and not inundating mothers with spiritualist hoo-hah about the magical bonding effects of breastfeeding, or of ‘natural’ childbirth, or whatever. In my work in bioethics more generally, I’m pretty much always the voice in favor of taking scientific evidence seriously and forcing people to understand the science behind what they are critiquing.

Of course, not all science is good science and not all reporting of scientific ‘results’ should be trusted, to understate wildly. I think that scientific and especially statistical literacy is probably the single most important thing that ought to be taught in secondary schools and to undergraduates.

In my more abstract work, I am pretty much a relentless naturalist and an uncompromising critic of anything that smacks of the supernatural, the willfully mysterious, the fetishized, or – most of all – the ‘spiritual.’ I am not sure if that makes me scientistic, but if it does I am happy to claim the label.

3:AM: Would it be fair to describe you a naturalized Kantian? Can you say something about your relation to Kant and why you find him still relevant and important?

RK: Well, I don’t think of myself as an anyone-ian. I think the chances that any particular philosopher, especially one from hundreds of years ago, was basically right about everything are vanishingly small. But I do think that Kant did the best job of anyone at bringing out the tensions and possibilities inherent in high modern philosophy, and at setting up a framework for new ways of thinking about concepts, judgment, perception, freedom, action, causality, and more. His framework continues to shape almost all parts of contemporary philosophy. I think that Hegel is basically a naturalized (and historicized) Kantian, and I am as sympathetic with Hegel as with any historical figure, so I can live with your label!

3:AM: As a woman working in philosophy of course the poor representation of women in the academy is a big issue. How do you see this situation, why do you think philosophy in particular has such a poor record and what might be done to address this?

RK: This is indeed a huge issue, although personally I wish that we would start focusing somewhat less on the underrepresentation of women, and more on the much more dramatic underrepresentation of non-white and working class folks in the discipline. The overwhelming whiteness of philosophy is staggering, and I think it leads to insular thinking that harms philosophy itself, as well as being self-perpetuatingly exclusionary in fairly obvious ways.

There are lots of theories out there as to why women are underrepresented, and I don’t claim special insight into the mechanisms behind the disparity. The numbers do seem depressingly resistant to change, despite lots of effort and attention. All I can give you is a few scattered thoughts on this, rather than some sort of big explanation.

First, I think the straight-ahead culture of sexual harassment and objectification is a huge challenge for women in philosophy. A new openness about this issue over the last few years has made it clear just how pervasive this problem is. I think that a lot of male philosophers feel comfortable making sexual jokes and comments and behaving inappropriately towards women because they somehow think that they have proven their liberal, post-sexist bona fides; indeed many seem to use ‘ironic’ sexism and sexualization as a way of performing their post-sexist feminist identities. But the collective impact is deeply chilling for women.

Second, I think that women – along with those from less privileged backgrounds – are more likely to have complicated familial responsibilities that make philosophy appear too risky of a career path. It takes quite a bit of privilege and autonomy to be able to spend your twenties making a near-poverty-level salary, knowing that at the end of it you will likely have to move several times to whatever random locations the job market points you to, with the odds of a permanent job at the end of all that remaining quite low. Perhaps women are also trained to have less confidence in their own abilities; they may tend to be more realistic about the chance that they are among the brilliant few who will survive the philosophy job market unscathed.

Third, let me go on record as saying that I think that the whole idea that women are put off by or unsuited to the aggressive, argumentative style of philosophy is crap. Discursive intensity and tenacity, a high premium on verbal sparring and cleverness, and a fundamentally critical dialogical method have been central to philosophy since its birth, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The fact is, most people, regardless of gender, find that kind of discourse difficult, overwhelming, and somewhat threatening; the Athenians didn’t crack out the hemlock for no reason. This is why most people should not be philosophers, and that’s just fine. A tiny number of women and men thrive on that kind of engagement. I think the idea that women are disproportionately bad at it or put off by it is based on anecdotes – anecdotes that are hopelessly distorted by stereotypes and biases – and not on serious evidence. I think trying to change those features of philosophical discourse would harm philosophy, and I see no reason to think it would improve the gender balance.

I applaud the amazingly successful efforts of the bloggers over at the “Feminist Philosophers Blog” to increase awareness about issues of gender inclusivity. On the other hand, I think that many of our concentrated efforts at inclusivity to date have focused on relatively late-stage, relatively peripheral issues. For example there has been a great deal of attention to who gets invited to conferences, but by the time you’re even a contender for being invited to a conference, you are already well-entrenched in professional philosophy and one of its more successful members. And I suspect a lot more women are chased out of philosophy by having their professors and male peers hit on them, sexualize them, and belittle them than because they attend conferences with disproportionately many male invited speakers. The weakest point in the pipeline is between introductory undergraduate classes, in which there are plenty of women, and applications to grad school, which are predominantly from men. We need to find out more about why we are losing women at this early stage.

3:AM: And finally could you recommend five philosophy books for readers that you think readers interested in your area of work would find provoking and interesting?

RK: Well, I have several areas, as you know, so my recommendations are going to be all over the place. Also, I am not sure if you are looking for contemporary works, or works that have influenced me greatly over the years and that might engage a wide audience with philosophical interests. I am going to assume the latter:

Daniel C. Dennett,;The Intentional Stance

John Haugeland, Having Thought: Essays in the Metaphysics of Mind;

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of a Solitary Walker;

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison;

Naomi Scheman, Engenderings: Constructions of Knowledge, Authority, and Privilege;

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals.

Sorry, I know that was six. But the Nietzsche seemed too cliché to be one of my five, and too important not to be on the list!

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 27th, 2013.