Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the fifteenth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post here on the third Wednesday of each month. Dialogues on Disability is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.
My guest today is Joshua Knobe. Josh is a professor of philosophy and cognitive science at Yale. Most of his research is in experimental philosophy. Though Josh tried his best in this interview to focus on more intellectual topics, what he is really most excited about these days is his five-year-old daughter Zoe.
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Josh! For several years after you finished your undergraduate degree, you worked for organizations that address the needs of homeless people and low-income people. Although you were conflicted about returning to academic philosophy, you ultimately did so. Please describe this work and how it has motivated your philosophical interests.
Thanks Shelley! This whole series is a fantastic service, and it's wonderful to have a chance to appear here.
Anyway, by the time I finished up undergrad, I was already pretty hooked on philosophy, but day to day, I worked in homeless shelters trying to figure out how people could get better access to public housing.
To be honest, I never showed any real talent in this kind of work, but I did pursue it with a rather extreme level of devotion. In part, this was due to my boss, John Henneberger, who was a truly inspiring figure. He had this way of making you feel like the project that you were working on at the moment was absolutely the most important thing in the world.
Here is one anecdote that will give you a sense what it was like to work there. The whole time I had that job, John was locked in a conflict with the organization's board of directors. The board insisted that his salary was way too low and that no one could live on so little money; but John obstinately refused to accept a raise. The result was an organization designed to fight poverty in which the director himself was teetering on the brink of poverty! (In a sign that there is some justice in the world, John later went on to win the MacArthur "Genius" Award.)
Like many people that age, I was very uncertain about what I should be doing with my life, but in the end, I decided to leave this kind of work and apply to grad school in philosophy. Just as you say, I felt pretty conflicted about the whole thing. Even after I was officially a graduate student, I spent a lot of time working for my old job. I guess this all left me with an especially bad case of that feeling, which I think plagues a lot of philosophers, that one had really better do something of value to justify one's decision to enter this profession.
I'm sure that this early experience shaped my later work in a number of different respects, but the most salient one is the general sense I developed of what it looks like when one is doing something truly important. In particular, I was struck by the fact that the most important things in life often look awfully humdrum or pedestrian.
People like John Henneberger make such a huge difference in the world, but it is not as though they are always running around making passionate speeches like the heroes in the movies. Much of the time, they are just going through the painstaking work of gradually building a consensus that can lead to real reform. My sense is that things are much the same in philosophy. Sure, there are moments of electrifying insight, and these are the moments that we tend to focus on when we think about the history of our discipline. Yet, my guess is that a lot of the time what really makes the most difference is the hours that we spend doing the more mundane stuff: teaching classes, meeting with students, working on various committees that move things ever so slightly in the right direction.
Please explain the process through which you have produced philosophy and why you use voice-recognition software.
Although I have never considered myself to be disabled, I have a long-standing problem with my hands that makes it very difficult for me to write or type. The problem started when I was in graduate school, and for much of the time that I was there, I was never able to type more than four or five hours a week (including emails, comments on undergrad papers, everything).
As a result, I developed a somewhat odd way of producing philosophy papers. The basic goal was to minimize the total amount of typing required. To do that, I would spend an enormous amount of time just walking around thinking, gradually composing and revising in my head. Then, only after I had figured out precisely what I wanted to say in the paper, would I sit down to actually type it.
If you stop to think about it, the total number of words that you need to type to create a complete philosophy paper actually isn't that large. Almost all of the typing comes from trying to work things out on paper. If you instead work things out by taking long walks, you can go a whole year as a philosopher while typing relatively little. That was the approach I took for most of graduate school.
Then, later, voice-recognition technology improved substantially. For many people, this made things a bit more convenient in one way or another (say, by making it even easier to send texts on an iphone). But, for folks like me, it made a huge difference. At this point, the problems that I have with my hands really don't impact my life too much at all.
I have tended not to mention this whole thing to other people, and when I am honest with myself, I have to admit that I am somehow embarrassed or ashamed of it. I guess that I have the feeling that because the problem is such a minor one, I should be able to just deal with it myself and not make myself a burden to other people. Of course, when I write out the idea explicitly like this, it is clear that it doesn't make any sense: why should the fact that my problem is a minor one mean that I should keep it a secret? In any case, this is the first time that I have spoken about this whole thing so publicly.
I'm sure that there are a bunch of other people in philosophy who face similar difficulties, so I thought it might be helpful for me to pass on one final piece of information. In my experience, the philosophical community has been unfailingly gracious and accommodating. I was worried that people might find it annoying that I wasn't able to do certain things, but on the rare occasions when I have mustered up my courage and asked people for help, the result has always been that people seemed more than happy to give me a hand.
Let’s turn to your landmark research and teaching, Josh. You are widely known as one of the founders of the experimental philosophy movement. In your view, experimental philosophy is frequently misconstrued and mischaracterized. Please tell our readers and listeners what you think experimental philosophy is, what purposes it can serve, and what it has achieved thus far.
I am a bit reluctant to say anything bad about our fellow philosophers, so, let me first emphasize that most of what people say about experimental philosophy is actually very accurate and helpful. In particular, when people engage with specific studies, they almost always describe the studies correctly and often have very useful comments. The trouble only arises when people try to step back and characterize the experimental philosophy movement as a whole.
When people do that, they tend to try to make sense of experimental philosophy against the backdrop of the tradition of analytic philosophy. So people start out with certain concepts or distinctions, drawn from the analytic tradition, and then they try to explain what experimental philosophers are doing within that sort of framework. Among those who take this approach, one of the most common suggestions is that analytic philosophers have a methodology that relies on the use of intuitions and that the principal aim of experimental philosophy is to provide some kind of critique of this methodology.
This is really a grotesque mischaracterization of the field. I recently conducted a quantitative analysis of recent studies in experimental philosophy, and the results indicated that only 1.1% of the studies aimed to show that appeals to intuition are in some way unreliable. In other words, there are indeed some experimental philosophy studies whose aim is to diss on the methods associated with analytic philosophy, but this group of studies makes up only a tiny portion of what experimental philosophers do. Almost all of the studies in experimental philosophy are doing something else.
So then, what are experimental philosophers actually doing? Well, lots of things. It is an extraordinarily diverse movement, knit together only by a commitment to conducting systematic experimental studies, and different experimental philosophy projects have very different aims.
Still, I do think that it is possible to identify one trend that might be especially relevant to readers here: recent work in experimental philosophy has been opening up questions that played very little role in the 20th-century analytic tradition. Just to illustrate, some of my own recent work has been concerned with questions about the psychological processes underlying prejudice against gay people; whether thinking of someone in terms of their body leads to dehumanization; how to understand moral responsibility in cases of implicit bias; and what it means to truly “be yourself” or to attain “true happiness”. In research that I am currently pursuing with Sam Liao and Aaron Meskin, we ask whether the systematic study of punk rock can help to illuminate the concept of art.
My guess is that this is the aspect of experimental philosophy that will prove most directly relevant to people who are interested in issues about discrimination and disadvantage. It seems at least relatively unlikely that the best way for us to move forward on issues in this area will be to engage in even more reflection on the nature of intuition, conceptual analysis, etc. Instead, we might do better just to stop worrying about whether our work connects in any way to the themes of 20th-century analytic philosophy. There is a real need for philosophers who can simply take their expertise—in philosophy of disability, in feminist philosophy, in philosophy of race—and use it to engage in the most straightforward way with the empirical issues that arise in these areas.
You’ve mentioned your work on the self. Many philosophers have written about the “true,” or “authentic,” self. However, you think that these philosophers have misunderstood what ordinary people really mean when they talk about the “true self.” How, in your view, do other philosophers misunderstand ordinary notions of the self and what alternative view do you propose?
Maybe the best way into this issue is to start with a simple example. A few of my friends struggle with drug addiction. It is clear that they experience a real conflict: they have a strong desire to get clean but also have a strong desire to continue using. Yet, looking at this conflict, it is hard to avoid the sense that the two desires are not simply on a par. I can't help but feel that there is some sense in which the desire to get clean comes from their true selves—the people that they really are deep down inside—and that if they give in to the desire to keep using, they will betray their own selves.
The difficulty arises when we try to spell out this intuition more philosophically. Given that these people actually do have both desires, what could it even mean to say that one desire comes from their “true self” and the other desire does not?
The usual way to answer this question relies in some way on the notion of reflection. One starts out with a distinction between some more reflective sort of mental state (reason, second-order desire, valuing) and the various other, less reflective states (immediate impulses, visceral desires). Then one privileges the more reflective states, suggesting that they uniquely express the true self. This approach provides a simple analysis of cases like drug addiction. Perhaps the reason that the desire to keep using is not part of an addict's true self is simply that the addict herself rejects this desire on reflection.
In my view, this approach is deeply mistaken. We do indeed tend to make sense of other people in terms of the notion of a “true self;” but it is no good to try to spell out this ordinary notion in terms of anything about our capacity for reflection.
To explore this issue, we looked at a case that is in some ways structurally similar to the case of drug addiction but is, in other respects, deeply different. Consider an agent who is gay but who believes that homosexuality is morally wrong. He has a desire to be with another man, but he hates this aspect of himself and sincerely wishes that he could rid himself of it. This agent, too, experiences a conflict between two competing desires. So which of the two desires expresses his true self? When he reflects, he completely rejects the desire to be with other men, and the reflection-based view would therefore say that if he were to act on this desire, he would betray his true self. But is that actually the right verdict in this case?
When we looked at this case experimentally, the result we obtained was considerably more complex and, in my view, far more philosophically interesting. Those experimental participants who identified themselves as political conservatives tended to say that the agent’s desire to refrain from having sex with other men expressed his true self, whereas those who identified themselves as political liberals tended to say that this desire was itself a betrayal of the agent's true self.
In short, the overall pattern of intuitions in these cases suggests that the notion of reflection just doesn't play much of a role in our concept of a true self. In the specific case of drug addiction, it happens that the part of the self that we pick out as the true self is also the part that the agent endorses on reflection. Yet, this agreement appears to be merely a coincidence. In other cases, you may find yourself having the intuition that the agent's true self is precisely the aspect of the agent that they would most completely disavow.
As our experimental work continues, it seems to point ever more clearly to a very different picture of people's ordinary notion of a true self. At the core of this picture is the idea that people's true selves call them to do what is good. Sometimes the part of the self that draws us to the good is the more reflective part, sometimes it is the more visceral part, but, this whole reflective/visceral distinction has nothing to do with our ordinary notion of the true self. The ordinary notion is, rather, that the true self is that part of us—whichever it might be—that draws us toward the good.
At present, you are appointed in both the cognitive science program and philosophy department at Yale. Your office is located in the Yale psychology department and you work with psychology students. How do the values of these different academic cultures differ?
It has been fascinating to experience these two quite different cultures up close. The two disciplines differ in numerous ways; and I think that each of them has a lot to learn from the other. I'll focus here on just one difference that strikes me as especially important.
Within philosophy, there is an almost absurd value placed on intelligence. Just imagine what might happen if a philosophy department were faced with a choice between (a) a job candidate who has consistently made valuable contributions in research and teaching and (b) a candidate who has not made any valuable contributions in either of these domains but who is universally believed to be extraordinarily smart. In such a case, I fear that many philosophy departments would actually choose the latter candidate.
In psychology, it is exactly the opposite. When people are trying to decide whether to hire a given candidate, the question is never, “How smart is she?” Instead, the question is always, “What has she actually discovered?” If you haven't contributed anything of value, there is basically no chance at all that you will be hired just for having a high I.Q.
This cultural difference results in a quite radical difference in the atmosphere that one finds in graduate education. Philosophy students experience constant anxiety about whether they are smart enough. Psychology students also experience a lot of anxiety, but it is about a completely different topic. They have this ever-present sense that they absolutely must find some way to make a concrete contribution to the field.
This aspect of our disciplinary culture really serves to shape the character of our everyday interactions. In philosophy, there is so much concern about whether the thing that one is about to say is smart or not smart. As a result, philosophers often self-censor. They feel unable to actually engage with the philosophical question at hand because they are too busy thinking instead about what the things they say will reveal about their intellectual abilities. In psychology, the situation tends to be quite different. The most common concern is not whether the thing that one is about to say is smart or not smart but rather whether it will actually help to make progress on the project.
I think that this is one area in which the culture of philosophy could potentially do with some improvement, but to be honest, I don't have any very good ideas about precisely how we might go about changing things. Of course, the simplest thing that we could do would be to call on individual philosophers to change their behavior. We could say, “When you are working on a philosophical question, don't think about whether what you are saying is smart, or whether it is creative, or whether it shows a mastery of the existing literature. Just think about the philosophical question itself and try to make real progress on it.” Yet, it seems that there is something a bit glib about this response. Given the way things are set up at present, it would take extraordinary courage for an individual philosopher just to spontaneously stop caring about looking smart and start focusing only on making genuine intellectual progress. If we are going to make this sort of individual change possible, it will presumably require some larger change in the incentive structures that govern our discipline as a whole.
One last question: what resources—articles, books, videos, etc.—do you recommend on the topics that you’ve discussed in our interview?
First of all, if you are interested in learning more about experimental philosophy, you are really faced with an embarrassment of riches. There are so many different people doing so many different interesting things on so many different topics that it is a bit hard to know what would be best to mention. So let me just give a quick sampler of some exciting papers from a bunch of different folks on a variety of different topics. You might try looking at a paper on metaphor; one on the underrepresentation of women in philosophy; a formal semantics paper on epistemic modals; an aesthetics paper on exposure to bad art; a metaphysics paper on mereology; or a paper on whether Buddhism allays the fear of death.
If you want to learn how to do some experimental philosophy yourself, I actually don't think that reading more is the key. Instead, the most important thing is probably just to start working with someone who already knows how to run studies. In my experience, experimental philosophers tend to be very supportive and welcoming, so I bet you can find someone in the experimental philosophy community who would be happy to help out. But there is actually no need to confine yourself to the discipline of philosophy in particular. Wherever you are, there are probably plenty of people around who know a whole lot about statistics and experimental design, and I’m sure some of them will be happy to help you out.
Finally, I can't help but recommend my wife Alina Simone's book of essays, You Must Go and Win, the cover of which appears below. It probably won't be terribly relevant to your academic work, but on the plus side, it is fucking hilarious.
[Image description: the book cover has a white background and depicts flames arising from an audio speaker of the sort rock musicians use on stage. The title of the book appears in red, green, blue, and gold capital letters across the top and down the right-hand side of the cover. The author’s name appears in red capital letters at the bottom left of the cover.]
Thanks for these fantastic recommendations, Josh. And thanks for your fascinating and candid remarks throughout this interview. Your interview is a really wonderful addition to the Dialogues on Disability series.
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Joshua Knobe’s remarks, ask questions about experimental philosophy, open a discussion about or offer their expertise on voice-recognition technology, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are encouraged and preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted. Many thanks to Thomas Nadelhoffer who generously provided technical assistance in the preparation of this interview.
Please join me here again on Wednesday, July 20th at 8 a.m. EST for the sixteenth installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.