What It’s Like to Be Josh Knobe


A new interview is up at What Is It Like To Be a Philosopher?, this time with Joshua Knobe (Yale). Interviewer Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina) asks Knobe a range of questions about his life and ideas.

Some interesting excerpts:

On the job market:

I lived pretty far from campus and hardly ever came in. As a result, I was woefully ignorant about just about every aspect of the profession. The people I spent time with were mostly people I met through my wife, which meant that they weren’t so much academics as people in indie rock bands. It might seem odd, but the truth is that I hardly ever thought about the job market. Maybe it was a function of the people I was spending time with. People in bands tend not to have any real expectation that they can turn the things they’re doing into a successful career; they just want to make some music. In a similar way, I had this sense that I should be writing philosophy all the time, but I had no real view either way about whether doing that could help me get a job.

On good dissertation advising:

I feel like Harman’s whole approach to advising came out most clearly in a conversation we once had about some technical question in the philosophy of mind. I was trying my best to defend a particular view, and Harman was going after it with objection after objection. At some point, it was becoming clear that my attempts to defend the view against these objections were completely falling apart, and at that point, I said, ‘But Gil, this view I’m trying to defend — it is actually your own view! It is the view that you yourself have defended in a whole series of articles.’ Harman looked at me quizzically and then brushed aside this point, saying ‘That’s just some other guy.’

What he meant was that the right way to think of it was that there were these two different people who just happened to have the same name and to look a lot alike. One was the philosopher Gil Harman, this monumental figure who had defended various views in his published work. The other was my advisor Gil Harman, who was not committed to any specific views and was just trying to teach me how to be a better philosopher.

Basically, Harman did everything he could to make you feel like you weren’t really the student of that monumental figure, that the monumental figure was just ‘some other guy’ whose papers you could read if you wanted to but who had nothing to do with what you should be doing in your work as his grad student.

On diversity in the profession:

Judging just from my own personal experience, though, it seems like one thing that makes a real difference is kindness. Philosophy tends to be a strangely combative and adversarial discipline, with even graduate students trying to score points by proving other people wrong. I wonder if our discipline would be seen as more welcoming if we tried a little harder to be nice to each other. (Of course, the only way to know whether a hypothesis like this one is correct is to conduct serious empirical research.)

On the future of philosophy:

I’m very optimistic about the future of philosophy. Back when I went to graduate school, philosophy was dominated by a relatively small number of figures working on a relatively limited of questions. That has all changed. Now we have a real profusion of different ideas and approaches. More and more, I see students coming up with new questions of their own, rather than working within a dialectic set up by more established figures. It’s an exciting time to be in the field.

The rest is here.

 

 

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sin nombre
sin nombre
5 years ago

I have no intention of being unkind or to score points, but I find the answer to the diversity problem deeply unsatisfying. Yes, the aggressiveness of some intimidates others and that usually mean men forcing women and minorities to feel unwanted in the profession, but that is also something achieved by the readings that form the cannon and the paucity of outreach to minorities. I don’t think you can fix a diversity issue unless you admit you have a diversity issue and just saying “can’t we be nice to one another” isn’t enough. Current demographic rises in minorities attending university is bad news for a discipline that doesn’t want to confront it’s diversity problem and consistently teaches a cannon of old white men (and a few white women).Report

sin nombre
sin nombre
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

Right, I saw that, but it also is basically a shoulder shrug. He doesn’t have to solve the problem but he doesn’t really address the problem in a constructive way. Here’s the question he got: “Why is philosophy one of the least diverse disciplines, you think? How can we fix our diversity problem?” Suppose he doesn’t know what to say to that, shifting to kindness is a diplomatic way of side-stepping the issue. Of course we should be kind to others. I totally agree but what does that have to do with diversity? How does that answer either of those questions in a meaningful way. It implies a rather weak answer: philosophy isn’t diverse because we’re mean to each other and we can fix it by being less mean. Maybe there’s another way to read it, but that reading of it is (a) consistent with what others say and (b) implies that women and minorities are soft and can’t take being seriously questioned. Maybe that’s not what he means or even thinks in his heart. I don’t know, but saying something like that might mean he has unconsciously accepted such a belief, which wouldn’t be surprising but would be a disappointing answer to that question.Report

langdon
langdon
Reply to  sin nombre
5 years ago

There’s a big difference between “being seriously questioned” and being an aggressive dick who’s out to tear others down for the sake of looking clever in front of others who sadly value these sorts of displays.Report

sin nombre
sin nombre
Reply to  langdon
5 years ago

Agreed, but there’s still a perception problem that some people about women and minorities that they can’t always hold up to aggressive questioning or hack it in the harder stuff like M&E so they do the softer stuff like value theory. So while there are aggressive dicks in our profession, some people might hear this and think it means X people can’t hack scrutiny (which has been a long held belief in our profession).Report

Anonymous1
Anonymous1
5 years ago

Sinnombre — Some people might accept your explanations and think that there’s something wrong with women and minorities for being unable to engage with authors who don’t look like them, or for needing a special kind of hand-holding that white men don’t get. Really, any explanation other than one of intentional discrimination is going to encourage harmful stereotyping from some quarters. So relax.

I would also say: It’s not as though there’s no research on this question. In light of that, there are two reasons not to engage in speculation about the causes of philosophy’s diversity problem. First, some people are going to get angry at you for shooting from the hip when there’s already research out there. David Papineau’s review from a while back elicited some anger for this reason among others. Second, tossing around speculation is a distraction from the research that’s out there. Maybe you’re asking for more than speculation. Maybe you want informed engagement with the empirical work that’s been done on this question. But first, your comments on this thread certainly have not met this standard, and second, it seems to me that in that case you’re asking for too much. There nothing wrong with directing one’s intellectual attention elsewhere, such that one has nothing to add over and above what others have already said.Report

Internet Reader
Internet Reader
Reply to  Anonymous1
5 years ago

“Tell me, how does the statement: ‘I wonder if our discipline would be seen as more welcoming if we tried a little harder to be nice to each other’ account for the diversity problem or help in any way diversify the field without somehow assuming that one group is tolerant to bad behavior and another is not tolerant.”

One way would be to note that lack of kindness may be more of a deterrent in conjunction with other deterrents. That sounds right to me but, as I bet Josh would say, “It’s an empirical question.”Report

sin nombre
sin nombre
5 years ago

I’m not sure I understand your comment. I never said anything about women and minorities “being unable to engage with authors who don’t look like them.” I said that there’s already a stereotype that women and minorities can’t handle philosophical scrutiny. Now, there was the post over the summer about “me” studies, but that’s a little silly since in philosophy women and minorities still have to engage white male authors; it is women and minority authors who can easily become invisible. And yes, there are lots of things that can turn into a stereotype but again this “kindness” is already responding to a deeply held stereotype in our field. That’s my big problem with it.

As for whether or not he has to engage empirical work, I don’t know why you would think that is my demand. I never said anything of the sort. I think you create here a false dichotomy: either have a rigorously worked out explanation that takes into account systemic racism in academia or shoot from the hip. Also, clever insertion of an ad hominem there, though, again, I don’t know why you think my problem is that he hasn’t meant some high academic standard in an interview or why you would think I would expect internet comments to also meet such a high academic standard. My problem is that this answer addresses a pervasive stereotype in our field in a way that sort of accepts the rather worrisomely racist and sexist assumption that women and minorities are more sensitive to people being mean to them than white men are. Think about the implicit argument for a moment:

1. Our profession is overwhelming white and male.
2. Too many people in our profession try to score points by being aggressively hostile to others.
C. If we were kinder we would have more diversity in our field (maybe).

But how in the world does that account for diversity? A pretty obvious unsaid premise is that white men are more resilient to aggressively hostile attacks than women and minorities. That stereotype already exists in our profession and has a long history. I’m sure you’ve heard some version of it or seen it play out at a conference or a talk. I know I have. And while, yes, people should be more welcoming saying it’s about the aggressiveness of the field makes the underrepresented groups seem petty and weak. So while yes, ideally I would like Knobe to say something knowledgeable about diversity like talk about how too few of us diversify or syllabuses or our own research, how institutional racism hurts people’s ability to get jobs or give talks, etc. I think this is a bad answer even if it is probably meant to be an obviously good answer (who isn’t on board with being kinder). The thing is, what makes this answer bad is part of why we have a diversity problem.Report

anon
anon
5 years ago

You don’t need to make any assumptions at all, nor were they made there, about who is more likely to be willing to tolerate bad behavior for the statement “I wonder if our discipline would be seen as more welcoming if we tried a little harder to be nice to each other” to be true or sound like a great idea. I suspect you can promote inclusivity in all kinds of ways in philosophy by being a decent human being to your coworkers, students, and colleagues in the way suggested. Of course, this is probably insufficient to explain how we got all of philosophy’s problems today, but that wasn’t the main subject of this interview about the life an experiences of Joshua Knobe.Report

sin nombre
sin nombre
Reply to  anon
5 years ago

Tell me, how does the statement: “I wonder if our discipline would be seen as more welcoming if we tried a little harder to be nice to each other” account for the diversity problem or help in any way diversify the field without somehow assuming that one group is tolerant to bad behavior and another is not tolerant. So, if there is already a dominant group in the field and there is already bad behavior in the field then I suppose it isn’t hard to accept that that group is tolerant to bad behavior. An under-represented group that is smaller than most other academic disciplines is somehow staying out of philosophy at least partially because of this bad behavior so that suggests to me that they are less tolerant of bad behavior. Now the problem is that said bad behavior might be mistaken for rigorous philosophical questioning and so some people might think that under-represented groups might need to be coddled.

Also, I apologize that I wasn’t aware of the principle that anything that isn’t the main point of the discussion was not up to critical scrutiny.Report

na@ho.com
5 years ago

Josh Knobe, in conversation, exemplifies the philosophical virtue of kindness.Report

Colin Heydt
Colin Heydt
5 years ago

I don’t know “what it’s like to be Josh Knobe,” but I can tell you what it’s like to be in a professional setting with him: He exemplifies openness, curiosity, intellectual engagement…and yes, kindness. Those qualities improve the learning environment. Nor is it implausible to think that more professional kindness–especially from those in exalted positions in the field–might have positive impacts on diversity (e.g. by lessening ‘stereotype threat’). And, I would add, lots of people are _not_ “on board with being kinder.” There’s a difference between merely affirming something as valuable and actually caring enough to get better at it.Report

Eddy Nahmias
5 years ago

As Justin pointed out, Josh’s comment was made tentatively, since he made it from the armchair, and he then rightly pointed out the need to do more empirical research to test his and other hypotheses.)

Note that Josh made his comment about our field becoming kinder just after describing his advisor Gil Harman this way: “I was trying my best to defend a particular view, and Harman was going after it with objection after objection.” There is no inconsistency between rigorous questioning and argumentation and kindness, as Josh (and apparently Harman) models as well as anyone I know.

Indeed, I was privileged to introduce Josh yesterday for a talk he gave at Georgia State. This is how I ended it: “Finally, I’d like to point out that amidst recent discussions about the needlessly confrontational atmosphere in philosophy, Josh has modeled a type of cooperative, collaborative philosophy that comes as a breath of fresh air… even if it can get frustrating for those of us trying to disagree with him. Josh embodies the principle of charity, always finding ways to test conflicting hypotheses and finding common ground for progress.”Report

Otro Nombre
Otro Nombre
5 years ago

FWIW I know sin nombre, and s/he is one of the gentlest, receptive, accommodating, understanding, kindest, and simply brilliant people I have ever met. I’ve no doubt s/he and Knobe would hit it off fabulously, if they have not already have done so (and I suspect they have). Simply because one wishes to advocate strenuously for one perspective about diversity does not imply anything about the personal character of that person. Sin nombre is not just a good, but an outstanding person. Do not mistake rigor and fervor and passion for some sort of character defect–s/he is not impugning Knobe in the least–just trying to make a point off the post. Let’s not demonize someone for that.Report

Otro Nombre
Otro Nombre
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

Didn’t even occur to me that I would be read that way! No–no mocking anyone here: both sides have something to say, and sin nombre demonstrates in everyday life the kind of demeanor vouched for Knobe–both solid people. That’s all I meant.Report

sin nombre
sin nombre
Reply to  Otro Nombre
5 years ago

How very clever.Report

sin nombre
sin nombre
Reply to  sin nombre
5 years ago

Otro Nombre, of course, deeply cares about academic philosophy’s diversity problems and could never be confused for someone who mocks a philosopher of color or their own complaints about how pervasive stereotypes might harm inclusivity.Report

Shen-yi Liao
5 years ago

Like everyone else, I’m extremely impressed by Josh Knobe’s kindness. In fact, when I try to tell myself to be nicer in various philosophical discussions, I basically just tell myself to emulate Josh Knobe.

Nevertheless, I share sin nombre’s view that niceness is not enough for addressing deep problems with diversity. For one, niceness itself doesn’t say much about how niceness gets distributed, and whether that distribution is, say, reparatory or egalitarian. I think you can really see the limitation of niceness in the experimental philosophy community. Due to Josh’s influence, there really is a highly cooperative and collaborative ethos. Still, as far as I can tell, it is not one of the most diverse subareas of philosophy along dimensions such as race and gender.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
5 years ago

In order to broaden the discussion, I’d like to pick up on Shen-yi Liao’s last remark that the subfield of experimental philosophy is not especially diverse and representative. I think it would be illuminating if practitioners in the subfield such as him, as well as others with a good familiarity with the work done under its rubric, would elaborate on ways in which it is not diverse. I have drawn some of my own “outsider” conclusions with respect to the area’s inattention to differences, especially with respect to disability and ableist assumptions; but, I think that discussion of these issues might be a fruitful direction in which to move. I also want to point readers of this thread to Gaile Pohlhaus Jr.’s recent article about the relation between experimental philosophy and feminist philosophy that appeared in the inaugural issue of _Feminist Philosophy Quarterly_ and can be read here: http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/fpq/vol1/iss1/3/Report