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Taking Questions of Method Seriously: an Interview with Jeffrey Tlumak

Jeffrey Tiel: Is there any unifying or overarching interest that motivates your philosophical work?

Jeffrey Tlumak: Yes, I would say it is the problem of method--when we do philosophy and say serious things as philosophers, what are we doing and what should we be doing? The figures I study most--Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, and Kant--are grippingly insightful methodological revolutionaries. The problems of abiding interest to me--the relations between first- and third-person points of view, skepticism, the nature, role, and test of various kinds of possibility, the character and legitimacy of modal thinking generally, the kinds of priority or dependency claims that people make and the relations between them, the ethics of belief, living right and living well and their connections, and so on as I expect will come into sharper focus as we proceed--all, I think, at bottom hinge crucially on determinations of method.

Tiel: Well, how did your interest in philosophical method develop?

Tlumak: It has developed in several, often cross-fertilizing ways. For example, and this is a representative example of my desire for conceptual map-making to understand my own reactions to things, I have always been especially interested in the theological problem of evil. It struck me that all responses to that problem fit one of four patterns. Some try to evade the problem by immunizing religious beliefs from external criticism, for example, by developing an account of religious language as an autonomous way of speaking. Others try to eliminate the problem by showing it to be meaningless--a pseudo-difficulty based on semantic error, for example, by insisting that "morally good" cannot be defined independently of God's will, so that there is no possible standard by which God himself can be judged. A third group tries to solve the problem within a traditional theistic framework--these include traditional theodicies such as those that invoke the requirements of free will or character development, designed to explain why evil is only prima facie gratuitous, not ultimately so. And a fourth group charges that the traditional solutions are based on false metaphysics, and tries to modify theistic concepts in a temporal and/or pantheistic direction to solve the problem without losing crucial theistic values. The first two patterns aim to avoid the problem altogether, while the latter two accept the problem as a legitimate one and try to solve it.

I then reflected on the clear parallels between the problem of evil and Descartes's discussion of the problem of intellectual error in Meditation Four, and I began to better organize for myself the strategies for analyzing and explaining error in Descartes. Then, partly in light of that, I could better organize and appreciate the seemingly many disparate interpretations of Descartes's procedures for coping with threats of circularity in his project to validate the possibility of knowledge. And again, to see more clearly why I resisted some tacks and was so enticed by others.

A second example would be my felt need to explore the prospects for integrating subjective and increasingly objectively detached points of view as that tension arises and even often instigates many, many philosophical problems. Tom Nagel's The View from Nowhere is obviously a paradigm of this sort of concern. This turns out to depend heavily on the question of proper method, I think.

And third, there were just some books I read early on that I found so enjoyable and insightful that really were focusing on issues of method. Ones that immediately come to mind are Bertrand Russell's magnificent A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz, C. I. Lewis's undervalued Mind and the World Order (my first favorite philosophical book), Arthur Pap's masterful Semantics and Necessary Truth, and W. D. Ross's superb The Right and the Good.

Subsequently work by philosophers like Nagel, Henry Allison, John Searle, Robert Solomon, Robert Kane, Alan Gewirth, and others have kept me engrossed in questions of method, even when, perhaps, this was not the definitive issue in the minds of the authors themselves.

Tiel: How have your research interests changed since you began philosophy, and what, if anything, does this tell you about your philosophical views?

Tlumak: I could use the same words to describe my research interests now and twenty-five years ago. For example, a central question remains: Can we know, and if so, how can we know fundamental truths about what is necessary and possible about ourselves and the world? So we have know--interests in epistemology, can we know--interests in skepticism, how can we know--interests in methodological and metaphilosophical questions, funda-mental--interests in dependency and priority relations between things, necessary and possible--interest in the nature of metaphysical and epistemic necessity and possibility and the tests for them, and indeed interests in things like ethical, causal, temporal, doxastic, and experiential, and other kinds of modalities and so on, ourselves and the world--interests in metaphysics.

But at the very least the interests have been broadened. For example, I was very much put off by Hume when I first read him. I judged him to be pursuing philosophical questions inappropriately. I remember thinking that he was a bad psychologist, but at that time I did not understand what Hume was doing. And as I have come, I think, to understand his aims and methods more responsibly, I find him totally fascinating. A new "how," i.e., he is providing a new theory of "how," a new conception of rationality and epistemology, a new species of the fundamental and the necessary (here I mainly have in mind his theory of natural beliefs and primary instincts), a new approach to the self and world.

On the one hand, through this process I feel I have become increasingly mature philosophically. On the other, the more I appreciate, the more my positive missionary zeal evaporates, and I am less sure about what I want to defend. Although one thing I do think is characteristic of me is I typically feel that historically earlier systems get short shrift in contemporary debates, and I do very much enjoy discovering ways of exhibiting these positions as much better than credited.

Tiel: So you think, then, that these older positions in the modern era have contemporary relevance?

Tlumak: Well, first of all, let me say that even if I were a historicist who wholly rejected the notion of enduring problems that matter, I would conclude that the modern period, as well as the rest of the history of philosophy was relevant to contemporary thinking. For example, if the phenomenon of contemporary romantic love essentially involves certain ideas of privacy, intimacy, equality, reciprocity, self-transformation and so on that have a cultural, and so historical genesis, knowing the history would be crucial.

And if there are perennial issues of concern, modern philosophy is relevant, because it is such good philosophy. It would be bizarre not to seek its assistance. For example, Descartes's physical theory of vortices may be thoroughly discredited, but the desiderata that drove him to that theory still ought to be reckoned with. It is useful in answering questions about the nature and status of representationalism, the nature of good explanation including issues in teleology, the nature of persons, including issues of free agency, the nature of the world and God and their interrelationships, and how we should approach these issues in answering Kant's famous four philosophical questions, the nature of philosophy itself: What can we know? What ought I to do? What can I hope for? What is man? I think I could go on for a very long time here--all are important.

Tiel: Which of these philosophical doctrines are important to your central concerns?

Tlumak: The ones that are most central to my concerns have to do with the nature of and relationship between the first person, or subjective perspective, and varying degrees of objective approaches to the same problems. And I continue to believe that some of the modern contributions to this topic are superior to anything in our own time. Another good example is that so many contemporary philosophers fail to appreciate the significance of philosophical skepticism, and I think that this is a significant loss in their thinking.

I am also extremely interested in modern views about the nature of philosophy and closely related, the nature of necessity and possibility. So, for example, if you ask me what the central question of Kant's philosophy is, it is why one must proceed transcendentally in order to do philosophy properly at all. And to explicate that, inescapably, a certain account of the transcendentally necessary and the transcendentally possible and its relation to the empirically necessary and the empirically possible would have to emerge.

Tiel: But you take skepticism seriously?

Tlumak: I do take it seriously.

Tiel: What does that mean?

Tlumak: Let me preface my answer by pointing out that there are many possible forms of skepticism differing in modal strength, range of application, level of iteration, goals, and so on. And I take some of these forms seriously. Frankly, most of the forms that I do not take seriously haven't been held by anyone, or precious few, and there is a considerable amount of straw man argumentation that focuses on the inferior formulations.

Tlumak: Well, the most common example is the portrayal of skepticism as the view that I know that I know nothing, which is then exposed as self-referentially inconsistent, but I am not certain anyone ever held that. Carneades is offered as an example of someone who supposedly held that view; I cannot find it in there.

Tiel: So, what is a form of serious skepticism?

Tlumak: Well, there are many forms that I take seriously, but perhaps to be maximally contentious, I will include the familiar Cartesian modern form that wonders whether we can know anything about the existence and nature of the external world. Again, there are many others, and there are many senses in which I think that such forms of skepticism are significant.

Minimally, I take these forms of skepticism to be significant in that they are meaningful. I believe I can refute any argument designed to show that historically major forms of skepticism are meaningless or unintelligible or incoherent. Here many a straw man lies strewn.

Second, it is philosophically important and in many ways. But perhaps the most basic thing I can say here is that I believe a philosophy ought not be disinterested in how knowledge is possible, in which case it cannot be indifferent to skepticism, proposed naturalist and in general externalist approaches notwithstanding. For me there is no better way to articulate one's understanding of what a philosophy of knowledge is supposed to be and do than to examine skeptical strategies with exquisite care.

Tiel: Well, how does your commitment to take skepticism seriously affect your interests and your own philosophical development?

Tlumak: Well, perhaps the best way I can address that is to introduce an even deeper sense of significance, or more important sense of significance, which ties in most directly with my own current concerns. And that is the sense in which skepticism is significant in that it signifies or is revelatory or something deep, and now I want to say, not just about human knowledge, but about human nature, about all sorts of things--the urge to understand, to have self-control, and so on. As regards self-control, the strong hunch that I am now working with is that the deepest essential and sufficient source of global skepticism is concern about the possibility of self-control. Consequently, that other alleged requirements of skepticism, like metaphysical realism, detached perspective, epistemic universalizability, deductive closure, and so on are either no requirements at all of skepticism or are super-added worries that entail challenge to self-control. Consequently, the problems and solutions concerning free will and values strictly parallel problems and solutions concerning skepticism and knowledge.

Tiel: Can you give an example of this analogy?

Tlumak: Yes, and I am in the process of trying to confirm this historically, but an example of my thesis here would be that people who are, say, soft determinists, will if not inconsistent, hold at least a certain very limited range of theories about epistemological skepticism, and vice versa; and libertarians will hold other views; and hard determinists will hold other views. And so one of the things I am aiming to do is to use the considerable resources available in long-standing discussions of free will and values in order, first and foremost, to generate new possibilities in thinking about skepticism and knowledge and then to look at some of the very mature work that I respect on freedom to help me come up with more decisive responses to the issue of skepticism.

What I think will emerge from these parallels I have just described is that virtually all anti-skeptical strategies are in principle unpromising to the host of philosophers who share a certain core conception of self and agency. Consequently, only a certain highly restricted cluster of approaches has worthy prospects at all.

Tiel: Do you think that the modern philosophers were of this highly restricted variety? Or would they have missed the essential question?

Tlumak: No, I do not think they miss the essential question. Here I confess to being a little nonplussed about where all of this is going to pan out, because for a very long time, as antiquated as this philosophical posture might seem, I have not only been impressed by the genius of their development (by "their" I mean the rationalist philosophers' theories of agency) but actually lock, stock, and barrel subscribed to such views. And as I mentioned, Hume, for example, is someone who is an increasingly powerful philosophical figure to me, and I am a little stymied about some of these issues I am considering from Hume. But anyway, all of these people are in the right ballpark, and frankly, I hope to come up with a novel and powerful philosophical position on freedom and skepticism through a still more meticulous study of my philosophical heroes.

Tiel: Have you published anything on this particular question, or are you working on anything?

Tlumak: I have published things on skepticism and anti-skeptical strategies, and in particular on the in principle effectiveness of various anti-skeptical strategies, but I have not published anything on the current theme of skepticism and self-control. I should mention that the range of contemporary materials that have incited me most to these new ways of thinking include the recent work of Barry Stroud, Christopher Hookway, Michael Williams, Robert Kane, and Thomas Nagel. But none of their work seems quite right to me, and so I still have hopes of making an original contribution.

Tiel: Do you think that a philosophical system that does not address these issues of skepticism is incomplete?

Tlumak: Yes.

Tiel: Then it is essential to address these questions?

Tlumak: I think it is essential to address the questions even if by sheer fiat you say you simply do not want to write as a philosopher in epistemology, because what I am saying in effect is that the question of skepticism goes beyond questions of epistemology. Perhaps another way of putting the point, not equivalently, but similarly, is I am increasingly convinced there is no better diagnostic tool for determining one's conception of what philosophy is, and in particular what philosophy should aspire to achieve, than determining one's attitude toward certain crucial forms of skepticism.

Tiel: Then skepticism is a diagnostic method to you?

Tlumak: Well, it is a tool, but I am not saying it is merely a method. But I think that it is connected profoundly with so many other issues that an optimally efficient way of smoking someone out is to give him or her a short list of questions about a few especially important forms of skepticism on the basis of which you would then conclude, "Oh, he or she has such and such philosophical commitments."

Tiel: Can you give me an idea of what some of those questions would be?

Tlumak: I think that the fundamental issue that prompts skepticism and various anti-skeptical attitudes is the question of self-control. I can extend my earlier, short list if you want me to, that included things like deductive closure, epistemic universalizability, and so on. I will just give you one example. Some skeptical arguments no doubt appeal to what I am calling a principle of epistemic universalizability. Virtually any version of such a principle as I understand it would in effect say something like the following: you have claimed to know in the past and have subsequently conceded that you did not know. You now claim to know something. Nevertheless, you cannot tell me of any relevant difference between your current situation and these past situations. Therefore, by a kind of consistency requirement--which is what universalizability requirements really are--you cannot legitimately claim to know now. Notice the way I formulated this: I formulated it in terms of what you are able to tell or not tell, or to put it more generally, what you have access to or do not have access to. Therefore, if someone really did think that you could not mount serious skeptical argumentation unless you appealed at some juncture to some form of epistemic universalizability and that serious skeptical argumentation does exist, that person, I think, would be committed to an internalist conception of justification, that is, to a conception of justification in which agent access is essential. Whereas there might well be other requirements or maybe sufficient grounds for skepticism, like metaphysical realism, which in and of itself would not seem to commit one to internalism, and would obviously be equally congenial and maybe more congenial to various kinds of externalists. So this is what I have in mind, and why I think it is so important to itemize all the alleged requirements for skepticism to see which really are requirements and see what the relationships are between these various real and alleged requirements. Because doing all that properly will allow you to achieve this deeply helpful diagnosis of people's overall philosophical positions.

Tiel: A while back you talked admiringly about Kant, so I gather you have abiding interests in his work. Would you call yourself a Kantian?

Tlumak: I think in some very important respects, I would call myself a Kantian, but not across the board. Let me just say up front, as I said earlier, over the years I have become less rather than more confident about almost all of my philosophical views. I almost always see the costs as well as the benefits of embracing a position. But I do remain strongly drawn to many central components of Kantianism. For example, as unfashionable as at least part of this response will be, I confess that in the theory of cognition, I am inclined to accept almost all of the kinds of moves that Kant makes: distinguishing between singular and general representations, or what in Kant is intuitions and concepts, and insisting on the need for both; distinguishing between analytic and synthetic connections and defending the legitimacy and importance of doing so, indeed, even giving explanatory priority to synthesis; distinguishing between the empirical and transcendental ways of considering things and arguing that the former is impossible without the latter (although I might just add as an aside that I see this in less circumspect form in earlier rationalists like Descartes as well in the guise of innate ideas with true and immutable natures); and distinguishing between constitutive and regulative principles and not treating the latter as merely heuristic. In the theory of action, I take ethical rationalism very seriously; in fact, I believe a properly crafted categorical imperative is a necessary condition for morality, but while its use suffices to determine the prohibited, I do not believe it suffices to determine the obligatory or the right. Alan Gewirth, whom I mentioned earlier, is a challenging proponent of this ethical rationalist tradition, and by the way, I must credit Henry Allison as the superb proponent among contemporary authors of the theses I mentioned under Kant's theory of cognition.

Tiel: You talked about Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant in your remarks about modern philosophy, and yet another name keeps popping up--Hume. But he seems very different from the rationalists and even different from the rest of the moderns in his apparent willingness to advance some form of naturalism, so why the growing admiration for Hume?

Tlumak: First of all, I would have admiration for anyone who is the best proponent of any view that deserves or commands serious attention, and I increas- ingly feel that Hume is the best empiricist. But secondly, I still have high hopes for rationalism, and if those hopes come to fruition, then I will have this respect for Hume, but basically reject almost everything in his philosophy. Part of what I am suggesting is that, as one matures philosophically, surprisingly, one may see the bottom fall out from under one and suddenly feel obliged rationally to give up some long-standing commitment. That is what I take Hume to be doing. I take him to be saying in effect, "This whole cluster of concepts, this whole set of approaches cannot work. You can either then be skeptics, and say therefore, ÔWe should throw our hands up and give up,' or we should adopt a whole different, systematically different, approach to what are roughly the same problems that concerned us in the first place." And it is in that connection that I find Hume so stunningly good.

Tiel: Because you are interested in adopting that other approach?

Tlumak: No, I hope I am not driven to adopting it. I am not interested in adopting it. I do not want to adopt it, but the more I appreciate it, the more I am unable to dismiss it, and the less secure I am in the victory of the side to which I have long been wedded.

Tiel: But if skepticism were answerable, then would Hume's alternative approach be motivated?

Tlumak: In most respects, no, not as an approach to the original set of questions. He would still be saying interesting things about different questions, say about belief formation rather than belief justification.

Tiel: So you are more convinced that if skepticism turns out to be the victor, Hume's approach will nevertheless be cogent in some sense?

Tlumak: Let me clarify a bit. I think some forms of skepticism do win, but I do not find this very disturbing. I actually think some forms of skepticism are plain true, and that those who think they are obviously false are just not intellectually responsible. But especially in connection with the very possibility of agency, if I may put it that way, if skepticism wins in those respects, that would be too much to tolerate for me and then I need to look at some more radical alternative like Hume's.

Tiel: Prior to this we were talking about Kant and we talked a bit about his ethics. I was curious about the connections between your own moral views and epistemology and metaphysics.

Tlumak: Let me just say a few things in response to your question. You can begin to see some of the ways discussions in metaphysics such as that of free will connect for me with positions in epistemology. That is what we have just essentially been talking about. And there are several others, especially if you will allow me to classify philosophy of mind as a branch of metaphysics. In general, what we are and what the world is like should bear on whether, how, and to what extent we can know. On the other hand, I am dubious about most inferences from epistemology to metaphysics. Here I clearly depart from philosophical heroes like Descartes, much of whose epistemology and phenomenology, including the ineliminability of the first-person point of view, I accept, but virtually all of whose metaphysics I reject. This is a scary thing to say in public, since if someone reading this thinks it obvious or provable that, for example, Descartes's epistemological claims about the self entail his metaphysics of the self, they will naturally conclude that I am very confused and hold inconsistent beliefs. But anyhow, that is my current position.

Turning more specifically to your reference to moral theory, I am increasingly fascinated with the connections between moral philosophy and epistemology and think that some of the parallels are really breathtaking. Outstanding philosophers such as Rod Chisholm, William Alston, the late Roderick Firth, and others did some very important formative work in this area, and many others have contributed since--in virtue-theoretic accounts of knowledge and justification and so on--but more can be done here, I think.

But to give a totally direct response to your first question, some connections are straightforward. For example, I think of at least most belief as indirectly voluntary action, if we are talking about occurrent belief, or indirectly voluntarily produced propensity, if we are talking about dispositional belief, and hence, going back to your Kant question, insofar as I impose a strict deontological requirement on permissible action, I also impose a deontological requirement on justified belief. Indeed the ethics of belief is an extraordinarily interesting topic to me.

Tiel: What contribution do you think philosophy can offer to those pursuing the good life?

Tlumak: I am not sure I think there is such a thing as the good life. But I do tend to think there are good ways of living and superior ways of living. But since the task of even sketching the features of such good lives is so daunting, I will give a pedestrian answer, which has the virtue of being true. Many deeply satisfying and self-realizing ways of living centrally involve the skills and habits of mind characteristic of philosophy, and I would add even the sense of quest involved in doing philosophy. In this context at least I am really not making any kind of monistic claim, but I do think from virtually every point of view, including actual human experience, that in that group at the top of the heap are philosophical lives.

Tiel: We talked a good deal about your research interests and your own positions, but let's talk a bit about your teaching. What are your primary goals in your teaching?

Tlumak: Well, my primary goal as a teacher is to empower and dispose my student to teach him or herself better after knowing me. Most everything else I would say could be subsumed under this, including the basics such as improving reading, writing, and speaking through exposure to well-selected, rich, interesting, and important philosophical materials and talking about them. And actually, I am very proud that all the students who have worked more closely with me have been apt freely and with glee to challenge my views while they were still at Vanderbilt.

Tiel: How do you connect your research interests and your teaching? Do your research interests influence your teaching?

Tlumak: Naturally, I tend to teach things that I am interested in and comparatively good at, so in the broader sense of research interests, the connections are close. On the other hand I do not use course settings specifically to develop my own publication work. I always craft my courses with the idea of doing as well as I can for the students, and not with an eye toward saving me a month or two on some research project.

Tiel: Do you recommend this approach as a career enhancer?

Tlumak: Perhaps not. And let me say in all seriousness, I do not resist the policy of those who do tend to teach their latest, even relatively narrow research, in graduate settings especially, because no doubt, one huge service a graduate professor could make to his students would be to expose them to the fray of working through an incompletely resolved position. Of course even in teaching more standard materials, there is incomplete resolution. But to interact with someone with some edge in background as a genuinely joint inquirer is extremely valuable. I do not mean to say I never do that, but I tend to leave the burden of producing the good research product to the privacy of my study.