Coffee with Claire Kirwin

claire portrait

Portrait by Meera Joshi

The Review recently sat down with Claire Kirwin, a graduate student in the philosophy department completing a dissertation titled “Value Realism and the First Person Perspective,” to talk about the discipline, her research, teaching philosophy, and representation in the field. The following are excerpts from that conversation, which has been lightly edited by approval

DAVID: It’s interesting that philosophy really isn’t taught at the pre-collegiate level. In high school, I had never heard of a philosopher. I wonder if it’s a detriment to the discipline that it isn’t taught early on. I think I would have thought differently about my other studies had it been taught.

CLAIRE: I don’t know what the essence of philosophy is such that if someone said to me, “hey, teach a philosophy class to a bunch of high schoolers” that I would know where to start. This is something that various philosophers have strong opinions on, which is how you teach your introduction to philosophy class. What does it mean to introduce someone to philosophy? Some people are very keen on the historical approach, giving people an idea of them entering into a particular tradition with a particular history which is the Western tradition of thought as it has been recorded. Other people think the history of philosophy is like the history of science, that history is completely irrelevant. Anything important from Plato we’ve taken and learned, and what philosophy is really about is the nature of argument and so we need to be dealing with contemporary issues and anything else is a betrayal of what’s at the heart of philosophy.

I’m having a bit of an existential crisis about philosophy at the moment. I’m not sure what the essence of philosophy is. A lot of people need to think about things clearly, so everyone needs philosophy in some sense, but a lot of that thinking doesn’t count as ‘philosophy’ in the academic sense. It seems that the discipline of philosophy has become about thinking very specific things in a very specific way, which is supposedly a very clear way.

DAVID: It’s interesting because philosophy isn’t usually very clear in talking to the people that apparently need to be thinking very clearly about those things.

CLAIRE: Right, and this has been a mark of the analytic/continental distinction, that analytic philosophers have liked to think they are the ones who speak clearly and are not willfully obscure. But if you were to open a book by a typical contemporary analytic philosopher, and not even show it to someone on the street but to someone in another field of philosophy, the technical language doesn’t really allow for conversation. That seems very strange to me given that Socrates would just grab people from the square. It would be nice if we could work to become a discipline that has things to say to ‘ordinary’ people, to people who aren’t knee-deep in the academy. And this is certainly connected to the well-known problems of climate and diversity in philosophy.

DAVID: This is one of the questions we had, diversity in philosophy, but we didn’t really know how to frame it other than “what do you think about this?”

CLAIRE: Well, if I was talking one on one with someone, this is something I’d want to tell them. If you’re a person of color, or a woman, or a queer person, a trans person, someone who doesn’t conform to the gender binary, if you don’t look like the average philosopher looks, you’re going to be held to a higher standard than your peers. You’ll be considered representative of the group you’re in in a way that can be distressing and painful.

The discipline of philosophy is in extremely bad shape when it comes to this kind of thing. This is something that maybe maybe philosophy is getting better about realizing. If you look at our diversity numbers, it’s worse than math or science. That’s insane.

There’s serious talk about why this is and how we can change. The unfortunate side effect for people going into philosophy now is that a lot of well-meaning people will ask them to do a lot of work on behalf of their identity group. If you’re a woman, you’ll have to sit on a lot of committees because all the committees need a woman and there aren’t many women, so you end up sitting on all the committees. There are endless conversations about what it means to be a woman in philosophy, which is maybe necessary but also annoying, because I’m a person in philosophy with individual experiences. A lot of the steps that it takes to make the discipline better end up taking a lot of work on the part of the very people who are already suffering.

Anyway, I’m glad that philosophy is starting to take this critical look at itself as a discipline. It’s also had the welcome side-effect, from my point of view as someone interested in what’s sometimes called ‘meta-philosophy’, of raising questions about philosophy’s methodology—of what it means to make philosophical arguments.

In writing my thesis, I’ve discovered I’d like to write something that might actually change someone’s mind, which is something virtually no philosophy does. The reason is that I changed my mind about something. So, my thesis is about getting people to change their mind in the way my mind had been changed. The methodology—I’m construing it as a sort of dialogue with the reader—is about getting them to think about things in their own life. In particular, I ask the reader to think about their own psychological states and how they relate to them. And then I argue that the position held by what are called metaethical anti-realists is not compatible with what’s involved in actually being a person with a mind. So, getting someone to see that is not just a matter of offering premises and demonstrating that I have a sound argument. It’s about getting someone to see something.

DAVID: So you think the aim to change someone’s mind, or to influence the way someone thinks, is different than a combative view of philosophy, where there is victory and defeat?

CLAIRE: One way of looking at the combative approach is that it would be the best way of clarifying the truth, like if you try your hardest to defend a particular view and I try my hardest to defeat it, then at the very least, we will know the weak spots in the view. If you come up with a view and I can’t defeat it, in a sort of echo of the scientific method, then we can hold that last undefeated view as successful for now. That’s one part of the hope, that the combative view is the most efficient way to get to the truth.

There’s another part which is that defeating someone in argument is getting them to concede that you’re right. I don’t think that happens often in philosophy. More often, someone concedes that right now, they don’t yet have an answer to your argument. Very few people are like, “you’re right, I’ve been thinking wrongly about this, I need to change my mind” and actually change their mind.

DAVID: Yeah, the idea is totally foreign to me, that someone would actually give up a philosophical position.

CLAIRE: But it’s also wild that they wouldn’t, right? Suppose that the reason the method works is that it helps us get to the truth. If my argument is better than yours, shouldn’t you believe it? And why don’t you?

DAVID: Well, and this is a problem for practice-able philosophy. If you’ve got a moral theory, and I believe it, why don’t I just go and do it? Why don’t I live the philosophies I agree with? If I agree with it, and knowing it means that I’ll go along with it –

CLAIRE: That’s a distinctive kind of difficulty I think, which is the question of, in the acute form, weakness of will. How can I know the right thing and not do it? Some philosophers have thought that’s conceptually impossible. Nonetheless, there seems to be this familiar experience that we want to describe as knowing it isn’t right, but doing it anyway. Given that I’m a practical philosopher, it’s extremely interesting to me because it’s the area of moral philosophy most familiar to ordinary people.

Now, I’m inclined to think that in a great many of these cases, my knowledge of ‘the right thing to do’ is imperfect or incomplete. Students talk about procrastination examples, that we should be writing a paper and instead go to a party. In women’s magazines, it’s dieting: I know I shouldn’t eat the cake but I do it anyway. I think all of these dilemmas make more sense if you think of them in a politicized context, which is something moral philosophers don’t do very often. It’s not necessarily an accident that we think we should do something and don’t. We live within a form of life, capitalism, that sustains itself in part through ideology, through the habits and assumptions that we take for granted, like the idea that “I should be working right now”. But, in an ideal world, should you? … in some cases it might be that the supposed weakness of will is the person tapping into a part of the soul telling them that this is not what life is for. It seems weirdly pointless to me to imagine these cases without attending to this broader context.

My interest is in thinking about value and the questions about value that come up in our actual lives. That’s my interest both within and beyond the academy, as a philosopher and a person. That’s why I’m drawn to philosophy, because it might have something to tell us about life. I think it’s a weakness of academic philosophy that it hasn’t been very in touch with the realities of the world. And that’s not disconnected from what we were talking about earlier, those questions about how minorities fare in the discipline. If philosophy was more engaged in the real world, in political questions, as part of the way it approached its own questions, if it thought about these abstract problems in the context of the world we live in, then that might be a step toward creating a better environment.

DAVID: Maybe there’s a connection here between weakness of will and the little bit that I know about your thesis, which is about value realism. If the value is out there in the objects, does knowing this help us to figure out what the right thing to do is? Should I eat the cake, or not?

CLAIRE: Yes, in one sense, I don’t give an answer to that question, but I’ll explain why. In the dissertation, I am defending what’s called value realism. I consider value to be something out there in the world that we can discover. Some of my opponents contend that it’s not there at all, basically we imagine it. The third position, which is maybe the most common, is that some things are valuable, but the reason for that value lies in the person somehow, for instance in what she happens to prefer.

DAVID: Is what’s at stake that you can wrongly value something?

CLAIRE: Well, of course some of my opponents think you’re always wrong whenever you value anything, because nothing is valuable. I think you go wrong in valuing things because the fact of the matter is out there, ‘the good is out there’, as it were. But people who hold what I called the third position also want to say that people can go wrong, but those cases are ones like this: say I have a desire to drink coffee. No, tea, I’m British, so this is more appropriate, although I have started developing my taste for coffee recently… If I have a desire to drink tea and think there’s tea in this cup, I ascribe value to my drinking the liquid in this cup. But if it’s actually coffee in the cup, then I’ve wrongly ascribed value to drinking that liquid. So my opponents here think that that my wrongness boils down to being wrong about what’s in the cup, but not fundamentally about the value of tea itself. Which is understandable, since it is kind of weird to think that tea is objectively valuable, isn’t it? But that’s what I’m claiming in my dissertation. I want value realism all the way down to preferences. My slightly radical alternative is that value in all things can be located in the world, but that the difference in how we pursue value is that we have different expertise when it comes to experiencing the value.

I have friends who value classical music, but I don’t see it for all kinds of reasons. I’m not terribly good at recognizing the value in things like opera. But there are all kinds of things I am good at seeing the value in, such as running, slowly, along the lake. I think this is valuable and those who don’t are missing something.

This assumes that there are all kinds of value out in the world but that we are limited creatures in gaining expertise for all the different kinds of value. I also think that it’s the case that achieving expertise in some areas will make it difficult to see the value in other things … maybe there’s some good to opera, but in order to see it I have to relinquish the Marxist part of my soul. I would have to give up on some other things that I see to be valuable.

The reason this doesn’t answer your initial question is that this view doesn’t allow me to say whether I ought to start to explore the value of opera. It just tells me that, if I should, the value lies in opera and not something in my head. This is why what I’m doing is called metaethics. It’s not about what’s actually good, but what it means for things to be good.

Anyway, if you’re really good at seeing a particular kind of good, then maybe it makes sense for you to pursue it … If you’re doing origami and I ask why you’re wasting your time folding bits of paper, but you tell me “look at the beautiful thing that it produces” and I think “oh yes, that’s quite beautiful” then maybe I can start to see the value of what you’re doing even if I don’t want to rush out and do origami.

DAVID: Which is good because then I can know what you’re doing without having to do it. Just because I see, even in an incomplete way, the good of what you’re doing, that doesn’t mean it would be good for me to pursue that value.

CLAIRE: … And I think there are sometimes things you can be stuck with that prevent you from accessing particular areas of value. If I were born deaf, I think my chances of valuing opera would be limited. On the other hand, maybe I’d have especially good skills at gaining expertise in other areas. And while certain things may limit you from fully seeing certain value, I think it’s true that we can introduce each other to new kinds of value. You can come to ‘get’ something that you didn’t get before. Returning to tea and coffee, where perhaps my view is at its most strange, as it turns out, I now think that both tea and coffee have value. When someone chooses a particular preference, like coffee, its easy to mistake the triviality of their preference for non-value. Yet there is still this phenomenology of coming to see the value of supposedly trivial preferences. When someone first starts drinking wine, they are fine with the $5 wine, but eventually they can come to realize the value of the nicer wine. For me it was coffee, which I’ve started getting in to. Now I think I’ve come to get it, the difference between Starbucks coffee and the nice coffee at this independent coffee shop, and I think it wasn’t just an arbitrary shift in my preferences. That would be pointless (and end up costing me money unnecessarily)… instead, I think this coffee does actually taste better.

DAVID: And this would be a change in expertise, which is crazy.

CLAIRE: Right! But that’s what I think.

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