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Suki Finn Interviews Romina Padró

S: What got you interested in philosophy?

R: In high school I thought I was more interested in literature than philosophy. But of all the writers I had been reading, Jorge Luis Borges was the one I was most interested in. He wrote mostly short stories and poems, often discussing matters of philosophical import – he has indeed been quoted by several philosophers, most famously by David Lewis (and Michel Foucault). Because Borges was such a philosophical writer, I realized that my interest was more in philosophy than in literature per se. So you might say that I got into philosophy through Borges. As you probably know, he was Argentinian, and he was very rooted in Argentinian culture.

S: Are you also from Argentina?

R: Yes, I was born in Argentina and that is where I started my career in philosophy, at the University of Buenos Aires. Later on, I moved to New York to do my PhD and work at the City University of New York, Graduate Centre.

S: What was the academic culture like in the Philosophy Department in Argentina, and did it strike you as different when you moved to New York?

R: The main difference was not really in the way philosophy was done, since there are very good philosophers in Argentina. But in New York it is much easier to keep a sort of ongoing conversation with other philosophers, and to know what they are working on right now, as you are continuously being exposed to conferences, workshops, hallway conversations, etc. And there is a lot going on. Philosophically speaking, New York is a very stimulating city.

Another main difference, which I found rather surprising, was in the scarce representation of women in philosophy departments. In Argentina, I had many women professors, and when I started my undergraduate degree in philosophy (which is very different there, basically six years of just philosophy courses) the student population was roughly half women half men – I even think more women actually completed the degree! It was a very fair and balanced environment for me to grow professionally. So when I moved to New York, it certainly came as a surprise that there were very few women doing philosophy. There are more now, but at the time, I think, we were only five or six female graduate students at CUNY, and the situation wasn’t any better at other universities in the area. I had never experienced that before, and I am not sure what it is about Argentina that created this sort of level ground entering into the degree, and also among the faculty. I was recently back there for a conference and someone told me that at the University of Buenos Aires – the most prestigious university in the country – there are currently more women than men in the most senior faculty positions in philosophy. Apparently, that is not the case in other Latin America countries; it seems to be quite unique of Argentina, and it is very striking.

S: What do you think is special about Argentina in this respect?

R: As I said, I don’t know the reasons and I haven’t done any serious thinking about this. I am just talking from my own experience, though I suspect that it has little to do with Argentina being unprejudiced against women. A casual conversation a male classmate and I had with an acquaintance of mine when I was still an undergraduate comes to mind. My acquaintance said it was all right for me to study philosophy, but he couldn’t understand why a man would do so. “Wouldn’t you rather do something useful?”, he said to my classmate. So maybe something like that is what is going on: it is okay for women to waste their time in whatever way they find entertaining, including doing philosophy, but men should do ‘real work’! I call this ‘prejudice interference’, you know, like interfering waves in physics, because prejudices against women and philosophy have an interfering effect on each other.

S: Do you think you would have succeeded in this career as much as you have were you to have studied somewhere else other than Argentina where there was a lower representation of women?

R: It is very hard to say what my path would have been. But one thing I will say is this. I think my background put me in a somewhat privileged position when I moved to New York. It did seem a weird circumstance that there were way more men than women doing philosophy in New York, but I don’t think I read much into it, and it actually took me a while to notice this fact. It was probably because of my background, because I hadn’t been exposed to this problem, and I didn’t feel that my gender would make much of a difference. It was good for me in those forming years not to feel like a rarity, so to speak, or to fear that I wasn’t going to be heard in the same way. So it probably helped me, I would say.

There is still, of course, a lot to be done to create a more equal environment for women in philosophy. But I think the situation has improved in the last few years. At CUNY, for example, many more women are now being admitted to the PhD program. And I have also perceived a change in our own attitude. Both female students and faculty seem now to be more willing to speak up in general, not just bringing up issues related to the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated field, but also asking questions and raising objections at conferences and classes. These two aspects are most likely correlated, and I am hopeful to see much more of this in the coming years.

S: So what is your role at CUNY?

R: I am the Director of the Saul Kripke Centre. The main work we do at the Centre has to do with the preservation of the archive and the publication of Saul Kripke’s work. As many people know, about 70% of Saul’s work is still unpublished, and a lot of it is on old reel to reel or cassette tapes. These tapes go back to the 70’s at least, and we also have manuscripts, letters, notes, and transcriptions of lectures from the late 50’s onwards on very diverse topics. There are literally thousands of pages of manuscripts and thousands of hours of tapes. Because over time all this material – especially the tapes – will obviously deteriorate, we are making a digital archive of everything we have. We also spend time tracking down letters, students’ notes, alternative versions of lectures, etc. that for some reason we don’t have in the archive.

The second main task is bringing this material to publication. Oliver Marshall, the Assistant Director, supervises the work done by the Centre’s Fellows and other students working for the Centre, like the transcription of tapes and the initial editing of the transcripts. I go over the transcripts and select the projects, and then work with Saul on rewriting and editing the material for publication. Needless to say, we also spend a good bit of the time working on papers that, as Saul says, are ‘only in his mind’.

And besides all this – as you very well know because I met you there! – I also teach seminars at the Graduate Centre.

S: What is it like to work with Saul Kripke?

R: I have been working with Saul for a very long time, even before the establishment of the Saul Kripke Centre. It is actually a lot of fun to work with him, he really enjoys doing philosophy and he does it in a way that probably most people don’t, letting himself be genuinely surprised by philosophical problems. When he gets down to it, his enthusiasm can be contagious. He really cares about what he is arguing, and working with him constantly reminds me that the whole point of doing philosophy is really to enjoy the process of thinking about the issues and trying to remain true to, as he would probably say here, ‘your own intuitions’.

I think it is important for Saul to have someone to work with, and probably not at all accidental that most of his work is based on transcripts of lectures. Having feedback from an audience seems to be an important part of the process for him. And I guess that going over the manuscripts with me reproduces a bit of that situation: we spend a lot of time discussing examples, possible objections, and so on, and I think all that helps. I would say he is kind of Socratic in his approach.

S: Can you name some published works that have been created out of the Centre that you worked from out of these manuscripts and tape recordings?

R: The first book I worked on with Saul was Philosophical Troubles, and that took us quite a long time to put out. It is a collection of papers, many of which were not previously published. Another remarkable thing about working with Saul comes from his incredible range. In that volume alone, there are papers on linguistics, modal logic, the theory of truth, epistemology, etc. Working with him took me to very different areas of philosophy that I wouldn’t probably have explored if it hadn’t been for my collaboration with him. This book was quite a challenge because we had to jump from chapter to chapter between completely different topics. The second book we worked on together, Reference and Existence, is based on his John Locke lectures, which are continuation of his ideas from Naming and Necessity but applied to the topic of fiction and other issues involving apparently vacuous reference. We are now working on the next volume of his collected papers series, Logical Troubles, which will focus on his technical work (with the exclusion of his work on modal logic, which will appear in Modal Troubles), and a second edition of Naming and Necessity that will contain the original audio of the lectures. On top of that, we have also been spending time on things like a paper on Collingwood, a paper discussing an aspect of Maimonides’s interpretation of the Mishna, and a paper on a temporal interpretation of Brouwerian free choice sequences. So, you see, extremely diverse topics.

S: Given the diversity of topics that you have delved into with Saul, what are your own specific research interests?

R: I have been interested in the epistemology of logic for quite a while now. This is something I started working on when I was in Argentina. At the time, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about intuitionism and Dummett. When I moved to New York I started reading other things and, while working at the Centre, I came across a set of unpublished lectures that Saul gave on the nature of logic and logical revisionism. His main target in these lectures was Putnam’s proposal for the revision of classical logic in favour of quantum logic, but among the arguments he gives against this proposal there is one that I found particularly interesting. It is inspired in Lewis Carroll’s famous note “What the Tortoise said to Achilles”, and I thought that it was not only interesting for the question of revisionism but also for thinking about some central issues in the epistemology of logic more related to the nature of inferring and the question of the justification of logic. I wrote my dissertation on this problem, which I call the ‘adoption problem’, and now I am continuing that work and turning the dissertation into a book.

S: So what is this adoption problem?

R: Well, it is best explained by means of an example. I think of someone – I call him “Harry” – who has never inferred in accordance with a very basic logical principle such as Universal Instantiation. We want to help him out, so we state the principle for him and tell him to ‘adopt’ it. Adopting it would mean that Harry picks up a way of inferring in accordance with this principle on the basis of having accepted the principle we stated for him. So it is a two-phase process: first comes Harry’s acceptance of the principle and then, in virtue of it, he is supposed to develop a practice of inferring in accordance with the principle. But now we want to see if he has indeed adopted UI, whether he has developed an inferential practice that accords with UI on the basis of the acceptance of the principle. So we ask Harry to read the following: ‘all the animals in the movie Madagascar talk’ and ‘Alex the lion is the cutest animal featured in the movie Madagascar’, and then we ask him whether Alex the lion talks. And he says ‘I have no idea, I told you I haven’t seen the movie’. Basically, the idea is that our stating the principle for him and his acceptance of it would not help him; in order to apply the principle to particular cases he already needs to be able to perform universal instantiations, as the principle itself is a universal statement. The situation does not improve if we switch from a logical implication to a rule of inference, and similar problems arise with other logical principles, such as Modus Ponens and Adjunction. It would be impossible when it comes to certain very basic logical principles for someone to develop the corresponding inferential practice merely in virtue of the acceptance of these principles themselves, because the capacity to infer in accordance with them is presupposed in their application. So acceptance is insufficient to put the principles to use. In short, I state the problem by saying that certain basic logical principles cannot be adopted because, if a subject already infers in accordance with them, no adoption is needed, and if the subject does not infer in accordance with them, no adoption is possible.

The problem challenges the idea that basic rules of inference play a fundamental role in a thinker’s basic inferential transitions. We have this amazing capacity for performing inferential transitions that accord with basic logical rules in extremely different contexts and with very diverse contents. And it is natural to suppose that it is because we have somehow accepted (either explicitly or implicitly) the relevant rules of inference that we are able to perform such transitions. How else would we explain this capacity? But, at least in my view, the adoption problem brings exactly that into question.

S: Is that then the main conclusion of the problem – that some basic logical principles cannot be adopted?

R: Yes, but it also has consequences for a range of views on the justification of the logical principles themselves. Saul argues that the Quinean conception of logic presupposes that the adoption of such basic principles ought to be possible. I argue that appeals to rational intuition are either subject to the adoption problem or trivial. And I also think that another popular view, the so-called meaning-constituting or concept based accounts, run into trouble with the adoption problem. And all this suggests another moral to me: that we ought to pay closer attention to the nature of basic inferring itself before trying to solve the problem of justifying the logical principles.

S: How does all this relate to Kripkenstein? Do you think the adoption problem leads us back to a rule-following problem?

R: It is clear that the problems are related. Saul says in his lectures on the nature of logic that they are, but since at the time Wittgenstein: On Rules and Private Language had not been published, his audience was not familiar with it and so he doesn’t say anything about what the relation is supposed to be. I think the adoption problem could be seen as a different way of formulating the rule-following problem. In the Wittgenstein book it is first formulated in terms of the impossibility of determining which rule is being followed. This leaves the person being challenged by the sceptic without any justification for his present application of the rule. But, ultimately, the conclusion is metaphysical: if we ‘looked into our minds’ we would simply realize that there is no rule to be found. So if rule-following is thought that way, as an instruction that each of us accesses in the privacy of our own minds, it would seem that the conclusion has to be that it is not possible. In the case of the adoption problem the issue is not how to determine the rule and account for its application, since there is in fact no application of the rule of inference. The problem is rather how to apply it at all. We have stated the rule Harry is supposed to ‘adopt’, but because the application of the rule to particular cases requires an inferential transition in accordance with Universal Instantiation – something that by hypothesis he doesn’t do – he is unable to put it to use. It looks as if for Harry the rule is unfollowable, it doesn’t give any guidance to someone who doesn’t infer in accordance with it already. And this is very puzzling because that is what rules in general are supposed to do, and we may wonder what the role of a rule that cannot be followed if not observed already could possibly be.

So these are clearly two different ways of bringing up problems related to rule-following, but I think that ultimately they bring up the same main issue: how is rule-following possible? And both emphasize the importance of having a practice already in place for rule-following to be possible.

S: So analogously to the Kripkenstein position which Kripke developed from Wittgenstein’s rule-following problem, do you think you, Romina Padró, have developed a Padripke position on the basis of Kripke and the adoption problem?

R: I think Saul would certainly want to distance himself from the solution to the rule-following problem given in the Wittgenstein book. At some points he expresses some sort of uneasiness with the sceptical solution, and though this is very well kept from the readers, his heart truly is with views related to what he there calls ‘Platonism’ – which is surprising, since he dismisses it very quickly. This is clear in the case of logic: he thinks that some kind of rational intuition is at play when it comes to basic inferences. Unfortunately, as I said, I don’t think that rational intuition views are helpful with the adoption problem. My main concern is that if we accept that rules such as Universal Instatiation don’t have a fundamental or constitutive role to play in a subject’s basic inferential transitions, a Wittgensteinian-like position, where practices and communities are central, becomes hard to avoid. So the worry is that the adoption problem may be leaving us dangerously close to the sceptical solution Saul gives on Wittgenstein’s behalf.  

S: So is this what we can expect to see from you in future work, a way of avoiding a Wittgensteinian position as a response to the adoption problem?

R: Well, it is a very difficult issue. We should still be able to give a meaningful explanation of this capacity that we have of performing inferences that accord with basic rules of inferences. And the question is whether this is possible once the rules are denied a grounding role. And, at least for me, it would be important to salvage as much as possible of the objectivity of logic. As said, most of this material is in my dissertation and I am working to turn it into a book.

S: Can we already access your dissertation somewhere to get a sneaky preview of what to expect in the book?

R: My dissertation is available online under the title ‘What the Tortoise said to Kripke: the Adoption Problem and the Epistemology of Logic’. We are also working on the publication of a group of papers on the adoption problem that will contain Saul’s original lecture and papers by others, including myself.

S: Thank you Romina! That sounds great! It was a pleasure talking.

 

Romina Padro (PhD, CUNY Graduate Center) is Director of the Saul Kripke Centre and Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Centre at CUNY. Her main research is in epistemology, especially in epistemology of logic, and in philosophy of language.
 Suki Finn is a SWIP Ireland member, an Associate Lecturer in Philosophy (University of York), and a Research Assistant on the ‘When Experts Disagree’ project funded by the Irish Research Council (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies/University College Dublin).

 

This interview appears in The Reasoner 10(9), September 2016. See www.thereasoner.org

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