What should I ask Rebecca Kukla?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is her home page:

Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University

Also: amateur powerlifter and boxer and certified sommelier

I live in the middle of Washington, DC, with my 13-year-old son Eli and my two Portal-themed cats, Chell and Cube. My research focuses on social epistemology, philosophy of medicine, and philosophy of language. 

This interview is an excellent entry point into her thought and life, here is an excerpt from the introduction:

[Rebecca] talks about traveling the world with her nomadic parents, her father who was a holocaust survivor and philosopher, hearing the Dream argument in lieu of bedtime stories, chaotic exposure to religion, getting a job at and apartment at the age of 14, the queerness of Toronto, meeting John Waters and Cronenberg, her brother who is the world’s first openly transgender ordained rabbi, getting into ballet, combating an eating disorder, the importance of chosen family, co-authoring an article with her dad, developing an interest in philosophy of mathematics, the affordability of college in Canada, taking care of a disabled, dramatically uninsured loved one, going to University of Pitt for grad school, dealing with aggravated depression, working with Brandom, McDowell, the continental/analytic distinction, history of philosophy, how feminism and women—such as Tamara Horowitz, Annette Baier, and Jennifer Whiting–were treated at Pitt, coping with harassment from a member of the department, impostor syndrome, Dan Dennett and ‘freeedom’, her sweet first gig (in Vermont), dining with Bernie Sanders, spending a bad couple of years in Oregon, having a child, September 11th, securing tenure and becoming discontent at Carleton University, toying with the idea of becoming a wine importer, taking a sabbatical at Georgetown University which rekindled her love of philosophy, working on the pragmatics of language with Mark Lance, Mass Hysteria and the culture of pregnancy, how parenting informs her philosophy, moving to South Florida and the quirkiness of Tampa, getting an MA in Geography, science, philosophy and urban spaces, boxing, starting a group for people pursuing non-monogamous relationships, developing a course on Bojack Horseman, her current beau, Die Antwoord, Kendrick, Trump, and what she would do if she were queen of the world…

And from the interview itself:

I suspect that I’m basically unmentorable. I am self-destructively independent and stubborn, and deeply resentful of any attempt to control or patronize me, even when that’s not really a fair assessment of what is going on.

So what should I ask her?


Ask her what became of Fran and Ollie.

WOW! "Kennedy" and "ethics" in the same sentence. Just wow! Bet that doesn't happen often.


This is without a doubt the thread winner, we're done here.

What was the bar bro?

Clearly, about her diet, just as that topic came up with Martina Navratilova .

Or if she is interested in enjoying great sushi in a place with tacky carpet and annoying muzak, compared to an exotic suburban strip mall dining experience instead.

Or if she has ever been prescribed for Adderall.

Wikipedia informs us that Adderall was the name the marketing department came up with the chemical, with the subliminal intent (since it's a recreational drug): "attention deficient disorder meds for all" to encourage wide use.

What does she think about Noam Chomsky's theory of language?

Have any evolutionary arguments for language convinced her? There seems to be a huge gap between human's infinitely combinatorics of language and the finite mapping of sound->meaning of other animals.

What does her kid think of her polygamy?

1. What role do algorithms have in current and future life?
2. What boundaries should algorithms have?
3. If human decision making is imperfect, should perfectly designed algorithms make our decisions?
4. Are we snowflakes? Would our lives be better with more suffering?
5. What to do with the hedonic treadmill?

Admittedly, that's quite a bio - lived in Tampa! - but the "boxing" conveys a degree of dull conformity.

Said someone who has clearly never boxed.

Not being on the left, I don't have to fetishize boxing ... but I'm sure I would have been a great proficient! - had I tried making other people's brains roll around in their cerebral fluid.

Not only was Toronto a radically international, cosmopolitan, diverse city where dozens of languages were spoken on the streets, but ‘everyone’ in central Toronto in the 1980s was queer.

No they were not.

It was a time of massive, explosive flowering of gender identities and sexual orientations. Playing with gender and sex was just the norm.

No it was not.

Difficult for me to believe that this academic will have anything insightful to say about philosophy of language.

If she was someday awarded a Nobel or Lasker, what would it be for? (Work not yet done, I assume, since she's not done much of note to date afaik.)
Does she think of herself as primarily a creator of ideas or a popularizer of ideas?

Ask her if she believes in the power of transcendental numbers like the followers of Pythagoras did, and what exactly the SQRT(2) means to her, or the SQRT(-2)?

Bonus trivia: I am reading this paper now:
DATA TUNING by PETER HALL (c) 2001, Centre for Mathematics and its Applications, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia
Time was when altering one's data was sacrilegious. A major difficulty was that we didn't know how to do it objectively; altering the data according to objective criteria turns out to be a surprisingly computer-intensive business, and in many instances wouldn't have been feasible a decade or two ago. Today, however, thanks to the ready availability of computing power, we can do all sorts of complex things to our data. Data-tuning methods alter the data so as to enhance performance of a relatively elementary technique. The idea is to retain the advantageous features of the simpler method, and at the same time improve its performance in specific ways. Different approaches to data tuning include physically altering the data (data sharpening), reweighting or tilting the data (the biased bootstrap), adding extra " pseudo data" derived from the original data, or a combination of all three. Tilting methods date back to the 1950's, although only recently have they become popular. Evidence is growing, however, that sharpening is more effective than tilting, since it doesn't reduce effective sample size.

Thumbnail sketch of the three women highlighted by Dr. Kukla (which means, phonetically, Dr. Doll in Greek):

Tamara Horowitz (November 7, 1950 – January 30, 2000) was an American philosopher who worked on epistemology, feminist philosophy and the philosophy of science. She spent much of her career at the University of Pittsburgh, and was appointed chair of the philosophy department there in September 1999, but died a few months later. (That must have sucked)

Annette Claire Baier (née Stoop; 11 October 1929 – 2 November 2012) was a New Zealand philosopher and Hume scholar, focused in particular on Hume's moral psychology. Baier's approach to ethics is that women and men make their decisions about right and wrong based on different value systems: men take their moral decisions according to an idea of justice, while women are motivated by a sense of trust or caring. The history of philosophy having been overwhelmingly compiled by men, she suggests, leads to a body of thought which apparently ignores the role of nurture and trust in human philosophy.[2] (Elinor Ostrom might agree)

Jennifer Whiting is an American philosopher who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. She has also taught at Harvard and Cornell, and was (from 2003 to 2015) Chancellor Jackman Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.[1] Whiting’s work on personal identity takes concern for one’s future selves as a component of psychological continuity, and has been reprinted (alongside of work on that topic by philosophers ranging from Plato and Locke through Derek Parfit and Thomas Nagel) in a highly acclaimed anthology of readings in Metaphysics. Though most of her work in ancient philosophy has been on Aristotle, she has recently started to work on Plato, and published a radical re-reading of his allegedly tripartite psychology: “Psychic Contingency in the Republic” (in Plato on the Divided Self, Barney, Brennan, and Brittain eds., Oxford UP 2013).[9] (This chick is wild, what's a 'future self', your reputation? Or parallel universe self? And I bet she can read ancient Greek better than I can, a Greek).

Like ethical philosophy, mathematics has been insufficiently attuned to women's caring and trustful natures, leading to gaps in the field. For instance, the mind-blowing properties of an interesting number like 220 million have mostly been ignored. Fortunately, that is changing:


Well, at least she works in the philosophy of language. It sounds like she lives a fascinating life. But I am really dubious the extent such a person is capable of understanding how 90% of the population actually functions or behaves. Seems like a hurdle for describing or studying human behaviors.

Jack of all trades, master of none? Reminds me of a sexual harassment lawsuit I saw a while ago, by a woman psychologist who claimed when a male colleague exposed himself to her, she was so traumatized she could not function at work afterwards, since up until that time she had never seen male nudity. If true, how did this person become a psychologist?

i'm really curious why you think that you have to witness male nudity to become a psychologist.

A lot of people who go into Psychology and Psychiatry are doing this because they are trying to solve some personal problems. I've heard this from people in those fields, and have met a couple of cases personally.

'Seems like a hurdle for describing or studying human behaviors.'

Never seems to stop most economists.

Ask her about her third cat named Cake.


By the way, your comment made my day, Abby. I just couldn't stay quiet. :)

1. What is the role of religion in the postmodern world?
2. Since she seems to reject much of traditional culture, what does she think the traditionalists got right?

Has she ever met a Jesuit? Does Georgetown have any trace of catholicism left at all?

Great interview, I'm looking forward to the talk.

I'd like to hear more about her thinking on the role exercise and physical fitness play in her life, as it's clearly important to her. I might expect to read more about exercise on a "polyglot" blog, but it really doesn't seem to come up much. I don't recall the interviews with Navratilova and Kareem delving deeply into exercise per se either.

In Kukla's interview she said she can't sit still long enough to watch TV shows, citing short attention span. I would ask her about that, since most people have too short of an attention span to do anything but. Your average American would have too short an attention span to study philosophy, which she had no issues with (as far as I could tell, maybe her attention span was a hindrance).

Personally I'd rather not learn about which strip mall Chinese restaurant she likes best etc, but more about why she feels so confident in her ability to find good food.

I don't know why you would be skeptical of that in particular, but: this would actually be a great question. She has access only to the same resources the rest of us do, but INVARIABLY finds the most amazing place to eat in any backwater, time zone, food desert, or flyover state.

Come the apocalypse, the only two valuable skills left will be (a) blacksmithing, and (b) where to find amazing Thai food in Kansas.

How about, "why should I drink wine? Follow with "what bottle and with whom?"

My God, is there no limit to the pretentiousness of this woman (and I use the term in its loosest possible sense)?

Ask them what they think of the comments here.

A lot of folks are arguing for a push toward civility between members of different political persuasions, and for compromise and working together. McCain did this with his last big speech before he died. If one of the problems with current political rhetoric by the President is indeed that he is uncivil, and riled people up into vehement opposition and violent actions, then perhaps it makes sense to see civility and compromise as the way to create a better America going forward. Are civility and compromise the same thing? Is a civil society one that practices civility? What do you think about emphasis on civil behavior?

Why not live in va/md? What does dc do really well as a city? What is Similar about dc and Tampa? Which is better governed dc or Tampa and why?

Do you think it would be worse to date a Sea Lion or a Republican?

Not many philosophy professors would suddenly go for an MA in Urban Geography. Trace that line for us. What is the connection between philosophy and geography? What do you see as the philosophical part of the geography pursuit, or is it rather that geography has nothing to do with philosophy and instead it is a sweet relief to be doing something so completely separate from your day job?

Who is the straightest dude she knows and what are the characteristics that make him appear so very straight and why does she think he does that?

Should more teenagers become Instagram influencers? How would being an instagram personality constrain your later career?

1.Her views on sexual consent. 2. Why sexual come-ons are made indirectly and whether it's OK.

why do we admire self-destructively independent characters in movies but judge them poorly in real life?

What does she think of the re-emergence of the Stoics?

What lessons are in the perfectly honest feedback of powerlifting (ie you lifted the weight or you didn’t)? How many of them translate to other mediums where the feedback is much muddier, Eg when discussing a raise with your boss, negotiating where to eat with your spouse, or how to solve a difficult math problem?

Cowen is drawn to odd characters; I like the odd characters and Cowen for being drawn to them and sharing his time with them. Tampa is quirky. It is a very ethnic city, Anglos, Spanish, Cuban, Italian, Greek, etc., each with its own neighborhoods. From the linked interview, I suspect Kukla lived in one of the ethnic neighborhoods. Artists and musicians are drawn there. Then there's the Anglo section, south Tampa, Kennedy Blvd. the dividing line between there and nowhere, nowhere being shorthand for the godawful suburbs around Tampa.

1. Defend neoliberalism to her and ask her to respond.
2. Why are academics so reluctant to admit the dangers of socialism?
3. Can analytic philosophy defend itself from the rising threat of speech restrictions? Are we doomed to more and more Rebecca-Tuvel-style incidents?
4. Why aren't analytic philosophers as influential in the US and the UK as continental philosophers are in Germany, France, Italy?
5. What is right and what is wrong with Kate Manne's account of misogyny and sexism?
6. Underrated/overrated: Jordan Peterson, Masha Gessen, Camille Paglia.

Ethics? Which ethics?

Morality? Which morality?

Enough moralizing language was used during the mid-term elections just concluded: the fact that so many candidates took pains to cite "moral" and "ethical" positions or to invoke "morality" or "ethics", et cetera, to stake out assertions of moral/ethical force was a quaint exercise: but with no reigning political or social consensus about the constituency of "morality"/"ethics" today, the language being used quickly becomes meaningless.

How long might Americans persist with their resort to ad hoc and/or emotivist ethics, since deontological ethics seems to have no growing appeal and since ethical thinking for so many has become detached from traditional religious affiliation and sentiment?

It always boggles my mind how people like this are so unable to connect their beliefs, habits and living situations with their depression and other mental disorders.

You are fairly short. So why does it seem so difficult for you to get over yourself?

I’m going to take the high road here, but that’s not quite how it happened. Congrats on the interview!

1. Editors of academic journals picking and choosing authors sans anonymous review - why do you think this a good idea?
2. Is it ethical to continue academic collaborations with sexual harassers and to allow them to continue supervising PhD students?
3. Why do defenses of Rebecca Tuvel's work amount in your view to attacks on marginalized people?

If you haven’t done the interview yet, you should ask her about responding (on Facebook) to a talk given by a graduate student and a postdoc by calling them “terrible, awful philosophers with no talent”.


You should ask her about her diet and fitness goals.

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