Interviewed by David Osipovich
DO: I'd like you tell me a little bit about your background, both personally and professionally. How did you get to where you are now? Give me a brief version of your life story.
JM: Well, I got my BA in Spain, and there I got interested in the philosophy of language, particularly the analytic tradition - Frege, Wittgenstein, contemporary American. Then I decided to come to this country to get my Ph.D. I went to Northwestern. I wrote my dissertation on Wittgenstein. Now I work mainly in philosophy of language and philosophy of mind.
DO: What made you come to the States from Spain? Why here?
JM: Because it looked to me, at that time, as though everything interesting that was happening in philosophy of language was happening here. Even Continental philosophers, who I was reading and who I was interested in studying further, like Habermas and Derrida, even these people were here, teaching at various American Universities. So I thought it would be a good idea for me to come to the States, to get my graduate degree here, and then, well…after a while it gets harder and harder to go back to Europe, so…
DO: What's the state of philosophy in Spain?
JM: There is strength in the history of philosophy. There are many ancient and medieval scholars who are internationally known. There are some good analytic philosophers, in particular in philosophy of science. And there are quite a few people working in phenomenology, hermeneutics, and critical theory.
DO: Do you have any ties to the Spanish philosophical community?
JM: A little bit. I know some people in Madrid, Barcelona, and Sevilla, people working in philosophy of language and philosophy of science.
DO: From reading some of your published work, I have formed an idea of your scholarly interests. Tell me if the following is a fair characterization. It seems that you work in two main areas. On the one hand you have a commitment to realism and to deflationism. On the other hand, you seem to be committed to contextualism and pluralism. If we were to assign to these interests figures in the history of philosophy, we might call one the Michael Williams area of interest and the other the Wittgenstein area of interest.
JM: That is a fair characterization. I mean, I take it that it characterizes more my approach to the philosophical issues that I study than the area, or the set of issues, that I work on. But it is a fair characterization of the main features of the philosophical methodology that I use. I would say that in general I work on the intelligibility of language, the distinction between sense and nonsense, and on all kinds of core semantic notions that are crucial for that theme: meaning, reference, truth, etc. And then in philosophy of mind, the main topic that I study is personal identity. The approach that I use to study both of these issues is, as you said, a deflationary approach which is at the same time a minimally realist approach. And one of the main characteristics of this approach is contextualism amidst pluralism. I mean I would really say that the way in which I want to deflate some of the most basic notions in philosophy of language and philosophy of mind is by emphasizing three features when it comes to basic notions like truth or meaning or reference. The three features are, first, contextuality - we cannot make sense of these notions unless they are situated in a specific context. Second, normativity - these are normative, not descriptive, notions and we have to account for the normative force that they have. Finally, performativity - these are notion that have to do with the performances of particular practitioners in particularly situated activities. And the theory of performativity of course is something that, like the theory of normativity and the theory of contextuality, can be found in the later Wittgenstein. They can also be found, I think, in some hermeneutic philosophers, like Gadamer. They can also be found in neo-pragmatists like Rorty and Brandom, and others. And even in some continental philosophers who I'm also very interested in, like Foucault, Bakhtin, and other people. In personal identity probably the most famous theory of performativity is Judith Butler's, her performative account of gender and sexuality.
DO: It seems that there is something very definite that you want your work to yield. You seem to be driving somewhere, trying to employ this particular methodology on this set of issues in order to construct a philosophically defensible space for difference that doesn't collapse into relativism, and that provides all the goodies of realism as well as all the goodies of pluralism and contextualism. Could you say more on how such a space might be constructed?
JM: Right, well, precisely in the way that I try to develop a deflationary account of these semantic notions, and also the kind of deflationism that tries to criticize traditional metaphysical views and traditional absolute conceptions of normativity and truth and so on. But at the same time it is a deflationary account that tries to keep a minimal realism and tries to keep, as you said, a space in which differences are respected, a space in which an open dialogue can be had. And another aspect of what I'm trying to achieve, and how I am trying to achieve it (this is the contextualism part) is by bringing philosophy back to ordinary life, and by connecting philosophy with the interests and the concerns of ordinary people in ordinary practices. And I think that here pragmatism and neo-pragmatism are very, very helpful. People like Dewey in particular were trying to do precisely that. And people who are trying to continue the Deweyan tradition today, such as the recent Putnam and Rorty among others, are trying to do that too.
DO: All right, but don't we need a moment of self-reference here? I mean, what is the aim of the philosophical language game, or the philosophical practice? Well, there're really two questions there: what is the aim, and what do you think should be the aim?
JM: Right…One of the things that I try to criticize with my deflationism, and again I think that is coming from the pragmatist tradition, is the idea that philosophy can be an isolated language game, a self-contained intellectual activity. And that in having that kind of separation from ordinary life and from ordinary scientific practices it can have an impact at all. I am criticizing the modern tradition, starting with Descartes, in which we have a foundationalist conception of knowledge, where philosophy is supposed to have some kind of special authority on the epistemic foundations of all knowledge. Now with this architectonic picture, in which everything is supposed to be governed by some kind of ultimate academic discipline, philosophy is at the same time both a self-contained activity and an activity that is supposed to have tremendous impact on everything else in academia. But of course when you reject this foundationalist picture, then philosophy, if it's going to remain self-contained, is going to lose any kind of significance for intellectual activities and for ordinary life. So the idea is to get rid of the foundationalist picture and at the same time redefine the role of philosophy in society, rethink what we are supposed to do and what we want to do as philosophers. And I think that we are still very much in the process of doing that. I mean a lot of people in the 20th century were trying to redefine the role of philosophy: Wittgenstein with his anti-theoretical and quietist attitude; some Continental philosophers were very much concerned with that, Heidegger and Derrida among them; and of course people in the pragmatist tradition are also very much concerned with that issue. But it seems to me that even now, in the beginning of the 21st century, we are still trying to redefine the role of philosophy.
DO: Regarding the foundationalist epistemology that you're tying to critique: how do you think it's influenced cultural practices other than philosophy? Do we have real-world examples of the evils of insidious foundationalism?
JM: I think we do. It seems to me that the Cartesian picture of knowledge has been so pervasive in Western culture that it surfaces in all kinds of different aspects of our lives. It is clear that in philosophy of law, for instance, the kind of ultimate foundations that people typically want to provide for legal systems is based on a foundationalist epistemological view. It seems to me that everything that people were doing in the philosophy of social sciences presupposed a foundationalist picture of knowledge, which is why people were so concerned with methodology. Gadamer developed that very theme within the hermeneutic tradition. It seems to me that even the ordinary way in which people justify their claims sometimes seems to hold foundationalist assumptions. I think that the subjectivism that is typically associated with the Cartesian picture of knowledge is very much part of the ordinary way of thinking about knowledge claims, and their justification. The philosophical critique of that picture of course is going to have repercussions in the way in which people think about knowledge and the way in which people think about the justification of claims, and so on.
DO: I think that one of the strongest, most vivid examples of the effects of the Cartesian picture on non-philosophical ways of thinking is Western imperialism and colonialism. The whole notion of a primitive culture…I mean, a primitive culture can only exist if there is some level of advancement that's normative and foundational that a culture has to rise towards in order to not be primitive.
JM: That's something that I'm very much interested in, and that of course ties in very nicely with the issues I study in philosophy of language. The issue of intelligibility: when can we recognize that we have a language in front of us, and when can we recognize that we have something meaningful, that needs interpretation, in front of us? In a way, the debates that people had in the 17th century, concerning whether or not the Native Americans had a language or whether or not they were like birds, who used these rhythmic noises. It very much has to do with how we think about the distinction between sense and nonsense and the limits of intelligibility and what constitutes a language. And if you have a foundationalist picture that is supposed to give an answer to that, then you think that there are a priori limits to intelligibility, and you think that there is an a priori boundary that you can draw between what is meaningful and what isn't, between what constitutes a language and what does not.
DO: Isn't this ultimately a version of the debate between secular and religious views of life? Aren't we talking about absolutism as much as foundationalism? Or are those separate issues in this context?
JM: Well, I think that on my own reading of modern foundationalism, it is the same issue and it is a different issue at the same time. It is the same issue because in religious foundationalism, and in the religious absolute conception of reality, you find the same structure and the same moves that you're going to find in the secularized version of that kind of absolutism. It seems to me that the modern epistemic foundationalism is in fact an attempt to provide an alternative to religious foundationalism but at the same time it keeps the same structure. So I wouldn't say that modern epistemic foundationalism is the same as religious foundationalism, because in fact it is an attempt to provide an alternative to it, but I would say that it does have the same structure and the same moves.
DO: Fair enough. All right, switching gears slightly. You've mentioned Richard Rorty several times, and I know that at Northwestern you worked with Arthur Fine and Michael Williams, who are two of Rorty's most famous students. We might indeed call them the sons of Rorty. And that would make you Rorty's grandson. Do you accept that title? How close do you see your work to that of Rorty? He is, after all, a fairly contentious figure.
JM: Well, I guess I could accept the title of Rorty's grandson, but a rebellious kind of grandson. I accept that the kind of philosophical agenda that I have is very much the philosophical agenda that Rorty set for neo-pragmatism. But at the same time, there are all kinds of ways in which Rorty develops that agenda that I completely disagree with, and I'm trying to take that agenda in a very different direction. I guess the main difference is that I don't really endorse the quietism and anti-philosophical attitude that Rorty has, which is by the way a very Wittgenstinian attitude. But I think that Wittgenstein was wrong about that, and I think that Rorty is wrong about that. It's not going to be any good just to shut up about philosophy and bring philosophical discussions to an end. I think that what we have to do is not bring philosophical discussions to an end but rather to reformulate philosophical issues in such a way that they have something to offer our lives.
DO: I see an ethical view lurking here. You haven't formulated it, it's not explicit, but it's certainly there. Can you make it more explicit?
JM: I'm not trying to develop an ethical system or anything like that. However, you're right that in the way in which I approach issues in philosophy of language and philosophy of mind, ethical issues arise all the time everywhere. And the reason is because I think that the philosophical notions that we're trying to elucidate concerning language and concerning personal identity and the mind are normative notions. So every time we try to elucidate these notions in a contextual way we're talking about the normative force that they have in specific practices. And therefore we're talking about ethical issues. So when we talk about personal identity and the normative constraints that in different discursive practices we can find, then we're talking about the ethical values that in those practices provide a space for people to develop their identities in different ways. When we're talking about truth, when we're talking about meaning and reference, we are also talking about normative notions that regulate our discursive practices and determine (or at least heavily constrain) what can be said and what cannot be said in those practices, what is going to be considered meaningful and what is not going to be considered meaningful. And what we have there in my normative account is a set of values that are constraining those discursive practices.
DO: And these values are…?
JM: But, given my contextual view, we cannot give a general account of what those values should be. How the normative structure of a discursive practice should be. That's something that we cannot answer in the abstract. So every time you want to pose a question about values, you have to be more specific and talk about the values that a specific practice should have, so that the normative structure that this specific practice have allows for people to flourish in different ways. But then you are raising a question about values that can only be answered from the perspective of the practitioner, from the perspective of a member of that practice.
DO: Isn't the desire to see humans flourish already value laden? And wouldn't that make it an over-riding, primary (perhaps a-contextual) value?
JM: Well, I don't think it's an over-riding value. I think there are some second order values that I am going to bring into my account of language and personal identity. And these are the values that a theory of normativity, a theory of performativity, and theory of contextuality are going to be committed to.
DO: All right, I'll let that slide. Let's talk about teaching. Given your very strong emphasis on practice and, I take it, on action…
DO: …how do you envision your role as a professor, a teacher of graduates and undergraduates? What's your approach?
JM: I have a different approach when I think about my pedagogical objectives in my undergraduate classes and when I think about my goals in my graduate seminars. When it comes to undergraduate teaching, the goals that I have are the following. First of all, I want students to become familiar with some philosophical problems that have been incredibly influential in our tradition, and I want them to become familiar with different philosophical doctrines that have been very powerful and have shaped the intellectual horizon that we have right now. But then of course I want them not only to be familiar with those questions and theories, but to be critical about them, to be able to formulate their own positions. Moreover, I want their philosophical training - and this is what you're asking, I think - to have an impact both in their intellectual growth… I mean we have undergraduates who are philosophy majors but we also have many undergraduates who are psychology majors, science majors, pre-law, pre-medicine, or what have you. And it seems to me that philosophy can help them to assimilate and be able to process in a critical and creative way everything that they're learning. But then secondly and more importantly of course, I want their philosophical training to have an impact in their lives, in how they think about themselves, how they think about their relationships with other people, how they think about their society, and how they think about values.
DO: What are some of the ways in which you foster that kind of self understanding and reflection?
JM: Both in class discussion, and in the conferences I have with my undergraduate students, and in the papers that they write, I raise explicitly critical questions concerning values, concerning how they should think about their lives, how they should think about their community, how they should think about their country, and so on. When it comes to graduate training, some of these concerns are still there because we are constantly, even at the most specialized level, trying to critically reflect on all these different aspects of our lives. But then of course there is another goal that has to do with everything we've been talking about today, namely, these philosophers who we're training in graduate school are going to be the new philosophical voice of the next generation. And that means that if we want to change philosophy and if we want to redefine philosophical questions, and transform our philosophical thinking, then the place to do it is precisely graduate school.
DO: In terms of your own research, what are you working on now, what do you have planned for the future? I know you're close to finishing a book right now. Could you talk a little bit about that, and then also about your ideas for future projects?
JM: Yeah, I just finished my book on Wittgenstein, which is an interpretation of the development of his thought from the Tractatus to the Investigations, focusing on his deflationary account of intelligibility and his deflationary account of necessity. What I'm doing right now is working on the implications of that Wittgenstinian view, as well as engaging in the contemporary debate in philosophy of language- taking up views like the Davidsonian account of language and the Quinean account of language. In fact the two papers that I'm working on right now are a critique of Davidson and a critique of Quine from a Wittgenstinean point of view. However my next big research project, that I want to carry out in the next three years or so, is a book on intelligibility in which I develop my own contextualist view of intelligibility and at the same time I criticize some of the very powerful accounts of intelligibility that you can find in the analytic and neo-pragmatist tradition. The working title I have in mind is "Nonsense!"
DO: Maybe a quote by Lewis Carroll in the preface…
JM: (laughs) …that's exactly right. But then also at the same time, even though this is the project I'm working on right now, I'm also thinking about the relationship of the later Wittgenstein and Foucault. It seems to me that there is so much convergence in these very radically different ways of thinking about language, that this has to be explored systematically. And I don't know if this is going to be just a paper that I will produce in the next two years, or maybe a book that I'll produce after I'm done with the stuff on intelligibility, but I definitely want to explore the relationship between Wittgenstein and Foucault. Another thing that I'm always working on is personal identity, as I've said, and the social accounts of identity formation. Here the figures that I work on are Mead, the later Wittgenstein, Vygotsky, and also Foucault.
DO: It seems that if you're going to be thinking about personal identity and nonsense, then an interesting case study for you would be absurdist theatre, especially Beckett. I'm thinking of Lucky's speech in Waiting for Godot, which is on the one hand a three page monologue of complete nonsense, and on the other the defining expression of that character, of that character's life on stage.
JM: I think you're absolutely right about that, not only about Beckett in particular but about the idea of looking at literature and how literary discursive practices can help to clarify our philosophical understanding of personal identity. Because of course the way in which my research interest in nonsense and my research interests in personal identity relate to each other is because I have a discursive account of identity formation. And the limits between the meaningful and the nonsensical, and the limits between who you are and who you're not, go together. They are complementary issues. And I think that in fact I will learn a lot from your work on Theatre, because it connects with the performativity theories that I find most promising in accounts of personal identity (again, Judith Butler's theory among others. According to these performative accounts we develop our identity and we gain a sense of who we are through performances, by enacting certain norms in different ways.
DO: My last question refers back to my first question. What affect do you think your personal background (personal identity?) - particularly the fact that you are a Spanish philosopher working in the US - have on your work?
JM: Yes, of course, that makes a huge difference. I mean, that's part of the motivation that I have for studying these issues in philosophy of language and philosophy of mind. The differences that permeate my life everyday and the differences that constitute who I am, these are differences that I cannot avoid thinking about - the cultural differences that you're talking about, the linguistic differences, the differences in sexual orientation - all that has to do a lot with my agenda in philosophy.