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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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.