Rebecca Kukla is a Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. She lives in the middle of Washington, DC, in Columbia Heights, which is one of the nation’s most ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods. She grew up in Toronto, and did her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. She is currently also a Masters student in Geography at CUNY-Hunter College. She works on social epistemology, philosophy of language, and philosophy of the applied sciences, especially medicine and urban geography.
What excites you about philosophy?
What excites me about it most right now is the sudden, seismic, and apparently genuine move in the profession towards public engagement. I mean this both in the sense of bringing philosophy outside of the academy, and in the sense of writing about concrete worldly issues of pressing concern, in all their messy detail.
In terms of bringing philosophy out of the academy, I’m thinking of the many of us who are now teaching in prisons and at public events in underserved communities; of the sudden flourishing of accessible and important op-ed pieces and other forms of public writing by philosophers; and of the movement to bring philosophy into K-12 schools, for instance.
As for changes in what we write about, when I was in grad school, ‘applied ethics’ was an embarrassment. It basically involved feeding concocted, simplistic, depoliticized case studies mechanistically through static, caricatured versions of ethical theories. It was also completely ghettoized, and no one else in philosophy paid the slightest attention to anything ‘applied.’ Now, philosophers of science, philosophers of language, social epistemologists, political philosophers, and ethicists work together and separately to take on finely nuanced, tension-ridden, tangible problems. So much of contemporary philosophy focuses our attention on a world that is inescapably structured by power, inequality, economic and material pressures, manufactured ignorance, risk, vulnerability, human difference, and finitude.
Several times earlier in my career, I almost quit the profession; while I enjoyed the intellectual exercises of conceptual analysis, argumentation, and close reading, I felt that I wasn’t in a position to make any kind of difference in the world, and that those around me didn’t care whether they did or not. There was even a weird premium in the discipline on being contemptuous of any concern for the ‘real world.’ I believe we have entered a new era and I am genuinely proud and excited to be a philosopher now.
If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
Honestly, I would want to know just how much of a disaster the Trump administration is going to be, with respect to civil rights, basic health and safety, environmental degradation, and material and economic infrastructure. I want to know whether I need to stay and fight, or move out of the country to keep my family safe, and how far I need to go. I’d rather not know the future, in general. I don’t want to know when I will die, or of what, or whether my current relationship will last for the rest of my life, or any of that. I feel like knowing these things would just sap my motivation to live and act. But for purely pragmatic reasons, I really do wish I could know just how bad things are going to get in this country.
Name a trait, skill or characteristic that you have that others may not know about.
I’m a competitive amateur boxer and powerlifter. I’ve had three sanctioned fights and I’ve won various medals at the state and national level for lifting. I am also really ridiculously tiny: 4’10.5.” In both sports, I compete in the tiniest weight class (under 47kg for lifting and under 48kg for boxing). So while I am surely not the strongest or the fiercest philosopher alive, I have a plausible claim on being both the strongest and the fiercest by volume.
I’m also a certified sommelier; I got my diploma in hospitality and completed my sommelier exams at Algonquin College in Ottawa in 2007.
What do you like to do outside work?
I’ve never been someone who can just do my ‘official’ work all the time. I work hard at my career–I think it usually comes to about 60 hours a week of legitimate work-hours. But it is absolutely crucial to me that I have other things in my life. I’m an engaged mom and a devoted guardian of two cats and a Corgi. Between my boxing and lifting training, and a bunch of running to keep conditioned, I work out about three hours a day on average, not including my daily movement around the city by foot and by bicycle. As I alluded to in my bio, I am also doing an MA program in urban geography right now on top of my regular job. I write fiction when no one is looking. I am an absurdly enthusiastic eater and drinker and spend way too much time finding unusual and fun things to eat. I will travel many miles on my own to eat bahn mi at a rural Vietnamese-owned gas station I have read about on food blogs.
I am trying to figure out how to be an effective political activist. I always try to make time for political action, but I admit that right now I am floundering a bit when it comes to how best to do that.
Frankly, so many middle-aged people with families just retreat into their domestic unit and don’t socialize. Having an active social life, in all senses, is non-negotiable for me. Flourishing friendships and romantic relationships take time and care to maintain. Doing that work matters to me.
What I don’t do: Sleep much. Watch any TV or movies. Read more than a few novels a year (sadly).
What are your goals and aspirations outside work?
In a couple of years I am hoping to run for Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, and perhaps after that I will run for city council. Local politics are more engaging to me than national politics, and I feel more capable of having a meaningful impact at that level. I love my city and my neighborhood and I want to help them be sustainable, just, and vibrant, rather than just benefiting from them.
What is your least favorite type of fruit and why?
Isn’t the Red Delicious apple just the objectively correct answer to this question?
What would you like your last meal to be?
What’s your top tip or advice for APA members reading this?
This is mostly advice for women and other potentially marginalized members of the profession, rather than for APA members at large. When I was a very young assistant professor, a substantially more senior philosopher who I barely knew at the time pulled me aside at an APA ‘smoker’ and told me that I needed to stop apologizing for myself at every turn. He pointed out that whenever I asked a question, I began by saying it might be confused or unimportant, and whenever I talked about my own work I described it as weird and probably off-track. He told me that people would hear me as unclear and weird and unimportant if I told them to. I was shocked and quite embarrassed, and a bit angry. My self-image was of someone who came off as confident and assertive. But on reflection I realized he was right. It was a transformative moment for me. Since then I have noticed just how often women in the profession do this to themselves, and I have made it a mission to train each of my female students out of the habit. I certainly don’t advocate the bragging and self-aggrandizing that one also sees from many philosophers, but I think it’s really important for younger scholars – and especially for those who are not men – simply to present themselves as legitimate contributors to conversations, rather than undermining themselves at every turn. You will be unfairly undermined plenty enough by others; you don’t need to help anyone do it.
Find out more about Rebecca here.
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