Research Spotlight: Krista Thomason – History of Philosophy and Moral Psychology

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This is the seventh interview in the series Research Spotlight, in which I share conversations that I have with faculty regarding their research, their journeys within their fields, and their fields in a broader context.

Krista Thomason is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy.

REDDY: When people hear the word “philosophy” they often immediately think go various historical figures. They don’t consider philosophy in a contemporary context. Generally, how would you describe the work of contemporary philosophers, and in what ways does it differ from historical philosophers?

THOMASON: It’s funny that you mention that actually, because I wear a couple of different hats. One of the hats I wear is historian of philosophy. So, I’m perfectly happy with all of the old, dead people. It would be a mistake to think there is no contemporary work that goes on about those long-dead people. There are very vibrant philosophical and scholarly communities that are working on the views of these scholars. For example, I’m a Kant scholar, so I read his works and try to piece together what his views were, but I also try to think about how his ideas might apply to contemporary life, because that’s part of the story. We don’t just leave those historical figures in the past; we bring them into contemporary life and try to see what looking through those lenses might tell us about the world around us. That’s one of the important things that we do: to see how those frameworks can help us understand the life that we’re living right now.

I do contemporary moral psychology in addition to historically-oriented work. Contemporary moral psychology is, I think, a really exciting field. I work on moral emotions. Moral psychology as it’s done in philosophy is probably a little different from moral psychology as it’s done in psychology or more empirically-oriented research. Philosophers prioritize what is sometimes called the phenomenological aspect of moral emotions. We as: what is it like to experience these emotions? What is it like to incorporate these emotions into our moral agency and into our lives? What is it like to feel guilt about doing something morally wrong? Are those emotions appropriate? Are the irrational? Should we invite people to feel guilt when they do bad things? Even though a lot of this work that I do is contemporary, it has a long history in philosophy. Aristotle wrote about emotions. Kant wrote about emotions. Hume wrote about emotions. So, it’s still part of an older tradition.

REDDY: Do you use psychology to inform your thinking in those areas?

THOMASON: I use some psychology. It’s not fully anchored in the empirical stuff. Philosophical work (at least the kind that I do) starts from a different viewpoint. The psychologists might have a different view on this, but, if you ask me, a lot of the work that is done in labs starts from what you might think of as an observer, behavioral perspective. It’s other people watching what you do, and drawing conclusions from there. Philosophy starts from the first person perspective. It’s not behavioral or observational; it’s about experience. We take people’s first-person perspectives as important and we center those. It’s important for us to think about how we experience these emotions. So, I draw a lot on literature and memoirs. I actually borrow a lot more from clinical psychology rather than experimental psychology, because that pays a lot more attention to people’s experiences.

REDDY: What projects are you working on now?

THOMASON: My first book just came out, which I’m very excited about.

REDDY: Congratulations!

THOMASON: Thank you! It just came out in January. It’s about shame, squarely in the territory of moral emotions. In the books, I talk about how philosophers have traditionally conceptualized the relationship between shame and morality, and I argue for a different view about how that’s supposed to look. Regarding the rest of my research, since I wear two hats, I go back and forth between the historical and contemporary. Because I just finished the book, and that’s all contemporary, I’ve turned back to the historical stuff. I’m working on a series of papers on Kant’s views of emotions and how they compare to other kinds of views in his time period. I’m thinking about his views about how we can be good thinkers, and what kinds of pitfalls we fall into when we’re trying to be good thinkers. Those are the projects that I’m working on right now.

REDDY: What role do contemporary philosophers play in our society, and should they be playing a bigger one? Do we need more philosophers?

THOMASON: I don’t know if we need more philosophers, but I think we need more philosophical thinking. Philosophical thinking can be undertaken by a whole bunch of different people. I think that philosophers can bring two main things to contemporary life. One of them is careful consideration of arguments and argument reconstruction. That’s our bread and butter. It’s something that all philosophers are trained to do, and all philosophers are trained to do really well. When there are a lot of positions being offered in the public realm, some of them are great and well-articulated, some of them aren’t, and some of them are complex and require a lot of work to tease out. I think you need people who can look at that array of positions and try to make some sort of sense out of it. Philosophers can give people ways of thinking about those positions and help take them apart to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. So, that I think is a really important role.

When philosophy does its job well, if you’re asking me, it’s there to help people gain clarity. Whether it’s what their moral obligations are, whether it’s what kinds of decisions they want to make about their lives, whether it’s to support this policy or that policy, I think people need to have someone help them through that kind of reflection. When philosophers do our job well, we’re there to help people get clear on their thinking. Sometimes, that’s asking people, “Do you mean this or do you mean that? Are you committed to this or are you committed to that? What would you think about an analogous situation? What would you do if the roles were reversed?” All of that flexibility of thinking, which is what philosophical training gives you, can help people. A lot of people in this particular moment are looking for clarity on a lot of things. So, there’s a huge role for philosophical thinking to play. Philosophers are trained in philosophical thinking, so that puts us in a good position to help, but I don’t think we’re exclusively the people to help with that.

REDDY: How did you become interested in philosophy and decide that you wanted to pursue it professionally?

THOMASON: My tagline is always, “I didn’t find philosophy, philosophy found me.” I took a philosophy class one hundred percent on a whim. I just thought, “I’ve never heard of this. Let me see what this is about.” I walk into my first philosophy class, and here are these people who are talking about these big life questions that I had found myself really wrapped up in and really perplexed by. Here’s this whole group of people going back for thousands and thousand of years who had been thinking about all of this stuff. I felt like I had found whole a community of other people who have been thinking like this this whole time. It was a head-over-heels moment for me. It was really wonderful.

Initially, when I went to college, I was planning on being a theatre major, and that’s what I started out as, but I realized that I really hated it. I thought, “Oh no! I can’t do this. What am I supposed to do? Well, what’s the only thing I like as much as I like theatre?” That was philosophy. I signed up next semester for a whole bunch of philosophy courses, and that was all she wrote.

REDDY: There’s a huge gender gap in the field of philosophy. In what ways has do you think it has affected your career, and in what ways do you think we can bring more underrepresented individuals into the field of philosophy?

THOMASON: Thats a huge question that the field is wrestling with and has been for a long time. In terms of my own career, I have been incredibly lucky in my experiences. Have I encountered the kind of stuff that a lot of women philosophers do? Of course, absolutely. But, I have also had incredibly supportive and wonderful mentors basically the whole time that I was in undergraduate and grad school. That was a really wonderful experience for me, and I think that those people really helped my career. Having strong mentors was something that was incredibly important to me and has helped me throughout my career. I had no female faculty members when I was an undergraduate. All my teachers were male, but they were all really wonderful. They always were very encouraging so I never really thought too much about it until I got to graduate school. That’s when you start realizing just how much of a minority you are. I finally had female professors in grad school and that helped tremendously. Having those strong mentors was one of the reasons that teaching at a place like Swarthmore was really attractive to me. I thought, “If that’s something I can do for other people, that’s what I want to do.”

Being a woman in philosophy is something that you struggle with—all of us do. It’s very common for you to be the only woman in the room. Thankfully, that’s actually getting less and less common, especially when I go to conferences. It’s actually much more rare for me now to be the only woman in the room that it used to be, which is really nice.

As far as what philosophy can do to change it, you’re going to get a ton of different answers. If you’re asking me, I think one of the big things that we can do is stop trying to convince people that they don’t like it, especially if those people are members of underrepresented groups. Let’s stop telling women that they don’t like philosophy or that they can’t do it. Let’s stop telling people of color that they don’t like philosophy and that they can’t do it. You run into a lot of doubters. If you just start letting people in the door and stop making judgements about them when you see them, that would go a long way, it seems to me. Philosophy is not necessarily for everybody—that’s true for men, women… whoever. Not a lot of people are necessarily going to be interested in it. It’s not going to be the next booming field. It’s always been a little bit niche. That’s okay — it’s fine if it’s niche. But, I do think we need to realize that you can’t just look at someone and figure out if they’re interested in philosophy or not. And, if they’re there, let them be there. Assume that they’re interested and tell them that they’re part of the conversation, rather than sitting there and making judgments.

REDDY: What do the day-to-day actives in your experience, and of contemporary philosophers in general, look like?

THOMASON: My week is split up into teaching days and research days. For me, that works because I think they’re two different modes. For my research days, it’s a lot of back and forth between reading and writing. That’s what a lot of philosophical scholarship looks like. So, for example, I’m working on right now with a co-author at a different university. He and I are reading some of the literature around the topic that we’re writing about. We’re going through articles and seeing what other people have argued. Then, we’re getting together and talking about those arguments. There’s a lot of conversation that goes on. After that, we start using our disagreements with those scholars to start crafting our own positions. Since I’m doing a lot of historically-oriented stuff right now, it’s a lot of going back and forth between the secondary and primary literature. You pair that with doing the actual paper construction, where you have a sense of what you want to argue, and you begin forming that argument. If you’re me, you go through drafts and drafts and drafts. I revise a ton.

Featured image courtesy of islamicate.co.uk

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