Miroslav Losonsky

By Alex Park

Though he may be the budding star of Macalester’s philosophy department, Miroslav Losonsky, says he’s still not sure what it means for something to exist. Not surprisingly, he says one of his greatest goals as a philosopher is to write about questions which cannot be answered, to help establish some groundwork to help clear up much of the confusion that he says plagues much of philosophy now and has spurned so much debate between its two traditions, the continental and analytic. Having just returned from an all-expenses-paid coast-to-coast tour of graduate programs, we talked about his honors project, what he likes about philosophy, an what bothers him within the field today. In your own words, what is philosophy to you and what is your area within it? There’s a standard perception among people, I think you find more of them in the sciences and among lay people, that it’s this sort of an esoteric, useless area of inquiry that never produces any body of knowledge. There’s a sense that philosophy doesn’t ever progress as a discipline. I mean, we’re still dealing with problems that you find in Socrates. But in another sense, I think we’ve progressed quite a bit, and I think there have been substantial gains in terms of methodology, developments in logic, meta-logic, the philosophy of math, the philosophy of science. I think those are significant contributions to the general body of knowledge. So in that sense, I definitely don’t think that philosophy is useless whatsoever.

Although there is a strand of philosophy— I should say, there have been philosophers— who have been fairly obscure, I like to think of them as having been intentionally obscure. These are the sort of philosophers that most people think of when we use the term “philosophy” or “philosopher.” I guess prominent examples would be Heidegger, Derrida. That’s one body, usually referred to as “continental philosophy.” I’m really into analytic philosophy, which I think is a much more useful and interesting research program. Also, in analytic philosophy, which most people aren’t that familiar with, there’s a huge emphasis on clarity and rigor, which I don’t think is so much found in the continental tradition. I guess in that sense, people who think of philosophy as this useless, esoteric wank job are thinking of certain philosophers that I don’t deal with and haven’t dealt with.

For a laymen such as myself, tell me about your honors project. The general issue that I deal with in my honors project is that there’s a seeming contradiction in Kant’s doctrine in that he posits the existence of certain entities, and then says we can’t know anything about them, and then goes on to make a number of claims about them. He calls these “things in themselves.” It seems to be very inconsistent. What I’m trying to do is to come up with an interpretation that makes Kant’s distinction of “things in themselves” and appearances consistent and at least semi-plausible. I basically do that by saying, Kant doesn’t posit the existence of entities which are “things in themselves.” These are logically possible entities, but he doesn’t say they actually exist. So the point of my honors project is to clarify some of the confusion in Kant, because a lot of Kantian scholarship has really stumbled on trying to make sense of this notion and a lot of people have ended up rejecting Kant as completely incoherent once he raises this notion of “things of themselves.” I don’t think it’s incoherent. That’s my project.

Was there ever a risk when you started your honors project that, you have this question, but you might never answer it? I think at this point, a view that is very dear to my heart is that there are certain problems and some questions that are very real questions and very real problems, but at the same time, I think we can show that they can never be answered. That’s something I would actually like to write about somewhere in my career. I think that’s part of Kant’s view too, that there are certain questions like “Are we free?” For practical reasons we can say we are free, but from the standpoint of theoretical reason, we can never know if we are free. At the same time, it’s not like it’s a meaningless question. We can make sense of the question “are we free or are we not,” but at the same time, it’s impossible that we will ever find an answer to that question given the limits that we have on experience, because that would require a certain type of a cognition that we could never have. These problems, like the problem of free will, keep popping up. You see it in Epicurus and people are still arguing over it. So a good way to put it is, I just want to figure out what questions are unanswerable, rather than figuring out any answers.

Speaking about unanswerable questions, I’m reminded of this author who killed himself a few years ago. A friend who is writing a biography now says that he did it because he realized, in the end, that he wasn’t capable of writing the book that he wanted to write. It just sounds like the most terrifying thing a creative professional could endure. That would be absolutely terrifying. Though that itself would be a moment of enlightenment. For many it wouldn’t be so bad to pop oneself because you have to figure out at least, for sure, that you can never write what you want to write or you can never discover the answer to a certain sort of question. In a sense, I guess, my view is a little more dim, because I don’t think I’d ever reach that point, always knowing that there’s something more to learn, there’s always problems with some interpretations, there are always objections to be met. But if I could discover that, at least I’d know something, at least one piece of knowledge.

Would you say people get caught up in philosophy who have no business being there, or is it true that philosophy really is for everyone whose interested? This is a tough one, because there are some people who just don’t get some of the questions. And I guess there are people who try, but it doesn’t make sense to them. So for example, maybe there are some people for whom math just doesn’t click for them, or there are people for whom the creative disciplines, like fiction writing or painting just don’t work for them, they don’t get it. They can’t draw a cube to save their lives. So I think in a certain sense, it does require a certain type of mind, an inquisitive mind.

That sounds ridiculously elitist, but that’s not the point. I don’t think this particular type of mind is only found in a very small percentage of the population; I think it’s found in quite a few people, ninety percent or something like that. I think the basic problems, anyone can understand, really basic problems like, “If all my actions are completely determined, what sort of justification can you give for holding people responsible for their actions?” So I think the very basic problems, problems of free will, the problem of “what sorts of things can I know,” the problem of objective facts— the very basics are really childlike questions. It gets complicated real fast, but the basics are questions that people ask as a kid. What gets complicated is how you deal with the issues and how you try to explain them and clarify them.

I guess what I want to say is it doesn’t take a special kind of mind to understand the problems, but it takes a particular sort of person to really absorb the problems and think it’s worth pursuing, for better or worse.

And a key phrase in that is “for better or worse.” You have to like the process more than the answers. Yeah, and of course, as with anything in philosophy, people disagree, but I think people who are in it for answers almost always have the wrong answers. It’s just the wrong approach. And there are a lot of philosophers who think they have good answers and some of them do. But I think especially at the undergraduate level, if you think you have some sort of answer, you might not have delved into it that much.

Let’s say someone has the answer, to that question or any other. What does it sa
y that there is a question that everyone asks but only one person in the world has the answer to. Are the rest of us just living in the dark? Yeah, but I think if it’s a philosophical question, the chances are extremely small that there is one person that knows the answer when no one else does. Just intuitively, I think we’re all way too similar as human beings that one person would have some sort of cognitive access that everyone else doesn’t have. Maybe in some broad sense it’s possible, but we’re all pretty evenly stupid in the end, I think.

Still, you notice some philosophy students who make decisive statements about religion or other subjects which, as they see it, are rooted in their education. You know, “There is no God. You people are so dumb for believing otherwise. I took philosophy so I would know.” Yeah, that shit sucks. At the same time, there are philosophers who believe in God. Some believe they’ve proven the existence of God. So as I said, I think there’s a very strong case to be made for having a very healthy dose of humility, even when you think you have a sort-of answer. Especially with respect to the religion question, there’s one fact that has to be explained which is that some of the smartest people who have lived believed in God. For anyone who really dogmatically does not believe in God, I think that’s something that’s really hard to explain. There are plenty of smart people who know all the arguments against the existence of God and they still believe in God. That’s one of the things I like about philosophy because you see that humility among a lot of philosophers, whereas in a lot of other disciplines you don’t see that.

Is that built into the discipline? It is among good philosophers. I think that’s a way to distinguish between good philosophers and bad philosophers. Good philosophers, they’re very careful. I think that’s why Kant is such a great philosopher. You have these two great traditions, the empiricist tradition and the rationalist tradition, and rather than just dogmatically defending one side of this, he realizes the force of what both these traditions have to say and he tries to synthesize them, capturing the best aspects of both. And maybe in the end he does produce a mess, but I think that’s the best model. You can be a nihilist, or a skeptic about whether our words have any meaning, but at the same time you have to explain the phenomenon that it seems like our words have meaning, and it certainly seems like we are free. So people who take a hard line on things saying, “Oh, we’re not free,” you still have to explain the phenomenon that we act like we’re free. So I think we should all be skeptical of hard-line positions on certain issues.

I like your advice on how to distinguish between good and bad philosophers. You mentioned him already but I always liked Derrida, for instance. I mean, I’ll read his essays and I barely have a clue what he’s saying or even if he really knows what he’s saying, but he seems so sincere about it all. If nothing else, you can tell that he’s trying really hard. I can understand that. It’s important to judge— there’s so much literature out there, you can’t read everything in your own lifetime, so you’re going to have to make judgments about who you’re going to read if you’re studying philosophy. And I think at that point, honesty of character becomes quite relevant. I think it’s a perfectly acceptable way of deciding what to not even take a look at, because you can’t take a look at everything. So yeah, maybe I should take a look at Derrida now.