Duke’s 3 New Philosophers Help Make Sense of Our Lives

Standing - Reuben Stern, Wenjin Liu and Ásta
Duke’s new philosophy faculty — from left, Reuben Stern, Wenjin Liu and Ásta — bring reasoned thinking to our busy lives. (John West/Trinity Communications)

When Ásta was a teenager, people always asked her if she was going to be an opera singer or an actress. It’s what happens when your father is a theater director. But the Icelandic philosopher was clear: “No,” she would say, “I’m going to be a farmer.”

The dream began when the Reykjavik native worked on a small farm near Katla, an active volcano on the southern coast of Iceland. Ásta (Icelanders don’t use surnames) remembers it as gorgeous, surrounded by glaciers and the sea. She spent her days tending the 27 cows — they all had names — and 100 sheep and five horses and countless hens. Depending on the season, she’d collect driftwood or berries.

“It felt very much in harmony,” Ásta says.

Many of Ásta’s generation had similar experiences. Reykjavik families often had relatives in the countryside and believed that working the land or the sea would be good for their children.

 “I think the ideology was that it was more real than the city. Or a better way of putting it is more authentic,” Ásta says.

She did not grow up to be a farmer, but a feminist metaphysician and, as of this semester, a professor of Philosophy at Duke. The focus of her research is how society shapes the concepts we use to understand the world — concepts like reality and authenticity, which are often marshaled in oppressive ways.

“I don’t think it’s true [that the countryside was more authentic],” Ásta says. “But I think it was very good to be acquainted with different parts of society in that way.”

Half a world away, another philosopher was led to a different question about society thanks to a very different upbringing.

As part of her standard high school curriculum in Shenyang, in northeastern China, new Assistant Research Professor of Philosophy Wenjin Liu read classical Chinese works by Confucius, Mencius and Laozi.

“I was fascinated by all those ideas that were formulated 2,000 years ago,” Liu says, “but I didn’t know it was philosophy. I thought it was history or Chinese literature. But I was drawn to the ethical and political questions, because it matters for how we’re going to live our lives.”

Later, as an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Liu’s interest in the most heroic and canonical of thinkers led to a much more ordinary problem: why most people fail to live up to their virtuous ideals, in ways small and large.

Closer to Duke, a third philosopher grew up in New Orleans unconcerned with philosophy, but fascinated with everyday practical reasoning. Reuben Stern enjoys the act of reasoning so much that he has developed a hobby of buying instruments he can’t really play. “The act of shopping for it, weighing the options, is part of the attraction,” says Duke’s new assistant professor of Philosophy.

It’s just one of the many ways Stern exercises his interests in decision theory and rationality. He might balk at claiming his personal predilections caused his philosophical inquiries, though — after all, the philosophy of causation is another of his specialties.

These three philosophers have three distinct backgrounds with three diverse research questions. But as they come together to expand the Department of Philosophy’s faculty, they bring a united belief that the subject opens up new pathways that matter, intensely, for how we live our lives.

How do you know?

Over the summer, Stern developed a bedtime ritual with his four-year-old son. Every night, they would run through hypothetical scenarios for the NFL and NBA drafts.

“He’s completely obsessed,” Stern says.

The interest is hereditary. Stern has been a sports nut since he was young, but that passion was expressed in data and roster moves. He admits he was “weirdly into the draft” and “by far the person who takes fantasy sports the most seriously” in the leagues he’s joined throughout his life.

Reuben Stern takes an interdisciplinary approach to causation and rationality in order to improve decision making. (John West/Trinity Communications)

“That occupied an extremely huge portion of my thought before I started getting serious about school,” Stern says. Now, it demands “less and less” attention. “I don’t have any friends to play with,” he says, laughing. “It turns out that graduate school in philosophy is not the place to make friends to play fantasy sports with.”

Instead, Stern has channeled his interests in rational decision making into philosophical questions by adopting a particular framework called graphical causation modeling.

Originally developed in the early 1920s by biologist Sewall Wright, the approach is inherently interdisciplinary. Philosophers, statisticians and computer scientists have also made contributions, and Stern was introduced to it through a sociology and education sciences class in graduate school.

At root, the questions it answers are about the relationship between probabilistic information and causal relevance. Graphical causation modeling works by breaking situations down into simple diagrams, allowing Stern and other adopters of the framework — including frequent collaborator and Duke colleague Benjamin Eva — to rigorously characterize and specify details of particular cases that have evaded many philosophers.

“One of the things I’m impressed with is the ability to use this framework to make inferences about what causes what from observational data,” Stern says.

Doing so can shed light on ethical dilemmas in more complex cases, especially at a time when we have access to vast troves of sociological data. In work in progress, Stern points to the real-world legal case of a drug smuggler as an example.

Authorities caught him red handed, but they also had documented evidence that he made other trips along his smuggling route. Because U.S. sentencing laws assign punishments based on the amount of drugs brought in, the authorities attempted to use a statistical model that estimated the total amount of contraband over all his trips, based on the evidence of other smugglers, to obtain a harsher sentence.

“It seems inappropriate” to do so, Stern says, “even if it does establish a high degree of probability that he smuggled that amount.” 

Using a graphical causation modeling approach, Stern argues that “in order to convict, you need to show not only that the degree of probability is sufficiently high, but also that the defendant’s actions powerfully cause the evidence used to convict them.”

What is vice?

Liu is likely to ask a different question about smugglers: not how we should punish them, but why they choose to smuggle drugs in the first place.

Why do ordinary people fail to live up to their virtues? That’s the question Wenjin Liu answers with the help of ancient Greek philosophers. (John West/Trinity Communications)

She found her way to studying vice after moving to Philadelphia. Unable to embark on a deep study of Chinese philosophy at Penn — there wasn’t a specialist on faculty — Liu found something that approximated it: classical Greek philosophy.

“They were close enough,” she says with a laugh. “They were formulated over 2,000 years ago by a group of thinkers. It was the first time in Western philosophy that people were able to ask those questions and come up with answers and then talk to each other and criticize them. And I found that some of the questions asked by those great thinkers were very similar to the ones I read in high school.”

Attracted by the challenge and value of philosophy, Liu embarked on a doctoral program at Princeton. As she was searching for a dissertation topic, she noticed that despite those 2,000 years of commentary on Plato, no one, to her knowledge, had elucidated a systemic theory of vice in his work. She set out to be the first.

As Liu articulates it, Plato had two separate theories of vice. In his early works, he tied vice to ignorance, though Liu stresses that, for Plato, ignorance is not just lack of knowledge. “It is a complex, structural psychological defect in which the soul is systematically misled by appearances without adequately reflecting on how things really are,” Liu says.

In Plato’s more mature works, especially “The Republic,” Liu says that view developed into a “functional conception of vice, and also virtue.”

What makes something vicious or virtuous, in this view, is simply how it performs its function. The cup holding Liu’s tea is analyzed in those terms — thankfully, it was virtuously containing all the liquid, as cups should — the same way that human beings are. We simply have a different function: to live a “reason-guided life,” Liu says.

“Vice,” she concludes, “is the psychic state because of which humans fail to live a reason-guided life.”

Liu hasn’t abandoned the Chinese thinkers who first prompted her own reason-guided life. Most recently, she has written on the 4th century BCE philosopher Mozi. She also works on comparative approaches between Greek and Chinese philosophy.

Throughout it all, though, Liu is compelled by the question of how ordinary people live, even if that means focusing on their flaws.

“I find people often neglect the dark side of humanity,” Liu says. “But if we focus narrowly on the ideal side of things, then we lose sight of the broader human condition.”

What is a person?

Hearing that Ásta is a metaphysician can make her work sound intimidatingly remote and abstract. But though she found her way to philosophy by first studying math and physics, the opposite is the case.

Along with Duke colleague Kevin Richardson, Ásta is a leading proponent of a relatively new branch of philosophy called “social ontology.” The name is relatively new, but the subject matter is ancient. These thinkers ask how the social world is constructed and how to understand the nature of the resulting construction.

A feminist metaphysician, Ásta’s work offers a theory for how to understand socially constructed categories. (John West/Trinity Communications)

Where recent political movements — including #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and the fight for trans rights — have made it commonplace to refer to various identities as “social constructs,” Ásta attempts to fill in the details of what that means.

“My current work is on the social, and on the way the world we interact with and the world we’re a part of is a creation of ours” she explains. “I’m particularly interested in how we can change it. But we need to think about what the boundaries are and what the resistance is and what the mechanism of construction is in order to figure out where change is going to take place.”

In various papers and her 2018 book “Categories We Live By,” Ásta details her approach to those issues, which she calls “conferralism” for the way that social categories like race, gender and sexuality (along with many others) are conferred onto us by the rest of our society.

“If you take gender, for example, what makes you a man or a woman or some other gender is mostly not about you,” Ásta says. “It’s about other people. It’s about society, and it’s about an expression of values in society.”

Categories are assigned based on what Ásta calls a base” property, or at least the belief, on the part of those conferring the category, that the individual has that property. For categories like gender and race, the process is context dependent: Sometimes the base property for race may be skin pigment; in others, heritage.

“Another way to think of base properties is to see that we all have various features or properties, but only some of them have social significance in the contexts we travel in,” Ásta says. “People treat you differently if they take you to have the socially meaningful property.”

This conferralist framework, Ásta argues, allows us to question how and why a social category is constructed. Is it justified to treat people differently on the basis of a certain feature? If so, is the treatment proportional to the importance of the feature?

By inviting inquiries about the justification of our social arrangements, Ásta’s approach shows that, in many cases, those justifications are missing or spurious.

“It can help,” she says. “It can either help by revealing that it’s not justified to make a distinction at all in this context, or that there are more base properties that could justify the treatment. It can clarify things, or show that there is a political struggle, or that a normative argument needs to be made that hasn’t been made yet.”

A space for thinking

For philosophers covering such vast areas of their discipline, Ásta, Liu and Stern share a commitment to interdisciplinary engagement.

Ásta notes that her ontological framework needs to be filled in with empirical study, while Stern is still interested in continuing the cross-disciplinary work inherent in causation modeling and Liu’s research pairs neatly with colleagues in Classical Studies and Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, among others.

“Once you plug them into the department, the different areas of the department are more tightly connected,” says Philosophy Chair Katherine Brading. “We wanted to build on the great junior hires we already made recently. It strengthens us in multiple ways.”

In doing so, Brading says Duke’s newest cohort of philosophers provides students with opportunities for exciting new approaches to issues they’re already exploring in different ways.

“Every day we’re making choices about how to act and what to do,” Brading says. “We can make those choices on the basis of habit, on the basis of what other people are doing or on the basis of thought and reflection. Philosophy provides a space for people to think about why we’re doing those actions, and a safe space to think about the reasons, the evidence, the alternatives for how else we might do things.”

It's not quite the same as caring for cows on an Icelandic farm, but it can lead to a harmony all of its own.