In this interview Ted Kinnaman, early modern scholar and long-time Mason philosophy professor, talks about what got him interested in philosophy, what his parents thought of him majoring in philosophy, and what it's like teaching at Mason. He also discusses a new project that he's working on as a 2022-2023 faculty fellow at the Center for Humanities Research on Immanuel Kant and Johann Georg Hamann. If you'd like to learn more about these figures, Ted is happy to help students interested in doing independent work in epistemology or moral theory, as well as in other figures in early modern philosophy.
Where did you grow up?
What got you into philosophy, and studying Kant, in particular?
When I was a freshman in college, I had a political science course with a really great professor who could make just about any political view sound plausible, I decided that what I wanted was to study ways of comparing such views on the merits. I took Intro to Philosophy, where we read Plato, Mill, Kant and Kierkegaard, and I was hooked.
What did your parents think about your decision to major in philosophy?
They were very pleased. My father was a musicologist with a strong interest in philosophy. My college didn’t offer a business major, but if it had, and I had chosen that, then they would have been disappointed.
As a student you studied abroad in Germany, what was that like?
Great, mostly. It’s a very different academic and intellectual culture than in the US. Philosophy professors get a lot of respect in Germany.
When I studied in Bonn, I attended a seminar (they called it a Kolloquium) where the students and professor worked through the Critique of Pure Reason one sentence at a time, interpreting every nuance, noting every connection to other texts of Kant’s. It met for three hours late on Friday afternoons, no breaks. It was heavenly.
Some people find Kant’s views pretty surprising. For example, Kant says that the world conforms to our personal experiences of it, is that right?
Kant says that “subjective conditions of thought are objective conditions of experience.” That is carefully worded to make clear that the equation is supposed to be symmetrical. Kant’s intention is to eliminate the priority of the subjective over the objective that he found, for example, in Descartes, Locke, and Berkeley.
Given that there’s a lot of subjectivity in people’s experiences, how does Kant’s philosophy fit with modern science?
The biggest problem for Kant’s account of science is its apparent reliance on outdated theories in mathematics. For example, he assumes that Euclid had the last word on geometry, but in fact the last couple of centuries have seen the development of non-Euclidean geometries. I tend to read Kant as specifying the conditions of objectivity that must underly any scientific theory.
You’re currently a fellow at CHR. Can you tell us a little about the project you’re working on there?
I’m writing about the criticism of Kant’s work by Johann Georg Hamann, a philosophically astute critic of the Enlightenment. Hamann was one of the first to suggest that philosophers like Kant made a mistake by not thinking more about language.
What is your favorite thing about teaching at Mason?
In my courses at George Mason, especially some years ago when I taught Introduction to Philosophy more frequently than I do today, I always have at least a few students who are encountering philosophy for the first time, and loving it. That is very gratifying.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed reading philosophy like Kant’s. Do you have any suggestions for breaking down difficult passages?
Ask the professor!
Favorite books you’d recommend?
What else do you like to do for fun?
I love music, including live music. I also love a good glass of beer.
Photo you could share for this that’s not a headshot?
Here I am in Moscow, chatting with Comrade Lenin!
October 26, 2022