news 2023

Horban Award 2023 Interview: Danielle Jones

July 04, 2023

The Department of Philosophy at Simon Fraser University would like to congratulate Danielle Jones, who has been awarded the Peter Horban Philosophy Essay Award for her paper "Kant’s State of Selfhood: Existence, Necessity, and the Limits of Epistemic Humility in the Critique of Pure Reason". The annual departmental award is made to recognize excellence in a philosophical essay written by an undergraduate student. Winning essays demonstrate academic and research excellence at the undergraduate level with particular emphasis placed upon originality and promise of ability in research.

Congratulations on winning the Horban Award! Can you provide a brief overview of the argument at the heart of your paper "Kant’s State of Selfhood: Existence, Necessity, and the Limits of Epistemic Humility in the Critique of Pure Reason"?

Thank you very much! Well, my research interests have always centred around philosophical investigations of the self: as a metaphysical object, a moral agent, a phenomenological subject, and all the other interesting identities selfhood entails. When I first read the Critique of Pure Reason, I was fascinated by Kant’s complex descriptions of self-consciousness and self-identity. In particular, I took interest in his claim that even knowledge of the self ‘as it is in itself’ cannot escape his notorious epistemic humility; such inaccessibility seems at odds with the intuitive notion of privileged epistemic access to the mental states accompanying one’s own perspective in the world. I argue that such privileged epistemic access to experiential knowledge concerning our own selfhood does in fact make the noumenal self a unique candidate for more detailed analysis. I equip our unified experience of selfhood as premise in a transcendental argument which brings to light the necessary conditions of such experience; through these modal investigations, I arrive at the possibility of novel noumenal knowledge.

I’d say the most provocative aim of this paper was to challenge the peremptory attitudes of incredulity toward investigations of the noumenal realm; such epistemic meekness, I argue, is not upheld by Kant himself. In addition to this pursuit, I also examine the necessary presuppositions required to bring about the faculties through which Kant claims we gain self-consciousness. After a survey of the literature regarding Kantian facets of self-consciousness, I argue there is another source of selfhood within the Critique that has not been given the accentuation it merits.

My contributions to the conversation about the Kantian self were drawing out a novel sense of selfhood from the Critique and introducing new reasons to attribute a positive metaphysical account of selfhood to Kant. These investigations remain faithful to Kant’s descriptions of the ways in which we become conscious of ourselves as well as the degree of loyalty he holds toward the noumenal ignorance thesis. Kant’s State of Selfhood aims to prove that Kant has not shrouded selfhood behind an impenetrable wall of epistemic opacity; within the pages of the Critique, Kant provides us with a basis upon which we can gain novel insight into the metaphysical foundations of our own being.

What first drew you to Philosophy? And when did you first get the feeling that it was a good fit for you?

For as long as I can remember, writing has been the way I have best been able to connect to the world. By reflecting upon my experiences and thoughts through writing from a young age, I gained a hunger to get at some of the ‘big’ questions- ‘What is the meaning of life?’; “What does it mean to be a person?’ (As you can gather, I drove my mom absolutely crazy). I was lucky enough to become a youth ambassador for World Poetry Canada in 2008, and this became an incredible motivator for me to explore my existential inquisitiveness through a creative medium. At the time, I didn’t know this subject matter to be philosophy; nonetheless, I think this early encouragement to interact with it helped develop my infatuation with what I now know to be philosophy. In my first year at SFU, I took a couple philosophy courses and realized there was a name for this field of inquiry I had been intrigued by for so long. When I took my first metaphysics course, I was absolutely hooked. As I got further in my studies, I came to think that philosophy is to prose as euphony is to poetry; there was so much linguistic elegance to be found in this field! On top of that, I really enjoy the satisfying puzzle-solving involved in logic. I am happy to say that since I began to study philosophy, my adoration for this subject matter has only grown stronger.

What's something about studying Philosophy that you think would surprise someone who is unfamiliar with it?

I think perhaps people would be surprised how much practical application philosophy actually has in everyday life; it’s not just ancient guys arguing about the nature of space and time, I promise! I think taking on a philosophical perspective can aid in cultivating empathy, awareness, and a general thirst for knowledge which are all tools that make daily life more enjoyable and interesting (if you can get past all the existential dread, of course).

Studying ethics can bring clarity to dilemmas which one may encounter in their actual life. Epistemology teaches how to approach the acquisition of knowledge, which is helpful in any discipline. An understanding of logic is perhaps now, more than ever, invaluable; in a post-truth era, I think being able to critically assess arguments and understand the nature of justification are absolutely essential to navigating the information sphere we are in. I think it might surprise people to learn that philosophy is not just esoteric, theoretical speculations; philosophy can actually bring lucidity to the madness of life!

What's next for you?

My last semester at SFU is this fall, and toward the end of that semester I’ll be sending in applications to graduate schools to continue my studies in philosophy. I hope to carry on with my research surrounding the metaphysics of selfhood in my future studies. Regardless of the outcome of my graduate school pursuits, I know for certain that my next chapter will involve lots of writing, spending time with my cats, and unquestionably, lots of philosophy.

If you had to recommend one book or paper to get someone interested in Philosophy, what would it be?

I am a big fan of Thomas Nagel’s work, and I think a really approachable and intriguing read from him is ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ (1974). The paper’s goal is to show the irreducibly subjective nature of phenomenological experience across particular experiential subjects. Comprehension of the subjective character of experience, Nagel argues, is inseparable from its indexed point of view. The work’s body essentially responds to its title with absolute epistemic uncertainty. The fact of the matter about what it’s like to authentically experience any perspective other than one’s own is perpetually out of reach.

I like this paper for so many different reasons. Most plainly, it has such a cool and accessible way of explaining phenomenology. For me, this is one of those philosophy papers that brings forth that thrilling sense of wonder toward the limitlessly fascinating nature of our world and its creatures. It is the pursuit of understanding such elusive and mesmerizing concepts as phenomenological information which excites me most about philosophy. In this paper, Nagel says that “to deny the reality or logical significance of what we can never describe or understand is the crudest form of cognitive dissonance” (Nagel 1974, 440). I like how this paper, and lots of Nagel’s works, encourage us to lean into the eccentricities of reality. Bravery in the face of the bizarre is, in my opinion, one of the most precious philosophical virtues.