The Department of Philosophy welcomes three new visiting assistant professors to its ranks this year. Among them is Tucker McKinney, who comes to us as a newly-minted Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, where he wrote a dissertation entitled, "Heidegger on Human Finitude and Normative Governance." Professor McKinney is teaching multiple sections of Introduction to Philosophy this Fall, focused on the topic of "Meaning in Life," a theme which the Department hopes to feature in its new College curriculum courses next year. In Spring term, Professor McKinney will be teaching our course on Kant and the Nineteenth Century as well. Here he tells us about his research and teaching interests and about other facets of his life.
What are your research interests and on what projests are you now working?
I work primarily in the history of 19th and 20th-century European philosophy, with a special focus on the work of Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. I’m especially interested in how these authors approach questions pertaining to human agency and practical rationality, and in how they conceive of the role of philosophy in practical life.
My main project involves spelling out a new approach to reading Heidegger’s Being and Time, which tries to connect Heidegger’s philosophy to problems in the philosophy of action, and in particular, the question of how we should explain voluntary actions. Most of us have the intuition that when we want to give an explanation of why someone does something in terms of the reasons they have for doing it, what we need to know is something about how they are internally representing the world: e.g., what they want, and how they think they can get what they want. But Heidegger rejects that view: he thinks that what explains our voluntary actions are not mental states but objects in the world. And he thinks, furthermore, that the reason that we think differently is that we’re confused about the very basic nature of the mind, action, and reasons-based explanation. This is a big part of the reason why Being and Time is such a difficult and obscure book, because Heidegger is trying to develop a whole new metaphysics to make sense of how rationality is possible, and he believes that requires adopting a very different philosophical vocabulary from the one we’re accustomed to. I’m trying to cut through all of the jargon and reconstruct the basic argument of the book so that contemporary philosophers of action, metaphysicians, and ethicists can appreciate what Heidegger was trying to say.
I’ve also begun reading and thinking about the work of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche alongside Heidegger, with questions about the nature of practical reason and the nature and role of philosophy in practical life in mind. I find in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s work the very interesting (and troubling) idea that taking the moral education of one’s reader seriously might require an author to use some form of indirection or subterfuge. Trying to explain why that is true (if it is) would have a lot to teach us about our relationship to our values. So I’m looking at how Kierkegaard and Nietzsche think about the nature of practical thought, with an eye toward understanding how they justify their ways of doing and writing moral philosophy.
What is your favorite course to teach and how do you approach it?
I love teaching courses in the history of philosophy. There is something about animating the thoughts and ideas of thinkers from the past that I find really fun and fulfilling. I especially like to hone in on thinkers and ideas that seem really strange to us now, and to find ways of presenting them that show how they make sense. That can be a serious challenge at times, but it helps to show how much we can learn about our own ways of thinking when we take a philosopher seriously on their own terms.
A distinctive feature of my approach to philosophy courses in general is that I think it’s very important for students to freak out—about philosophical problems. One of the hardest things about starting to do philosophy is learning to care about the problems in such a way that you see why we have to be rigorous in solving them. So I try to spend a lot of energy in my courses showing why we should care about the problems at hand, and variously finding ways of stoking my students’ latent anxieties about how little sense the world often makes. This is especially important for studying the history of philosophy, as I think the surest way to understand philosophers of the past is to figure out how to worry about things as they did.
Do you have any avocations or hobbies?
Sometime in graduate school I developed an interest in photography. It started when I bought a nice camera that my wife and I could take with us on our honeymoon, but my geekiness took over and I began taking photographs as a hobby. Then somewhere along the line I got fascinated by vintage film cameras. On the one hand, I really enjoy the process of taking photographs with old, manual cameras. They force you to stop and think about what you’re doing and to have a certain patience and tolerance of failure that modern digital cameras make largely dispensable. Perhaps perversely, I like that. And I’m also amazed that machines we built over half a century ago (the oldest camera I use was built in 1954) can still work and produce amazing images. So I take photographs with cameras old and new when I have time (alas, not often enough), and have a small collection of vintage film cameras that may expand when I have space to accommodate them.
Besides being geeky about photography, I’m also geeky about literature and music, and am eager to take advantage of the day-hiking opportunities that Virginia provides.
Would you like to say anything about family or significant others in your life?
I am married with two kids. My wife, Sherry, is a school counselor by profession, but currently stays home with my son Toby (age 4) and my daughter Cora (age 1). Toby attends the Integrated Preschool Program at Magruder Elementary.
How does Williamsburg compare (so far) to where you were living previously?
Before coming here, I was living in Chicago. Williamsburg is obviously vastly different from Chicago in many ways, but it actually feels similar, in some respects, to the part of Chicago that we were living in (Hyde Park). Hyde Park is a relatively quiet neighborhood on the south side of Chicago that sometimes feels like a smaller town, because it’s fairly tight-knit and geographically removed from most of the city’s cultural hotspots. We grew to like living there a lot (especially once we had kids), but it was a big change of pace for both of us to be in such a large city. Williamsburg, on the other hand, is much more like the towns that we grew up in, and in that respect it’s felt a bit like coming home. We haven’t been here long, but we are very excited to get out and explore all that the area has to offer!
Is there anything you'd like the W&M community to know about you (beyond the above)?
Just that I’m incredibly excited to be here and eager to talk philosophy with anyone who chances by my office. I’ve already had a great time getting to know the students, faculty, and staff that I have spoken with, and look forward to meeting more of you in the weeks to come!