Suppose you see a Vermeer in a museum and you want to express your reaction to some companions. You might say, âIt’s a beautiful painting. Or you could tell them, “I think the paint looks good.” Either of these sentences surely expresses the same basic point.
MIT philosopher Justin Khoo wouldn’t agree. Indeed, Khoo likes to differentiate between such statements until a gaping gap appears. For example, if you say âI think the painting looks good,â you might express doubt about your own assessment, which is not present in the sentence, âIt’s a beautiful painting. Or, if you say ‘It’s a beautiful painting’ your companions may not agree, but if you say ‘I think the painting looks good’ they can’t dispute that you really think the paint looks good.
“There is a kind of Janus nature in some languages, so certain language expressions allow a kind of subjective and objective mixture,” observes Khoo, associate professor of philosophy at MIT.
Sometimes this mixture occurs in aesthetics. This also occurs in the realm of knowledge, where modalities such as “could”, “must” and “probably” qualify our certainty about the state of the world. And it comes up often in matters of morality: we can make statements about what we think is right or wrong, and then meet other people with the same certainty but different values.
“This structure arises everywhere,” explains Khoo.
This structure is also the kind of thing that feeds his research. As an academic, Khoo blends philosophy and linguistics to examine how we communicate about politics, values, knowledge and tastes. Often, Khoo examines the tension between “invariantism” and “contextualism” – between seemingly definitive statements and the subjective perspective of speakers. Khoo does this in a number of ways, from rigorous analysis of particular statements to linguistic studies of language use. He even conducted experimental research revealing that people seem more relaxed about the coexistence of seemingly competing moral values ââthan some researchers suspected.
As such, Khoo’s work provides tools for thinking about how we can live better together.
“I try to understand language from the point of view of a philosopher who worries about the misuse of language leading to problems, and from the point of view of a descriptive linguist who wants to know how we actually use our language and what we can consistently say about it, âsays Khoo.
For his far-reaching research – Khoo has authored or co-authored more than 20 published papers and a new book will be released in 2022 – and for his teaching, Khoo was established by MIT earlier this year.
Free to pursue philosophy
Like many professors, Khoo had a clear goal in mind when he entered college. Less typically, this goal was to become a musician. Khoo initially enrolled in music school, but after a year he dropped out, moved to Northern California, and enrolled in Santa Rosa Junior College.
There, Khoo’s interest in philosophy blossomed, especially after a class where a professor, Michael Aparicio, exposed the issue of skepticism, as presented by thinkers such as Descartes and Hume: How Can We to be sure of the things we think we know?
âIt grabbed me in a way that no other subject had grabbed me before,â Khoo said.
After graduating from an undergraduate degree, Khoo enrolled at the University of California, Davis. Having completed his general education requirements in college, Khoo quickly took 24 philosophy courses at Davis. Other than a minor in sociology, Khoo says, âIt’s the only thing I’ve done. It was wonderful. I was able to devote myself entirely to philosophy.
After graduating, Khoo was accepted into the doctoral program at Yale University, where he received his doctorate in 2013. Khoo joined the faculty at MIT the same year and has been at the Institute since – a logical continuation in a sense, given that linguists and philosophers are formally linked by the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy of the Institute.
Khoo’s research agenda, however, is distinctly his. In some ways, his work remains an answer to the problem of skepticism – although rather than discussing things on skeptics’ terms, he examines how language helps shape the way we “know” things. At the same time, Khoo has tackled a wide range of topics, through multiple approaches.
Consider a 2018 article published in We, written with Joshua Knobe of Yale University, in which the researchers conducted an investigation. They found that when participants assessed competing moral claims, to a surprising extent, they did not feel that those claims had to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they have often admitted that different moral opinions can be based on the circumstances in which people exist. At the same time, participants still believed that the people making these statements disagreed with each other. This involves participants simultaneously acknowledging the disagreement between people, while leaving open the possibility that both parties are right.
It might sound idiosyncratic, this type of thinking must be kept in mind “if we are to respect ordinary intuitions about disagreements in moral conflict,” write Khoo and Knobe.
“The Shining”: Not scary, actually
Khoo’s sense of inventiveness is also reflected in the classroom, where he has often been keen to integrate current events into his teaching. In his undergraduate seminar 24.192 (Language, Information and Power), Khoo pointed out to students the curiosities of political discourse. When candidates contradict each other, Khoo notes, citing the work of philosopher Michael Lynch, they can actually win voters by bringing in more people – because to resolve the contradiction, listeners can choose to believe the side they want. .
Meanwhile, Khoo’s upcoming book, “The Meaning of If,” explores hypothetical language and thought, including probability, counterfactual scenarios, and many other forms of conditional thinking. It is published by Oxford University Press in 2022.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Khoo and his wife, Laura Khoo, co-host a film-related podcast, “Cows in the Field,” which covers the cinematic landscape extensively, discussing one film by episode. (The title is taken from a remark by Werner Herzog.) Cinema is another of Khoo’s burning interests, and the podcast allows him to delve into films from the past. For an episode on “The Last Days of Disco,” the film’s director, Whit Stillman, made an appearance. When the podcast talked about “Office Space,” Khoo’s parents joined the show, and his father recounted the company’s indignities, such as the withdrawal of coffee provided by the company.
Besides Khoo’s pure pleasure for the medium, the film is another vehicle through which he enjoys exploring philosophical concepts. Suppose, for example, that after your visit to the museum where you saw the Vermeer, you and your friends all watched “The Shining” together. And imagine you find it a scary movie and tell everyone about it. This creates another situation where we can examine subjectivity and language.
âThere really is no property of being scary. There are only my answers and your answers,â Khoo said. âBut if we project that there really is a property of being scary, then we we can fight for fear in this area, even if ultimately there is nothing to fight. “
Such arguments are useful. âIt allows us a kind of common content that we disagree and argue about, and it makes it easier for us to communicate,â says Khoo. âI think that’s often what happens with this type of language. It gives us a model to think about what is in the world, and how much we need to ask [about the world] to make sense of it.