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Philosophy as a vehicle for self-understanding

Tatyana Kostochka, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Ashoka University, writes about her research in moral psychology and Buddhist philosophy

Throughout my academic journey, I have benefitted from some incredible role models. My father is a university professor in mathematics and I have had the privilege of seeing academic research as an option from very early on. That said, it was not necessarily what I had envisioned for myself. I had an interest in art and I loved the idea of working at the intersection of multiple cultures. 

This led me to declare a major in East Asian Studies. But I was also always particularly interested in the relationship between our psychology and our actions. How come it’s easy to motivate myself to do this but seemingly impossible to motivate myself to do that, even though I think that is just as important as this? At the prompting of some wonderful mentors and peers, I decided to take more philosophy and, particularly, a course in philosophy of action. 

It was love at first sight. Philosophy of action addressed exactly the kinds of questions that had been nagging at me. So, ultimately philosophy presented not only a fascinating area of research but also a vehicle for self-understanding. Moreover, philosophy allowed me to bring together all the passions I wanted to pursue. As part of my research, I spent two years of graduate school living in Japan and my work has benefited tremendously from a multicultural perspective. I also draw monthly philosophy comics which allows me to indulge my love for art.

My research is divided into two projects: one in moral psychology and one in Buddhist philosophy. 

In moral psychology, I have been focusing on the nature of moods. There has been a flourishing literature in philosophy on the nature of the emotions but moods have been regularly pushed aside as less interesting. 

For an emotion like anger, there is something we are angry at and there is also an associated judgement that comes with the emotion—something like “so-and-so wronged me.” But what of a frustrated mood? There is no particular thing that I am frustrated at. I’m frustrated at whatever comes my way. This nebulous nature of moods makes them difficult to theorize about. In my work, I argue that moods are just as philosophically interesting as emotions and, indeed, talking about moods can help us answer many different questions about aesthetics, morality, society, and metaphysics.

In Buddhist philosophy, I have been primarily interested in ethics and the issue of when it is permissible to break certain monastic precepts. In particular, I have been looking at the work of the 14th century Japanese monk Ninkū. Stereotypes see Japanese Buddhist philosophy as largely non-analytic. It is focused on meditation and direct insight. But Ninkū’s work provides another perspective. Ninkū supported academic debates and has left a wealth of lecture transcripts on various ethical topics. I am really excited to keep exploring Ninkū’s work.

In the US, where I was educated, Buddhist philosophy has historically been the purview of history and religion departments. Meanwhile, analytic philosophy departments have remained bastions of western philosophy. As someone pursuing research both in more typical analytic philosophy and in Buddhist philosophy, I was worried that looking for a job would force me to make some difficult decisions. 

On one hand, I could lean into my interest in Buddhism and attempt to find work in a department outside of philosophy. On the other hand, I could focus on my more mainstream research and risk being in a department that didn’t support half of my research interests. 

At Ashoka University, I have been incredibly lucky to be part of a department that supports not just part but all of my research. I hope that being at an institution that allows for this kind of interdisciplinary work will allow me to bring my two fields of interest closer together.

This article is extracted from an interview conducted by Dr Yukti Arora; edited by Saket Suman

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka