In conversation with Siddharth S (Assistant Professor, Philosophy at Sai University, Chennai)
Tarun Kattumana is currently completing his PhD in Philosophy at the Husserl Archives, Centre for Phenomenology and Continental Philosophy, at the Institute for Philosophy, KU Leuven. He is also a part of the Access to Medicines Research Centre at KU Leuven.
Siddharth: Hello, Tarun. Thank you for agreeing to do this interview as part of Parichay. Could we begin with a brief biography, to let our reader know about your background?
Tarun: I was born in Kerala and moved to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at a very young age when my father got a job there. My family spent some time in Sharjah and then moved to Dubai eventually, where both my parents still stay. Growing up in the UAE definitely helped mold my sensibilities and interests. The cosmopolitan environment gave me a thorough sense that my understanding of ‘normal’ was heavily influenced by my upbringing. Especially given the different ‘normal(s)’ of my friends and colleagues of my parents. After school, I went to pursue a bachelors in history at Hans Raj College in Delhi University. To say that my first year in Delhi was a culture shock would be an understatement. Being in Delhi took me outside my caste and class related comfort zones. After my bachelors in history, I felt I wanted to study more but was not really sure what I wanted to study. I had interests in sociology and philosophy. Through a serendipitous turn of events, I got accepted at the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities (MCPH) where I did an interdisciplinary masters with a specialization in philosophy. This experience gave me an interest in philosophy, especially continental philosophy and felt the need to delve deeper. After working for a year under Prof. A. Raghuramaraju for the E-Pathashala project at the University of Hyderabad, I decided to pursue another master’s in philosophy from KU Leuven, Belgium. I have been here ever since apart from one semester where I was a teaching fellow at Sai University, Chennai (September 2022 -February 2023).
Why did you choose to pursue a second master’s, after the first one at the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities?
I did not feel I had a good enough grounding in philosophy at the time. For instance, when looking at other applicants for a PhD in philosophy I felt I was not yet ready to articulate a clear area of interest with sustained engagement or a topic on which I had dealt with substantially enough to present myself as a potential scholar and thereby a competitive candidate.
What has been your experience of studying and being part of academic philosophy in India?
I did my bachelors in history and there was a lot of interest in philosophical themes in other disciplines. Pursuing these interests is what brought me to philosophy. The first time I encountered philosophy in a classroom was at Manipal. Starting philosophy at the masters level without the required background was daunting. There seemed to be a high barrier to enter the discourse. Or a whole range of preexisting familiarity with concept-clusters, styles of writing, and the history of philosophy, that was required. Studying philosophy came with the feeling of having to constantly catch up. A great learning through this process–something I appreciated only in retrospect–was the ability to jump into texts or discourses knowing fully well that I did not have the pre-requisite background to adequately engage with the material. The ability to make this jump seemed to me entirely contingent on a range of factors. I did not always take this jump but learning how to do it on a rare occasion was crucial for my philosophical research later on. There is never a single moment where every detail on a page is absolutely clear. But it is still required to proceed to the next page hoping things get clarified eventually with more engagement.
What are your research interests in philosophy? Can you briefly describe them for our readers?
I am broadly interested in Continental philosophy. The emphasis on history, sociality, and intersubjectivity spoke to me, especially given that I began studying philosophy during my masters after a bachelors in history. Currently, my research focuses on Phenomenology which was among the first continental traditions I was introduced to during my masters. I then moved to study philosophy at KU Leuven where the Husserl Archives is housed. Here I got a very different reading of phenomenology which is deeply enriching and ran counter to its general reception. For this reason, I see a strong continuity between thinkers like Husserl and developing trends in phenomenology like critical and engaged phenomenology.
My PhD thesis focuses on vaccine hesitancy during the COVID-19 pandemic. This focus brought in new interests in Systems Theory. During the pandemic I was part of a research project that looked into vaccine hesitancy in Flanders, Belgium. The group from my university that was part of this project took a systems theoretic approach. In the process of working with them, I got interested in systemic analysis and combining it with phenomenology. The pandemic also brought into focus the central role of trust which has been a helpful point to bring together phenomenological and systems theoretic approaches to study vaccine hesitancy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Besides my PhD research I have a strong interest in questions of Realism and Anti-Realism. I find this to be among the core questions philosophy can and should deal with. What excites me about continental philosophy and its recent trends is the return to questions of realism in a non-naïve sense and an attempt to break the Analytic-Continental Divide. Another strong interest is in Post Colonial and Decolonial thought which gives me a vantage point to evaluate the process and place of academia in India as it deals with its colonial heritage and baggage. I am also increasingly attempting to better my understanding of Jaina philosophy when time permits.
It is interesting to know that you are part of an interdisciplinary project. How has it been, working as part of such a team? Could you elaborate on your contributions to the research as a philosopher?
My team consisted of anthropologists, those working in operations management (system dynamics), business engineers, sociologists, psychologists, and virologists. Working with folks from other disciplines is really tough for me. Especially given that as a student of philosophy I am not used to the project setting or used to working together as a team. Additionally, many of the methodological ways of working of other disciplines tend to underplay what would be philosophically significant. Put simply, I realized that my team members and I had been formed in different ways by our disciplinary upbringing and were predisposed to be sensitive/pay attention to different things.
To be honest, I was not trying to contribute to the team as a student of philosophy. Most of the time I was conducting interviews, coding the qualitative data, and eventually writing papers with said data. It was not immediately clear to me what a philosopher was supposed to do with qualitative research or systems mapping. My main intention was to learn how practitioners in other disciplines made their academic training relevant. Over time and on occasion, some philosophical distinctions, concepts, or emphasis on history proved important. Moreover, it was the insight that everyone was predisposed to seeing things a specific way owing to disciplinary framing that made me sensitive to identifying when a certain predisposition or disciplinary attitude was getting at the object of inquiry well and when it was mischaracterizing it.
This sounds fascinating! Could you share with us some of your published research?
My publications have broadly been about the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine hesitancy. A part of my philosophical research has focused on putting forward a phenomenological analysis of trust in relation to vaccine hesitancy during the COVID-19 pandemic and its role in support for conspiracy theories. I, along with Thomas Bryne, have also provided a phenomenological reading of resistance to public health interventions during the COVID-19 pandemic and a broad five part schema that situates different positions in the debate on public contestations of science in general and vaccine hesitancy in particular which is forthcoming .
My interdisciplinary research has been more squarely focused on vaccine hesitancy. My co-authors and I have published on vaccine hesitancy among health care workers and experiences of navigating crises related to the pandemic.
Having been part of the philosophy community both in India and in Belgium, could you share your reflections on philosophy as a discipline in India? How do you foresee the development of the discipline?
Studying philosophy in India comes with some tensions. On the one hand there is a draw and a pull to study Indian Philosophy given the many interesting concepts and debates at play. On the other hand, there is a demand to become proficient with Western philosophy and its traditions. The need to specialize so early on to get admitted into a PhD program or master’s meant that this tension could not be maintained. The feeling of needing to catch up with both Indian and Western philosophical traditions is altogether heightened. So, any choice feels like a compromise. Maintaining this tension in healthy ways and better collaboration between scholars working in different traditions is a hope for the foreseeable future.
Another feature of working in philosophy in India is the increasing interconnectivity. This was not the case before. I really value the work that everyone at IPN is doing. Going forward such a network would help grow collaboration and community among those pursuing philosophy in India. Lastly, but most importantly, choosing to study philosophy can be daunting for those who have pressing financial and familial pressures. Presently, philosophy only offers a career path for those who are willing to stay in academia. Others who still have an active interest but cannot or do not want to stay in academia need to have avenues to engage philosophically. Moving forward, if we are able to make philosophy viable for academic and non-academic forms of life, it might contribute to greater interest in philosophy inside and outside the classroom. I hope this happens
What do students in Belgium who study philosophy for their bachelor's and master's do after their programmes? Do most of them end up pursuing a career in academia?
It really depends on at what stage the student is leaving philosophy. A student leaving at the bachelor’s level might migrate to another field, work a couple of internships and move towards a stable job. A student leaving the master’s, may already be academically inclined but may migrate to a field where academics and job prospects in the policy field for instance may be a possibility. For those who leave philosophy after the PhD, it is less straightforward. There has been significant time investment in academia. Moreover, in this part of Europe once you have a PhD, your employer has to pay you a salary that is reflective of your qualifications. For this reason, starting low or the kind of opportunities a bachelors student gets may not always be available to you.
What kind of career in philosophy are you yourself interested in?
Ideally speaking I would be grateful for the ability to teach and do research in philosophy with one foot in academia and another in public action-oriented projects. I am currently hoping to transition into a post-doc position or teaching at a university after I complete my PhD.
Could you expand on what you have in mind when you talk of 'public action-oriented projects'? More generally, how do you think philosophers and philosophy can contribute to public discourse ?
I would distinguish between two kinds of public action oriented projects. This distinction is only for the sake of clarity and not a distinction that I really see in practice. The first is where the researchers are directly working with members of the general public or a particular community. The second is where the researchers are working with institutions, pressure groups, NGOs who are working on various issues in society. In both cases, the audience of the research is different. This difference influences what counts as successful research. For instance, publication in a journal behind a paywall or read by researchers alone may not count as a successful end product for the first kind of public action oriented project.
In my limited experience, students of philosophy should not aim to immediately apply their theoretical ideas or concepts. This would presuppose their applicability. Rather, philosophers should first immerse themselves in the problem and try collaborating with particular actors they hope to deal with. It has become quite clear to me that the philosophical framing of a problem differs quite a bit from other framings of the problem.
More concretely, I feel those from different disciplines and schools of thought have immediate or broadly expected ways of framing an issue. For instance, legal experts tend to approach a problem in a way that would differ from anthropologists. This insight is quite explicitly post-Kantian in the sense that social problems do not just exist out there to be discovered by the researcher or policy maker. Rather our observations and framing are a crucial part of the problem. I emphasize that they are a part of the problem to stress that there are 'real' problems and these are not mere constructs. That said, these 'real' problems are framed in ways that can appear natural to the one doing the framing. Once the philosopher has been able to check their own framing of the issue, they may be in a place along with others to identify what grouping of clashing frames to proceed with.
Tarun, this has been a wonderful and enriching conversation. Thanks a lot for taking time to do this!