Celebrating World Philosophy Day with Stories (Part 3)

In honor of World Philosophy Day tomorrow, we asked a few Springer Nature researchers to tell us the story behind how they got into philosophy and why they’re so passionate about their field. Get to know Shannon Vallor and Jairo José da Silva in the feature below and if you missed the earlier installments, you can always catch-up on Part 1 and Part 2!

Shannon Vallor

Describe what it is to be an academic philosopher in your country and if/how it has any influence on your research.

Being an academic philosopher in the United States has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, we are generally freer than, say, our European counterparts to work independently of grant funding. This means that our choices of research direction and project are not as constrained by the current priorities of wealthy foundations or government agencies. It also means that we can spend less of our time writing grant applications, and more time doing actual research. On the other hand, I think that this freedom has allowed many philosophers in the States (certainly not all) to drift too far from our traditional vocation as public thinkers and critics. I wish that many more of us were engaged in public-facing philosophy addressing pressing problems with our existing institutions, cultures, and systems of knowledge and power, and doing so in a way that speaks to non-academic audiences. If Socrates and Confucius were around today, and they saw what was going on in the United States—from massive defunding of public education, to rising attacks on norms of truth and evidence in the public sphere, to a resurgence of shameless political corruption and other unchecked abuses of wealth and power—they’d expect the philosophers to be fighting on the front lines of public life, not safely ensconced in an academic bubble. Many great philosophers ARE on the front lines, of course. But in the U.S., it’s a small fraction of the whole.

How, would you say, is philosophy evolving as a study within your region?

Philosophy in the United States is continuing to open up to interdisciplinary and empirical modes of inquiry: for example, the philosophy of mind and moral philosophy are building more connections with neuroscience, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and empirical psychology. You see similar developments in my field, where philosophers of technology are regularly engaging with computer scientists, roboticists, engineers, and designers. That’s a great thing, in my mind, as long as philosophers retain enough methodological independence to fulfill our critical and normative functions. I wish I could say that philosophers in the U.S. were moving past the legacy of the continental-analytic divide, and rebuilding non-arbitrary, non-tribal distinctions between good philosophy and bad philosophy. The continental-analytic ‘divorce’ has done nothing but foster intellectual sterility and stagnation, on both sides of that divide. But I don’t yet see much progress in the U.S. on that front, and I’ve been waiting quite a while to see some.

What would you like to change in philosophy / if you could make one wish for the development of philosophy what would it be?

One change I would certainly make would be for academic philosophers in the English-speaking world to finally recognize technology as a core area of philosophical study, not a marginal interest. Given technology’s role in shaping every modern human institution and system of knowledge, and in altering the very planetary conditions upon which life, and thus the existence of philosophy itself, depends (at least as far as we know), it’s a scandal that philosophy and ethics of technology is not, by now, a major area of expertise in every respectable philosophy department. Instead, when I encounter students who want to do Ph.D. research in this field, I have to steer them to the Netherlands, or Denmark, or another European country where this is a strength. It’s a massive blind spot in most Ph.D-granting philosophy departments in the U.S., U.K, and Australia/New Zealand, with very few exceptions.

But more broadly than that—and this is implied by what I’ve already said—I hope that we can reclaim the goal of philosophy as a public practice. From its beginnings in the East and the West, philosophy aimed to encourage and broaden public habits of moral and intellectual self-cultivation—habits that could not only enrich, empower, and enlighten the minds that practiced them, but that might even transform and ennoble whole societies. You see this goal depicted in popular narratives like Roddenberry’s Star Trek. He thought that even flawed, volatile humans could still advance in philosophical wisdom far enough to embrace nobler, broader social commitments and purposes than those we pursue today. Philosophy is at its best when it articulates and valorizes better aims for the human family than those that presently and traditionally preoccupy us. This can be a goal of many other practices, of course, including the arts and political statecraft, but I don’t think that philosophy without this goal is still really philosophy. It becomes just a game.  Whenever and wherever the practice of philosophy becomes little more than cognitive exercise for detached elites, there has been a corruption of its purpose. The goal of philosophy is not the construction of ever-more sterile and exclusive intellectual contests. Philosophical gamesmanship should be a mere means to an end—namely, the cultivation of sufficient critical acuity, rigor, and intellectual virtue among philosophers as to make them useful and worthy public servants of human wisdom. I’d like to see philosophy aim higher than it currently does. Right now, other than in the creative arts, there aren’t very many visions of a radically better future for humanity that aren’t being pitched by an industry titan with a brand to sell, or an authoritarian demagogue seeking to consolidate power. That should worry us. This wasn’t always the case; philosophers used to imagine new futures too. Of course, philosophers’ visions can be as dangerous, naïve, or corrupt as anyone’s; that’s why it is so important that we maintain our critical edge with one another, and invite every possible challenge. But I see no reason to abandon the moral and intellectual aspirations of the philosophical vocation—in fact, those aspirations have never been more important to talk about.

Jairo José da Silva

Describe what it is to be an academic philosopher in your country and if/how it has any influence on your research.

A younger colleague once told me the following anecdote. He was a freshman, attending his first lecture in philosophy, given by a renowned Brazilian philosopher. To his amazement the lecture started with the professor advising the students: “Do not try to think for yourselves, you won’t be able to”. This illustrates what philosophy is in Brazil, infinite exegesis with very little originality. Here, thinking for oneself is taking for lack of philosophical seriousness. Having come from physics and mathematics (my first contact with philosophy was as a graduate student in mathematics in Berkeley), I do philosophy in frontal opposition to how it is understood in Brazil.

How, would you say, is philosophy evolving as a study within your region?

More recently, the strong French and German influences in Brazilian academic philosophy are being counterbalanced by Anglo-American philosophy, generating a bizarre hybrid, with continental exegetical orientation re-directed to analytic thinkers. Fortunately, there is also a trend concerned less with (over)-interpretation and close reading and more with philosophical problems themselves, particularly in logic and epistemology.

What would you like to change in philosophy / if you could make one wish for the development of philosophy what would it be?

It depends on the kind of philosophy. In continental philosophy, I would like to see less respect for the tradition, which sometimes touches idolatry. In analytic philosophy, less respect for science, which often touches the ridiculous. Philosophy should not mimic science in pathetic search for respectability, nor theology, in infinite interpretation of “sacred texts”. Philosophical problems, which are very real, do not admit, I think, final answers; in my view, the task of philosophy is to provide perspectives, scenarios, approaches that do not eliminate others even when frontally contradicting them. Often, it is not the answers that matters, but the overall philosophical context in which they are framed.

Celebrating World Philosophy Day with Stories (Part 2)

In honor of World Philosophy Day (November 16th), we asked a few Springer Nature researchers to tell us the story behind how they got into philosophy and why they’re so passionate about their field. Get to know Emma Ruttkamp-Bloem and Michal Gleitman in the feature below and check back on Wednesday for the third and final installment of this series!

Emma Ruttkamp-Bloem

Describe what it is to be an academic philosopher in your country and if/how it has any influence on your research.

I have been trained and have worked as an academic philosopher of science and logician in South Africa for the most part of my career. Being an academic philosopher in the global south has similarities with the experiences of our northern hemisphere counterparts, but also important differences. Similarities include obvious factors of academic life such as the pressure to publish and good international standing and successfully juggling research, teaching and administrative work. In terms of differences there is the over-all challenge of confronting northern hegemony in academic philosophy. In addition, in South Africa, local over-emphasis on moral and political philosophy in the context of decolonisation often makes for undervaluing the capacity of the ‘cognitive’ disciplines of philosophy to enrich and invigorate local contributions to global debates such as sustainable development, climate change, development in the field of artificial intelligence, etc. on the one hand, and to assist in addressing the pressure on universities to deliver responsible and informed scientists and mathematicians and engineers on the other. This atmosphere often leads to isolation of academic philosophers working in disciplines such as epistemology, philosophy of science and logic in South Africa, while this is not necessarily the case elsewhere in Africa.

How, would you say, is philosophy evolving as a study within your region?

There is a vibrant philosophical community in Africa, and high quality philosophical research is done across the continent in universities ranging from centuries old respected places of learning in Western and Northern Africa, to younger universities in Southern Africa – some, like the University of Cape Town, with rankings in the top 200 universities in the world, and ranking first in Africa. On a personal note, I have started a colloquium series (the South African Philosophy of Science and Logic Colloquium Series) on a bi-annual basis where scholars from across the world contribute. I also offer scholarships at the University of Pretoria to graduate students working in intersections of logic, knowledge representation and reasoning and philosophy of science, or in ethics of AI, through my researcher status with the Meraka Centre of Artificial Intelligence Research. In addition, I organised an international conference on New Thinking about Scientific Realism in Cape Town in 2014, the first of its kind since the conference at the University of North Carolina in 1982, funded by the Universities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and the National Research Foundation. In these ways, I have been able to build out and stimulate research in my fields of expertise in my country.

What would you like to change in philosophy / if you could make one wish for the development of philosophy what would it be?

I want greater awareness among graduate students of the immense scope for creating new careers related to their philosophical training in the context of current moral, economic, political and scientific debates.

Michal Gleitman

Describe what it is to be an academic philosopher in your country and if/how it has any influence on your research.

I returned to Israel after completing a PhD in the US, and it had a significant impact on my work. In the US, I felt at the center of the academic world and material resources were more readily available. However, I find that being “off-center” allows me to think more boldly and creatively because of the freedom to pursue research topics that are outside the mainstream. My work combines philosophy of language with empirical research on language and communication disabilities, and touches on areas of social policy such as access to justice for people with disability and communication rights for people who don’t speak. So while I take the academic endeavor to be unbound by national borders; my philosophical work is locally rooted in that it is designed to impact the community I live in. On a personal note, as a young mother, I was surprised to discover how incompatible motherhood is with being an early career academic. However, this difficulty is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Israel is a family oriented society, which makes work-life balance a little easier.

How, would you say, is philosophy evolving as a study within your region?

I don’t know that I can answer this question, but I’ll mention a couple of issues that keep coming up in conversations with other early career philosophers, mainly in Europe. I experience a lot of enthusiasm and willingness to explore new ways of doing philosophy. People are curious and generally approving of philosophical research that is empirically minded, and I see more openness to philosophical projects that don’t fall squarely within either the analytic or continental tradition (which, surprisingly, is still an issue today). Another tendency is a desire to make philosophical writing more accessible, not in the sense of writing for the general public, but rather making communication among philosophers clearer and less convoluted. Lastly, I see a sincere desire among younger scholars to understand why philosophy is so overwhelmingly male-dominated, and make philosophical culture more hospitable to women (and minorities in general). What these endeavors share in common, I believe, is the aim of diversifying philosophy by making room for new ideas and new ways of thinking, which in the end is what philosophy has always been about.

What would you like to change in philosophy / if you could make one wish for the development of philosophy what would it be?

I want to see philosophers collaborate more with scholars from other disciplines, especially ones that haven’t been traditionally associated with philosophy. To my mind, philosophers excel at theory but we need to find ways to make our abstract ideas more accessible, including being more openminded about the combination of philosophy and different kinds of empirical evidence. Some traditional philosophical questions are, by nature, non-empirical, but philosophy is ultimately about concrete issues concerning people, their lives, and the world we live in. Personally, as a philosopher who works on language, which is first and foremost a worldly, everyday phenomenon, I’m convinced that letting empirical research inform my work has had a profound and positive effect on it. Because my work is interdisciplinary I often collaborate with scholars in other academic fields as well as with non-academics, so I get to experience their initial reaction to the fact that I’m a philosopher. More often than not it is not positive. Philosophy is perceived as futile and impossible to understand, with outdated ideas and methods. I work hard to change this legacy, and open philosophy up to new ideas and collaborations. I know other philosophers who do the same, and I wish even more would join.

Celebrating World Philosophy Day with Stories (Part 1)

In honor of World Philosophy Day (November 16th), we asked a few Springer Nature researchers to tell us the story behind how they got into philosophy and why they’re so passionate about their field. Get to know Federica Russo and Hsiang-ke Chao in the feature below and check back next week for the next two installments of this series!

Federica Russo

Nederland,city, 2016
Geesteswetenschappen, master studies Universiteit van Amsterdam.
Foto: Bob Bronshoff

Describe what it is to be an academic philosopher in your country and if/how it has any influence on your research.

I left Italy as an Erasmus student in 2000 and I have been abroad ever since. After studying and working in four different academic environments in three European countries (and a short stay in the US), I landed in the Netherlands in 2014. In my experience, academic philosophers (of science) here enjoy quite an interesting and stimulating environment, being in close contact with science and technology – both in research and in teaching programmes. This is an asset for my own research. In particular, in the Netherlands – unlike other academic environments – scholars do not draw a sharp line between philosophy of science and the social studies of science. For philosophy of science, this means creating a rich hub were philosophers, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists set up a dialogue about the practice of the sciences and about its role in society. Yet, while it is a very positive experience to be a researcher and teacher, the Netherlands is also undergoing hard times in the form of budget cuts, especially in the humanities. Academic philosophers, as well as philosophy students, are strenuously fighting against the managerial and neoliberal drift that is so badly damaging our university. While this situation is making working conditions suboptimal, I also take it as an important moment for us philosophers to assert the relevance of our discipline, based on arguments other than its intrinsic value or tradition.

How, would you say, is philosophy evolving as a study within your region?

I consider myself a European philosopher, as I have been trained and active in several countries, where distinct approaches and schools of thought have strong roots or influence. In Europe, philosophy of science is gradually becoming more inclusive and open to many traditions, for instance the rather analytical approach of Britain, or the historical of France and Italy, or the applied one of the Netherlands. This is a very good thing. In my view, this will help us restore a useful dialogue with scientists and technologists (from the humanities, social, biomedical, or natural sciences) and with society at large. It certainly requires a deep and thorough self-reflective exercise, but one that is much needed. Philosophers aren’t born in an armchair and should certainly get out of it and meet the world (again).

What would you like to change in philosophy / if you could make one wish for the development of philosophy what would it be?

I see positive changes in my discipline and these concern the content, but not yet, or enough, of norms and habits. Philosophy is by its very nature critical, but this doesn’t mean it should be aggressive, patronizing, elitist, or exclusive. Critical thinking can and should be exercised in a collegial and constructive way. I wish we could develop our sharp arguments thinking that we are helping each other – rather than arguing against each other. I like to think that our exercise in critical thinking is aimed at enhancing our understanding of ourselves and of the world, and at improving our environment, be it via policy making, teaching, etc., not at showing each other wrong. We bear a high responsibility by calling ourselves philosophers – in Greek, those who love wisdom – and should live up to this expectation.

Hsiang-ke Chao

Describe what it is to be an academic philosopher in your country and if/how it has any influence on your research.

Tough. Having a PhD degree in economics and teaching in one of the top economics departments in Taiwan, I am not regarded as a conventional philosopher. However, because the research in philosophy in Taiwan is diverse and each sub-community of a subfield within philosophy is not large, I am well received among this small group of Taiwanese philosophers of science. Philosophy is a tough discipline as it requires thinking clearly through the subject, even tougher for a philosopher of economic science like me who needs to catch up on the developments in both philosophy and economics, and to prove one’s own research is meaningful to both philosophers as well as scientists. More importantly, we have to demonstrate to younger generations that philosophy, as a career, is worth pursuing. Philosophy departments in Taiwan are now facing a crisis of shortage of student demand in studying philosophy. It is partly because the low birth rate causes student populations of universities and colleges to drop significantly. It is also partly because philosophy is not regarded as a useful discipline. Unlike, in the USA where undergraduate students study philosophy because they consider pursuing a pre-law major, students in Taiwan usually do not regard philosophy as practical discipline with a bright career outlook. In philosophy of science, because one needs to have a sufficient knowledge of science, there is a high barrier of entry for students to finish studying philosophy of science. But philosophy is useful! Hopefully, there are more people who realize the importance of philosophy and more young people are willing to study philosophy in the future.

How, would you say, is philosophy evolving as a study within your region?

Global. Since I returned to Taiwan in 2002, we have had more Taiwanese philosophers who are willing to conquer the language barrier to collaborate with scholars from other countries in exploring important philosophical topics. I think this is the right way to change the dire academic environment (when compared with other disciplines) for philosophers. The “publish or perish” atmosphere does have an effect in providing philosophers with incentive to publish in international journals and with publishers. Given also that some Taiwanese philosophers are willing to share their international research resources and networks with their fellow philosophers, their work is becoming more recognizable internationally. My two edited volumes published with Springer are perfect examples of this.

What would you like to change in philosophy / if you could make one wish for the development of philosophy what would it be?

Useful. I wish there are more people discovering philosophy is a discipline useful to society. Perhaps, we philosophers in Taiwan need to be able to transform our philosophical knowledge into solutions to practical problems, engage in public debate, and shape public policy. Thus, the real power of philosophy is demonstrated!

 

 

Michael R. Brudzinski: Just Keep Swimming

As a professor and a new father, Michael R. Brudzinski juggles building a new online class with starting a family.

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Michael R. Brudzinski earned a Ph.D. in Geophysics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and completed an endowed postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before joining Miami University of Ohio in 2004. (Read more here)

Dawn Wright: A Good Old-Fashioned Sea Story

As the only black woman on a two-month voyage, Dawn Wright tries to find her place aboard scientific drill vessel JOIDES Resolution.

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Dawn Wright
 is chief scientist of the Environmental Systems Research Institute (aka Esri), as well as a professor of geography and oceanography at Oregon State University.