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.

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