How I became a philosopher

Aristotle, the first scientist-philosopher

As some of my readers know, I have an unusual background. I began my academic career as an evolutionary biologist (Master’s at the University of Rome; Doctorate at the University of Ferrara, Italy; PhD at the University of Connecticut), switching to philosophy (PhD at the University of Tennessee) later on. A number of people, even recently, have asked me why. Here’s the answer, which I offer not (just) as a self indulgent piece of personal biography, but as a reflection on the academic world and the role of serendipity in life. It may be of interest to some, especially young students who are considering a career in either field.

I have loved science ever since I was a kid, and my first experience of it was staying up all night with my grandmother to watch the first moon landing (I was five). Apparently, shortly thereafter I declared that I wanted to become an astronomer, and I dedicated lots of hours over many years to building telescopes and exploring stars, planets and nebulae, despite the rather light polluted Roman sky. One of my early influences was Carl Sagan, who was regularly featured on Italian television, and by whom I read several books. Another major influence was Peter Medawar, and particularly his Advice to a Young Scientist book. I took that advice to heart for years, especially the idea — practiced by Medawar — of writing the sort of books one would like to read but that nobody else has written yet.

Nonetheless, when I started high school, it became increasingly clear that it was biology that attracted me the most, initially ethology, then genetic, and finally evolutionary biology. When I got to college, my first course was Introduction to Botany. Soon after he walked in the classroom, our professor, a large man in his 60s, with a big white beard, told us was that we were still in time to change major. He then proceeded to ask random students why they were there. Most answers ranged from “pre-Med” to the polite equivalent of “didn’t know what else to do.” By chance, he asked me as well, and I gave him a two-minute speech justifying my passion for science. He told me I was one of the few that should probably stay.

The point so far is that often, I think, passion for science is something that develops very early on, and that should therefore be cultivated in young kids. Although my triggering episode was the Apollo 11 mission, it was my (adoptive) grandfather, with whom I grew up, who nurtured my interest by immediately buying me a small telescope and then allowing me to pick a science book every time we did a trip to the local bookstore — which we did every weekend.

The next relevant episode concerns my choice of a subfield within evolutionary biology. I was offering a place in a lab in the Botany Department early on during my undergraduate years, and eventually I did my Master’s thesis there, on the strange behavior of some parasitic chromosomes in a species of plants belonging to the garlic family. But when I moved to the doctorate level (at the University of Ferrara, in northeastern Italy) I still had to find a topic that really fired my passion. Meanwhile, I read a lot of Stephen Jay Gould, and my early thinking was shaped by his eclectic mix of evolutionary biology, paleontology, developmental biology, and — crucially, as it later turned out — history and philosophy of science.

I got my answer rather suddenly, while reading a classic paper by Harvard population geneticist Richard Lewontin, The Analysis of Variance and the Analysis of Causes (the link is to a 2006 reprint, but the original came out in 1974, when I was still in middle school). In that paper I was introduced not just to the controversy about the heritability of IQ (the chief subject treated by Lewontin), but to the strange twin concepts of genotype-by-environment interactions and phenotypic plasticity. It turns out that the development of living organisms is the result of a continuous, highly interactive, and highly non-linear back and forth between nature and nurture. I was hooked, and I spent pretty much all my career as an academic biologist working on it (I wrote one of the first comprehensive books on the subject several years later).

When I was in graduate school in Connecticut I got to meet Lewontin and thanked him for the huge influence he had on my choice of research topics, and more broadly on my philosophy (though I didn’t call it that, then) of biology. Indeed, Lewontin was yet another example — after Sagan, Medawar, and Gould — of a successful scientist who took philosophy seriously, and even occasionally wrote in philosophy journals.

The lesson of this episode: you have to keep looking around until you find a topic you fall in love with, and then you ought to be thankful to whoever, in whatever fashion, brought you there.

After a brief postdoc at Brown University I accepted by first academic job at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where I spent nine very productive years, getting early tenure and going through the ranks of assistant, association and finally full professor. My lab was continuously funded by the National Science Foundation (I worked hard at it, but I was also lucky: NSF’s funding rate was less than 10% then, and it has dropped since!), and I kept publishing experimental papers, conceptual reviews, and books at an unusually high pace. But I also realized that something was happening that I had not expected (though, with hindsight, it was probably inevitable): my interests kept steadily shifting away from field and laboratory research — as fun as those were — toward theoretical and conceptual issues (for instance, as elucidated by this paper). And when you say “conceptual” in biology (or in science more broadly) you are not very far from philosophy (of science). Oh, did I mention that back in high school my philosophy teacher, Enrica Chiaromonte, absolutely made me fall in love with the subject? Talk about influential teachers. Unfortunately, I never got to thank her, something that I deeply regret.

Another thing happened during my years in Tennessee that profoundly changed my career, and is indeed the reason you are reading this blog in the first place. The second semester I was at UTK the Tennessee legislature debated an “equal time” bill that would have mandated the teaching of creationism in public schools. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I opened the paper and read about it. Then again, it hit me that not only I was living in the middle of the “Bible belt,” but that Dayton, TN was only a few miles away from Knoxville — and that’s where the famous 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial had taken place!

As a reaction to that particular situation, together with a few colleagues and graduate students I began one of the very first Darwin Days in 1997, with our inaugural speaker being Doug Futuyma — later on my colleague at Stony Brook — who had written one of the early books critical of creationism, Science on Trial, which I had read many years earlier, as a result of one of my regular trips to the bookstore with my grandfather. This got me started on my outreach efforts, which eventually led to the publication of a book on creationism (interestingly, to replace Doug’s in the publisher’s lineup), many public lectures and debates, and a series of blogs, of which Footnotes to Plato is the latest incarnation.

Back to the main story: I would have continued my career as a biologist — both in terms of research and outreach — had it not been for two additional factors, both rather outside of my control, and one downright serendipitous. The first factor was an early mid-life crisis (when I was about to turn 40), with the realization that there was a danger of coasting for the remainder of my career unless I found some novel stimulation. The second was that the University of Tennessee’s Philosophy Department had just hired a brilliant young fellow, Jonathan Kaplan, whose PhD thesis at Stanford had been on a number of philosophical aspects of the nature-nurture debate. In fact, Jonathan had cited some of my work on gene-by-environment interactions in his thesis, and when he found out we were on the same campus he picked up the phone and proposed coffee.

We hit it off immediately, and soon Jonathan was attending my lab meetings and challenging my students and postdocs to think more broadly (and they loved it, after their initial bewilderment). We also began co-authoring papers that were published alternatively in philosophy and biology journals (for instance, this one and this one).

And then one sunny day we were having lunch off campus and I asked Jonathan if he would be interested in becoming my advisor, should I enroll in the PhD program in philosophy. He asked me how much wine I had drank, but I pointed out that I never drink before sunset. So we went to our Dean to ask permission to pursue an unusual arrangement, and for three years I was running the lab and teaching biology during the day, taking night classes in philosophy, and writing my dissertation during weekends (it was eventually published, by the University of Chicago Press).

The lessons of this particular episode were that serendipity can take you in unexpected directions, but only if you are already looking and paying attention. Moreover, forget common academic wisdom about “not wasting time” with an endeavor like that, or about the perils of crossing disciplinary boundaries, or whatever other well meaning advice I got from my senior colleagues — which I promptly ignored.

So I became a philosopher as a result of a series of independent, yet interacting factors: the seeds planted by Enrica back in the late ’70s; an interest in conceptual aspects of evolutionary biology triggered by reading people like Gould and Lewontin; my personal feelings about my professional development once I was approaching my 40th birthday; the lucky coincidence of meeting Jonathan and becoming collaborators and friends; and the willingness of my Dean to let us experiment with a decidedly unusual way of being on the faculty at the University of Tennessee.

Even so, by the time I defended my thesis in philosophy I was still a professional biologist, and I would remain so for five more years, during my tenure at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

I couldn’t believe it when I was called for that appointment. The first day I went up to the 6th floor of the biology building, where the Evolution and Ecology Department is located, I was awed by the fact that a good chunk of the names on the doors of the various offices belonged to people on whose textbooks I had studied as a graduate student: Bob Sokal and James Rohlf, the above mentioned Doug Futuyma, and George Williams, to name but a few.

During those five years I kept doing both experimental and theoretical research in biology, writing philosophy on the side, and attempting to build bridges with the local Philosophy Department. Unfortunately, they weren’t interested: it’s largely dominated by continental philosophers, with zero interest in science, unless it comes in the form of science criticism and science studies — approaches characterized by a distinct post-modernist flavor, which didn’t agree with the scientist in me.

It was yet another serendipitous happening, as well as yet another change in my personal life, that finally led me to jump into philosophy with both feet. You see, I grew up in Rome, a big, cosmopolitan city, with lots of things to see and do. In the US, however, I had lived in rural Connecticut, in small town Providence, RI, in the Bible Belt, and in charming but rather isolated Stony Brook. But I was now only 40 miles from New York City — the cosmopolitan city par excellence!

I realized that my quality of life had become more important than my career. So I moved to Brooklyn and commuted out to Stony Brook for a couple of years. (It takes two hours one-way by train, because Long Islanders have steadily refused fast train connections to New York, in order to avoid becoming New Jersey, that is a bunch of bedroom communities for people working in the city.)

The more time I spent in the Big Apple the least I wanted to spend in Stony Brook, so one day I decided to apply to jobs in the city. But of course everyone wants to live and work in New York, and positions for tenured academics at the full professor level are expensive and therefore rare (and I wasn’t about to take a step back in my career and a significant pay cut by accepting an untenured position, not even to live in New York). So I would have lots of competition. I therefore decided that I would apply to whatever jobs would become available, either in biology or in philosophy. By now my publication list in philosophy, while still much shorter than the one in biology, had become substantial enough to make me competitive. Besides, my letter writers included luminaries like Dan Dennett, Elliott Sober, and Kim Sterelny (the then editor of Biology and Philosophy).

As it happens, the very first job I applied for was at the City University of New York, in philosophy. To my surprise, I got the interview and then the job at Lehman College, which is part of CUNY. I was now officially a philosopher (and a Department Chair to boot)! And five years later I was — again, stunningly, as far as I’m concerned — offered my current position, an endowed chair in philosophy of science — by another CUNY campus, City College. Which brings us to the current time. (I will spare you the story of my “conversion” to Stoicism, which you can find here.)

And the lessons of this latest round of changes are: again, chance opportunities and the willingness and readiness to take them; but also the fact that I was willing to prioritize my academic vs my personal needs and then to act accordingly.

Right, but what has all of this taught me about academic science and philosophy? Despite my well known (on this and other blogs and outlets) criticism of scientism and defense of philosophy, I love both disciplines, and I do see them — at their best — as pillars of human wisdom and knowledge (together with, respectively, literature and mathematics). But I have to confess that was a bit naive when I decided to walk that inter-disciplinary bridge. I assumed that my new colleagues in the humanities would appreciate a scientist who wasn’t just playing philosopher, but had actually taken the time and put the effort into getting a PhD in the discipline. Conversely, I also assumed that my former colleagues in science would pay a bit more attention to what this particular philosopher was saying, because I have a solid career in biology to back my bona fide credentials as a scientist.

Well, sometimes that’s the way it has worked. But on plenty of other occasions I have been too much of a scientist for the philosophers (“but that’s an empirical question…,” I would say, thus earning stern looks from those present) and too much of a philosopher for the scientists (“but it’s a bit more complicated, conceptually, than that…,” getting the same look from a different audience).

Which suits me just fine. This dual background allows me to write both for a technical audience and for the general public in a way that few scientists with an interest in philosophy, and few philosophers of science, can muster. It makes it fun for me and, hopefully, stimulating for you.


P.S.: several readers have remarked on teachers and other influencers. The ones mentioned in the OP were just some of the many, in my case. Others include: Signora Darmont, my elementary teacher who welcomed me in her class even though I had skipped a grade, and encouraged and nurtured my curiosity; my undergraduate mentor, Francesco D’Amato; Umberto Nicosia, my professor of paleontology at the University of Rome; Mario Ageno, my professor of biophysics at the University of Rome; Guido Barbujani, my informal mentor at the University of Ferrara; and of course Carl Schlichting, my PhD mentor at the University of Connecticut.

As for influencers who have not been my direct teachers, they also include: Bertrand Russell, whose autobiography was the first book of philosophy (or, rather, about a philosopher) I picked up, when I was in high school; and, much more recently, Epictetus, who — two thousand years after he lived — literally changed my life, for the better, I hope.

125 thoughts on “How I became a philosopher

  1. brodix


    Hundreds of millions of people is thermodynamics. Luck is statistics.

    Cause. Effect.

    Do you master the system by understanding causes, or calibrating effects?

    Where and what are the high and low pressure zones today?

    For instance, you want to get on movements that are at lower pressure and going higher pressure, sort of like the stock market. Yet most people pile in when it’s high pressure, because it’s popular, aka crowded.

    Understanding is foresight, but appears as luck to those who only have hindsight.

    When the crowd is running one direction, look the other.


  2. Markk

    I don’t have the glittering resume that some of you do, and while I have been reading about philosophy a couple of years now I still consider myself a beginner. I’m a computer programmer specialising in iOS development, since 2010.

    I grew up in a Christian home and my dad is a preacher and professional theologian; he is an expert in the Book Of Revelation. We lived in the same town as Lindy “a dingo ate my baby” Chamberlain. I spent several years while younger as a creationist. It’s embarrassing to admit that here, although I’ve tried to learn from that mistake. When I see an article against climate change which seems convincing, I remind myself that I don’t have enough background knowledge to make a judgment and move on. (My dad is a smart guy and was never a creationist, although he never talked about that. He has studied philosophy and lectures on epistemology including Wittgenstein and language games. But he never talks about that either. )

    As all young people do I questioned the views I had inherited. I ditched creationism and biblical inerrancy and spent a long time lurking at PZ Myer’s site, of all places. But I didn’t stop believing in God. I still do. Nevertheless more recently I came to the conclusion that even if my beliefs were correct, they weren’t anywhere near complete. I started reading philosophy in order to dig deeper.

    I’ve been lurking round these parts since the Scientia Salon days. I’d like to thank Massimo and Dan and everyone else here for their continued writing and engagement and answering my questions.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Coel


    … that you could have an axiomatic system that could express the facts of arithmetic such that …

    But that brings us back to my earlier question about what you mean by a “fact” (the original point was about the “fact” of 2+2=4). Are you asserting that all statements in all possible axiomatic systems are “factual”, or are you restricting it somehow?

    Again, my suggestion is that the “facts of arithmetic” are not arbitrary, from some axiomatic system chosen at random, but are “factual” in the sense of modelling the world. Thus:

    Empirical reality ==> everyday maths and “facts of arithmetic” ==> formalised system ==> implications such as no largest prime number and Godel.

    That is pretty much akin to:

    Empirical reality ==> everyday physics ==> formalised physics ==> implications such as nothing traveling faster than light, and need for particles to have definite exchange symmetry.


  4. Robin Herbert

    “Again, my suggestion is that the “facts of arithmetic” are not arbitrary, from some axiomatic system chosen at random, but are “factual” in the sense of modelling the world.”

    No, they are factual quite independently of their ability to model the world. The laws of physics could be completely different and those facts would be the same.

    That your suggestion has led you to asserting and apparently defending a self-evident absurdity should be a clue that something is wrong with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Coel


    Now maybe you can tell me what you mean by ‘==>’

    “Led to”.

    Fact – something that corresponds with reality, […] No, they are factual quite independently of their ability to model the world.

    Aren’t those two contradictory?

    The laws of physics could be completely different and those facts would be the same.

    Everything about those “facts”, the entire logical framework, the concept of “arithmetic”, the concept of “facts about arithmetic”, the reasoning that you use to work out implications, and everything leading up to Godel’s theorems, is all steeped in and totally entwined with empirical concepts, since that is where everything came from. All of that makes it a statement about and derived from the “world as it is”.

    Indeed, further, one can only validate the overall framework as modelling reality (you can’t prove its self consistency from itself), and indeed none of it would even have any meaning except by reference to real-world concepts.

    Thus I don’t think you can take a logical framework derived from how the world is and use it to assert how things would be regardless of how the world is. We simply have no way of really understanding the consequences of how different the world might be, starting ex nihilo, since of course our brains and the thought processes by which they work are also products of the world as it is.


  6. brodix

    Robin, Coel,

    It seems to me the real problem is when we lose sight of the fact our models only describe reality and start assuming they explain it.
    For instance, epicycles had some reasonable correspondence to the mechanical clockworks which were devised to model a geocentric point of view.
    Today, AI proponents argue our computer models of thought processes are leading us to consciousness. Or that our modeling of space as a three dimensional coordinate system and time as a dimensional extension are foundational to space and time, not just models of them. I imagine string theory and super symmetry are also, when dug into, models based more on our current set of intellectual guideposts, than an effective explanation of the processes.
    One could take this into economics and politics as well, with much more devastating consequences, such as our modeling of money as stored value, rather than a social contract. And other political ideals, where the larger social and environmental context is trashed, in order to reach them.
    Knowledge is a double edged sword.


  7. Robin Herbert


    Genetic fallacy Yes people came at mathenatics by abstracting from every day objects. That does make it deeply entwined with them. That does not make those facts depend on physics.

    I gave an example of a mathematical fact that isn’t fixed by physics, (any and all of the laws of physics could be different and it would still be a fact) that you can’t make false by fiddling with the axioms. That example seems to have held up well so I think there is not any more to say.

    You are still stuck with the idea that the truth of “if A then B” depends on the truth of A.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Coel


    I gave an example of a mathematical fact that isn’t fixed by physics, (any and all of the laws of physics could be different and it would still be a fact) …

    You are taking much too narrow an interpretation of “fixed by physics”. I’ve been talking about being fixed by “how the world is”, which includes all the logic of how the world works (from which we get our logic).

    Everything you are using to derive Godel comes from “how the world is”. If you don’t agree, please arrive at Godel ex nihilo, without using any concepts that derive their meaning from their relation with the real world.

    You are still stuck with the idea that the truth of “if A then B” depends on the truth of A.

    Not at all, I’m saying something more basic than that. I’m saying that the very concepts “if”, “then”, “A”, “B” and “if A then B” are all part of ways of thinking that derive their meaning from being models of the real world. I’m saying that you cannot use logic derived from this world to make assertions about what would hold in very different possible worlds.

    If you are asserting that there is only one way that things could possibly be, then please provide your argument for that.


  9. Albert Kim

    “It certainly is a goal of science! Along with best matching those concepts to reality.”

    It is only a goal of scientists in the same manner that Basketball players have the goal of developing fast reflexes, but only in the sense of being subordinate for what their respective fields are primarily aiming to do. Look, do you think Philosophers of Physics & Physicists tackle different problems using different methods or not? That’s clearly because they have different goals.


  10. Robin Herbert

    So how did I get to where I am? Not much of a story I’m afraid.

    I originally wanted to be a film director but luckily was my own best critic and abandoned the idea or I might have become the new Ed Wood Jr.

    After school I did a series of jobs, bank clerk, postman, delivery truck driver, furniture maker, security guard.

    I saved enough to start a small business as a typesetter with a friend. Not a good idea as it turned out, a crowded market place which, in any case, fell quickly to the digital revolution. I moved on to become the IT Manager in a business college, then in a national chain of jewelry stores.

    It was at this time that I started going to university in the evening, starting in electrical engineering then transferring to a Bachelor of Mathematics and Finance. I did well enough, I topped my year consistently with distinctions and high distinctions, but the long days and ill health took their toll and I dropped out before the degree was complete.

    Career since then has been reasonably interesting, with software development and infrastructure design and management. But I want to finish that degree.

    Maybe when I see the kids through university (they won’t have to do it in the evening after a full day at work) I might be able to pick it up full time. But on the other hand, if I follow the pattern of the males in my family, I only have about 15 years of good cognitive functioning left and about 20 years more to live. I might find other ways of spending that time.


  11. Daniel Kaufman

    In the spirit of Massimo’s earlier remark, and because Alan inquired:

    As a child — like most children I think — I was interested in science to the degree that I found nature fascinating and especially astronomy and insects. But I was always more impressed by and more interested in the products of human activity and culture and especially the products of the imagination, meaning literature and the arts. I was certainly moved by the night’s sky and amazed by the variety of fauna in the world, but I was absolutely entranced by the interiors of Chartres and Notre Dame, which I first saw, when I was 12 years old, on a trip to France with my parents. I dutifully made my pin-hole camera to capture the eclipse and built my model rockets, and certainly these were cool things to do, but when I first stood in the ruins on top of Masada, and thought of what had happened there, I experienced a sense of awe that I never experienced with respect to nature.

    I went to the University of Michigan in the late 80s — ’86 – ’90 — originally intending to be pre-Law with a career, later, in politics, which I was very interested in, in High School. It was Leftist politics. To that end, I decided to double-major in political science and history.

    Once in school, two things happened. (A) A wave of student political activism — much of it involving the building of politically oriented “shanties” in the school’s quad, making it look like a Liberian slum — and (B) I took a number of general education and “for my own interest” courses. I found the former so irritating and precious, given the relative entitlement of the people at Michigan and the obnoxious way in which the activism was conducted, that it began my slow drift in the direction of political conservatism, which would peak when I was in graduate school, but also convinced me that I wanted nothing to do with a political career. The latter made me realize I hated political science and liked literature and philosophy much better. It also made me realize that as far as history was concerned, what I was really interested in was antiquity and not modern history. I wanted to know where it all came from.

    Thus, I double-majored in philosophy and history, with the latter emphasizing what is known as the “second temple” period of Ancient Israel — roughly the period between the return of the Jews from the Babylonian Exile to the Roman destruction of the Temple and expulsion of the Jews from Israel into the diaspora. This period struck me as crucial, as it is the period out of which Christianity and thus, Western Civilization — the product of the synthesis of Jerusalem and Athens — was born. It was also in this program that I did some of my most substantial undergraduate work, producing an Honors Thesis on the attitudes of the Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees towards the Second Temple.

    In philosophy, I gravitated towards epistemology and the philosophy of mind and was fortunate that at the time, Crispin Wright of St. Andrews and now, NYU — and one of the foremost philosophers of language and Wittgenstein scholars alive — was visiting at Michigan. With him, I did an Honors Thesis on philosophical Holism, in Epistemology, the Philosophy of Language, and the Philosophy of Mind.

    It was at a relatively later stage in my college career that I decided I wanted to be a philosophy professor. I could have just as easily chosen Ancient History — although the languages probably would have been a deterrent — or Comparative literature, which I almost had another Major in, but I went with philosophy, in part, because I loved its abstractness and in part, because I loved disputation.

    It was between the M.Phil at St. Andrews and the PhD. at the CUNY Graduate Center, and I chose the latter (a) because they offered me quite a bit of money and (b) choosing the former would see me still having to apply to PhD programs afterwards. At the time — the early 90s — NYU did not yet have a PhD program and many of the top people who are there now — Stephen Schiffer, Hartry Field, and the like — were at the Graduate Center, as were Jerry Fodor and Jerrold J. Katz. It was, at the time, one of the best Phil Language/Phil Mind programs in the world.

    Philosophy of language was my bread and butter, and it is a training that makes one very analytically rigorous and sharp. After you study that subject with any sort of intensity, all the rest of philosophy seems rather easy — at least to read, if not to accomplish things in. (In the latter sense, ethics is probably the most difficult.) But two things happened as my graduate career progressed: (1) I realized that it would be very hard to make any sort of mark in the philosophy of language, because that’s the area in which all the top people were working; (2) I began teaching a lot, at community and local colleges, in areas that took me back outside of philosophy, including Lehman College, where I taught in the Freshman Year Initiative, which was an interdisciplinary humanities survey, designed to get underprepared, inner-city students ready for college. So, I found myself teaching art history, musicology, theology, and literature, as well as philosophy, and I became increasingly convinced — as I still am — that any real understanding of any facet of human civilization requires, ultimately, that one must come to it from a multi-disciplinary background. This was also the time that I began working as an assistant to the Dean of the Undergraduate college of the Jewish Theological Seminary, which also served to revive my interest in areas other than philosophy and to recognize the depth of their value in understanding human nature and civilization.

    It was also at this time that my political activity peaked, as I was a pretty active member of the conservative movement by that time. There were several conservative professors at the Graduate Center, notably Steve Cahn and Jim Landesman, and Landesman, at the time, was trying to get started a CUNY chapter of the National Association of Scholars, a conservative academic group. In the mid-90’s identity politics in the academy took the form of the “curriculum wars” and the Left’s primary posture was to attack the classical Canon, arguing that minorities should receive minority education. This struck me as highly objectionable — outrageous really — and in my view, highly racist. Almost a kind of educational segregation. It wasn’t as if rich, white kids at Harvard or Princeton were suddenly going to stop being taught Shakespeare or Kant, and I believed that the way not to be racist was to give every inner city minority kid the same sort of education that the most privileged Yalie would receive, which is what I did in my own classes. Of course, there was a secondary goal to diversify the curriculum more generally, which I found much less objectionable. but since, at the time, what was being proposed to replace some of the original classics struck me as wildly inferior by comparison, I wasn’t too keen on that either. Regardless, I joined up with Jim Landesman and was a founding member of the CUNY Association of Scholars. I also, at the time, began writing a culture and arts column on New York, for National Review, after pitching the idea to William F. Buckley Jr., in a personal letter. This relationship with the conservative movement would last until I came to southern Missouri and found out what Conservatism meant in most of the country, after which I abandoned it for what is mostly a classical Liberalism, in the manner of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and Mill’s On Liberty. I have disliked conservatism and progressivism equally, though the latter probably a bit more, as I still retain some conservative dispositions and believe that it is the progressive takeover of the American Left that has led to the resurgence of the political fortunes of the Right, under which we have been suffering since Nixon.

    My changing interests, plus my realization that I would make no mark in the Philosophy of Language led me to write my dissertation in Aesthetics. I defended successfully in 1999 and went on the job market, which was bad, but nothing like it is today. Missouri State (then Southwest Missouri State) was the first job I was offered, and I took it. I had already met my wife, who was a high-ranking administrator in McDermott, Will, and Emery — then the 8th largest firm in the country — and she was willing to move with me. It was a good thing I took it, as every person I knew who held their noses and waited for something better failed to ever secure a permanent job in the profession.

    So, I’ve been at Missouri State now, for almost 20 years. My time here and the evolution of my career is a whole other story which, if anyone wants to hear it after all this, I’ll be happy to recount.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. Coel

    Hi Albert,

    [Conceptual clarification] is only a goal of scientists in the same manner that Basketball players have the goal of developing fast reflexes, but only in the sense of being subordinate for what their respective fields are primarily aiming to do.

    Sorry, I still disagree. What is science ultimately aiming for? In short, it aims to know about and understand the world. And conceptual clarification is part and parcel of understanding. If you are unclear about your concepts, you lack understanding.

    So, sorry, I’m sticking to my stance that any attempt to distinguish conceptual clarification from science is just wrongity wrong.

    Look, do you think Philosophers of Physics & Physicists tackle different problems using different methods or not?

    Somewhat different, yes, but probably less different than the differences between physics and other parts of science such as, say, anthropology or botany or neuroscience.


  13. Daniel Kaufman

    What is science ultimately aiming for? In short, it aims to know about and understand the world.

    = = =

    In one particular way, employing one set of tools.

    Not the only ones.


  14. saphsin

    Yes to Daniel Kaufmann’s response, that’s what makes science “science” and not history of science or sociology of science (or philosophy of science)


  15. SocraticGadfly

    Wittgenstein, and more reading of Hume, were the first two philosophers I turned to for help when transitioning out of the conservative Lutheranism in which I had been raised, as well as doing intellectual judo with some of my seminary learning. (I read Wittgenstein’s Proto-Tractatus as well as Tractatus! I got into the “second Wittgenstein” later.) I also read in the logical positivists, and Husserl, specifically his ideas on “bracketing.”


  16. Michael Fugate

    What is science ultimately aiming for? In short, it aims to know about and understand the world.

    = = =

    In one particular way, employing one set of tools.

    Not the only ones.

    And so does poetry, music, literature, painting, dance, religion, etc. Science is not unique in this.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. milesmutka

    I have commented here a couple of times, don’t know if that makes me a regular. But in any case, here’s something about my history:
    I was never particularly interested in science as a child, and I detested religion and history. Mostly I think I was interested in science fiction, magic, and special effects. I was also probably too smart for my own good, so I ended up getting an academic degree, while my parents had not even graduated from high school.
    My degree (MSc) was in the queen of sciences, but I never had a real career in science. Instead I chose to climb the hierarchy of needs by becoming good at programming computers. I would say it is partly due to this satisfaction of material needs combined with something of a mid-life crisis that I now find myself interested in other fields of learning, purely for the sake of gaining knowledge. Even history which I hated as a child has since become a source of inspiration and learning for me. But I don’t really think of myself as a philosopher, except in the most inclusive sense, I am more a “phrontistes”, a thinker for hire, solving problems in complex software systems for a living.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. wtc48

    I started to write an account of how I come to this blog, but it was too weird, so I’ll just put in a few highlights.

    I have an A.A in Theatre Arts from Los Angeles City College (1956), B.A. in Piano Performance (1960) and M/A. in Musicology (1961) from U.C. Santa Barbara, and 3 years as Ph.D. candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Music.

    I have acted in professional theatre companies in Ashland, Oregon, and in Berkeley, where I was one of the founders of the Berkeley (now California) Shakespeare Festival.

    My main livelihood has come from two sources: between college and my early thirties, I worked most of the time in a lima bean seed business founded by my great-grandfather in 1870. More recently, my wife and I were co-managers of a 9-hole public golf course in southern Oregon, from which we retired in 2012.

    In retirement, I have continued to pursue my hobby of running trail ultramarathons, where I am one of the few octogenarians still tackling the longer races. In 2014, I was the national trail 100K M70+ champion, and hope to go for the M80+ medal next year in Bandera, Texas.

    Despite my early love of astronomy (which I shared with several other participants), my qualifications in both philosophy and science are non-existent, apart from what my wife describes as a “relentless eclectic curiosity.”

    Liked by 3 people

  19. wtc48

    Socratic, the livelihoods are both family-connected. The seed business died due to scarcity, not of seed, but of personnel: I am an only son of an only son of an only (with descendants) son. The golf course was built by my father-in-law, an old East Bay farmer who taught me everything I know about small engines and machinery and other things my background was deficient in. Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy, but are there any aesthetics philosophers?


  20. sethleon2015


    Your highlights are certainly only weird in the sense that your accomplishments are far outside the norm but I’m not surprised given the quality of your comments.

    I am also a runner. The marathon I run next Sunday now looks pretty pedestrian in comparison :). I also have a bit of an offbeat background though less distinguished than yours. I grew up a in single parent household in a minority neighborhood. Though small found my passion as the white kid on the courts playing basketball – Wasn’t anything special but truly loved the game. Got an undergraduate degree in statistics, got real sick after graduating, eventually recovered 4 years later. Studied Chinese medicine (got an MA), had a brief stint as an acupuncturist, taught Tai chi for many years, was a juggler, run now pretty much everyday commuting to work & back.

    Work at UCLA for an education research group (CRESST). Never got a higher degree in stats but work hard and am surrounded by lots of folks with the proper foundation.

    Like to think of myself as also very curious and have been reading as much philosophy as I can in my off hours time permitting in a very hodgepodge fashion.

    Liked by 3 people

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