What is your area of expertise? I am primarily a philosopher of science, and my principal work to date is concerned with epistemological issues in science. Philosophers traffic in questions, and here are the ones I am most concerned with: how do theory and observation relate? How are new scientific theories discovered? How do we distinguish good science from phony science?
My most significant publication is N.R Hanson: Observation, Discovery, and Scientific Change (2010), which is a study of the thought of N.R. Hanson, an important philosopher, who was both a renaissance man and a wild man, and who passed away in his early forties. I also teach Epistemology, Symbolic Logic, Philosophy of Physics and Nietzsche. My first publication was a translation of an article by the German Expressionist poet, Gottfried Benn, on Nietzsche.
One of my favorite courses I teach at Rowan is American Philosophy. For some reason, Americans are either unaware or ashamed of their philosophers. Folks like Thomas Paine, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, C.S. Peirce, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, William James, Alain Locke and John Dewey are deep and interesting thinkers who can be read both for serious study and pleasure. I echo Tolstoy’s complaint that Americans celebrate politicians and industrialists to the exclusion of their fine writers and scholars.
Share an “aha!” moment that you’ve had within your discipline that made you feel passionate about your field. My moment really came before I had ever studied philosophy in any serious capacity. I have always loved math and science, and it came as a surprise to me when I worked as an electrical engineer that those marvelously elegant theories and methods I had learned only applied to the real world in the most partial and approximate ways.
I think that a philosophical analysis of background assumptions and expectations is part of any sophisticated process of inquiry, whether it be in science, ethics, politics or personal decision making. I find the feeling of doubt and disillusion stimulating since this is often the first step on the way from error to the truth.
Describe for us an experience you’ve had with a student that made you feel excited about educating the next generation in your field. Most of us drift through the world as sleepers or sleep walkers. We are told what to believe, what is valuable, what we should do with ourselves. I am always inspired when students are roused from these “dogmatic slumbers” and realize they have voices; they have their own lives and their own destinies that they must make real. I think of philosophy as the most potent source of empowerment. Emerson said in “The American Scholar” that each generation has to think through the problems of life for itself and write its own books. I love it when I see that process at work.
What’s your favorite thing about being on campus on a typical Tuesday? I greatly enjoy walking to class with my head abuzz with all of the interesting ideas and arguments of the day’s lesson. How things will be framed, how students will respond and where the discussion will lead is always an adventure. There’s a reason that so many people forsake lives of mindless comfort for philosophy. When one is in the grips of a legitimate philosophical problem, one is most truly and vigorously alive. When I was in college, I had many 3 a.m. discussions of the big questions. I am lucky enough to have these kinds of discussions every day when I teach.
What is one thing you wish people knew about your academic discipline or your research focus? There’s an odd perceived belief that getting a philosophy degree is an invitation to the life of a useless ne’er-do-well. I could cite data that show the opposite to be true, that philosophy majors score the highest, on average, on post-graduate exams and that their lifetime incomes are among the highest of any major.
However, I think that is not the right approach, since philosophy is rarely chosen for these ulterior reasons — students choose it for intrinsic reasons: the study of philosophy enriches one’s life and can make even the most mundane experiences redeemable via philosophical reflection. Many students have told me that they didn’t really comprehend what other disciplines were for until they had studied philosophy. After that, they knew what kinds of questions to ask and where the other disciplines were coming from. The university evolved out of philosophical schools, so it is not a mystery that philosophy still provides the conceptual glue to bind everything together.
Finally, and I hate to wax apocalyptic, but I believe that humanity only has about a century left to walk the earth if it continues on its current path. How are we going to deal with the destruction of the environment, intolerance, terrorism, increased surveillance, the erosion of human rights, ceaseless war, incompetent and violent political leadership? I agree with Dewey that technology cannot save us since our capacity to develop new things always outstrips our capacity to understand and deal with their social consequences. I honestly don’t think philosophy will save us from final destruction. However, just as I think sober reflection on one’s own personal mortality is necessary, if fundamentally unpleasant and terrifying, so too is sober reflection on the mortality of our planet and species. All we can hope for is that the life of humanity be as good and meaningful as possible, and philosophy contributes essentially to that goal.
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Chad Wittmann, senior journalism major