What does a philosopher do? Junior faculty members in UChicago's philosophy department discuss their work, inspiration, and teaching.

What does a philosopher do? Put simply, one might say “think,” but deeper examination of this answer reveals nearly inscrutable complexity. As philosophy department chair Candace Vogler points out, “I don’t know what it would mean to master this field—I can imagine having scholarly mastery over a body of text, but the philosophy part? It doesn’t happen.” Yet the challenges of this intricate discipline don’t seem to discourage the nine assistant professors in the department, who pursue a wide array of research topics and delight in their ability to bounce ideas off one another.

Being part of a large junior-faculty cohort is “fantastic,” says Anton Ford, whose research seeks to define the fundamental expression of human agency; he goes on to explain that “it’s just nice to have colleagues of your generation.” Marko Malink, who studies the logicof Aristotle, agrees: “you often have the same questions and the same issues,” although that could arguably be said for scholars at every stage of their careers.

A member of the faculty since 1994, Vogler feels a duty as chair to carry on the tradition of mentorship that helped shape her own career. “The happiest world at Chicago is one in which we ‘grow up’ our faculty at the University. I got ‘grown up’ at Chicago, and I think it’s a great place to be a junior faculty member.” Despite “the enormous range” of research interests within the department, she emphasizes that the department’s strength also stems from its collegiality: “We all respect each others’ work and contributions tremendously.” Assistant professor Chris Frey concurs, praising the department as “a cohesive, collegial place where a plurality of views is allowed to flourish.”

Frey, whose dual interests concern Aristotle’s conception of life and contemporary theories of perception, studied physics as an undergraduate. He is one of several assistant professors who began their education in math and science—less of a disciplinary leap than one might expect. As Frey notes, “the best scientists and mathematicians often have a philosophical interest themselves.” Anubav Vasudevan, another former physics major, now studies the relationship between judgments of probability and statements of categorical fact. This shift was partially rooted in his sense that philosophy was the more fruitful field in which to build a career: “no matter what I end up doing, I can think about it philosophically and enjoy it.” Anat Schechtman made a similar calculation when transitioning from a double major in math and philosophy to full-time philosopher. Initially drawn to the field for its “formal game” aspect, she now studies Descartes and other early modern thinkers. Kevin Davey holds master’s degrees in mathematics and physics, which inform his investigations into the ways that a theory of probability affects understanding of the physical world.

While some of the department’s newer members came to the field via their scientific inclinations, others were inspired by reading philosophy as teenagers—even if their subsequent work bears little resemblance to those early encounters. Ben Laurence specializes in political philosophy and the concept of an ideal political community, but his introduction to the discipline came through Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and EvilThe challenges of this intricate discipline don't seem to discourage the nine assistant professors in the department. As an adolescent Laurence was “terrified” by the ideas it presented, but also fascinated: “this incredible image came into my mind when I read it—that he had gotten behind the world of appearances and was in something like the engine room of reality.” Similarly, Ford first became interested in philosophy as a teenager when he discovered the writings of Emerson, Plato, and Nietzsche in his parents’ collection of old college texts.

This inquisitive and self-driven spirit pervades the department, encouraged and perpetuated by a highly selective hiring process. It is not at all uncommon for a junior search to remain open for “years and years,” Vogler explains, because the department hasn’t found the right fit: “So when you finally arrive, we’ve been looking for you—you, personally—for however long we’ve been running searches in that field.” She is committed to ensuring that the department supports individual faculty interests, and her younger colleagues are noticeably appreciative of the latitude. Collaborative teaching is widespread, allowing the faculty to explore new ideas together and benefit from each others’ experience; several professors are coteaching classes in 2012–13, and others made a point of coordinating the syllabi for their first classes in the College Core to ensure they were covering the same material. This cross-pollination extends beyond the department, as with Malte Willer’s research in philosophy of language and philosophical logic, which has led to interdisciplinary collaborations with linguistics faculty as well.

Adapting to their new roles as instructors can be a struggle for assistant professors in any discipline, since, as Vogler observes, “very few academics are specifically trained in teaching.” The challenge is compounded by the fact that, as junior scholars, they are simultaneously trying to produce their own body of scholarship. As a group, they are realistic about the tension; when they are asked how they balance their service responsibilities with their own scholarship, laughter fills the room as one responds, “badly” and another jokingly asks, “Balance?” Yet in spite of this, they remain enthusiastic when discussing their individual teaching obligations—which, as Vasudevan puts it, sometimes hardly feel like obligations at all: “You have so much flexibility, and you can often teach courses that are at least tangentially related to something you’re working on.”

The vibrancy of classroom discussion, and its ability to invigorate the professors’ own projects, is a common refrain, perhaps best expressed by Davey: “We have a lot of freedom in what we can teach, and we have a really extraordinary student body—I doubt there are many other universities that can measure up to ours in that regard.” Outside the classroom, the faculty members are committed to helping one another succeed. As Willer puts it, “even though they’re doing something completely different, your colleagues can get engaged with your work in such a way that your work gets better—I think that’s extremely valuable and hard to find.”

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