Meet the Assistant Professors in Philosophy

Kevin Davey

(Associate Professor effective July 2012)
PhD, University of Pittsburgh

Area of interest: Right now, I’m pursuing a project in philosophy of physics. In philosophy, there’s this long tradition of thinking about logic, of thinking about reasoning: what it is to reasonably infer something from something else. There’s an interesting way in which the set of tools we can use to reasonably infer something expanded with the development of the theory of probability. In terms of theorizing about the fundamental constituents of the physical world, people have only been using the concept of probability since the late 1900s, roughly speaking, so there’s a very interesting moment of history there, where all of a sudden what it’s reasonable for us to assume about the physical world expands. So that’s sort of a moment I’m trying to understand, not so much from a historical point of view, but more from a conceptual point of view: in precisely what sense do certain sorts of probabilistic considerations allow us to make claims about fundamental physics that we were not able to make before?

Becoming the enemy: I hadn’t really even heard about philosophy until I was an undergrad. My background is math, and as an undergrad, I thought philosophy was kind of stupid—sort of nitpicking. Especially when I would listen to philosophers talking about mathematics or science as a freshman, my reaction was, “Oh, these people don’t know what they’re talking about” and “How dare they?” It took some time to appreciate that there actually were real questions there. It was only toward the end of my undergrad degree, in math, that I really actually felt myself pulled toward those questions that I’d dismissed a number of years earlier—and I found those questions quite compelling, so much so that I turned my attention toward them. But that took time.


Anton Ford

PhD, University of Pittsburgh

What he works on: I’ve been working in the philosophy of action, and specifically on the question of what the basic expression of human agency is, whether it’s an act of will—as many modern and contemporary philosophers have thought—so that what you really do is intend to do something [like pick up a coffee cup], and everything that happens in addition to that—including the movement of your arm and the movement of the glass—is an effect of the thing you really do. Whether it’s that, or whether the basic thing you I said, "This is fun; let's do it 'til it stops being fun." And it's still fun. do is move your body, as a lot of contemporary philosophers have thought, such that everything else that happens is an effect of a bodily movement—the same sort of picture moved out to the skin. Or whether the basic expression of agency is neither changing the disposition of your soul nor changing the position of your body but changing something other than yourself—I’ve been arguing for the latter option against the former two more popular views. My feeling is that the basic, fundamental expression of human agency is changing something apart from yourself, that agency is an other-regarding power.

Books in the basement: I stumbled into philosophy not through school but at home—in the basement of the house where I grew up, my parents had this trunk where they put all of the books that they’d had in college. When I was in high school, I was looking through it and I found this portable Nietzsche, a collection of Emerson essays, and some Plato—I found other things too, but these were the ones that actually made an impression on my adolescent self. And so by the time I went to college I knew that I wanted to do philosophy as a major. And by the time I left college, I knew I liked doing it enough to apply to do it another year, so I applied to graduate school; I said, “This is fun; let’s do it ‘til it stops being fun.” And it’s still fun.


Christopher Frey

PhD, University of Pittsburgh

The past and perception: I work in two fields: ancient philosophy, mostly Aristotle, and contemporary philosophy of perception. With respect to Aristotle, I’m mostly concerned with his account of what life is, and specifically why we need to posit a soul in order to explain life; what sort of unity living organisms have; and the relationship between living organisms and the inanimate world in which they’re situated. And with respect to philosophy of perception, I’m mostly interested in how the conscious or qualitative aspects of appearance help us be directed onto objects in the world around us.

From minor to momentous: I was a physics major, but I always intended to be, at least, a philosophy minor. I read some philosophy in high school, and one just starts to identify philosophy with a certain life of the mind; whatever academic pursuit I was going to enter, I thought that it would be impoverished if philosophy weren’t a part of it. It just happens that once I started doing it as a hobby to accentuate other pursuits, it overwhelmed me, at a certain point, and drew me in. One of the other aspects of philosophy that I found satisfying was that, despite there being an increased specialization in the field, it’s still of such a character that one can engage with people who are doing wildly different things. So I can talk about ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of science, and even though I’m not an expert in these fields, they are connected enough that I can really learn a lot.


Benjamin Laurence

PhD, University of Pittsburgh

A venerable idea: I am currently working on the idea that political philosophy should aspire to provide an account of an “ideal political community.” Recently there’ve been a lot of writings by preeminent political philosophers criticizing this idea, so I’ve been interested in thinking about what could be said in response to these critiques, to defend this sort of venerable idea about what political philosophy is.

The engine room of reality: I remember when I read my first philosophical text; I think it was my senior year of high school, and the teacher assigned little bits of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. I remember I had a very strong reaction to it, and there were two things about it: one is, I think I got what he was generally doing, because I actually became terrified when I read it—it was having its intended effect of calling into question what I’d completely took for granted, and I didn’t have any resources to deal with Philosophy is an expression of our self-consciousness. what he was doing. But the other thing that happened was that this incredible image came into my mind when I read it—that somehow he had gotten behind the world of appearances and was in something like the engine room of reality. That idea has always attracted me about philosophy, that it is concerned with the most fundamental questions that arise about the nature of the world and about good and evil. The picture fits this, because, in a certain sense, the engine room is more fundamental in the operation of a ship than the deck or cabin. But what now seems off to me is the suggestion it carries that understanding basic philosophical questions involves uncovering a hidden mechanism that is not present in the thought of self-conscious and rational subjects. I now think that philosophy is an expression of our self-consciousness, and answers fundamental questions by making explicit what is already present in our thought about ourselves and the world.


Marko Malink

DPhil, Humboldt University Berlin

Ancient logic: I work in ancient philosophy, mainly on Aristotle, and specifically on Aristotle’s logic. I’m especially interested in how his views on logic are different from twentieth-century views on logic—from our contemporary perspective, his logic sometimes seems to be incoherent or inconsistent, and my aim is to explore whether this is true or whether he really had a different perspective.

Origin story: My master’s in Germany was in Greek language and formal logic, and then somehow these two subjects merged into an interest for ancient philosophy and general philosophy.


Anat Schechtman

PhD, Yale University

The origins of modern thought: I work in early modern philosophy, which is seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy. I’ve been mostly working on Descartes, who is considered one of the first figures in that period. And the questions I’ve been interested in are, what are the basic assumptions of his metaphysics, or how he sees the relationship between finite beings and infinite beings; and what he thinks substances are, the [materials] that compose the world. What I find exciting about this period is the connection between the tradition of ancient and medieval philosophy and the beginning of a new era in Descartes. Marko [Malink] and I are going to explore that connection together in a class that we’re going to coteach next year—the notion of ontological dependence, which is a fundamental idea in ancient philosophy and in early modern philosophy.

Moving toward substance: I was a philosophy and math major. I initially chose those fields because somehow I convinced myself that I didn’t have to memorize anything. So I thought, “that sounds cool—‘just think!’” But as I was finishing up, and thinking about going to grad school, somehow it emerged that while I really enjoyed doing math, and it was kind of beautiful formally, I felt that the substance was more in philosophy. In the beginning, it still seemed like a formal game, and it took me a while to see how these are formal tools that you can use to think about very substantive questions. And I really enjoyed that combination, so it seemed like a very natural choice, in the end.


Anubav Vasudevan

PhD, Columbia University

Belief and probability: Most of my research is in the area of formal epistemology with a special emphasis on the foundations of probability. One of the questions that I’m interested in asking, for instance, is how should we understand the relationship between judgments of probability, on the one hand, and states of full belief, on the other? Are the differences between these two sorts of attitudes merely differences in degree (and if so, what is the dimension along which they differ) or are they differences in kind? What implications might this have for a theory of rationality which takes as its primary objects of assessment, judgments of probability as opposed to categorical beliefs?

From physics to philosophy: I studied physics as an undergraduate, and I made the transition to philosophy through that. I started to realize that the questions I was interested in, and the intellectual satisfaction I was getting from my study of physics, was largely owing to the philosophical implications I was drawing from them. When you start your physics education, most of what you’re taught is nineteenth or pre-nineteenth century physics. And the picture that you get of the world is a very clear one: there are little bits of matter that sort of bump into each other according to fixed laws—it may not be a happy metaphysics, but it’s a metaphysics: I know I started to realize that the intellectual satisfaction I was getting from my studey of physics was largely owing to the philosophical implications I was drawing from them. what the Newtonian world is like. But then when you start getting into twentieth-century physics, things get very strange and wonky, and not only do you not have adequate answers to the questions you originally wanted to raise—the metaphysical questions—but you’re not even allowed to ask the questions, really, in a fruitful way. In a physics department, you can’t ask, “What does it mean to live in a quantum-mechanical world?” You can be sure that we do, but to ask the question of what that really means, in the same way that you can ask the question about the classical or Newtonian physical picture of the world, somehow becomes no longer legitimate. And you realize at some point that, if that’s what you’re interested in, you have to pursue it in other places. It’s mostly philosophy of physics that pursues those kinds of questions, so that’s how I originally got into philosophy, and then gradually from there I transitioned into thinking about more foundational issues of epistemology.


Malte Willer

PhD, University of Texas at Austin

Language and logic: I’m mostly working in philosophy of language and philosophical logic, which pertains to questions of how we speak and how we should reason; how we should change our beliefs in light of new information. And what I’m currently working on is how these questions apply to issues in modality, which is not necessarily concerned with what is the case, but with what should be the case, or might be the case. There are all kinds of philosophical problems connected with that, and one of my basic approaches is what is called the “dynamic approach” to discourse and reasoning, which looks at, what are the effects of the context of the information, the states of the speakers in conversation and in reasoning? And the hope is that this kind of perspective gives us all kinds of insights into these topics.

Beyond German idealism: In my case it started in high school with reading Goethe and Schiller, and this raises all kinds of philosophical questions—even though I think Goethe and Schiller are not authors that you would normally have in a standard canon on philosophy, a lot of philosophical questions are raised in that, or at least back then I perceived them as such. And that made me really interested in philosophy and then pursue it in college. I think that, back then, I would never have dreamt that I’d end up working on what I’m working on now. My interest was much more in Goethe, Schiller, and then also maybe Kant and Hegel. It was at the University of Munich that I was really exposed to the kind of philosophy that I’m doing right now, which is more concerned with philosophy of language, and which goes more into linguistics, questions of logic, and so on. It’s more like a change in focus rather than a change in what I’m generally doing, but certainly my interest started with German idealism.


Agnes Gellen Callard, AB’97

Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in Philosophy
PhD, University of California, Berkeley

Specialization: Ancient philosophy, ethics, and the philosophy of action, particularly Aristotle’s concept of choice/decision making. She was on leave in 2011–12 and was not interviewed for this article.