Massimo Pigliucci introduces his new regular column.
The title of this new column hosted by TPM Online is, admittedly, a bit ambitious. Then again, the phrase comes from the famous quip by Alfred North Whitehead, who wrote in his Process and Reality (Free Press, 1979, p. 39): “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Put in its proper context, the quote continues: “I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them. His personal endowments, his wide opportunities for experience at a great period of civilization, his inheritance of an intellectual tradition not yet stiffened by excessive systematization, have made his writing an inexhaustible mine of suggestion.”
Whitehead was not saying that Plato got the major contours of philosophy figured out, and that the intervening two and a half millennia have just been a matter of filling the gaps. He was, rather, saying that Plato is a towering figure for an entire way of thinking about fundamental questions. He did not invent that way of thinking (there was Socrates before him, and of course the aptly named pre-Socratics!), and subsequent philosophizing showed him wrong or significantly off course in almost everything he wrote. And yet, we keep using that mode of inquiry — philosophy — and we keep working on many of the same questions that Plato and his ilk were pondering while walking the streets of Athens and suburbs. Moreover, we keep reading Plato as a source of intellectual inspiration.
This new column, which the Editors at TPM have kindly agreed to begin publishing, isn’t going to be about Plato, or ancient philosophy (well, occasionally, maybe). But it is intended in the same spirit of philosophical inquiry that Whitehead tried to capture with his famous quip.
By way of further introduction, allow me tell you a bit about my own rather unusual path to philosophy. You see, I was originally trained (in Italy, at first, then at the University of Connecticut) as an evolutionary biologist. My area of expertise became what biologists call gene-environment interactions, and philosophers refer to as nature-vs-nurture. I gingerly went along my academic path for a couple of decades or so, and then a few things happened that eventually led me to the unusual decision of shifting career.
First, I was about 40, and experiencing a mild case of mid-life crisis. Sure, I thought, I could go on doing what I had been done since my days as an undergraduate at the University of Rome, but I sensed that it would have been an increasingly unfulfilling matter of coasting for the rest of my professional life. Second, I realized that — although I was running an experimental lab — what interested me most where questions that biologists refer to as “conceptual,” and conceptual questions in science are only a few short steps removed from philosophy (of science). Third, I met Jonathan Kaplan, now at Oregon State, who became my friend and then PhD mentor when I decided to pursue philosophy seriously (we ended up co-authoring a number of papers, as well as my dissertation). He is a brilliant philosopher of biology, and I learned a lot from him. Lastly, all of the above reminded me of just how much I had enjoyed my (mandatory) three years of philosophy classes back in high school when I was growing up in Rome.
To make a long story bearably short, a few years later I got a job at the City University of New York, where I have now the incredible luck of being a tenured professor with wonderful colleagues, interesting students, and the luxury of spending most of my days doing what I love: reading, writing, and teaching.
So what I intend to do with this new column is to share some of my thoughts with readers, to think out loud, so to speak, on issues ranging from my technical specialties (philosophy of biology, the nature of pseudoscience, the relationship between science and philosophy, the relationship between science and pseudoscience), to interesting stuff on other philosophical topics that my colleagues have written about, to more general comments on issues of ethical, social and political import (such as my three recent contributions to TPM: on trigger warnings, Islamophobia, and the nature-nurture debate on gender and race).
It seems fit to end with a quote from Plato himself, or rather from Socrates in The Apology, as reported by Plato: “I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living” (38).
MASSIMO PIGLIUCCI IS THE K.D. IRANI PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT THE CITY COLLEGE OF NEW YORK. HIS BACKGROUND IS IN EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE, THOUGH HE HAS RECENTLY DEVELOPED A KEEN INTEREST IN STOICISM. HIS MOST RECENT BOOK (CO-EDITED WITH MAARTEN BOUDRY) IS “PHILOSOPHY OF PSEUDOSCIENCE: RECONSIDERING THE DEMARCATION PROBLEM” (UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, 2013). HIS OTHER WRITINGS CAN BE FOUND AT PLATOFOOTNOTE.ORG.