Bright Lights, Big Thinkers
By DINITIA SMITH
Published: February 03, 2001
New York is the capital of commerce, finance and art, ground zero for the bagel and home to the Yankees and the Mets. So why not the center of philosophy, too?
While New York is not quite Athens on the Hudson yet, over the last decade many of the world’s most prominent philosophers have been moving here, drawn by the chance to interact with one another, by the relatively high salaries offered by area universities trying to polish their reputations, and by the city’s cultural life. The perception that New York is once again a safe place to live has also helped lure some of the big thinkers.
”I think New York is now incontrovertibly the philosophical capital of the English-speaking world, probably of the whole world,” said Brian Leiter, professor of law and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, who tracks hirings in the field for his Web site, the Philosophical Gourmet Report (www.blackwellpublishers.co.uk/gourmet/), which serves as the profession’s tip sheet.
Most of the new arrivals are analytic philosophers, practitioners of the dominant strain in the English-speaking world these days, who try to use logic and scientific method to examine concepts like truth, knowledge and meaning. Analytic philosophers distinguish themselves from the group known as continental philosophers, who take a broader historical or cultural approach to human affairs.
Behind the transformation of New York into a philosophical capital is the effort by universities in the region to upgrade their graduate programs, which in turn enhances their prestige. And philosophers are a relatively cheap way to upgrade. Unlike scientists or historians, they don’t require expensive laboratories or library collections.
”N.Y.U. and Rutgers are the two extraordinary stories,” Mr. Leiter said. Mr. Leiter ranks departments by sending out lists of faculty members to 100 philosophers throughout the country and asking them to rate them. ”Both of those departments catapulted from nowhere to the top of the profession almost entirely because of big financial investments by the administration in philosophy departments,” he said.
In the late 1980’s, Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey increased financing for Rutgers in an effort to transform it into a major research institution. Individual departments were charged with coming up with ways to spend the money. ”Philosophy got its act together quicker than anyone else,” Mr. Leiter said. ”They said, ‘If we can get these people, we are going somewhere.’ They started offering unusually high salaries by philosophical standards. They were offering six-figure salaries before anybody else. And now they really have momentum.”
Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., is regarded as the world center of philosophy of mind, the investigation of the nature of mental phenomena, partly because of the presence of Jerry Fodor, who, like many of the top philosophers at Rutgers, lives in Manhattan. Mr. Fodor came to the Rutgers staff in 1988 from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, which in 1986 had hired him away from M.I.T. He began attracting other philosophers to the region. ”Jerry Fodor was the sun around which all the planets gravitated,” said Michael Devitt, a metaphysician and philosopher of language at the CUNY Graduate Center.
An opera buff, Mr. Fodor said he left Boston to come to New York so he could live near Lincoln Center. He said he also wanted to get away from other philosophers.
”When I came down here, there was not much doing in philosophy,” he said. ”People used to ask me what the difference is between New York and Boston when it comes to philosophy, and I would say: ‘In Boston, if you started a philosophical argument it tended to go on until you died. In New York, you talk an hour or two and say it’s very interesting, but I’ve got theater tickets.’ ”
Other Rutgers philosophers who live in New York are Colin McGinn, a professor of mind and language who came from Oxford University in 1990, and Stephen Stich, a philosopher of psychology who came from the University of California, San Diego in 1989.
This philosophical brew has made New York somewhat comparable to Edinburgh in the 18th century, when Adam Smith and David Hume held court there, or Cambridge at the beginning of the 20th century, when G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein were there.
”Philosophy is a discipline in which talk is almost as important, maybe more important, than writing,” Mr. Leiter said. ”To cut to the heart of an argument, to see what’s at stake — you can do that anywhere as long as there are other philosophers around.”
Ned Block, a philosopher of mind who came to New York University in 1996 from M.I.T., said, ”I have lunch with somebody nearly every day, and we argue about philosophical things.”
Mr. Devitt compared the gathering of philosophers in New York to the subway series. ”Everything’s in easy reach,” he said. ”You’ve got strong departments having interesting events, which are accessible to everyone in the New York.”
For 30 years now, Princeton University, with its mix of analytic and historically oriented philosophy, has been widely acknowledged to have the best philosophy department in the country. But Mr. Leiter gives the No. 2 spot to N.Y.U., which has long had eminent philosophers, including Thomas Nagel, a philosopher of consciousness; Ronald Dworkin, who studies legal and political philosophy; and Frances Kamm, a moral philosopher. In 1996, the university lured Kit Fine, one of the world’s leading logicians and metaphysicians, from the University of California at Los Angeles; Mr. Fine said he had previously turned down a chair at Oxford. And last year the university hired Christopher Peacocke, a metaphysician and philosopher of mind, away from Oxford.
Mr. Leiter awards Rutgers an overall ranking of 3; Harvard is No. 6. No. 8 is Columbia University’s department, which has regained some of its luster after years of internal squabbling. Last year, for instance, it hired Philip Kitcher, a leading philosopher of science, away from the University of California at San Diego, along with his wife, Patricia, a Kant expert.
Until 1996, the Graduate Center of the City University was No. 14 in the rankings, but then it lost two of its stars, Hartry Field, a philosopher of metaphysics, language and mathematics, and Stephen Schiffer, a philosopher of language, to N.Y.U.
”CUNY dropped off the edge of the earth,” Mr. Leiter said. In 1999 CUNY hired Mr. Devitt from the University of Maryland at College Park. And last fall it got Paul Horwich, a philosopher of science and language, who said he turned down a job at Yale to come to the Graduate Center from University College, London. ”The gravitational attraction of New York was just too much for me,” Mr. Horwich said. CUNY is now gaining ground again, at No. 27.
This concentration has turned the area into a philosophers’ paradise. Living in New York has enabled Mr. Devitt, for example, to have a continuing face-to-face argument with his friend Mr. Kitcher, of Columbia. For a long time the two had more or less agreed on what philosophers call ”the mind/body problem”: how much of what humans perceive is grounded in physical reality and how much is shaped by the mind.
”There’s been enormous debate since Kant about how much reality is in some way constituted by our minds,” Mr. Devitt said. ”I take a very strong realist view that the world is not dependent on our minds at all,” a view held by the ”scientific realists.”
But Mr. Kitcher said he had been drifting away from that position and was coming to believe that ”there is a world out there all right” but ”dividing it up into differences and into similarities comes from us.”
Last spring, Mr. Kitcher spoke on the subject at Brooklyn College before a crowd of philosophers. ”I was lapsing from his high standards,” Mr. Kitcher said of Mr. Devitt. ”He rightly detected in the first talk in Brooklyn a softening of my strong stance on scientific realism. I was making some concessions.”
Mr. Kitcher continued: ”He sat there and said, ‘It really saddens me.’ We had a good knock-down, drag-out fight.” He added that the two continued their ”fast and furious” argument at a reception over wine and cheese. A week later Mr. Kitcher gave another lecture, this time at the Graduate Center, and later the two took their argument to a nearby Chinese restaurant where they were joined by half a dozen other philosophers from the area’s universities. ”Michael was really letting me have it,” Mr. Kitcher said.
Mr. Fine, of N.Y.U., said one thing that drew him to the city was a workshop on ”vagueness” conducted by philosophers at various institutions in the New York area. He is one of the world’s leading philosophers of vagueness, which asks the question, Does vagueness come from using vague language, or is vagueness an aspect of reality itself? ”There’s a huge amount of interest recently in vagueness,” Mr. Fine said.
”I probably spend more time with philosophers from other institutions being at N.Y.U. than I have at other places I’ve been,” Mr. Fine said. N.Y.U. has its spring seminars, Mr. Fine pointed out, which ”draw people from all over.” The CUNY Graduate Center has a colloquium every Wednesday that draws philosophers from the area’s institutions.
Mr. Peacocke calls a group of philosophers sitting together and coming up with new ideas ”a virtuous circle,” as opposed to a vicious one. In New York, ”It is extremely easy to talk about philosophy day and night,” he said. In December, Mr. Peacocke, Mr. Schiffer and Mr. Fine met at N.Y.U.’s faculty club to talk about moral principles. ”I’m making a claim about the status of moral principles; they may think they don’t have the status I think they have,” Mr. Peacocke said. ”You can be helped in all sorts of ways by devastating objections.”
The only philosopher who seems to be somewhat disconcerted by the migration is Mr. Fodor, who helped start it all. ”Unfortunately, half the philosophical universe is down here in the past 10 years,” he said. ”I take the greatest pleasure in having all these people, but it’s getting almost as noisy” as Boston.